By Eric C. Rodenberg
KEO, Ark. – If Dean Morris were alive today, he would tell you he was the cotton farmer who became a “good wood refinishing man.”
He was that, and much more. He was a self-taught furniture restorer and finisher who was highly sought after by collectors.
“If a repair had to be made to the piece, Dad didn’t want you to be able to find the repair,” says his daughter, Terri Collins.
And a fine eye he had. He became an expert on antique furniture. “He was self-taught,” his daughter adds. “He looked at these things carefully, he was always reading books, subscribed to several antique publications (including AntiqueWeek) and listened. He loved to talk antiques, and would talk your arm off … but he was always looking and listening.”
More than 50 years ago, Morris planted a seed on his family’s homestead that would flourish into an international business, provide employment for many citizens of Keo (pop. 235) and change his family’s life.
“Who would have thought that this whole family from little old Keo would travel around the world,” Collins said. ” Traveling was always fun and educational … Dad was a lot of fun.”
It all began simply enough. Morris was farming some 1,100 acres in soybeans, cotton and rice, when he built a new home with a big patio in the center. Morris, always a high-energy, fidgety-type guy, could not stand to be inside, even on the gray, drizzly Arkansas days between harvest and spring planting.
And, as he had a new patio to decorate, he bought wood iceboxes, oil lamps, old cross-cut saws … nearly, anything that caught his fancy. This was 1967 and he was buying from small farms in the area, paying next to nothing for another man’s junk.
As often occurs, one man’s junk can become another’s treasure. It was cheap entertainment. He was soon going door-to-door knocking for antiques, not only on the surrounding farms, but also into the homes of communities south of Little Rock.
Within four months, he was overwhelmed with antiques. He put an advertisement in the larger newspapers and soon he was selling to dealers from Little Rock (about 15 miles northwest of Keo) and well beyond. Turnover was easy, and the profit was tidy.
From there, Morris became fearless. He never looked back. He kept buying. Eventually, he built a pole barn, then a wing to that … and then another barn. In 1970, the family began importing containers of European antiques, ultimately receiving two containers a month.
Barns were sprouting up all over the Morris farm. Morris Antiques of Keo became one of the early large retailers, with about 60,000 square-feet of space. Morris also became an active investor in antique malls, including Crystal Hill Antique Mall and Antique World Mall in North Little Rock, where both facilities rented to vendors.
He also owned a warehouse in England, and was actively buying antiques throughout New York and Pennsylvania.
By 1980, the business had grown to the point that he gave up farming and rented out his acreage.
“By that time, we were really busy,” said son Lewis Moore, who with this sister, was in the business from the beginning. “We had about 20 sales people and 15-18 refinishers working in the shop.
“We were really rolling,” Lewis, who managed the wood shop, said. “We were turning out 40 pieces a week.”
Morris’ work had a big influence on antiques in Arkansas and beyond. Not only was he an early pioneer into mall and large retail marketing, but he was a collector’s collector. He knew intimately how furniture was made, he knew his woods and cuts, and his refinishing business established high standards.
And, he was always, willing to take the time and teach.
“He would talk your ears off,” his daughter Terri says. “But, he had a passion for what he did. He loved the hunt, he loved to work with wood and he was an inspiration to a lot of us.”
Dean Morris died in December 2016 at the age of 76. “A lot of our customers were shocked,” his son said. “He was a very young 76. He was very active – worked out at the gym, and he worked seven days a week. The doctor diagnosed his cancer and he was dead three months afterward.”
His absence has been felt.
“I knew Dean Morris for many years,” said auctioneer J.E. Ponder. “He was a very nice guy … he did a lot of good for many people, without anyone knowing. A lot of people miss him.”
Over 50 years, much has changed, according to the Morris family. They first noted a dip in sales after 2008, and began scaling back. Ebay and Internet sales radically changed the market, according to Lewis Morris.
“It especially hit the larger pieces,” he said. “The shipping costs, and troubles, were just too great. Then, everybody got into the painted and distressed-looking furniture, and I told people I didn’t want any part of that.
“But, on the brighter side of things, we began – during those last few years – seeing some incredible furniture … furniture that had lost its value and the collectors became a little more apt to have these pieces refinished. I think there’s a core group of people that know the quality that is out there; but, right now, it’s just not worth much.
“For example, I found 1977 receipts for curved-top china cabinets, listing between $300 and $1,000 … that’s about the same as it’s selling for now.”
An unexpected Internet glitch also contributed to Morris Antiques of Keo closing last year. “We have three streets in Keo,” Collins said, “and the Internet maps could never find us … I don’t know, they had all these different addresses for us and our customers never could find us. We went to the city, the county, the post office … that was five years of battle … just another piece of the puzzle why we closed.”
On March 3-4, Ponder’s Auction Co. will be selling 800-1,000 lots per day at the onsite auction at Morris Antiques, 50 Antique Way, in Keo. Among those items to be sold are special items Dean selected for his museum.
“It’s difficult parting with the business,” Terri Collins said. “It was a great experience. We all got to work together, see the world and meet a lot of wonderful people. I think Dad liked working with furniture the best … he could make a 200-year-old piece of furniture look like it just came from the shop. He was that good.”
Preview dates are Feb. 23-March 3, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. On Sunday, Feb. 25, the preview showing will be from noon to 4 p.m. There is no online bidding. Bids will be accepted by phone or absentee bid.
Contact: (870) 673-6551