This story is published in partnership with Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project led by Kaitlyn McConnell.
JANE – With a drag of a chair across the old wooden floor, it’s possible to come home to The Jane Store — even if you’ve never been there before.
Amid shelves of spices, salsa and other spreads, owners Sam and Gayla Baker work to create a place where locals and new friends can settle in for a meal or buy a few cooking supplies. But they also work to give them something they can’t order off the menu: A place they can belong.
“We just like for people to feel like family when they come in,” says Gayla. “Because people don’t visit enough anymore. I grew up with people stopping by my mom and dad’s house anytime; they’d play cards, have card parties, music parties. … People don’t do that anymore. And I hated that people don’t visit like they used to. So at The Jane Store, they can do that.”
That desire — and a love of cooking — led the Bakers to take over the store around 12 years ago and add hot meals. Although the store hasn’t been operated continuously, it was built in 1927 and represents a piece of living history for the small McDonald County community.
“I love to cook, and my husband loves to cook — now, he has had more experience than I have,” says Gayla. “It was just something that we wanted to do.”
The menu offers a little of a lot. A few options include deli sandwiches, made-from-scratch pies and cookies, standard breakfast fare, daily lunch specials (last week’s included open-face turkey and Philly cheese steak sandwiches). There are always Reubens on Fridays, but the layers of juicy corned beef, a tangy special sauce, and sauerkraut enveloped in toasted bread aren’t the store’s best seller.
“Probably the chicken-fried steak,” says Sam, of the store’s favorite, and a few others are shared by his wife: “We make homemade mashed potatoes and gravy, and you have a veggie. But people love our hamburgers. They love breakfasts. We sell a lot of biscuits and gravy because our gravy we make from scratch.”
“Everybody’s bragging on the gravy,” adds Sam.
Bill and Cindy Hirsch are two people who benefit from the Bakers’ efforts. For them, it’s about more than just a place to go — it’s a place to gather.
“They just are like family,” says Bill Hirsch. “You just sit with anyone, and you learn a lot of things.”
“Gayla talked us into joining the Jane Preservation Society,” says Cindy of a local historical preservation group of which Gayla is a leader (they hope to open the former post office as a museum eventually). “She’s good about things like that.”
In addition to the food, the Hirsches tout the store’s spices for both quality and price.
“At Walmart, they’d probably cost three times as much,” says Hirsch.
“The sauces, jams and jellies are all local,” says Gayla. “We have a lot of talented people in our area, so I like them to be able to sell their products. And being a cook, I like all the seasoning and spices because I think we need to share those – and I share all my recipes.”
History of Jane
The store hasn’t seen all of Jane’s history, which dates back to the late 1800s. But before the community got its name, a nickname pronounced “got-em” stuck and proves to be a real slapper:
“That’s kind of a cute little story,” says Gayla. “The guys used to sit on the front porch of the store, and they said there were pigs underneath the porch, and the fleas would jump up, and they would hit them and say, ‘Got ‘em.’ That was a story that I’ve heard with that name.”
She adds that it’s also been referred to as White Rock, which is a better reference for the entire area than just the community. But it eventually came down to the wire, and suggestion after suggestion was repeatedly rejected.
“It was getting down to where they had to come and get a name. And so (the postmaster) looked over at his daughter, and his daughter’s name was Jane. And he said, ‘What about Jane?’ That’s where the community got the name.”
Gayla estimates its heyday came and went in the 1930s, the period when the store was built. In its early years, the small shop saw folks stop for gas and groceries. But with the onset of World Wars I and II, the community changed and began to shrink.
“War changed a lot of things in history for the different little communities. So I think probably that had a lot to do with it,” Gayla says.
Today, the military service of locals is remembered on a wall of the store, including “honor rolls” of those who served in years gone by.
“They were getting ready to throw (the honor rolls) away. It’s funny, because people will always say, ‘Don’t throw those pictures away,’ or ‘Don’t throw it away. Take them to Gayla,’” she says of local historical artifacts. “So I cleaned them up, and I hung them on the wall. Then I decided that I wanted to honor the veterans more with the pictures.
“There’s maybe one or two who are our customers, so they’re kind of like family. But the majority of everybody that’s on the wall is from the area.”
With their local ties, most of those photos link people to a place that continues to change.
Gayla estimates that customers at the store are a 75/25 split: 75 percent are local, while 25 percent are tourists, perhaps visiting the area for its floating opportunities, for which McDonald County is known, or from northwest Arkansas. Bentonville, an economic hub as the headquarters for international companies such as J.B. Hunt and Walmart, is around 15 miles away.
“When I was growing up, you knew everybody. And I still know a lot (of people),” says Gayla, but she also notes it’s not the same today as it was back then. “There’s so many people moving in.”
A proof point is the Bakers’ own home, located on a dirt road. “I’ve been there 32 years, and my husband’s lived there all of his life – 62 years. There used to be eight houses down the road. Now we have 32 new houses. It’s just crazy how it’s growing.
“That’s just progress.”
Writing history – and a story
Stories — mostly true — are also served at the store, where many familiar faces gather on a regular basis.
“We have a lot of regulars — I’d say we have 20 to 30 that come in daily,” says Gayla.
And a few of them are there on this Friday, seated in the back, and comprising what she calls the “Table of Knowledge.” Not all have lived there all their lives, but roots have grown fast.
One of those folks is Rick Stockett, a mouse-trap developer (among other things) who grew up visiting his grandparents’ farm as a child and bought it back in the late 1990s. Today, he splits his time between Arizona and the Ozarks — but when he’s hereabouts, he’s often seen at the store.
“I eat here every morning and nearly every lunch,” says Rick.
Next to him is Sam Baker, the store’s owner, and across the table is Bill Anderson, a lifelong local who came along when the store was only 10 years old. Then there’s Jeff Lynn, who owns a nearby farm.
“There’s more financial knowledge sitting in this cafe than down in Bentonville,” says Jeff, and notes the breadth of expertise, which ranges from business decisions to “how to doctor your dog’s pink eye.”
Instead of business suits and ties, the folks gather there in overalls and blue jeans and do business in a more casual way.
“I’ve bought two farms, a canoe resort and a rock pile just sitting in this cafe,” says Rick. “If the owners could get just 1 percent of the business that goes on in this cafe, they’d be millionaires.”