When you’re driving south on I-540 from Fayetteville, you pass by the community of Chester (population 99) in Crawford County. If you look off to the right at exit 34, you can see the main part of Chester. The community catered to and thrived because of the Frisco railroad - its population peaked in the 1890’s when a railroad turnaround station was built there.
If you are driving by around lunchtime, you should definitely stop in Chester!! The Chester Café has a plate lunch every day, as well as a sandwich menu. I am a plate lunch junkie, and I cannot say enough about how AWESOME the food at the Chester Café is! I’ve also heard that they have a pretty fantastic hamburger and fries…The café is owned by the mayor of Chester, Shannon Smith. Mayor Smith’s mother, Dorothy Payne, owns the Chester Sawmill, which you can see from I-540.
Pictured Below: Mayor Shannon Smith (owner), Marina Seratt, and Carolyn Brewer at the Chester Cafe.
Driving down the main drag, and before you get to the Chester Café, you’ll come across the Chester Mercantile. This place is an old-fashioned convenience store before the days of convenience stores. You can get just about anything you need in there – from sandwiches made from Petit Jean meats to hardware goods and everything in between. The Mercantile is a gathering place of sorts, with wooden floors, a dining area, and a pool table. Ronnie and Terri Cluck own the Mercantile, and it truly is a great treasure!
Since today was Mother’s Day, my mama decided she wanted a sandwich from the Chester Mercantile…so we went! We got our bologna and cheese sandwiches and cokes and went to the park down on the river. The West Fork of the White River goes through Chester, and the old Chester School (built by the WPA in 1942) sits by it. The school is home to a church now. If you look closely, you can find an old set of steps that used to be the entrance to a swinging bridge that stretched across the river long ago.
One of the most recent additions to the community is the Chester House Inn, owned by Don and Tina Shores. The Chester House was built in 1887 and is on the National Register of Historic Sites. The Shores opened an antique store in the old building first and have now opened a bed-and-breakfast. The Shores’ Main Street Café – located in the Chester House – is another great place to eat!
Some of my favorite places in Arkansas are the small, welcoming, and polite towns where the people are always willing to chat with you. Chester is one of those places. Driving through the town makes you want to pull up a chair and drink iced tea on a porch and visit for a while. If you’re driving down I-540, stop by Chester for a quick sandwich or a great plate lunch!