OPINION | REX NELSON: Christmas at Des Arc

The crowd stretches more than 100 yards outside what once was a shirt factory on the edge of my mother's hometown of Des Arc. The sun is just beginning to set over the Grand Prairie, and the folks outside are in a good mood.

Paul Guess, the man who has turned this historic town on the White River into a go-to spot for the Christmas season, walks up and down the line. He greets many customers by their first names.

At precisely 6 p.m., the doors open and Guess begins speaking: "You've raised thousands of dollars for the American Cancer Society. Thank you. Now, head inside and start having fun."

His enthusiasm is contagious. I'm convinced that Guess will one day turn Des Arc into a smaller version of what Chip and Joanna Gaines have done in Waco, Texas. I envision a store that's open 12 months a year, a restaurant and a bed-and-breakfast inn. We could see people coming to Des Arc to renovate the city's old homes.

For now, what's known as Christmas at the Warehouse covers more than 60,000 square feet. The building is filled with a collection of holiday items. Guess says people come from at least eight states to shop. Some fly in on private planes. The warehouse is open each Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. until Dec. 10.

I'm attending one of six VIP nights. Guess sold out all six events, a total of 2,400 tickets at $25 each with all proceeds going to charity. On this night, well-known Little Rock chef Donnie Ferneau is giving a cooking demonstration. On the first weekend in November, Des Arc celebrated Christmas on the River, an all-day event that included a parade, a lighting ceremony at the Prairie County Courthouse and a fireworks show.

"The Christmas season has far exceeded what I ever thought could happen," Guess says. "We're employing more than 100 people from October until December. Many of them are high school students. This gives them an opportunity to learn people skills. If we're going to survive in the eastern part of the state, we'll have to get more creative. Maybe future students will have a chance to stay here and work once they graduate."

Prior to the doors opening, I listened to Guess give what could only be described as a pep talk to employees. They were instructed to clap for the customers walking through the doors.

Anyone who loves rural Arkansas will cheer the Paul Guess story. He grew up in Des Arc, the son of Ann and Donald Guess, who owned a dairy bar and other small businesses. He graduated from Des Arc High School in 1989 and the University of Arkansas in 1993. Guess spent 14 years selling pharmaceuticals for Eli Lilly & Co. He graduated in 2011 from the executive general management program at Harvard Business School.

In 2013, Guess bought a candle company in Texas known as Lux and moved production into an abandoned grocery store at Des Arc. He expanded the company into Lux Fragrances and began producing products for high-end retailers such as Neiman Marcus. Lux products could even be found in the gift shop of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

The success of Lux led to Deck the Halls, Y'all, a company importing Christmas items manufactured in China, the Philippines and other countries. It then shipped them from Des Arc to U.S. retailers.

Guess told an interviewer several years ago: "You can stand on the sidelines and watch, or you can participate. I've chosen to participate. The community needs a vision and people who will act on it. ... We need a global mindset."

Guess decided to have a tent sale in 2017 to market Christmas decor items directly to consumers. Almost 3,000 people showed up the first day. He decided that the 2018 sale would be held on six weekends starting in early November. As word spread about the low prices at which quality goods could be obtained, people began driving to Des Arc from across the South.

This year, Guess opened to the public Oct. 21 with a five-day-a-week schedule. Des Arc restaurants and other businesses benefit from the expanded schedule.

French trappers settled along the White River in the late 1700s. By the late 1840s, two landowners had laid out town lots. One of the landowners, James Erwin, opened a store, cotton mill, gristmill and sawmill. The population went from 548 in the 1880 census to 1,061 in 1910.

"The city's placement along the White River proved especially profitable in the early years, and Des Arc was a point at which timber was shipped downstream to other markets," according to the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Trees common in the area included walnut, hickory, ash and other hardwoods. In the 1850s, the Butterfield Overland Mail Co. ran through Des Arc, thus making it an important stop for mail and travelers between Memphis and points west.

"In the late 1850s, Des Arc engaged in a heated rivalry with Little Rock over the course of a railroad stretching from Memphis to Fort Smith. Little Rock won. On Nov. 29, 1858, city aldermen passed a resolution to move the state capital from Little Rock to Des Arc, though nothing ever resulted from it. ... The Agricultural Wheel, a state farmers' union, was founded eight miles southwest of Des Arc on Feb. 15, 1882. It eventually expanded into 10 other states and became a major source of populist activism."

My grandfather owned the hardware store and funeral home at Des Arc at a time when the city was a well-known trade center. In the 1930s, he was Prairie County judge. Now, Guess and his Christmas decorations are placing this river town back on the map.

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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