Lee Grocery Store

Located on the corner of Main Street and Quarles Road (Arkansas Highway 44 and 85) in downtown Elaine (Phillips County), the Lee Grocery Store building was likely constructed circa 1915, as it appears in the background of photographs taken during the 1919 Elaine Massacre. Operated by the Lee family from the 1950s until 2010, the store is significant for its association with the Chinese community in Elaine and eastern Arkansas, a community that was known in the early twentieth century for operating grocery stores in the Arkansas Delta region. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places on February 13, 2020.

The early history of the building is not known, but it was purchased by W. J. Lee sometime around the early 1950s. Originally from China, Lee immigrated to San Francisco, California, where he worked as a hotel manager. However, after he had met a man who talked about economic opportunities in the South, he moved to Arkansas and entered the grocery business, operating the store in Elaine. Other members of the Lee family also operated a store in Oneida (Phillips County), approximately thirteen miles northeast of Elaine. Lee also purchased some land near Oneida and engaged in farming. Eventually, the store passed to two of W. J. Lee’s sons, Seat N. Lee and Kam S. Lee, who continued to operate the grocery store until it closed in 2010.

This standard commercial twentieth-century-style building has a simple one-story plan. The roof is flat, built-up tar. The building is wedge shaped, more narrow in the front and widening towards the back, mirroring the angle of Quarles Road where it intersects Main. The recessed corner entry features a single iron column. The west side of the grocery has no windows, as it once abutted a neighboring building that was later torn down. The east side of the building features a modern town scene mural as well as several “ghost signs,” which are faded advertising signs. The building stands on a continuous cast-concrete foundation.

The interior of the store consists of an open front room. Wooden store shelving and shop counters are still present. The ceiling is wood beadboard, and the walls are plaster on brick. The floors are all wooden plank. The floor in the northwest corner of the front room has collapsed, exposing the crawl space below.

The building looks much as it did during the time the Lees ran the store, and the setting of the building continues to reflect the small downtown atmosphere from when it operated as a grocery.

Waves of Prayer purchased the building in 2017 and announced plans to restore the building and turn it into a visitor’s center for the Elaine area. Today, the Lee Grocery Store is an important remnant of the commercial history of Elaine and the influence of the Chinese population on the area’s commercial and ethnic history.

For additional information:
“Lee Grocery Store.” National Register of Historic Places nomination form. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas. Online at http://www.arkansaspreservation.com/National-Register-Listings/PDF/PH0571.nr.pdf (accessed July 14, 2020).

Leslie Martin
Arkansas Historic Preservation Program

Ralph S. Wilcox
Arkansas Historic Preservation Program

Last Updated: 07/14/2020