A fall Saturday morning on John Brown University’s campus is a special thing. For those who haven’t experienced it, there’s a light air that blows through campus as the heat breaks and leaves start changing from vivid greens to vibrant purples and reds. The students who aren’t trapped by deadlines, essays, or tests see this as the perfect time to stroll down Siloam Spring’s Broadway street for coffee, ice cream, or thrift shopping.
It has become a sort of tradition among college students to patronize local businesses, but the face of business in Siloam Springs’s downtown area has changed dramatically in the past decades, from doctors’ offices, dealerships, coffee shops, thrift stores, and ice cream parlors to a record store and even a J.C. Penny’s back in the day. Things look different now, but just how different are they?
Siloam Springs, Arkansas has been recognized as a town for around 136 years, technically longer if one considers Simon Sager’s settlement to be Siloam’s true beginning. If that’s the case, then the town was first called Hico, and saw its first settler, Sager, in 1834, making Siloam Springs around 183 years old. Sager settled around a mile west of where Siloam is now, and Sager Creek is named after him.
Now, think back to 1834: pre-Civil War America. What brought a man to a random spot in Northwest Arkansas and invited him to set up shop? Sager’s arrival triggered a domino effect, and after him came many more settlers. Between 1834 and 1881, people were drawn mainly to the 28 natural springs that were initially thought to have medicinal properties. Contrast that image with the cafés and ice cream shops of Siloam today.
“I think in the past, the American Dream was more attainable, so when you got on your own, you started your own business. That’s just what you did.” That’s Matt Feyerabend, who, along with his wife Meghan, owns Pure Joy Ice Cream and Feyerabend Photo Artists on Broadway. “Climbing the corporate ladder wasn’t a thing because we didn’t have big corporations back in the 20’s.”
Feyerabend believes along with many other entrepreneurs operating in downtown Siloam Springs that the town has a momentum unique in small-town America. “Somewhere around 2010, 2012, we started to realize there was a tiny amount of momentum in Siloam Springs to make this place special again,” he said.
“Siloam Springs went through what a lot of cities in the United States went through: a bypass that rerouted traffic away from its epicenter.”
Feyerabend is referring to what the highway system did to most of small-town America. When highways were taking hold of America around the 70’s and 80’s, most large corporations moved out of the centers of most towns to areas with more traffic, leaving those businesses that couldn’t afford to move to stay behind and reconsider their goals. “It forced business to think differently about where they were located and what they provided, and it just made it more inconvenient to go downtown.”
“We saw some momentum, and said ‘[Siloam Springs] is special.’ And there’s not just one or two people who think this. You feel alone if your neighbors don’t share the same vision or excitement, and what we found was a lot of people who had the same vision and ideas and excitement for revitalizing the community.” Feyerabend said.
Chris Moore, owner of Pour Jon’s Coffee, shared this vision when he purchased the coffee shop in 2012. “We were pretty much all in, going to every restaurant every day, volunteering, you know, whatever we could do, and buying the business was just an all-in extension of that.”
Even Pour Jon’s new location, further east of downtown, was intentional. “We were wanting to move down main street. We felt this was the logical place to extend it, and we wanted to be a link to the Latino businesses up the street, and join them up with downtown. The area was so neglected and had so much potential,” Moore said.
There are too many business in downtown Siloam Springs to write about in one article, but they all contribute to making Siloam what it is, developing the community both of JBU and the rest of Siloam.