112 years up in smoke: Old store gone, only memories left

St. Joe Mercantile stood for 100 yrs

Town’s hub survived hard times

By Bill Bowden

ST. JOE -- For more than a century, St. Joe Mercantile was the heart of the Searcy County town of St. Joe.

The general store was a landmark along U.S. 65, about 5 miles north of the Buffalo National River.

At one time or another, St. Joe Mercantile sold everything from coffins to dynamite.

The brick building survived a tornado, the Depression and at least one bank robbery -- but not the fire that began early Monday.

St. Joe Mercantile burned to the ground, taking a century of small-town history with it.

"This is terrible news," said Brooks Blevins, a professor of history at Missouri State University who specializes in Ozark Mountain culture. "St. Joe Mercantile was one of the last of the really old country stores that didn't insist on constantly reminding you that it was a really old country store. It just was."

Blevins said there are plenty of "faux country stores," but St. Joe Mercantile wasn't one of those.

"I remember it as a place where the lighting wasn't quite up to snuff, so you always felt like you might stumble across some sort of treasure that had been hiding between shelves since Truman was in office," Blevins said.

The 112-year-old building was originally a mall of sorts, the hub of commerce in downtown St. Joe, which had a population of 159 in 1910 -- and 132 a century later.

Besides the general store, the building had housed a bank and drugstore with a soda fountain.

Dan Allen, 86, of Harrison, said his great-grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Henley, built the store in 1903 or 1904.

"They had everything you could need, from horse collars to coffins," said Allen. "You could buy dynamite there because there were still mines around."

Janis White Busbee, 74, the store's owner, said things had changed over the years. The store no longer sold coffins and dynamite.

Kenny Rainbolt, 63, who works down U.S. 65 at a convenience store called Haskel's Place, remembers the diversity of merchandise at St. Joe Mercantile.

"When I was growing up, you could go in there and buy a saddle, tack, hardware, feed and groceries," he said. "You could buy anything you wanted -- bluejeans, boots and basketball shoes. You talk about a general store, it was a general store."

Busbee said she figured the fire was electrical. She said the store wasn't open on Feb. 21, so there shouldn't have been anything smoldering in the wood-burning stove the day before the fire, which was reported at 1:42 a.m. Monday.

The building ruins, however, were still smoldering Tuesday afternoon as a light rain began to fall and Busbee talked with neighbors about selling the bricks.

After some speculation, Bill Davis said, "I bet you could get a dollar apiece for them."

Part of the original building facade, which faced Main Street to the west, was still standing after the fire.

Darrell Barnett, 59, co-owner of Haskel's Place, said the concrete foundation on the west side of St. Joe Mercantile gave him sufficient elevation to safely mount his mule when he was an 8-year-old boy.

"He'd bite you if you didn't get on quick enough," Barnett said. "He would turn his head and snip at your leg."

"He wouldn't really hurt them, just grab them by the britches and pull them off," said Haskel Barnett, 82, Darrell's father. "There could have been four or five of them riding him at a time."

Searcy County Sheriff Joey Pruitt said he saw nothing suspicious about the fire, but Arkansas State Police investigators were there Thursday to start a routine review anyway.

"That building had all kinds of flammable materials in it," Pruitt said. "There were a lot of timbers in that ceiling."

Pruitt said the south wall facing U.S. 65 was knocked down Thursday so it wouldn't fall and injure anybody.

Allen said the store was constructed to coincide with the establishment of St. Joe in 1904 along the new line of the Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad, which went from Joplin to Helena. The railroad operated until 1946.

Allen said the town that became St. Joe actually moved a half-mile from Monkey Run, a community that got its name because land surveyors thought they saw monkeys in the trees. The original town was on Mill Creek, according to stjoearkansas.org. "Run" was another name for creek.

The settlers didn't want that name to follow the town to its new location, so they quickly named it St. Joe and put that on the train depot, said Allen, who teaches philosophy and history at North Arkansas College in Harrison.

"They were embarrassed about having Monkey Run on the depot," Allen said. "Nobody wanted that."

Besides, there was already a community called Monkey Run in Baxter County.

St. Joe was close to lead mines, and mining played a big part in the town's early history, according to stjoearkansas.org.

St. Joe's population grew to 255 in 1930. But the town dropped its incorporation and no census figures were available again until 2000, when an old incorporation charter was reactivated. At that time, St. Joe had 85 people.

The small town produced some notable residents, including Allen's uncle, J. Smith Henley, who was a judge on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The federal building in Harrison is named for him.

Many general stores in Arkansas were in wood-frame buildings, but that made them susceptible to fire. To help protect St. Joe Mercantile from fire, Benjamin Franklin Henley built it with a concrete floor, brick walls and a metal ceiling, said Allen. A few years later, it withstood a tornado that wiped out much of the new town.

Around 1929, the bank was robbed. Armed with a shotgun, the robber was in Main Street when Allen's uncle Bill Henley stepped out of the mercantile door with a gun in his hand. The robber fired, and a pellet from the shotgun shell put out Bill Henley's eye.

Most of the mercantile's walls and roof crumbled in the fire, revealing something among the ruins that looked like a brick tomb. It was the bank vault, which apparently survived the fire.

Metro on 02/28/2016

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