Documentary filmmaking is a wonderful way to tell unique stories about the people, places and worlds we navigate. It’s a unique form of preservation — and that point was made especially poignant by Lakeside High School television broadcast class’s recent AETN Student Selects submission “Cotham’s Mercantile.”
With first-hand accounts from the staff and regular customers, television broadcast teacher Chris Slaton’s crew of six students tells the fascinating tale of Cotham’s history and what made it a staple of Central Arkansans’ appetites. It is also likely among the last footage shot in the Scott, Arkansas, landmark before it was lost in a fire on May 30, 2017.
But what led students from Hot Springs, Arkansas, to make the pilgrimage to the Scott dining legend, and how does it feel to know that they may have been the last to capture it on film? Broadcast teacher Chris Slaton and students Isaac Miller, producer and editor, and Abby Hanks, assistant editor, shared their experience with us.
The Lakeside High School “Cotham’s Mercantile” crew: Caringtan Salazar, cinematographer; Jordan Brewster, audio technician; Isaac Miller, producer and editor; Jonathan Webb, cinematographer; Abby Hanks, assistant editor; and Jasmin Gonzales, director.
What inspired you all to travel from Hot Springs to Scott?
Chris Slaton: I heard about Cotham's Mercantile from my father-in-law, who mentioned getting a hubcap burger, so my wife and I went over Christmas break for a lunch. I could not get over the atmosphere, and I could only imagine the stories this place had to tell. I instantly sent a group message to my students with a picture and suggested it would be a great documentary and potential AETN Student Selects entry. We have an extremely supportive administration at Lakeside, and they were on board for us taking a crew to Cotham’s for the day.
Interviewing Cotham’s Mercantile regular Donna Furr
Isaac Miller: Mr. Slaton suggested that I should do Cotham’s because there was so much history there that could be shared. There was a two-week time period where I was planning with the manager at Cotham’s. We talked, set a film date and got ready to film.
Abby Hanks: Cotham’s was a piece of history that we, as young filmmakers, felt we needed to capture and present to the rest of the world.
Latouria Weathers demonstrates Cotham’s burger-making technique
What was it like to film on location at Cotham’s Mercantile?
Chris: We arrived at Cotham's an hour and half before they opened. It is a creaky old place and we walked in and the manager said, "We're not open yet." Isaac explained who he was and who we were looking for and the manager told us straight faced, "I don't know anyone by that name, you must be talking about the Cotham's in Little Rock." I thought I was going to hurt Isaac ... Here we were taking a day from school and he contacted the wrong place. Then, with a hearty laugh, she let us know she was joking! That was the family jovial atmosphere the whole time. They were extremely friendly and let my student crew go wherever they wanted with the cameras. There were no forbidden spaces.
Why was telling Cotham’s story important?
Abby: I feel that Cotham’s was not only a piece of Arkansas history, but United States history with its walls strewn with artifacts displaying bits of life from the early 20th century. This restaurant provided its patrons both a taste of traditional Southern cuisine and lifestyle through the unchanging design and quality service that made it a staple of Central Arkansas throughout the decades.
What can you tell us about your interviews?
Abby: The staff at Cotham’s served with pride and carried with them a sense of honor during our interviews.Latouria Weathers with Cotham's Mercantile manager Danielle Lynch
Abby: It was the consistency of [the staff’s] high spirits and smiling faces that made every Cotham’s customer feel welcome the moment he or she stepped foot inside.
Interview With Cotham’s Mercantile Regular Randall Naylor
How did you feel when you heard the news about the May 30 fire?
Abby: I feel that the loss of Cotham’s is a great tragedy. It was the hint of danger that made the restaurant appealing to those from out of town and a point of pride in the Central Arkansas community.
Isaac: The atmosphere there was unlike anything that I have seen before and to hear that it was destroyed in a matter of hours was terrible. They can never replace the 100-year-old boards and the stains of hamburger grease on the walls.
Chris: When the news hit of Cotham's burning down, my phone was blowing up with messages from my kids. “Can you believe it?” “We probably have the last footage there!" “We should submit our footage to the news.”
I can't help but think of the lives that will be forever changed because it is gone. They talked about being a family because of the building and working together for so many years and how they do not have any turnover. I can't help but hurt for the workers who have spent so many years together only for it to go up in flames. I also think about the regulars who we met who would spend three to four days a week eating lunch and catching up with the workers. I remember the cook talking about the seasoning for the burgers and she talked about how the grill contained years and years of seasoning ... probably enough for the burgers by itself. Now the grill and all the "years and years" of seasoning is gone. The front porch slightly slanted downwards, the creaking of the floors, the shelves crammed with old items from the mercantile days …
The trip and crew I took to Cotham's Mercantile will always stand out for me and the Lakeside High School television broadcast program. This was the first time we took a working crew on the road: everyone had defined roles and the students were completely in charge. I was a bystander, whispering ideas in their ears but letting them dictate and determine the whole process. I remember thinking, “We look like a real crew.” It was a blast, and it will always be a special memory for my students and me.