Dean Lee is in the kitchen, busily preparing what’s known here in Berryville as a Check’s burger.
Berryville natives such as Lee have fond memories of Check’s, a tiny cafe run by Check Whiteley that served burgers and chili. Though the restaurant is long gone, the Carroll County Historical & Genealogical Society sells the burgers each year at a fundraising event.
I’ve known Lee for more than 40 years. He played basketball and later served as an assistant coach at Henderson State University when I was a young sportswriter in Arkadelphia. We stayed in touch as Lee went on to a successful career in athletic administration and fundraising that included stints as athletic director at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro and Arkansas Tech University in Russellville.
Last year, Lee decided to come home to serve as executive director of the Greater Berryville Area Chamber of Commerce. I tell him that the closest thing I can compare his Check’s burger to is the slugburger in northeast Mississippi, which consists of a patty made from a mixture of beef and an inexpensive extender such as soybeans. It’s deep-fried in oil and served on a bun with mustard, pickles and onions.
John Weeks brought the recipe from Chicago to Corinth, Miss., in 1917. He asked butchers to include potato flakes and flour when they ground beef for him. At one time, five Weeks brothers were selling slugburgers in Corinth. Two restaurants there still feature slugburgers, and there’s an annual Slugburger Festival downtown.
Lee wants me to experience this delicacy even though we’re about to head to City Hall for lunch from Garner’s Drive In, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Garner’s has a huge menu with everything from fried pickles and fried squash to taco salads and fish baskets. Even though it has been around for half a century, it’s far from being the oldest business in this historic town.
Hanby Lumber Co. has been around since 1856. Nelson Funeral Home was founded in 1931 during the Great Depression. Stubbs Grocery, home of a bologna sandwich known as the Luther Burger, has been in business since 1953. People has been visiting Cosmic Cavern for decades. It was discovered in 1845 and developed for visitors in 1927. And I make sure to ask Lee to take me the next morning to breakfast at the Original Ozark Cafe on the square.
When people like me write about Carroll County, they usually focus on nearby Eureka Springs. But the larger town of Berryville (which had 5,682 residents in the 2020 census) has its own colorful history. The first white settlers were brothers Joel and William Plumlee in 1832. Blackburn Henderson Berry moved here from northern Alabama in 1848. Two years later, he purchased the Plumlee farm and opened a store.
At about the same time, a blacksmith named Arthur Baker showed up and became a self-taught doctor.
“In the autumn of 1850, the idea of founding a town occurred to Berry and Baker,” Cindy Williams writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “They employed Arnold Champlin, a schoolteacher and surveyor, to map out the new town. The plat consisted of 24 lots and included three main streets–Main, Forsythe (now Madison) and Church. The name Berryville was decided over Bakersville by the toss of a coin.
“On July 13, 1852, Berryville established a post office with Isaac Plumlee as postmaster. Baker donated land for the first public school, and Berry deeded land for the Presbyterian church and cemetery. Baker and members of his family are buried in the old cemetery along with Berry’s first wife.”
By the start of the Civil War, there were 51 houses and more than 200 residents in Berryville. In 1867, Isaac Clarke established Clarke’s Academy, which existed until 1905 and drew students from across the country.
In 1951, area businessmen Pat Teague, George Basore and Ernest Simpson opened Carroll County Foods Products and convinced farmers to raise chickens and turkeys in order to supplement their income from beef and dairy cattle. Berryville soon became known as the Turkey Capital of Arkansas. The poultry processing plant was leased to Ocoma Foods in 1952 and purchased in 1971 by Tyson Foods Inc.
Tyson is by far the largest employer in Carroll County. In 2017, the company opened a new plant at Green Forest that covers 200,000 square feet. The facility cost $136 million. There are processing plants at Berryville and Green Forest, employing almost 3,000 people.
In 2016 at Berryville, Mid-State Specialty Eggs completed construction of a 57,000-square-foot processing plant, adding to the city’s industrial base.
Roots tend to run deep here. Berryville Mayor Tim McKinney, who has served in office since 1991, became president of the Arkansas Municipal League last year. His grandfather operated a barbershop in downtown Berryville, and his father has an upholstery and glass shop.
Lee and I join up with McKinney, who takes us to the spring where Berryville was founded (city employees have cleaned up the area around the spring at McKinney’s direction). The mayor briefs me on efforts to redo the square, including the cast-iron fountain that came from Alabama. He even has some of his own memories of eating Check’s burgers.
At a time when most small towns in rural Arkansas are losing population, Berryville’s population grew 6.1 percent between 2010 and 2020. You can’t buy lunch at Check’s anymore, but the Luther Burger is still around in a town where local traditions are celebrated with gusto.
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.