Calico Rock Shoe

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Calico Rock’s Family Shoe Store

by Brooks Blevins, PhD, Missouri State University Ozarks Studies Program

Harry Truman was president, Jackie Robinson just finished his first year with the Dodgers and no one outside of Tupelo, Mississippi, had ever heard of Elvis Presley. It was December 1947 and Jim Clinkingbeard opened the doors of Family Shoe Store on Main Street, Calico Rock, Arkansas.

More than 65 years later, Jim still opens those doors six days a week. He will tell you the store and its owner have seen better days. However, the story of this small town business is one of remarkable longevity, bolstered by a family’s love for their adopted hometown and the generations who have walked through the front doors for almost two-thirds of a century.

Calico Rock Shoe

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Poke around in the dusty back-corner repair shop and you will swear you have stepped back in time. Same goes for the Clinkingbeards’ “middle store,” where some of the clothing might qualify as vintage without being second-hand. The northern room – the actual shoe store – features a smaller stock of merchandise than it used to, but retains that certain musty leather smell intrinsic to hometown shoe stores of the past.

More than a few of Family Shoe’s customers drop in these days for a nostalgia fix. Ever the genial gentleman and salesman, Jim visits them all and offers a sales pitch or two. Nostalgia seekers rarely buy shoes but they do drop a few coins for a sandwich or a bowl of ice cream, which Jim’s wife, Billie, serves at the soda fountain. Change comes from a wooden cash register, an antique dating from the 1920s.

Calico Rock Shoe

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Like small town merchants everywhere, the Clinkingbeards evolved over the years just to stay in operation. Long outlasting the days when Main Street was the center of business in little Calico Rock, Jim and Billie take each day as it comes.

Jim Clinkingbeard was born in 1927 on his family’s farm near Henderson (a little town that sat on the banks of the North Fork of the White River in Baxter County). After Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1938, government men and surveyors began to mill around old Henderson. Soon it was announced the Army Corps of Engineers planned to dam the North Fork. Henderson, along with thousands of acres of farmland, would be inundated.

Jim’s dad, Adlie Clinkingbeard, decided not to delay the inevitable. Right after the harvest of 1942, he sold the farm to the Corps and moved the family to Mountain Home. Jim found work in the press room of the Baxter Bulletin, a job he resumed in 1947 after a two-year stint in the Army.

Not wanting to have “printer’s ink under my fingernails for the rest of my life,” Jim Clinkingbeard recalled a business opportunity offered before he joined the Army.

James Dallas Dryer Sr. owned Dryer’s Shoe Store on Mountain Home’s town square. Dryer developed a plan for expanding his business by training his sons, nephews, and other young men to repair and sell shoes and setting them up for business in small towns around the region. Impressed with young Clinkingbeard’s work ethic and personality, Dryer offered him an apprenticeship in 1943, unaware that Jim was only 16 years old. Now 20, Jim met with J.D. Dryer Jr., who had recently taken over management of the store.

Within days a young man trained to open a shoe store at Calico Rock backed out of his commitment. Jim Clinkingbeard took his place and after only two months was running his own store in a strange town. It was just before Christmas 1947. “I wasn’t old enough to vote and didn’t know anybody in town,” Jim recalls.

It was a 50/50 partnership based on nothing more legally binding than a handshake. The partnership would last 30 years until Jim bought out Dryer’s stake in the business.

Calico Rock Shoe

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In contrast to today’s sleepy little Main Street which beckons sightseers driving through on Highway 5, “Calico Rock was a popping town when we came here [in 1947],” says Jim. Basking in the limited prosperity enjoyed by small Ozarks farm towns in the post-war years, Calico Rock was the largest city in Izard County. Farmers came from miles around to have their cotton ginned and buy necessities. Sawmills made constant deliveries to the planing mill in town.

Calico Rock boasted a grist mill, two theaters, an automobile dealer, an ice plant, and an electric power plant. On Main Street alone shoppers found three groceries, three cafes, two hardware stores, a bank, a print shop, a barber shop, the post office, a pool hall, and a funeral parlor. “Every building on the street was full of business.”

Jim’s shoe store began in a stone building built as a wholesale grocery house just after the turn of the 19th century. The then-current tenant, an undertaker, partitioned the building down the middle and rented the northern half to Jim.

It was a small space: 16 feet wide and 50 feet long. At the back of the narrow store sat Jim’s first piece of furniture, an eight-foot counter still in use today. Behind the counter was the shoe repair shop, featuring a brand new stitching machine Jim purchased for $600 and a “finisher” that cost him another $400 (Plate 5). The machines have served him well during 65 years of cobbling. Both work as well today as they did in ’47.

In the early days of the business the repair shop was the busiest, most lucrative part of the store. “I couldn’t get out of my shop on Saturday,” recalls Jim. It was the day most farm families made their weekly trip to town. Many a frugal farmer and wife brought in worn boots and shoes. Jim would put on a new sole for $1.35, a new heel for 55 cents. “I could have fed my family out of that shop,” he marvels decades later.

Calico Rock Shoe

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Back then his Star Brand work boots (made by a division of St. Louis’s International Shoe) brought $4.99 a pair, “split-level” men’s Sunday shoes $3.99. Variety was in short supply; customers could get black or brown in the moccasin-toe or plain-toe styles. Jim’s walls were lined with women’s slippers, babies’ and children’s shoes, and even a few tennis shoes. He recalls having little luck convincing the high school basketball coach that imitation Converse sneakers he sold (Red Ball Jets) were as good as the originals sold across the street at the department store.

Calico Rock Shoe

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Despite the coach’s reticence, Jim Clinkingbeard was a convincing salesman. He persuaded Billie Hart to marry him just four months after he launched his business. She agreed, though hesitant to leave her family in Mountain Home. Billie worked in the planing mill office for a few years, but in the early 1950s Family Shoe became just that, a family-operated business. After the birth of their first child in 1950, Billie left the planing mill and joined Jim in the shoe store. She brought the baby to the store each day and laid him down for naps in a makeshift bed underneath the counter. They repeated the routine four years later with their second child.

After a decade in business in Calico Rock, the Clinkingbeards were doing well enough to expand. In 1957, they bought the building from the undertaker and took out the partition, doubling the size of their store and expanding their merchandise to include clothing.

In 1969, the drugstore next door closed. Jim and Billie expanded the business yet again, buying the soda fountain and kitchen and renting the building for use as a dime store and café. In the 1990s — rather than easing into retirement — Jim and Billie bought the building on the north side of their store. Originally housing the print shop, this section became their shoe store, leaving the original building as a clothing shop.

Jim assures me business was good through the ’90s. It has, however, been in gradual decline over the past decade. Friends, neighbors and tourists drop by throughout the day, but paying customers – at least for shoes, jeans, or blouses – are fewer and farther between. Other than a a couple dollar stores on the eastern edge of town, Family Shoe has no local competitors. More and more of the Clinkingbeards’ neighbors do their “trading,” as Jim still refers to it, in the town the couple left some 65 years ago: Mountain Home.

When asked why the couple continues to come to work day after day decades after their peers drifted into retirement – Jim Clingkingbeard is jocular but focused. “It’s like a grizzly bear,” he says. “You sure don’t want to hold it but you can’t afford to turn it loose.” In serious moments of reflection, he reveals a more fundamental reason for longevity. “I hate to see a little old town fold up,” Jim observes.

Calico Rock Shoe

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Jim and Billie’s side of Main Street would have folded up years ago were it not for the Family Shoe Store and the Chamber of Commerce. It is dedicated merchants like the Clinkingbeards who have kept the small-town Ozarks from folding long ago.

We know nothing lasts forever, but for now we’re fortunate. Jim and Billie Clinkingbeard continue to welcome customers to Family Shoe Store and the soda fountain next door. He may use a cane these days to amble from room to room but Jim’s playful sense of humor and endless supply of jokes remain intact. Example: Jim to a departing customer – “Keep it between the mustard and the mayonnaise so you won’t see the ketchup.” Billie, ever a whirl of activity, still greets customers with a warm smile and a kind word.

It would be a chore to find someone who remembers Calico Rock’s Main Street without Jim and Billie. It would be a bigger chore to find a couple operating a business in the same building for more years. Stop by for ice cream, a pair of shoes, or just the sights and smells of living history. Jim and Billie will be proud to see you. You’ll be glad you came.

August 13, 2012

Calico Rock’s Family Shoe Store: State of the Ozarks

ALL PHOTOS courtesy of Brooks Blevins, PhD

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