Along U.S. Highway 67

Before the construction of Interstate 30, U.S. Highway 67 was the route from Arkansas to Texas, making it one of the most important roads in the state.

On a recent trip to south Arkansas, Paul Austin and I drove on the old highway from just outside Benton to Prescott, eschewing the interstate and experiencing the sights along Highway 67.

“The route of Highway 67 is the approximate border between the low Mississippi Delta and Gulf Coastal Plain to the south and east and the Ouachita and Ozark mountains to the north and west,” Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “This boundary is such a natural path of travel that even spring and summer thunderstorms frequently move along the same route. Undoubtedly, native Americans traveled portions of this route.

“After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, as the U.S. government began improving travel through the territory, a military road was constructed from Missouri through Little Rock and south to Fulton on the Red River. This road became known as the Southwest Trail and was the first land route created in Arkansas. When the Cairo & Fulton Railroad began surveying a route to connect southern Illinois to the Red River across Missouri and Arkansas, the same route was used once again. The railroad became the Iron Mountain Railroad and was then acquired by the Missouri Pacific Railroad. The route is still used by the Union Pacific Railroad in the 21st century, although ties and rails have been repaired and replaced through the years.”

The roads that eventually would turn into Highway 67 in Arkansas were part of the original state highway system in 1923.

“Federal and state funding became available for highways early in the 1920s as automobile and truck traffic was beginning to take the place of railroad traffic,” Teske writes. “A joint commission of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads and the American Association of State Highway Officials created the first national system of highways, with nine federal highways established in Arkansas, including Highway 67. Sections of the highway were gradually improved as funds became available. Much pavement was laid for the highway in 1928 through 1931. The highway was 18 feet wide at that time. More improvements were made by federal projects such as the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.”

Teske notes that the construction of a large ordnance plant at Jacksonville in 1941 led to widening of the highway north of Little Rock.

“After the war, the United States entered a period of prosperity and growth that led to cultural changes,” he writes. “Many of the earliest rock ‘n’ roll performers — including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty and Sonny Burgess — performed in high schools, nightclubs and other venues along Highway 67 from Newport north to Pocahontas. In 2009, the Arkansas General Assembly named this part of the highway the Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway, with a portion also in Miller County in southwest Arkansas, as early rock ‘n’ roll performers played at the Arkansas Municipal Auditorium when they traveled through Texarkana on Highway 67.”

The history of the music scene along Highway 67 in northeast Arkansas is filled with colorful characters, but we’ve covered that in other posts on this blog. We’ll stick to southwest Arkansas in this post.

“During the 1950s, American views of highway travel began to change,” Teske writes. “Until this time, highways existed to connect cities and towns to one another. The beginning of the interstate highway system caused drivers to begin traveling directly between large cities, bypassing the smaller cities and towns. Interstate 30, from Little Rock south to Texarkana and then into Texas, was one of the original interstate highways planned for Arkansas. The new interstate highway made travel into Texas easier but took business away from many of the communities that had relied on travelers’ income to support stores, restaurants and gas stations. … Highway 67 continued to be used by Arkansans traveling shorter distances in the southwestern quarter of the state.”

As we left Haskell, we passed what had been the historic Saline County campus of the Arkansas State Hospital, which opened at this location in the 1930s.

The Legislature created the Arkansas Lunatic Asylum in 1873, but Reconstruction delayed the construction of a facility until 1881, when work began on an asylum at Little Rock. The name was changed to the Arkansas State Hospital for Nervous Diseases (my grandmother in Benton, who lived until age 98, always called it “the nervous hospital,” the same term used in the 1996 movie “Sling Blade”) and then was changed to the Arkansas State Hospital in 1933.

Speaking of “Sling Blade,” the filming of the psychiatric hospital portrayed in the movie starring southwest Arkansas native Billy Bob Thornton took place at the Saline County facility.

In 1881, the Legislature levied a one-mill tax on all property for two years to construct and outfit an asylum. It opened on March 1, 1883. By 1915, there were 12 buildings housing patients. A separate hospital farm was established at Baucum outside of North Little Rock in the 1930s. What was known as the Benton Farm Colony opened in 1936 with room for 2,000 people. Farm operations ceased there in 1957.

A federal grant of $291,950 was used in 1964 to upgrade the Saline County facilities. Several of the buildings are now empty.

These days the complex is known as the Arkansas Health Center. It’s a 310-bed nursing facility. In fact, it’s the only state-operated nursing facility.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture states: “In 1961, the Arkansas Health Center was designated to receive all African-American psychiatric patients from its section of the state. In July 1962, all African-American phychiatric patients from Pulaski County, including those patients receiving treatment from the Arkansas State Hospital, were transferred to AHC. Although black and white patients were housed in separate buildings, AHC was one of the only facilities of its kind in Arkansas to accept such a large black population. In October 1965, AHC became racially integrated.”

We continued west past Glen Rose High School and then passed the Acme Brick Co. plant at Perla.

Fittingly, it was Brickfest weekend at Malvern. The festival started in 1981 and includes everything from a brick-throwing contest to concerts and arts and crafts displays.

There were dozens of brick plants in Arkansas during the early 1900s. Little Rock, Fort Smith, Clarksville, El Dorado, Hope, Jonesboro, Malvern, Pine Bluff, Mansfield, Pocahontas and Wynne were among the cities with brick-making operations. By the 1980s, there were only plants in the Malvern area, Jonesboro, Hope, Fort Smith and Clarksville. By 2009, there were just four plants in the state, and they all were owned by Acme.

Well-known names in the brick industry in Arkansas included:

— The Fort Smith Brick Co., which dated back to the 1840s and was acquired by Acme in 1923 along with a plant at Mansfield.

— The Hope Brick Works, which was part of the O’Neal-Gardner family’s 100-year tradition of brickmaking. The plant moved to Hope from Gurdon in the 1920s. Acme purchased and closed the facility in 2000.

— The Jonesboro Brick Co., which was operated by three generations of the Charles Stuck family before being closed in 1942. It reopened in 1946 as the Hall-Wheeler Brick Co. It was just the Wheeler Brick Co. from 1951-66, when a modern plant was built on the west site of town. Acme bought that plant in 2000.

— The Eureka Brick & Tile Co. of Clarksville, which began production in June 1946 and operated until it was sold to Acme in 1999.

“Malvern is by far the leading city in brick production in Arkansas and at one time claimed to be the Brick Capital of the World,” Randall Wheeler writes. “It has been the home of Acme Brick Co., Arkansas Brick & Tile, Atchison Brick Works, Clark Pressed Brick Co. (sold to Arkansas Brick & Tile in 1916) and Malvern Brick & Tile. Acme first purchased property at Malvern in 1919 and began negotiations to purchase Arkansas Brick & Tile.

“Malvern Brick & Tile was started in 1925 and, at one time, had a line of bricks in colors such as blue, green, pink and yellow. Other companies sprayed the color onto the face of the brick, but Malvern Brick used stains that colored the whole body of the brick. It is not likely that any other company produced bricks with through-the-body colors. Malvern Brick was purchased by Acme in the late 1970s.”

Acme began in Texas in 1891 and opened its first Arkansas plant in Hot Spring County in 1921. Illinois native George Bennett arrived in Dallas in 1876 and purchased 480 acres in Parker County for the first Acme plant. The headquarters was moved to Fort Worth in 1911, four years after Bennett died. By the 1970s, Acme was the largest American brick manufacturer. Land was purchased at Perla in 1919, and the first bricks were being made two years later.

The fully automated Perla East Gate Plant opened in 1967. Meanwhile, the original Malvern plant was replaced with what’s known as the Ouachita Plant in 1980.

It’s not nearly as big, of course, but I consider Keeney’s Grocery in Malvern to be as much of a Hot Spring County landmark as the brick plants. It’s where Paul and I had breakfast, including some of the best sausage I’ve ever eaten.

Charles and Maureen Keeney opened the grocery store 60 years ago at this same location, hidden from most traffic in a residential area.

Charles Keeney is 80 but is young at heart. He even drives a Corvette.

“She can get old if she wants to,” he says of his wife. “I’m not going to.”

A corner of the store has been turned into a small restaurant. Keeney’s serves breakfast and lunch every day but Sunday.

In 2000, with competition from Walmart and other big retailers hurting his business, Charles Keeney thought about retiring. But he decided that with only $45,000 in the bank he needed to keep working.

Here’s how Wayne Bryan told the story in a 2011 feature for the Tri-Lakes edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “Rather than just carry on business as usual in a small grocery store that seems to fit more in the 1950s than the new millennium, Charles decided to latch onto what’s still the fastest-growing segment of the supermarket industry, cooking for customers (or, as it is called in the grocery business, home meal replacement). Starting in the late 1990s, many supermarket operators discovered that preparing and serving food in their stores was a good way to bring in new customers, gain greater loyalty from existing customers and increase checkout sales and profits. … Today, in-store restaurants aren’t unusual. Charles had the same idea for his small store on Mill Street in Malvern. The couple, along with several employees, prepare and serve breakfast and lunch six days a week at the back of their store.”

Charles Keeney told Bryan: “I just pushed some of the groceries back and put in a kitchen and some tables. I did it because I had to make a living. We stumbled through the menu for a while. But I was raised country so we fix things in the old home-style way.”

Keeney told us that he sells so much sausage at breakfast that he doesn’t have time to make it to sell by the pound in the grocery section of the store.

On Thursdays, he sells dozens of rib-eye steaks. People eat them in the restaurant for lunch while others come in during the afternoon to get steaks to take home for supper.

Charles and Maureen Keeney arrive at the store at 4:30 a.m. and begin serving breakfast at 6 a.m..

Charles was 20 and Maureen was 17 when they bought the store in 1956.

They’re a special couple, deeply loved in the Malvern area.

A crew from KTHV-TV, Channel 11 in Little Rock showed up last year to visit the store.

Charles Keeney told them: “We went broke like the rest of them little ones. Times changed on us. When I turned 65, we started cooking. We had $45,000 to retire on, so we went to town and borrowed $45,000 more and spent it back there on the kitchen.”

Keeney’s is open from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m. each Saturday. It’s worth the road trip.

We continued toward Arkadelphia, crossing the old viaduct over the railroad tracks at Donaldson, crossing the Ouachita River, passing Ouachita High School, passing through Friendship, crossing DeRoche Creek into Clark County, getting through the Caddo Valley commercial corridor and then crossing the Caddo River.

 

 

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