Archive for the ‘Traveling Arkansas’ Category

The Baxter County boom

Friday, February 8th, 2019


There has been a town of Mountain Home for decades. The city’s newspaper, The Baxter Bulletin, dates back to 1901.

For all practical purposes, however, the current version of Mountain Home is a youngster.

In the 1940 census, there were just 927 residents.

By 1960, the population had more than doubled to 2,105.

By 1980, there were 8,066 residents.

The current population is estimated at about 12,400 people.

“The fortunes of Mountain Home and the surrounding area dramatically changed in the 1940s and early 1950s with the building of the Norfork and Bull Shoals dams,” Clement Mulloy writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “These dams were part of a federal project to dam the White River basin to provide flood control and hydroelectric power. The project, a smaller version of the Tennessee Valley Authority, was also intended to stimulate commerce and industry throughout the region. Norfork Dam was completed in 1944. Bull Shoals Dam, one of the largest dams in the nation, was completed in 1951. Both were dedicated on July 2, 1952, with President Harry Truman as the keynote speaker of the event.

“The construction of the dams was the most important event in the history of Mountain Home. The town was ideally situated about midway between the two projects. Formerly an isolated rural community with few businesses or paved streets and fewer employment opportunities, Mountain Home suddenly became a boomtown with workers attracted by high-paying government jobs moving into the area. New businesses were established and houses built. Farms in the county that had been abandoned during the Great Depression were reoccupied, safe from the threat of future flooding.”

Suddenly this remote mountain town was a draw for visitors from across the country, especially trout fishermen.

“The building of one of the largest fish hatcheries in the world at the base of Norfork Dam in 1957 has produced millions of trout, attracting countless fishermen,” Mulloy writes. “The area soon became known as the trout capital of the world. Many people vacationed in the area, taking advantage of the excellent fishing, hiking, water sports and beautiful scenery of the Ozarks. … As the largest community in the county, Mountain Home became the main beneficiary and soon became a vacation resort. Beginning in the 1950s and continuing into the 1960s, Mountain Home found a new role as a retirement community.”

What’s now Mountain Home first was known as Rapp’s Barren or Talbert’s Barren. When a post office was established in 1857, the name Mountain Home was used. Orrin Dodd and John Howard founded the Male and Female Academy there in the late 1850s.

“It quickly became the centerpiece of Mountain Home, and the town essentially grew up around it,” Mulloy writes. “The academy attracted students from the surrounding area, including southern Missouri.”

Mountain Home was officially incorporated in 1888. It continued to be known as the education center for this part of the Ozarks.

“In the late 19th century, a number of small Baptist colleges were established throughout Arkansas,” Mulloy writes. “Among these was the Mountain Home Baptist College, sometimes called the Gem of the Ozarks. Under the sponsorship of the White River Baptist Association, the college aimed to provide a ‘healthful and Christian’ education. Land and buildings were donated by local residents, and the school opened in 1893. During the 40 years of its existence, the college offered a variety of courses including history, French, Greek and vocational classes such as shorthand and typing. Its main focus was on teacher training, particularly after the Arkansas General Assembly passed a teacher certification act in 1893. Funding collapsed during the Depression, and the college closed in 1933.”

The combination of the Great Depression and the Great Drought of 1930-31 had a devastating effect on this area of Arkansas.

“Many people lost their farms and moved in search of jobs,” Mulloy writes. “Hobos hitching a ride along the local railroad in search of work became a common sight. Federal intervention in the form of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal launched a number of programs that marked the first encounter many had with the national government. In particular, the Federal Emergency Relief Agency and the Civilian Conservation Corps saved many from starvation. One of the most important New Deal programs for Mountain Home was the Works Progress Administration. The WPA helped alleviate much of the unemployment in the area. Local WPA projects included the Henderson Bridge over the North Fork River, the Arkansas Highway 5 bridge at Norfork and the current courthouse in Mountain Home.”

What’s now Arkansas State University-Mountain Home, a two-year- college, can be tracked back to evening classes that were offered at Mountain Home High School in 1974 by the community college at Harrison.

“These classes were offered in the wake of the defeat of a five-mill tax for the construction of a community college in Mountain Home in 1973,” Mulloy writes. “As enrollment grew, permanent facilities were needed. With funds provided by the state and local community, the former First Baptist Church and adjoining McClure Chapel & Funeral Home were purchased in 1985. In the same year, the Baxter County Vocational-Technical Center was established as a satellite campus of North Arkansas College. The center later became the basis for the Mountain Home Technical College, founded as one of 13 two-year colleges created by the Arkansas General Assembly.”

The Mountain Home college became part of the ASU system on July 1, 1993.

“A special election was held on Oct. 19, 1993, to establish a tax district for the college,” Mulloy writes. “The two-mill property tax was passed with overwhelming support. ASU-Mountain Home was established on July 1, 1995, and Ed Coulter was hired as chancellor. The main question confronting the college was whether to remain in downtown Mountain Home or move to a different location. Although the interiors of the college buildings had been thoroughly renovated, the exteriors were unchanged. Due to congestion, a lack of parking and the difficulty of expansion, the decision was made to relocate the college.

“The search for a new location ended in 1996 with the purchase of 78 acres of pastureland on the edge of Mountain Home. This initial purchase was supplemented with adjoining property, and today’s campus sits on 135 contiguous acres. An official groundbreaking ceremony was held on April 8, 1998. Before construction began, a special committee composed of community leaders, faculty and students was formed to consider plans for the new campus. The committee visited about a dozen universities in the East, incorporating elements they liked into the campus master plan. The architectural design of the campus is modeled after the University of Virginia with the administration building, Roller Hall, taking its inspiration from the Rotunda.”

More than 1,000 people participated in a January 2000 march from the old campus to the new one. The first four campus buildings were fully endowed before construction began.

Baxter County was established in March 1873 and is named after Gov. Elisha Baxter. Its growth has paralleled that of the city of Mountain Home. The county’s population soared from 9,943 in the 1960 census to 41,513 in the 2010 census.

“Gov. Baxter formed Baxter County on March 24, 1873, in an election year when the outcome was in doubt because he wished to leave a lasting legacy,” Jane Andrewson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He chose a day when most of the legislators were at home. As a result, the representatives whose counties the new county would affect were unable to vote on the proposed new county or to veto the legislation. Baxter County was formed by taking a large part of Marion and Izard counties and smaller parts of Fulton and Searcy counties. The present-day boundary was fixed in 1881.

“Mountain Home was selected as the county seat at the time Baxter County was formed. Attempts to move the county seat to Cotter or Gassville in the early 1900s failed. An attempt was made again in the mid-1940s, but Cotter lost that battle too. The first attempt in 1910 was foiled by some missing ballot boxes. The city fathers in Mountain Home also found an Arkansas law stating that a courthouse with three floors cannot be moved. Mountain Home immediately added a third floor to its courthouse, though the building was torn down in the early 1940s and a new one was built by the WPA. When there was no longer a three-story courthouse in Mountain Home, another petition drive sought to move the county seat to Cotter, but it failed.”

The current courthouse, designed by Fayetteville architect T. Ewing Shelton, opened in August 1943. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1995. Baxter County taxpayers footed about $51,000 of the $105,000 cost of construction with the WPA picking up the rest.

The White River has long played a role in the county’s development.

“Several severe floods occurred in the 1910s and 1920s,” Andrewson writes. “Dams were suggested by the people in the county, and various legislators discussed them for years before Norfork Dam was begun in 1941.”

The 722-mile-long White River begins in the mountains of northwest Arkansas and flows east toward Fayetteville before turning north. It enters southern Missouri and then flows southeast back into Arkansas. It transforms from a mountain stream into a slow Delta stream at about Batesville.

“The river’s meandering course lends itself to a variety of environments — from the seasonal, fast-flowing headwaters of the upper White to the wide, slower-moving stretches farther down the river,” Aaron Rogers writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Trout aren’t native to the White River, of course. Those came with the construction of the dams, which release cold water.

“Private power companies had explored the possibility of building a dam at Wildcat Shoals above Cotter as early as 1902 but never began any work toward it,” Scott Branyan writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Congress approved the construction of six reservoirs in the White River basin in the Flood Control Act of 1938. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report in 1930 had recommended the Wildcat Shoals site along with seven others as being the most effective of 13 investigated. However, in a 1940 report, the Corps presented the Bull Shoals site as an alternative to Wildcat Shoals, where unsuitable foundation conditions had been found. This report recommended the construction of Table Rock and Bull Shoals as multipurpose reservoirs for flood control, hydropower generation and ‘other beneficial purposes,’ concluding that the reservoir projects were economically justifiable.

“After the wartime construction of Norfork Dam by the Corps of Engineers on the tributary North Fork River in southern Baxter County from 1941-45, the construction of Bull Shoals Dam began in 1947. The dam length is 2,256 feet with a maximum height of 256 feet above the streambed. The spillway length is 808 feet. The dam contains 2.1 million cubic yards of concrete. At the time of its construction, Bull Shoals Dam was the fifth largest in the country, and its powerhouse was the largest building in Arkansas. Along with its 17 spillway gates, which are 40 feet by 29 feet, there are 16 outlet conduits that can each discharge 3,375 cubic feet per second. The flow of one of these conduits is roughly equivalent to one of the powerhouse’s eight generators running at full capacity.”

Construction of the powerhouse began in September 1950, and generation started two years later. The final two generating units were installed in 1963.

During his July 1952 visit, Truman took a shot at the politically powerful Arkansas Power & Light Co. for its long opposition to the federally subsidized rural electrification project.

“The completion of the dam and reservoir immediately began to affect the local economy,” Branyan writes. “Media coverage attracted attention to the region and resulted in the quick growth of the tourist industry. In 1940, there were only 13 businesses that provided overnight accommodations. By 1970, 300 such establishments could be found. Assessed taxable real estate values, per capita income and manufacturing payroll rose dramatically in the following decades.

“The dam put an end to long, multi-day fishing floats from Branson, Mo., to Cotter. Jim Owen of the Owen Boat Line had operated a float trip business on the river for many years. Largely through Owen’s promotion, the White River garnered a reputation for excellent smallmouth bass fishing. But the new reservoir soon offered equally excellent lake fishing for a number of warm-water species as well as stocked trout below the dam. Marinas, boat businesses and fishing guide services sprang up rapidly to handle the influx of anglers.”

One of those early entrepreneurs was Al Gaston, who created Gaston’s White River Resort at Lakeview in 1958. His son Jim Gaston inherited the business at age 20 in 1961. There were 20 acres, six small cottages and six boats at the so-called resort at the time. Jim Gaston would go on to become a legendary figure in the state’s tourism industry.

“Gaston expanded the operation significantly until it covered 400 acres with two miles of river frontage,” writes Arkansas historian Nancy Hendricks. “The complex includes 70 boats, 79 cottages and a 3,200-foot airstrip as well as a nationally famous restaurant. Gaston’s White River Resort also operates a conference lodge that seats up to 125 people. There’s a duck pond, game room, gift shop, playground, private club, swimming pool, tennis court and two nature trails. The resort has been recognized nationally.

“Gaston was an early advocate of tourism as an economic engine for the state of Arkansas, as well as a champion of conservation. He was an early supporter of Dale Bumpers, who became a lifelong friend. After Bumpers was elected governor in 1970, Gaston was Bumpers’ first appointment to the Arkansas Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission. Gaston served on the commission for many years before being named commissioner emeritus. … Gaston served as president of the Arkansas Tourism Development Foundation and president of the Arkansas Hospitality Association.”

Gaston died in July 2015, but Gaston’s White River Resort is going strong.

On the other side of the White River from the resort, the James A. Gaston Visitors Center for the Bull-Shoals White River State Park is one of the finest facilities of its type in the country.

In 1955, the state leased property along the lake and river from the Corps. Little was done with the property until 1975 when a wastewater treatment plant, bathhouses, paved roads and campsites were added. A section along the lake has picnic tables, a playground and a trail. The main section along the White River below the dam has campsites for tents and recreational vehicles, bathhouses, picnic areas, pavilions, playgrounds, a boat ramp and a trout dock.

The Corps’ six-lake White River system consists of four dams in Arkansas — Beaver on the White River, Bull Shoals on the White River, Norfork on the North Fork River and Greers Ferry on the Little Red River. It also consists of two dams in Missouri — Table Rock and Clearwater. It’s safe to say that no county in the White River basin has benefited more from these investments than the once rural, poor Baxter County.

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The new Fort Smith

Friday, January 25th, 2019


It was an important day in the history of western Arkansas.

On Sept. 30, 1941, ground was broken between Fort Smith and Barling for what would become Fort Chaffee. War seemed imminent. The U.S. Department of War was determined to double the size of the U.S. Army and had paid almost $1.35 million to 712 property owners for 15,163 acres in far west Arkansas.

Chaffee eventually would cover more than 70,000 acres.

The first soldiers arrived in December 1941. From 1942-46, the 6th, 14th and 16th Armored Divisions trained there. Chaffee served as both a training camp and a prisoner of war camp during the war.

The 5th Armored Division called Chaffee home from 1948-57, and the name was changed from Camp Chaffee to Fort Chaffee in 1956.

In 1960-61, the 100th Infantry Division was headquartered at Chaffee. The fort was declared inactive in 1961 but would be used again through the years — as a test site for tactical defoliants during the Vietnam War, as a processing center for refugees from Southeast Asia in 1975-76, as a processing center for Cuban refugees in 1980, as the Army’s Joint Readiness Training Center from 1986-93.

In 1995, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended the closure of Fort Chaffee. The federal government declared more than 6,000 acres as surplus property and turned them over for redevelopment. The Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority was established to find uses for that land.

In 2007, economic developer Ivy Owen moved from Mississippi to become executive director of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority. He had more than four decades of experience, including seven years with the Mississippi band of Choctaws.

A story about Owen in the 2017 edition of America’s Defense Communities said the developer “made friends with the tribal chief who cared more about what he could do than where he was from. He spent many nights in community meetings with an interpreter translating his smart growth and new urbanism concept and how they could benefit the tribe.”

“They were already pretty successful with a lot of industry, two huge casinos and two championship golf courses,” Owen told the publication. “They were also pretty clannish and didn’t like outsiders coming in and telling them how to design and implement a land-use program. It took seven years, but by the time I left, the council had approved the first smart-growth plan for an area adopted by any tribe in the nation.”

Ivy has had similar success at what’s now known as Chaffee Crossing. Construction crews seem to be everywhere these days.

“I never would have believed it 10 years ago,” Owen once told me in an interview. “You could have fired a shotgun through here in 2007 and not hit anyone. I think people in this region are finally seeing that this is really happening. The redevelopment of this acreage isn’t just a pipe dream anymore, and they know that. The thing that helped us most was when work began on the extension of future Interstate 49 through our property. People finally saw dirt flying around out here, and it was exciting.”

New residential subdivisions are springing up among the various businesses. There are 28 neighborhoods finished or planned, and authority officials say there soon will be 2,900 housing units (ranging from apartments to single-family homes) on the grounds.

Chaffee Crossing is now marketing itself as “the economic engine of western Arkansas.”

In June 2017, employees began moving into the ArcBest corporate offices that had been under construction for two years. The 200,000-square-foot building will house 1,000 people. It cost $32 million. ArcBest purchased 70 acres from the authority to accommodate future expansions.

In August 2017, the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine welcomed its first class of 162 students. In November 2009, Sparks Health System (now part of Baptist Health) was sold for $136 million to a company then known as Health Management Associates. Once liabilities were settled, there was $62 million remaining in the Degen Foundation’s (Sparks’ charitable arm that wasn’t a part of the sale) account.

Work began on a three-story building in February 2015. Students were recruited from across the country.

The parent of the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine is the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education. The health complex covers 228 acres. The 102,000-square-foot building that houses the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine cost $34 million to complete. The college will have 600 students once all four classes are filled.

An 84-unit apartment complex was built adjacent to the medical school so students could walk to class. Neighborhoods and retail shops will be added on the 228 acres as additional programs are launched. An $11 million residential and retail project known as Heritage Village is being built directly across the street from the medical school.

Last May, ground was broken for a $25 million facility that will house doctor of physical therapy, doctor of occupational therapy and physician’s assistant programs. Those programs will result in 30 new faculty positions. The new building covers 66,000 square feet. A $15 million anonymous gift in June 2017 helped make the second building possible. The first students are expected in the building in August 2020.

It has gotten so busy in the area that Kyle Parker, the president and chief executive officer of ACHE, is pressing for a stoplight at the intersection of Chad Colley Boulevard and Frontier Road. About 2,600 people a day now come to Chaffee Crossing for jobs.

In 2016, Glatfelter, a Pennsylvania-based company, purchased the former Mitsubishi Power Systems building for a facility producing absorbent papers used in personal hygiene products. That resulted in more than 80 jobs.

Also in 2016, Mars PetCare announced a $72 million expansion that added 130 jobs to the 250 people who already were working for Mars.

In 2012, 2016 and 2017, the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority received the John Lynch Base Redevelopment Excellence Award from the Association of Defense Communities. Michael Cooper, the Association of Defense Communities president, called Chaffee Crossing “one of the greatest redevelopment community success stories across the country.”

Authority officials say that total capital investment at Chaffee Crossing is now more than $1.5 billion.

“We’ve just about run out of big pieces of property,” Owen told me. “We’ve been selling property so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. We started out with just more than 6,000 acres, and we’re now down to just more than 1,000 acres that we can sell. With more people living here, the next thing you’ll see is a lot more retail. Once we’ve sold all of the property, the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority will go away and the assets will be split between Sebastian County, the city of Barling and the city of Fort Smith. I can tell you that we’re viewed across the country as a model for what should be done with closed bases. Things just came together for us in recent years. It has been the perfect storm.”

The authority derives revenue from land sales, leases and even railcar storage. It partners with Fort Smith and Barling on infrastructure projects.

Longtime Fort Smith journalist Judith Hansen told America’s Defense Communities: “Everyone wondered whether Ivy would be able to pull it off, but he has been there the longest and done the most with it. Before he arrived, the land was so open and empty that I used to give my kids driving lessons out there. Now, there’s manufacturing, light industry, retail, restaurants, housing, schools and nonprofits — and there’s still so much building going on that, as Ivy will say, ‘If you haven’t been to Chaffee Crossing this week, it’s as though you haven’t been here.’ I don’t know where folks are taking their kids for driving lessons now.”

She said Owen “sought a variety of perspectives and was willing to consider different options that would benefit the people throughout the region, not just Fort Smith. He also had the patience to wait for the right opportunities to come along rather than just jumping into projects that wouldn’t be the right fit.”

Not all of this success story involves new construction. Part of it has to do with attracting tenants for old base structures that are being repurposed for commercial uses. Hundreds of buildings were demolished after the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended the permanent closure of Fort Chaffee in 1995. Several buildings that once were part of the fort, however, are now being renovated.

Businesses have taken notice.

Ivy told America’s Defense Communities: “One of the first requests I made of the authority’s board after I was hired was for $40,000 to design a historic district around the Elvis building, which has become a major tourist attraction, drawing people from all over the world. I didn’t think they would give me the money — and the project wound up costing three times what I asked for — but they let me go out on a limb. Fortunately, I didn’t break it.”

It was March 25, 1958, and Elvis Presley was being given a buzz cut at Fort Chaffee after having been inducted into the U.S. Army.

Asked by reporters what he thought about having to give up his famous sideburns, Presley said: “Hair today, gone tomorrow.”

The quote was printed in newspapers across the country the next day. And the haircut is still celebrated at the Chaffee Barbershop Museum.

“We opened that museum in 2008 after restoring the room to look just like it did in March 1958, and since then we’ve had visitors from 40 states and 15 foreign countries,” Owen said. “It has been a hit since the first day the doors were open.”

A second museum, the Museum of Chaffee History, attracts additional visitors. Displays chronicle the fort’s role in five wars along with resettlement operations that have occurred there. More than 50,000 Vietnamese refugees were processed at Fort Chaffee in 1975-76. More than 20,000 Cuban refugees were processed there from 1980-82. In 2005, the fort was called back into duty to host evacuees following hurricanes Katrina and Rita. More than 10,000 people from coastal areas of Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas were housed in empty barracks.

The Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority has created four small districts within its larger Fort Chaffee Historic District.

The Legacy District houses the museums along with businesses in renovated barracks and administrative buildings.

The Enterprise District will cater to businesses that require more parking spaces and greater visibility.

The Warehouse District has a furniture store, a microbrewery, restaurants and commercial office space.

The Memorial District will feature a walking path and interpretive panels.

There are also attractions outside the Historic District that draw visitors to Chaffee Crossing. In 2006, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission put one of its four nature centers at Chaffee Crossing (the other three are in Little Rock, Jonesboro and Pine Bluff). The Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Nature Center is a 14,000-square-foot facility with 170 surrounding acres that are used to interpret the natural environment of the Arkansas River Valley. There’s a 12-acre manmade lake and numerous trails. The center attracted more than 80,000 people during its first year of operation.

In 2011, the McClure Amphitheater, which was built by soldiers in the 1950s, was restored at a cost of $160,000. The amphitheater now hosts everything from family reunions to small entertainment productions.

Back at ACHE, Parker believes the complex has the potential of transforming Fort Smith from the manufacturing center of the state to a place where science, technology and intellectual capital play leading roles.

“Those of us on the Sparks board began asking what we could do to improve the health of people in this state,” Parker told me. “The thing we were told over and over is that we should begin a school of osteopathic medicine and then place our graduates in towns throughout Arkansas. We then began to visit schools across the country. We asked the heads of those schools what they would do differently if they were starting from scratch. That led us to build one of the most modern medical schools in the world.”

Osteopathic physicians (also known as D.O.s) can become fully licensed physicians who are able to practice medicine and surgery in all 50 states. Their training is much the same as that given to the medical doctors coming out of schools such as the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences at Little Rock with the exception of an increased emphasis in schools of osteopathic medicine on the physical manipulation of muscle tissues and bones.

Parker, a 1980 graduate of Arkansas Tech University at Russellville, received his law degree from the Franklin Pierce Law Center in New Hampshire in 1985. A technology buff, Parker wrote the first artificial intelligence software ever granted a registered copyright for the legal profession while he was still in law school.

In 1989, Parker digitized Arkansas legal case opinions along with statutory and regulatory laws and released a legal CD-ROM known as CaseBase. By 1994, he had created the first searchable legal information Internet site at

His company LOIS (for Law Office Information Systems) grew to almost 700 employees and went public in 1999. The company helped revolutionize legal research. In 2001, it was sold to an Amsterdam-based publishing company. LOIS clients included more than 23,000 law firms, every accredited law school in the country and most courts. Parker then joined that publishing company, Wolters Kluwer, as its executive vice president of business development and strategic planning.

Tired of the corporate rat race, Parker entered higher education in 2009 as the vice chancellor of technology at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. He became the school’s vice chancellor of operations a year later.

“Our faculty members have come from 15 states, and they love it here,” Parker says of ACHE. “We assured them that we’re here for the long haul, and when they saw how advanced this building is, they believed us. We’re also trying to get our students to fall in love with the state. We want them to stay and practice here.

Parker hopes eventually to have four buildings around a landscaped quadrangle.

Chaffee Crossing isn’t the only place where Fort Smith is changing these days. The city’s old downtown also is being revived.

I had lunch recently with two of the leaders of the downtown revitalization efforts, Trent Goins and Steve Clark. They’re intent on fulfilling the late Bill Neumeier’s goal of transforming downtown Fort Smith into a regional dining and entertainment destination. Neumeier died Nov. 19 at age 54 after a long battle with depression. The cause of death was suicide.

Goins heads poultry producer O.K. Foods. The company was founded by his great-grandfather, Collier Wenderoth Sr., in 1933. The business grew under the later leadership of Collier Wenderoth Jr. and son-in-law Randy Goins, Trent Goins’ father.

Trent Goins didn’t immediately go into the poultry business after college. He began his career on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., handling agricultural issues for then-Congressman Marion Berry. Goins returned to Fort Smith and joined the family business in 2002.

Collier Wenderoth Jr. died in 2011, and O.K. Foods was sold later that year for more than $90 million to Mexican conglomerate Industrias Bachoco. Goins stayed with the company as its senior vice president of sales and marketing. When the president and chief executive officer of O.K. Foods left in February 2014, the Mexican owners asked Goins to take the job.

Clark, meanwhile, was born in the Dallas area. His family moved to Roland, Okla., which is just across the state line from Fort Smith, when Clark was in the fifth grade. Clark graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in finance in 1986. Two decades ago, he founded a logistical company known as Propak Corp. The company now has almost 2,000 employees with 60 of them working in a historic downtown Fort Smith building that was renovated by Clark. Propak has received national recognition for its supply chain management solutions.

Neumeier opened a downtown Fort Smith diner known as Coney Island in 1988. Goins has fond memories of going there with his grandfather.

“He would buy us both a hot dog and then take food to his employees,” Goins said. “Bill’s businesses grew from there. I came back to Fort Smith at the right time because people like Bill were already bringing life back to downtown.”

In 1990, Coney Island added the Downtown Pizza Wagon. In 1994, the business grew into the Coney Island Beer Garden at 817 Garrison Ave. The first touring act — Poppa Chubby — played there the next year. Neumeier added a stage in 1996, and the place became known for its live entertainment. In 2009, the business became Neumeier’s Rib Room & Beer Garden.

At 508 Garrison Avenue, Neumeier started Papa’s Pub and Pizzaria. Neumeier sold the 817 Garrison Ave. location three years ago to a group who turned it into The Sound Room. The Rib Room then moved to its current location at 424 Garrison Ave.

Neumeier began the Riverfront Blues Festival in 1991 on a flatbed trailer stage on the banks of the Arkansas River. In 2015, he helped Goins and Gosey start the Peacemaker Arts & Music Festival in downtown Fort Smith. That annual festival has brought the likes of Jason Isbell and Ray Wylie Hubbard to town.

The Rib Room is filled with music memorabilia. The room housing the bar is decorated solely with Rolling Stones items that Neumeier collected.

“Bill saw this as his rock ‘n’ roll barbecue joint,” Goins told me. “Musicians loved hanging out in here because Bill treated them like royalty. Fort Smith has a great reputation among performers because of Bill.”

Goins talked excitedly about plans for the restaurant and its outdoor patio, where live performances will resume in the spring.

After lunch, we crossed Garrison and visited Harry’s Downtown, a venue that Gosey opened last August. Gosey also owns AJ’s Oyster House downtown. He named his most recent venture in honor of the late Harry Schwartz, who operated a restaurant known as Harry’s Hamburger Barn back when there were few dining options along the avenue. The music venue will hold almost 200 people.

Clark stressed the need to make Garrison — the widest city street in the state — more friendly for pedestrians. He also listed potential new businesses along the avenue such as a distillery. In numerous speeches, Clark has urged Fort Smith residents to quit being jealous about what has happened in Washington and Benton counties and instead come up with ideas that will put Fort Smith on the map.

“We can’t match the resources of the Walton family and what that has brought to northwest Arkansas,” Clark said. “We can’t build a Crystal Bridges in Fort Smith. In a way, though, that’s liberating. We’re forced to try new things that bring energy to the city and engage its people. The things happening here are genuine and authentic. They’re uniquely Fort Smith. We now have people who aren’t from here looking to make investments downtown.”

Clark hopes to spread the activity from Garrison into surrounding neighborhoods.

“Downtown is more than just Garrison Avenue,” he said. “We should think of Garrison as the backbone and the side streets as the ribs. People with vision built this city back when it was on the American frontier. We let that spirit become dormant for a time, but we’re now back on the right track.”

In 2015, the Sam Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas named Clark as its Entrepreneur of the Year. Clark is behind 64.6 Downtown, the nonprofit group that’s helping transform the city. He’s also behind The Unexpected, the festival that has brought artists from around the world to Fort Smith.

Speaking last year to the Fort Smith Downtown Business Association, Clark said: “When Whirlpool left, we sat around for a while thinking that maybe that wasn’t what was really going on, that maybe we had just fallen asleep, that it was a bad dream and that it would all take care of itself. Once you cross the bridge intellectually that there is no cavalry coming to save us economically, you’re going to have to fight a little harder and do the things for yourself that maybe historically you waited on others — the city, civic leaders, whatever — to do for you.”

He was asked why he came up with The Unexpected, which has led to 33 works of art being produced on the sides of buildings across town during the past five years and has attracted international media attention to Fort Smith.

“Because that is the kind of city I want to live in,” Clark told the downtown business group. “If you want to live in a city that has trails, that celebrates the arts or music or anything that makes the city rich in culture — if you’re waiting on someone to do that, stop. Find a way to get engaged. Plug in.”

As we dug into our barbecue that day at Neumeier’s, Clark said to me: “Art is a powerful thing.”

He then looked down the table at Goins. Clark wanted an Unexpected artist to paint murals on an old feed mill that O.K. owns downtown. Goins resisted at first, thinking of reasons why it wouldn’t be a good idea.

“Trent is a compelling debater,” Clark said. “But on that day, I was better.”

The work of Guido van Helten on the silos at the feed mill now draws visitors from across the country. He painted for two weeks in September 2016. Portrayed on the towers are three locals — Gene “Beck” Beckham, Edward Paradela and Kristina Jones. Beckham worked for O.K. for more than 70 years beginning in the 1940s.

In a documentary by fellow Australian Selina Miles, van Helten said of his art: “Before I create a work, I really want to learn about the people who live there. I want to really try and develop a work that speaks to them and belongs there even though I don’t belong there.”

When the work was finished in 2016, Goins said: “Gene spent more than 40 years working at this feed mill, and he embodies the spirit of our employees, both past and present. … While our feed mill has stood as an economic contributor to the area for more than 50 years, it can now shine as a cultural inspiration that celebrates our community’s past, present and future.”

I picked up a copy of the Times Record, the local newspaper, after lunch that day and noticed that all three front-page stories had to do with downtown development.

The first story noted that the Fort Smith Board of Directors voted 6-1 in favor of holding a March special election on a 1-cent sales tax. The tax would run from July 1, 2019, until March 31, 2020. The nine-month tax would generate $17 million that’s needed to complete the U.S. Marshals Museum on the banks of the Arkansas River.

The second story covered a special meeting of 64.6 Downtown that was held the previous day at Propak headquarters. The meeting gave the public a chance to meet sculptor Spencer Schubert of Kansas City, who will create three statues for the new Gateway Park at the intersection of Garrison and Rogers avenues.

The third story was about the Central Business Improvement District’s request that the Fort Smith Police Department provide bike patrols downtown.

Clark is as responsible as anyone for this renewed focus on downtown. He was raised in the Fort Smith area and is committed to the city. In addition to founding Propak, Clark was a founder of the digital media company Rockfish Interactive, which was sold in 2016.

“Rockfish taught me that you have to be a lifelong learner,” Clark told the online publication Backstory 40. “Gone are the days when you can graduate from college and you’re through. You have to expect to remake yourself several times throughout the course of your career. We cannot rest on what we have done. We must constantly be remaking ourselves.”

While remaking himself, Clark is remaking the old blue-collar city of Fort Smith.

“That’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it?” he told Backstory 49. “You’re supposed to make things better if you can. We have a right to be as good as we can be.”

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From Waldron to Fort Smith

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2019


We head north out of Waldron on U.S. Highway 71 on this cold morning and soon find ourselves in Sebastian County, which saw its population double from 62,809 in the 1950 census to 125,744 in the 2010 census.

It’s one of those counties with two county seats — Fort Smith and Greenwood — and we’ll be in both cities later in the day.

The Arkansas Legislature created Sebastian County in January 1851 and named it after U.S. Sen. William King Sebastian. Greenwood was created to serve as the county seat. The county seat was moved to Fort Smith three years later. In 1861, the Legislature divided the county into two judicial districts with both cities as county seats.

For a time, Sebastian County was home to some of the state’s largest coal-mining operations.

“Coal had been mined on a limited scale in Arkansas starting in the late 1840s in Johnson County, but coal was discovered in the Greenwood area in the 1870s and swiftly became the county’s chief industry, attracting not only investors but also immigrants of all varieties, especially eastern Europeans,” writes Guy Lancaster for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “That same decade, railroads arrived in Fort Smith with the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad being completed in 1876, thus providing a convenient means of transporting coal out of the county.

“In 1889, the Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad constructed a line between Greenwood and Fort Smith. The St. Louis-San Francisco Railway reached Fort Smith in 1883, and the Kansas City Southern gave Fort Smith even greater national connections, just as it did the small town of Bonanza, which grew up around a mine established in 1896. In the late 1880s, the Little Rock & Texas Railway laid down track between the two communities of Coop Prairie and Chocoville on the border with Scott County, resulting in the merger of the two into the city of Mansfield.”

Mansfield became a hub for the shipment of coal. Natural gas was discovered in 1887, and commercial development of the gas fields began near Mansfield in 1902.

As was the case in other parts of the country with coal mining, there were sometimes violent strikes in the county.

“The United Mine Workers organized strikes in 1888 and 1894,” Lancaster writes. “By 1903, the UAW had finally succeeded in obtaining a closed-shop contract from local operators. This agreement lasted until 1914 when mine owner Franklin Bache tried to open a non-union mine. On April 6, 1914, miners and their sympathizers succeeded in shutting down the mine temporarily and driving off the non-union workers, but tensions continued to rise. In July, union miners battled with company guards at the site of one of Bache’s mines while other mines in the area were dynamited during what has come to be called the Sebastian County Union War.”

A steep drop in prices led to a decline of the coal industry following 1925.

The county received a boost in 1941, however, when Camp Chaffee was established. It was renamed Fort Chaffee in 1956.

“Though the creation of Camp Chaffee provided something of an economic stimulus to the county during the war, rural parts of the county faced a crisis as returning soldiers found few jobs in their hometowns,” Lancaster writes. “Residents of Lavaca found a way out of this crisis by growing what was called the Lavacaberry, a boysenberry-raspberry hybrid that proved popular not just with local consumers but also wholesalers. However, competition from out-of-state growers resulted in most farmers turning to other crops by the late 1950s.

“Postwar economic troubles weren’t limited to rural areas. Camp Chaffee’s occasional deactivation and reactivation led Fort Smith’s leaders to attract a diverse array of industry so that the city’s economy would not be so dependent upon the military installation. In the 1950s and 1960s, they were successful in luring numerous manufacturers to the city.”

We roll into Mansfield, which is just 10 miles east of the Oklahoma state line.

Coop Prairie was established in 1849. A trading post, the Coop Prairie Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Coop Prairie Cemetery were there.

Chocoville was established in 1851 about four miles to the west when a post office opened there.

The Little Rock & Texas Railway’s decision to run its tracks between the two communities led to the August 1888 merger into Mansfield.

“Many believe that the town’s name was coined by a line surveyor who, at the end of the day, reported he had gotten as far as some ‘man’s field,'” Jack James writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “According to local legend, references continued to be made to the ‘man’s field’ until the name stuck. A more likely story gives the name in honor of William W. Mansfield, who served on the Arkansas Supreme Court.”

Mansfield boomed as a center of the coal-mining industry.

“At one point, it adopted the slogan ’50 Buildings in 50 Days’ to spur construction,” James writes. “The depots swarmed with passenger traffic while hotels and restaurants were established to serve the growing area’s needs. J.W. Harper is credited with the first building in Mansfield — Bowman Hall, a two-story building, the ground floor of which was occupied by the Methodist Episcopal Church and the second floor by the Masons.

“Cotton fields prospered, as did the lumber business. Arkansas’ first commercial gas fields were discovered south of Mansfield in 1902, drilled by the Choctaw Oil & Gas Co. This brought the first industry to the area. The Mansfield Brick Co. was founded and provided bricks to local buildings for many years. Signs of that industry still remain. By 1905, the town had four dry goods stores, three groceries, four hotels, two blacksmiths, one drugstore, a bank and a livery stable.

“Prosperity came to a close around 1925 due to a decline in coal prices and an increase in the cost of production. The coal industry began cutting jobs. The Great Depression compounded the hard times, and many families were forced to leave the area in search of work. Not all left, though. In 1930, because of its superior educational facilities, Mansfield became the parent school for the entire area. Young men went to work on National Youth Administration and Works Progress Administration projects that built local bridges and schools. The building of a road to the top of nearby Poteau Mountain provided employment for many.”

Highway 71 forced the Coop Prairie Church to move. “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” later would note that its cemetery was the only one in the country with a U.S. highway running through it.

Many area men were involved in building Camp Chaffee.

“Trucks carrying supplies and increased traffic along Highway 71 resulted in the building of small diners and motels,” James writes. “When the coal mining in nearby Huntington and Hartford began to wane, Mansfield persisted as a town due to local natural gas reserves. … With an abundance of lumber from the Ouachita National Forest, Mansfield remains a major player in the lumber production business.”

In 2004, an expanded high school was built near the old Chocoville site.

We continue north on Highway 71, taking a right onto Arkansas Highway 10 for the short trip into Greenwood, a place many of us know now as one of the high school football capitals of Arkansas. The population of Greenwood has exploded from just 3,317 in the 1980 census to a current estimated population of 9,500.

Sebastian County commissioners held a meeting in January 1851 to discuss building a county seat on the banks of Vache Grasse Creek. In March, the commissioners decided to name the town in honor of Judge Burton Greenwood. It was a fertile area for farming, which attracted black residents to Greenwood at the end of the Civil War. Greenwood, however, later gained the reputation as a sundown town, and blacks left the area. They were replaced by German, Italian, Irish, Scottish and Russian immigrants who came to work in the coal mines between 1880 and 1920. The railroad came to town in 1887 and was used to ship out coal, peaches and cotton.

The Greenwood business district was destroyed by an August 1922 fire. New buildings were constructed of native stone in the years that followed, but the business district was destroyed again by a 1968 tornado that left 13 dead.

Nearby Fort Chaffee has played many roles through the years — Army training facility, prisoner of war camp, refugee center. The more than 60,000 acres that remain part of the fort are used these days by the National Guard as a training facility.

“Groundbreaking for what was then Camp Chaffee was held on Sept. 20, 1941, as part of the Department of War’s preparations to double the size of the U.S. Army in the face of imminent war,” Maranda Radcliff writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “That month, the U.S. government paid $1.35 million to acquire 15,163 acres from 712 property owners, including families, farms, businesses, churches, schools and other government agencies.

“The camp was named after Maj. Gen. Adna R. Chaffee Jr., an artillery officer who determined in Europe during World War I that the cavalry was outmoded. Unlike other cavalry officers, Chaffee advocated for the use of tanks. It took only 16 months to build the base. The first soldiers arrived on Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The installation was activated on March 27, 1942. From 1942-46, the 6th, 14th and 16th Armored Divisions trained there. During World War II, it served as both a training camp and a prisoner of war camp.”

Almost 3,000 German prisoners were housed at Camp Chaffee at one point.

The re-designation as Fort Chaffee came on March 21, 1956.

“In 1958, Chaffee was home to it most famous occupant, Elvis Presley,” Radcliff writes. “Presley received his first military haircut in Building 803. In 1959, the ‘Home of the U.S. Army Training Center, Field Artillery’ moved from Fort Chaffee to Fort Sill, Okla., where it remains. From 1960-61, the fort was the home of the 100th Infantry Division. In 1961, Fort Chaffee was declared inactive and place on caretaker status, though it was reactivated again later that year and on several other occasions through 1974. During the Vietnam War, the fort was used as a test site for tactical defoliants like Agent Orange.”

Chaffee was busy again in 1975-76. It was used to process 50,809 refugees from the war in Vietnam. A number of those refugees ended up living in the Fort Smith area.

In May 1980, Chaffee became a resettlement center for Cubans picked up from the port of Mariel. Rioting erupted three weeks later. Dozens of state troopers were brought in, tear gas was used, two buildings were burned and the story received national media attention. Republican Frank White attacked Gov. Bill Clinton for not standing up to the federal government in an attempt to keep the Cubans out of Arkansas. Many political analysts later said the issue played a role in White’s upset victory over Clinton that November.

Chaffee wound up processing 25,390 Cubans.

“In 1987, the Joint Readiness Training Center began training soldiers at Chaffee,” Radcliff writes. “The center was transferred to Fort Polk, La., in 1993. In 1995, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended the closure of Fort Chaffee. The recommendation was approved with the condition that minimum essential ranges, facilities and training areas were maintained as a training enclave. On Sept. 28, 1995, Fort Chaffee became a sub-installation of Fort Sill. In late 1995, the federal government declared 7,192 of Fort Chaffee’s 76,075 acres to be surplus and turned the land over to the state. The remaining acres were turned over to the Arkansas National Guard for use as a training facility.”

The change-of-command ceremony took place on Sept. 27, 1997, as command was transferred from the U.S. Army to the Arkansas Army National Guard.

The Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority was established to redevelop the land turned over to the state. Chaffee Crossing is now a successful area of commercial and industrial projects along with residential neighborhoods.

In 2005, empty barracks at the site were used to house evacuees from Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. More than 10,000 people from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas came through the facility.

“Fort Chaffee has a rich military history, but it also has a bit of Hollywood history,” Radcliff writes. “In 1984, the movie ‘A Soldiers Story’ starring Howard Rollins Jr. was shot at Fort Chaffee. Four years later, the Neil Simon movie ‘Biloxi Blues’ starring Matthew Broderick was filmed there. The most recent visit from Hollywood was in 1995 for ‘The Tuskegee Airmen’ with Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding Jr.”

We make our way into Fort Smith, the state’s second-largest city and one of the most historic cities in the region.

“The Arkansas River Valley provided fertile bottomland to early settlers,” writes historian Ben Boulden. “Belle Point, a river bluff along the Arkansas River just north of its juncture with the Poteau River, afforded an excellent vantage point looking west and a defensible position for the first Fort Smith military post. In November 1817, the first American troops arrived at Belle Point and began building the first structures. The principal purpose of the fort was to keep the peace between the Osage and Cherokee tribes that had entered the area, as was the Fort Smith Council, a meeting held between Indian and territorial leaders in 1822. Around the fort, a small settlement began forming, taking its name from the fort that, in turn, was named for Gen. Thomas A. Smith, the military district’s commander.

“In 1822, John Rogers arrived and established himself as a supplier to the fort and as a trader with Native Americans, trappers and other settlers. The Army abandoned the fort and moved west to establish Fort Gibson in the Indian Territory (later Oklahoma). In the 1830s, Congress funded several military roads, including the Fort Smith to Jackson Road, to improve transportation in territorial Arkansas. By 1836, the Army returned and began building the second Fort Smith military post. Rogers lobbied successfully for the military’s return. Because of his strong association with both forts and his early effort to promote the town, many consider him to be the founder of the city of Fort Smith.”

Fort Smith was later a center for outfitting those heading to California in 1848-49 and for those fighting in the Mexican War from 1846-48.

“Fort Smith became increasingly central to communications on the frontier and beyond as stage, steamboat and mail transportation networks matured,” Boulden writes.

Federal troops abandoned the garrison at Fort Smith shortly before Arkansas seceded at the start of the Civil War, but they returned in September 1863.

“After the war, forces out of Fort Smith worked to restore order to the countryside and rural areas of western Arkansas,” Boulden writes. “Military farm colonies were established in an effort to help refugees become self-sufficient. The city also was the site of the Fort Smith Conference of 1865, a gathering of federal and tribal representatives for the the purpose of negotiating the terms under which the former Confederate Indian nations could resume their relationship with the United States.”

In the 1870s, the federal courts for the Western District of Arkansas moved from Van Buren to Fort Smith.

“Judge William Story presided over the court but was replaced in May 1875 by Judge Isaac C. Parker, a former congressman from Missouri,” Boulden writes. “Parker’s judgeship lasted until just before his death in 1896 and marks one of the most celebrated periods in Fort Smith history. U.S. marshals and deputy marshals headquartered in Fort Smith not only enforced the law in western Arkansas but also in the frequently lawless neighboring Indian Territory.

“In the city of Fort Smith, the late 19th century marked a period of booming growth in which the population nearly tripled, commercial trading expanded and Garrison Avenue became the wholesale and retail center of the region. Railroad transportation arrived in the 1870s, giving the city an important alternative to the Arkansas River. Much of the city’s history until the onset of the Great Depression is a story of the growth (albeit in fits and starts) of its economy and culture. An electric streetcar network within the city grew as the city did. Between 1907 and 1924, the city became one of the few in U.S. history to not only legalize but also regulate prostitution in a restricted district (known as the Row).”

The discovery of natural gas in the area, the growth of the furniture industry and the 1922 completion of a bridge over the Arkansas River at the west end of Garrison Avenue led to further growth. Fort Smith’s population grew from 11,587 in the 1900 census to 71,626 in the 1980 census.

Through the years, Fort Smith became the state’s manufacturing center. Whirlpool employed almost 4,600 people there as recently as 2004. American manufacturing slowed, and those Whirlpool jobs are now all gone.

The most recent Census Bureau estimates show Fort Smith with a population of about 88,000. Rather than worrying about how to keep up with the growth in Washington and Benton counties, a new generation of Fort Smith leaders is forging an identity for the city. That will be the subject of the next post.

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From Mena to Waldron

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019


We’re in the Ouachita National Forest soon after leaving Mena. We’re heading north on U.S. Highway 71.

It originally was known as the Arkansas National Forest and was created when President Teddy Roosevelt issued an executive order on Dec. 18, 1907. Gifford Pinchot headed the U.S. Forest Service at the time (he was the first director) and commented that it was the only major shortleaf pine forest being protected by the federal government.

The national forest was created mostly from public domain lands south of the Arkansas River. What was known as the Weeks Law in 1911 authorized the federal government to purchase forests in the eastern part of the country. From 1933-41, there was a massive expansion of the system as the government attempted to renew cutover and farmed-out lands.

The name of the Arkansas National Forest was changed to the Ouachita National Forest in 1926. In 1930, the national forest was extended into eastern Oklahoma. The Ouachita National Forest now consists of almost 1.8 million acres in 12 Arkansas and two Oklahoma counties. It’s the largest and oldest national forest in the South with almost 60 recreational areas, several scenic byways and hundreds of miles of trails.

After passing through Acorn in Polk County, we enter Scott County. Much of this county is national forest land. Scott County had just 11,233 residents in the 2010 census, down from a population of 14,302 a century earlier.

“The county name was selected to honor Territorial Supreme Court Justice Andrew Scott,” Wes Goodner writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The act of the Territorial General Assembly that created the county in 1833 provided that the residence of Walter Cauthron, located near what’s now Booneville in Logan County, would serve as the ‘temporary seat of justice.’ In 1836, faced with choosing a county seat of a more permanent nature, commissioners chose the community of Cauthron and proceeded to establish a courthouse. Because of numerous redefinitions of Scott County’s boundaries, this site of Cauthron is now within present-day Logan County and is not the present-day Scott County community known as Cauthron.

“In 1840, popular opinion demanded that the county seat be in a more central location, and the community of Winfield, located about two miles northeast of present-day Waldron, was selected. This Winfield shouldn’t be confused with the present-day community with the same name.”

William G. Featherston settled near what’s now Waldron in the 1830s. He was a business owner and postmaster with the post office on his property going by the name of Poteau Valley.

“In 1845, Featherston offered 10 acres of his land for a town to serve as the county seat,” Goodner writes. “His offer of land was accepted, and owing in no small part to the poor road system to and from Winfield, the county seat was moved to what’s now known as Waldron. The land was later surveyed and a plat was designed by John P. Waldron, for whom Waldron is named. Following the establishment of Waldron as the county seat, several years of relative prosperity, progress and calm followed with the development of a merchant presence, hotels and facilities of county government.”

There wasn’t much fighting in Scott County during the Civil War, but Reconstruction proved to be a violent, controversial process, leading to a series of events known as the Waldron War. More on that later.

“As Reconstruction ended, a period of relative quiet and tranquility began,” Goodner writes. “The turn of the century brought railroads, a short-lived coal mining industry, cotton crops and a successful merchant district in downtown Waldron. In spite of difficulties and hardships, growth was sustained, if modest, even in the turbulent times of World War I and the stock market catastrophe. The local economy was buffered somewhat by the railroads, coal, cotton and the timber industry and was aided by the Depression-era relief measures, particularly the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps.

“The post-World War II era brought manufacturing jobs — primarily the crafting of furniture, milling of lumber and poultry production — while maintaining a solid merchant district along Main Street in Waldron. The largest employer in the county is the poultry industry. … With the coming of larger chain establishments, the commercial district of Waldron has shifted from Main Street to areas along the nearby Highway 71 bypass. With the installation of street lamps, a conservation easement and renovations to the historic former courthouse, efforts have been made to renovate and revitalize the downtown area.”

We pass through Y City as we drive north on Highway 71. When I was a boy growing up in Arkadelphia, we would take what I called the “back route” to Fayetteville. We would wind our way west through Alpine, Amity, Glenwood, Caddo Gap, Norman, Mount Ida and Pencil Bluff before connecting with Highway 71 at Y City. On trips when we left early in the morning, we would stop for breakfast at a place here called the Midway before heading north on Highway 71 to Fayetteville.

The next community we pass through is Boles, which is nine miles south of Waldron. Boles is along the Fourche La Fave River.

“In the 1860s, the Boles family settled in the community that would eventually be named after it,” Ty Richardson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The community was originally called Stringtown. The origin of the name comes from the first settler’s boat being strung up and down the banks of the Fourche La Fave River. Travel by boat was likely easier at the time than using wilderness trails. By 1887, the population of Boles increased from just a few people to around 100. A church, schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, wood shop, shoe shop, post office and hotel had been established in Boles by this time. Also active within the community were four merchants. … One of the main industries in Boles in the 19th century was cotton, and the town had a steam-powered gin. Water was hauled from the Fourche La Fave River by wagon.”

The last school at Boles closed in 1968. Students now go to Waldron for school.

The Fourche La Fave starts just west of Boles. It runs for about 140 miles through Scott, Yell and Perry counties before emptying into the Arkansas River. Construction of Nimrod Dam on the river in Perry County was completed in 1942 and created Nimrod Lake.

“The origin of the river’s name is open to debate,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Fourche is French for fork, and La Fave may be in reference either to a family that once lived along the river or to early settler Peter La Fave. The fork of the river is the South Fourche La Fave River, which rises in the Ouachita Mountains near Onyx in Yell County and empties into the Fourche La Fave River near Deberrie in Perry County.”

Early settlers grew cotton along the river.

“In 1841-42, German writer Friedrich Gerstacker resided and hunted in Arkansas, mostly along the Fourche La Fave,” Lancaster writes. “These experiences provided background for some of an 1844 book as well as an 1845 novel that describes vigilantism along the river. On another trip to the United States in 1867, he returned to Arkansas specifically to hunt along the Fourche La Fave and visit his friend Gustavus Klingelhoffer.

“Early transportation along the river was conducted by keelboat, but even this was challenging given the numerous shoals along the course of the waterway. On March 3, 1879, Congress passed an act to improve the river. This included dynamiting some of the rocky shoals to create a deeper channel for transportation. By 1889, the river was navigable up to either Perryville or Aplin in Perry County, depending on the level of the water.”

After leaving Boles, we pass through a community with an interesting name — Needmore.

Richardson explains: “Until around 1926, there were no businesses or religious establishments in the area now known as Needmore. That year, John Walls built a 10-by-20-foot building east of Highway 71 and south of Highway 28 and began selling necessities to residents. Sometime later, Pat Murphy began managing the store. Murphy stocked a limited supply of groceries, like most small stores in the county. When a customer would come into the store asking for something Murphy did not have, he would often reply by saying, ‘I need more of that.’

“This became a running joke with members of the community. Customers would intentionally ask for items he did not have in order to keep the joke running. People in the community began calling the store Needmore, and eventually the community was known by the same name.”

We make our way into Waldron, which is about 50 miles south of Fort Smith. The town is on the South Fork of the Poteau River.

Waldron officially was incorporated on Dec. 17, 1852. Featherston’s barn on Main Street served as the courthouse until a structure was built in 1859.

“The production of raw material on the surrounding farms and in the forests sustained the early economy,” Wanda Gray writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The landowners sold cotton, corn and lumber, enabling them to buy or barter for processed or manufactured goods. The businessmen of Waldron provided cotton gins, lumber mills and gristmills. … Early boarding houses and hotels provided accommodations for travelers along the Fort Smith-Red River Road, the major western Arkansas corridor passing through the center of Waldron.”

Goodner describes the so-called Waldron War as “a decade-long period of violence that began during the Reconstruction era and was characterized by arson, general lawlessness, personal and political feuds, electoral misconduct and violence — including murder — throughout Scott County. The civil strife resulted in Govs. Augustus Garland and William Miller dispatching the state militia to the county on at least three occasions to restore order. With much of Waldron burned by departing Union troops in 1864, the citizens faced the re-establishment of the infrastructure of the town. While hostile feelings remained between those sympathetic to the Union cause and the Confederate cause, much of the strife was attributed to personality conflicts within the local Republican Party. Although there was the occasional outburst of lawlessness such as arson and election fraud in the period immediately following the Civil War, for the most part the town progressed with rebuilding and economic growth.

“The cycle of contentious elections began in 1870 with the naming of the Scott County Board of Registrars by Gov. Powell Clayton. James M. Bethel, a member of the board, was later declared to have defeated the father of fellow board member W.J. Ellington in a race for the Legislature, resulting in rumors and accusations about the election. The gossip and intrigue were compounded by Bethel’s failure to arrive in Little Rock to begin his term. He was soon found dead on an area mountain, and published reports attributed Bethel’s death to causes varying from natural to weather-related to murder. The election of 1872 saw a pattern not unlike the election of 1870. Reports of voter registration books missing from the clerk’s office circulated as did rumors, accusations and innuendos about the election process.”

Numerous arrests followed.

Goodner notes that “increasing political pressure and personality conflicts ushered in a new intensity and violent fervor to the already unsettled political climate in 1874. The year was marked by a violent cycle, though with few apprehensions and convictions of rumored perpetrators. A longtime feud within the Republican Party was highlighted with the shooting of prominent citizen Cerop Malone. A former sheriff, Nathan Floyd, was charged with the shooting but was later acquitted. In 1875, Floyd sustained a gunshot wound and chose to leave the state. An outburst of violence in 1876 brought arson, which left Waldron’s business district in ashes, along with several murders.”

After the state militia was sent to Waldron in 1878 in an attempt to impose order, things settled down.

A branch of the Kansas City Southern Railroad reached Waldron in 1903, a stone jail was constructed in 1908 and the first automobile arrived in 1912.

“By 1920, the town had a bank, a weekly newspaper, a canning factory, a flour mill, a brick factory, a soda pop plant, an ice and cold storage plant, electricity, telephones, large lumber interests, natural gas, mercantile businesses and a population of 918 residents,” Gray writes. “The first movie houses in Waldron were small and did not have talking movies, but by the 1930s a new movie theater adorned Main Street and talking movies were the rage. The muddy main streets of the town were improved with a cover of hard-surface materials, the water systems were changed from private wells and cisterns to a central water system and the outdoor toilets were eliminated when a city sewer system was established.”

Unlike many surrounding towns, Waldron has grown steadily through the years. It had a population of 3,618 residents in the 2010 census.

The Waldron Commercial Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in September 2008. It consists of buildings along Main Street from First Street to Fifth Street. There are 35 structures in the area that were built between 1880 and 1958.

“Many new brick commercial buildings were built on Main Street during the 1880s and 1890s, including the Boston Cash Store building in 1880 and the Dozier & Son building in 1890,” Richardson writes. “Businesses flourished on Main Street after the turn of the century. In 1901, the Bank of Waldron and First National Bank both opened on South Main Street. … The City Garage, which sold Ford automobiles, opened directly west of the courthouse in 1916. In the 1930s, the New Deal brought the Works Progress Administration to Scott County to provide jobs for people in the area who were suffering during the Depression. Main Street was paved for the first time between First and Fifth streets. In 1931, the Pines Theatre opened on South Main Street. A new courthouse was completed in 1934 with help from the WPA. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Waldron shifted from a commercial center to an industrial town with less focus on the Main Street area.”

The Pines was renamed the Scott Theater in 1940. It still operates and is one of the oldest theaters in this part of the country.

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From Mena to the mountain

Friday, January 11th, 2019


Like most of the other places along this route, Mena was founded as a railroad town.

The city takes its name from the nickname of Folmina Margaretha Janssen de Geoijen, the wife of the man who helped finance Arthur Stilwell’s railroad from Kansas City to the Gulf Coast of Texas.

“The first train pulled into Mena on Aug. 19, 1896, the same day the New Era published its first edition,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Mena was incorporated the following month. The Bank of Mena opened its doors on May 5, 1897, and the county seat was moved from Dallas to Mena in 1898. By 1900, the city’s population was 3,423. The new city readily advertised itself both as a spa city situated in a healthy environment and as a center for agriculture and extractive industries such as timber and mineral resources.”

The rapid growth slowed after 1900.

Mena didn’t surpass 4,000 residents until the 1950 census when the population was 4,445. Mena had 5,737 residents in the 2010 census.

Stilwell — whose Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad later became the Kansas City Southern — played an important role in the early development of the city.

“In 1906, Stilwell donated four city blocks of land, containing a log cabin reportedly built in 1851, for a park named Janssen Park,” Lancaster writes. “He also donated land for a campground called Stilwell Park, though this was later built over. In 1910, the railroad moved its division shops from Mena to Heavener, Okla. More than 800 jobs were lost in the transfer.”

Mena had 152 black residents in 1900 but only 16 by 1910. By 1920, there were just nine black residents in all of Polk County.

“The March 18, 1920, edition of the Mena Star proudly advertised the small city as 100 percent white,” Lancaster writes. “In 1922, a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was organized in Mena with between 2,500 and 4,000 citizens turning out to hear state kleagle D.E. Rhodes speak at the local ballpark on the principles of the Klan.”

A high-profile lynching in 1901 and other instances of racial harassment added to Mena’s reputation as a sundown town.

Meanwhile, an institution known as Commonwealth College brought leftists to the area in the 1920s.

The late historian William H. Cobb described Commonwealth as “the accidental by-product of natural beauty, cheap land and desperation.”

The college was established in 1923 near Leesville, La., at the New Llano Cooperative Colony.

“Its founders were Kate Richards O’Hare, her husband Frank and William E. Zeuch, all socialists and lifelong adherents of the principles established by Eugene V. Debs,” Cobb wrote. “Drawing on their mutual experience at Ruskin College in Florida, where they had been impressed with the possibility of higher education combined with cooperative community, the O’Hares and Zeuch decided to create a college specifically aimed at the leadership of what they designated as a new social class, the industrial worker.”

Due to conflicts between the colony and the college, the founders decided to move the school. They first found a site near Ink in Polk County. More disagreements led to the school renting property in Mena in December 1924.

“On April 19, 1925, Commonwealth moved to its permanent home 13 miles west of Mena,” Cobb wrote. “Like pioneers, the Commoners carved a campus out of this virtual wilderness while carrying on with schooling and tending crops. Its college building was made possible by critical financial help from Roger Baldwin’s American Fund for Public Service. The serenity of these exhausting early years was shattered in 1926, however, when the American Legion charged Commonwealth with Bolshevism, Sovietism, communism and free love. It moved to investigate and close the little school.

“The resulting uproar and unwanted publicity lasted several months and ended only when FBI director J. Edgar Hoover denied that the college had any record of such ideas and activities. Though exonerated and at this point innocent, Commonwealth became permanently identified in the popular mind as ‘Red'”

In 1931, a student-staff revolt seized control of the college and ousted Zeuch, who had sought to maintain cordial relations through the years with the college’s neighbors.

“The Great Depression had radicalized both students and faculty, and Zeuch’s vision of the cooperative commonwealth was deemed inadequate,” Cobb wrote. “Delegations of Commoners were sent to Harlan, Ky., and Franklin County, Ill., to support coal miners in their strikes for union recognition. Other Commoners involved themselves in farm-labor organizations, participating in strike activities in Corinth, Miss., and Paris in Logan County. College faculty and staff were prominent in the formation of a new Socialist Party in Arkansas in 1932, and Clay Fulks, an instructor at the school, was the party’s nominee for governor in 1932. All this activity generated a high profile for the tiny school with charges of atheism, free love and, more frequently, communism being heard throughout the South.”

The school demanded four hours of labor per day from staff and students. Faculty members weren’t paid. They simply had a place to live and plenty of food to eat.

“Women worked primarily in the kitchen, the library, the laundry and the school office while men toiled on the wood crew, carpentry crew, farm crew, masonry crew or hauling crew,” Cobb wrote. “Self-maintenance was never achieved. The Commoners could, at best, produce 70 percent of their subsistence. The continuing deficit had to be gleaned from constant fundraising and grants from radical sources such as the American Fund for Public Service. Classes began at 7:30 each morning and were usually held in the instructor’s cottage.”

There were no grades, no degrees and no required class attendance. There were never more than 55 students at the school.

“The only entrance requirements were intelligence, a sense of humor and dedication to the labor movement,” Cobb wrote. “Commonwealth’s most famous student, Orval Faubus, in an interview just before his death, said he had ‘never been with a group of equal numbers that had as many highly intelligent and smart people as there were at Commonwealth College.'”

Commonwealth became heavily involved with the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, which was headquartered in the Delta of east Arkansas at Tyronza.

“It was, for the college, a fatal attraction,” Cobb wrote.

A document surfaced in August 1938 that critics of the college and the union claimed was a detailed plan by communists at Commonwealth to take over the union. Union leaders moved quickly to disassociate themselves from Commonwealth.

“By the end of the year, it was done, and Commonwealth had lost its reason for being and all of its moderate leftist support,” Cobb wrote. “The estrangement from organized labor, shattered finances, a dilapidated physical plant and poisoned relations with its local neighbors dictated drastic action. Rejecting proposals to close or merge with Highlander Folk School at Monteagle, Tenn., the Commonwealth College Association decided to soldier on and to make the school a drama center under the auspices of the radical New Theatre League of New York City. This was too much for local residents, and charges of anarchy, failure to fly the American flag during school hours and displaying the hammer and sickle emblem of the Soviet Union were filed against the school in a Polk County court. The college was found guilty and fined a total of $5,000, which it could not pay. Appeals were fruitless, and all of Commonwealth’s property, real and otherwise, was sold to pay the fine. By the end of 1940, Commonwealth College had ceased to exist.”

National attention in recent decades regarding Mena has centered on its airport.

The first rough airstrip at Mena was south of town. A hangar and flying school opened in 1942. There was a grass runway that a farmer would mow and bale for hay on a regular basis.

After World War II, the Civil Aeronautics Commission determined that Mena needed a better airport so it could serve as an emergency landing site between Texarkana and Fort Smith. What’s now known as Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport has two runways. There are several aircraft repair facilities at the airport.

Rich Mountain and the foggy weather that’s common atop the mountain have meant that the area has been the scene of a number of plane crashes through the years. The worst occurred on Oct. 31, 1945, when a Douglas R4D-7 crashed and killed all 14 people aboard.

Mena later was alleged to have been a key location for illegal drug shipments and weapons transfers.

“In the 1980s, the airport was the alleged base of a massive drug smuggling, money laundering and arms smuggling ring run by American Adler Berriman ‘Barry’ Seal,” Robert Sherwood writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “There were also allegations that the Central Intelligence Agency used the airport as a base of operations to help train pilots and troops for intervention in the Nicaraguan uprising by the Contras during the 1980s.

“According to some reports, the airport was a major transit point for the entrance of cocaine and heroin into the United States from 1981-85. The estimated value of the narcotics smuggled through the facility is between $3 billion and $5 billion. For a portion of this time, the alleged ringleader of the drug smuggling, Seal, appeared to have been working with the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The goal was to expose the involvement of the Nicaraguan Sandinista regime as a major supplier of cocaine from Columbia.

“One mission in particular used a C-123K cargo plane outfitted at the facility. The aircraft flew with various cameras used to obtain photographic evidence of the Sandinistas in the act of smuggling narcotics. Allegations later surfaced that many of the gun shipments sent to Nicaragua as part of the Iran-Contra affair were sent from the Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport. In essence, not only was the airport used to smuggle illegal drugs into the United States, it was also a departure point for weapons used to arm the Contras in Nicaragua.

“Three former presidents of the United States — Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton — have faced criticism over the alleged illegal actions at the airport. According to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, all charges and cases dealing with Barry Seal and others with connections to the airport were dropped due to potential national security risks. In other words, the charges of drug smuggling and money laundering weren’t enough to warrant the release of information about the use of the airport in the Iran-Contra affair.

“During his term as president, Bush didn’t attempt to prosecute any people involved in either the drug smuggling or the arms dealing. Clinton was governor of Arkansas during the time period when these actions allegedly occurred. No public figures with a connection to the airport acted to investigate or prosecute those involved, at least not publicly. This has caused a small cottage industry to arise among those who adhere to various conspiracy theories.”

We turn onto Arkansas Highway 88 and begin to climb Rich Mountain along the Talimena Scenic Drive. It’s amazing to watch the temperature drop as we drive. It was 39 degrees when we left downtown Mena. By the time we reach the top of the mountain, it’s 25.

We’re headed west, and the sun is beginning to set. All of a sudden, we’re almost blinded as the sun shines on ice-covered trees. It turns out that what was merely a rain at the bottom of the mountain the night before was a freezing rain that later turned to snow atop Rich Mountain.

It’s a winter wonderland with ice on the trees and snow on the grass. And it’s the best type of winter wonderland — there’s no ice or snow on the road to delay our drive.

The stunted, wind-whipped oaks atop the mountain (Arkansas’ second-highest peak at 2,681 feet above sea level) attest to the fact that the climate is different up here than down below. I’ve stayed at the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge in the month of March. Down below, trees, bushes and flowers were blooming. On top of the mountain, it might as well have been the middle of January. Spring was still several weeks away.

Once the Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad was completed, railroad officials determined they could turn Rich Mountain into an attraction for visitors who would use the railroad. They opened a 35-room lodge in June 1898. Its dining room could seat up to 300 people, and orchestras were hired during the summer to entertain guests. The lodge was named Wilhelmina Inn after Queen Wilhelmina of Holland (don’t forget that there were Dutch investors backing the railroad).

The lodge wasn’t a success. Ownership changed hands on a regular basis after 1900. The lodge was even raffled off as the prize in a $35-dollar-a-ticket raffle in 1905. It closed permanently in 1910 and was soon being used to house livestock.

In the 1950s, a group of investors from Mena purchased the site. That group included state Sen. Roy Riales and state Rep. Landers Morrow.

Riales sponsored a Senate concurrent resolution during the 1957 legislative session that designated the site as Queen Wilhelmina State Park. A dedication ceremony to celebrate passage of the legislation was held at Mena on March 21, 1957. The state began acquiring land for the park in June of that year.

According to the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism’s history of the park: “In 1959, using the ruins of the 1898 lodge as a base, a second lodge was constructed as funds became available. A porch was roofed to create a pavilion, and a kitchen and serving room were constructed, leading to the opening of a cafe in 1961. As funds became available, the lodge was constructed in stages and had 17 guest rooms upon completion. Though some rooms had been rented previously, the new lodge was dedicated and officially opened on June 22, 1963, the 65th anniversary of the Wilhelmina Inn opening.

“On Nov. 10, 1973, the second lodge was destroyed by fire. Modeled after the 1898 lodge, a third, modern inn was constructed in 1974-75. On Nov. 23, 1975, the present building was dedicated. Park facilities now include the lodge with 38 guest rooms, a restaurant, hiking trails, a native plant and wildlife center and a campground that accommodates recreational vehicles and tents. Also located on park property are a 1.5-mile miniature railroad brought to the park by Morrow in 1960; a full-size steam locomotive, hauled to the mountaintop by the Arkansas National Guard in 1963; and the Wonder House, built in 1931 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The unusually designed house, built in two sections, occupies nine levels.”

The lodge closed in early 2012 for renovations. Those renovations were delayed with the state having to change contractors in the middle of the project. The renovated lodge reopened in the summer of 2015, and it’s wonderful. We sat in front of a large fire after dinner that evening and again the next morning.

It was 23 degrees when we left the mountain. We headed back to Mena, took a left and continued our trip north on Highway 71.

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From De Queen to Mena

Friday, January 4th, 2019


We stop for lunch in downtown De Queen at Stilwell’s, which is owned by my friends Chad and Jessica Gallagher.

Chad and I once worked together for Mike Huckabee in the governor’s office. Before that, Chad was the mayor of De Queen. In fact, he was one of the youngest mayors in the country at the time. He now splits his time between De Queen and Little Rock. We’re fortunate that he’s in the restaurant on this day so we can visit.

Stilwell’s is named for Arthur Stilwell, a Kansas City businessman who wanted to build a railroad from Kansas City to the Gulf of Mexico. De Queen is a product of the railroad.

“Stilwell ran out of money in the Panic of 1893,” writes Billy Ray McKelvy, a former De Queen mayor. “With no investment capital to be found, he made a trip to Holland, where he met Jan de Geoijen, a coffee merchant. With de Geoijen’s help, Stilwell sold an additional $3 million worth of stock, enabling him to finish the railroad. In Sevier County, the railroad ran through a settlement called Hurrah City. Stilwell was also president of Arkansas Townsite Co., a Missouri corporation that owned land around the settlement. The company sent in surveyors to mark off blocks, streets and alleys for the town.

“On opening day, April 26, 1897, a large crowd showed up and bought the lots, which were priced at $25 and up. This town was named De Queen, an Americanized rendering of de Geoijen’s name. De Queen was formally founded on June 3, 1897, when a petition signed by 42 residents asked Sevier County Judge Ben Norwood to incorporate the new town. … The railroad offered transportation for residents of the area and a way to ship crops to distant markets. Freight shipped from De Queen by train included peaches, vegetables, lumber, honey and barrel staves.”

Tragedy struck De Queen on Oct. 1, 1899, when a fire destroyed downtown wooden buildings containing 54 businesses. A brick factory was later built, and the reconstruction of De Queen began.

The Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad went into receivership the following year, but the business began to thrive again after being reorganized as the Kansas City Southern Railroad. New jobs moved to De Queen in 1909 when the railroad built a roundhouse and shop there. Additional jobs came from a booming timber industry in the years that followed.

“Herman Dierks of Iowa, the son of a German immigrant, purchased the Williams Brothers sawmill and timberlands in De Queen in 1900,” McKelvy writes. “After a fire destroyed the first mill, the Dierks Lumber & Coal Co. built another mill and began acquiring more timberland. It also practiced selective cutting and reforestation, buying up unproductive farms and replanting them with pine trees. The company developed the short-line De Queen & Eastern Railroad, chartered in 1900, to transport timber to mills. It even provided some passenger service. The line was pushed east to Dierks in Howard County and in 1921 connected with the Texas, Oklahoma & Eastern Railroad to Valliant, Okla. The Dierks Lumber & Coal Co. provided employment to thousands of residents of southwest Arkansas and southeast Oklahoma. It also operated a company store in downtown De Queen.”

De Queen’s population more than doubled from 1,200 in the 1900 census to 2,517 in the 1920 census. The county seat was moved from Lockesburg to De Queen in 1905.

The poultry industry began to grow alongside the timber industry, and De Queen’s population increased from 2,938 in the 1930 census to 6,594 in the 2010 census. The poultry industry attracted Hispanic laborers, and De Queen became the largest city in the state with a majority Hispanic population (53.5 percent) by 2010.

The De Queen Commercial Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in January 2012. It includes buildings constructed from 1900-61.

“The district boundaries encircle 35 buildings,” Antoinette Fiduccia Johnson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Contributing buildings retain many of their historic features with the historic integrity of this community at 55 percent intact. The identity of the area is defined through its proximity to the courthouse and its remaining historic structures. Historically, the buildings in this district were related to commerce, health care, recreation, culture and government. There was also a newspaper company (still operating) and a few upstairs apartments over stores and offices.

“The district is composed of portions of West De Queen Avenue, West Stilwell Avenue, North Second Street, North Third Street and North Fourth Street. It wraps around the Sevier County Courthouse. A cohesive whole, it comprises primarily commercial and government buildings with the commercial buildings of similar scale, pattern and building materials. The majority of the building facades are built of brick or stucco over brick.”

Construction began on the current courthouse in June 1930. It was dedicated in September 1934. Most businesses later abandoned downtown, but Hispanic-owned entities helped lead the move back into the city’s historic core.

“The popularity of the automobile and the construction of U.S. 71 in 1926, which did not link to downtown, stymied downtown growth,” Johnson writes. “During the 1950s, new businesses began along the highway, resulting in homes and existing businesses being led away from downtown. By the middle of the 20th century, major poultry corporations and their processing plants appeared. During the 1980s, an influx of Mexican immigrant workers arrived to work in the processing plants. They opened businesses in the underused downtown and bought or rented homes in the adjacent residential area.”

After being elected mayor in 1998, Gallagher made it a priority to obtain grant funds for downtown improvements such as new sidewalks, benches and improved lighting. Those efforts continue to this day.

The city also boasts Herman Dierks Park, which was created in 1954 when Dierks Lumber & Coal Co. gave the city of De Queen a 10-acre site where the company had operated a sawmill.

“Acquisitions and more gifts from the Dierks family have increased the size of the park to 45 acres,” McKelvy writes. “Building Herman Dierks Park was a community effort. Mayor James T. Manning proclaimed a work day and asked volunteers to clean the new park so improvements could be made. Workers supplied their own tools, and heavy equipment was provided by Sevier County. Industries operated split shifts so that employees could help with the effort. The Herman Dierks Park Foundation supported the park with annual donations after the park was finished.”

We walk around downtown after lunch and then head out to De Queen Lake. I wrote earlier in this series about the construction of Millwood Dam. As part of the larger flood-control effort in the Little River/Red River basin, smaller dams were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Rolling Fork, Saline and Cossatot rivers in southwest Arkansas.

The Rolling Fork River covers 55 miles before emptying into the Little River. It starts near Hatton in Polk County and flows south through Wickes and Grannis.

The Flood Control Act of 1958 authorized the construction of the dam on the Rolling Fork. That dam led to De Queen Lake. Work began in April 1966 and continued until 1977. The earthen dam is 160 feet tall. There are three campgrounds, six boat ramps and three swimming areas on the lake.

The Saline River (not to be confused with the much longer river of the same name to the east) also begins in the Ouachita Mountains of Polk County. It flows to the south through Howard County (forming the boundary between Howard and Sevier counties at one point) and empties into Millwood Lake. Work on Dierks Dam across the Saline River took place from 1968-75. The 1,360-acre lake is popular with area fishermen.

The Cossatot River also begins in the Ouachita Mountains of Polk County and flows south through Howard and Sevier counties before emptying into the Little River just north of Ashdown. Gillham Dam across the Cossatot forms 1,370-acre Gillham Lake. Work on the dam began in June 1963. The first concrete in the spillway was poured in November 1968. The dam began storing water in May 1975.

“It was 60 percent completed when a coalition of environmental groups (the Ozark Society, Audubon Society, Environmental Defense Fund and Arkansas Ecology Center) filed suit on Oct. 1, 1970, to stop the project, claiming that the dam would take away the last free-flowing and wild river in southwest Arkansas,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The coalition also argued that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had submitted an insufficient environmental impact statement. In February 1971, federal Judge G. Thomas Eisele ruled that the Corps had not sufficiently examined ecological consequences as required by law. After the Corps resubmitted its environmental impact statement, Eisele removed on May 5, 1972, the injunction against further construction on the dam. Work resumed in August 1972. Further appeals against the dam were fruitless.”

The Cossatot, however, remains one of the best whitewater streams for canoeists and kayakers between the Appalachians and the Rockies. Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area was established along the river north of Gillham Lake in 1988. In the early 1990s, 26.6 miles of the river were federally designated as scenic.

“The area along the Cossatot River, especially in the Ouachita Mountains, remained sparsely populated until the 20th century,” Lancaster writes. “The hills weren’t amenable to large-scale agriculture, and only the southern portion of the river below an area dubbed Three Chutes proved useful for transportation, though the stream would on occasion dry up. Robert C. Gilliam established a plantation along the Cossatot River after moving to the region in the 1830s. In the mid-1800s, antimony deposits were discovered along the river, though they weren’t exploited until the 1870s. This mining activity was concentrated in the town of Antimony City in Sevier County and continued until the early 20th century. Between 1898 and 1901, a gristmill was constructed at Three Chutes. In 1899, the Ultima Thule Highway was constructed across the river in the same region.”

The river’s name comes from a French term — casse-tete — meaning “crushed head.” The term made clear the severity of the rapids in the river.

We pass through the town of Gillham, which had a population of 160 people in the 2010 census, before leaving Sevier County. The community was originally known as Silver City. It was relocated and renamed when Stilwell’s railroad came through the county. The line missed Silver Hill by more than a mile. The town was renamed to honor Robert Gillham, the railroad’s chief engineer.

“A prosperous farmer named John Bellah claimed land in northern Sevier County in 1850,” Steven Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Sometime in the following decade, Bellah found a sample of gray metal on his land that he believed to be silver. He sank a shaft of 10 to 20 feet but found no further samples. During the 1860s, the Confederate government also sought silver on Bellah’s property without success. Following the Civil War, investors drawn into Arkansas during Reconstruction further investigated Bellah’s land, and a mining community was created that was named Silver Hill. A post office was established in 1874, and the community acquired a store that is said to have earned almost $10,000 a year during the mining boom.

“The material Bellah had found proved to be not silver but antimony. This metal, useful in alloys with lead or with tin, was attractive to miners who worked the area from 1873-1924 with peak production occurring during World War I.”

Gillham was incorporated in 1902.

“It had a large feed store, two sawmills, a hotel, a school, a newspaper called The Miner and about 400 residents,” Teske writes. “Local crops brought to town and shipped by rail included strawberries, turnips, cucumbers, green beans, squash, grapes, cantaloupes, radishes and blackberries. Timber was also an important industry for the area. A bank was chartered in 1905. By 1909, Gillham had a cotton gin, a gristmill, a second hotel, a restaurant, a Baptist church, a Methodist church, a Masonic lodge and a public school.

“The town remained economically strong through the 1920s, even after a fire in 1928 destroyed the telephone exchange, four businesses and three residences. It also damaged the bank and the Goff & Gamble Merchandise Store. Even with the tightening of the national economy during the Great Depression, fruit and vegetable production continued to provide jobs.”

In 1942, one packing company shipped 40,000 bushels of cucumbers from Gillham. But workers became scarce during World War II, and the fruit and vegetable industry started to die out. Gillham began a long decline.

As we continue our trip north on Highway 71, we head into Polk County, which covers about 858 square miles and had a population of 20,662 residents in the 2010 census.

“White settlement in Polk County began about 1830,” Roy Vail writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “At that time, the region was part of Sevier County. Polk County, named for President James K. Polk, was separated from Sevier County by the Legislature on Nov. 30, 1844. The 1860 census gave the Polk County population as 4,090 whites and 172 black slaves. Slaves weren’t widely used in Polk County because the mountainous terrain wasn’t good for row crops, though some corn, wheat, oats and cotton were farmed early on. Hunting and timber attracted many of the early settlers, who came principally from Illinois, Tennessee and Kentucky.”

Polk County’s first courthouse was in a community known as Dallas, which was named for Polk’s vice president, George Dallas. The first courthouse burned, and a second one was built in 1869. It burned in 1883.

“Dallas, with its location on Long’s Trail (which connected to the Butterfield Overland Mail Co. to the north and passed into what’s now Oklahoma to the south), became a regional center and a major stop for the stagecoach,” Vail writes. “At its height, it had a weekly newspaper, two churches, a dozen stores, three mills, livery stables and boarding houses.”

Stilwell chose a site three miles to the west for what became Mena. The railroad arrived there in August 1896. In a June 1898 special election, county residents voted to move the county seat to Mena.

Grannis, Wickes, Vandervoort and Hatfield all were products of Stilwell’s railroad.

“The heavily wooded slopes of the Ouachita Mountains were uninviting to the cotton farmers who first settled the area, and no landowners appear in records of the Grannis vicinity prior to 1893,” Teske writes. “The oldest monument to any human presence in the region is a tombstone on a hilltop that’s now the location of the Grannis cemetery. The name of the traveler buried there has been erased by weather, but the year 1881 is still legible on the monument. A sawmill was built nearby in the 1880s, and a post office was established in June 1883. The post office was named Leon Station, but the reason for that name has been forgotten.”

Stilwell named the depot “Grannis” at what had been Leon Station. He wanted to honor a railroad official with that name. The post office also changed its name the next year. Grannis was incorporated in October 1899.

“Even when the area was cleared of trees, the rocky soil was unfit for cotton,” Teske writes. “Landowners began to plant orchards of apple and peach trees. They also planted berry bushes, grapevines and melon patches. A two-room schoolhouse was built around 1909. By 1912, Grannis had six stores, two hotels, a livery stable, two planing mills, two custom mills and three churches. The Bank of Grannis opened in 1919. A Ford dealership began operations in Grannis in 1926. In 1938, the Grannis Canning Co. began to market canned fruits featuring blackberries and other fruits from the area.”

Clift and Dorothy Lane began processing chickens near their home in the early 1950s. As their business grew, they bought the depot at Grannis to use as offices. A rendering plant was opened in 1962, and a hatchery began operations in 1968. Lane Poultry became a major employer in the area. It was sold to Tyson Foods in 1986, and the Lane Poultry headquarters building parking lot ceased to be as full as it was when there was a large company headquartered in town.

“Grannis gained national notoriety in 1975 when several families gathered in a house in the city expecting the imminent return of Jesus Christ,” Teske writes. “Abandoning jobs and property, they existed upon the supplies from a store one of the family members owned. Several weeks later, local authorities intervened to return several children in the group to classes in the public schools. The next year, the waiting adults were removed from the house because of their failure to pay the mortgage on the property. Around the same time, Grannis received attention of a different kind when it embraced 238 Vietnamese refugees and other refugees from Southeast Asia, many of whom had previously been housed at Fort Chaffee near Fort Smith following their escape from Vietnam.”

Grannis had 554 residents in the 2010 census with about a quarter of them being identified as Hispanic. Wickes had a population of 754 with 393 of them identified as Hispanic.

Wickes was named for Thomas Wickes, a vice president of the Pullman Co., which built railroad cars for Stilwell. The post office there was established in 1897. Most of the jobs at Wickes these days are associated with the poultry industry.

Vandervoort had just 87 residents in the 2010 census. How did it get its interesting name?

Janice Kelley explains for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “When the town site was first laid out, it was known as Janssen, taking its name from the maiden name of Jan de Geoijen’s wife. There was another town in Arkansas with that name, however, and mail between the two towns was constantly being mixed up. In 1907, the town’s name was changed to Vandervoort in honor of the mother of Jan de Geoijen (Vandervoort was de Geoijen’s mother’s maiden name).

“Stilwell and his crew purposely missed established towns while laying out the railroad as their money came from land speculation, not rail traffic. For this reason, and because Vandervoort had a naturally marshy area adjacent to the planned route, the railroad built a large pond with a spillway to be used by the steam engines. Vandervoort was also a good halfway point for the trains to take on water. Through service between Kansas City and Port Arthur began after the last spoke was driven near Beaumont on Sept. 11, 1897.”

Vandervoort soon had more than 550 residents with eight general stores, four hotels, doctors, drugstores, a bank and a telephone office. Highway 71 later bypassed Vandervoort. The highway went directly from Hatton to Cove, and the decline of Vandervoort began.

Hatfield was named for a worker who died while building the railroad.

“The cause of the explosion that killed him was undetermined, but it followed a period of strife among foreign railroad workers from Ireland, Austria-Hungary, Italy and China, as well as local workers,” Teske writes. “Hatfield was incorporated as a town in 1901. The new town had several businesses. … A public school was also established. A bank opened in Hatfield in 1912. The town sponsored an annual fair, held first in an oak grove south of town, later on the school grounds and still later in a field north of town. As the highway through town became more traveled, several service stations opened in or near Hatfield.

“Hatfield prospered until 1938 when a fire destroyed most of the businesses on Main Street. … Although the post office was rebuilt, most of the other businesses ceased operation.”

Hatfield is now the home of the Christian Motorcyclists’ Association, whose facilities we pass as we head north on Highway 71.

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From Ashdown to De Queen

Friday, December 28th, 2018


We drive around Millwood State Park on this cold, windy day. Except for employees, the park is deserted.

At the southwestern end of the 3.3-mile-long Millwood Dam, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers established the Cypress Slough recreational area soon after the lake opened in 1966. On April 1, 1976, the Corps of Engineers signed a lease agreement with the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism to transform Cypress Slough into Millwood State Park.

The name Millwood comes from a nearby river landing that was used to bring goods into the area from as far away as New Orleans from 1845-75.

We next drive to Yarborough Landing, where several hundred people live in homes near the banks of Millwood Lake. There’s just one pickup truck parked at the boat ramp, and a man who appears to be in his 80s is getting ready to fish for crappie despite the heavy winds and frigid temperatures.

“Are they biting today?” one of my passengers asks.

“They’re always biting,” he says. “You just have to know where they are. And I know where they are.”

As we drive back toward Ashdown, several men are cleaning a deer outside a small meat processing facility.

A old man fishing for crappie. A deer being processed. These things says rural Arkansas to me.

We get back on U.S. Highway 71 and head north toward De Queen. We drive through Wilton, which had 374 residents in the 2010 census.

“Although the city was at one time a candidate for the county seat of Little River County, Wilton’s current condition is exemplified by its four properties on the National Register of Historic Places — a strip of highway, an abandoned store, a railroad depot and a cemetery,” Steven Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.

When the residents of Richmond in Little River County told officials from the Texarkana & Northern Railroad that they couldn’t build tracks through the city, a farmer named Sergent Smith Prentiss Mills sold the right of way through his property. A community called Millkin was named in honor of Mills and Paschal Kinsworthy, who also owned land in the area. By the late 1800s, there were three lawyers, two doctors and a pharmacist in Millkin.

In 1892, the name of the depot there was changed from Millkin to Wilton since a major railroad stockholder was from the town of Wilton in England. Wilton was incorporated in 1894. By the turn of the century, there were four blacksmith shops, three livery stables and several stores at Wilton.

“The construction of U.S. Highway 71 brought automobile traffic passing between Texarkana and Fort Smith,” Teske writes. “A celebration marking the opening of a highway bridge near Wilton brought state officials to the city. The celebration featured music, a barbecue and motor boat races on the Little River. … The Wilton School District was consolidated into the Ashdown School District in 1941. Six businesses in the city remained open in 1950, but all of them had closed by 1975.”

We continue north on Highway 71 and cross the Little River just as it enters Millwood Lake. The river begins in the Ouachita Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma and enters Arkansas for the final 92 of its 220 miles. The Little River empties into the Red River near Fulton. Steamboats once made up the river as far as Millwood Landing when the river was high.

“During the territorial period, several saline springs along the Little River were important for the area’s salt industry,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “An 1832 congressional act authorizing Arkansas’ territorial governor to lease salt springs in the territory specifically mentioned a Little River Lick. … Many farmers along the river bottoms grew cotton. The river often overflowed onto lower areas, providing rich farmland. What later became the Kansas City Southern Railroad crossed the Little River in 1895 and opened up the area to large-scale timber harvesting and processing operations. One of the largest of these companies was Dierks Lumber & Coal, which for a while was the largest producer of pine lumber in the South. In 1913, a bridge was built over the Little River at a place called Mills Ferry. This was replaced in April 1935 by a new bridge north of Wilton.”

As soon as we cross the river, we’re in a long stretch of bottoms that are now a part of the Pond Creek National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge, which covers almost 28,000 acres, was established in 1994 in the Pond Creek Bottoms. Local residents requested in 1997 that the refuge’s name be changed from its original name of Cossatot National Wildlife Refuge in order to preserve the Pond Creek name. The Cossatot flows into the Little River at this point.

“The bottoms — with an intricate system of drains, natural oxbow lakes, streams and cypress breaks — provide an extremely valuable yet rapidly disappearing wetland hardwood forest community that’s a haven for myriad native wildlife and migratory birds,” a National Wildlife Refuge System history of Pond Creek states. “Migrating and wintering waterfowl use the forested wetlands of the refuge during the fall, winter and spring. The wood duck, the only year-round resident waterfowl species, uses the area heavily for breeding and nesting.

“About 20 species of waterfowl traditionally use the seasonally flooded wetland habitats of the refuge any given year. Neotropical migratory birds use the area as a rest stop during fall and spring migration to replenish energy reserves for the long journey to and from wintering areas in Central America and South America. At least 20 of these species are known to nest on the refuge during the spring and summer months.

“Most of the area is a contiguous forest of bottomland hardwoods, pine mixed with hardwoods and pine plantations. Weyerhaeuser converted about 6,000 acres of hardwoods to pine plantations that were planted from 1970-87. A result of this conversion was a loss of high-quality wildlife habitat that supported important wildlife species indigenous to bottomland hardwoods. A priority management objective is to convert these plantations to native hardwoods.”

The exit from the bottoms is rather dramatic as we begin to climb into the hills that will mark the rest of this journey. We pass by the turn to Ben Lomond and go through the community of Falls Chapel.

“The site of Ben Lomond remained unclaimed until the middle of the 19th century when settlers from Scotland — including Wiley and Mary McElroy and James Willson — arrived and named the hill location for a famous Scottish mountain,” Teske writes. “In the years following the Civil War, more settlers came to southern Sevier County. Ben Lomond grew into one of the more important towns in the county, rivaling Paraclifta and Lockesburg in significance. In 1868, the oldest continuous post office in the county — known as Pine Woods from 1833-46 and then renamed Brownstown — was moved to Ben Lomond. The town became an agricultural center, especially for cotton farmers. In some years, Choctaw would come from the west to work in the cotton fields during the harvest season. …  A Masonic lodge was built, and a two-story schoolhouse served as many as 50 students.

“The timber industry developed in the area during the 1880s. Lumber workers harvested pine, oak, cypress, hickory, ash and cedar trees. Trapping animals for their fur was also profitable. Some farmers invested in cattle and hogs as well as cotton.”

We’ve been in Sevier County since crossing the Little River. The county was created by the Arkansas Territorial Legislature in October 1828. It included parts of what are now Little River, Miller, Howard and Polk counties.

“Joseph McKean and his wife Lucy arrived in 1833 on a steamboat that traveled up the Red River,” writes Billy Ray McKelvy, a longtime Arkansas newspaperman and the current De Queen mayor. “McKean was elected as Sevier County’s representative to the first state constitutional convention in 1836 and served two terms in the Arkansas Senate. He was the first postmaster of Ultima Thule, a settlement on the east side of the present Arkansas-Oklahoma border. As a government agent, he provided supplies for the Indians during removal. Other early settlements around the county included Brownstown, Dilworth, Red Colony, Norwoodville, Falls Chapel, Ben Lomond and Walnut Springs.

“On Oct. 22, 1828, the Arkansas Territorial Legislature designated the county seat in the home of Joseph English. Five appointed commissioners located the seat of justice at a spot about one mile east of the Cossatot River. The site was called Paraclifta, reputedly in honor of a Choctaw Indian chief who intervened to resolve a dispute between some Indians and white men over a horse. The first courthouse was a log building on a public square. The Territorial Legislature made Paraclifta the permanent seat of justice in 1831. Maintenance of the courthouse and jail occupied much of the early county government’s attention.”

The poultry industry began to grow in the area by the 1920s. Giant companies such as Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride later moved in. Sevier County was producing almost 50 million broilers annually by 2005.

The poultry plants brought Hispanic immigration. By the 2010 census, almost 30 percent of the county’s population was Hispanic. The timber industry also remains important with about 70 percent of the land area covered in timber.

We pass through Lockesburg. Though it had a population of just 739 people in the 2010 census, it served as the Sevier County seat for almost 36 years.

“The city lost much of its importance when it was bypassed by the railroad in the late 19th century and also when it lost its status as the county seat in the early 20th century,” Mike Polston writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “When Sevier County was created in 1828, the centrally located settlement of Paraclifta was designated as the county seat. In 1867, when an area of Sevier County was carved away to become part of newly created Little River County, Paraclifta was no longer centrally located. Discussions began about the possibility of relocating the county seat. The Locke brothers — James, William and Matthew — offered 120 acres of land, and Royal Appleton offered 60 acres for the site of a new county seat. On Jan. 18, 1869, a petition to relocate the seat of government to Lockesburg was accepted by the county court.

“In October 1869, the county board of commissioners contracted with A.M. Hawkins & Brothers to construct a two-story brick courthouse and jail at a cost of $12,400. The contract ultimately cost twice that amount. The first session of the county court was held in the new building in March 1871. Poor construction resulted in a new jail being built in 1884. It burned in 1887, and a third structure was built. Though the city wasn’t incorporated until Nov. 7, 1878, it saw significant growth in the early 1870s. William Locke, as the first elected mayor, led that early development. Many people moved from Paraclifta, with some of its buildings dismantled and moved to Lockesburg. A post office was established on May 3, 1870, with Matthew Locke as postmaster.”

By the 1890 census, there were three general stores, three blacksmith shops, a shoe shop, a drugstore, three doctors and a hotel at Lockesburg.

“A major blow to the city’s importance occurred in 1905 when the county quorum court voted to build a new courthouse,” Polston writes. “Almost immediately, De Queen residents began a campaign to relocate the seat of government to their city by offering $10,000 for the new courthouse. Later that year, a special election was held, and Lockesburg suffered the same fate as Paraclifta had years before.”

The Lockesburg School District was consolidated into the De Queen School District in 2005, and the high school campus there closed in 2010.

Much of the fate of modern Sevier County was determined by the aforementioned railroads, the poultry industry and what became Dierks Forests Inc.

Dierks Forests had holdings of 1.75 million acres by the time it was sold to Weyerhaeuser in 1969.

German immigrant Peter Henry Dierks became a successful businessmen in eastern Iowa. His sons Hans and John joined another partner to develop a retail business with seven western Iowa locations. In 1895, four Dierks brothers incorporated Dierks Lumber & Coal and moved the headquarters from Iowa to Lincoln, Neb.

“In 1896, the company moved its headquarters to Kansas City due to that city’s position as a new railway hub that brought lumber from Arkansas and Texas,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In February 1900, the Dierks company purchased the Williamson Brothers mill in De Queen. Moving to De Queen to manage that operation, Herman Dierks became closely associated with Arkansas, going on to purchase large tracts of timberland in the southwestern part of the state. … Other Dierks family members joined the business, which included managing company ventures in Arkansas and Oklahoma. When the Dierks family established a logging camp along the De Queen & Eastern Railroad in the early 1900s, the name of Hardscrabble was changed to Dierks. The mill at De Queen burned in 1909 and was replaced in 1918 by operations in the company town of Dierks in Howard County.”

In 1925, the company bought an additional 88,000 acres of timberland in the Ouachita Mountains. A large mill opened at Mountain Pine in Garland County in 1928.

“By 1930, most of the company retail lumber yards in Nebraska were closed, but in Arkansas and Oklahoma the company was operating five lumber mills and two rail systems,” Hendricks writes. “The company had purchased more than 1.25 million acres of land and in the 1920s implemented some of the first forestry conservation policies in the South. In 1954, Dierks Lumber & Coal changed its name to Dierks Forests Inc. The company diversified, opening box factories and a paper mill, and producing pressure-treated wood products, fiberboard, grocery bags, window frames and gypsum wallboard.”

The company’s headquarters moved from Kansas City to Hot Springs in 1956.

It’s past noon by the time we enter De Queen as part of our trip north on Highway 71. We head downtown for lunch at Stilwell’s.

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From Texarkana to Ashdown

Wednesday, December 26th, 2018


Breakfast is at Johnny B’s in downtown Texarkana on this second day of the road trip.

After our pancakes and eggs, we take the obligatory photos while straddling the state line at the U.S. post office and federal building downtown. It’s cold and windy, so we don’t waste much time.

We head north on State Line Avenue and leave town on U.S. Highway 71. We’re briefly in Texas with its higher speed limit (those Texans love to drive fast) before crossing back into Arkansas after crossing the Red River.

The Red River begins in the Texas Panhandle and forms the border between Oklahoma and Texas during part of its 1,290-mile route. At this point, it forms the border between Arkansas and Texas (Oklahoma is just a few miles to the west).

The river continues flowing east from here to Fulton, where it suddenly turns to the south and flows through southwest Arkansas and into Louisiana.

The French established trading posts along the Red River in the 1700s.

“Until the late 19th century, the Red River’s utility as a transportation corridor between the Mississippi River and points west of present-day Shreveport was impeded by the Great Raft (or Red River Raft), an enormous logjam that clogged the lower part of the river,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “It extended to more than 130 miles at one point. The raft likely existed for hundreds of years. It was so old that, according to some sources, it actually became a part of Caddo mythology.

“In 1828, Congress set aside $25,000 for the raft’s removal, and Capt. Henry Miller Shreve, then serving as the superintendent of Western river improvement, was assigned the task of clearing the raft in 1832. In 1838, he completed the task, though it re-formed farther up the river soon thereafter and eventually extended to the Arkansas border. Congress hesitated in setting aside more money for the clearance project with many members feeling it to be a lost cause.”

The part of the raft that had re-formed was removed in 1873. Dams were placed along Red River tributaries to keep the raft from forming again.

“Despite the eventual clearing of the river, no major towns in Arkansas were established upon the Red, though Texarkana, Hope and Lewisville all lie at a few miles’ remove,” Lancaster writes. “Until 1900, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers straightened the channel of the river with the result that steamboat traffic increased as boats were able to transport goods from the mouth of the Mississippi River through Arkansas and into Texas and Oklahoma and back again. The river was navigable all year to Garland in Miller County where the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railway (Cotton Belt) crossed the river. The railroad — as well as the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway, which crossed the River River at Fulton — provided stiff competition for steamboats, soon replacing them entirely.”

We’ve entered Little River County, which the Legislature carved out of parts of Hempstead and Sevier counties in 1867.

“The land in and around Little River County is rich and fertile,” Martha Trusley writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “It contains an abundance of lime formations in some areas near White Cliffs, Okay and Foreman. Because of the available limestone, the Western Portland Cement Co. once thrived at White Cliffs, though now only its ruins exist. Much later, because of the limestone running through Little River County, Sevier County and Hempstead County, Ideal Cement Co. was built at Okay. It made quality cement for years but was later sold to a German company that did not want to make the costly repairs that were needed.

“At the same time that Ideal Cement Co. was operating full scale, Foreman Cement Co., owned by Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co., was producing an abundance of quality cement. Eventually Foreman Cement became the leading producer of cement in the southwest region of Arkansas. It is still a thriving plant owned by Ash Grove Cement Co.”

Members of the Caddo tribe had moved out of this area by 1778 as white settlers began to move in.

“The first town to be plotted was Laynesport in 1836 on land donated for development by Benjamin Layne,” Trusley writes. “By 1845, Willow Springs, later renamed Rocky Comfort, began to flourish in the western part of the county. By 1854, the community of Richmond had begun to thrive. … After the legal establishment of Little River County in 1867, the first courthouse and jail in the county were located near the area that’s now known as Alleene on land owned by the first sheriff, William M. Freeman. In 1868, Gov. Powell Clayton had all county records moved to Rocky Comfort.

“In 1880, the citizens of Richmond built a new courthouse. The property on which the courthouse was built was deeded to the county on the condition that Richmond would remain the county seat. After this courthouse burned, citizens of Richmond built another courthouse at no cost to the county because they wanted to keep the county seat in Richmond. In 1902, the county seat was moved from Richmond to Foreman, formerly called Rocky Comfort. Foreman and Ashdown later competed for the county seat. When an election was held in 1906, Ashdown won the most votes to become the new county seat. After this election, records were moved from Foreman to a vacant building known as the Mizell Building. A new courthouse was constructed in Ashdown in 1907.”

We make our way through Ogden, which had just 180 residents in the 2010 census.

A century ago, Ogden had a number of businesses that served those who lived on cotton farms in the area.

“M.W. Bates arrived around 1878 and named the settlement Ogden, which was the maiden name of his second wife,” Steven Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Bates, who served as Little River County judge from 1884-88, owned the first cotton gin, first sawmill and first store built in the community. His son-in-law, R.L. Bright, was the first doctor in Ogden. A school with seven students was established in the Methodist church, which was organized in 1892. A post office had opened the previous year.”

The population of Little River County began to increase as the railroads entered the area. The first railroad entered the county in 1889. The Arkansas & Choctaw Railroad had made it to Ashdown by 1895, and the Texas & Fort Smith Railroad brought additional settlers.

“Cotton was the leading crop, and most of the early communities had cotton gins,” Trusley writes. “Corn was the second-largest crop, but later the timber industry would become the leading industry in the county. Many of the small settlements in Little River County were located near sawmills, cotton gins or rivers. … The presence of the Kansas City Southern Railroad, the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad and the Memphis, Dallas & Gulf Railroad caused the county to grow rapidly. Before the construction of railroads, the rivers were used to transport goods by way of ferries, steamboats and flatboats. Passenger trains began operating in the county in the late 1890s. After the emergence of railroads, electrical and telephone services became available to parts of the county by 1912, and natural gas came to Ashdown in 1930.”

The construction of what’s now Highway 71 had an even bigger effect on the county than the railroads.

Teske writes: “In 1915, the Arkansas General Assembly passed the Alexander Road Improvement Act. Ogden was one of the first communities in the state to benefit. According to the Third Biennial Report of the Department of State Lands, Highways and Improvements: ‘The first permanent road built under the Alexander law was the road from Ashdown to Ogden and Richmond in Little River County. It is about 15 miles long and cost about $60,000.’ The road eventually would become U.S. Highway 71. Increased traffic meant increased business, and Ogden grew large enough to seek incorporation in 1920. … The highway through Ogden was paved in 1940. It continued to endure heavy use for the next 30 years until a bypass to the east of the city was created about 1970. The old highway through town continues to be used for local traffic. In 2013, the road was added to the National Register of Historic Places as a well-preserved stretch of concrete highway built in the 1940s.”

We head north to Ashdown and pass the paper mill that led to growth here in the late 1960s and the 1970s.

“The development of Millwood Lake in 1966 was a major boost to Ashdown’s industrial growth,” Trusley writes. “The Nekoosa paper mill was built at Ashdown in 1968. … The mill was sold to Georgia-Pacific in 1991 and sold again to Domtar in 2001. Ashdown is known for its timber industry, and Domtar is a major employer.”

Ashdown first was known as Turkey Flats and then Keller. It was incorporated as Ashdown in June 1892. The town was named by Lawrence Alexander Byrne, who owned sawmills in the area. When his mill at Keller burned, he said that though it was reduced to ashes, he would help grow a town there and call it Ashdown.

We spend about an hour at the Two Rivers Museum in downtown Ashdown. It’s at the intersection of Main Street and Highway 71. The museum was created in 2005 by the Little River County Historical Society.

The museum is in the Bishop Building, which was built in 1908. The building once housed a pharmacy and later an antiques store. A mural depicts the Little River County Courthouse, the lumber industry, cotton fields and a train. One exhibit in the museum honors Henry Kaufman, an immigrant of German-Jewish descent who founded Kaufman Seeds at Ashdown.

After visiting the museum, we take a side trip to Millwood Lake.

The construction of Millwood Dam by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took place from 1961-66 at a cost of $46.1 million. The dam is on the Little River and was designed to control flooding downstream along the Red River. The earthen dam is 3.3 miles long. The lake it created is in parts of four counties — Little River, Howard, Hempstead and Sevier.

“Millwood Dam was made possible by the federal Flood Control Act of 1946, though opposition within the state and from neighboring states delayed the project,” Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Within Arkansas, Dierks Forests Inc. faced the loss of 6,465 acres of land in an area that would become the reservoir. Ideal Cement Co. of Okay initially objected on the basis of its quarries potentially being flooded. A Corps of Engineers proposal to build a $2.5 million levee with pumps to protect the plant, along with plans to relocate a railway servicing the plant, allayed the resistance of the latter. However, the Little River Valley Improvement Association maintained its objections, especially the point that the dam would be sited in profitable bottomland, used for both farming and lumber rather than hillier areas upstream, and that it would leave too little free-flowing water for the development of industry in the area. The governments of Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma argued about who had the right to dam the tributaries of the Red River. The government of Louisiana expressed concern that Millwood Dam would hinder a navigation project on the lower Red River.”

Congressman Oren Harris broke the deadlock during a 1956 meeting of the Red River Valley Association.

Harris, who was born in rural Hempstead County in 1903 and graduated from what’s now Henderson State University at Arkadelphia in 1929, picked peaches and played semi-professional baseball to pay for college. He received his law degree from the Cumberland Law School in Tennessee in 1930 and practiced law at El Dorado before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1940. Harris served in Congress for almost 25 years before being appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as a federal judge in 1965. Harris died in February 1997 at age 93.

“Harris presented a plan whereby the proposed dam was reduced in size by 25 percent and redesigned to provide a stable water supply as well as flood control,” Lancaster writes. “A provision was made for the construction of smaller dams elsewhere in the Little River basin — three in Oklahoma and three in Arkansas — making Millwood Dam the centerpiece of a seven-dam system. The compromise was accepted and written into the Flood Control Act of 1958.”

Construction began in September 1961. The dam was dedicated in December 1966. The lake covers 29,200 acres. Timber was left standing in much of the reservoir, which made it one of the hottest fishing lakes in the country in its early years.

“Millwood Lake provides drinking water to a number of nearby communities, including Texarkana,” Lancaster writes. “Companies such as Domtar use water from the lake for their operations.”

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Heading up U.S. Highway 71

Friday, December 21st, 2018


The goal is to spend two days exploring west Arkansas as we drive north on U.S. Highway 71 from Texarkana to Fort Smith.

It’s pouring rain as I pull into Texarkana. I’m accompanied by Paul Austin, who recently retired as head of the Arkansas Humanities Council, and David Stricklin of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. These are the same two people who accompanied me a year earlier when we took Arkansas Highway 7 from the Louisiana border to where it ends on the shores of Bull Shoals Lake near the Missouri line.

We check into our hotel on the Arkansas side of the state line and then head to one of my favorite restaurants in Arkansas, the Cattleman’s Steak House. Yes, it’s in Arkansas — barely. It sits on the Arkansas side of State Line Avenue.

When Roy Oliver opened the restaurant more than 50 years ago, State Line was a two-lane road. The restaurant was surrounded by woods. The road is much wider now and the woods are gone, but this place is like stepping back in time. That’s why I like it. It looks like a steak house should look with heavy wood paneling, green chairs and a red carpet.

As far as I know, it’s also the only restaurant in the state where you can order calf fries and turkey fries as an appetizer. If you have to ask what they are, don’t bother ordering them. Paul, David and I get them, of course.

You can also order a quail here on the side with your steak. Like I said, it’s truly old school.

I grew up about halfway between Little Rock and Texarkana. We usually went to Little Rock when we wanted to visit the “big city,” but my parents occasionally took me to Texarkana as a change of pace.

Downtown Texarkana was hopping in those days. Lunch was always at Bryce’s Cafeteria when it was still downtown.

I write a lot about places in Arkansas that are revitalizing their downtowns. There are some efforts along those lines at Texarkana, but it has a long way to go.

There’s potential here — Union Station, the former Grim Hotel, etc.

“Interstate 30 was completed through the area in the early 1960s, and it was a double-edged sword,” Beverly Rowe writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “It brought many new businesses because of increased traffic and more efficient transportation of products to market. On the other hand, it took business away from Texarkana’s downtown. … Since 1968, downtown buildings in Texarkana have deteriorated and businesses have closed. Perhaps the most vibrant businesses are the jails, law offices and bail bondsmen’s shops.

“Smaller towns in Miller County such as Doddridge, Fouke, Garland and Genoa have continued to shrink while Texarkana’s city limits are pushing out on all sides. … Interstate 30 also negatively affected passenger railroad traffic. In past decades, as many as nine railway companies served the area, using Texarkana’s Union Depot as the main station. Today, freight trains provide most of the traffic.”

Union Station was built in 1928-29 by the Union Station Trust, a joint effort of the Missouri Pacific, Cotton Belt, Kansas City Southern and Texas & Pacific railroads. E.M. Tucker, the chief Missouri Pacific architect, used the same style he had used in rebuilding the Little Rock depot following a 1921 fire.

A formal dedication ceremony was held on May 12, 1930. The building straddles the state line with entrances and exits in both states. The station, which needs a lot of work, has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978.

Another landmark downtown is the U.S. post office and federal building, which also straddles the state line. It serves as a courthouse for the Western District of Arkansas and the Eastern District of Texas. The structure was built in 1933 and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2000. The first courthouse at this location served Arkansas and Texas from 1892 until 1911. A courthouse entirely in Texas was built at that point. The Western District of Arkansas continued to use the building on the border until it was torn down in 1930.

The current structure features a base of Texas pink granite and walls of Arkansas limestone.

For years, the Hotel Grim (one of my favorite business names; it’s right up there with the old Gross Mortuary at Hot Springs) housed many of those coming in and out of Texarkana by train.

After spending the night in Texarkana, I picked up a copy of the Texarkana Gazette and was greeted by this headline on the front page: “Hotel Grim developer expects a spring start: Sale expected to close in February.”

Tom Anderson, the managing director of the Cohen-Esrey Development Group, told the newspaper that the project will convert the hotel’s upper floors into more than 90 apartments. Cohen-Esrey will be the general contractor and the building’s property manager. Developer Jim Sari brought on Cohen-Esrey as a partner this summer.

According to the news story: “Certain areas of the building have been identified as having high historical significance and will be restored to their original condition as much as possible. They include the hotel’s lobby, Palm Room ballroom and roof garden. Restoring and relighting the large Hotel Grim sign on the top of the building is also in the budget. … Sari floated several different start times for the project in recent years — at one point, renovations were forecast to be completed by the end of 2018 — only for those dates to come and go without work beginning. But Cohen-Esrey’s involvement seems to have jump-started the process.”

The hotel, which opened in 1925, was named after William Rhoads Grim. He was a banking, timber and railroad magnate.

“Construction cost almost $1 million, and the 250-room hotel was luxuriously appointed in marble and other elegant decor,” the newspaper reported. “The hotel served the many train passengers who in the course of their travels spent a night or longer in Texarkana. Through the years, many Texarkanians visited the Palm Room and roof garden — popular venues for special events — as well as the beauty parlor, barbershop, coffee shop and bookstore that were there.

“A restaurant called Sue and Carol’s Kitchen was the most recent resident of the hotel, which closed in 1990. Since then, only homeless squatters and a group of feral cats have occupied the crumbling building, now widely considered an eyesore.”

Texarkana was a product of the railroads. The Cairo & Fulton Railroad completed its tracks to the Texas border in 1873. The site for a town was established on Dec. 8, 1873, at the point where those tracks met the Texas & Pacific Railroad tracks.

“There’s evidence that the city’s name existed before the city,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Some say that as early as 1860, it was used by the steamboat Texarkana, which traveled the Red River. Others say a supposed medicinal drink called Texarkana Bitters was sold in 1869 by a man named Swindle who ran a general store in Bossier Parish in Louisiana. The most popular version credits a railroad surveyor, Col. Gus Knobel, who was surveying the right of way from Little Rock to southwest Arkansas for the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad in the late 1860s. Knobel later became chief engineer for the Texarkana & Northern Railroad. When Knobel came to the state line between Arkansas and Texas — and believing he was also at or near the Louisiana border — he reportedly wrote the words TEX-ARK-ANA on a board and nailed it to a tree with the statement that ‘this is the name of a town which is to be built here.'”

A meeting was held in December 1873 to formally organize a town on the Texas side. That town was granted a charter in June 1874.

“In 1880, 21 citizens met and petitioned to incorporate Texarkana, Ark.,” Hendricks writes. “Public sentiment was divided. An opposing group gathered 15 names of citizens who opposed organizing a government on the Arkansas side. Texarkana, Ark., was granted a charter on Aug. 10, 1880.”

By 1890, there were more people living on the Arkansas side (3,528) than the Texas side (2,852). The Miller County Courthouse was built at Texarkana in 1893. It was torn down in 1939 to make way for the current courthouse.

“Both cities grew throughout the 1890s, installing streetcar lines, gas works, an electric light plant, an ice factory and sewer lines,” Hendricks writes. “At the time, four newspapers served Texarkana.”

In a history of his family for the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr. wrote: “In 1909, my grandfather, Clyde Eber Palmer, was taking a train from Fort Worth to Florida with his new bride. They got off the train in Texarkana, Ark., to spend the night and while they were there, they decided they liked the town and decided to stay. My grandfather paid $900 for one of several newspapers in Texarkana at the time, the Texarkana Courier, which he renamed the Four States Press. He eventually prevailed against other competitors in the Texarkana market, and he ended up as publisher of the Texarkana Gazette.”

Palmer’s daughter Betty was born at Texarkana in 1911. She attended college at the University of Missouri, where she met Walter E. Hussman Sr. The couple married in 1931. After selling insurance for a time, Hussman Sr. went to work for his father-in-law in the newspaper business. After working in Texarkana for several years, he moved to Hot Springs to serve as publisher of the newspaper there.

By the early 1900s, the Texas side was growing faster than the Arkansas side. Growth on both sides of the line slowed during the Great Depression.

“The city’s economy rebounded with the coming of World War II in the 1940s, primarily because of the creation of the Red River Army Depot and the Lone Star Ammunition Plant,” Hendricks writes. “Along with being an important junction of railroad lines, Texarkana built a strong economy based on timber and minerals such as rockwool (an inorganic substance used for insulation and filtering).”

Sand and gravel were mined in area streams. Cotton, soybeans, rice, corn and pecan trees thrived in the Red River bottoms. With the ability to draw customers from four states (Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma), Texarkana became a regional retail and entertainment center. It also attracted distribution and logistics jobs.

Texarkana had more than 40,000 residents by 1952 with almost 16,000 of those living on the Arkansas side. The Arkansas side reached 20,000 population shortly after the 1960 census. In the 2010 census, the Arkansas side had 29,919 residents.

Texarkana is the county seat of Miller County, which the Arkansas Territorial Legislature created on April 1, 1820. The county was named for a territorial governor, New Hampshire native James Miller.

“At the time, it included most of present-day Miller County and parts of Bowie, Cass, Delta, Fannin, Franklin, Hopkins, Hunt, Lamar, Morris, Red River and Titus counties in Texas,” Rowe writes. “Miller County was part of the disputed Horse’s Head area of northeast Texas and southwest Arkansas, too far north for Mexico to control well and too far west for the United States to control well. While it was technically under Mexican jurisdiction, it truly wasn’t under any country’s control. … The county’s establishment was problematic because Mexico claimed much of east Texas.

“Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1836, and the first Miller County was abolished two years later. Gov. James Conway said the easiest solution would be to abolish the county and remove its records to a ‘more patriotic’ area — that is, the United States. Until 1874, area settlers found themselves included in Lafayette County.”

Miller County was re-established in 1874 with Texarkana as the county seat.

“From 1874 until 1900, the county’s population boomed, mainly in response to the railroad and the influx of immigrants and settlers,” Rowe writes. “By 1900, the population was 17,558, but it remained a predominantly rural county. It had 1,967 farms in 1900.”

Those of a certain age remember Texarkana for a series of murders in which five people were killed and several others were injured from February until May in 1946.

“Newspapers dubbed them the Texarkana Moonlight Murders,” Hendricks writes. “The victims were couples parked on back roads and lovers’ lanes around town. The only description of the killer was that he wore a plain pillowcase over his head with eyeholes cut out. The case was never solved, and the killing spree ended as suddenly as it began. Three decades after the crime, the murders inspired the 1977 movie ‘The Town That Dreaded Sundown.’ It was directed by Charles B. Pierce of Hampton.”

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Good times in West Memphis

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018


The good news keeps coming for West Memphis.

In November, Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment that will allow four full-fledged casinos across the state. One of those casinos will be at Southland Park Gaming & Racing in West Memphis.

Officials at Delaware North, Southland’s nationally known and well-financed parent company, say they will build a $200 million hotel and convention center. A Delaware North official has called it “a priority of the company to get it up and going.”

West Memphis once had the reputation of being the place where residents of Memphis and the Delta came to play. At a time when the Bluff City had a curfew, dozens of bars, juke joints and technically illegal but wide-open gambling establishments flourished 24 hours a day on the Arkansas side of the river.

Greyhound racing began in Crittenden County in 1935. Southland Park has been at the same location since 1956. The dogs first raced at the Riverside Kennel Club, which was at the Arkansas end of the bridge crossing the Mississippi River. When Southland was established in the 1950s, it was the only legal gambling venue in the Mid-South. It drew patrons from Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Missouri and even western Kentucky and southern Illinois. Delaware North bought the track in the 1970s.

“At its high point, Southland was said to be the top dog track in the country,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Through the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s, a typical Saturday night at Southland might see the parking lots full with 20,000 people in attendance. Annual wagers on the greyhound races at the time generally exceeded $200 million, and more than 600 people were employed at Southland. All that changed in 1992.”

That’s when casino gambling came to nearby Tunica County in Mississippi.

“Southland fell on hard times with daily attendance ebbing to about 500,” Hendricks writes. “Its annual revenues dropped from $200 million in the 1980s to less than $35 million in the 1990s. More than half of its employees lost their jobs.”

Southland was on the verge of closing when the Arkansas Legislature voted in 2005 to allow what it called “games of skill” at Southland and at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs. Thanks to those electronic games, a $40 million facility was being built at the dog track by late 2006. It included a 55,000-square-foot gaming room, a 400-seat event center and additional restaurants.

The next big thing to happen at Southland was the Mississippi River flood of 2011. It caused the Tunica casinos to close for weeks. Memphis residents began crossing the bridge to Southland instead, and business has been booming ever since.

Additional renovations followed. Delaware North has now invested more than $100 million since 2006. There are about 765 employees.

Southland soon will be able to add dealers, big-name entertainment, a sports book, a luxury hotel, additional restaurants and more to the mix. That should take the employment level past 1,000. Regardless of what one thinks about casino gambling, it seems destined to help the West Memphis economy.

The other good news at West Memphis concerns health care. Construction has been completed on Baptist Memorial Hospital-Crittenden County. The $43 million facility has 115 employees.

West Memphis had been without a hospital since Crittenden Regional Hospital closed in August 2014. The new hospital will have 65,000 square feet of patient rooms, operating suites and more. Crittenden County voters approved a 1-cent sales tax in 2016 to pay for the facility. Baptist Memorial Health Care, which also operates a medical center at Jonesboro, has a 10-year lease with a 10-year renewal option.

West Memphis has long lived in the shadow of Memphis. The first river bridge for a railroad opened in May 1892. The Harahan Bridge, which still stands, opened in 1916 for rail traffic. Two narrow automobile lanes were added in 1917 and a toll was charged.

Floods and the construction of levees brought an end to the first West Memphis, which was on the banks of the river. The second West Memphis developed near the intersection of three railroad lines that served the timber industry.

“During the summer of 1862, Memphis fell into the hands of Union forces,” writes historian Rachel Patton. “Most Confederate soldiers were ferried across the river to Hopefield and surrounding farms. Many of these soldiers were moved to other locations, but some remained to harass the Union forces at Memphis and disrupt river traffic. This became such a problem that on Feb. 19, 1863, four companies of Union forces burned Hopefield to the ground. The town of Hopefield was rebuilt after the war but never regained the prominence it once held in Crittenden County.

“In 1871, the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad was completed, aiding Hopefield’s economic recovery. Hopefield was eventually destroyed by floodwaters in 1912 when the Mississippi River changed course. Today the supporting piers of the Interstate 40 bridge rest atop the old location of Hopefield.”

The Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis Railroad was completed in 1883 through northeast Arkansas to the Mississippi River south of Hopefield. The railroad built a depot, roundhouse and terminal yard at the ferry landing. A sidewheeler known as the Charles Merriam then transported railcars to the Tennessee side of the river.

“A settlement known as Garvey grew near the ferry landing,” Patton writes. “By 1885, the village had more than 200 residents as well as a grain elevator, hotel and two sawmills. Gen. George H. Nettleton, chief executive officer of the Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis Railroad, changed the name of the settlement to West Memphis in order to bring a higher price for lumber. … Floods and the construction of levees brought an end to the first West Memphis, which was built right on the river.”

Michigan native George Kendal and William Johnson of Memphis platted the second West Memphis in 1912. The area consisted at the time of thick canebrakes and swamps. One surveyor reported seeing a black bear at what’s now the corner of Eighth and Broadway.

Zack Bragg moved to West Memphis in 1904 and opened a large sawmill. In 1914, P.T. Bolz of St. Louis opened the Bolz Slack Barrel Cooperage Plant.

It was the importance of the automobile, however, that truly spurred growth in West Memphis.

“Before the Harahan Bridge was built, most vehicles had to ferry across the Mississippi River,” Charlotte Wicks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The Harahan Bridge was damaged by fire in 1928, and it reopened after 18 months of repairs. In 1927, West Memphis was incorporated. The first mayor was Zach Bragg. … In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Eighth Street was often called Beale Street West, reflecting a music and nightlife scene to equal that in Memphis.

“Some places in West Memphis have been associated with famous entertainers. The Square Deal Cafe, which was often referred to as Miss Annie’s on South 16th Street, was where B.B. King began his public entertaining. … Other popular nightspots along Broadway were the Willowdale Inn, the Cotton Club and the supper club known as the Plantation Inn.”

The population of West Memphis increased from 895 people in 1930 to more than 9,000 residents by 1950.

The 1938 Sanborn Fire Insurance map showed that West Memphis had four lumber companies, four cottonseed oil companies, three cotton gins, a cotton compress, a feed mill, a distillery and an ice plant.

Before the construction of Interstates 40 and 55, Broadway (which doubled as U.S. Highway 70) had an abundance of tourist courts, hotels and restaurants. Thanks to voters statewide, West Memphis again appears primed to be the place where the Mid-South comes to play.

Those driving down Broadway these days can see buildings built during the boom period from the 1930s through the 1950s.

Fred and Zell Jaynes built the 1,025-seat Joy Theater at the southeast corner of West Broadway and Rhodes where a Sonic now stands. In 1953, it was leased by Malco and renamed the Avon. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, theaters such as this one were hosting burlesque shows and prize fights that were banned in Memphis.

“The city’s rapid population increase in the 1930s created a demand for better municipal services and led to the construction of a city administration building that would house the city hall, fire station and jail,” Patton writes. “Prior to 1938, city council meetings were held in various local businesses, and fire protection was weak at best. In 1930, West Memphis still relied on Memphis for its fire protection, and by 1938 there was one fire truck in West Memphis with a part-time crew. City Hall was built during the Great Depression when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were distributing mass amounts of federal aid to put people to work on projects that would benefit the general public and stimulate the local economy. The June 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act established the Public Works Administration.

“The PWA initially approved a $16,500 loan and a $13,500 grant for the West Memphis City Hall project and later approved another $14,000 grant. A city ordinance was passed to issue bonds for the remaining construction costs. R.D. Eberdt was the architect and engineer for the project. Construction began on July 29, 1938, with a crew of 50 people. The building was completed on June 13, 1939, and officially opened on July 18, 1939. The jail for ready to be occupied in August.”

A new City Hall was built in 1975 at 205 S. Redding Street. The old building is now known as the O.I. Bollinger Building in honor of a 33-year city council member. It houses the municipal court.

“Highway 70 in West Memphis had started off in about 1917 as a two-lane dirt road,” Patton writes. “It was graveled in 1918-19 and paved in 1926. Because Highway 70 stretched from North Carolina to California, it was called the Broadway of America. U.S. Highway 61 (Missouri Street) was also cleared in 1917. It was graveled in 1921 and paved in 1922. Both roads have gradually gone from two- to four-lane roads. In 1936, West Memphis adopted the street names Broadway and Missouri.

“Missouri Street serves as the dividing line between West Broadway and East Broadway. West Broadway was sparsely developed before 1950. In fact, a man named James Thomas was living in a houseboat moored in a drainage ditch on the north side of Broadway just west of Missouri Street as late as 1919. Sanborn maps from 1949 only show West Broadway as far as Redding.”

The Wonder City Cafe opened on Broadway in 1937 and became a popular stop for those traveling along Highway 70. Bill Abernathy purchased the restaurant in 1960, and it later became the Wonder City Cafeteria. It was destroyed by fire in the early 1970s.

KWEM radio went on the air in West Memphis in 1947 with studios on Broadway.

“In 1948, Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as Howlin’ Wolf, moved to West Memphis and worked in a local factory,” Patton writes. “But he was really drawn by the city’s blues clubs. He played the clubs at night and had his own show on KWEM. His radio show caught the attention of record producer Sam Phillips in Memphis, and Howlin’ Wolf soon signed with Chess Records. He moved to Chicago in 1952 and went on to perform throughout the United States and Europe. He died in 1976. In 1980, he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and then was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.

“Local merchant and musician Danny Craft also had a connection to KWEM. His father, also named Danny Craft, had a radio show on KWEM with his band Delta Dan & The Swamp Riders. This was during the same time period that Howlin’ Wolf was there. The elder Danny Craft later played in a band called Danny Craft & The Craftsmen.”

When the Federal Compress & Warehouse Co. opened in 1923 on the south side of the 600 block of East Broadway, it was the largest compress in the state. The company even had its own water and electrical plants. There were major fires in 1939 and 1972. Most of the buildings were demolished in 1980.

Turn off Broadway onto South Eighth Street, and you enter a neighborhood that was known as Little Chicago (in addition to the aforementioned Beale Street West moniker) due to its numerous black-owned clubs, restaurants and hotels. The street was hopping from the late 1930s until the early 1960s.

“On weekends, it was so crowded that you couldn’t drive down the first few blocks of South Eighth,” Patton writes. “Cars also were parked along East Broadway for several blocks in either direction. There was a 9 p.m. curfew in Memphis during part of this time, so musicians would come to Arkansas to play late at night. The West Memphis police chief was paid to look the other way. There were often illegal activities going on in the beer joints like gambling and prostitution. The bagmen collected fees to pay off city officials. Some of the businesses on South Eighth Street were Andrew & Louise Bass’ Be-Bop Hall, Lois Knight’s Little Brown Jug, ‘Pimpy’ Jones’ Pool Hall, the Silver Moon Cafe, Samuel ‘Tub’ Irvin’s Brown Derby, Jack Butler’s Busy Bee, Bubba Wright’s Doll House, Miss Sweet’s Cafe, the Dinette Lounge, the Blue Goose and the Cozy Kitchen.”

The Harlem Theater in the 900 block of Broadway was built by Jack Rhodes for black patrons.

J.H. Horton of Memphis built the Hotel Crittenden for white patrons on what’s now Broadway in 1925. It was purchased by L.E. Turner in 1934 and called the Turner Hotel. Ben Wever demolished the hotel in 1941 to make room for Buck’s Cafe and Wever-Riehl Motor Co.

In 1935, J.H. ‘Spec’ Horton built the Plantation Inn supper club for wealthy white patrons who came from across the Delta. It offered gambling on the second floor. It was demolished in September 1965.

Elvis Presley ate his first breakfast at the Coffee Cup on East Broadway after joining the U.S. Army. The Coffee Cup was known throughout the region for its country ham, fried chicken and steaks. The building was demolished in 1965 to make way for a new restaurant.

One of the last ice plants still in operation in the state is along Broadway. It was built about 1930 and later sold to Arkansas Power & Light Co., which operated 17 ice plants across the state before getting out of the business in 1945. The plant was purchased from AP&L by Roy Morley and Vance Thompson, who renamed it Delta Ice Co.

The whites-only Crittenden Theater on the 100 block of North Missouri was built in 1938. Ushers wore tuxedos and people could win cash prizes at the weekly Bank Night. The building no longer stands.

“Construction on Interstate 40 and Interstate 55 began in 1950, and a small section from the Mississippi River levee to Missouri Street opened in June 1951,” Patton writes. “By December 1963, Interstate 55 was open all the way north to Blytheville. As motorists began using the new interstate highways, commercial and residential development shifted toward the interstates. Businesses along Broadway suffered as big-box retailers constructed stores several blocks to the north. But Broadway remains a major thoroughfare in West Memphis, and it has lots of potential.”

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