Strawberries and Bald Knob go hand-in-hand.
Strawberries were once the primary agricultural crop for Bald Knob and earned the town the title of “Strawberry Capital of the World.” It was estimated that Bald Knob was producing enough strawberries to fill 100 boxcars each season by 1916. The strawberries were shipped all across the country.
The railway was an important part of the strawberry boom in Bald Knob and served as a central shipping location for strawberry growers throughout White County. The first depot was built in the early 1870s, shortly after the incorporation of the town. The present MoPac Depot was built in downtown Bald Knob in 1915 just west of the original depot. The depot was remodeled in the early 2000s and now houses Arkansas Traveler Hobbies.
In 1921, Benjamin Franklin Brown, one of Bald Knob’s founding fathers, along with several others formed The Strawberry Company and built the world’s longest strawberry shed. The three-quarters of a mile long structure was built beside the railroad tracks making the process of shipping the berries even easier.
The 1950s was the peak of strawberry production in White County. The whole community participated in the process of harvesting the berries and the local school even ended its semester early so children could help out in the fields and at the strawberry shed. Bob Miller, owner of the Bulldog Restaurant in Bald Knob, recalls getting out of school and helping to unload the local farmer’s trucks and then load the berries onto large trucks that would transport them out of town.
In the 1960s, other communities across the United States began planting strawberries and the market began to decline causing the strawberry to no longer be the primary crop for the area. California was able to produce berries that were firmer and had a longer shelf life. The softer, sweeter White County berries were still a local favorite, but their nationwide appeal dwindled. Miller stated he believes White County had between 30,000 to 50,000 acres of strawberries in its heyday. He believes now less than 50 acres remain.
Strawberries are still grown in the community today at several farms in Bald Knob and throughout White County. Strawberries are still celebrated through the annual Strawberry Homefest and the arrival of the strawberry shortcake at the Bulldog restaurant.
The Bulldog Restaurant, a hometown favorite, has been serving its famous strawberry shortcake for nearly 35 years. The shortbread served in the shortcake comes from a recipe invented by Bob Miller’s grandmother, Lyda Miller.
Lyda Miller served as the town’s librarian and was also known for her cooking. The booming strawberry trade influenced the cooking of many locals and Lyda developed a shortbread recipe. The recipe was such a hit that she began making it and selling it out of her home. Its popularity made it difficult for her to keep up with the demand. Miller, her grandson, suggested combining it with the ice cream and strawberries already served at the Bulldog and selling it at the restaurant as a shortcake.
Thus was born a Bulldog tradition. The strawberry shortcake is, Miller said, the most popular item they serve. Locals excitedly watch their marquee for the announcement of the seasonal dish. Word spreads quickly and fans from near and far make their way to the Bulldog to taste that sweet shortbread mixed with strawberries and ice cream.
Bob Miller’s mother, who is in her 90s, oversees the making of the shortbread. It’s sweet and crunchy but also tender all at the same time. Paired with the strawberries and ice cream, it’s like springtime in a bowl. Miller uses local strawberries for about five weeks when they’re in season then switches to California berries to help extend the available season of the shortcake.
The strawberry trade is long gone in Bald Knob and trucks no longer line up at the depot to ship the berries across the country. However, people now line up at the Bulldog restaurant to savor the sweet local treat of history that lives on in Mrs. Lyda Miller’s shortbread.
Arkansas Women Blogger’s Calendar Cultivator and member Julie Kohl writes about her adventures with food, recipes, crafts and creativity on her blog Eggs and Herbs. As former Yankee who was “converted” to the south by her husband, Julie has grasped on to rural life in a sleepy, blink-your-eyes-and-you’ll-miss-it town in east central Arkansas. She raises chickens, horses, and English mastiffs and spends her summers off from teaching art growing an herb garden and crafting all kinds of delicious recipes.