Friday, July 17, 2009

Portrait of Newport

After driving north from Searcy on 67, drivers will eventually pass a town called Newport. Newport lies between Searcy and Walnut Ridge (where 67 abruptly terminates). It's a moderately large town for the area, having around 8,000 inhabitants.

Like most moderately large towns around here, it has a historic (and crumbling) downtown district. I've already shared the town's train station, which lies in the center of the district. The city is an old crossroads; it's right on a junction of the White River and was later made into a major railroad junction. In fact, the city was the site of extreme economic prosperity up until around the 1950s and 60s.

The Arkansas Encyclopedia reports, "Newport has been negatively influenced by problems common to the Arkansas Delta region. Mechanization of agriculture and an economy of scale that promotes large corporate farming have caused land loss in the rural population. Limited employment opportunities have caused out-migration and restricted growth. The dense retail activity formerly concentrated along Front Street has diminished."

Thus Newport remains another snapshot of life from 60 years ago, and I suppose it will until folks start moving closer together again. Newport still has its original (beautiful) courthouse:

One of the more interesting bits of Newport's history also comes out of its highly successful post-war years. Attracted by the economic prosperity of the city, a young man named Sam Walton opened a Ben Franklin in the city's downtown.

Though it's home to something else now, this corner store is where Walton started his business career. Thankfully the new owners aren't ignorant to history, and though they have remodeled the building into something nameless, they did erect a little shrine to Walton's business in the corner window. In there are several pictures and items from the time when Walton walked those streets.

The fascinating thing is the reason why Ben Franklin no longer inhabits this building. Walton eventually got in trouble with the higher ups at Ben Franklin for the way he was running the business, and as a result moved to Bentonville with plans for his own super-store. I think we know how that turned out.

Once Wal-Mart was tearing up America's countrysides, Walton decided to move back into Newport with his own guns. Shoppers took to the new store and Ben Franklin had to close its doors.

The little plaque in front of the corner store reads:

"On this corner Samuel Moore Walton opened a Ben Franklin store September 1, 1945. So began a sales career that has culminated in the greatest retailing story in history. This store became, in less than five years, the gross sales leader among all Arkansas Ben Franklin stores. The sales genius of Sam M. Walton, at this location for five years, moved to Bentonville, Arkansas in the spring of 1950, later to grow into today's Wal-Mart."

Perhaps Walton's exodus from Newport is analogous to the town's descent into desolation.


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