Interview with David Matlock, May 6, 2004

Re: Arkansas Coffin Company and Southtown community

Note: Ellipses appear where deletions in the transcript were made. These usually were places where the interviewer interjected and asides took place. Notes have been inserted where longer parts of the conversation were expurgated.

BB: What's your full name?

DM: Garland David Matlock. My mother's dad was a Garland.

BB: Do you know who any of your ancestor's were on your mother's side?

DM: They were from Kentucky. ... My mother was born in Oklahoma City, but her father came from Kentucky. My grandad's dad, no, his brother was Edgar Lee Matlock and he was an attorney in Van Buren.

BB: That would be your great-uncle?

DM: Yes.

DM: (Referring to an aerial photo). They'd already torn down all of the Western Wheelbarrow out here, except for the office building. Rim & Bow was over on the north side and this was Western Wheelbarrow. The Cuttings owned both of them. Tom Cutting owned Western Wheelbarrow and Brian Cutting owned Rim & Bow.

DM: At one time, they didn't use all of the buildings and some of the buildings down here that they had used as warehouses, they had a circus that wintered in there every year. Elephants, lions, tigers.

BB: How long did they winter? Three months?

DM: Probably.

BB: How many years did they winter there?

DM: I don't know.

BB: When did they winter there?

DM: In the '40s.

BB: Do you remember what circus?

Courtesy of Joe Wasson

The letterhead here gives some evidence that the circus to which David Matlock is referring may have been the Parker & Watts Circus. It's dated "Fort Smith, Ark., February 1st, 1941."

DM: No, I don't. When they would empty a box car here and had to move it, they would go get one of the elephants and move the empty box car. That would give the elephant exercise. I can remember that.

BB: You were born in 1937?

DM: 1933.

BB: (To Carol Matlock). How old are you?

CM: I'm 66. I didn't come here until I was in seventh grade. My daddy was in the military. He was in the Korean War.

BB: When did you go to work at the Coffin Company?

DM: When I was in high school, I'd work there in the summertime. I couldn't work around the machinery because of the labor laws, but I could work in the plant. The first job I had out there was loading lumber.

CM: They had a machine out there that would cut the knot holes out of the wood, then plug them. It would cut them out then make a plug that was the right size and put it in it.

DM: It wasn't an automatic thing. Cypress and pine both have a tendency to have loose knots in lumber. It would just cut a perfect hole around the knot, then they already would have cut a plug to fit that. Then they would hammer it in. Then when they would run it throught the mill, it would be planed off smooth. You didn't lose the wood and you didn't lose the knot.

BB: How long did you load lumber?

DM: That summer. They sorted by lengths.

BB: After that?

DM: The only place I didn't work was the sewing room.

DM: I worked in the cloth room with the caskets to make sure all the linings were tacked in right. Some of the guys could chew tobacco and spit tacks and never get any soil on the material. ... They had a tack hammer and they would keep the tobacco over on this side (points to cheek) and the tacks on this side (points to other cheek). They had them in their mouth, silver tacks so there was no rust. That was before the days of air tackers. You would use a tack hammer and the head was curved right there (gesture) and magnetized. You could pick up a tack with the head. It was unbelievable how fast those guys could get so they could handle a tack hammer and the tacks and keep the tobacco juice separate.

BB: How many employees did the coffin company employ?

DM: This right here (gestures to photo) is about 45. When the plant closed, I think we had about 28, counting the office workers. We had one office girl. I was in and out, Mr. Garner was in and out and Joe [Gemel Jr.???] was there. He was secretary/treasurer until the plant closed.

BB: How long was it in operation?

DM: I don't know but it was in business when my grandad went to work for them. He went to work for them as a bookkeeper in 1907. He taught school. He taught in Statler, Evansville and a lot in Crawford County. I've got copies of his old teacher's contracts. They paid him $35 a month for a common school. ... The old Carnall School was a common school. That's where the Carnall 4-H meets now.

Map of Southtown

BB: Where was the school in Southtown?

DM: Right there at the corner of 31st and Tulsa. ... You know why that road curves out there. That's where the street car line came out. You go clear down to where Reed's Drive-in is. That's another curve. It went right straight down what we call Old Jenny Lind Road now. The trolley track came out 21st Street and there used to be a racetrack where Ramsey School is now.

BB: It was the fairgrounds back in the day, too.

DM: When I was in high school, they raced midget racers out there. Then they raced stock cars on it. The trolley tracks went down Old Jenny Lind Road, cross Phoenix. They called it Mill Creek Road, made the turn out there by Reed's then by Southtown School where it made that turn. It dead-ended before the railroad tracks. It never crossed the railroad tracks at the Coffin Co.

BB: That was the end of the line?

DM: That was the end of the line.

BB: How appropriate. (Laughter) Making coffins at the end of the line.

DM: My dad said that when the trolley car would come out there. The trolley man would have to get off and he'd pull what they called 'the stinger.' It made contact with the trolley line. They'd tie it down and they'd go turn it loose at the other end to make contact. Instead of turning around, it'd run backwards going back into town. He said the trolley man would get up there and get ready to move out and the kids would run by and jerk that thing off of the hot line. The trolley man would have to get out and hook it back up. He said the trolley man would pick up rocks and throw them at the kids.

BB: Do you remember the bar or beer garden that used to be where the intersection of Fresno and Towson is today?

DM: Yeah, Rainbow Gardens. I think that's what they called it. It was just a joint. They probably served beer and maybe had sandwiches.

BB: Was it a rough joint?

DM: On Saturday night, most any of them could be rough.

CM: It wasn't your yuppie place of business. There weren't any at that time. They were either one of the few upscale places or they were joints.

BB: Were there any bars or liquor stores in Southtown?

DM: I don't ever remember one being in Southtown. ... At one time, Dad said Cliff Drive was the city limits line. Then they extended into what we now call Phoenix. Then they extended it to Zero Street back in the 1940s. In the '40s, they called it Chaffee Road.

BB: Do you remember any of the old street names?

DM: Oh, yeah. Fishback, Falconer. There used to be a freight depot in Southtown, too.

BB: Do you remember what railroad?

DM: We shipped a lot on the Missouri Pacific, but Frisco and KCS were the main lines in Fort Smith. ... Mr. Bell was the agent. What fascinated me, he had a telegraph key and he had a Prince Albert can that he had squished down and put down on that key. I couldn't understand it. I'd walk in the office and I'd think, 'What in the world is that can on that key for.' Well, if he was back in the warehouse trying to sort freight and move stuff around and he got a call, it would just click. But if he had that can on it, it would echo. He'd hear and come running up out of the warehouse and pick and respond that he was ready to take the message. I thought it was kind of neat and innovative that he had that much ingenuity.

BB: So, your grandfather went to work for the coffin company in 1907?

DM: That's what I remember.

BB: So, when did he buy the business?

DM: I don't know. ... Apparently he had a couple of silent partners who saw that he could make it work. There is some old stationary that's got names on it that I don't recognize. That's got to have been the silent partners.

BB: Did it ever change its name to casket company.

DM: Yeah, they changed it about the time that we married. It sounded more up-to-date to call it the coffin company. Texas Coffin Co. in Texas kept their name until they closed. We were the last company in Arkansas to close our doors. There was one in Texarkana, two in Fordyce, two in Little Rock, one in Pine Bluff and one in Van Buren and one in West Memphis. We were the last one to close the doors.

BB: Why did all those companies close?

DM: Probably the same reason we did. We had a cash flow problem and couldn't overcome it.


DM: We were competitive. It just got to the point that it cost so much to operate and our cash flow got (bad).

BB: The big competitors, where were they?

DM: Batesville, I guess is the biggest. They were the largest manufacturer of sealer type caskets. ... Batesville, Indiana, not Batesville, Arkansas.

DM: Did you know there is a steam whistle down at the museum that came from the Arkansas Casket Company?

BB: In the Museum of History?

DM: For years, before we got on a time clock, whoever fired the boiler had a railroad watch and at five minutes to eight in the morning he'd blow the whistle and that meant you had five minutes to get on the job. At eight, he blew it again. That whistle was powered by steam from the boiler. That whistle came off a steam boat that as the story goes, the Indians scuttled it and stole everything off it they could steal. But, I don't know how we ended up with the whistle. They scuttled it there just below Belle Point. I can't document it but that's been the story. They blew it at noon and everyone quit work and went to lunch. At 12:40, they blew it to go back to work at 12:45. That put them off at 4:45 in the evening. That gave them a 15 minute head start on everyone that got off at 5:00.

Referring to some photos:

DM: You see that water tower. I don't know if it was there when the wood building was but that water tower was hooked into a sprinkler system. They may have been hooked up with this (brick) building.

BB: When was the north building built?

DM: I'm guessing about 1915. ... It looked just like this when I was born. (pointing to the fully brick structure pictured in the photos).

BB: The offices?

DM: They were in this building here. (north building)

BB: First floor?

DM: First floor.

BB: Cabinet room?

DM: That's on the second floor.

BB: Cloth covering department?

DM: Second floor.

BB: Sewing room?

DM: Second floor.

BB: What about the third floor?

DM: Third floor was used to store hardware and paint finishing department was on the thrid floor. The whole third floor of the north building was what we called the 'roll room.' We had racks in there and we kept all kinds of casket in stock. Somebody would call and say, 'I need such and such.' It was probably in stock on the third floor.

BB: How much of an overstock did you keep on hand? How many would it hold?

DM: There was a row three-high that would run all the way from the elevator shaft. ... We used to buy sheet steel and we would make all the cuts and bends in it and fold it. We bought from three different companies. They didn't do any finish work. They just did coffin shells. We got so the only assembly work we did was to custom build one, oversize.

What followed was an extended conversation explaining some the terminology of the casket trade and coffin manufacturing.

DM: When I started traveling in Missouri in 1958, the guy who had traveled up there before me went up there by bus and train. Can you imagine. He might call on one or two places a day and that'd be it.

BB: You didn't make the hardware did you.

DM: No, there were a lot of companies that specialized in that.

BB: The people who worked there, did they come and go or were they there for 30 years?

CM: It was families, fathers and sons. The Hastings Brothers.

DM: We had Billy Vaughn. His dad fired the boiler out there for years. He got to where he couldn't do it and retired. Leonard McDonald in the mill room, his dad fired the boiler for years. Leonard worked there and ended up being the mill room foreman.

CM: Was he the preacher?

DM: No, that was Louis. Louis Kramp was the metal room foreman where we did all the metal assembly. He ran a little Bible church over in McCurtain called Shiloh Bible Mission or something like that. The story was Louis worked for the Chicago Coffin Company in Chicago, Ill. When he was a kid, he drove a beer truck for Al Capone. He said he saw the light and the wrongness of his ways and that Al Capone wasn't nothing but a thug. He really got religion. When Frank Nitti was killed in one of those raids up there, Louis said he made Frank Nitti's casket. That was kind of a history, you know. He could do anything. He made all the gutters that are on this house. There's transition pipes out there that come out square, make a turn and go into a round pipe. He did all of that. He was really a good metal man. He knew metal. He really did. All of the machinery in the mill had dust collector pipes. They blew sawdust into a container, like a big closet. Every time they had to move a piece of machinery or replace a piece of machinery, we had to make dust collector pipe. Louis just made it. When we had to make oversize caskets, he'd sit down with a regular sized casket and do some calculations. He'd say you cut this piece this size and that piece that size. He just made it.

CM: (Referring to David Matlock) Most of them, they saw him grow up. When I got married to him, everyone was talking about 'Buddy.' I asked who buddy was. They said, 'Well, that's 'Buddy.' (pointing to David Matlock) Buddy started out in high school loading lumber and to everyone he was just buddy. They were all like family.

BB: Bedell (Hightower) said there was a sandlot baseball field out there behind the Coffin Company. Did you play out there?

DM: Yeah, but I wasn't very good so they put me way out there in the field. (laughter) There used to be little church there back in where Elkins is now. Elkins bought the Casket building.

BB: What do they use it for?

DM: Warehouse.

CM: We would have to go in at night sometimes to get something out for somebody. You could turn on the intercom and you could swear someone was walking around up there. The building moved all the time.

BB: No one was ever killed there were they?

DM: No, it's just kind of eerie. A lot of times, I'd come in at the end of the week. I'd come in the office to do some order writing up when I'd come in off the road. ... I'd sit there in the office and more than once out of curiosity, I'd reach out and turn on the intercom to the third floor. More than once I'd take a flashlight and go back through the plant, go up the back stairs. I'd just know someone was up there walking on that third floor. They couldn't be but it sounded like it. It sounded just like someone walking in that plant at night. It's more than interesting. It's weird! And I knew that plant.

CM: Some of the black funeral homes. They didn't have show rooms, so they'd bring the families up there and go through their show room.


BB: Where did you live when you were growing up?

DM: This house was built in 1950.

CM: But you first lived down there where the gas well is now.

DM: When they built Chaffee, they moved a lot of houses that were out there. This came off land over there by the edge of Lavaca.

BB: That house is gone now?

DM: Yeah, it's gone.

BB: Where did you go to school?

DM: Northside and Peabody.

BB: You didn't go to school in Southtown?

DM: No, we lived at 2204 Greenwood until I was 12. You know where Ballman School is? That used to be a dairy. When I lived on South Greenwood, the old man's name was Belzung. Belzung Dairy.

CM: They bought this land here, 72 acres. That 35th Street, I've got a gas bill that says 'Matlock Lane.' That wasn't a road there. The city limits stopped there. This wasn't in the city. The school down there (Raymond Orr Elementary School) purchased five acres from Mr. Matlock. ... They wanted to call this school 'Matlock' and he didn't want them to.

BB: Why?

CM: He was just not a public person and he didn't want them to.

Discussion of Raymond Orr and the Athletic Smelting and Mining Company followed.

DM: The smoke from the smelter would settle on the ground. When dew would form, whatever was in that would settle out and form a poison. You could not raise a horse in this area. You couldn't even use the hay.

BB: They would die.

DM: No, it would affect their joints and stunt their growth. Their joints would swell and get stiff joints just like arthiritis. We lost a horse. We had a pond that was down where the Rehab hospital is, like a nursing home (Covington Court). We lost a horse in there. She got down and couldn't get up, in shallow water. She drowned. It didn't seem to affect the cows and it didn't seem to affect the milk.

BB: You don't know what the emission was?

DM: I don't know what it was called.

BB: What do you remember about the Southtown neighborhood? Would they eat their lunches there in the building?

DM: Most of them did. There was a little cafe that's in Southtown now that does a good noon business. Years ago, there were two little stores in South Fort Smith. Doc Jones had one and right across the street was J.C. Scott. Everyone either worked for Mr. Scott, the Coffin Company or Western Wheelbarrow. You could go in there and they'd make you a sandwich. Doc Jones or Scott's, either one would make sandwiches.

BB: Bedell said Mr. Scott, Mr. Jones and Mr. Bell were sort of the unofficial mayors of Southtown. Is that right?

DM: Yeah, they knew everyone in Southtown, who to trust and who not to trust. Mr. Scott, I remember we had a Model A pickup and Mr. Scott had an old glass gas pump. You'd pump it into the top and you'd watch that. ... When it was full it'd hold 10 gallons.


BB: If I read off these names (identifications on photo), you probably wouldn't know anything about them?

DM: Well, Bill Matlock, I think that was one of Sid's boys. Sid was my great-uncle. Jesse David Matlock was my grandfather and my Dad was J.D. Junior. Pence Holmes made boxes. That's what he did all day long. We shipped 'em in wood boxes. My dad said Pence wore the handle out on a hammer. Instead of being square the head was worn off from just the way he hit the nail. He just wore his thumb into the handle. It was like it was made to fit his hand. My grandad bought him a new hammer and told him to hang that one up. It was a trophy. (Laughter) I guess he did. No one knows what happened to it. Dave Cox, there were a lot of those Cox boys that worked there. Dave worked up in the cabinet room. Ed Norton worked up in the cabinet room.

BB: What was the cabinet room?

DM: That's where they put all the pieces together. We called it an "octagon" because we've got two straight sides, then we've got three pieces on each end. That's just the tub. They put all that together. Here's one guy who's doing nothing but put the tubs together and another who's putting the top rail and caps together. Then, there's another fellow who assembles them as the orders come in. He'll pick this tub and this rail and this cap and put them all together and hinge them and make sure it all fits. Then, when it's all fixed and ready to be covered or lined, then it goes on into cloth room.

BB: But all the caskets start in the cabinet room?

DM: Well, all those pieces are made down in the mill. Mill was on the first floor.

BB: This was before you started getting the pieces from outside?

DM: No, we always made them right there. We made the pieces.

BB: I thought you had said...

DM: We were buying metal caskets.

BB: Oh, so all the wood work was done there up until the last day?

DM: Up until the last day, right.

DM: We had a big planer that could take a 24-inch board. Of course, the boards were not that wide, but it could handle a 24-inch board. When it came into the plant, one side was skinned to smooth it. Then it was cut to length and width. Then it went through a molder. The molder cuts a design in the side of that wood. ... They'd run a whole stack of rails one shape, then another another shape. ... Then they nail all that together so it's ready to sit on the casket, the tube. If that all fits then hinge this half and put the catches on the front of it. Then it's ready be covered with cloth. ... Almost every year we would have school kids come out and go through the plant because it's unique. Not everyone gets to see how a casket or coffin is made. It would be just as interesting to me to go through a furniture factory.

BB: How wide geographically was your customer base?

DM: When I started traveling in 1958, we sold in six states: Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas, Missouri and Kansas. I traveled Missouri and Kansas, got as far as Wichita, then Topeka, Leavenworth and Atchison. Then just south of Kansas City. There were two casket factories in Kansas City. South of Kansas City and over to Lebanon and Springfield in the southwest corner of Missouri.

BB: You traveled all six states?

DM: No, just Kansas and Missouri. We had a warehouse in Fort Worth and we had two guys that worked out of that warehouse. One who was the warehouse manager. Mr. Garner, who was my dad's brother-in-law, traveled Arkansas and part of Oklahoma. Then we had another guy who traveled north and west and some of south Oklahoma.

BB: What were the golden years in terms of profits and sales?

DM: I don't know. The plant made it through the Depression so that must have been pretty good.

BB: The downhill slope toward closing, when did that begin?

DM: Probably early to middle 1980s. The plant closed in 1989.

BB: What did you do after that?

DM: I worked for Wal-Mart for a year as a department manager, then I struck out on my own with a snack vending business for 11 years.

BB: Which business do you miss most?

DM: Both of them because you make a lot of friends. I made a lot of friends in the funeral business and a lot in the snack vending business. Both of them, you've got to have good service. Any number of times, I'd get a call at 10 o'clock at night and they'd say, 'I need such and such. Have you got it?' I'd run down to the plant and if it was in stock, I'd call 'em and ask if they wanted me to bring it to them or if they'd come get it. More than once, I'd meet 'em half way and I'd put it in the station wagon. ... We made an oversize casket. Funeral home in Chickasha, they were a good account. They bought wood caskets from us because our wood caskets were cypress. Cypress is called 'the wood eternal.'

BB: Why's that?

DM: Cypress won't rot. Termites don't like it and it won't rot. It has an oil in it. We made an oversize casket for Chickasha. We made the casket and the box it went in. It wouldn't have gone in a concrete or steel vault it was so big. Somewhere there is a picture of three of us standing in the box side by side. This guy was so big that they could not get the casket in the funeral home. They set it up in the garage.

BB: Fat?

DM: Big Indian, he was so big his ear lobes touched his shoulders. He was diabetic. They said his mother was as big as he was. He died. He was about six feet tall. I took that casket over there. ... All oversized big caskets we made we put metal straps under the bottom. The hardware, instead of screws we used bolts and the bolts went through that metal strap for more support. I said, 'How much does this guy weigh?' He said he didn't know. I said, 'Well, just for safety you might have the pallbearers put two-by-fours under it to pick it up.' He said, 'We're not even going to have pallbearers pick it up?' I said, 'You're not?' He said, 'No, we're going to use a backhoe.' They had a sling that come up to a common point and they picked the casket up and put it in the bed of flat-bed truck. They had a backhoe at the cemetery to set it in the grave. He said they had to hire one for the cemetery and one for the funeral home. Most cemeteries now have a rule that you've got to have a concrete box or vault because if the grave caves in they've got to keep filling it. I said, 'Your cemetery have a concrete box or a vault rule?' He said, 'Yeah, we're going to put the box in then put the casket in the box, then pour two yards of concrete in on top of it.' he said the box is going to form the form for a concrete box and that would keep it from sinking in. They were going to put reinforced wire over the box.

BB: Did most of the people who worked at the Coffin Company live in Southtown?

DM: We had about five who would drive in from McCurtain every day. We had some that lived down toward Hackett and Hartford. A couple who lived out on Rye Hill. One fellow lived up at Chester. That's in my period.

BB: Do you know where the sorghum plant was?

DM: You know that big vacant lot that's just across from Wal-Mart with the big water tower. That's where the sorghum mill was.

BB: I read that was the largest sorghum plant in the world, according to the newspaper.

DM: It would stink. It had a musty odor. I remember that.

BB: How did they bring the sorghum in?

DM: Trucks and wagons.


DM: When the sorghum mill shut down it became the bonded warehouse. Donnie Green was the manager of that at one time. He runs the warehouse out there for Whirlpool now. He's been into everything.

BB: In terms of amusement, do you know what people did in Southtown? Bedell said they would go into the city or they'd go to each other's houses and play cards.

DM: Yeah.

BB: He said people who would steal stuff in Fort Smith and hide out in Southtown.

DM: I'd heard that but I don't know that for a fact.

BB: He also said he used to witness groups of boys from Southtown fighting with boys from Fort Smith in the vacant lot behind the casket company.

DM: Yeah. I never saw one but I'd heard that. They called the kids the Southtown Scorpions. That's what I remember. It was the same bunch that played ball.

BB: That wasn't the team name was it?

DM: It might have been.

BB: Was there some sort of rivalry?

DM: Probably was. My dad said that in World War I, the Army would bivouac down there north of where the Southtown School was. ... There was a rifle pit. When I was a kid, I'd dig copper-jacketed bullets out of that clay bank where they'd shoot into it. They'd set targets up and that was the back berm. It was right off of 31st about a block and a half north of Phoenix. ... There was a guy named Mapes or Maples out there who had a goat dairy. It was right at the end of 31st where Zero is. He had a goat farm. I used to go down and watch him. He had a lot of goats that he'd milk. We had a couple of jersey cows that I had to milk and I thought that was funny to watch him milk those goats from behind because there's only two teats on a goat. A cow's got four.

BB: Anything else odd that you remember?

DM: Most of the Southtown kids used to sneak off and go fishing, a smelter pond. It was right where the Rheem plant is. The smelter didn't seem to bother the fish. We would catch brim out of there as big as your hand. Biggest old water moccasins you ever saw. Lots of kids spent a lot time over there by that old pond.

BB: Well, thank you.

All the Arkansas Coffin Company photos appear here courtesy of David Matlock.