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Bear Bryant Memorabilia, Other Attractions Lure Travelers to Fordyce

October 28, 1997

Bear Bryant Memorabilia, Other
Attractions Lure Travelers to Fordyce

By Sheila Yount, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

FORDYCE, Ark. -- Many devoted fans of the legendary football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant make pilgrimages to this south Arkansas town to see where he grew up.

They come to see where the former coach of the University of Alabama played his high school football and where he learned his folksy ways. And they stop by the local museum to see a display dedicated to him. But while they're here, they'll see that there's much more to Fordyce than Bryant memorabilia.

They'll see that this railroad town in the heart of Arkansas's Timberlands region has other enticements -- a bakery filled with delectable treats, antique shops, and a charming bed and breakfast. There are also compelling Civil War historic sites nearby.

"In the past, Fordyce was probably best known for Bear Bryant," says Barbara Finley, manager of the Fordyce Chamber of Commerce. "But now when I go out of town and mention Fordyce, people say, 'oh, the bakery.'"

"The bakery" is Klappenbach's Bakery, located in a 1940s-era brick building at 108 W. Fourth St. A great way to start your visit to Fordyce is to stop in at Klappenbach's for a cup of coffee and a giant cinnamon roll. While there, you'll likely see others doing the same since the bakery has become a major tourist attraction for the town. The bakery, which regularly draws customers from Little Rock, Louisiana and Texas, gets about 60 percent of its business from out of town.

"We've been amazed at the wonderful response of the people in the community, state and region to our business," says Norman Klappenbach, who, along with his wife, Lee, opened the bakery in 1975.

The Klappenbachs moved to Fordyce from Walla Walla, Wash., where they had operated a wholesale/retail bakery. Lee, who grew up in Kingsland, near Fordyce, moved to Lewiston, Idaho, as a teenager and met her husband-to-be there. Her family eventually moved back to Kingsland, and it was on visits to that town that the couple decided to make the move to Arkansas.

"We always thought that there were very few retail bakeries here, and we thought that might be a good change for us," Norman says.

To ensure the highest quality products, Norman, who does all of the baking, says he makes everything from scratch. He uses five types of flour, including special flours for cookies and breads. He first learned about baking from a German baker he worked for while in high school in Idaho. "That's where I really learned the technique," he says, adding that he also attended the Dunwoodie Institute in Minneapolis.

While many people drive to Klappenbach's, others order its products by mail, especially during Christmas. Beginning around Thanksgiving, the Klappenbachs put in many hours preparing mail-order items that are sent throughout the country as Christmas gifts. Customers can order a variety of breads and cakes that are shipped in wooden gift boxes that Norman fashions from Arkansas cypress.

"Our most popular breads are cinnamon and cinnamon raisin," Lee says, adding that customers also often select pound cakes for the gift boxes. The low-fat English muffin bread is also gaining in popularity, she adds.

In addition to baked goods, there's a sandwich shop inside the bakery where visitors can enjoy such items as tortilla soup and a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch.

After you've filled up at the Klappenbachs, head over a few blocks to the Dallas County Museum, located in a building at 221 N. Main St. that once housed a bank. This museum opened in April 1996 and contains some interesting memorabilia related to the late Bryant, who was born on a farm near Fordyce in 1913 and was a star player for the Fordyce Redbugs' football team. He is said to have gotten the nickname "Bear" after he purportedly wrestled a bear at a theater. At the museum, a display case contains newspaper clippings, photographs and an autographed football dating from his days as head coach of the University of Alabama football team. There's even a houndstooth-check hat that was Bryant's trademark during his tenure as coach of the Crimson Tide from 1958 to 1982. And, yes, there's also a stuffed black bear standing nearby, although it isn't the one he allegedly wrestled.

"We get lots of visitors who want to see his (Bryant's) exhibit," says Agnes Phillips, museum director. "And we get a lot of people from Alabama. They are dedicated fans."

In addition to Bryant memorabilia, there's an interesting exhibit on T.E. Rhine, who graduated from Fordyce High School in 1895 and practiced medicine in the nearby town of Thornton for 66 years. This exhibit, located inside an old bank vault, contains the doctor's medical bags, equipment, and a wool coat he wore when he made house calls, among many other items.

Beginning on Nov. 15, 1997, a temporary exhibit featuring photographs of historic barns in Dallas County will be on display. The photographs were taken by Amber Garrett, a Dallas County resident.

As you leave the museum and walk along a downtown sidewalk, you may hear a train going by on the tracks that skirt the downtown area. Today, as in the past, trains have a pervasive presence in this town. In fact, Fordyce owes its existence to the railroad. In 1882, the town was platted when the St. Louis, Arkansas and Texas Railway, more commonly known as the Cotton Belt route, was built. The town was named for Samuel Fordyce, who surveyed the railroad and later became its president. Fordyce, who was injured while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, moved to Hot Springs in 1873 to partake of the "healing waters" of the resort city. While there, he built the luxurious Fordyce Bathhouse, which now houses a museum and visitor center.

To pay homage to the city's heritage, Fordyce's citizens host the "Fordyce on the Cotton Belt" festival each April. During this popular event, festival-goers take free rides on a train pulled by a Fordyce & Princeton Railroad engine, view model train exhibits, buy handmade crafts, play games and eat lots of funnel cakes and corn dogs.

Although the city of Fordyce didn't exist during the Civil War, there were settlers in the region who had already established such towns as Tulip and Princeton. There was even a Civil War battle fought at Marks' Mills, near present-day Fordyce. The battle was fought on land owned by John Harvie Marks, who came to Arkansas in 1834 and built a cotton gin, a grist mill, sawmills, a brick kiln and a blacksmith shop.

The battle was part of the Union Army's ill-fated Red River Campaign, which called for Union forces to take control of Texas' vast supplies of cotton. On its way through Arkansas, the Union Army encountered stiff opposition from Confederates during three battles. One of those occurred at Marks' Mills on April 25, 1864, when a Union supply train with 240 wagons was attacked and defeated by Confederate forces.

About eight miles east of Fordyce, a small state park featuring a granite marker commemorates the battle. Just north of the intersection of Ark. 8 and 97, a sign and an American flag mark the entrance to a gravel road -- the Old Pine Bluff and Camden Road -- which leads to the Marks family cemetery. Here, visitors can see markers and monuments erected by members of the Marks family that describe aspects of the Battle of Marks' Mills.

At the cemetery, graves of the region's early settlers can be seen, many of which date to the early 1800s. A nature trail dedicated to James Nicholas Marks, known as Jim Nick, a colorful early settler who died in 1917, leads into the woods from the cemetery.

After a visit to the cemetery, drive back to Fordyce and continue on southwest of Fordyce for about five miles on U.S. 79 to Thornton, the home of Cayce's Antiques, which is known for its large selection of antiques. For more antique shopping, head back to downtown Fordyce for a visit to Mainstreet Antiques, an antique mall with several booths.

You can view -- but not buy -- some more spectacular antiques at the Wynne-Phillips House, a beautifully restored bed and breakfast at 412 W. Fourth St. This home was built in 1905 and was purchased in 1914 by T.D. Wynne, a prominent attorney and former mayor of Fordyce. Today, his daughter Agnes and her husband, Col. James H. Phillips, own the home. When Agnes isn't busy at the Dallas County Museum, she's at home entertaining overnight guests or giving tours, which can be arranged in advance for groups of at least 10 people.

While Fordyce is a pleasant place to visit year-round, fall and the holiday season are especially inviting. The downtown area is decorated with bundles of hay and pumpkins in autumn and, in 1997, the city's homes and businesses will be dressed up for the holidays with a Christmas parade set for 7 p.m., Dec. 4.

Travel Tips: To reach Fordyce from Little Rock, take U.S. 65 South and then take U.S. 167 South. The Dallas County Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. For more details, contact Agnes Phillips at the Wynne-Phillips house at 870-352-7202. The Klappenbach Bakery (870-352-7771) is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. To learn more about the city's offerings, call the Fordyce Chamber of Commerce at 870-352-3520.


Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"

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