HARTFORD — A Hartford couple not only wants to give the people of their town something to do, but they want folks from all around to be a part of their once-bustling community.
Hartford native Kevin Wooten and his wife, Holly Wooten, originally of Howe, have taken steps to create a network of community-oriented endeavors in the city of 642 people.
Downtown used to bustle with grocery stores, a barber shop, a drugstore, a pool hall, post office and other kinds of businesses. As time went on, the owners of those businesses grew older and either retired or quit, and nobody ever came back to fill their shoes, Kevin Wooten said.
The couple said they want to serve in that role, and encourage others to set up shop in Hartford. They’ve taken a community-oriented approach to sprucing up the town.
"The way I see it, you don’t have to be a councilman or mayor or anything like that to do good for your town," Kevin Wooten said. "That’s what I’d like for more people in the town to think like."
The couple got to work about a year ago to put together plans for a rodeo arena behind the city’s Water Department on South Broadway Street. Kevin Wooten is a founding member of the Hartford Round-Up Club, a group that goes on horseback trail rides in and around the city, and said he wanted to help create something that people of all ages could enjoy.
"We’ve got the arena up. We’ve got to finish our announcer’s stand and put our light poles up, and we’re waiting on sand," Kevin Wooten said. "We plan on as soon as it starts really getting warm we’ll start roping out there and doing stuff."
The rodeo arena hopefully will be up and operational sometime in April. In the meantime, the couple opened a coffee shop about a month ago on Broadway across from Farmers Bank called the Pony Express-O, as a way to gain funds for the rodeo arena project.
"Now we’ve got people pouring in wanting to join the Round-up and help get things going," Holly Wooten said. "That’s a big plus."
For the most part, events at the rodeo arena will be free of admission, and will feature trick riders, barrel racing, roping and activities for kids, like mutton busting and stick horses. If the couple books an act from out of town or something special, they’ll likely ask for a small fee to pay for it.
"If you charge, people don’t want to come. If you don’t charge, they’ll come, they’ll watch," Kevin Wooten said. "They may say, ‘Well, I may want to try that,’ and they’ll get interested in it."
There are no plans for rough-stock events like bull riding, Holly Wooten said.
"We wanted to give the kids something to do, and the elderly, all together," she said.
The coffee shop already has gained some regulars. Kevin Wooten said he hopes it’ll serve as a place for people in the town to put aside their differences, have some breakfast and enjoy the atmosphere.
"Don’t miss out because your grandpa and somebody else’s grandpa had a feud 80 years ago," he said. "Don’t keep carrying that feud on; let it go and start new and make it a better place."
One of the staples of the Pony Express-O is its Hog Egg: a boiled egg, wrapped in sausage, coated with "a secret." Holly Wooten said she got the recipe from her brother.
"People try to guess (the secret) and they can’t," she said. "But they went viral — I’ve had people order six, 12 at a time."
When customers ask about the Hog Egg, Kevin and Holly like to have fun with them.
"We’ve joked with them and said, ‘Well, there’re these Arkansas wild hogs that bred with these chickens, and they lay these eggs at night, and we have to go get them,’" Kevin Wooten said.
Last weekend on Saturday, March 8, the couple held its first Trades Day in the space next to the coffee shop. The event featured vendors from all over town and the surrounding areas who brought their own items, usually homemade, to sell. Items ranged from jewelry to paintings to crafts and other items.
Turnout was better than expected, the couple said. At first, they told the vendors they weren’t sure how it would go, but it seems they’ll be able to hold a Trades Day the first Saturday of each month, Holly Wooten said.
"I think it shocked everybody when they came downtown Saturday and there were so many people," she said. "It was awesome."
In addition to the Trades Day, the couple hopes to hold a Farmers Market, possibly every two weeks, to coincide with the event. They’ve already got several farmers on board, they said.
Terri McDaniel, assistant to Hartford Mayor Bob Rosso, said she’s a fan of the Pony Express-O’s beef Alfredo dish, and that she was surprised to see so many people downtown at the first Trades Day.
McDaniel said she’s excited to see the couple show so such enthusiasm for making Hartford a better place.
"That’s what they’re trying to do, is help the town," McDaniel said. "It’s not so much about their business, like they’re trying to make a lot of money. I think it’s just great."
If all goes according to plan, Hartford could gain a new reputation as a fun place to go for people of all ages, Kevin Wooten said.
"We want the whole community involved, but also we want people outside the community to come in and see that life in Hartford ain’t as bad as the negativity in the past has shown it to be," he said. "There are a lot of positives here."
The Pony Express-O is at 20 S. Broadway St. in Hartford and is open from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. For information, call (479) 252-2884.