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Northwest Necessities: Memories of Dickson Street

Once Upon Dickson, Pedaling east on Dickson Street, 1980s; Special Collections, Grapevine Papers (unprocessed collection)

If you have lived in or visited Fayetteville, it’s a good bet memories from Dickson Street are interwoven into the fabric of your life. And just like we have, this street has gone through many changes … all of which make this beloved section of Fayetteville what it is today.
To get a perspective on Dickson Street’s evolution from the ‘50s to now, we looked to two iconic Dickson Street business owners — Bill Underwood, owner of Underwood’s Fine Jewelers, and Joe Fennel, owner of Bordino’s and founder of Jose’s Restaurant. =

Fine Jewelers

Bill Underwood moved to Fayetteville in 1957 to manage a jewelry store on Dickson Street that specialized in class rings, fraternity and sorority pins and jewelry. Dickson Street and the downtown area was the hub for Fayetteville’s retail and entertainment, drawing students from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville as well as locals. A single guy, just out of the service, Underwood wanted to pursue a business degree, so the prospect of a paying job plus the ability to further his education appealed to him. The trees and lakes were a welcome change from the flat plains and red dirt of western Oklahoma where he was from. The business was located in a blond brick building (just west of Underwood’s current location), which was part of the Sonneman Buildings and was less than two blocks from campus. It was small, but had living space in the back — perfect for his needs. In 1958 the owners offered to sell him the store. Underwood said, recalling, “Though they offered to sell me the store for $5,000, I had no money.” He borrowed $1,000 from his father, a gas station owner and not a wealthy man, and paid out the rest. Thus, young Underwood, with hardly any retail experience and a grueling class schedule, began Underwood’s Fine Jewelers.

While it was a challenge to balance school and a business, Underwood had the opportunity to absorb theories and knowledge in the mornings and put them to practice in the afternoon in his store. One marketing opportunity Underwood took advantage of was his close proximity to the movie theater. The UARK theater was a favorite of the college kids, and the line to get in would back up to George’s Lounge. So, Underwood took special care to arrange his windows to attract their attention as they stood in line making their way to the movie. Underwood’s reputation for quality steadily grew as did his business.

Next to Underwood’s, at that time, was an old white house divided into rental units with a brick apartment house behind it. With an eye to the future, Underwood purchased the property, but it would be years before he had the capital to build on the site, so he continued to use it as rental property.

In the mid-60s, E. Fay Jones, an architect and apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, who taught at the university, began discussion with Underwood about designing a building, which would house the jewelry store and Jones’ architectural office. Jones’ office was then in the second floor of the old Studebaker dealership, close to the corner of Dickson and West streets, where the Walton Arts Center (WAC) is now located. Jones wanted to design an office that would showcase his talents for prospective clients. Underwood remembers a lunch meeting in particular when he tried to convince Jones he didn’t have enough money to bring Jones’ dreams to fruition.

“We sat at the lunch counter at the Palace Drug Store across the street [where Campus Bookstore is now]. Fay was drawing his ideas on a napkin. I finally told him that even if I could borrow the money needed for his design, I would, in turn, have to increase his rent. That convinced him, and he revised the plans.”

The new Underwood Building was completed in 1966 at a cost of $17 a square foot. It would be almost 15 years before Jones designed the highly-acclaimed Thorncrown Chapel and his other notable projects that launched him to the pinnacle of his profession and garnering numerous accolades and honors. Until the 1990s, the Underwood Building would be one of only a few, new construction projects on Dickson Street.

Though Underwood’s business continued to grow, Dickson Street hit hard times in the late 1970s and early '80s. Crime was on the rise. Stabbing fights, and even a man falling to his death in the abandoned burned out remains of McCord Ozark Grocery, located just east of George’s Lounge, were ruining Dickson Street’s reputation. Soon businesses closed as many people were afraid to go to Dickson Street in the daytime much less at night. Underwood, who had become very involved in the community, was chairman of the Civil Service Commission, which oversees the police and fire departments. He, with his good friends Hugh Brewer and Curtis Shipley, went to the Police Chief to express their concerns and more or less tell the chief if he couldn’t solve the problem, they’d find someone who could. The chief assigned policemen to patrol Dickson Street on foot, which proved to turn the crime problem around and turned Dickson Street in a better direction.

During the mid-80s Underwood and a group of Dickson Street merchants formed an Improvement District as way to fund clean up and renovation of the area. The WAC was in the planning stage, and it was time for the area to get ready. Successfully, the Dickson Street Improvement District signed up enough owners to increase their own taxes. Through a community effort between the merchants, the University and the city, the Walton Arts Center became a reality, which would forever change the complexion of Fayetteville’s entertainment district.

“Today, Dickson Street is safe and full of people,” Underwood said. “We just signed a lease with Waffle House to occupy the ground floor of the Lofts at Underwood Plaza. Before agreeing to the location, their corporate office sent consultants to count foot traffic for 24 hours. The report was astonishing.” This spring, Waffle House will open their first nontraditional-style restaurant with a Razorback theme and chrome décor.

Many retail businesses are gone, but not forgotten. Stretching our memories, here are few that played a role in the retail history of this district: Piggly Wiggly Grocery, located north of Palace Drug, is now Club Haus Fitness; few may recall the photo shop a block down — the front half was a legitimate business, but unknown to most until it was raided, in the back, the owner ran a porn business; across the street and towards campus was the popular Metcalf Records next door to the UARK Bowl; and one can tell from the structure that Dickson Street Liquor’s former life was a Conoco Station. Fayetteville Business College was located midway down the south side of Dickson as was Sines Auto Painting and Body Shop and a pawn shop. That same side was home to Superior Linen; The Camera Shop (not to be confused with the other one up the street); a beauty shop; and Don’s Photography Studio. Shipley Bakery, with its tantalizing aroma of bread baking, was located in the center of Dickson with its bread store across the street on the hallowed ground of the former Jug’s Drive In. On the north side, Waggoner’s Bakery, a dry cleaning business, and Grover Thomas’ laundromat are now the site of the Three Sisters building. Melody’s Choices Gifts; a florist; a hair salon; and a post office are some of the retail outlets that occupied the section from today’s Hog Haus to Jose’s.

Olé for Jose

Joe Fennel’s arrival on Dickson Street was preceded by a stint as the manager of Applegate’s Landing, an experimental restaurant owned by Pizza Hut. In 1978, Fennel gladly came to Arkansas remembering his childhood trips here on vacations and the natural beauty; his hometown of Stillwater, Okla., paled in comparison. After one year, Fennel, then 27 years old, wanted to work for himself. Having recently lived in Texas, he decided to open a Mexican restaurant.

“North College was the happening place then, but rent was out of sight” Fennel said. He was familiar with college towns, and Dickson Street appealed to him. “Dickson Street was a hell hole, so rent was affordable. Minute Man was leaving, and the rest is history … here I am 30 years later.”

Jose’s began as an 80-seat restaurant in a cinder block building. Fennel had no aspirations to run a nightclub, but the back part of his building had been home to Speakeasy, a pizza place and bar that featured live music and the first big screen TV in town. People expected Jose’s to have music. Looking up and down the street, Fennel took note of the successful music venues. Dickie Poole’s Library Club’s regular band was the Bel Aires. Mary Hinton was running George’s and the Cate Brothers drew big crowds. The Swinging Door, with its giant cowboy façade and bands like Zorro and the Blue Footballs and Jerry Jeff Walker, regularly had a packed house.

Fennel said, “In those days, students didn’t come to Dickson Street. Either their parents had warned them about the dangers, or they had read about incidents. Conservative, older people were too scared to come so the ‘old Fayetteville’ people claimed it.” To get those customers to Jose’s, Fennel knew he had to find a good house band. That’s why he hired the little known group The Ozark Plantation Band. “They played every other weekend, and we grew together.”

Musicians have a tight network and appreciate an honest operator and a steady paycheck. Crow Johnson and the Bel Airs were helpful in his band search and told him about several groups. Fennel shared an amusing story about one promising group. “I hired these two guys who were supposed to be good. I paid them $50. The turn out that night was terrible — only eight people, and selling Busch long necks for 50 cents, I knew I was going to lose money. But I turned to my friend, Joe Giles, and said, ‘Man, these guys are good!’ The name of the band was Troutfishing in America, who as we know went on to become very successful.”

In 1988, Fennel made the decision to get out of the music biz and focus on his food business; the late nights were taking a toll on his family and his life. Fennel’s decision paid off with a significant sales increase the following year. At the time, popular chain restaurants were starting to open in the northern part of Fayetteville. “I looked at moving north, but I loved Dickson Street. It was me.”

There was another factor — the WAC was close to realization. So, instead of moving, Fennel decided on a major remodel. Jose’s went from 80 to 320 seats in 1991, and only closed one day during the project. In planning this expansion, Fennel already had his sites set on his next project: an Italian restaurant with a streetside patio. In the meantime, he converted the north end of his property to El Patio, featuring a patio atmosphere but with a roof. El Patio later enclosed and became Joe’s Italian dream, Bordino’s.

With the arts center up and running, Fennel made another business decision that would affect the streetscape of Dickson Street. He used the space, in which he had envisioned having his Italian restaurant and patio, and turned it into Dickson Street’s only streetside patio — other than George’s — and named it Jose’s Streetside. In the late 1990s, Fennel built the structure that houses Bordino’s as well as offices, including his own. Fennel sold Jose’s in 2004, but is still very involved in Bordino’s.

Reflecting on the Walton Arts Center, Fennel said Dickson Street was saved from itself. WAC was the catalyst that connected the area with the University and cleaned the district. People came back to Dickson Street. Fennel said several people were key to the transition, from 1980 to 2000.

“John Lewis was the front runner as he fought to save the Square and the Old Post Office,” he said; Lewis is a Fayetteville native and founder of Bank of Fayetteville. “John Gilliam, who owned The Brew Pub [it later became Hog Haus], championed the ‘liquor by the drink’ cause and was very involved in the Advertising and Promotion Commission. Curtis Shipley, Bill Underwood and Carl Collier used their influence to make changes happen. Frank Sharp was huge; he had the vision and was able to breach both camps. He identified with the business owner and was also supportive of those interested in the trees and the environment … and if you wanted to know what was really going on, you looked to Marilyn Johnson [Heifner] with the Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission, and Bootsie Ackerman with Downtown Dickson Enhancement Project. ” Fennel’s involvement with the WAC project spurred him on to serve on the A & P Commission for 10 years, including several terms as chairman. He pointed out positive changes still going on. “U of A students are now walking from the campus to Dickson Street. You didn’t see that in the ‘80s, ‘90s or in 2000. You see businesses going in that didn’t work before, but do now. The Dickson Street Inn has done an excellent job renovating an old house into a beautiful place. The business owners today are young entrepreneurs with enthusiasm, who have made the conscious choice to locate on Dickson Street. Sure, there are changes, and some come with pain. But what change doesn’t?”

Fennel shared one of his memories that typifies those special Dickson Street moments. “It was in the mid-80s. Eddie Sutton’s Arkansas Razorbacks had just beaten their rival Abe Lemons’ Texas Longhorns. Jose’s was packed with fans celebrating. Ozark Plantation Band was playing. Norton Buffalo, a renowned harmonica player and close friend of Abe Lemons, sat in with the band. Because of the Sutton-Lemons rivalry, Nike was in town doing a documentary about the legendary coaches. It was about midnight when the door opened. The Nike guys entered, followed by Abe Lemons. The room was hushed as the word spread; spontaneously, the crowd started calling the Hogs. Coach Lemons took it well and ended up staying until the wee hours of the morning enjoying himself. It was a surreal night and a great memory.”
Bill Underwood summed up the love of Dickson Street. “When you go to Dickson Street to see a play or hear live music, it’s a special evening out. It takes time to develop that certain atmosphere. Memories are a large part of the flavor of Dickson Street.”

For more about Dickson Street, check out the book Once Upon Dickson — An Illustrated History, 1868 - 2000 by Anthony J. Wappel with Ethel C. Simpson.

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