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Close your eyes and picture for a minute – the whistle of a local train passing through the industrial area near downtown. You can faintly hear the notes of Norah Jones or Adele wafting through the air over the hushed conversations at nearby tables. A group of teachers pick up lunch to go, and you notice a couple wander in after parking their bikes out front.
You could be on the town square of many small Arkansas towns. But today, you are in one of my favorite watering holes, Stilwell’s Restaurant in downtown De Queen, the heart of Sevier County. After I was first married, I moved to this small Southwest Arkansas town, and while working from home, I knew I needed to find a spot that would beckon me away from my home office from time to time.
The corner spot of Stilwell’s, facing the gazebo and Sevier County Courthouse, became my watering hole for coffee meetings and workdays that started with a coffee and scone and ended with a sweet tea refill after my lunch. It is a gathering place for locals, tourists, college students and downtown business owners.
A meatloaf sandwich was the first thing I tried on their menu. Unbeknownst to them, the daily special was a little nod to familiarity in my first month of making this new place home. It was a comfort food that I needed in an area that felt so unknown.
Also unknown was why they served an Arthur Stilwell instead of an Arnold Palmer. I was nervous about the ingredients, but the gal behind the counter told me it was just their take on the traditional beverage, honoring the man whose name was on the front door and the Avenue out front.
Used with permission through Public Domain, from World’s Work dated November 1911.
As I stuck around town longer and visited the local county museum, I learned that Arthur Stilwell was responsible for bringing the railroad through town, and local citizens named their new city after the railroads’ primary funder.
Before age 40, Stilwell founded the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad, the predecessor to the Kansas City Southern Railway, connecting Kansas City, Missouri, to Port Arthur, Texas. This central corridor was vital to expansion during the Industrial Revolution and established many of the towns through southwest Arkansas along its path.
While Stilwell was known as an entrepreneur, his dreams usually outlasted his funds. One of the stories related to Arkansas includes Jan de Goeijen and his wife, whom he called Mena. As an incredible salesperson, Stilwell was often able to fund his project through European investors and in return, they received millions of dollars. Jan de Goeijen was a Dutch coffee merchant and a leading financier of the railway expansion project.
At the time, the center of Sevier County was Lockesburg, with historical connections to a nearby community, Paraclifta. The Locke brothers and other community leaders voted against the railroad. So, Stilwell chose the straight path from Mena, the midway point of the railway, southward to cross through Hoo-rah City, an established tent city of vagabonds on the county’s Eastern border connecting to Oklahoma.
Like 40 other cities across the Southwest, the railroad changed everything for this small town, and business developed along the path with a bustling agricultural and industrial economy community.
While the estate left by the Stilwells contained only $1000, “one of the last promoters of the railroad” made more than $160 million for his investors, he created 2300 miles of railways and established 41 towns.
It seems fitting that Stilwell’s Restaurant would serve coffee by trained baristas and locally sourced beef for their daily specials. A passing train can be seen and heard from the front patio on a breezy day. The historic train depot and Kansas City Southern maintenance yard are three blocks from downtown and some years, De Queen hosts the Holiday Express as it makes its annual trek through the towns that Arthur Stilwell helped establish.
Some of my favorite things on Stilwell’s menu include:
Three things keep me coming back any time I’m in the area and can make a detour downtown. The housemade pickles are a signature item. Sometimes, a little crushed pepper flake or piece of dill will still be attached as it arrives at my table. I love to make refrigerator pickles myself, but something about this half-sour combination always has a big crunch and enough heat to linger on the tip of your tongue and not leave it on fire. I’ve seen the store manager in the grocery store collecting ingredients for a fresh batch and still can’t come up with the secret.
Another treat I love is what I call the “voodoo dust” on their potato chips. Again, it looks like it will add some spice to your lunch, but it’s never anything that sets your mouth on fire. Their chips are super crunchy and often the perfect side to a club or panini sandwich.
But, either a piece of pie or layer cake is always a must. Each day may bring a new variety, and I learned quickly that if I spot something on display on a busy lunch day, I better mention it when I order my food. More than once, I’ve missed out on a piece of Italian Cream Cake or coconut cream pie.
Every town needs a local spot for ladies who lunch or a creative space where writers can write, and Stilwell’s Restaurant claims the corner in downtown De Queen among street tacos and a walking hot dog.
Images used with permission from Stilwell’s Restaurant.
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