Photo by Liz Chrisman for ABOUT the River Valley magazine.
Jean and Charles Oates live in Pottsville on large patch of farm land that’s been in Charles’s family since his ancestors first arrived from Gastonia, North Carolina sometime around 1852. “They’d worn out the farm land where they were,” he explains, “and came to Arkansas because it was much like the landscape and climate they knew back home.” When asked what kind of farming his family did in the early days, Oates simply replies, “existing.” Like most Arkansas farmers during that time period they grew a little cotton for a cash crop and raised grains for the animals animals and vegetables to feed the family.
The Oates and their historic farm were recently recognized as an Arkansas Century Farm by the Arkansas Century Farm Program, a state initiative recognizing Arkansas’s rich agricultural history by honoring families that have farming the land for a hundred years or more. “We have proof of establishment since 1895,” Charles explains noting to the date on the sign which he proudly displays in the living room, noting the ease of tracing the family records to that time frame. The family actually had tax receipts that could be traced back to the 1850s, he explains, but that wasn’t enough to prove ownership. “I told them if they had known my family and how tight they were they would know they weren’t paying taxes on something they didn’t own,” he jokes.
After his grandfather settled on Pisgah Rd the elder Oates fought in the Civil War and was wounded at Jenkins Ferry near Hope, Arkansas. “My great grandmother took the children and an old milk cow oxcart and went down there and nursed him back to health,” he explains. “He was shot in the neck, so he made it through and came on back. Some of the things we have have been passed down from that generation,” he says speaking about the myriad of antiques that fill the Oates’s newer model home located on the family’s historic land. “What we’ve done might not to appeal to everyone,” explains Charles as he points to their archive-laden home populated with family heirlooms, “but it’s things we liked.”
Built in 2007, Charles and Jean’s house is located on land just a few paces from where Charles grew up near both his immediate and extended families. “I’ve stumped my toe on about every rock that’s here,” he explains, gazing out into the yard. He points to an older growth of trees out back noting that he’s “camped out under the trees there. We made our fun running up and down the branch, catch little fish, crawdads.” I rode a horse many a mile,” he smiles. Growing up as an only child in the Depression he says he spent a lot of time with his grandmother and his neighbors, the Fergusons. “ Times might be considered very hard but we had nothing together,” he explains. “Being without didn’t hurt,” he adds. “We rolled hoops and played marbles, mumbly peg, and one or two-eyed cat, a form of baseball for fewer players.
Charles says as a child he remembers his father row cropping and later adding cattle to the farming operation to supplement the income. By the time Charles was in ninth grade he tried his own hand at farming, he explains. “Jobs were scare then,” he recalls. “You could pick cotton or hoe cotton or bale a little hay and that was it. And in the ninth grade my dad starting farming in the Atkins bottom,” he continues. Knowing Charles needed to earn some money, his father told Charles he could farm ten acres of that Atkins bottomland to pay for his college education. “I’ll furnish the equipment and the team and you can farm the land,” his father told the young teenager. “So he gave me a way to provide for a job when there wasn’t one available,” Oates recalls. “So I grew cotton out there until I went into the service.”
Though he loved being on the farm, Charles knew from a young age that someday he’d need a supplemental income. “Farming in the area was not the best option,” Charles explains. “Folks always encouraged me to do something else, but I always loved the farm,” he explains. After the military he headed to the University of Ozarks where he majored in pharmacy. After a few stints in the military he wound up working at a pharmacy in Waldron after graduating from pharmacy school. And it was there he met his future wife.
In 1949 Jean was working for the Department of Agriculture under the Farmers Home Administration when she was transferred to Waldron. One afternoon while having lunch with friends at a local lunch counter she noticed Charles, the new pharmacists in town. “This good looking man was sitting there on the stool,” she recalls, and her friend said he knew him from college. “I said, well why don’t you introduce him,” she recalls, smiling. “So he did and it stuck,” she laughs. They soon married and stayed in Waldron for around six years before a short stint in Mountain Pine where Charles worked for a drug store ran by Dierks, the local lumber company. All the while Charles kept ties with the farm back home in Pottsville. Eventually the family had the opportunity to return to the Pottsville area where Charles first began working at Walker Drug Store on Main Street in Russellville.
Charles was good friends with Dale Walker whose brother owned the well-known establishment. “Eventually we go the opportunity to buy the store, he says. “It was a real good store,” he recalls, “and Dale and I got in for considerably less. Neither one of us had anything to start with, but our families got along and we got along. That made for a great partnership,” he says. Together they founded C and D Drugstore, the locally popular pharmacy still located in downtown Russellville. “Im the C and he’s the D,” Charles says smiling. “Partnerships don’t always work but ours did,” he recalls mentioning the closeness of the two families. For decades he focused on his pharmacy work, but says the “Drug store was always kind enough to tolerate me being on the farm some.” Over the years he and Jean acquired more land and grew the original property, adding chicken houses to the cattle operation.
Eventually Charles left the pharmacy business, retired, and began building the home they now enjoy. “We tore down some of the old family houses,” he explains, “and were able to bring in a a lot of rock they had.” He points to the rock chimney, the centerpiece of the large living room. “The rock mason was able to incorporate the rocks and foundation right into the chimney,” he says. The rocks that didn’t make it into the chimney were placed in the rock fence out behind the house, adds Jean. Everywhere you look their new home is infused with the materials and objects of the generations that came before.
Charles takes me on a tour of the house, pointing to countless antiques and family heirlooms passed down through generations. Two lead plate doors from an Atkins pharmacy can be found in a display cabinet near the kitchen. A small handmade children’s chair sits near the displays of historic dishes. “This was my great uncle’s,” he explains. An old claw foot bathtub once used as a water trough sits in the guest bathroom and a handmade study cabinet belonging to one of his aunt’s is placed in the guest room. “Whenever anyone in the family moved,” Charles explains, “they’d take it grandmother’s to store it. After her death the family kind of divided it up. Most people didn’t live here, and so we said we’d take it,” he explains, explaining the wide array of heirlooms in every pocket of the house.
A room off to the left of the entryway of their home is filled with pharmacy heirlooms and objects preserved from the general store Charles’ grandparents once ran in downtown Pottsville. The Oates’ love of local history has led them to serve on the board of the regionally-popular Historic Potts Inn, a former stagecoach station on the historic Butterfield Overland Mail route between Memphis and Fort Smith. In connection with their volunteer work for Potts Inn they also operate a small pharmacy museum in connection with Inn. Speaking of their contribution to the community and their dedication to local history Charles laughs and calls themselves “packrats.”
As Charles walks around the house pointing to the heirlooms he often mentions specific family members, especially his grandmother who clearly had a large influence on his life. “Grandmother did basket making,” he says picking up a small woven case surrounding a glass bottle. “I went with her when I was a kid and gathered honey suckle vines. We’d boil them and take the bark off and wrap it in rows, boil it for a while and the bark slipped off we’d do the weaving with it,” he explains. “She was deaf,” he explains, and “she loved gardening and baskets and loved flowers,” he recalls.
As we make our way into the kitchen Jean points to an old ice box and we discuss the older trees which still populate the historic farm site. “We waited until we were eighty years old to build,” Charles laughs speaking of their home that was literally decades in the making. “But we’ve enjoyed it.” “I’m spending my second childhood right where I spent my first,” he smiles.