By Joe David Rice, Photos by Casey Crocker
Mena itself got its name from the nickname of the wife of one of the railroad’s Dutch financiers.
I can easily think of half a dozen reasons that you might want to visit Mena: food, hiking, craft beer, shopping, scenery and history.
But if you’re looking for evidence of Barry Seal and the high-flying days when he ran a hugely profitable (and highly illegal) drug-smuggling operation out of the Mena airport, those times are long gone. Seal, a Louisiana native who was assassinated in 1986 in Baton Rouge by contract killers hired by the Medellin cartel, was played by Tom Cruise in the 2017 movie American Made. Filmed in Georgia, the film still doesn’t sit well with the folks in Polk County. It’s not that the film portrayed Mena and its citizens in a bad light; that wasn’t the case. It’s just that all that crazy stuff happened way back in the 1970s — and it’s time to move on. As Mayor Seth Smith says, “It’s all speculation; we’ll never know the real story.”
Smith, a young and energetic 35-year-old native of the city, is well into his second year as mayor and is continuing his lifelong desire to be a public servant, coming off stints with the fire department, sheriff’s office and two tours of duty in Iraq with the U.S. Army. When asked why people should visit his community, he grins and says, “Mena is the greatest place on earth. We’re a unique town, so far away from everybody else.”
Perched just inside the Arkansas/Oklahoma border and located about halfway between Fort Smith and Texarkana on U.S. 71, Mena is indeed pretty far from much of the rest of the state. But its isolated Ouachita Mountains setting is a big part of the charm of the county seat. In fact, Mena is more or less surrounded by the 1.8-million-acre Ouachita National Forest. And these forest lands are a major reason that tourists flock to Mena.
Take the Wolf Pen Gap ATV (all-terrain vehicle) trail system. This 41-mile network of four trails was originally built by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1980s using old logging roads that meandered through the remote backcountry. When federal officials decided to shut it down because of concerns about erosion, local folks and the Arkansas Nature Conservancy stepped in and, working together, redesigned the trails to make them environmentally sustainable. Located a dozen or so miles southeast of Mena on Arkansas Highway 375, it’s among the most popular destinations in the multistate region for the legions of ATV enthusiasts who enjoy its diverse terrain.
Or take the Ouachita National Recreation Trail, a 223-mile-long continuous footpath through the heart of the Ouachitas. Extending from Pinnacle Mountain State Park near Little Rock, the trail heads west, finally ending at Talimena State Park in southeastern Oklahoma. Along the way it passes just north of Mena along the steep slopes of Rich Mountain, Arkansas’ second-highest peak (elevation: 2,681 feet above sea level, or almost exactly one-half mile up). This trail, which can be hiked in segments, is not recommended during tick and chigger season.
Rich Mountain is also the home of Queen Wilhelmina State Park, now proudly boasting the third mountain-top lodge (the first two were destroyed by fire). The 40-room facility includes a full-service restaurant known for its hummingbird cake and, my favorite, peanut butter pie. The park also has a 40-site campground, four trails and a miniature excursion train operating (weekends only) out of the Morning Glory Train Station. Superintendent Janelle Shepherd, obviously proud of her park, says, “The sunrises and sunsets up here will stop you in your tracks.” Her colleague Melissa Phillips, the park interpreter, has established a “Sip & Shine” program encouraging guests to grab a cup of hot coffee and watch the sun come up from the comfortable rocking chairs on the lodge’s porch. Potential visitors should be advised that Rich Mountain seems to have its own weather system, and the park’s been known to be lost in the clouds, fog-bound for days at a time. It’s also recognized for having one of the best black bear populations in the state, so ursine sightings aren’t uncommon.
For those curious about the park’s name, here’s an explanation: The same railroad officials who built the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad (now the Kansas City Southern) through the Ouachita Mountains constructed a lodge atop Rich Mountain in 1898, naming it after Holland’s Queen Wilhelmina to acknowledge Dutch investors who’d financed the railroad. Also, Mena itself got its name from the nickname of the wife of one of the railroad’s Dutch financiers.
One of the prettiest drives in Arkansas — the Talimena Scenic Byway — winds up the eastern end and then along the top of Rich Mountain, presenting one scenic vista after another. This route, also known as Arkansas Highway 88, heads north out of Mena and then turns west for 18 miles, passing through Queen Wilhelmina State Park, before crossing into Oklahoma. Long a favorite for motorcyclists, the road can offer spectacular fall foliage in late October and early November when Mother Nature cooperates.
Paralleling Rich Mountain and immediately to the north is Black Fork Mountain. This section of the Ouachita National Forest features the Black Fork Mountain Wilderness, a 13,319-acre tract of rugged and remote land set aside for primitive recreational use (i.e., no vehicles). Among its many highlights are unusual “rock glaciers,” or huge expanses of boulders slowly creeping from the top of the ridge down the steep ravines. The trail markers, it should be noted, are not always easily spotted.
By the way, a large portion of the national forest southeast of Mena was proposed for a national park back in the late 1920s. Dubbed “Mena National Park” (and later known as “Ouachita National Park”), this 163,000-acre tract would have featured some of the wildest portions of Arkansas, to include headwaters of the Cossatot, Caddo and Little Missouri Rivers. The legislation easily passed the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate (without a dissenting vote), only to be pocket-vetoed by President Calvin Coolidge on his last day in office.
But there’s so much more to Mena than its outdoor options. A dozen or so structures and sites in the community have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and many of the buildings in the Mena Commercial Historic District date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In more recent years, local leaders banded together and worked with the city government to establish a successful Main Street program.
Folks in town are proud of the Ouachita Little Theatre (610 Mena St.) and enjoy its productions, performances that have included Always…Patsy Cline, Godspell and Hamlet. They also recognize the value of visual arts, supporting the Mena Art Gallery (607 Mena St.) and its aggressive schedule of workshops, seminars, classes and exhibits. Visit downtown Mena during the first weekend in November, and you can experience the annual Arts Celebration.
In the same block (615 Mena St.), woodworker Rick Chrisman founded American Artisans, a combination eatery and gallery now going on its eighth year. Chrisman’s dad, a Mena native, had introduced him to the town when he was a kid, and he then settled here as an adult, fulfilling the dream to be his own boss. Works in the gallery range from glass to wood, jewelry to pottery. The meals — primarily soups and sandwiches — are all made from scratch.
Several people in Mena share an interesting observation: “Polk County is the wettest dry county in Arkansas.” It seems that the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control administration now allows micro-breweries to operate in otherwise “dry” counties, and several local entrepreneurs have taken advantage of this opportunity. When his permit is approved by the ABC, Derek Campbell will join their ranks. A Mena native, Campbell spent a couple of years in Seattle where he developed skills in the coffee business. Moving back home, he opened Ouachita Coffee Roasters (821 Mena St.) where he sells a variety of custom roasts. Most of his business is retail, but Campbell also sells to restaurants in Magnolia and Texarkana. Once his brewery’s in operation, he expects to offer 30 taps, half featuring his brews and the other half “guest” taps with products from selected regional breweries. His renamed business will be called The Ouachitas and will offer several coffees, craft pizzas and various brews. A typical review from Yelp indicates that Campbell and his team must be doing something right: “This coffee spot is a true Arkansas diamond. If you’re on the road or out and about in town, stop by and treat yourself,” one says.
A trip to Mena will reward those seeking a session of retail therapy. “There are some unique shopping opportunities in Mena,” says Pasha Watson, executive director of the Mena/Polk County Chamber of Commerce. “There are several antique shops to explore and find those little treasures just waiting to be discovered.” Those looking for vintage items should check out: Old Bank Antiques (812 Mena St.); Depot Antiques (519 Sherwood Ave.); Jo’s Antiques (2010 Hwy. 71); The Market Boutique and Vintage Decor (1509 Hwy. 71); What-Knots Antique Store (1604 Hwy. 71); and Cowboy & Indian Trading Post (515 Sherwood Ave.).
Watson also notes that the town presents a surprising array of dining options. “Mena offers something for every palate. From mouthwatering steaks to uniquely creative burgers, specialty coffee shops, hand-dipped ice creams and homemade candies, Mena does not disappoint. You can enjoy Mexican food and margaritas, Italian favorites, Asian fare, or soups and sandwiches at our local eateries and bistros.”
Not many towns of 5,700 can claim a college, but Mena’s an exception. Commonwealth College, a socialist-oriented school, was founded in Mena in 1924. A controversial institution, the college struggled for survival almost from its inception, battling internal strife, financial difficulties and allegations of communist ties before it finally closed in 1940. Orval Faubus, Arkansas’ governor from 1955 to 1967, is among its alumni.
What used to be called Rich Mountain Community College became the University of Arkansas Rich Mountain (UARM) in 2017. With its two-year curriculum, the school offers more than 25 programs of study. While many of the approximately 1,000 students are majoring in liberal arts, business administration is another popular field. Associate of Applied Science degrees are also offered in registered nursing, advanced manufacturing and general technology. Chancellor Phillip Wilson, a native of nearby Montgomery County, says, “First and foremost, the college is here to serve the people of the Ouachita Mountain region. But to succeed, we’ve got to expand beyond our comfort zone.” One example of this expansion is the construction of on-campus dormitories. Another is launching sports teams, such as last year’s establishment of soccer and cross-country teams for both men and women. This alone has brought in new student-athletes from New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Peru, Ireland, England and elsewhere in the United States, adding to UARM’s campus diversity. The town, according to Wilson, is excited about the prospects of collegiate-level athletic competition — and more sports are on the way. Working with officials from the city of Mena, the school will soon field men’s baseball and women’s softball teams, adding a new revenue stream for the college and tourist dollars for the community. Wilson is excited about UARM’s potential, noting that he and his colleagues are working hard to ensure that “the college will be here in the future.” They must be doing something right; last year’s enrollment was up 8 percent and, a similar gain is expected this fall.
Gar Eisele gave up a fine job as an investment banker in Little Rock and relocated to Mena where he and his wife helped her folks run a furniture business for 35 years. “It was a good move from the start,” he says. “Everybody in town was very welcoming, and our kids easily transitioned to a fantastic school system.” When I ask if he has any last comments, he shakes his head and says, “No regrets! Mena is a really great place to live.”
Readers planning a visit to Mena and vicinity might want to consider a couple of stops either coming or going. The Lum & Abner Jot ‘Em Down Store & Museum at Pine Ridge celebrates the outstanding careers of radio comedians Chet Lauck and Tuffy Goff who entertained the nation during the 1930s and 40s with their homespun humor. Housed in two general stores dating from the early 1900s, the museum contains a fascinating collection of radio and movie memorabilia. It’s located about 20 miles east of Mena on Arkansas Highway 88.
The Cossatot River, the state’s most challenging whitewater stream, heads up in the mountains south of Mena. It can be safely observed from its banks about 10 miles east of Vandervoort at the Arkansas Highway 246 crossing (where there’s a picnic area and a fine swimming hole at the Brushy Creek Recreational Area) and roughly 10 miles east of Wickes along U.S. Highway 278 at the Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area Visitor Center. And southeast of Mena and deep within the Ouachita National Forest is the Caney Creek Wilderness, a 14,500-acre segment perfect for hikers and backpackers looking to get away from the confusion and clamor of our 21st-century society (best visited in late fall through early spring).