story and photos by Michael Tilley
The rural, scenic road delivers the traveler through several switchbacks and deer crossing signs into a haven; a refuge, if you will, where a modern soul may escape the buzzing tether of a smartphone and instead sample human interaction from a world prior to the inventions of Tim Berners-Lee and Steve Jobs.
This relatively quiet place is the Oark General Store, a restaurant, and it’s managed by two kids who never knew that world.
OK, kids they are not, but Reagan (29) and Brian (30) Eisele are not who you would expect to find mixing up a special hushpuppy recipe or applying an egg wash to the top of a homemade pie.
The couple, who married in April 2012, bought the historic Oark General Store in northern Johnson County on May 18, 2012. With little to no restaurant experience, they dug their entrepreneurial hooks into an unforgiving, low-margin business.
The store first opened in 1890 to provide supplies for those intrepid souls who chose to scrap out a living in Oark – a town connected to the world then by a few rugged and often impassable logging trails. The building purchased by the Eiseles includes some of the original structures from that 1890 building. Today, the store is a restaurant, but does sell fuel and several food items, toiletries and other basic needs.
Listed on the Arkansas Register of Historic Places, the Oark store is no longer isolated. Oark has become a food and fuel oasis for the thousands of tourists and natives who each year enjoy floating on the Mulberry River, hiking on the Ozark Highlands Trail, or day rides by motorcycle through the area. The store also attracts visitors riding through as part of the 5,000-mile Trans-America Trail that begins in eastern Tennessee and passes through Oark before venturing on through several states and terminating near the Pacific Ocean near Port Orford, Ore.
OIL FIELD ROMANCE
But the story of how Brian and Reagan ended up married, frying catfish, slicing onions and pouring sweet tea in Oark includes political work in Arkansas, South Carolina and Washington, D.C., and a tour of the apparently romantic oil fields of the breakaway Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan has immense oil and natural gas reserves and has allowed the U.S. military to use facilities in the country to ship supplies to the war effort in Afghanistan.
Reagan was a staffer for then-U.S. Rep. John Boozman, R-Rogers, and Brian was a staffer with U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina. They were part of a tour to learn about the emerging energy industry in Azerbaijan. Although the energy reserves were abundant, the fledgling country had little in the way of modern pipeline and storage infrastructure when it became an independent country. The first major pipeline – the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan – opened in July 2006.
Brian and Reagan and other Congressional staffers ventured into the important geopolitical crossroads – the country is located between Russia and Iran – during February 2010. The tour period included Valentine’s Day.
It was from Russia, or at least a former Russian Republic, with love – or at least the elements of love.
‘MAKERS AND TAKERS’
The love blossomed, and Brian and Reagan visited each other’s families. Brian grew up in Aiken, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina in December 2005. Reagan grew up in Hartman (also in Johnson County) and graduated from Arkansas Tech University in May 2006.
During an April 2012 visit, Brian proposed to Reagan, and the wedding was planned for a site near Ponca, Ark., in the scenic Boxley Valley. While Reagan was in Arkansas planning the wedding she noticed a blurb about the Oark General Store.
“I called Brian one day and said, ‘Remember that Oark store where we had pie and coffee? Well it’s for sale,’” Reagan explained. “I was just sort of joking.”
Brian was sort of serious.
He was growing disillusioned with his work as a Congressional staffer. His maturity and experience also began to see the difference between “makers and takers,” and he wanted to be a maker.
“When I worked in Congress, I worked under and alongside some of the most hard-working and intelligent people. But at the end of the day, just because I was a lowly peon in the scheme of things, I never really felt any concrete achievement for myself. It was always for others,” Brian explained.
Reagan shared Brian’s frustration, and as they talked more about their future, they didn’t see themselves raising a family in Washington, D.C.
They talked about buying the store. They talked with their parents. Her parents were supportive but concerned about the stress of owning a small business in a small town. Brian’s parents were supportive, and they helped finance the $170,000 purchase just a few weeks after Brian and Reagan were married.
It’s been a whirlwind for the two following May 18, 2012, when the historic store became their first baby. And with their small-town backgrounds, they immediately sensed that it was more than just a store.
“This store has been a staple here for many, many years. … Long lines of families have grown up using this store and visiting here,” Reagan said. “We don’t feel like we own this place. We really are more like caretakers of this store and what it has meant for this area.”
But caretaking is hard work, and comes with surprises. Just a few months after buying the store, a few participants from the thousands of motorcyclists attending the Bikes, Blues and BBQ event held primarily in Fayetteville, Ark., almost swamped the Oark General Store.
“We went through something like 500 hamburger patties in just one day,” Brian said.
Brian and Reagan said their goal has been to avoid making a lot of changes, but work to improve on many of the existing positives. The strategy seems to be working. The Oark General Store recently received the 2013 Johnson County Tourism Award from the Arkansas River Valley Tri-Peaks Tourism Association and the Clarksville/Johnson County Chamber of Commerce.
In addition to tourists, the store continues to attract many regulars who frequently use the shaded front porch to visit sans cell phone interruption. Those regulars include Doug Warren, Wisconsin-native Jeff Hyde and a character named Viking Dan. And there is Paul Ray Cummins, who proudly carries the “Mayor of Catalpa” title – although the city, according to Brian, doesn’t have an official mayor.
Managing the store would not be possible without several former store workers who resumed employment at the store for Brian and Reagan.
“I’m not sure,” Reagan said, nodding her head from side to side, when asked how she and Brian would have managed without the experienced help.
Christina Stepp, 25, and her brother Brandon Kimbriel, 26, are veterans at most aspects of the restaurant business, Reagan said. Roma Stepp, who cooked for 24 years at the nearby Oark Public School, is also involved in the daily food prep. Nichole Turner helps cook and helps with the dish washing.
“It’s fun again,” Christina, aka “Fats,” said of her second round of employment at the store. “And they (Brian and Reagan) work just as hard as any of us.”
Reagan said the marriage has so far held up under the stress of running the store. But there are days …
“We do pretty good for a married couple, but sometimes I’m like, ‘You go out on the floor and I’ll stay back here and cook,’” Reagan said.
Indeed, during the May 17 visit to the store, Brian was stacking sodas in between taking orders. Reagan was a blur between the kitchen area and the cash register. Several groups of motorcycle riders stopped during the lunch period. Although most tables stayed full for about two hours, Brian said it was not one of their busier days.
“Having a restaurant is a lot like fishing. Your food is your bait, and some days are better than others,” Brian explained.
BED AND BREAKFAST EXPANSION
One of their slower days is Monday. Brian and Reagan use the day to travel to Sam’s Club in Fort Smith for supplies. On that day, Tina Highfill, Reagan’s sister-in-law, comes up from Russellville to help work the store. Highfill is also a hair stylist and will often do a few haircuts while in Oark.
“We’re full service,” Brian said with a laugh.
The service at the store also includes Internet access through a satellite feed. There is no service for cell phones and wireless hot spots anywhere near Oark. The satellite feed also delivers “Outlaw Country,” a Sirius/XM radio station that features Americana music.
The next adventure in service is converting a large home, located less than half a mile from the store, into a bed and breakfast. The more than 100-year-old farmhouse sits on five acres and was snatched up for $108,800. Brian and Reagan are hoping to have the place ready for guests by the fall.
“We definitely want to be ready for the deer hunting groups,” Brian said.
Do Brian – who also worked for former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. – or Reagan miss the political work of Washington, D.C.?
“No. I don’t,” Brian quickly answered. “This is public service, but it’s just a different type of service. … Just a few months ago, she (Reagan) never made a pie in her life, and now she makes some of the best pies around. … We really believe we’re part of the ‘makers’ with this store.”