By Dr. Curtis Varnell
A winding road, a beautiful drive, and a million-dollar view accompanies the drive north from Clarksville to the small town of Oark. Nestled in the Ozark mountains and bordered by the scenic Mulberry River, it is the epitome of small-town Arkansas. The town meanders along Arkansas highway 215; a scattered house here and there, a post office, a small school, and the famous Oark Café. A visit to the café alone is worth the trip. Built in 1890, it is the oldest continuous operation store in Arkansas. Stepping inside is a step into history. The building has the original floors, walls, and ceilings and is bedecked with old shelving and scattered tables. Like stores of the past, they serve a little of everything including groceries, camping supplies, hunting and fishing license, and even serve as a check-in station during hunting season. The Café offers home cooked food with everyone favorite home-made pies.
A lesser known area attraction is the “Tri-Centennial Tree”- an ancient southern red oak tree located in front of the local school. The tree is over 300 years old and is commemorated by an historic marker.
With a population of 43, Oark has had a difficult time keeping open the local school. Even with bussing, the school population fell below the magical state requirement of 350 students in k-12. In small towns, virtually everything is centered around activities in the school. Athletics, school plays, summer activities, and even social gatherings occur within the schools and a town loses its identity when the schools are closed and consolidated with larger districts. Like many isolated districts in the mountainous area of Arkansas, kids face several hours’ travel, often on hazardous roadways, when they consolidate.
Many of the small mountain communities face this same difficulty. They wish to keep their schools open, their communities vibrant, and their towns alive. Oark, realizing other small districts faced the same difficulty found a unique approach. In 2004, Oark along with the Kingston School District, merged with Jasper with each town maintaining their own campuses but with a central administrative staff and office. Deer, Mount Judea, St. Paul, Hartford, and other small districts followed suit.
Many of the teachers in these districts are people who grew up in the region or who love small-town life. For the schools to succeed, it took a lot of work on their part because, even though a small district, they still had to offer the same courses and opportunities for the students that were offered by larger schools. Many of the teachers went back to school to obtain multiple accreditations so a smaller staff could still offer the required courses. The teacher I worked with taught music, science, and was the gifted/talented teacher. A delicate balancing act, she was exceptional at all three.
Lunch time at the Oark store and I am enjoying a huge slice of apple pie and ice cream along with my coffee. Enjoying the hum of conversation around me; I hear hunting stories, the problems with this year’s hay crop, and local politics. Hearing a rattle on the porch, I am astonished as I look out. A huge hog has wondered across the front of the store and is meandering down the street. “There’s a loose pig out there wondering down the street,” I exclaim. The clerk barely raised his head, “Oh, that’s just the town pig. He wonders around like that all the time. It’s ok, he’s just a big pet.” No-one else in the store acted surprised at all.
Only in small town Arkansas!!!