Ghosts, Good Ol’ Boys and Chain Gangs: My Trip to Peppersauce Bottoms


It’s Sunday evening . . . late . . . and I’m sitting in my recliner in the darkened living room, once again battling against (and losing to) the insomnia demons.  I am in a foul mood.  Not only am I frustrated that in a few short hours my alarm will sound and I will be facing a challenging Monday with very little (if any) restorative sleep in my arsenal, but I am also silently mourning the passing of one of the best weeks I have had in a long, long time . . .

I have been on SPRING BREAK–an event so rare that, yes, it is deserving of all capital letters.  I cannot remember the last time I had a week-long spring break–in my neck of the woods, scheduled spring break days are almost always gobbled up as “make-up” days for January ice storms and February snows.  In fact, a “best-case spring break scenario” is usually a cold, rainy, three-day weekend in March.   But not this time.

This time I had nine whole days (if you count the before and after weekends) all to my needy self–nine whole days of warm temperatures, glorious sunshine, and budding flowers and trees.  A variety of projects cluttered my “to do” list–all things that I could have (should have) completed within those nine days, if I hadn’t decided instead to expand my current philosophy of eliminating “should” for a day into an entire week of focusing on feeding my soul and fueling my passions.  (Yep, in other words, it was all about me.)

After a few days spent riding my bike, devouring a good book, and photographing every flower and weed in the immediate area (all subjects of upcoming blogs), I decided I needed a change of scenery.  Where could my camera and I go–somewhere I had never been before that would make an easy day drive and an interesting photographic opportunity?  After gathering numerous suggestions from my online friends and doing a little research of my own, I had my answer:  Calico Rock, Arkansas.

Calico Rock appealed to me for several reasons.  For one, it wasn’t that far from my home, and there would be other, photo-worthy sites along the way.  It was also home to the fictional character in the book I was reading (again, that’s another blog) and home to one of the few log cabins still in existence that pre-date the Civil War.  Most interesting to me, though, was the fact that it was home to Peppersauce Bottoms.  The name alone intrigued me, but when  www.arkansas.com informed me that it was the “only authentic ghost town inside the city limits of a town in America,” I knew I had to see for myself.

My adventure began long before daybreak; I was hoping to watch the sunrise along the way, but low-lying clouds permitted only a gradual pinkening of the eastern skies.  No matter, though–any dampening of my spirits was quickly thwarted when I stopped at a drive-up donut shop for chocolate cake donuts (a rare and sinfully delicious treat), and the elderly lady working the window called me “sweetie” and wished me a beautiful day.  It was a good omen.

When I reached Norfork, Arkansas, which was to be the location of my first photo shoot, it was still too dark for taking pictures.  I drove on to Calico Rock, but it was still darker than I wanted it to be, and so I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to drive on to Mountain View, which was about another thirty miles down the road.  (After all, I was on adventure, and the day was mine.)  When I reached Mountain View, I quickly realized that this scenic town nestled in the Ozarks Mountains and claiming to be the folk music capital of the world was worthy of a much longer visit–but that would have to be another day.  After wandering the streets for an hour and snapping a few pictures, I loaded up and headed back to Calico Rock–and Peppersauce Bottoms.

Calico Rock is a picturesque little town (less than a thousand people inhabiting about 3.6 square miles) on the banks of the White River.  Peppersauce Bottoms, the ghost town, is located just a couple blocks off of Main Street, so as soon as I had parked my car in front of the “Old Fashion Ice Cream Shop,” I slung my backpack over my shoulder and my camera around my neck, grabbed my heavy-duty tripod, and took off walking.

Almost immediately I was greeted by a beautiful, one-lane, rusted iron bridge with a shallow creek meandering beneath it.  I wanted a shot of the bridge, but when I saw that the morning sunlight was reflecting a scrappy little tree onto the creek’s surface, I knew I wanted a shot of that reflection, too.  Even though the place seemed deserted, I didn’t want to stand in the middle of the bridge to set up my shot and risk blocking possible traffic, so I carefully positioned myself and my tripod on a very narrow ledge on the other side of the guard rail.  I should not have done that.

I was contentedly flipping back and forth through my camera settings, trying to get the “perfect” lighting, the perfect angle, the perfect depth of field; I was so focused on the shot that I wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings.  I vaguely remember the sound of a vehicle starting to rattle across the old iron bridge, but I paid it no mind because I knew I wasn’t in the way.  I remember hearing voices, too, but they seemed far away–until a booming one startled me out of my reverie . . .

“HEY, PRETTY LADY WITH THE CAMERA!”

After jumping–and almost losing my balance on the very narrow ledge–I turned around to see an old, white Buick stopped on the bridge right behind me, its leering driver so close that he could easily reach over the guard rail and grab me if he so desired.  He was a very large man, and he was grinning foolishly at me–as was his passenger, another large man who was holding a frenzied brown dachshund in his lap.

They scared the hell out of me.

The driver spoke to me again, but his words didn’t register–I was too busy trying to memorize details for the police report that I hoped I would be alive to file.  Tanned, weather-lined faces, stocky frames, dark eyes, one brown ballcap and one blue, matching brown Carhart jackets, matching gap-toothed grins–and they both appeared to be in their late 30s or early 40s, although I wasn’t really sure (the older I get, the younger everyone else looks).

I was also busy trying to figure out an escape route.  I had carelessly placed myself in a very uncompromising position–I couldn’t simply step back from the bridge because I was inches away from tumbling down the steep creek bank, I couldn’t move to the right because the bank disappeared completely, and if I tried to run back in the direction from which I had come (with my bag and my camera and my heavy-duty tripod), they could overtake me within seconds.  Just when I decided my only possible option was to slam my heavy-duty tripod into the driver’s unsuspecting face (and hope that my old lady reflexes were quicker than their stocky man reflexes), he spoke again . . . and this time his grin was gone.

“Lady, I asked you what you’re doing.”

Instinctively, I shrugged my shoulders.  First of all, I really didn’t want to engage in a conversation with these “good ol’ boys,” and secondly, wasn’t it obvious what I was doing?  I mean, seriously, he had moments earlier referred to me as the lady “with the camera”; if I responded with, “Umm, I’m taking pictures,” would that be interpreted as a smart-aleck response? (That’s surely how it would have been intended.)

And then he demanded:  “Well, what are you taking pictures for–are you taking them for the paper?”

Wanting to remain non-committal but realizing that I could probably safely answer that one, I responded with a brilliant, “I don’t know.”  (Even under the best of circumstances, I’m not a great conversationalist.)

But then he smiled (leered) again.  “Now, see, I knew I could get you to talk to me!”  A line of brown tobacco juice dribbled out of the corner of his mouth as his buddy continued grinning foolishly and the little brown dachshund continued its spastic sprint from dashboard to lap to dashboard again.

I tightened my grip on my tripod, ready to slam it home and imagining the bloody, pulpy mess that it would create . . . and then a beautiful thing happened.  A block away a well dressed, elderly lady with two rottweilers on leashes rounded the corner, and she was headed in our direction.  The two men in the car spotted her as well and appeared to be as frightened of her presence as I was of theirs.  The driver tipped his hat, and before rattling on across the bridge offered one last bit of conversational innuendo:

“You have a nice day, Pretty Lady with the Camera.  We’ll be seeing you again.”

And just like that, they were gone.  I wanted to thank the elderly lady for her timely appearance and to ask if she knew who the men in the Buick were, but when I looked up the street, she was gone, too.

I was spooked.  I could have (should have?) returned immediately to my car and headed home in defeat, but I had driven all that way to see a “ghost town,” and I was determined not to let two gap-toothed good ol’ boys keep me from my mission.  My senses were on high alert, and I assured myself I would now be more careful.  Taking one more survey of my surroundings and seeing that I was completely alone, I continued on into the heart of Peppersauce Bottoms.

And it was worth the risk.  Old, abandoned buildings covered several blocks–each building left standing in its original condition but each building in some degree falling victim to the ravages of time and nature.  (I’ve included several pictures with additional information below.)

I didn’t see the good ol’ boys again; nor did I see the elderly lady walking her dogs.  However, near the entrance to one of the old buildings I did hear chanting voices and clanging noises.  The old wooden door to the building was hanging open, and I peered cautiously into the darkness, but no one (or nothing) was there.  Just when I thought my imagination was playing tricks on me, the voices and clanging grew louder.  Nervously, I peeked around the corner of the building, and then I located the source of all the noise–on the building behind this one was a large group of men working on the roof.  There appeared to be ten or twelve of them, all swinging hammers and a few of them staring belligerently in my direction.

At first I thought it was a roofing crew, but it seemed strange that there would be so many of them–and all of them dressed in the same white jumpsuits.  And then a flash of blue caught the corner of my eye, and when I looked to the left I saw four armed, uniformed men on horseback–some of them also staring in my direction.  Apparently, I had stumbled upon a “chain gang” from the nearby state prison.  I wanted desperately to take a picture of that scene (if for no other reason than to later prove to myself that it wasn’t a figment of  my over-active imagination), but I didn’t want to be disrespectful, and I certainly didn’t want to risk having my camera confiscated (were there laws against taking pictures of guards and prisoners?).  I decided not to push my luck, and I quickly turned around and headed back to the safety of my car.  No one followed me out of Peppersauce Bottoms, and no white Buicks appeared in my rear-view mirror as I made my exit out of town.

The rest of my day was relatively uneventful.  On my way out of Calico Rock, I stopped for a few pictures at the Trimble Cabin, and then I stopped up the road in Norfork to take pictures at the historic Jacob Wolf House, which was built in 1829 as the first courthouse for Izard County in the Arkansas Territory and is the oldest public structure in Arkansas.  (If you’re ever in the neighborhood, it’s worth a visit.)  And then I returned home–safe but not quite sound–from my very first solo adventure.

. . . A cool, pre-storm breeze stirs through the open window beside me, chilling my bare feet and sending goosebumps shuddering up my exposed arms.   Somewhere in the house a door slams shut, apparently (hopefully) caught by a gust of wind.  My alarm will ring in a couple hours; there is still time to close my eyes and pray for sleep.  The insomnia demons may have claimed yet another victory; this particular battle may be over–and spring break with it–but this war–and my adventures–and have just begun.

rock1

The rustic, one-lane bridge leading into Peppersauce Bottoms ...

rock3

According to the sign, "In the 1890s shanty taverns lined both banks of lower Calico Creek. Barkeepers served 'peppersauce'--the local name for home brew--to thieves and troublemakers and to occasional visitors arriving at the steamboat landing. Knife fights, fistfights, plus the odd stray bullet discouraged gentle folk from venturing into Peppersauce Alley, as this area was known back then. When the Missouri Pacific Railroad was laying tracks below the Calico bluff in 1902, local vigilantes ran off these scalawags."

rock6

This is the single cell inside the city jail of Peppersauce Bottoms. According to the town's history, the cell was frequently filled on Friday and Saturday nights with the town's "rowdies." The slit in the back wall allowed the only light entering into the cell.

rock5

Apparently there were stiff penalties for attempting to communicate with the town's prisoners.

A Window into the Past

Remnants of a window in one of the buildings in the ghost town ...

The Trees of Time

This is one of the abandoned buildings in the ghost town, being overtaken by Mother Nature ...

rock7

The abandoned mill and feed store ...

Enter at Your Own Risk

Behind this door was nothing but darkness. Behind this building, though, was a prison chain gang repairing a roof ... while their guards eyed me suspiciously.

Trimble Cabin

The Trimble Cabin (circa 1815) is located in Calico Rock and is one of the few remaining log cabins that pre-dates the Civil War.

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About icedteawithlemon

I have recently retired from a 30-year career in education in one of the best school districts in the world. I hope to spend my second life reading, writing, photographing, traveling, biking, cheering on my favorite baseball team (the St. Louis Cardinals), and soaking up glorious sunshine. In my spare time I enjoy playing with my pet tarantulas, trying out new flavors of chewing gum, and knitting socks for prison inmates. I'm almost positive that in a past life I was one of the Seven Dwarfs (most likely "Grumpy"), and in my next life I'm going to be either a taste tester for Hershey's or a model for Victoria's Secret's new line, "Bloomers for Boomers." I want to travel country back roads, singing Vanilla Ice songs at every karaoke bar and rating bathroom cleanliness at every truckstop. And someday I plan to own a private beach where skinny girls aren't allowed. I want to be a writer when I grow up. "Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake."--Henry David Thoreau
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29 Responses to Ghosts, Good Ol’ Boys and Chain Gangs: My Trip to Peppersauce Bottoms

  1. emjayandthem says:

    Wow- What an adventure you had!! I have to admit, I found myself scared for you… sure thankful the elderly lady showed up… Loved the photos and your story that accompanied it .. MJ

    • Thank you, MJ! I think the elderly lady with the rottweilers was real, but a part of me also wants to believe that she just might have been an illusionary fixture of the “ghost town”–and that her eternal mission is to protect other ladies from their own foolishness!

  2. Jamie Adams says:

    What a crazy day!!!! The mind can certainly play tricks on you when you are heading into a “ghost town.” And if you already a bit neurotic and tend to over-analyze things, things can get really “crazy.” 😉

    I love the story and the photographs are amazing. I particular like how the story unfolds but I really like how you describe the thoughts RUNNING through your mind. It’s quite funny that the people you are interacting with have no idea of your internal discussions and narrations.

    • Thank you, Jamie. I’m glad you liked the story and photos–but who are you calling neurotic and overly analytical? 🙂 And yes, it’s quite funny to me, too, that the people I’m interacting with (and I’m not just talking about the good ol’ boys in the story) often have no idea of my internal discussions and narrations–they would be rather alarmed if they did!

  3. Homestead Ramblings says:

    Cool! May this be the first of many such adventures in the new chapter this summer will bring. I’ll be looking forward to hearing about each one.

  4. John Bradley-O'Neill says:

    Your wonderful story and illustrious accompanying photos made for quite the worthwhile stop here for me. Your adventure has an X-Files episode written all over it; the mysterious elderly lady and the chain gang, both of which entered a time portal to the present…or did you enter one to the shadowy past? All that’s missing from your post is the them to ‘Deliverance’!

    I love black and white photography – good job! I also LOVE the name Peppersauce Bottoms…hmm…why is it I find myself suddenly craving a Pepperidge Farm chocolate cake?

    Be careful out there, but don’t be inhibited from venturing out and returning with more compelling articles.

    • John Bradley-O'Neill says:

      Oops…the THEME to ‘Deliverance’. I hate making them there boo-boos.

    • Thank you, Mr. John Bradley-O’Neill. How funny that you would be reminded of the theme to “Deliverance”–I had the same thoughts after my encounter with the two “good ol’ boys”! I’m glad that your stop was worthwhile, and thank you for your kind words regarding my photography (my new-found passion!). I believe I learned a valuable lesson in Peppersauce Bottoms, and yes, I will be more careful as I continue my journeys into the great unknown.

      • John Bradley-O'Neill says:

        I love your subtle yet effective way of pointing out my other error…’Deliverance’ vs “Deliverance”. Very sly. Heheheh.

  5. RayEtta says:

    I really enjoyed the story and photos. I too have done a little of this type meandering and not without feeling apprehensive a couple of times. I was so deep in the woods one time I thought, “If someone shoots me, they will never find me.”

    In my younger days I spent some time in Calico. It was hometown to a good friend. Her and I would spend the weekend at her mother’s home there.

    Do you ever read any of John Grisham’s books? In one of his, I think it was “The Chamber,” he has the lead character make a trip to Calico Rock. He too had some ties to the area. John’s wife was related distantly to the friends I visited there.

    By the way, you are aware that there is a prison near Calico. It is in the Pineville area. So the chain gang was no illusion.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words–and for stopping by! I was aware that there is a prison near Calico, and I remember seeing signs for it along my way–so yes, I believe the chain gang and the guards were real (the elderly lady, I’m not so sure). And yes, I have read every John Grisham book written–and in fact, I just finished reading his latest, “Calico Joe,” which is about a fictional major league baseball player who grew up in Calico Rock. The book is set to be released on April 10; how I was able to read an “advance copy” will be the subject of an upcoming blog (so stay tuned!).

  6. John Bradley-O'Neill says:

    Oh man…”both of whom entered a time portal…”

    Note to self: lack of morning coffee and incorrect wording go hand-in-mug.

    • (And I love that there is at least one other person in this universe who knows to use “whom” instead of “which” or even “who”! Your lack of morning coffee is forgiven–drink up and carry on!)

      • John Bradley-O'Neill says:

        I think you’ll love this one. In my local morning paper there was an ad for a performance by a visiting choir. The ad read
        “Come and hear a glorious coral presentation”. Not choral…coral. One can either laugh or lament.

      • Ha! I can choose to laugh at that one only because I did not witness it personally. As a former high school English teacher, though, I have a twitchy trigger finger and a red ink pen–both of which have been used on more than once occasion to viciously circle such offenses and mail them back to their perpetrators!

  7. RayEtta says:

    P.S. Meant to say……I have enjoyed his “writing” and for you to keep up your writing too. That would have made a little better sense. Just goes to show, even if it is short, proof read.

  8. Bruce Roberts says:

    Great blog and great photos! Calico Rock is a neat place to photograph. BTW it’s perfectly OK to photograph prisoner work gangs. I used to photograph them quite a bit when I worked at The Bulletin. They are a great subject and I would have loved to seen them in that setting! Great adventure! Mountain View is another wonderful place, but you really need to meander over to Rush on the Buffalo River. It’s pretty cool, too.

    • Thank you, Bruce, for your kind words–and thank you for the information! I wish I had gotten that picture (especially now), but my camera is my baby, and I was afraid of having it taken from me–I’ll know better next time. My short visit to Mountain View convinced me to make a day trip there in the not-so-distant future; I had never heard of “Rush,” but I have now added it to my list of “must see” places.

  9. Janine richardson says:

    Hm, perhaps the old lady with the rottweilers was really a local ghost, patrolling the streets to keep dribbling, leering lunkers away from sweet camera wielding adventurers?
    Also, chocolate cake doughnuts? I’ve seriously got to get me some of those!

    • She was most likely a real person who just happened to be quick on her feet, but I want to believe she was a protective spirit … it certainly makes for a much more interesting story! And I should probably mention that those chocolate cake donuts were also glazed … 🙂

  10. Pingback: Grisham Slams One Out of the Ballpark with ‘Calico Joe’ | Iced Tea with Lemon's Blog

  11. Hello,
    I am visiting Arkansas again, as I have a timeshare here in Cherokee Village, (of which I would like to sell if you or anyone else knows of any interested buyers!!! 😉 Anyhoo, on one of my previous trips here, I brought my sons and we went on a day trip to find Calico Rock and the Ghost Town. We made it there and although we didn’t have quite the adventure that you did, we saw the sights you photographed and took our own photos. One building, a warehouse next to the mill I believe it was, I was taking a video and heard a noise on playback that I couldn’t make out. So that was my erie encounter with Peppersauce Bottoms. What brought me to your page…as I said, I am back visiting the area, this time with my Mother and was trying to remember what the name of the Ghost Town was that I had visited with my boys. Searching for the name brought me here and I’m glad it did. I liked reading your story, thanks and much success to you in your travels and storytelling!

    • Thank you, Becky, and thank you for stopping by! Just last week I made a return visit to Peppersauce Bottoms, this time with my husband in tow, and the second time around wasn’t nearly as scary as the first (I think having reinforcement helped to keep the “ghosts” and my imagination in check). Hearing an unidentifiable noise on playback must have been quite nerve-wracking! I hope you enjoy our second visit, and be sure to stop in at the Visitor’s Center–they have some interesting artifacts and some beautiful crafts on display.

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