As I pull up to the grand estate, I can see multiple chimneys, Juliet balconies, and a brick path leading up to a massive set of French doors. The scene looks like something out of a fairy tale, but the towering loblolly pines lining the driveway snap me back to reality: I’m in Texas, two hours east of Dallas and halfway between Longview and the tiny town of Gilmer. Josh Smallwood, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, greets me with a smile and escorts me inside his former home, now the headquarters of 80 Acre Market.
Smallwood is an optimist with the kind of business savvy that would suggest he’s much older than thirty, but when 80 Acre Market kicked off as a bimonthly event last October, he wasn’t sure what to expect. In a few short weeks, his team transformed the seven-bedroom house he shared with his wife, Holly, and their five kids into a home-goods store, shoppable by room and filled to the brim with tea towels, pillows, pottery, and more. They trucked in mums in autumnal colors and forty bins of pumpkins from Floydada, seven hours away. They had lawn games, live music, and a food truck. They were ready. The question was whether the community was ready for them.
80 Acre Market was inspired by the gathering places the Smallwoods enjoyed on family trips across the state. They knew that Chip and Joanna Gaines had transformed Waco in part with the couple’s Magnolia Market. Still, Smallwood was skeptical about whether his sleepy, industrial hometown would embrace this foreign concept.
“Holly and I wanted to solve a problem that we were experiencing ourselves, and that was that there was nowhere in town to go eat that wasn’t a chain, and there was nowhere family-friendly to go out on the weekends where you didn’t have to pay,” Smallwood says. “I think people didn’t even know they wanted something like 80 Acre Market until it was presented as an option.” Turns out, Smallwood had nothing to worry about. On opening day, more than two thousand guests flooded through the wrought-iron gates, some traveling from as far away as Houston.
Before things would go right for Smallwood, a lot had to go wrong. Born in Longview, he had a father who was in and out of prison and a mother who was “into producing drugs.”
“The last straw came when I was in fifth grade and a drug bust went down,” Smallwood says. “All the [local] parents were toted out of this meth lab they had right next to our trailer. My older brother and I were sitting on the steps, wondering what happens now when everybody we know is locked up in that car.”
The boys went to live with their grandparents, who didn’t have much but did offer consistency. People in town pitched in too, giving the brothers food and ferrying them to and from extracurriculars. As high school graduation approached, Smallwood was eager to start fresh, and he set his sights on California. Then Holly got pregnant, so they married and bought a modest, shotgun-style house. Smallwood worked three jobs while earning an MBA from the University of Texas at Tyler. Eventually, the couple decided to reinvest in their hometown instead of relocating.
When an opportunity arose to buy a rustic framing business, Smallwood wasn’t keen on the product—pictures of western icons like John Wayne in barnwood frames—but thought he could make it his own. In 2012, his eponymous custom home-decor company, Smallwoods, was born. His brother, Dustin, signed on as the general manager.
The first order of business? Bring production home. Instead of sourcing materials from New York and Indiana, Smallwood wanted something the company could make almost exclusively in Texas and sell directly to consumers. He settled on wood signs with inspirational quotes and asked a local water-jet cutting facility to create a metal stencil he could spray-paint.
“It was extremely handcrafted, but not in a good way,” Smallwood says, laughing.
Soon after, he discovered wide-format printing and began allowing customers to upload their own quotes, art, and photos for custom framing. In 2015, the company moved into its new headquarters in Diana, Texas, and was preparing for a busy holiday season in 2017 when a fire destroyed everything.
“In a weird way, it was reenergizing,” Smallwood says. “It was an incredible example of what happens when all the material things are gone and the only thing left is your people.”
After the fire, Smallwood was ready to realize a new dream: building a campus for Smallwoods on the eighty acres where he lived. He initially bought the property because it reminded him of his grandfather’s farm, a bright spot in his otherwise difficult childhood. 80 Acre Market would be part of the larger campus and another way to sell Smallwoods’ goods. More importantly, it was a way for Smallwood to give back to the community that helped raise him.
When I arrive the Sunday before Easter, the market’s event coordinator, Jo Swanson, is prepping for the Easter egg hunt, one of many free events she’s orchestrated since her niece, Holly, asked her to join the team. Other activities that fall under her purview include two bounce houses, face painting, and a craft station that upcycles discarded Smallwoods canvases into DIY art. The weekend I visit, there’s also a petting zoo with rabbits. But what really gets Swanson excited is the new dirt pile they’re building out with several excavators and “dinosaur bones.”
“My goal is to kind of make things go backward—get kids off tablets and get them into the woods,” she says. “We’re in the country, in this beautiful setting—why make it something it’s not?”
Offerings change with the season. For Father’s Day, there will be a cornhole tournament and a vintage car show. Hayrides will debut this fall, and a pianist is set to serenade shoppers during the decked-out Christmas market. There’s never any pressure to buy anything, but you’d be remiss not to take a peek inside the store. And even if you’ve been before, it’s worth another look.
“Every two weeks, we change everything out,” the lead designer, Sheila Madden, tells me as I eye a sweet tea candle in a vintage goblet for $18. “We don’t want anyone to feel like, ‘Oh, we went last time. We’ve seen it all.’ ”
Madden’s approach to designing displays is nuanced. “A lot of store managers might think, ‘What’s our high-dollar real estate area? Where do we make the most sales?’ ” she says. “It’s hard for me to know what that is because we change every two weeks, but I also want to make the products fit the room so that people are able to see what they might do with them in their own homes.”
This means that in the kitchen, you’ll find serving ware and cutting boards starting at around $40. Over the fireplace mantel, there’s a giant black and white map of East Texas in a Smallwoods frame for $125. Pillows and quilts are stacked to the ceiling in what were once his-and-hers walk-in closets. The primary bathroom features an exclusive line of products—including body creams, bath bombs, and soaps in the shape of Texas—all made on the property in a converted barn aptly called the Bath Barn.
Madden leads me out onto the patio, where a tent showcases more local artisans selling everything from flowers to coffee to mocktails. She tells me it’s not uncommon for the vendors to sell out, and since the market doesn’t charge vendors a fee, it’s an easy way to get discovered. One vendor representing Rowdy Creek Ranch, a new winery and glamping experience just up the road, hints at the possible impact 80 Acre Market could have on the surrounding area, which is still mostly farmland. In other words, there’s room for growth.
When I catch up with Smallwood later that day, he shows me where he’s putting in a football field–size swimming hole. A visit to the Blanco River inspired him to line the bottom so the water will be crystal clear. Surrounding the swimming hole will be rolling hills that mimic New York City’s Central Park. Other plans include a separate pond stocked with bass and catfish, a two-mile walking trail, and an orchard and farm that will supply fresh produce for Smallwoods’ nearly four hundred employees. It’s a playground for kids and kids at heart, and it’s funded solely by the business’s $100 million–plus annual revenue.
“We were invited to this fancy event in New York [for e-commerce disruptors], and people kept saying, ‘Oh, you’re bootstrapping,’ and we didn’t even know what the term meant,’ ” Smallwood says. “We’ve never taken outside money and we never intend to.”
Creative control is important to Smallwood, so much so that he’s already turned down offers for a reality show from both Lionsgate and Magnolia Network. But he’s not against cameras documenting his venture: he’s assembled his own production crew and plans to film behind the scenes, releasing ten- to twenty-minute episodes of a reality show via the company’s social media channels.
“We’re going to put it out in a super authentic way,” Smallwood says. “If then a network wants it, there’s no speculation as to what it will be. It’s like, ‘Here it is; you either like it or you don’t.’ ”
Smallwood knows it would be easier to follow in the footsteps of, say, Chip and Joanna Gaines. He’s never been to Magnolia Market in Waco, and although he’s flattered when people compare it with 80 Acre Market, he isn’t angling for his market to become a huge commercial venture. He tells me he measures success not by the number of products sold, but by whether or not they bring value to the community. Still, “community” has become such a buzzword for businesses that I feel the need to press Smallwood about his altruistic intentions.
“My brother and I were able to experience success, not because we were exceptionally gifted, but because people helped us when we had nothing to give them in return. That was the best crash course on how valuable you are as an individual relative to how valuable you are within a community if you apply yourself to it,” Smallwood says. “Since we’ve been focused on that axiom, we’ve only gotten better and only seen success, so it seems like a no-brainer.”
I’m still mulling over his philosophy when I dig into banana pudding and a truly tasty invention the food truck chef calls a “brisket parfait.” My dining companion, a mother of three, makes the astute observation that “this is the kind of place where parents can finish a meal,” meaning there’s enough to keep kids entertained long enough for the adults to let their hair down. Truthfully, it’s hard to describe 80 Acre Market. It may look somewhat like a French château or the mecca for Fixer Upper fans, but 80 Acre Market isn’t trying to be anything other than what it is—and that’s exactly what its community needs.