If you are not quite ready to die and go to heaven, you can go to the Greeks’ idea of heaven on earth instead: Arcadia. Poets and painters and anyone with an imagination have for centuries invoked the name and image of Arcadia when trying to communicate a sort of natural utopian ideal, and apparently several Southern settlers were inspired to do the same. Here are six Southern Arcadias for you to peruse, choose, and visit, each with its own story and raison d’etre.
- Arcadia, Louisiana
Arcadia, Louisiana, is best known for hosting the infamous criminals Bonnie and Clyde shortly after their demise in an ambush by law-enforcement officers just down the roadArcadia. The name is associated with the wild, wooded, and mountain-backed paradise of ancient Greece, with its pipe-playing fauns and carefree nymphs. And no doubt, with the highest elevation of any town in the state, this Arcadia in north-central Louisiana closely matched this peaceful and utopian description back in the day of its founding.
Snakes have a way of finding their way into paradise, however, death and destruction following close on their heels. In the dark Depression days of 1934, Texas outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow had robbed, assaulted, and murdered their way into infamy as America’s No. 1 Most Wanted, and the law finally caught up with them just down the road from Arcadia.
After both car and couple had been riddled with a myriad of bullets, they were hauled together to Arcadia’s downtown filled with thousands of curious onlookers, where their bodies were examined, photographed, and finally embalmed before they were sent to Texas for burial.
Thousands still gather around the memory of the unlucky pair but with a good bit more cheeriness. The weekend before the third Monday of every month Arcadia holds Bonnie and Clyde Trade Days, “Louisiana’s ultimate outdoor bargain experience.” If the trade days’ namesakes had had this brainy idea for business instead, they might have lived to tell a different story altogether.
- Arcadia, Florida
A taste of Arcadia, Florida: architecturally stunning and filled with (purchasable) antiques to match (photo by Jim Montanus)If you are into all things antique, Arcadia, Florida, is the right spot for you. Arcadia itself is a beautiful Old Florida city, its historic architecture alone worth a visit. But its lovely downtown is also covered head to toe in antique shops, renowned throughout the state; and the last Saturday of every month, over a hundred antique vendors set up their own sidewalk treasure shops for Arcadia’s monthly Antique Fair—it’s an antique smorgasbord to beat them all.
Not so much into antiques? Arcadia still has you covered: The Arcadia All-Florida Championship Rodeo is held here each March—this is the heart of Florida’s cowboy country—then there’s the mouth-watering Watermelon Festival in May, and the hiking and canoeing in Arcadia is some of the best year-round. Top it all off with a trip to the old-fashioned ice cream parlor downtown, or pluck a fresh orange from a passing orange grove, and you’ll think you might well be in heaven after all.
- Arcadia, Missouri
Ursuline Academy in Arcadia, Missouri (photo by Skye Marthaler)The Missouri Arcadia got its start in 1843, when Rev. J.C. Berryman started Arcadia Academy and a town grew up around it not long afterward. The school was highly successful initially but had to shut down during the Civil War. The property was eventually acquired by the Ursuline Sisters, known for their devotion to education, and for nearly a century the nuns’ school at Arcadia flourished as a highly-respected girls’ academy. Now the architecturally amazing early-twentieth-century school buildings—including chapel, nuns’ house, priest’s house, spring house, gymnasium, and theater—are all on the National Register of Historic Places and host a bed-and-breakfast (with six-foot iron tubs), a café, and a bakery for the many visitors to Arcadia Valley.
If you are one of the many to come for a stay, don’t miss the Elephant Rocks nearby, mammoth granite boulders standing end-to-end like a bunch of trained elephants, and you’ll also want to visit Taum Sauk Mountain State Park—Taum Sauk is the highest mountain in the state, and the views of the Valley and the surrounding Ozarks are incredible.
- Arcadia, Texas
One of the century-old houses in Arcadia, Texas, restored by a descendant of its original owners: the central dog-trot porch helped cool things down in the days before air-conditioning (photo by Greg Grant)Like a lot of smaller communities in rural Texas, Arcadia was once thriving and jiving with around 400 inhabitants, two schools with nearly a hundred students, and several businesses, mills, and churches. Today any children of the remaining fifty Arcadians are bused up the road to Center, the county seat, and the last of the businesses has been gone for well over three decades.
So you might think the place a ghost town. But it’s not. Most of the remaining citizens of this little community are descendants of the original settlers, and they love it here. In fact, they love it so much, they’ve been renovating some of the hundred-or-more-year-old homes, complete with their dog-trots and spring-fed wells; growing prize-winning gardens in the same plots their grandparents did (and earning national attention); and have even pitched money and time and interest into a university study of their town’s history and its lasting contribution to this beautiful, not-to-be-forgotten spot in the rolling hills of East Texas.
- Arcadia, Oklahoma
The Round Barn in Arcadia, Oklahoma, is one of the best-known icons on Route 66Arcadia, Oklahoma, got a post office in 1890; ninety-seven years later, in 1987, it was officially declared an incorporated town. It was a long-time coming. But don’t think for a minute that this peppy little community between Oklahoma City and Guthrie was sitting around on its laurels all that time. In the early twentieth century, when cotton was still doing its king thing, Arcadia boasted three hopping cotton gins, as well as a pharmacy, a bank, its own newspaper, several churches and stores, and numerous other businesses.
Much of their prosperity was due to the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad that ran through here in those days, but when “The Mother Road,” the new Route 66, came along in the late 1920’s, Arcadia took as much advantage of the world travelers passing through their town as it could. One show-stopper the community already had in place was its giant Round Barn, built in 1898 by local farmer William Odor. Sixty-feet in diameter and forty-five feet high, the architectural wonder housed livestock on the ground floor and provided a community dancefloor above that. At one time it was the most photographed icon on Route 66, and about thirty years ago local Arcadians restored the hundred-year-old building to become a tourist wonder once again.
And apparently they like “big” here in Arcadia: the more recently founded POPS Restaurant on the same Route 66 sports the world’s largest, perfectly-pop-bottle-shaped neon sign out front, and lining the walls within are hundreds of bottles containing every type of soda pop you can possibly think of—including North Carolina’s Cheerwine and the rare-but-oh-so-good Dublin Dr Pepper.
- Arcadia, Tennessee
Rear view of Arcadia Manor and the ridge it faces in the easternmost corner of TennesseeAt the heart of this Arcadia in the Kingsport area of the easternmost corner of Tennessee is its original namesake, Arcadia Manor. The 150-plus-year-old plantation beauty has brick walls fifteen inches thick and a view overlooking the peaceful rolling landscape and ridges bordering Virginia. Hundred-year-old boxwoods still ornament the place, and you can alight from your horse (if you arrive on one, that is) onto the original old stone stile set in front of the house for that purpose. Little antebellum log cabins and outbuildings dot the property, one of which served as the Arcadia Post Office as well as the local retail store, and there are other gems nearby—log homes, ancient grist mills—waiting to be discovered and remembered in this still-fertile land of pastoral beauty and wonder.
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