Date: May 1, 2023 | Story: Stephanie Maxwell Newton | Photography: Bailey Dougan |
Decades of revitalization have transformed this South Arkansas town into the vibrant place it is today
If you build it, they will come: That’s the lesson learned from Richard Mason’s work in downtown El Dorado over the past 50 years. He and his wife, Vertis, both natives of South Arkansas, inadvertently became some of the city’s biggest advocates in the 1980s when they began buying and remodeling old buildings. An exploration geologist by profession, Richard decided to locate the office for his company in the area’s once-bustling square. “When we moved back, it was dead as a doornail. I bet there wasn’t 15 percent occupancy in the stores around the courthouse,” he recalls. “We bought a few more buildings and remodeled them, and then when they leased up really quickly, we bought some more. We ended up with about 15 buildings. We had no intention of doing it. It was just kind of one of those things you get carried away with,” he says with a laugh.
Over time, more individuals and organizations became invested in the effort. Soon after the Masons started their work, Main Street El Dorado was founded to provide resources for small businesses and produce community events such as the popular May on Main. More recently, the opening of the Murphy Arts District has put El Dorado on the map as a can’t-miss venue for music and festivals.
While Richard might not have meant to start something when he purchased that first building five decades ago, he does believe it’s important to acknowledge and preserve El Dorado’s history. In 2007, he led the creation of Oil Heritage Park, a monument providing historical context about the city’s 1920s
oil boom. “The history of downtown wouldn’t be complete without the oil industry,” he says. “The town had 3,500 people in 1921. In 1925, they estimated it was 40,000. We benefited hugely from the oil business,” he adds, noting the legacy of this income is still alive today through programs such as El Dorado Promise, a scholarship established by Murphy Oil Company to provide college tuition for all seniors graduating from El Dorado High School.
If the purpose of efforts by Richard and others was to attract tourism and commerce, the existence of local businesses like Mina Rea’s is evidence of a job well done. Tatum Evatt opened her gift and home décor store in 2017 after driving through El Dorado and falling in love with the city. “It was just so pretty,” she says. “The flowers were blooming, everything was so clean, and there was a ‘for rent’ sign in a window.” That was all the persuasion Tatum needed; she closed her retail shop in Monticello and moved it to El Dorado under a new moniker, focusing on the antiques her grandmother and great-grandmother (the shop’s namesakes) had inspired her to appreciate.
Tatum loves her new location—both for her business and her home—as much today as she did when she first visited. In turn, her store is another draw to downtown El Dorado. “There’s lots of art, lots of travelers, and a diversity of people that come through,” Tatum says. “It’s not something you would expect in the middle of South Arkansas. It’s really welcoming and just a cool place.” Read on for more of our favorite ways to discover El Dorado.
Named for two of owner Tatum Evatt’s matriarchs, Mina Rea’s Antiques & Embroidery (facebook.com/minareantiques) is a treasure trove of interesting antiques sourced from as far as New Orleans. For your next favorite read, check out Jefferson Street Books (facebook.com/jeffersonstreetbooks) to browse everything from antique titles to the latest popular children’s books.
Off the Rail Cafe (offtherailcafe.net) offers a dining experience in a unique setting: an authentic 1883 rail car. A menu of eggs Benedict, French toast, biscuits and gravy, and mimosas make it easy to see why this is a popular breakfast and brunch stop. For a casual bite, Tatum’s favorite is a slice of brick-oven pie from Main Street Pizza (facebook.com/MainStreetPizzaElDo). Be sure to try the Armadillo Eggs appetizer (neither armadillo nor egg are involved!).
The Haywood (facebook.com/thehaywoodeldorado) is a boutique experience that features all the amenities of the Hilton brand. Contemporary style and convenience converge in this hotel just steps from the square. Owned by Richard and Vertis Mason, Union Square Guest Quarters (usgq.net) offers casual elegance right in the heart of downtown El Dorado.
Since opening in 2017, Murphy Arts District (eldomad.com) has become the place to be in South Arkansas. Check the calendar for concerts at multiple MAD venues throughout the season, including Delta blues artist Tab Benoit at First Financial Music Hall on May 19. The city’s popular festival May on Main (mainstreeteldorado.org) returns May 6 in the downtown square. Put on by Main Street El Dorado, the free event includes fun for the whole family all day long. Golfers will want to get in a few holes at Mystic Creek Golf Club (golfmysticcreek.com), a semi-private club that has received praise from both Golfweek and GolfDigest.