Russellville Downtown

by | Sep 1, 2013 | Features

The thumping, clacking Union Pacific railcars provide a fitting accent. The din of yesterday’s workhorse echoes at a comfortable volume through the corridors of downtown Russellville. It’s a nostalgic sound that works in concert with the buildings and the businesses. It’s the heartbeat of community here in the core of the city.
The railroad is where the story begins for downtown Russellville. The Little Rock/Fort Smith Railroad was completed in 1873 and its route through Russellville tipped the balance of economic, and then political power in Pope County.The first depot was constructed in 1880 and shortly after that, in 1887 to be exact, the county seat moved from Dover to Russellville. 
Downtown Russellville sprang up, fed by the artery of commerce connecting Little Rock to what was still the western frontier. That first depot became a frequent stopover for weary travelers and from this hub a swirl of economic growth spun into the surrounding area. Business ideas and buildings sprouted from fertile minds and seemingly unlimited opportunity.

Of course setbacks occurred. In 1906 a fire ravaged the downtown businesses, destroying more than 20 buildings and causing an estimated $250,000 in damages. But Russellville business bounced back stronger than ever. The 2008 recession was the most recent obstacle to growth in the downtown district, as it was to the nation as a whole, but the wheels of commerce are gaining momentum again. You can hear the thumping clacking sounds of a rousing economy. The sound echoes through the corridors of downtown Russellville. The sound and the spirit of downtown has survived through the decades and now sits ripe with potential.
The years meld together when visiting with the downtown merchants. Old-fashioned service with a smile is still the foundation for good business. In some cases the ties to yesterday run through bloodlines. Yanci Walker, a pharmacist at C&D Drugstore, has a heritage tied to downtown business.
“This is my family’s store,” said Yanci. “I’ve worked here since, gosh, back in Jr. High. I left for a little while but came back in 2009 and my uncle R.D. let me work for him.

C&D was named for Charles Oates and Dale Walker, entrepreneurs and pharmacists that bought the pharmacy in August 1958. Walker was Yanci’s grandfather. Interestingly, the building that now houses C&D has always been a pharmacy. It was constructed in 1877 and was the only building to survive the fire of 1906. It is also the oldest drugstore location in Arkansas.
“When Mr. Oates retired he sold the store to R.D, my uncle, I think it was in 1990,” said Yanci.
Yanci believes that downtown offers benefits for merchants and customers. “Downtown is the heart of the city. People look downtown for established long-term business and I think that they have that here; C&D Drugstore, Peter’s, Sweeden’s, the Jewelry stores. I think that’s what people want again, a downtown where you can park your car, take care of business and visit with friends.”
The historic buildings and old-town atmosphere draws new businesses as well. Bethany Swindle owns Lavish. She has been in business here in downtown for a little more than a year.
“I grew up in a Victorian house here in Russellville,” said Bethany. “Born and raised here and I just wanted to help in the revitalization of downtown. With Lavish being, I don’t know, kind of funky chic; most things I have here are repurposed or old. I just thought it was a good fit with downtown as opposed to a new construction type location.”

Indeed, Lavish is awash in nostalgic items right down to the décor. Glass doors from two old houses that were torn down when the Methodist church built additions are used as merchandise display.
Yancy and Bethany represent the recent growth of young professionals that makeup an eclectic mix of downtown business owners.
Commerce and culture aren’t often thought of as compatible, though history tells us that they are a couple. Downtown Russellville is no exception. A large portion of the recent downtown revitalization is centered around culture, specifically the arts.
The Frame Shop and Gallery, Lemley House Art Guild, and Gallery 307 are examples of Downtown’s growing art culture. The quarterly Downtown Art Walk held on the first Friday of March, June, September and December are an ongoing partnership between the River Valley Arts Center and Main Street Russellville.
Food is also an attraction and downtown Russellville highlights area restaurants with their annual Taste of the Valley. Held on the last Thursday in April, the award-winning event offers food samples and music, with all proceeds used for the continued revitalization of the downtown district.
This year’s Music Downtown @ Sundown is the latest community event that cements downtown Russellville as the cultural center of the River Valley. It came about by simply listening to what the people wanted explained Betsy McGuire, executive director of Main Street Russellville.
“Over the years we have always asked the public what type of events they would like to see take place downtown,” said Betsy. “The overwhelming response has always been more music. So that’s what we did and the response from the community has been great.”
This summer’s series of three concerts concluded with the final show in August, with a wink from Main Street Russellville about future concerts; though nothing is confirmed right now.

The community interest in Russellville’s downtown is growing along with the business and cultural additions. Betsy says there are good reasons for this.
“Communities everywhere have recognized the value of their downtowns and ours is no exception,” said Betsy. “It is the core from which our community has grown, it embodies our local history and reflects the unique personality that sets our community apart. It’s still a place where the dream of owning a business can take root, and that dream can prosper.”
The train rumbles on; past downtown and though the city limits. Soon the lights of Russellville are a distant glow from the caboose window. But downtown Russellville’s future looks brighter than ever as the thumping, clacking wheels of revitalization push it forward.


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