Three decades before there was a “me,” there was my dad, Arlie Ramsey. The oldest of five siblings, Dad grew up poor in the small farming community of Wilburn, Arkansas. But his dreams stretched beyond the fields he plowed as a boy. Some of them came true; most did not. But with an entrepreneurial spirit and a strong sense of community, he tried numerous things in his 80 years of life.
His younger sister, the late Zula Turney, related: “A tall, dark, and handsome youth, my brother’s yearning for education tugged at his heart as steadily as the team of mules he followed down the rows in a cotton patch. He could not attend high school until he was 19. Wilburn had no secondary school, so he had to save money and move to Heber Springs and board with different families. He worked as a janitor at the high school to pay his expenses. Every winter night around 10:00, he walked from his boarding house to the school to shovel coal into the furnace. He returned at 4:00 a.m. to stoke the fire and get the building warm for students arriving at 8:00.”
Before he started high school, my grandfather established a general mercantile in the small community of Wilburn. Dad worked in the store while his Papa peddled merchandise from a wagon. He told me about driving a team and wagon to Heber Springs in 1925, hauling eggs, butter, and cream to sell at a local produce company. He forded the Little Red River and slowly made his way on a secondary route to town because he thought the sandy road zigzagging around farm fields was straighter and had fewer ruts to jar and break the eggs he carried. A mere ten miles stretched between Wilburn to Heber Springs, but the trip took him all day.
Once he enrolled in high school, my Dad devoured geometry, Latin, English, and history much like the hens in his mother’s chicken yard gobbled up shelled corn. He talked often to me about his mentor, Superintendent C.M. Reeves. I knew Dad had dreamed of becoming a pharmacist—a career he wanted me to pursue. But not until after he died did I know that Mr. Reeves had arranged a scholarship for him to attend the University of Arkansas. He could have pursued his dream, but my mother did not want him to go away to school. Instead, they were married.
Dad graduated at age 23 and settled for a job driving an oil transport truck. Always committed to any task, he returned to work the morning after his wedding. Honeymoons were rare in 1930. My newly wed parents spent their first married night in the home of my mother’s parents. In our small town, it was customary for friends and neighbors to call on a couple the day following their wedding. Except, my dad was not there—a fact that Mother never let him forget, in their 56-year marriage.
Dad’s keen mind and drive to succeed led him into various businesses. During his working years, he engaged in numerous endeavors from running a dry cleaning shop to owning a Sinclair Service Station, and ultimately, a Dodge-Plymouth dealership. Dad first added a building behind his service station to display Kelvinator® and Bendix® appliances, Zenith® radios—and later, televisions. In1946, his dream of the car agency and service garage grew into a large yellow brick building on the same block with the service station. I was old enough to watch that dream take form in sleepless nights when Dad sat on the side of his bed looking out east windows of our home to the site of his building project only a block away. With the help of a local engineer, (a status earned with a degree from Arkansas’s University, a level that few in our small town had achieved at that time) he planned the details of the building to include a showroom, parts department, and service garage. A private office paneled in solid walnut and furnished with custom-built walnut furniture was a source of pride in Dad’s new building. At the time of construction and occupancy, the building seemed huge in comparison to other businesses in Heber Springs.
After several years, Dad’s dream crumbled. In the early 1950s, he made the heartbreaking decision to sell the building and dealership to another businessman, whose son-in-law carried on the car agency, eventually dropping Plymouth and adding the Chrysler brand name. Under other owners, the dealership continued to house a Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep dealership. A few weeks ago. the agency moved into an expanded business complex on top of the mountain that shelters Heber Springs. The original building in town—bricks, beams, glass, concrete, and walnut paneling—that held so much of my Dad’s aspirations now stands empty.
Despite its aging façade, the old building still owns a piece of Dad’s heart. Although his dream for the car dealership toppled, he moved on by opening a tire-recapping store on Heber Springs’ town square. After that business failed, he sold real estate and insurance in the front half of the same building. Like his dad before him, my Dad issued credit to many people and debts went unpaid. Businesses prior to his work as an agent for Shelter Insurance Company could not sustain his generosity. Despite his poor management skills, Dad earned deep respect as a businessman in the community, and his family never wanted for life’s necessities.
Also in the 1950s, Dad served as mayor of Heber Springs, holding municipal court in his insurance and real estate office. Half-filled bottles of whiskey or fruit jars of clear moonshine often lined a shelf above a sink in the back of his office—spirits he had confiscated during city court. A teetotaler himself, he regularly poured the alcohol down the drain, lest anyone think he would keep it for himself.
In three-quarters of a century, he left his mark of honesty and selflessness on family, friends, and customers. He drew enjoyment from work and interaction with people in his daily life. Brief vacations were endurance tests. Dad lived to work, keeping his insurance office open on Saturdays to accommodate clients, loggers, or truckers whom he assumed could not take care of personal business on weekdays.
However, a heart attack at age 75 forced Dad to retire from his insurance business. After regaining some strength, he adjusted to leisure time that he had never known. Television and newspapers replaced his daily interaction with customers and downtown merchants. Yet, like his dad in previous years, he suffered macular degeneration and near deafness, robbing him of those pleasures. Other health problems plagued him. After living a year in a nursing home, my Dad died in 1988 at age 80.
My Dad and I shared many traits and dreams. But his memory, longer than the ten miles he walked on weekends between his high school and his farm home, is not one of them. With uncanny accuracy, he remembered names, dates, and events. We were of “like mind” on numerous subjects, but I had my own set of dreams. I could not share his enthusiasm for geometry or pharmacy. He asked me to join his insurance business, but my calling was—and is—teaching. I think Dad might have embraced my wanderlust if circumstances had been different in his life. Most certainly, he never lived and traveled in an RV. My love of continuous education came from him. However, writing and music did not live in his dreams as they do in mine. Still, when I pass that decades-old building I think about my Dad’s dream. I remember the eccentric gentleman who drew the plans and supervised every detail. I recall how Dad wanted that car dealership to succeed—and how he poured his sweat and soul into the business. He had to let go of that dream. And today, it doesn’t matter. He left his mark on our hometown. I recently found a clipping of a letter another businessman wrote to our local newspaper after Dad’s death. In part, he said: “Before we had a Chamber of Commerce or other programs to better our town, the local businessmen would get together and plan what might be done to improve the employment of people in our town and county. When the question came up, ‘Who will be the best man to take the lead?’, most every time Arlie Ramsey was mentioned. And as usual, Arlie would go—and do the task.”
The letter went on to say that a rose bush blooms with beauty for a while, but then it goes away. However, the roots remain for someone to enjoy again and again. “The roots that Arlie Ramsey planted in Heber Springs and Cleburne County crop up again and again,” the writer of the letter went on.
I am proud to know that my Dad put down his roots in this town, and today people who never knew him are enjoying the fruits of his efforts—not his alone, but the combined work and ideas of him and his peers. Yes, Dad had dreams—different from mine, and different from hundreds of others who walked our streets and started shops, professions, and businesses. All of those dreams together built and sustained the beautiful hometown where I, too, have put down roots and invested my time and energy.
Traveling in their motorhome several months each year, Arline and her photographer husband, Lee Smith, make their permanent home in Heber Springs, Arkansas. She currently is a presenter for Workamper Rendezvous, sponsored by Workamper News. Arline has dozens of magazine articles published, as well as five books: “Road Work: The Ultimate RVing Adventure” (now available on Kindle); “Road Work II: The RVer’s Ultimate Income Resource Guide”; “Truly Zula; When Heads & Hearts Collide”; and “The Heart of Branson”, a history of the families who started the entertainment town and those who sustain it today. Visit Arline’s personal blog at ArlineChandler.Blogspot.com