Like much of the population of Lonoke, a good portion of our family’s summer, so far, has been spent on the road for vacation and work-related travel. My wife Natalie and I have determined to make the most of these road trips with our three boys and find new experiences along the way in unexpected, off-the-path places. One of the things we have found in our travel is that there are small, rural towns throughout the South that are discovering their own local distinctiveness and celebrating the potential of downtown-based small businesses. There is much inspiration for the work currently underway here in Lonoke to be found in communities within a day’s drive of our own! I am looking forward to sharing some of our unique discoveries in future editions of this newspaper column in the coming weeks.
Our oldest son, like his parents, has an appreciation for old things. One of his favorite activities as we travel and experience the places of our region is identifying “ghost signs.” These are faded advertisements or signage promoting everything from service stations to clothing or food long ago painted on walls that are now being slowly erased from memory by atmosphere and time. Ghost signs are essentially commercial murals, with numerous layers of color and geometry now obscuring one another, passively becoming a work of art in their own way. The remaining visible layers are like a puzzle to be assembled, telling the story of a former use or product once part of a community’s daily life. We enjoy trying to solve the riddle of the sign’s original message and peeking into the past of a place.
It is interesting the things you notice when you walk through your own neighborhood into downtown Lonoke. A slower pace certainly affords the opportunity to appreciate the textures, surfaces, and landscapes which contribute to the rich fabric of our community. You may have even noticed some ghost signs on the surface of our own downtown buildings, such as the “Western Auto” wordmark on the east elevation of Sew What at the corner of Front and Center Streets. In a way, it is a reminder that things are always changing. Old functions give way to new purpose, and new opportunity. Sometimes indicators of the past remain as residual elements marking a place and time and reminding us where we came from.
While my family loves and appreciates the historic fabric of our community, I would acknowledge that there are other perspectives from which to view “old stuff.” One may pass an aged brick wall with faded paint and see only layers of dirt and grime that have obscured its former glory. One may see an abandoned storefront and quickly drive past in pursuit of a newer, “cleaner” place to start a business. A person may avoid a certain block because they perceive the potential of place has long been expended.
However, with some creative thinking, we may learn to experience the stories found in each neighborhood of Lonoke at a slower pace and find an opportunity to share those stories with others. A group of volunteers, including Anna McClung, Valena Washington, Lynanne Ivy, Alice Bridges, and others has been working to assemble the individual histories of two dozen historic homes in Lonoke, many listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They are developing the tools to create a mapped walking tour that neighbors and visitors alike may access to learn about the diverse architectural styles, owners, and origins of these places. In highlighting the unique architectural treasures that may have been overlooked in these districts, Anna and her team are demonstrating that this place matters, and that the power of partnership can create a visible, attractive, and connected community.
In a previous edition of this column, we recalled that U.S. Highway 70 was at times known as the “Broadway of America” as it crossed America from North Carolina to California, connecting individual downtowns such as Lonoke and others right here in the Delta. However, I recently learned that another moniker claimed by the Highway 70 Association in the 1950’s was “The Treasure Trail.” There was even a theme song in 1951 to accompany the promotion! The name “Treasure Trail” reminds me that Lonoke is indeed a town with character and value. May we continually find creative ways to project and visibly celebrate the treasure that is our unique hometown.
One of the places I am excited to write about in a future account of our summer road trips is Laurel, Mississippi. I recently discovered the online journal of a local shopkeeper in Laurel, Caroline Burks, who beautifully tells the story of her town through the lense of family and their connection to the surrounding built fabric. In one particularly moving entry, Caroline Burks writes, “My grandfather literally built parts of Laurel, and I’d found the instructions he used. These buildings had shaped my life, and my experiences of my hometown. I realized then that my architectural aspirations had always been about building, but that building something didn’t necessitate construction. The only way to build a place is to give its people a reason to stay, and give everyone else a reason to want to.”
As the passage of time highlights the character of our places and buildings in Lonoke, may we also be a community marked by an inner character. As neighbors, volunteers, and leaders, may our true character be revealed in lives of consistency and integrity. May we weather the passage of time with the wisdom to establish a clear path forward for our future generation.
Our history is composed of rich layers applied decade after decade. Some layers are to be celebrated, and others are to be sober reminders of our human frailty and lessons learned through hardship. Sometimes those layers once considered hidden began to emerge again, bringing to light that which time had covered. For those of us who may be seeking to write a new chapter in our own story, there must be a hunger to understand the contributing factors that made our fabric what it is today. In so understanding, the lessons of our history may then create within us the character to face our future with kindness and unity.
Ryan Biles has archived all fifteen of these newspaper columns on the new website www.LookAtLonoke.com. He and his wife Natalie are raising three sons who believe in Lonoke. Share your stories of our town’s history with the hashtag #LookAtLonoke on social media!