Archive for the ‘Traveling Arkansas’ Category

Visiting historic Arkadelphia

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020


Few places in Arkansas have a richer history than the old river town of Arkadelphia. And it still boasts a number of historic buildings and homes that make it well worth a visit for those interested in history.

In a little book called “Visit Historic Arkadelphia,” authors Dave Ozmun, Ray Granade, Laverne Todd and Shirley Graham wrote: “Serving as Clark County’s seat of government since 1842, Arkadelphia has offered the surrounding countryside a farm market and trading center, thanks to reliable transportation, first by water, then rail and later roads and interstate highways. From its perch adjacent to the Ouachita River at the edge of the Ouachita Mountains, Arkadelphia has enjoyed a history of light industry, agriculture and manufacturing. Today there are also recreational opportunities offered by the Ouachita and Caddo rivers and the Caddo’s impoundment, DeGray Lake.

“Arkadelphia’s most enduring asset may be its commitment to education. Of the five colleges founded in the community between 1885 and 1895, two continue to thrive in Arkadelphia while the others moved to Little Rock. At one time, local newspapers called this the City of Colleges and occasionally the Athens of Arkansas. Yet the history of Arkadelphia reaches further back, to America’s earliest days. From prehistoric times to the 1700s, when they migrated south into eastern Texas and northwestern Louisiana, this area was home to the Caddo Indians.”

Many call the salt works operated by John Hemphill in the early 1800s the first industry in Arkansas.

“Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the area around what became Arkadelphia was administered first as part of the Louisiana Territory then, when Louisiana became a state in 1812, as part of the Missouri Territory,” the authors write. “While administered under the Missouri Territory, the local area was designated as Clark County in 1818. After Missouri achieved statehood in 1819, Arkansas became a territory in its own right, then a state in 1836. In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned an expedition, headed by William Dunbar and George Hunter, to map the southern part of the Louisiana Purchase. Their trip up the Arkansas River would coincide with the Lewis and Clark trip up the Missouri River.

“When trouble with the Osage Indians canceled their plan, Dunbar convinced Jefferson that an expedition up the Ouachita River as far as Hot Springs would be beneficial. It became the first river explored by Americans following the Louisiana Purchase. As he reached the bluff on which Arkadelphia now sits, Dunbar chose to call the area the Great Glaze. About 1808, Adam Blakely opened a blacksmith shop on what’s now Caddo Street near the Ouachita River. That was the beginning of a town.”

One of the most historic buildings still standing in Arkadelphia is the Clark County Courthouse, designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles Thompson and built in 1899.

According to “Visit Historic Arkadelphia”: “For public buildings, Thompson favored Romanesque style, as evidenced by the courthouse and the public library in Arkadelphia and by buildings in El Dorado, Prescott and Hope. The six-story clock tower holds a 600-pound clock. The whole structure was erected using local materials — bricks from Clark County earth and granite quarried near the Caddo River just north of town. Three county courthouses have been located on this site since Arkadelphia succeeded Greenville as the county seat in 1842. This one succeeded a squarish wooden building that had replaced the original log structure.

“During the late 1980s and through the 1990s, some county officials hoped to demolish this courthouse and replace it with a more modern one. The March 1, 1997, tornado, which destroyed or damaged much of the town, damaged the courthouse. Determined efforts by local residents, combined with grants and federal money, led to its restoration.”

Just across the street from the courthouse stands the building that housed the law offices of Harris Flanagin, the Confederate governor of Arkansas. The building at 320 Clay St. was finished in 1858 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in December 1977.

“The building was constructed in several phases,” writes historian David Sesser of Henderson State University. “The front portion was constructed by law partner J.L. Witherspoon. J.H. O’Baugh, a lock brick maker, provided the bricks for the first phase of construction and possibly built the office. The bricks were received in 1855, and construction of the building was finished by 1858. The original design was two rooms with a front porch. Each room had a single door that opened onto the porch, but the rooms weren’t connected by a passageway. Each room also contained a fireplace and chimney.

“At the end of the war, Flanagin and Witherspoon returned to Clark County and resumed their law practice. Sometime during this period, Flanagin purchased the office from Witherspoon. In 1874, Flanagin was selected to represent Clark County at a constitutional convention but became ill during the proceedings, dying in Arkadelphia on Oct. 23. After Flanagin’s death, the office passed to his son Duncan. A section of rooms constructed from wood was added to the rear of the property, and a door connecting the two original rooms was installed. The property was rented as private housing until 1903 when Duncan Flanagin sold the building to Judge J.H. Crawford.”

Crawford used the building until his death in 1930. It was used by his son, Dwight Crawford, as a law office until his death in 1968. In 1974, the office was sold to attorney Bob Sanders.

Harris Flanagin had been born in New Jersey in November 1817. His father was a cabinetmaker who had come from Ireland in 1765. Flanagin was educated in a Quaker school and became a math professor at a seminary in Pennsylvania when he was just 18. He later opened a private school in Illinois.

Writing in the book “Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives,” historian Michael Dougan of Jonesboro says: “Armed only with a letter certifying him to be a ‘gentleman well educated and possessing a good moral character,’ Flanagin moved to Arkansas in 1839, settling at Greenville in Clark County before relocating to Arkadelphia, where he established his law office on the courthouse square. His primary interest seems to have been speculating in land with an old Pennsylvania friend, Benjamin Duncan, who served as Clark County sheriff in the 1840s. A Whig in politics, Flanagin was elected to the Fourth General Assembly in 1842, serving in the House for one term.

“Although he volunteered for the Mexican War, his company seems not to have completed its organization. In 1847, he was elected captain of a militia company. In 1848, Flanagin won a spirited contest against Democrat Hawes H. Coleman for the office of state senator. Again, he served only one term. After the collapse of the Whig Party in the 1850s, his political activity was reportedly limited to serving as an Arkadelphia city alderman. Flanagin married Martha Elizabeth Nash of Hempstead County on July 3, 1851. Flanagin had been raised a Baptist, but after he married, he attended the Presbyterian church with his wife, becoming known locally as a ‘trunk Baptist.'”

In 1861, Flanagin was elected to attend the Arkansas Secession Convention.

“A reluctant secessionist, he was highly regarded by the former Unionists and left the convention after the passage of the ordinance of secession on May 6 to accept the captaincy of Company E of the Second Arkansas Mounted Rifles,” Dougan writes. “He participated in actions at Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge. After the death of Col. James McIntosh and the reorganization of the regiment, Flanagin was elected colonel. During the summer of 1862, Flanagin was serving in the Army of Tennessee when his name was put forth as a gubernatorial candidate in a public letter by a strong coalition of ex-Unionists (mostly ex-Whigs) and Democrats who wished to supplant the highly unpopular incumbent, Henry Massie Rector, whose most recent action had been to issue a proclamation threatening to secede from the Confederacy.

“The Constitution of 1861 had contrived to shorten Rector’s term by scheduling a gubernatorial election for the fall of 1862. During these months, Flanagin kept a small diary but made no reference to his candidacy, thus leading some writers to the erroneous conclusion that he had no knowledge of his nomination at the time of his election. However, private correspondence from Arkansans in the Army of Tennessee reveals that the men were aware of his nomination and anxious for his success. His friends in Arkansas did all the campaigning for him. A pro-Rector paper tried to stir up anti-Irish sentiment by claiming the challenger’s last name was O’Flanagin, but the colonel outpolled Rector by more than a two-to-one margin.”

Flanagin was sworn in on Nov. 15, 1862.

“Flanagin called on the Legislature for laws to help people cope with shortages of salt, aid impoverished solders’ families and stop profiteering and liquor production,” Dougan writes. “Some laws were passed, but Flanagin took a passive attitude toward executive responsibilities and failed to offer effective leadership. A Baptist minister reported that he had heard it said ‘your governor loves whiskey too well to get him to stop still houses.’ In contrast to many Southern governors, he didn’t oppose the imposition by Confederate authorities of conscription or endorse an extreme states’ rights position.

“Flanagin worked to get Confederate authorities to take seriously the defense of Arkansas, and he accompanied the Confederate Army on its futile assault on the Union-held port of Helena in 1863. He also made two efforts to raise state troops for defense. After the fall of Arkansas Post in January 1863, he called for volunteers to serve for 60 days. Since the Federals didn’t follow up their victory, there was no need. In any case, the state had no weapons with which to arm the men. In August, when a Federal column began marching on the capital, Flanagin formed a company of old men, which he led himself. Since the Confederates failed to make a serious effort to defend the capital, the Union Army captured Little Rock on Sept. 10, 1863.”

State officials fled south, taking state records with them. Flanagin went home to Arkadelphia for about a month until Confederate authorities convinced him to re-establish a state government at Washington in Hempstead County. The Legislature met at Washington in 1864.

“Thanks to judicial decisions authored by new state Supreme Court Justice Albert Pike, this ‘rump’ government was granted legal standing for its operations,” Dougan writes. “One more brief flight to Rondo (now in Miller County but probably in Lafayette then) took place in 1864 when it appeared that Union Gen. Frederick Steele would capture Washington. Steele, however, went to Camden instead, and the Confederates returned to their temporary capital. Affairs in the Trans-Mississippi were in great disorder once the fall of Vicksburg left this section largely responsible for its own defense. Flanagin failed to attend the first Trans-Mississippi Department governors’ conference, made limited use of his executive powers and did little to retard the rising peace sentiment among the masses.

“Morale-building public speeches and aggressive executive actions were lacking. However, with most of the state either a no-man’s land or in the hands of Union forces, tax collections stopped, and with it the state’s source of revenue. Flanagin’s most energetic act was his rejection of a Confederate enrolling officer’s attempt to draft the clerk of the state Supreme Court. The most important effort to sustain the war was supplying the Washington Telegraph with newsprint, but this was undertaken by Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith and not by Flanagin. The governor’s wartime correspondence contained letters from friends who apparently shared his belief that the war was lost. When criticized by his inactivity, he responded that he would never act ‘without or contrary to law.'”

Unionists in Arkansas had written a new constitution and installed Isaac Murphy as governor in 1864. After the war, Flanagin returned the state archives and retired to Arkadelphia to resume his law practice.

“His correspondence indicates he opposed violence and took the same high legal and moral tone that had marked his gubernatorial career,” Dougan writes. “In 1872, he was selected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. After the Brooks-Baxter War, he was elected to the state convention that wrote the Constitution of 1874, serving as chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He was even spoken of as a possible gubernatorial candidate. He died, probably from congestive heart failure, before final ratification. But he had signed an early draft.”

Flanagin is buried in Arkadelphia’s historic Rose Hill Cemetery. His reputation was that of a man who took direct action once he had made up is mind.

The authors of “Visit Historic Arkadelphia” tell one story along those lines: “At age 34, the still-unmarried man didn’t seem interested in romance, but a friend told him one day that he knew just the right girl for him. A few days later, Flanagin appeared at the home of Phinias Nash in Washington and told Nash that he had come to court and possibly marry his daughter. He was invited to stay for dinner and afterward talked with the young lady. The next morning, he returned to Arkadelphia. Three weeks later, Flanagin returned to Washington, and he and Martha were married.”

The authors note that Rose Hill originated “when a child of Benjamin Maddox died in 1852 and was buried in the family’s back yard. After other family members died and were buried there, friends requested and were granted the same privilege in what came to be known as the Maddox burying ground. Almost 20 years later, the city bought the property for a municipal graveyard and named it Rose Hill in 1880. Alice McNutt donated the rock fence surrounding the cemetery.”

The cemetery has graves that date to the 1850s. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.

“The first public cemetery in Arkadelphia was established shortly after the town was settled,” Sesser writes. “It was named the Blakely Graveyard for an early name of the settlement. The graveyard was closed by the city board to future interments in 1869. Several graves from the Blakely Graveyard were moved to the new cemetery after it opened, including the bodies of several Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War. Rose Hill Cemetery, which fronts Main Street, covers about 12 acres.

“The eastern boundary of the cemetery is South 12th Street, and the western boundary of the cemetery abuts another cemetery. The southern boundary is adjacent to private property. The land slopes down from the front of the cemetery with concrete retaining walls used to prevent erosion. The oldest graves are in the northern section with newer graves to the south and west. There’s a small gazebo in the cemetery, and several small sheds are used to house maintenance equipment. A black wrought-iron fence runs in front of the property, and an iron sign displaying the name of the cemetery is located slightly to the east of the front entrance. … A dirt road leads into the center of the cemetery from the front entrance, and a number of magnolia, cedar and other types of trees are located in the older section.”

The cemetery, which makes a nice place for a walk for those interested in Arkansas history, contains more than 3,100 graves. About 1,800 of the interments were made between the 1850s and 1940s. There are few burials there these days.

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The old river town

Monday, September 14th, 2020


I’ve always liked river towns.

I’m not talking about those towns with a small stream flowing through the city limits. No, I’m talking about places with rivers large enough so a steamboat could dock; towns that owe their existence to the river; towns with ornate old houses whose original owners had the furnishings shipped up from New Orleans or down from St. Louis.

Helena on the Mississippi River, with its rich history and cultural mix, has always fascinated me despite decades of economic decline.

Like Helena, Arkansas City once was on the banks of the Mississippi, but Old Man River moved, as rivers are wont to do.

Other cities on the eastern edge of the state — places such as Blytheville, Osceola, West Memphis and Lake Village — tend to sit back a bit from its banks to avoid the floods.

My mother hailed from a river town, Des Arc on the White River. I was raised in a river town, Arkadelphia on the Ouachita River. Though railroads replaced rivers as the major transportation corridors beginning in the late 1880s, there remains a certain vibe to a river town that can’t be found elsewhere.

“It’s believed that Clark County pioneer Jacob Barkman was the first to bring a steamboat up the river past what’s now Arkadelphia,” writes noted Arkansas historian Wendy Richter. “Barkman lived near the confluence of the Caddo and Ouachita rivers and used the water for trips to New Orleans. Barkman first traded with merchants to the south by means of pirogues, or large dugout canoes, but when his business began to grow, he needed larger and faster boats. So he built a boat he called The Dime. The Dime was said to be a nice boat, and it made regular trips up and down the river before it eventually sank.”

In later years, much bigger boats could be found on the Ouachita with names such as Arkadelphia City, Susie B. and Jo Jacques.

“The Rock City once met with difficulties a few miles below Arkadelphia,” Richter writes. “The boat was apparently long and large for the river, and it lacked the power to successfully navigate the rapid and winding current of the upper Ouachita. Loaded with cotton and passengers, the boat failed to make a turn and ended up broadside to an island, in danger of being broken to pieces. Several men drowned attempting to free the trapped vessel. It is believed the boat finally made it to safety.

“Steamboats continued to travel the river even after the Civil War. In 1873, a man who lived between Arkadelphia and Rockport built a boat and took it down the river. Because of construction on a railroad bridge at Arkadelphia, he could go no further. So he sued the railroad for obstruction of navigation on the river, claiming damages in the amount of $10,000. Indeed the railroad’s construction in the 1870s marked the beginning of a new era in transportation in Arkansas and the gradual demise of the steamboat.”

In my files is a little book titled “Visit Historic Arkadelphia” that was written by Dave Ozmum, Ray Granade, Laverne Todd and Shirley Graham. They do an excellent job of outlining the city’s colorful history and the river’s key place in that history.

“Some of the earliest people moving up and down the river were trappers,” they write. “By the 1800s, a steamboat landing welcomed The Dime, Will S. Hays, Rob Roy, Lightwood and other boats to dock. Today an Arkansas Game & Fish Commission boat ramp lies just across the Ouachita River from that spot. The first bridge spanning the Ouachita near Arkadelphia was built in 1903. It replaced the ferry that docked just downstream from where the bridge met the bluff, and locals referred to it simply as ‘the free bridge.’ That initial structure was replaced with a new one in 1959. Today, the old ferry dock has been replaced by the Ouachita River Park. Designed by Twin Rivers Architects of Arkadelphia, it has become the site of special public events as well as picnics and family gatherings.

“By the mid-19th century, Arkadelphia had developed into an important river port, connecting the area to the Mississippi River, New Orleans and the world beyond. With the arrival of the Cairo & Fulton Railroad in 1873, Arkadelphia became one of the principal transportation hubs in southwest Arkansas. After the merger of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern lines that ran between Missouri and Texas, the present depot was built in 1917. The depot is of Italianate-Mediterranean design, one used all over the Southwest by the Missouri-Pacific Railroad. After many years of popularity, rail travel declined and the depot closed in 1971. It reopened 32 years later as a museum.”

Near the depot was the Arkadelphia Milling Co, which was begun by three brothers in 1898 and grew into one of the state’s largest industries.

According to the authors of “Visit Historic Arkadelphia”: “The mill operated 24 hours a day producing flour, meal, stock feed and staves. At the peak of production, 300 men were employed, and its products were shipped to 12 countries and 28 states. Its slogan ‘we never sleep’ was known in nearly every part of the world. The mill purchased large quantities of grain that were shipped to Arkadelphia by train. As one of Missouri-Pacific’s biggest customers, it secured a special rate for shipping grain from Kansas City. In the early 1900s, the railroad dramatically increased the tariff, making a hardship on the mill.

“H.W. McMillan, attorney for the mill, began searching for ways to get the tariff reduced. During his investigation, McMillan learned that drawbridges were required on navigable river railroad crossings. Since the Ouachita was navigable only part of each year, a trestle bridge had been constructed across the river. In hopes of getting the tariff reduced, McMillan gave Capt. Flave J. Carpenter $5,000 and told him to go to New Orleans. A few weeks later, Carpenter began his trip from his dock just north of the bridge and proceeded down the river. Carpenter stopped short of the railway trestle and began wildly sounding his horn. When asked why the horn was blowing, his reply was that he was waiting for the drawbridge to be raised.”

The agent at the depot sent a telegraph to his supervisors in Little Rock. Later that day, a train with three engines and only one coach pulled into the station. It was carrying the division superintendent, the division freight agent, the division passenger agent and three lawyers.

The authors write: “It took less than 10 minutes to reduce the tariff, and the train headed back to Little Rock. The horn ceased to blow, and Carpenter continued his trip to New Orleans. Following the compromise between the mill and the railway, the mill continued a flourishing business until it succumbed to the Great Depression in the 1930s. The silos that still stand near the depot bear mute witness to its former existence.”

Arkadelphia remains filled with beautiful old homes. Two of them, the Barkman House and the Henderson House, are just across U.S. Highway 67 from each other. Both houses are owned by Henderson State University.

The Barkman House was built in 1860 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. It was built by James Barkman.

“James Barkman was the son of Jacob Barkman and Rebecca Davis Barkman, who settled along the Caddo River in 1811,” writes Henderson historian David Sesser. “One of the earliest settlers in what became Clark County, Jacob Barkman owned a variety of businesses and worked as a planter. James Barkman was born in 1819 and followed his father into farming. The younger Barkman was successful and quickly accumulated wealth. In the 1860 census, the family of James Barkman included his wife Harriet, four daughters and one son. Barkman also owned 28 slaves. Eventually, James and Harriet had another daughter along with another son, Walter Eugene, who was born in the house and lived in it until his death in 1959.

“James Barkman began construction of the home on what was then the northwestern side of Arkadelphia before the start of the Civil War. The foundation and five chimneys are constructed of stuccoed brick. The house consists of a center hall with rooms on either side, with two wings at the rear. The first floor has four rooms along the central hall with two additional rooms in the south rear wing. The other wing contains modern facilities. With a hip roof and a chimney at each end, the building has a two-story facade across its front. The staircase in the house is rear facing, and both Greek and Gothic details are visible throughout the building.”

The house was sold to what was then Henderson State Teachers College in 1968 for $65,000. Archeological excavations took place on the grounds in 1990 and 1993.

According to “Visit Historic Arkadelphia”: “Local legend reports that piles of lumber were taken from the front yard to build fortifications and that Union troops occupied it for a month. … The mirror in the hallway is original to the house.”

The Henderson House was built by Charles C. Henderson, the man for whom HSU is named.

“Marrying in San Antonio in 1880, Henderson and his wife returned to Arkadelphia, where they began to purchase a number of houses and plots of land,” Sesser writes. “On July 16, 1892, Henderson bought a plot at the corner of present-day 10th and Henderson streets, directly opposite the campus of Arkadelphia Methodist College (now HSU), where he had been named to the board of trustees the previous year. Two small cottages built in 1876 on the property faced the campus. Henderson and his family lived in one of these homes for several years before the family moved to Ruston, La. Returning to Arkadelphia in 1903, Henderson moved one cottage to a new location and began an extensive expansion project on the second cottage.

“During the next several years, Henderson added a wraparound porch with a balustrade on the front of the home. The porch curves around a two-story turret and has a portico with six columns. The interior of the house is lavishly adorned with fretwork. Two parlors are located on the first floor, each with large fireplaces. Numerous other common rooms are located on the first floor, along with a heavily detailed staircase to the second floor. The staircase opens on the second floor into a square hallway that leads to numerous small rooms.”

“Visit Historic Arkadelphia” calls the Henderson House “a fine example of how successive owners can adapt a structure to changing needs and architectural tastes. Henderson, a former cattle broker with the St. Louis Livestock Commission, had bought the property from H.B. Stuart for $2,500 and then remodeled it over eight years at a cost of $5,000 into a 30-room Victorian mansion that he simply called ‘the big house.’ The exterior mixes Queen Anne-style with round turrets and a variety of window styles. The interior is said to have the state’s best fretwork. A later owner added the columns in the 1920s to give it a neoclassical look.”

Just four years after completing the house, Henderson moved to El Paso, Texas. He sold the house in 1911 to T.N. Wilson, who in turn sold it to Claude Phillips in 1918. The university bought the house in 1978 and operated a museum in the home until the 1990s. Following an extensive renovation in 1999, it became a bed-and-breakfast inn. It continues to operate as one of the best B&Bs in the South.

Another of the beautiful old homes in Arkadelphia is Magnolia Manor, which was built by John B. McDaniel from 1854-57. The house was several miles west of Arkadelphia when it was constructed but is now in the city limits. McDaniel journeyed to New Orleans and brought back two seedling magnolia trees to plant in front of the house. One of the trees still stands.

“The name of the home comes from the massive magnolia tree in the yard that was planted by McDaniel shortly after the home was constructed,” Sesser writes. “The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in September 1972. McDaniel was born on May 5, 1811, in Marlboro County, S.C. He married Mary Ann Thomas on June 14, 1836, and the couple eventually had five children. McDaniel owned a plantation in South Carolina but sold it in 1850 to move to Arkansas. Purchasing 80 acres in Clark County, McDaniel began construction on the house in 1854. By 1860, the family owned at least 320 acres.

“Madison Griffin, a mason from South Carolina, supervised construction of the house. A group of slaves owned by McDaniel completed construction. The bricks were made on site, and the lumber was from nearby trees. The foundation of the house is brick, and the walls are wood-frame construction. Wooden siding covers the house, typical of the Greek Revival style. The exterior of the house is white. Other Greek Revival characteristics include the corner boards, the entrance architraves, the flanking pilasters and the window surrounds. The roof of the two-story home has an overhang of two feet and is supported by scrollwork brackets.”

The house has three chimneys. Each chimney is connected to two fireplaces. The parlor, dining room, den and three bedrooms all have fireplaces.

“Mary Ann McDaniel died in 1883, and John B. McDaniel died in 1889,” Sesser writes. “Both are buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Arkadelphia. They sold the house in 1877 to Annie Hoskins, and she lived there with her husband T.C. until they sold it to the son of the original owner in 1906. The daughter of John R. McDaniel and Kate McDaniel — Anne Stark McDaniel — lived in the house with her husband Benjamin Foster, a professor at Henderson. After his wife’s death, John R. McDaniel lived with his daughter and son-in-law until his death in 1918.”

State Sen. Fletcher McElhannon and his wife May purchased Magnolia Manor from the Fosters in 1929 and restored it in 1932-33. A garage with a bedroom above and a new porch were added. Another porch was enclosed, and two bathrooms were added. After May McElhannon’s death, the home was purchased by state Sen. Olen Hendrix, who did additional renovation work.

Another of the fine old homes in Arkadelphia is the Greek Revival-style Habicht-Cohn-Crow House, which was constructed by Anthony Habicht in 1870. Habicht was born in New York, the son of German immigrants. He came to Arkadelphia after the Civil War to work for the Freedmen’s Bureau and had a house built based on one he had seen in Natchez, Miss.

Habicht sold the home to Mark Matthias Cohn, the founder of what would become the M.M. Cohn chain of department stores. The Polish immigrant later moved his store to Little Rock. Some stories say it was because Arkadelphia civic leaders wouldn’t let him sell liquor in the mercantile store. The house was sold to real estate agent A.M. Crow and remained in the Crow family until 1932.

“Habicht resided in Arkadelphia for five years before moving to Texas, where he worked as a notary, in insurance and in banking,” Sesser writes. “He died in Austin in 1891. The east-facing house is located on a corner lot in downtown Arkadelphia and is surrounded by large magnolia and oak trees. The home was constructed by a Mennonite carpenter named Gebhardt. The home is designed in a T shape. It is fronted by a wide wood front porch with four evenly spaced columns. The porch is accessed by a set of wooden steps with banisters. The house is entered through double front doors that are covered with screen doors. The doors are flanked by sidelights and topped with a transom.”

William Gerig bought the house from the Crow family in 1932. It passed to his daughter, Mildred Gerig Newberry, in 1937. Following her death in 1971, the house went to her daughter, Emily Peterson. The house was sold several more times and is now occupied by an insurance company.

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The rival colleges

Tuesday, August 25th, 2020


Only three cities in Arkansas — Little Rock, Conway and Arkadelphia — have multiple four-year institutions of higher learning.

Little Rock now has more than 200,000 residents. Conway now has more than 65,000 residents. Arkadelphia has fewer than 11,000 residents.

In that sense, Arkadelphia is the closest thing we have in Arkansas to a true college town — a place where colleges dominate the economy and every other aspect of the town. What are now Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University began as Baptist and Methodist schools, respectively.

Ouachita was founded on April 8, 1886.

Henderson began in 1890 as Arkadelphia Methodist College.

“Samuel Stevenson and James Gilkey established the first in a string of Baptist schools in Arkadelphia,” writes Ouachita historian Ray Granade. “It and what’s now the Arkansas School for the Blind preceded the Civil War, followed by the Arkadelphia Baptist High School (later Red River Baptist Academy). Ouachita Baptist College was the first of four institutions of higher education (two for whites and two for blacks) begun between 1886 and 1896 in a town that locals liked to promote as the Athens of Arkansas and the City of Colleges.

“OBC was advertised as an institution created not ‘as a financial speculation, but solely upon an educational basis.’ Free tuition for all ministers ‘irrespective of denomination’ (until 1937), a tuition waiver for ministers’ children and another for siblings simultaneously at school exacerbated the financial situation and led one historian to estimate that more than a third of OBC students between 1886 and 1933 paid no tuition at all.”

Residents of Arkadelphia put up 13 acres, a building and $10,000 to attract the school at a site overlooking the Ouachita River that had been left vacant when the School for the Blind moved to Little Rock.

“Founding president John William Conger and his wife made up a third of the initial faculty,” Granade writes. “OBC began with instruction at all levels — primary, preparatory and collegiate. Primary disappeared by about 1900. Enrollment grew from the original 166 to averaging in the 300s under Conger, and the school maintained a low teacher-student ratio, 17 to 1 in 1907. Initially, women lived on campus while men boarded in town. Student life centered on literary clubs (two for females and two for males) while sports stirred deep passions. The curriculum, standard for colleges of its day, contained a few surprises (like bookkeeping) and featured compulsory military training consistently until 1991.

“Continuing financial difficulties led Arkadelphia citizens to pay the institution’s debt in 1914 and again in 1936 in return for the promise to keep OBC in Arkadelphia permanently. Presidents and supporters began endowment drives several times, but the institution accumulated little until World War I. Since 1925, the institution has been a regular part of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention annual budget, which has helped stabilize its finances. Being included in the state convention’s budget came at a price, one which demonstrated the tension between the convention and the school over academic freedom on the issue of evolution.”

The Arkansas Baptist State Convention adopted an anti-evolution position in 1924 that was stronger than that adopted the previous year by the Southern Baptist Convention.

“The man who guided OBC through this clash between Christian fundamentalism and modern science, Dr. Charles Ernest Dicken, informed OBC trustees that he and every faculty member would sign the SBC statement, which initially satisfied the trustees,” Granade writes. “At a called meeting that roughly coincided with John T. Scopes’ arrest in Tennessee, the trustees rescinded their earlier position and found only the fundamentalist statement acceptable. Dicken resigned, effective June 1, 1926.

“Seven of the 24 faculty members also refused to sign the anti-evolution statement, and all seven forfeited employment. Twelve signed with a caveat. Only five signed outright. One trustee observed that the convention’s action would keep the school from hiring ‘the highest type of educator,’ a fear borne out as the school endured three new presidents during the next seven years.”

Ouachita had hired its first faculty member with a doctorate in 1913.

“That chemist began a tradition of terminal degree holders teaching science,” Granade writes. “In 1921, the institution began encouraging faculty without terminal degrees to pursue them and hired its first woman PhD holder in 1929 (in mathematics).”

The Methodists in Arkadelphia saw what the Baptists were accomplishing at Ouachita in the late 1880s and decided they wanted their own school.

“Local members of the Methodist state convention decided to start a college to serve students in southern Arkansas and to compete with Ouachita,” writes Henderson historian David Sesser. “Arkadelphia Methodist College was the third Methodist college in the state, joining male-only Hendrix College in Conway and Galloway Female College in Searcy. Arkadelphia Methodist College was the first co-educational school in the Methodist state convention.

“Methodist citizens of Arkadelphia originally tried to secure Hendrix College when its location was moved in 1889 from Altus to Conway, but they were unsuccessful in their efforts. With $30,000 and a location already pledged to the school, the people of Arkadelphia set out to create their own institution. After receiving the blessing of the board of education of the Little Rock Conference of the Methodist Church, a 15-member board of trustees was selected and immediately set out to create a school. On April 19, 1890, a nine-acre campus, located north of Arkadelphia, was purchased from Harriet Barkman.”

A couple of ravines separated the new campus from Ouachita. Architect Thomas Harding was hired, and the first term was scheduled to begin the first Wednesday in September of 1890. There were 110 students enrolled on Sept. 3 of that year.

“The classes were held in the public school building, and the students were housed in private homes around Arkadelphia,” Sesser writes. “Students took classes in mathematics, natural and physical sciences, mental science, English, history and reading. Upon completing the required courses, men were awarded the bachelor of philosophy degree while women received the mistress of English literature degree. Bachelor of science, bachelor of arts and artium magister (MA) degrees were also awarded. A preparatory department was established, and children of local residents attended classes during the day.

“The college grew slowly through the 1890s, adding a kindergarten and education classes in 1896. Participation in debate and oratory competitions led to the adoption of the original school colors, cream and pink. In 1893, the main building was finally ready to be occupied. Housing everything from the library and classrooms to the women’s dormitory, the new building quickly became the center of campus. Housing for men didn’t open until 1903, when a former private residence was converted to that use.”

Sidewalks linking Ouachita and Henderson were completed in the early 1900s. The school yearbook started in 1905, and the school newspaper was established in 1908.

“With the campus’ growth, the size of the student body also grew through the 1890s,” Sesser writes. “By 1905, the number of students taking collegiate-level classes began to drop. By 1909, the school was debt free largely due to the work of prominent Arkadelphia citizens and, to a lesser extent, the Little Rock Conference of the Methodist Church. In 1904, the name of the institution was changed for the first time. In honor of Captain Charles Christopher Henderson’s service on the board of trustees and his continued financial support of the college, the name of Arkadelphia Methodist College was changed to Henderson College at the annual commencement. In 1911, the name of Henderson College was expanded to Henderson-Brown College in honor of Walter William Brown, business partner of Henderson and a member of the board of trustees.”

Henderson had been born in Scott County in March 1850. He was the third of eight children. The family lived in both Scott and Sebastian counties when he was a boy. Henderson was just 14 when his father died.

“Around 1870, Henderson’s mother moved to Arkadelphia to be near her brother and sister, who lived in the community,” Sesser writes. “Henderson worked for a livestock company based in St. Louis and followed his mother to Arkadelphia in 1879. It was around this time that he began to be called Captain Henderson. He married Laura Bell Hall in 1880 and constructed a home in Arkadelphia the same year. The couple had two daughters and a son. Henderson worked in a number of industries after arriving in Arkadelphia, including cotton and dairies.

“Henderson began investing in timber and sawmills in the early 1880s and became a partner in a number of firms, including the Arkadelphia Lumber Co., the Nashville Lumber Co. and the Brown-Henderson Improvement & Timber Co. These investments in timber led to additional interests in 10 railroad companies, including the Memphis, Paris & Gulf Railroad. In turn, Henderson became active in banking in order to finance various projects and served as president of Elk Horn Bank from 1905-16.”

Henderson had been heavily influenced by a Methodist minister who lived with his family during the Civil War and remained active in the church for the remainder of his life. He raised funds to build a new Methodist church at Arkadelphia and was often a delegate to Methodist gatherings.

“As Henderson prospered, he built a large home on the north side of the city, directly across the street from Arkadelphia Methodist College,” Sesser writes. “Henderson was appointed to the board of trustees of the college in December 1891. Henderson’s wife was active in the movement to establish the college and took classes there. Henderson served on the board for more than a decade before he began to make large donations to the college. The school was chronically short of funds and for almost 14 years operated under a lease with the first president, George Jones.

“The board repeatedly tried to buy out Jones’ lease but was unable to do so until Henderson found a solution. In 1901, he donated $11,000 to pay off the existing debts of the institution and during the next three years led efforts for the board to gain complete control. This was completed in 1904 when Jones left the college. In honor of Henderson’s efforts, the college was renamed Henderson College.”

Captain Henderson was chairman of the board from 1903-22.

“After the departure of Jones, the board created a three-member committee to run the operations of the college,” Sesser writes. “Committee chair John Hinemon took the responsibility of overseeing daily operations, but Henderson and fellow committee member Eli McDaniel remained heavily involved in all financial decisions. Henderson continued to make large donations and purchases for the college. In 1905, he paid $5,250 to settle a claim for the college. In 1909, he gave $10,000 to pay off additional debts.”

Brown gave an additional $10,000 at that time.

“After a fire in 1914 destroyed the main building on campus, Henderson donated $5,000 to the rebuilding effort,” Sesser writes. “In 1913, Henderson moved to El Paso in Texas, where he operated banking institutions. He continued his service on the board. In failing health, he resigned as chairman of the board in 1922 but continued to serve. He was replaced as chairman by Harvey Couch, the founder of Arkansas Power & Light Co. Henderson died on June 4, 1923.”

Athletics were important on both sides of the ravine from the start.

“The most popular game quickly became football,” Sesser writes. “In 1907, the Battles of the Ravine began to be played on an annual basis (there had been a game in 1895 followed by a long break in the series). By then, Henderson’s school colors had changed to red and gray. The athletic teams were first known as the Red Jackets or the Red Men, but by 1908 were simply the Reds. Soon, that name evolved into the Reddies (and Lady Reddies), the name that remains to this day. The school also remains without a traditional mascot.”

Henderson-Brown was lucky to survive the big fire of Feb. 3, 1914, and may not have without Captain Henderson’s support.

“The fire broke out in the main building and quickly engulfed the entire structure,” Sesser writes. “Thanks to the efforts of the male students of both Henderson-Brown and Ouachita, the entire library, several pianos and countless personal effects were saved. The building itself was a total loss. Subsequently, the entire student body met in a pine grove near the remains of the building and discussed the next step in the future of the college. Out of an enrollment of nearly 300, only seven students decided to leave. The decision of most of the students to stay and rebuild their school is known as the birth of the Reddie Spirit.

“New structures were built to replace the main building, and classes continued in tents and in classrooms at Ouachita. The first men’s dormitory was built in 1920, and a new academic building known as College Hall was finished in 1915. By 1929, enrollment stood at 153, a drop of 50 from just the year before. The Little Rock Conference decided after much debate to consolidate Henderson-Brown and Hendrix and create one co-educational institution of higher learning in Little Rock. The move to Little Rock never occurred. Hendrix remained in Conway.”

Henderson-Brown students, faculty members and Arkadelphia business leaders were incensed.

“After negotiations with state lawmakers, it was decided to turn control of Henderson-Brown over to the state rather than close its doors,” Sesser writes. “In 1929, the institution became known as Henderson State Teachers College. The name of Hendrix was changed to Hendrix-Henderson College and remained so for about two years before once again becoming Hendrix College.”

Across the ravine, Ouachita continued its work.

“Associations that were formed through Baptist mission work, particularly that done by graduates, attracted international students from Latin America, Africa and Asia, starting with Charles Pong from 1922-26,” Granade writes. “Enrollment averaged about 300 until better financial times, and the GI Bill helped swell enrollment to average in the 500s after World War II. Literary clubs were replaced by social clubs, and the beginning of national honor societies. … The Preparatory Department disappeared by World War I, as did an early MA program in all disciplines. The military training program expanded with the advent of the Students’ Army Training Corps and the Reserve Officer Training Corps program, with such success than an Army magazine article dubbed Ouachita the ‘West Point of the Ozarks.’

“During World War II, the institution housed the 67th College Training Detachment Aircrew. The college achieved accreditation for the first time in 1928 and standardized its curricular structure in the 1940s. The postwar economic boom and Great Society spending on higher education provided growth and relief to the financial picture and led to expansion in Ouachita’s size and programs. Enrollment averaged about 1,300 during the 1950s and 1960s (when it reached its greatest enrollment ever at 1,881 students in 1966).”

The first black students were admitted in 1962. They were Michael and Mary Makosholo from what was then known as Rhodesia. Two years later, the trustees opened admission to students from all races. Carolyn Jean Green became the first African American to enroll in the fall of 1964.

“In 1959, the institution added a graduate program in history and religion, which narrowed solely to education after a few years (abandoned in 1991) and a nursing school in 1965 (abandoned two years later),” Granade writes. “That provided justification for assuming university status. Holders of PhD degrees became vital when the North Central Association pressed for terminal degrees in all fields, and the institution’s success allowed it to sustain accreditation after 1953, at which time 96 percent of students were Baptist and 80 percent were from Arkansas.”

At Henderson, the move to become a state institution was a good thing for the school.

“Henderson State Teachers College began to expand at a rate never envisioned while it was a Methodist college,” Sesser writes. “Six major buildings were built during the Great Depression. Accreditation was attained in 1934. After World War II, enrollment more than doubled to 500. In 1929, only 153 students had attended. Graduate classes were first offered in 1951 through the University of Arkansas. In 1955, Henderson’s first graduate degree program began.

“To reflect the change in the focus of the institution, the name was changed to Henderson State College in 1967 and to Henderson State University in 1975. Under the leadership of President D.D. McBrien, the college integrated, admitting its first black students in 1955. One of them, Maurice Horton, went on to become the first African American to earn an undergraduate degree at a primarily white institution in Arkansas, graduating in 1957. Henderson has an excellent academic record. It has produced several Rhodes, Fulbright and Rotary International scholars.”

Ouachita was growing in size right along with Henderson.

“Through gifts and purchases, the campus extended northward along the river until it encompassed more than 200 acres,” Granade writes. “Over time, the campus accumulated a variety of buildings, including former residences and barracks along with World War II-era structures in a hodgepodge of sizes and styles. In the early 1970s, the school developed a plan to provide a unified architectural style and to envision campus growth. Renovating and retrofitting the institution’s first freestanding library building (built in 1949 and then expanded in 1987) — as well as transforming the oldest remaining campus building, former women’s dormitory Cone Bottoms (built in 1923), into an administration building in 1994 — departed from the plan.

“Initially, the institution named buildings to honor exemplary service. More recently, building names generally honored significant donors. By 2008, nine buildings housed all on-campus academic activities. In 2014, Ouachita dedicated a new football stadium, Cliff Harris Stadium, and broke ground on the Ben Elrod Center for Family and Community.”

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The Athens of Arkansas

Monday, August 24th, 2020


When I was growing up at Arkadelphia, the Southern Standard newspaper proclaimed on its masthead that the city was the Athens of Arkansas.

I always took pride in that moniker.

“Arkadelphia’s greatest asset has been an enduring commitment to education that began with general private and denominational efforts, as well as the Arkansas School for the Blind prior to the Civil War, and blossomed with public education, a business college and denominational colleges for black and white Arkansans in the 1880s and 1890s,” writes Ouachita Baptist University historian Ray Granade. “Of the five colleges founded in Arkadelphia in the decade between 1885 and 1895, two (Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist University) continue to operate. Two more (Shorter College and Draughon’s Business College), like the Arkansas School for the Blind, moved to Pulaski County.”

William Blakeley built his blacksmith shop and home in 1808 on a bluff overlooking the Ouachita River. Many considered the salt works that was established a few years later on the other side of the river to be the first industry in the Arkansas Territory. A trading post was opened near the boat landing on the river.

“A decade later, Blakeleytown was thriving,” Granade writes. “At the end of the 1830s, the first lots were plotted, and Blakeleytown became Arkadelphia. The name’s originator and precise date of origin are lost. Later accounts agree that early settler James Trigg reported, without attribution, that when Arkadelphia became the county seat and thus needed a more dignified name, locals combined two Greek words for ‘arc of brotherhood’ and changed the third letter. However, many settlers came from Alabama and perhaps borrowed the name of Arkadelphia from a town north of Birmingham.

“In 1842, Arkadelphia became the Clark County seat, and a brick courthouse and jail were completed in 1844. Incorporation was initiated in 1846, though it languished for a decade. In 1850, the first official census counted 162 whites and 86 slaves. By that point, the town included a saloon, the Arkadelphia Male and Female Institute, Methodist and Baptist churches and a newspaper, The Sentinel. A decade later, this town, which served as the market for the surrounding river floodplain farms as well as those smaller upland ones, had the state’s seventh largest population.”

Henderson State University historian David Sesser notes that efforts to open a school began in 1843. An election was held to select three trustees to create a school. One of the trustees died before taking office, and progress stalled.

“A Baptist minister, Samuel Stevenson, arrived in Arkadelphia as a representative of the American Bible Society,” Sesser writes. “Stevenson was a native of Philadelphia and a graduate of Georgetown College in Kentucky. Arriving in Clark County around 1848, he first operated a school at Oakland, eight miles from Arkadelphia. He constructed a two-story frame building with a cupola and opened the Arkadelphia Institute in 1850 with help from his nephew, James Gilkey.

“Gilkey served as the principal for male students, and Elizabeth Ann Webb took a similar role over the female students. By 1852, the school had an enrollment of 97. The school was known by a variety of names during its operations, including Arkadelphia Institute, Arkansas Male and Female Institute and Arkadelphia Female Seminary. With the start of the Civil War, the school continued to operate for a time but soon closed. Federal troops ransacked the building during their brief occupation of Arkadelphia during the Camden Expedition.”

Stevenson reopened the school after the Civil War. He sold it in 1869 to Mary Connelly, who had once taught there.

“Connelly worked as a teacher in Camden and in other states before the war and moved to Arkadelphia in 1866,” Sesser writes. “She renamed the school Arkadelphia Female College, and the school offered a variety of secondary and college-level courses. Classical language courses and art courses were popular offerings. The students also held concerts at the local Baptist church to raise money to establish a library at the school. Enrollment numbers for the institution do not survive, but numerous girls from the local community attended.

“The organization of Arkadelphia High School by local Republicans as a free institution open to members of the community signaled the end of the private, tuition-driven school. Connelly closed Arkadelphia Female Academy in June 1874. The building was later used to house Arkadelphia Female High School, which was organized along with Arkadelphia Male High School in 1875.”

What’s now the Arkansas School for the Blind at Little Rock was organized at Arkadelphia by a blind Baptist minister in 1859. The Institute for the Education of the Blind campus was along the Ouachita River where Ouachita’s campus is now located. Otis Patten was the school’s first superintendent. The school was moved to Little Rock in 1868. The first Little Rock campus was at 1800 Center St. The institute was renamed Arkansas School for the Blind in 1877 and moved to its current campus on West Markham Street near the state Capitol in 1939.

“After the Cvil War, the railroad and education changed Arkadelphia,” Granade writes. “The Cairo & Fulton Railroad line, following the Military Road, joined Arkadelphia and Little Rock for the first time in 1873. Once the railroad appeared, short-line spurs spread out into the surrounding pine forests and promoted the growth of sawmills just across the river in what was briefly called Daleville as well as in sawmill towns like Graysonia. Since the railroad touched the river at Arkadelphia, the town became even more of a transportation nexus and therefore a farm market and trading center. Good transportation and education-minded community leadership encouraged another kind of growth in Arkadelphia.”

That was the growth of schools.

Arkadelphia Presbyterian Academy was a co-educational elementary and secondary school for black children operated by the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen, part of what typically was known as the Northern Presbyterian Church.

“The board began opening schools for freed slaves as early as the 1860s, but the movement arrived late in Arkansas,” Nancy Snell Griffith writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “It wasn’t until 1889, when a new presbytery was organized in the state and large numbers of blacks from the Eastern states were settling in Arkansas, that the board felt confident to begin its work there.

“The academy in Arkadelphia had earlier roots, however. According to historian Inez Moore Parker, it was founded by an unknown man who in 1882 began teaching black children under a tree on what was later to become the school’s campus. The academy was operated independently until it was taken under care by the Board of Missions for Freedmen in 1889. At that time, the board purchased 38 acres, including a frame building, to house the institution. There’s very little known about the next decade in the academy’s history. By 1900, Rev. W.H. Smith was serving as pastor of the West End Church, and his wife was teaching 135 students in the parochial school. They left the academy in 1901.”

The 1904 report of the Missionary and Benevolent Boards and Committees noted that Rev. B.M. Ward was the principal of the school, which had an enrollment of 105 students.

“By 1906, enrollment had dropped to 77 students, but there was a new two-story classroom and administration building, which also served as a boys’ dormitory,” Griffith writes. “Ward left in 1906 and was replaced by Rev. and Mrs. W.D. Feaster. The school was revitalized. By 1908, enrollment had reached 127, and Mrs. Feaster was being assisted by a Miss A. Nelson. A new building was constructed in 1910 at a cost of almost $5,000. By 1913, enrollment had increased to about 300, and there were eight faculty members. When Thomas Jesse Jones visited the academy in 1914 and 1915 in order to prepare a report for the U.S. Department of the Interior, he found an elementary school and only a few students in the secondary grades. Only a small number of these were boarding students.

“Jones’ attendance figures differ significantly from Parker’s figures. Although the school reported an enrollment of 377 students, Jones indicated there were 195 elementary and five secondary school students. He says there were six black teachers — two male and four female — and that four of these teachers did most of the teaching with occasional assistance from the Feasters. In addition to classroom work, some training was offered in sewing and cooking. Some of the boys helped to pay their expenses by working on the farm and the school’s grounds. There was also a small concrete shop where several pupils worked.

“The classrooms and dormitories were furnished with what Jones described as crude furniture. Half of the school’s funding came from the Board of Missions for Freedmen, with the other half coming mostly from the boarding department. Jones valued the plant at $8,300, $3,800 of which was the value of the farm. He suggested that the academy be reorganized to ‘furnish secondary, industrial and teacher training facilities to supplement the training in the county schools.'”

C.W. Black of Malvern, Iowa, contributed $25,000 to the school in 1920. That funded the construction of Black Memorial Hall. A dining room, kitchen and housing for female students were in the new building. The combined administration building and dormitory for boys burned in 1922. It was replaced in 1924, the same year a cottage was built for the principal.

Parker wrote: “Dr. Feaster — industrious, courageous and determined — was successful in guiding the school to a point of respectability, locally and at the national level of the church.”

Feaster died in March 1926. His replacement, Rev. Elmo Hames, died in September of that year. Rev. L.W. Davis then took over. A fire in 1931 destroyed the main building and Black Memorial Hall.

“During this period, the temper of the campus and community was tense and filled with many misgivings,” Parker wrote. “The uncertainty of coming events was too frustrating for the mission to thrive in a town the size of Arkadelphia.”

The Board of Missions decided in 1933 to merge the school with the Cotton Plant Academy in Woodruff County.

There was also a Baptist school for black students at Arkadelphia.

Arkadelphia Baptist Academy was founded by the American Baptist Home Mission Society of New York.

“Beginning in 1865, Northern Baptists joined other denominations in the effort to educate the recently freed slaves across the South,” Griffith writes. “In an article published in The New York Times in 1897, the society’s corresponding secretary, Gen. Thomas J. Morgan, noted that after the Civil War ‘the problem presented itself of the intellectual elevation of 4 million human beings, just emerging from a degrading bondage.’

“During the 32-year period between the end of the war and Morgan’s statements, the Home Mission Society had spent about $3 million, and its more than 30 institutions were providing education for more than 5,000 students, from primary school to colleges and universities. Arkadelphia Baptist Academy at 18th and Caddo streets was organized as Arkansas Industrial College by F.L. Jones on Aug. 15, 1890. In 1892, the college’s name was changed to Arkadelphia Academy, and it became associated with Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock. The academy was originally founded to train workers for church work, and the Bible was the foundation of all coursework.”

There was an enrollment of 92 students by 1892. The next year, the school reported 26 male and 60 female students. There were 26 students preparing to teach and three preparing for the ministry.

“The academy faltered during the next several years as enrollment dropped to 50 by 1899,” Griffith writes. “By 1905, this number had dropped to 26, all but two of whom were female. That year, Samuel P. Nelson, a graduate of Butler College and the University of Chicago, took over leadership of the academy. He remained until 1919. Enrollment rose to 80 by 1913. Thomas Jesse Jones visited the academy for the Interior Department in 1914 and 1915 and described it as ‘an elementary school with some pupils in secondary subjects.’ It was owned by the local Baptist association, and the board of trustees was composed of members of the association.”

Jones said that because of “inadequate support, the work is ineffective. … Some instruction in sewing is provided. … The garden is cultivated but without regard for educational values.”

There were four black teachers, three of whom were female, on a campus valued at $3,200. The 10-acre campus had a frame building in need of repair and some equipment. Jones recommended that the school be moved to “some section of the state where it’s more needed, or combined with one of the larger Baptist schools.”

The school lived on for some time, however.

Griffith writes: “It was still in existence in 1929 when the Daily Tribune and Evening Times of Ames, Iowa, reported that the academy’s football team had defeated the black team from Conway by a score of 156-0. In September 1930, the academy’s main building was destroyed when fire broke out in one of the upper stories. The academy may have still existed in some form in 1940 when it was enumerated in a separate census district in Caddo Township.”

What’s now Shorter College in North Little Rock, an HBCU operated by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, also operated for a time at Arkadelphia.

“Classes were first held at what was known as Bethel Institute in the basement of Bethel AME Church and Ninth and Broadway in Little Rock on Sept. 15, 1886,” Cary Bradburn writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Rising enrollment led to acquisition in 1888 of a two-story frame building at 11th and Gaines streets in Little Rock. In 1891, Bethel relocated to Arkadelphia. The college was renamed in 1892 in honor of Bishop James A. Shorter, who organized the Arkansas Annual Conference of AME churches in 1868. Shorter University was chartered on May 18, 1894.

“In 1896, Shorter purchased land in Argenta, which was then the Eighth Ward of Little Rock. Shorter maintained campuses for a year in both Argenta and Arkadelphia until it moved all operations in 1898 to Argenta (now North Little Rock). Shorter changed its name to Shorter College in 1903.”

Draughon’s, meanwhile, had opened as a business college for white students at Arkadelphia in 1891. The Colored Presbyterian Industrial School opened in 1896 and operated for a short time. The town was thriving.

“Between the mid-1880s and the early 1900s, Arkadelphia acquired public utilities and facilities,” Granade writes. “In 1891, a public telephone system and water mains were introduced. Wilson Water & Light Co. provided electricity. Baseball games, first played in Arkadelphia in 1874, took place after 1887 in a grand 500-seat ballpark. The Arkadelphia Bottling Co. provided portable versions of fountain drinks. A cotton mill and Elk Horn Bank opened in 1884, and Citizens National Bank opened in 1888.

“By the era’s end, the community was a farm market and trading center for the surrounding area, an educational center and even more of a center for light industry, both extractive and manufacturing. Lumber, textile and flour milling replaced salt production, while gunsmithing remained. At the turn of the century, Arkadelphia was home to one of the state’s largest lumber mills (Arkadelphia Lumber Co. at Daleville), as well as one of its first successful large industries, the Arkadelphia Milling Co., which produced flour, meal, livestock feed and staves on an around-the-clock schedule. … A natural gas pipeline was completed in 1911, and the fledgling Arkansas Power & Light Co., which initially connected Arkadelphia and Malvern, took over the local system in 1914.”

Busy U.S. 67 led to a number of gas stations and motels being built.

“Between the public schools and the colleges, education rivaled wood products as the area’s largest employer,” Granade writes.


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Malvern to Arkadelphia

Wednesday, August 19th, 2020


We leave Malvern and continue our trip down U.S. 67, passing through the Hot Spring County community of Central.

When we would drive this old highway from Arkadelphia to my grandparents’ house in Benton when I was a boy, my father would always mention having played basketball games at Central. He had graduated from Benton High School in 1942 and later played basketball (along with other sports) at the college level at what’s now Ouachita Baptist University.

“The Central showers had dirt floors,” he said. “They had boards in there. But if you slipped off the board, your feet got muddy.”

“Several one-room schools operated in the area, and the school boards of these institutions worked together to consolidate into one larger school to offer more classes and expand the curriculum to include high school,” writes historian David Sesser of Henderson State University. “The site for the school was selected due to its central location to each of the schools being consolidated. Included in the original consolidation were the Hickory Grove, Happy Hollow, California No. 1, California No. 2, Elmore Primary and Ebenezer schools. Later, the school at Harp and perhaps one additional school also consolidated with Central.

“The first year of operation of the new school was 1916. The area where the new school was located had been served by the Happy Hollow school. A bus was used to transport children from the surrounding area. The first school at Central was a two-story wood-frame building painted white, with a spring nearby. The school had a large enrollment, quickly outgrowing this building. In 1928, the school board took bids for a new brick building with a gymnasium. The school sponsored several sports, including women’s basketball. Dedicated on Nov. 15, 1928, the new building served the community until Central consolidated with the Malvern district in 1949.”

An elementary school operated at Central until 1985. All students in the area now attend school at Malvern.

The next community we pass through is Donaldson, a center of the area’s timber industry at one time and also a stop on the Missouri Pacific Railroad.

“John Easley was appointed the first postmaster in 1876,” Ronna Pennington writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “There are two local stories regarding the town’s naming. One version suggests that the town was named for a Mr. Donaldson who owned a sawmill there. According to another story, there was a railroad superintendent named Donald in the 1870s. His son opened a store for railroad employees. When people went shopping, they went to ‘Donald’s son.’ A third possibility is that the community was named after Williams Rhind Donaldson, the son-in-law of Thomas Allen, president of the Cairo & Fulton Railroad.

“Donaldson enjoyed the prosperity of the 1920s as a community built on railroad shipping, agriculture and the lumber industry. Donaldson had one of the largest excelsior mills in the state, a facility that supplied wood shavings used for shipping and packing. The Ohio Lumber Co. planing mill at Donaldson served several area sawmills. The Hot Spring County Bank served Donaldson from 1924-30. J.H. Beerstecher of Malvern was the publisher of the Donaldson Enterprise newspaper. The community even enjoyed concerts from its own 35-piece brass band twice a week.”

The state constructed a concrete viaduct over the railroad tracks at Donaldson in 1934 since U.S. 67 was so busy in those days. A new viaduct was completed in 2018. Students from Donaldson, which had a population of 301 in the 2010 census, attend school in the Ouachita School District. The district’s facilities are along the highway, just on the other side of the Ouachita River at Midway.

Though there are several communities that use the name Midway in Arkansas, this is the only incorporated town with that name. Midway had a population of 389 in the 2010 census.

“A network of routes known as the Southwest Trail extended across the state from Randolph County through Little Rock and south to Fulton on the Red River,” Steven Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “One of those highways passed through the Midway area, and it’s likely that the town was named because it was roughly halfway between Little Rock and Fulton. A post office opened in Midway in 1850. The Midway Cemetery was established during the Civil War. A stagecoach stop was also a prominent landmark of the community in the 19th century.

“After the Civil War, development of the Cairo & Fulton Railroad bypassed Midway in favor of Donaldson. The railroad and timber industry led Donaldson to prosper. The Midway post office closed in 1878. By the time the Goodspeed histories of the area were written in the late 1880s, the community of Midway wasn’t large enough to merit even a passing mention in the history of Hot Spring County.”

Midway residents voted to incorporate as a city in 2000.

The final community before leaving Hot Spring County is Friendship, which had 176 residents in the 2010 census. Students from here also attend the Ouachita School District.

“Explorers William Hunter and George Dunbar passed through the area during their survey of the Louisiana Purchase in 1804,” Pennington writes. “With documented stops at Arkadelphia and Rockport, the expedition certainly passed through the area known as Friendship. The community was established in the early 1850s when settlers from Hot Springs, Tennessee and Virginia moved to the area. G.M. Russell of Tennessee, W.P. Riland of Virginia and Thomas H. Hammons of Hot Springs were the first three settlers. As the area grew in population, residents decided to assign a name to their community. Russell is credited with suggesting the name of Friendship, a reflection of the close relationships forged among settlers of the community.

“A salt spring along the nearby Ouachita River proved to be important to residents of Friendship during the Civil War. With most of the men serving in the Confederate Army, women were left to do their own salt mining. Women traveled to the river in pairs or groups on horseback to get salt. The long cloth sacks they used for transporting the salt were filled with 100 to 150 pounds in each end of the sack and saddled across a horse to distribute the weight. The horses were often scalded by the irritating salt when their sweat soaked into the bags. The salt burns sometimes kept the horses from working for several days, which affected food production for the families.”

The first post office at Friendship opened in October 1886. The town didn’t officially incorporate until 1938, however.

“Friendship resident Gus McDonald donated two plots of land for a jail and town hall,” Pennington writes. “On the smaller plot, a two-cell jail was constructed in 1937 out of native stone. The larger piece of land donated by McDonald was eventually sold in order to purchase the lot across from the jail. Friendship’s town hall was built on this site in 1960. Friendship had its own high school until 1950 when it merged with Donaldson. The new consolidated school was constructed at Midway.

“The Friendship school building housed only elementary students after the consolidation. The building had been constructed in 1932. The new Ouachita Elementary School on the Midway campus opened in September 1966.”

As the trip continues to the southwest, we cross DeRoche Creek (sometimes called DeRoche Bayou) and enter Clark County, which was created in December 1818 as part of the Missouri Territory. When the Arkansas Territory was established in 1819, Clark County was one of the original five Arkansas counties.

“Clark County included all or parts of at least 15 counties in present-day Arkansas and parts of six counties in what’s now Oklahoma,” writes Wendy Richter, the former director of the Arkansas State Archives. “The county was named for the Missouri territorial governor, William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The county is part of two of Arkansas’ natural regions — the Ouachita Mountains and the Gulf Coastal Plain. Its physical characteristics made the area ideal for farming and hunting. Before Europeans arrived, Native Americans, particularly the Caddo, inhabited the land containing heavy forests, abundant game, rich soil, clear streams and salt. Archaeological evidence attests to the lengthy presence of the Indians in the area.

“In the 16th century, Hernando de Soto was the first European known to explore the Ouachita Mountain region. He was followed more than a century later by the French, who named many of the county’s topological features. By the late 1700s, Indians had largely vacated the area as the Europeans continued to explore and occupy it. Permanent settlement by Americans occurred soon after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. In 1809, William Blakely established a blacksmith shop on the west bank of the Ouachita River at a site called Blakelytown (later Arkadelphia). Across the river to the east, John Hemphill began operating a salt factory, one of the state’s earliest manufacturing concerns.”

Despite the accomplishments of Blakely and Hemphill, Jacob Barkman is the man often known as the Father of Clark County. Barkman opened river traffic from Arkadelphia all the way to New Orleans, first by pirogue and later by keelboat. In 1830, he initiated steamboat transportation.

“Barkman’s home served as the site of the first county court, the first post office, a stagecoach stop, a racetrack and an ill-fated textile mill,” Richter writes. “Blakelytown’s first general store opened in 1817, operated by J.S.T. Callaway. Jonathan O. Callaway is credited with having built the town’s first hotel in 1843. Shortly thereafter, the Spence Hotel was constructed and became a well-known stopping place in the region. Moses Collins arrived in the county in 1830 and built a sawmill and gristmill on Terre Noir Creek. A brickyard was established the same year.

“Reflecting the emphasis on the region’s abundant natural resources, agriculture dominated antebellum Clark County’s economy. As in much of Arkansas, cotton’s importance grew throughout the antebellum period, and slavery was common throughout the county. In the 1830s, the Military Road was constructed along the Southwest Trail through Clark County and passed near Barkman’s home. This road became the county’s main land transportation artery. Today, U.S. 67 and Interstate 30 cross the Caddo River within a few hundred yards of Barkman’s former residence.”

Another notable settler was Meriwether Lewis Randolph, the grandson of Thomas Jefferson. He was Arkansas’ last territorial secretary. His wife was a grand-niece of Rachel Jackson, the wife of Andrew Jackson. Randolph moved to southern Clark County in 1836. He died the next year and was buried on the grounds of his plantation near Gurdon.

“The early county seats were in or near the homes of Barkman on the Caddo and of Adam Stroud near Hollywood,” Richter writes. “The county seat was also at Biscoeville. In 1831, the seat of government was established at Greenville, where it remained until 1842, when it moved to Blakelytown. The community was renamed Arkadelphia, and a courthouse was constructed. The present courthouse was built in 1899. Churches and schools were priorities for early settlers. William Frederick Browning settled in northwest Clark County in 1841 near present-day Amity and had established a church and school there by 1848. Oakland Academy opened in 1847 as a result of the efforts of Michael Bozeman, who settled west of Arkadelphia in 1835 and began a large farming operation. His Greek Revival home is considered the county’s oldest residence.

“By 1859, three churches, the Arkansas Institute for the Blind and several academies operated in Arkadelphia. Ouachita Baptist College was founded in 1886, followed by Arkadelphia Methodist College in 1890. Today, public schools have been consolidated into three major districts — Arkadelphia, Gurdon and Centerpoint — and Arkadelphia’s two universities make education an important component of the county. Arkadelphia has even been called the Athens of Arkansas because of the number and prominence of its educational institutions.”

Before entering Arkadelphia, we pass through Caddo Valley, the home of many restaurants and motels that serve travelers on Interstate 30.

“In 1968, the Arkansas Children’s Colony — now the Arkadelphia Human Development Center — was opened in the community,” Sesser writes. “Never numbering more than a few hundred in population, the area wasn’t formally organized into a city until 1974. Incorporation was quickly followed by the construction of a city hall and creation of a police department and fire station. This move was brought on by construction of Interstate 30 in the area, with an exit placed in Caddo Valley connecting it with Arkansas 7.

“Always a transportation hub, Caddo Valley is also served by U.S. 67. The creation of the interstate led to a boom in the construction of gas stations, motels and restaurants. The slow growth exhibited during the previous century was replaced with a much faster rate of expansion, in both the economy and population. The city quickly grew into a place for travelers to stop between Little Rock and Texarkana with several restaurants and motels. It also served the visitors to the newly created DeGray Lake. Thousands of visitors to the lake each year pump money into the Caddo Valley economy.”

We cross the Caddo River as we leave Caddo Valley. It’s one of the most beautiful streams in a state filled with scenic rivers and creeks.

Here’s how the Encyclopedia of Arkansas describes it: “The Caddo, known for extremely clear water, originates from cold-water springs southeast of Mena. In this region, the springs flow from the Bigfork Chert Ridge, which sits atop the Ouachita Mountains aquifer, known for its high-water quality. Bigfork Chert Ridge is often referred to as the Potato Hills due to uneven weathering that has left it looking like a potato patch. The stream flows generally from west to east through the Ouachita National Forest. After leaving the national forest, the Caddo meanders its way through the Athens Piedmont Plateau, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impounds it at DeGray Lake. From its origin to DeGray, the Caddo flows about 45 miles and drains almost 453 square miles. From the base of DeGray Dam, the Caddo continues its trek southeasterly for seven miles before joining the Ouachita.

“The upper Caddo above Norman in Montgomery County is designated as wild and scenic. Development hasn’t affected this section of the stream as much as the rest of the river. This section of the Caddo is accessible from U.S. Forest Service Road No. 73, northwest of Norman off Arkansas 8. This stretch can be navigated only after considerable rainfall, primarily during the spring months. The channel is narrow, and the river drops steeply, averaging 29 feet per mile. This section ends at Norman, seven miles downstream. Norman to Caddo Gap, the next section of the Caddo, is also scenic. This area has long been popular with wade and float fishermen because it’s an ideal smallmouth bass habitat. Numerous creeks enter the river along this section. Limestone rock limbs and gravel shoals produce eddies that hold large numbers of smallmouth bass.

“Road construction has begun to affect the Caddo along this stretch. Some cabins and portions of Norman can be spotted from the river. Gravel mining above Norman has caused some of the deeper holes to fill in with gravel. For the most part, however, the river corridor is still natural in appearance. Towering sycamore, sweet gum, cottonwood, ash, water and willow oak and river birch line the banks. During the summer, cardinal flower, composites and other wild flowers give the river a colorful look. The woodland appearance is interspersed with a pastoral setting. Even an old logging railroad tram parallels the river and gives it an added flavor. Deer, beaver, river otter, wild turkey, osprey and bald eagles are present in the Caddo River drainage area. This section ends at the old swinging bridge near the town of Caddo Gap, about eight miles from Norman.”

The most popular stretch for those in canoes is from Caddo Cap to Glenwood. Thermal springs are in the riverbed near a low-water bridge. They average 95 degrees and can be felt by swimmers. Below Caddo Gap, the south fork of the stream (which originates near the Albert Pike Recreation Area in the Ouachita National Forest) enters the main river. Barite mining during the 1970s hurt water quality in the fork, but it has since recovered. The river passes Glenwood and enters DeGray Lake near Amity.

It’s time for us to make our way into Arkadelphia, my hometown.



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Brick City USA

Monday, August 3rd, 2020


There were dozens of brick plants in Arkansas during the early 1900s. Little Rock, Fort Smith, Clarksville, El Dorado, Hope, Jonesboro, Malvern, Pine Bluff, Mansfield, Pocahontas and Wynne were among the cities with brick-making operations.

By the 1980s, there were only plants in the Malvern area, Jonesboro, Hope, Fort Smith and Clarksville.

By 2009, there were just four plants in the state, and they were all owned by Acme Brick Co.

“Malvern is by far the leading city in brick production in Arkansas and at one time claimed to be the Brick Capital of the World,” Randall Wheeler writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “It has been the home of Acme, Arkansas Brick & Tile, Atchison Brick, Clark Pressed Brick Co. (sold to Arkansas Brick & Tile in 1916) and Malvern Brick & Tile. Acme first purchased property in 1919 and began negotiations to purchase Arkansas Brick & Tile.

“Malvern Brick & Tile was started in 1925 and, at one time, had a line of bricks in colors such as blue, green, pink and yellow. Other companies sprayed the color onto the face of the brick, but Malvern Brick used stains that colored the whole body of the bricks. It’s not likely that any other company produced bricks with the through-the-body colors. Malvern Brick was purchased by Acme in the late 1970s.”

Acme began in Texas in 1891. Illinois native George Bennett had arrived in Dallas in 1876 and later purchased 480 acres in Parker County for the first Acme plant. The Acme headquarters was moved to Fort Worth in 1911, four years after Bennett died. By the 1970s, Acme was the largest American brick manufacturer.

Land for a brick plant was purchased at Perla in 1919, and the first bricks were being made two years later. The fully automated Perla East Gate Plant opened in 1967. Meanwhile, the original Malvern plant was replaced by what’s known as the Ouachita Plant in 1980.

We pass through Perla (which had a population of just 241 residents in the 2010 census) before entering Malvern during our trip on U.S. 67.

Though it has long been known for bricks, it was the timber industry that led to the establishment of Perla.

“Malvern Lumber Co. was established in 1880 by Adalbert Strauss, who had been born in Berlin in 1848,” Ronna Pennington writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He graduated from the College of Preceptors and moved to St. Louis in 1864. He worked in the lumber industry there as well as in Little Rock and Shreveport. On a train headed to the spas in Hot Springs, Strauss noticed the abundance of timber. He bought 45,000 acres of timberland along the railroad tracks, paying 50 cents an acre. Strauss started a sawmill and planer mill and then built houses to accommodate his employees. He named the community after his oldest daughter, Perla Marie Strauss.

“The lumber company also constructed a small private railroad to Lonsdale called Perla Northern. At one time, the lumber company employed 150 laborers. Industries in Perla later included a factory that made ammunition boxes used in World War I, the Owasso screen door factory and Atchison Brick. The biggest development for Perla in the 20th century was the opening of Acme’s Perla East Gate plant in 1919. Acme bought the Atchison plant in 1926, making it Perla Plant No. 2.”

A Rosenwald school for black students opened at Perla for the 1925-26 school year. The school for whites was torn down in 1939 when those students became part of the Malvern School District.

“The Great Depression was hard for Perla,” Pennington writes. “In many cases, workers exchanged their labor for housing and groceries with no paychecks being given. Strauss’ sawmill burned in the early 1930s, and he didn’t rebuild it. The planer mill closed in 1938 due to a lack of timber.”

An annual festival known as the Malvern Brickfest is held to celebrate the importance of bricks to the area. The festival began in 1981.

“In 1980, three companies were manufacturing bricks in Malvern and Perla with Acme having just upgraded its operation by opening a new plant in Malvern,” Marvin Schultz writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “At that time, the Malvern/Hot Spring County Chamber of Commerce declared the city to be the Brick Capital of the World. The following year, members decided to sponsor a festival that commemorated the importance of the product to the region. Roy Renfro, the chamber director at the time, was considered the guiding force behind the celebration. Throughout its existence, Brickfest has benefited from the service of many volunteers.

“The festival was initially held early in July, but the chamber rescheduled the event to avoid conflicting with the Fourth of July holiday. Since then, Brickfest has occurred on the last full weekend of June with activities beginning on Thursday evening and running through Saturday night. The event is free and attracts from 8,000 to 10,000 people every summer. The chamber depends on shirt sales, corporate sponsors and donations to fund the festival. When it began, Brickfest offered a variety of activities downtown at the county courthouse. In 2010, Brickfest moved to Malvern City Park to accommodate more people. Concerts featuring local talent take place daily with regional acts headlining evening shows.”

Malvern was established in 1873 as a stop on the Cairo & Fulton Railroad line.

“Tradition holds that the hilly terrain reminded one railway official of his native Virginia near Malvern Hill,” Schultz writes. “At his urging, the company gave the name to the new town. Residents of the young community attempted to incorporate in January 1875. That effort failed, as did a second one in October of that year. The following year, however, the county court issued a decree of incorporation. The city of Malvern came into existence in July 1876. Samuel Henry Emerson, a former resident of Rockport and owner of the first dry goods store in Malvern, was elected mayor.

“Rockport, located at the head of navigation for the Ouachita River and at the river crossing for the Military Road, had long been the economic center of the region. At the time of Malvern’s incorporation, it served as the Hot Spring County seat. The railroad spurred rapid growth in Malvern, and the city soon moved to become the seat of government. The initial vote in February 1877 proved unsuccessful, but another election took place in July 1878. At that time, a majority of 176 voters cast their ballots in favor of the change.”

On Oct. 15 of that year, the county judge ordered the county seat removed from Rockport. The first courthouse at Malvern was constructed in 1888.

“Malvern gained political and financial prominence in the area,” Schultz writes. “With railroad access to national markets, Malvern benefited as the region developed. From early on, agricultural and forest products provided the foundation for economic activity. In 1889, the Bank of Malvern was chartered. Malvern’s premier product proved to be brick. Abundant clay deposits in the area, especially in Perla, made the location ideal for production. Among the earliest plants was Atchison, which began operation in the 1890s. The company quickly found a strong market for its product. When fires in 1896-97 destroyed virtually all of downtown Malvern, the city took advantage of the opportunity to rebuild the business district with brick structures.”

The Clem Bottling Works began at Malvern in 1907. Clem soft drinks became a well-known product in this part of Arkansas. Clem drinks continued to be produced until 1972.

“Clem Bottling Works was started by J.M. Clem and his son Dock,” Darrell Brown writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The Clem family produced and bottled soft drinks in a small building behind their home. In May 1914, the Clem family built a bottling plant and warehouse at 937 S. Main St. in Malvern. The first bottles the company used were embossed with ‘J.M. Clem Bottling Works’ and were sealed with a wire and an inner seal. In the early 1920s, the company converted to bottles sealed with metal caps. The bottles at this time were also covered with paper labels. Starting in the 1950s, the bottles were labeled with applied coloring labels.

“J.M. Clem died on Sept. 22, 1931. Dock Clem’s son Harold joined the business in 1933. After Dock Clem’s death on May 21, 1942, his widow Jewell Clem and her son continued to operate the business until 1972, when the family sold the company to Dr Pepper. The purchase included the rights to the soft drink formulas and the trademarks but not the bottling equipment. Harold Clem joined Dr Pepper and worked there until he died on April 23, 2004.”

Clem Bottling Works produced about a dozen kinds of soft drinks. They were distributed in Arkansas, northern Louisiana, eastern Texas and western Mississippi.

“For years after Clem Bottling Works closed, the bottling machinery remained in the building,” Brown writes. “The machinery was purchased in the early 1990s by the Mountain Valley Spring Water bottler in Hot Springs. Cases of glass bottles used by Clem were purchased in May 2011 by the Excel Bottling Co. of Breese, Ill., which also trademarked the name R-Pep and is producing the original beverage formula for the first time since Clem closed in 1972. The Clem plant stood vacant for years. In 2018, it was announced that Teale Dentistry was moving into the historic structure.”

Malvern saw its population double from 5,290 in the 1940 census to 10,318 in the 2010 census.

“Malvern witnessed significant activity during the 1940s because of production associated with the war effort,” Schultz writes. “Barium, which is used in drilling for petroleum, was mined extensively in Magnet Cove. Demand for aluminum led the federal government to construct a massive reduction factory at Jones Mill in Hot Spring County. The Lake Catherine Steam Generating Plant was built to meet the resulting need for electrical power. Those projects marked the largest federal expenditure in Arkansas during the war.

“Reynolds Metals Co. purchased the Jones Mill facility in 1946 and operated it until the 1970s. Reynolds also built a continuous rolling plant in Hot Spring County that was later purchased by Alcoa. The war industries, Reynolds’ presence and the early years of the post-war baby boom stimulated growth in Malvern.”

Malvern is also home to a member of the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame, the iconic Keeney’s Grocery. Charles and Maureen Keeney opened a grocery store 64 years ago at the same location where the store still sits, hidden from most traffic in a residential area. Charles Keeney is 84 but is young at heart. He even drives a Corvette.

In 2000, with competition from Walmart and other big retailers hurting the business, Charles Keeney thought about retiring. With only $45,000 in the bank, though, he decided he needed to keep working.

Here’s how Wayne Bryan told the story in a 2011 feature for the Tri-Lakes edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “Rather than just carry on business as usual in a small grocery store that seems to fit more in the 1950s than the new millennium, Charles decided to latch onto what’s still the fastest-growing segment of the supermarket industry, cooking for customers (or, as it is called in the grocery business, home meal replacement). Starting in the late 1990s, many supermarket operators discovered that preparing and serving food in their stores was a good way to bring in new customers, gain greater loyalty from existing customers and increase checkout sales and profits.

“Today, in-store restaurants aren’t unusual. Charles had the same idea for his small store on Mill Street in Malvern. The couple, along with several employees, prepare and serve breakfast and lunch six days a week at the back of their store.”

The man employees refer to simply as CK says: “I just pushed some of the groceries back and put in a kitchen and some tables. I did it because I had to make a living. We stumbled through the menu for a while. But I was raised country so we fix things in the old home-style way.”

On certain days, he sells so much sausage at breakfast that he doesn’t have time to make it to sell by the pound in the grocery section of the store. On Thursdays, he sells dozens of rib-eye steaks. People eat them in the restaurant for lunch while others come in during the afternoon to get steaks to take home for supper. Charles arrives at the store at 4:30 a.m. and begins serving breakfast at 6 am.

Charles was 20 and Maureen was 17 when they bought the store in 1956.

I spent a day last fall with Hot Spring County Judge Dennis Thornton to talk about issues that affect rural America. We traversed the county from the Ouachita Mountains in the west to the Gulf Coastal Plain in the east. The day had started with an event in Malvern at which dozens of business, government and civic leaders gathered for the unveiling of a 10-year action plan for the county. Gov. Asa Hutchinson was the keynote speaker and spent his time at the podium praising the quality of life in this part of the state, its natural resources and the advantages of having Interstate 30 slice through the middle of the county.

Thornton, who became county judge after a long career with the grocery store giant Kroger, saw the need for a countywide strategic plan.

“I came into this office with the idea of forming an intergovernmental council that would bring county and state officials together,” he told me. “In the process, it became clear that we really had no consensus on what the needs of the county are. We had to find a way to reach out to all of our residents and get their input.”

Thornton contacted the Center for Community and Economic Development at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, and a meeting was held in Malvern in November 2017 to kick off the process.

“What we heard from people across the county is that they’re tired of losing their children to jobs in other counties and states,” Thornton said. “We have five school districts in this county, and we had community meetings at each of them. We averaged from 75 to 100 people per meeting. We had almost 200 show up at Bismarck.”

“The decline in manufacturing has created tremendous challenges,” said well-known Arkansas historian Tom Dillard, who lives near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. “But the county still offers lots of opportunities if people will set their priorities and then begin a formal process of achieving their goals.”

Despite the decline in manufacturing noted by Dillard, the county’s population grew from 21,963 in the 1970 census to 32,923 in the 2010 census. Dillard praised Thornton for taking a systematic approach to addressing the county’s problems while bringing new people into the decision-making process.

“People have been wanting something positive to happen here for years,” Dillard said. “This action plan gives them a way to address those issues that are holding us back.”

Jon Chadwell of the Newport Economic Development Commission addressed those in attendance that day in Malvern. Thornton has relied on Chadwell for advice on how to get a county moving economically following Chadwell’s success in Jackson County.

“You have trained for the marathon,” Chadwell said that day. “Now, you are at the starting line and ready to begin the race.”

At the first meeting in November 2017, online surveys were used to collect information. Hot Spring County residents then gathered in February 2018 to discuss survey results. That meeting was followed by sessions in each of the five school districts.

The five primary areas that will be addressed during the next decade are education and workforce development, job creation, family recreation and youth activities, health and public safety, and housing and real estate (including downtown development).

“If we can create the proper opportunities for them, our young people will stay here,” Thornton said. “I come from a background in which you have to sell yourself every day. So I’m going to be out there selling Hot Spring County as long as it takes.”



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Heading down U.S. 67

Tuesday, July 28th, 2020


U.S. 67 enters the state near Corning and heads toward the southwest, crossing into Texas at Texarkana.

“It passes through 13 counties, generally following the course of the road known as the Southwest Trail, which was established across Arkansas during territorial times,” Steven Teske writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “U.S. Highway 67 extends 1,560 miles, beginning in Presidio, Texas, at the border with Mexico, and ending near Sabula, Iowa. The Arkansas portion of the highway is roughly 280 miles.”

In Arkansas, the highway separates the Ouachita and Ozark mountains to the north and west from the Delta and the Gulf Coastal Plain to the south and east.

“This boundary is such a natural path of travel that even spring and summer thunderstorms frequently move along the same route,” Teske writes. “Undoubtedly, Native Americans frequently traveled portions of this route. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, as the U.S. government began improving travel through the territory, a military road was constructed from Missouri through Little Rock and south to Fulton on the Red River. … When the Cairo & Fulton Railroad began surveying a route to connect southern Illinois to the Red River across Missouri and Arkansas, the same route was used once again. The railroad became the Iron Mountain Railroad and was later acquired by the Missouri Pacific Railroad. The route is still used by the Union Pacific Railroad.

“Federal and state funding became available for highways early in the 1920s as automobile and truck traffic was beginning to take the place of railroad traffic. The roads that would become U.S. Highway 67 were first designated part of the original Arkansas State Highway System in 1923. A joint commission of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads and the American Association of State Highway Officials created the first national system of highways with nine federal highways established in Arkansas, including Highway 67. Sections of the highway were gradually improved as funds became available. Much pavement was laid for the highway from 1928-31. The highway was 18 feet wide at that time. More improvements were made by federal projects such as the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.”

Travel patterns began to change with the construction of the interstates.

“Until the 1950s, highways existed to connect cities and towns to one another,” Teske writes. “The beginning of the interstate highway system caused drivers to begin traveling directly between large cities, bypassing the smaller cities and towns. Interstate 30, from Little Rock south to Texarkana and then into Texas, was one of the original interstate highways planned for Arkansas. The new interstate highway made travel to Texas easier but took business away from many of the communities that had relied on travelers’ income to support stores, restaurants and gas stations. Meanwhile, many segments of Highway 67 were widened or replaced with wider pavement between 1952-58. Highway 67 has continued to be used by Arkansans traveling shorter distances in the southwestern quarter of the state.”

On this trip to Texarkana, we’ll pass some segments of the old road that have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places: A bridge and a rest area in Clark County built by the National Youth Administration in 1936; a stretch of almost six miles in Miller County.

We drive through the community of Haskell, which has grown from just 239 residents in the 1970 census to an estimated 4,600 people today. White flight out of Pulaski County fueled growth in the Harmony Grove School District.

“Once recognized as a railroad town, located between the Missouri Pacific and the Rock Island tracks, Haskell is best known in the 21st century as the home of Harmony Grove,” Teske writes. “Southern Saline County, watered by creeks that flow into the Saline River, was a rugged wooded area when Arkansas became a state in 1836. One of the first to receive a land grant for the area that would become Haskell was Mabel Gilbert, who received grants dated 1837 and 1838. Other early settlers included Thomas Montgomery and William Washington White. Following the Civil War, railroads began to expand their operation in and across Arkansas. The St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad extended south from Little Rock in the 1870s.

“John White acquired land not far from the Iron Mountain track in 1883. However, the land didn’t become valuable until the Chicago, Rock Island & Southern built a route extending south to Louisiana that came within a mile of the Iron Mountain — soon to become part of the Missouri Pacific system — in 1908. The depot built to serve the Rock Island also was used by the Iron Mountain, making the community a railroad center for the region.”

The community reportedly was named for the first postmaster at the depot. Haskell was incorporated in 1910. A three-room school named Mount Harmony was built in 1912.

“Haskell achieved a brief moment of notoriety in May 1917 when a forged letter bearing the name of the road master for the Iron Mountain was received by the section foreman at Haskell,” Teske writes. “The letter ordered that all section men should immediately report for military duty, with half of them to leave in short order for fighting in France and Russia. The Saline County sheriff began an investigation, forwarding the letter to federal authorities in Little Rock. The culprit was never identified.

“By 1920, most of the workers in the city were involved in agriculture, with railroad work coming second and the timber industry third in importance. There were six teachers, four merchants, two blacksmiths, a physician and an insurance solicitor at Haskell at the time. A stave mill also operated there. Haskell had a jail that held people arrested for riding the train without paying a fare, as well as people guilty of selling whiskey, stealing, fighting or gambling. The town marshal collected $1 a day from the city government to house prisoners. He held them until the amount received matched their fine.”

In the late 1920s, the Mount Harmony School consolidated with the nearby Hickory Grove school to form Harmony Grove. There also was a school for black students known as Juniorville.

“The decline of the railroad industry led to harder days for cities like Haskell,” Teske writes. “Interstate 30 was built several miles to the west of Haskell. The post office closed in 1973 with mail being sent to Benton. However, by the end of the 20th century, the growing population of cities such as Benton and Bryant meant population growth for Haskell as well. Between 2000 and 2010, the population jumped from 2,645 to 3,990. Most of the population is white, although the 2010 census counted 263 African American and 114 Hispanic residents. The Harmony Grove School District serves more than 1,000 students in its elementary, junior high and high schools.”

In 1929, 3,000 acres were purchased along U.S. 67 to build what was later known as the Benton Unit of the Arkansas State Hospital. The Arkansas State Hospital had been established in 1873 as the Arkansas Lunatic Asylum in Little Rock. The daily population in 1917-18 was an average of 1,970 with a certified capacity of 1,964. It was obvious expansion was needed. Finally in 1929, the Arkansas Legislature passed a law authorizing a bond issue to provide funds for the new unit in Saline County. The first patients arrived in 1931. WPA workers completed additional buildings at the site in 1934-35. Those buildings were used as a filming site for the psychiatric hospital that was portrayed in the 1996 movie “Sling Blade,” which starred native Arkansan Billy Bob Thornton.

The Benton Unit eventually became the Arkansas Health Center, the only state-operated nursing facility.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “In 1961, the facility was designated to receive all African American psychiatric patients from its section of the state. In July 1963, all African American psychiatric patients from Pulaski County, including those patients receiving treatment from the Arkansas State Hospital, were transferred to AHC. Although black and white patients were housed in separate buildings, AHC was one of the only facilities of its kind in Arkansas to accept such a large black population. In October 1965, AHC became racially integrated.”

We leave Saline County and enter Hot Spring County, which was carved by the Arkansas Territorial Legislature out of part of Clark County in 1829.

“Hot Spring County is bisected by the Ouachita River and includes landforms ranging from mountains to lowlands once covered in hardwood and pine forests,” Jennifer Atkins-Gordeeva writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The combination of rock types and fault lines is responsible for the hot spring that provides the name for the county. Ironically, the spring for which Hot Spring County is named is no longer within the county limits. Garland County was created in April 1873 in response to complaints from the citizens of the city of Hot Springs about the difficult trip to the county seat, which was then Rockport. As a result, both the city of Hot Springs and the hot springs themselves (except for one near Magnet Cove) are no longer found in Hot Spring County.

“The county’s mineral resources include iron, novaculite, titanium, barite, clay and lignite. Magnet Cove got its name from the magnetic iron ore deposits that sent compasses spinning in the 1880s. There are 42 distinct mineral species and mineral combinations near Magnet Cove, some of which are only found there, in the Ural Mountains and in the Tyrolean Alps. The spring at Magnet Cove is set on the eastern edge of a series of outcroppings of novaculite that act like a sponge, soaking rainwater deep into the earth. The novaculite of the area has provided a major source for knife-sharpening whetstones. It was mined from the 1880s until the 1970s.”

Hot Spring County was Arkansas’ 18th county. The original county seat at Hot Springs was moved to Rockport in 1846. There was a toll bridge across the Ouachita River at that point. It washed away in 1848.

“This region was an important cotton-growing area, and slaves were used until the end of the Civil War,” Atkins-Gordeeva writes. “Some of the first businesses were saloons and dry goods stores. Saloons were populated by the local timber workers and were the sites of rowdy behavior.”

We next pass through Glen Rose, where life has long been based on the local school district. Glen Rose was a longtime coach at the University of Arkansas. The school district was created in 1927 with the consolidation of six small schools in the county. A four-room building opened in 1928. The district now has almost 1,000 students and is known for its strong high school football teams.

“Malvern Lumber, established in 1880, was the first of several companies to make use of the trees in Hot Spring County,” Atkins-Gordeeva writes. “Unlike many of its competitors, Malvern Lumber practiced timber conservation measures, including limited logging and planting of new trees. The cheap land and cheap labor of Arkansas were appealing for purchase and development by Northern landowners. Ferry and steamboat travel had moved people and goods along the Ouachita River. The popularity of river travel later yielded to the efficiency of rail.

“In October 1879, fast-growing Malvern officially replaced neighboring Rockport as the county seat. A two-story courthouse was built in 1888, drawing upon one of the new local industries, brick making. With plants at Malvern and Perla, Atchison Brick Co. — later known as Arkansas Brick & Tile — produced bricks for local, national and international use. The Arlington Hotel at Hot Springs was built from brick made in the Perla plant. Arkansas Brick & Tile was acquired by Acme Brick Co. of Fort Worth in 1927.”

In December 1914, Malvern and Arkadelphia were connected by electric lines strung by Harvey Couch’s Arkansas Power & Light Co. It was the state’s first electric transmission line connecting two cities.

“Early prosperity was bound up in the timber industry,” Atkins-Gordeeva writes. “Once considered inexhaustible, the supply of hardwoods had been severely reduced by World War I. Many large timber mills closed in the 1920s. Local industry turned its focus to the marketable quantities of ores. Novaculite, vanadium and magnetic ore all were found to have commercial uses. Companies were formed to exploit other rare minerals available in the Magnet Cove area.

“In 1936, at a cost of $150,000, the present three-story brick courthouse was constructed. The jail stood on the top floor, above the courtroom and offices. In 2008, the Hot Spring County Detention Center replaced that jail. The courthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Hot Spring County Library was established in 1928 by the Women’s Club of Malvern, During the Great Depression, the library struggled to survive. The Women’s Club made frequent appeals to the public for donations of money or books. In 1939, voters approved a one-mill tax to support the library. Malvern’s city hall, meanwhile, was built in 1930 using WPA labor.”

During his 1936 visit to Arkansas to help celebrate the state’s centennial, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Hot Spring County. He had lunch at Couchwood, which was Harvey Couch’s family compound on Lake Catherine (it’s still used by his descendants), and then attended a service at Rockport Methodist Church. The president later boarded a train at Malvern to travel to Little Rock. Hot Spring County residents had spent months preparing for FDR’s visit. The road was paved from Hot Springs to Malvern. Private property was cleaned up along the president’s route, and trees and shrubs were planted.

“World War II brought an unprecedented demand for the barite found in Hot Spring County,” Atkins-Gordeeva writes. “The solid deposits of barite were useful in drilling oil wells. Following the war, various industries were established in the county. They included Baroid Drilling Fluids in 1950, Mid-State Construction & Materials in 1962, United Minerals Corp. in 1994, Malvern Wood Products in 1951 and Anthony Timberlands in 1969.”

Ouachita Vocational Technical School was established at Malvern in 1969 to offer occupational and technical training for residents of Hot Spring, Grant, Saline, Clark and Dallas counties. It took several years to get the school up and running, but it opened in January 1972 with 292 students.

“While a permanent campus was under construction, classes met in the former Wilson High School building, which had been the African American high school prior to integration,” Marvin Schultz writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In 1985, the state Board of Education designated OVTS a high school vocational center to provide career-oriented training to students in the area’s 11 high schools. The vocational-technical school taught automotive technology, cosmetology, food service, small-engine repair, welding, classes designed to meet the specific needs of area businesses and post-secondary practical nursing. OVTS operated until 1991, when it became Ouachita Technical College.”

In the late 1980s, a group of Arkansas business leaders had begun calling for educational reforms, including the transfer of post-secondary vocational programs from the state Board of Vocational Education to the state Board of Higher Education. The group also called for converting vocational-technical schools into two-year colleges. A 1991 legislative act made most of those recommended changes. The first bill didn’t include OVTS, but state Sen. George Hopkins of Malvern introduced separate legislation to re-designate the Malvern school as Ouachita Technical College. The bill passed and was signed by Gov. Bill Clinton.

OTC worked with Henderson State University at Arkadelphia to offer college-level credits. Henderson officials developed a curriculum and provided faculty.

Malvern voters passed a one-cent sales tax dedicated to the college, and that allowed for the construction of a 35,000-square-foot facility in 1999 that provides library, office and classroom space. A building where nurses are trained was added in 2003. The name of the school was changed to College of the Ouachitas in July 2011.

In February 2019, the college signed a merger agreement with the Arkansas State University system. In September of that year, it was announced that the new name of the school will be Arkansas State University-Three Rivers.

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Crossing the Saline

Monday, July 27th, 2020


Because parking was so difficult, I usually would walk with my grandparents to the Saline County Fair & Rodeo from their house at 111 Olive St. in Benton. It’s one of the oldest fairs in the state and was an event I always looked forward to when I was a boy. The fair’s roots go back to 1908.

“Since its inception, the Saline County Fair has grown to include a parade, a full rodeo, livestock sales, games, carnival rides, contests, live music and exhibits showing off locally made products,” Cody Lynn Berry writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The Saline County Fair has always been managed and funded by the Saline County Fair Association. The association was formed in the summer of 1908, and the first fair was held Sept. 29-30, 1908. The parade lined up at the corner of Narroway and Market streets in downtown Benton and proceeded to the fairgrounds, which were on East Street. There were 49 units in the parade, including 24 floats. George Zinn was parade marshal, and a reported 3,000 people attended.”

The fair was long known for its unusual exhibits. In 1931, for instance, 40 babies were examined at a clinic, and 11 of them were given blue ribbons. The only time the fair was held outside Benton was in 1932 when it took place on the grounds of the Harmony Grove school at Haskell.

“During World War II, the Saline County Fair blossomed,” Berry writes. “On Oct. 24, 1941, a reported 3,000 people attended the parade. … By 1942, the Arkansas Gazette reported that several counties would probably not have fairs for economic reasons. But on July 10, 1942, the Saline County Fair Association said ‘the show might be held if the people want it.’ In 1945, it was reported that 23 home demonstration clubs in Saline County had pledged to continue their programs at the fair despite the war.

“As the fair expanded, larger grounds were needed. In 1950, the fair was held in rented tents at Tyndall Park in Benton. On May 5, 1951, J.G. Gerard, chairman of the Saline County Fair Association, announced that the quorum court had appropriated $50,000 to purchase land and put up new buildings. On Aug. 29, 1951, the Arkansas Democrat announced that the Saline County Fair Association had purchased 30 acres of the Louis Thomas property on U.S. Highway 67 and 2.5 acres of Gerard’s property on which a livestock barn was located.”

In 1953, the Aluminum Company of America donated an aluminum-sided exhibits building. A new entrance for the fair was also constructed that year. The following year, a National Guard armory was built with those facilities available for the annual fair.

“Gov. Orval Faubus took part in the opening parade in 1955, and a concrete structure was added to house a rodeo,” Berry writes. “In 1958, Interstate 30 bisected Highway 67 in Benton. The Saline County Fairgrounds ended up alongside the new interstate. Every year, the opening of the fair is still marked with a parade through downtown Benton. Floats represent Saline County schools, clubs, churches and political candidates.”

My grandmother would enter items from her garden — flowers, vegetables, etc. She sometimes would enter them in my name, and I still have some of the ribbons. While attending the fair was the thing to do in early fall, our summer outings were to Peeler Bend on the Saline River in order to wade and gather mussel shells.

The river’s four forks begin in the Ouachita Mountains north of Benton and then converge near the city. The Saline enters the Ouachita River near Felsenthal in far south Arkansas.

“The river derived its name from a salty marsh located near its mouth, called by the French the Marais Saline, though some historians claim that a salt works started near Benton as early as 1827 gave the river its name,” Jann Woodard writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “At one time, these salt works supplied the bulk of salt used in the Arkansas Territory as well as surrounding states. Although the northern section of the river was popular for its salt works, the southern section was known for its large fields of lignite. Exposures of lignite were found in many areas of the river. The largest area was in Bradley County.”

The South Fork flows for 38 miles; the Middle Fork flows for 37 miles; the Alum Fork flows for 61 miles; and the North Fork flows for 29 miles. Once the four forks converge, the Saline River flows south through Saline, Grant, Dallas, Cleveland, Bradley, Drew and Ashley counties.

“The 204-mile stream has been called Merry Saline, Saline Bayou, Marie Saline, Marais Saline and Marais de Saline,” Woodard writes. “The watershed consists of about 3,350 square miles. Its bottom is gravel with an abundance of aquatic insects and other organisms. It includes a series of pools and fast-running shoals that contain many species of fish. When Native Americans gave up their land along the river, they left reminders of their sojourn. Although historical tradition states that the upper region of the Saline is closely associated with the Quapaw, excavated relics and pottery are of Caddoan origin. The Hughes mound near Benton is one of the largest Indian mounds along the river.

“The southern part of the river is rich with French history. In the late 1700s, many French families settled along the banks of the lower Saline. Among the early French settlers were the Fogle, LaBeouff, DuBose, Charron, Pevetoe, Ramsauer, De Ambleton, Carcuff and Bullet families. Several of the place names along the river derived from the French.”

In the Flood Control Act of 1937, Congress proposed that every major stream in the Ouachita River basin be dammed for flood control and hydroelectric power.

“Numerous studies were made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the initial plan included an earthen dam capable of generating hydroelectric power and offering water recreation. … Elected officials in several counties eventually opposed the structure while only minimal support surfaced for the project,” Woodard writes. “The only support for the dam seemed to be a few Benton residents. In 1973, Gov. Dale Bumpers asked the Corps to again study the feasibility of the dam because of the long-range need for water in central Arkansas.

“When what’s now the Central Arkansas Water System stated that Little Rock didn’t need any water from a new reservoir, the demise of the proposed project was assured. The enduring fight for the Saline’s survival as a free-flowing stream wasn’t easy, and the outcome wasn’t fully realized until February 1975 when Gov. David Pryor spoke out against the project.”

In August 1999, Charles Green found an Indian dugout canoe at Peeler Bend. The 24-foot canoe dated to the 1100s. I probably stepped on that canoe without realizing it when wading and swimming as a child.

I would beg my grandfather to drive us across what we called the Old Wagon Bridge, which is today called the Old River Bridge and is one of the oldest bridges in the state.

“The Old River Bridge spans 260 feet and is composed of iron beams, two large trusses and a wooden platform supported by iron columns,” Berry writes. “The bridge dates back to an act of the Saline County Quorum Court, which appropriated $5,000 ‘for the construction of an iron bridge over the Saline River at the Military Road crossing’ in 1889. Construction was completed in 1891 by Youngstown Bridge Co. of Youngstown, Ohio.

“The land around it is important, having been the site of William Lockhart’s settlement at what he called Saline Crossing in 1815. Lockhart was the first white man to build a permanent settlement in what’s now Saline County. The bridge was on the Military Road, which had been built along what was then called the Old Missouri Trail, or more commonly these days is called the Southwest Trail.”

The Old River Bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“In 1974, a truck carrying concrete blocks damaged the bridge’s wooden platform, and local officials decommissioned the bridge,” Berry writes. “Access to the area around the bridge was restricted by the city of Benton. Concrete barriers blocked cars from entering, but it remained a common fishing spot.”

The Old River Bridge was featured in the 1996 Billy Bob Thornton movie “Sling Blade.” A silhouette of the bridge was used on posters promoting the film. The Old River Bridge soon will see new life as part of a hiking and biking trail from Little Rock to Hot Springs.

“Benton residents wanted to restore the bridge and its grounds, but no one had succeeded in doing so until a grassroots organization was formed in 2008 by local business owners and politicians,” Berry writes. “Bill White, the owner of White’s Furniture in Benton, donated five acres of land he owned around the bridge. Five more acres were purchased for a new regional park to be built at the end of River Street. The Saline Crossing Regional Park & Recreational Area Inc., led by Benton resident Lynn Moore, was formed with the goal of restoring the Old River Bridge and turning its grounds into a park.”

A $500,000 federal grant administered by the Arkansas Department of Transportation will allow the bridge to be disassembled, evaluated, restored and then reassembled for use by hikers and bikers.

The community known as Saline Crossing once vied for the position of county seat. In 1831, Lockhart was given permission to build a toll bridge over the Saline River at that point on the Southwest Trail. Lockhart had left North Carolina with his family to head west in 1815. He followed the Southwest Trail to where it crossed the Saline River.

“Lockhart built a cabin on the Saline’s banks,” Berry writes. “He stayed there for the remaining 32 years of his life. In 1817, Abner Herold and his stepsons, Isham and John Pelton, settled near Lockhart’s home at Saline Crossing. In 1819, Arkansas Territory was created by Congress, causing more white settlers to spill into the area. By 1820, the families of Robert and Valentine Brazil had settled there, along with those of James Buchan and Samuel Williams.

“The Rev. William Stephenson, a Methodist circuit rider, gave the first recorded sermon in Saline County at Lockhart’s cabin in 1817. Thomas Nuttall wrote that there were ‘nine or 10 families living at Saline Crossing’ and that the land was ‘fertile enough and healthy enough’ to attract new settlers, which it did. The Southwest Trail that crossed the Saline River at that point was regarded as little more than an obscure trail. By 1831, the road was widened and improved after the Indian Removal Act was passed by Congress a year before.”

A post office opened at Saline Crossing in 1831 with Lockhart as the postmaster

“During Indian removal, the area was on the route between Little Rock and Fort Towson in Indian Territory,” Berry writes. “On Jan. 4, 1832, the Arkansas Gazette reported that a party of Choctaws that had left Camp Pope in Little Rock ‘left the Saline, 30 miles south of this, on Saturday morning last, and were proceeding on very finely when last heard from.’ On Nov. 23, 1832, removal agent S.T. Cross recorded crossing the Saline River in his Journal of Occurrences with this line: ‘Left camp and traveled 12 miles, crossing Saline creek — but few cases of sickness.’

“In fact, that winter was one of the coldest on record, and a cholera epidemic quickly spread through the remaining groups. Many died from exposure and more from disease while crossing the Arkansas swamps to Indian Territory. British geologist George William Featherstonhaugh visited Saline Crossing on Nov. 27, 1834, where he reported being ’27 miles from Little Rock’ at a place ‘kept by a sort of she Caliban.’ The house was a tenement consisting of a single room with a mud floor. This is widely believed to have been an inn kept by Lockhart’s wife. Saline Crossing was considered for the county seat but ultimately lost to nearby Benton, which absorbed Saline Crossing’s post office.”

When Benton became the Saline County seat, many of the settlers at Saline Crossing moved there. The Saline Crossing post office was abolished in January 1836. In 1837, the Chickasaws began to leave their homelands in Alabama and Mississippi. They camped along the Saline River in August of that year

The Southwest Trail was a network of routes connecting the St. Louis-St. Genevieve area of Missouri with northeast Texas. In Arkansas, the trail crossed the Current River in Randolph County and moved from northwest to southwest, exiting along the Red River southwest of Washington.

“It followed the edge of the eastern terminus of the Ozark Plateau in northeast Arkansas and of the Ouachita Mountains in southwest Arkansas,” Scott Akridge writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The trail avoided the swamps, which covered much of eastern Arkansas, while skirting the foothills of the Ozarks and the Ouachitas. From Pitman’s Ferry on the Current River to the Fulton crossing on the Red, the trail traversed 300 miles. Since most streams in Arkansas arise in the northern and western highlands and flow in a south and east direction, the Southwest Trail crossed the state perpendicular to these streams and their river traffic. Thus travelers who chose not to move on the state’s many waterways found the Southwest Trail especially appealing.

“It isn’t known when the term Southwest Trail was first used. The phrase appears to be largely a 20th-century term. Travelers in the 19th century referred to the trail by different names, including Arkansas Road, National Road, U.S. Road, Military Road, Natchitoches Trace and Red River Road. Native Americans likely used the trail long before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The Hernando de Soto expedition may have traveled parts of the route as early as 1541. … The route was no more than a foot or horse path until 1819 when Arkansas became a territory. That year, the St. Louis Republican reported that 100 people a day passed through St. Charles, Mo., a third of whom passed south into Arkansas, distributing themselves along the trail all the way to the Red River in southwest Arkansas.”

The waves of immigration to Texas grew during the 1820s. Wagon trains were common.

“In the 1830s, during President Andrew Jackson’s administration, Congress attached funding to military appropriations bills that provided for improvements to the road,” Akridge writes. “Army Lt. Richard Collins surveyed the route and oversaw construction contracts. Improvements included cutting and pulling stumps, building bridges and, in some cases, leveling the road and digging ditches. The Military Road was a single roadbed, whereas the Southwest Trail was a network of routes. … The route that paralleled the Southwest Trail was prominently labeled by early surveyors as Military Road. Benton and Rockport were on the Military Road.”

Akridge notes that travelers on the trail usually spent nights in the homes of settlers and that those homes ranged “from dirt-floor log cabins to Jacob Barkman’s brick house near Arkadelphia. Because there were no restaurants or hotels in the modern sense, frontier settlers who lived along the trail often provided travelers a room, a meal and livestock feed for a fee. Accommodations and meal quality varied widely. Businessman and farmer William Wyatt noted in his 1836 travel diary that fees for room and board for one night generally ranged from 75 cents to $1.25 per traveler.

“Because there were few towns along the early trail, most travelers noted distances from stream to stream because streams were easy reference points and because they were hazardous to cross, especially in the spring. Drownings and lost property were common. … In a sense, there’s still a Southwest Trail. Interstate 30 and U.S. 67 parallel the route for automobile traffic, as does the Union Pacific Railroad.”

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The walk downtown

Tuesday, July 21st, 2020


It has been almost half a century, but I still have fond memories of those walks to downtown Benton from my grandparents’ house at 111 Olive St. My grandmother didn’t drive, but the walks were always pleasant.

As the city has grown in recent years, there has been a renewed emphasis on restoring what’s known as the Benton Commercial Historic District.

“Its buildings cover a long span of the county’s history from the early 1900s to the present,” Cody Lynn Berry writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “It contains several properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Among its most historic buildings are the Royal Theatre, the Saline County Courthouse, the Odd Fellows Building, the Benton Masonic Lodge, the Ashby Building and the H.J. Gingles Building. … Only three buildings in the Benton Commercial Historic District were built after 1958. The district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 24, 2008.

“What’s now Benton’s Commercial Historic District lies in the center of the original town plat, which dates back to 1836. When the city of Benton was laid out, it was done in a traditional grid pattern with a town square at its center, on which the courthouse sits. The present Benton Commercial Historic District surrounds the courthouse on three sides — directly in front on Sevier Street, to the left on Market Street and on its right side on North Main Street. Four of the 53 current buildings in the district were built between 1902 and 1908.”

The oldest building in the district is the courthouse, designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles Thompson and built in 1902. It was constructed in the Romanesque Revival style and was featured in the 1973 Burt Reynolds movie “White Lightning.” The courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in November 1979.

According to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program: “In 1836, William Woodruff, publisher of the Arkansas Gazette, offered 120 acres of land to Saline County for its first courthouse. The land was sufficient not only for a courthouse but also for the plat of the town of Benton. The county auctioned off surplus acreage in June 1836, and the receipts were used to fund the courthouse project. Sales netted $3,381.71. Jacob Hoover built the county courthouse in 1839, a two-story brick building costing $3,574. A jail, made entirely of logs, was also completed at a cost of $975. The courthouse stood until 1855, when it was condemned.

“The second courthouse was built partially out of materials from the first one. It was constructed in 1856 by Green B. Hughes and stood until the beginning of the 20th century. With the discovery of bauxite in the area in 1887, new economic development entered Saline County, and county services outgrew the courthouse in 1902. Thompson designed a two-story pressed yellow brick building with a clock tower. There are Romanesque Revival characteristics that include the use of rounded arches and multiple towers of different shapes and sizes. John Odum oversaw its construction, which cost $31,000. Construction started in 1902 on the site of the demolished 1856 courthouse, and the first session of court in the new building was held that September.”

A $24,000 renovation took place in 1939. It included the construction of one-story northern and southern wings. The jail was in the northern wing, and additional offices were in the southern wing. More jail space was added in 1983. A new jail southeast of downtown was built in 2007. The northern wing was remodeled for storage and offices.

According to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program: “A New Deal-era mural by artist Julius Woeltz hangs inside the courthouse. It depicts local bauxite miners drilling holes and filling train cars with the mineral. Benton’s post office, at the corner of Main and Sevier streets, originally housed the mural. It was commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Section of Fine Arts in 1941 and was completed the following year. On Dec. 7, 1941, the date of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, a Texas newspaper published a photo of Woeltz standing in front of the canvas as he sketched the miners in charcoal. Bauxite is a material necessary for the production of aluminum and would be needed to make planes, much of it provided by Saline County mines.”

The John L. Hughes building at 111 N. Main St. was constructed by Benton architect W.A. Atkinson and his son Bill in 1908. The Cash Store building and the Ashby building also were built in 1908. There were 16 buildings in the district constructed from 1910-17. When he was a boy during the Great Depression, my father worked at the H.J. Gingles Store at 145 W. South St. The building that housed the store, long a Benton shopping tradition, was constructed in 1915 to house J.M. Caldwell’s store.

Because capital was hard to come by during the Depression, only three buildings in the district were built during the 1930s. The post office at 129 N. Main St. was constructed in 1939.

The really special trips downtown were those days when my grandmother would take me to a matinee at the Royal Theatre. The Royal is nothing short of a landmark for Benton natives.

“It has been owned by a local family, a corporation, a celebrity and finally a group of locals who took their name, the Royal Players, from the theater’s marquee,” Berry writes. “What’s now the Royal began its life when Wallace Kauffman, a native of Princeton in Dallas County, started working for Alice Wooten, owner of Independent Motion Pictures Theater. The IMP theater had been built on the site of what’s now the Royal, opening on Jan. 14, 1922. Kauffman ran the film projectors at the IMP. There were two screens, one upstairs and one downstairs, allowing two films to be shown at one time.

“The IMP was an independent establishment until 1936, when the business was sold to the forerunners of what would become United Artists. Kauffman ran the business alone until 1949, when a new deal with the parent company allowed United Artists to handle all bookings and record keeping. Their own trained projection engineers ran the machines. Kauffman remained the theater manager. Theaters in Malvern, Arkadelphia and Magnolia signed similar deals with United Artists. After the marquee and large electronic Royal sign were added, the IMP became known as the Royal.”

Kauffman closed the theater for remodeling in 1949. The seating was increased from 590 to 800, and the lounge and foyer were doubled in size.

“The front facade was designed by architects Frank Ginocchio and Ed Cromwell, who also designed the Royal in Little Rock,” Berry writes. “The Royal in Benton reopened on May 12, 1949, with showings of the Jimmy Stewart classic ‘You Gotta Stay Happy.’ The Kauffman family continued to run the Royal for generations. In 1974, Wallace Kauffman died, leaving the Royal to his son, Warren, who managed it until his retirement in 1986. Warren’s son, Randy, then took over. Randy managed the family business for 10 years before it sold it to actor and comedian Jerry Van Dyke in the late 1990s.

“Van Dyke purchased a couple of shops around the theater, creating a candy shop on one side of the Royal and a restaurant called Jerry Van Dyke’s Soda Shop on the other. In 2000, Van Dyke turned control of the Royal over to a group of thespians known then as the Central Arkansas Community Players. The name was changed to the Royal Players. They began running and maintaining the theater, repurposing it for live theater. The Royal was added to the National Register of Historic Places on Sept. 27, 2003.”

On our walks around town, my grandmother would point out sites such as the Shoppach House, the Gann House and Dr. Dewell Gann’s office.

The Shoppach House at 508 N. Main St. was the home during the Civil War of a Confederate soldier named James Shoppach. It was later used by occupying Union troops.

“The Shoppach House was built by German immigrant John William Shoppach in 1852,” Berry writes. “The bricks used to build the house and its well were made on site. Shoppach was born in Hessen, Germany, and immigrated to the United States in 1834, eventually making his way to present-day Saline County, where he built his family homestead in Benton. Shoppach’s wife, Sibby Pelton Shoppach, was born in Illinois and had migrated to Arkansas in 1818. After building his home at Benton in 1852, Shoppach was elected county clerk of Saline County. He maintained his post until his death in 1861 when he was 52.

“The structure continued to house up to five generations of the Shoppach family until 1959, when the house and grounds were sold to David Demuth. The Saline County Art League organized fairs in which handcrafted items were sold to raise funds for the restoration and maintenance of the house and its historic grounds. In 1962, the Saline County Art League had the Pilgrim Rest Church building moved to the grounds of the Shoppach House. A sign above the church’s entrance says it was established in 1833. Pilgrim Rest Church had been located just west of Little Rock, where it had been a beloved landmark. On the Shoppach House grounds, the building was reused as the Saline County Art Center. The Art League used the Shoppach House and its outbuildings to showcase various items of historical value.”

Ownership of the home was transferred to the Saline County Art League in 1974 at a cost of just $10. The Shoppach House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in October 1975. By May 1980, renovations were finished, and the home had been furnished with period-accurate furniture.

“The Shoppach House is in the American Colonial style with the structure composed of brick-and-mortar walls and wooden window frames,” Berry writes. “The front features two multi-paned glass windows on each side of a front entrance made up of pained double doors and a small porch.”

The nearby Gann House reportedly had the first indoor bathrooms in the city. It was constructed in 1895 in the Queen Anne style as the residence of Dr. Dewell Gann Sr. and his family. Gann had been born in 1863 in Georgia. He graduated from Southern Medical College at Atlanta in 1886 and moved to Benton in 1889, where he married the daughter of Benton Courier owner Samuel Whitthorne.

“In Benton, Gann worked as a physician for multiple companies,” Berry writes. “Eight of them were industrial plants and four were railroads. In addition, he had his private practice in a small office built next to his home. The office was built by patients who couldn’t otherwise pay for their treatments. Gann was also a member of the Scottish Rite Masonic Order of Saline County. His wife Martha was one of 12 women chosen to represent Arkansas at the first inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. She died in 1940, and Dr. Gann died on Sept. 25, 1945, at age 82. He was credited by the Arkansas Gazette for organizing the Saline County Medical Society n 1903.

“The house was next owned by Gann’s son, Dr. Dewell Gann Jr., who was born on Sept. 14, 1890. … During World War I, Gann Jr. had received extensive training while serving as a captain and surgeon in the Panama Canal Zone, ultimately attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war, he worked as a surgeon for what are now Arkansas Children’s Hospital and Baptist Health Medical Center. He joined the faculty of what’s now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in 1914 as a professor of surgery. Gann Jr. remained there as a professor until his retirement from teaching in 1936.”

The younger Gann was chief of staff at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Little Rock from 1922-27 and the hospital’s chief surgeon from 1927-36. He was famous for inventing a medical device called the Gann Resuscitator, which was purchased by the federal government in 1940. He died in January 1960 at his home in Benton.

“In the late 1970s, Demuth, who was president of Benton’s Gingles Hardware & Furniture Inc., purchased the Gann House from Gracie Henry Smith of El Dorado for an undisclosed amount,” Berry writes. “Demuth’s widow sold the house in the early 1980s to Sam Gibson and George Ellis. On March 1, 1992, they sold the house to Doyle Webb and his wife Barbara. Renovations began at that time to help keep the original house accurate to its period and structurally sound.”

The Gann Museum of Saline County was established in the adjoining medical office in 1980 to house Quapaw and Caddo artifacts, Niloak pottery and other pieces of county history.

Gann Sr. constructed the building in 1893. It’s reportedly the only building in the country constructed of bauxite.

“Abundant deposits of bauxite were conveniently located nearby, and the soft ore could be hand-sawed into blocks, hardened for six weeks and then used for construction,” Shirley Parson Coppock writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “On an inside wall, which was an outside wall when Gann Sr. used the building for his office, is an imprint of Gann’s foot, made as he sat waiting for patients in a rocker with his foot propped against the wall.

“The building served as a medical office until 1946 when Gann Jr. gave it to the city of Benton to serve as a library and later a museum. Constructed in the Victorian style, it features a five-gable roof, stained windows and ornate wood trim with pastel-colored bauxite blocks. Notable are the separate entrances for men and women installed by Gann to assure his female patients that they could avoid exposure to any rough workmen (railroad or industrial workers) who were visiting the office at the same time.”

Whenever I see the downtown offices of what’s now the Saline Courier at 321 N. Market St., I think of the many times I would read what was then the Benton Courier at my grandparents’ house.

“The paper began its life as the Saline County Digest, established by Vermont native W.A. Webber in 1876 as the official mouthpiece of Saline County Democrats,” Berry writes. “It later lost that affiliation. The Digest was published weekly in a seven-column folio with an average circulation of 1,000. In November 1882, the Digest changed hands for the first time. It was purchased by B.B. Beavers, who renamed it the Saline County Review in November 1883. Col. Samuel Houston Whitthorne bought Beavers’ interest in the paper and renamed it the Saline Courier. Whitthorne was the father-in-law of Gann Sr. … A fire destroyed the Courier office and all of its contents in December 1883. The paper replaced its lost materials in 15 days.

“The paper changed hands a few times before landing back in possession of Whitthorne in August 1886. Whitthorne increased the Saline Courier’s size to nine columns and increased its circulation. He was bought out by A.F. Gardner in October 1887. Gardner then sold the paper to Col. T.C. Mays a year later. Mays sold it to J.J. Beavers in 1890. The paper changed hands several times before being purchased in November 1906 by L.B. White, who owned it for decades after that. Under White, the name was changed to the Benton Courier. … White used his own printing company to print the paper. After 1910, circulation rose to more than 2,000 copies per week.”

The L.B. White Printing Co. also published books. In 1953, White sold the newspaper to Sam Hodges, a Mississippi County native whose father had been the publisher of the Osceola Times. Hodges moved the newspaper from weekly to daily publication in 1970. He sold the newspaper in 1996. The newspaper’s name was changed back to the Saline Courier in August 2010 as more and more of its subscribers came from Bryant.



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Starting at Benton

Monday, July 20th, 2020


We’ll take the old road — U.S. 67 rather than Interstate 30 — from Benton to Texarkana.

It’s the road we would often travel when I was a child since parts of the interstate were still being constructed. The most common trips back then were from our home in Arkadelphia to visit my grandparents at their small house at 111 Olive St. in Benton.

My father had been raised in Benton during the Great Depression, the youngest of three children.

Days spent with my grandparents, both of whom lived into their 90s, were magical times. My grandmother (who never learned to drive) and I would often walk downtown so she could shop, pay bills and maybe even take me to a movie at the Royal Theatre. Even more special were the early fall days when we would walk all the way to the Saline County Fair and the summer days when we would load into my grandfather’s old Chevrolet in order to wade and pick up mussel shells at Peeler Bend on the Saline River.

My father had graduated from Benton High School in the spring of 1942 and gone to work for the Chicago Bridge & Iron Co., which was working overtime to build aluminum plants at Bauxite that could aid in the war effort. He was paid union wages, making more at age 18 than his father, who worked for the city of Benton as the street superintendent and fire chief.

Due to those good wages and the promise that the next stop would be Brazil, my father decided he would stay with the company. Having been a football star for the Benton Panthers, he was being wooed by Ouachita coach Bill Walton. Neither of my grandparents had attended college. My grandmother insisted that he go to Ouachita that fall rather than staying on with Chicago Bridge & Iron.

Though the mining and aluminum production were centered in nearby Bauxite, the activities there shaped life for all of Saline County in those days.

“The Arkansas bauxite region covers about 275 square miles in the northern part of the West Gulf Coastal Plain and is divided into two mining districts,” J. Michael Howard writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “One area is in Pulaski County, south and east of Little Rock, and the other is in nearby Saline County, northeast and east of Benton. Much of the early-mined Arkansas bauxite deposits were exposed on the surface as outcrops or were beneath only a thin layer of sedimentary cover. Consequently, surface-mining methods were initially the most practical and economical.

“Before and during World War II, significant tonnages were mined underground. Some years after the war, surface operations resumed. Open-pit panel mining has been the normal surface method used since the early 1960s. A strip or block of bauxite is exposed and mined, and then another panel is exposed. The first panel is normally refilled with waste rock. Several panels typically were open at the same time to supply the proper blend of ores to meet mill specifications. Beginning in the early 1990s, major reclamation projects were begun to restore not only the recently mined land but much of the land that was disturbed before reclamation laws went into effect.”

Bauxite was first mined in Arkansas in 1896, nine years after state geologist John Branner identified its presence in Pulaski County.

“During the 20th century, Arkansas provided about 90 percent of all domestic tonnage mined,” Howard writes. “As aluminum became more widely available, many new uses of the metal (and of the byproducts of the aluminum industry) were discovered, and consumption increased rapidly. Tonnages of bauxite mined in Arkansas increased much more slowly than U.S. national consumption because larger deposits supplying higher-grade bauxite were readily available in the Caribbean region.

“In the early stages of World War II, merchant freighters carrying bauxite to the United States suffered major losses to enemy submarines. The tonnage of bauxite mined in Arkansas quickly increased to meet wartime demands for aluminum, which was especially critical to the military aircraft industry. During the war, the federal government essentially controlled national production of certain strategic and critical minerals like bauxite. In 1943, more than 6 million long tons (2,240 pounds per long ton) of bauxite were mined.”

The last year in which bauxite was mined in Arkansas for aluminum was 1982.

“Small tonnages continued to be mined and used in the production of a variety of alumina-based materials, including various chemicals, abrasives and propants — high-density spherical grains that are used in the oil and gas industry to fracture formations and maximize gas or oil flow,” Howard writes. “Two international companies continued major mining operations in the Bauxite area following the end of World War II. Alcoa and Reynolds Metals Co. had refineries located near Bryant. However, early in 1982, Reynolds closed and disassembled its Hurricane Creek Plant.”

Soon after Branner reported the presence of bauxite, large tracts of land in Saline County were purchased by Ernest Smith and Robert Perry, stockholders in the Southern Bauxite & Mining Co.

“In 1895, General Bauxite Co. acquired the lands of Southern Bauxite & Mining Co.,” Laura Harrington writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Because of his knowledge of the mineral and the land, Perry was placed in charge of General Bauxite, which mined and shipped the first ore in 1896. This area was known as Perrysmith until the name was changed to Bauxite in 1903 after the establishment of the first ore-drying plant.

“In 1899, the Pittsburgh Reduction Co. heard about Perry’s shipment of bauxite ore and sent John Gibbons and his son, J. Felton Gibbons, to Arkansas to learn more about the deposits there. After conducting various experiments, the two men concluded that the ore in Arkansas was of good quality, and they were instructed to buy as much of the remaining land as possible. In 1905, Pittsburgh Reduction was able to buy out General Bauxite, and in 1907, its name changed to Aluminum Company of America (later shortened to Alcoa).”

Bauxite was a company town from the start. The company built churches, a general store, the post office, a barbershop, the movie theater and more.

“Perhaps the most important thing the company built was a school, parts of which are still used today,” Harrington writes. “Services were reserved for workers and their families only. For example, employees paid a small amount into the hospital fund each month, but then the hospital would treat miners and their families at little to no additional cost. With the outbreak of World War I came a higher demand for bauxite ore, which was used to make a variety of war supplies, the most important being aluminum. More workers were brought into the mines, and this meant a need for more houses.

“The company built various housing settlements or camps for its employees with names such as Alabama Town, Church Row, Italy, Mexico and Africa. Like much of America at this time, the camps were segregated, so the inhabitants of Italy were Italian, those in Mexico were Mexican and the ones in Africa were African American.  The company treated its employees well during the turbulent years of the Great Depression. A company farm produced vegetables that were given to employees. One resident remembered the huge turnip patch the company provided. It covered four acres, and the turnips were free.”

Water was furnished at no cost, and so was electricity in some cases.

“The World War II era was the most important in the history of Bauxite,” Harrington writes. “The U.S. government needed aluminum to build airplanes and various other supplies, so the chairman of the War Production Board, Donald Nelson, wrote to Alcoa requesting that it mine bauxite ore three shifts a day. After initial hesitation, the chairman of Alcoa, Arthur P. Davis, brought in thousands of miners from across the nation to run the mines nonstop. Prior to the war, the average annual bauxite production was 371,000 long tons. By 1943, the average annual bauxite production was more than 6 million long tons.”

The Hurricane Creek plant opened in 1942, and housing became an issue.

“Existing residents often rented out garages or spare bedrooms to miners, and it was reported that in some houses, there was at least one worker sleeping at all hours of the day because of the odd hours of mining schedules,” Harrington writes. “In 1944, production began to slow as the end of the war drew near. Mining continued even during the postwar years because aluminum was still in demand. Internal problems such as unionization made it more difficult for Bauxite to continue as a company-run town, and Alcoa soon found it more profitable to mine bauxite ore in foreign nations.”

Residents were notified in 1967 that Bauxite would cease to exist as a company-owned town on July 1, 1969. Some facilities were abandoned. Some were sold. Others were moved to Benton.

“Since the town had been run by the company, it never incorporated,” Harrington writes. “There was no need. After all, the company built all the buildings, paid everyone’s salary and performed all maintenance. After the company stopped doing this, the town nearly disappeared. However, it was able to incorporate on Jan. 16, 1973, with West Bauxite.”

Due to white flight from Little Rock, the Bauxite School District has grown tremendously in recent decades. The town itself had a population of 487 in the 2010 census.

Meanwhile, Benton’s population tripled from 10,399 in the 1960 census to 30,681 in the 2010 census. Benton now has almost 38,000 residents.

It’s a far different town from the one in which my father was raised. Named after U.S. Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of the Missouri Territory, the town started near the east bank of the Saline River in 1833.

“Rezin Davis deeded 80 acres to Benton and became its first mayor,” Patricia Laster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The first business, opened in 1834, was an in-house store owned by Joshua Smith. The next year, this neighborhood became Saline Township, and Green B. Hughes was appointed postmaster. He owned one of several area gristmills.”

Saline County was formed in November 1835 from part of Pulaski County. At the time, it included parts of what would become Grant, Perry and Garland counties. It was named for the Saline River, whose forks begin in the Ouachita Mountains of northwestern Saline County.

“After Arkansas became a state in 1836, local commissioners from the newly formed townships were elected to set a permanent county seat,” Laster writes. “There were three choices. Benton, which was situated on the road to Little Rock, had the advantage of being more populous, near the center of the county and more prestigious because of the long existence of Saline Crossing. Ezra Owen campaigned for Collegeville, which was also on the main road but lay several miles east. Charles Caldwell, representative for Saline County, wanted the county seat to be in Caldwellton, where he had settled. It was five miles northwest of the present town of Benton near the Kentucky community.”

In a November 1836 election, the five commissioners were selected. They decided on Benton. The first courthouse and jail were constructed in 1838.

By the 1880 census, Benton had 452 residents. Ashby Funeral Home (which is still around) was established in 1882 and what’s now Benton Utilities was established in 1916. Benton grew from 1,708 residents in 1910 to 3,445 in 1930 and 6,277 in 1950.

In addition to bauxite mining, the Benton area was once known for pottery.

“The county had small pottery works by the late 1800s, but this changed when John Hyten established Hyten Pottery Works,” Eddie Landreth writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “His son and successor, Charles ‘Bullet’ Hyten, renamed the company Eagle Pottery. Its pottery became renowned throughout the world. By the early 1900s, Charles Hyten was experimenting with a new pottery method that mixed colors of clay randomly on the potter’s wheel. This unique style became known as Niloak, which was ‘kaolin’ spelled backward (kaolin was the form of clay used in the process). This form of pottery came to be known as ‘mission swirl.'”

Niloak pottery continued to be produced until 1946. In the early years, the company had produced jugs, crocks and churns for local use. Two of Bullet Hyten’s brothers, Paul and Lee, left the business in 1901. That’s when Bullet entered into a partnership with Alfred Warren. An Ohio potter named Arthur Dovey moved to Arkansas in the early 1900s and began working for Ouachita Pottery in Hot Springs. He joined Hyten in 1909.

“Together, the two began production of Eagle Pottery’s Niloak Missionware line, using a process for mixing colored clays to achieve a swirled pattern in the finished product with a soft matte finish,” writes Arkansas historian Cindy Grisham. “While Dovey has long been credited as the creator of the swirling process, an undocumented claim exists that Niloak potter Fred Johnson invented the swirled design when he worked for Ouachita Pottery, bringing the process with him when he came to work for Niloak. Supporting that claim is a 1906 photograph of the interior of Ouachita Pottery that clearly shows several pieces of swirled pottery on display in the shop.”

Dovey is also in that photo.

“Whoever the creator was, the resulting product was an overwhelming success, although not without its setbacks,” Grisham writes. “Perfection of the swirled process took at least a year, and it was March 1910 before the first piece of Niloak was ready to be placed on the market. The pieces were first offered for sale in Benton at the Bush Drug & Jewelry Co. In July 1911, several Benton businessmen incorporated the Niloak Pottery Co. to produce the popular line. By 1915, the physical plant on Pearl Street in Benton had been expanded to cover two floors. Eagle Pottery continued to produce its more utilitarian line of churns, crocks and bowls until 1938.”

Niloak production ceased from 1918-21 but flourished later in the 1920s.

“The Arkansas Advancement Association had launched a massive campaign to promote the state’s economic benefits to the rest of the nation, and Niloak played a prominent role in that endeavor,” Grisham writes. “The quick pace of growth forced the company to move its production from individual potters to more standardized form just to keep up with demand. Sales slumped during the early years of the Great Depression, and Hyten believed the reason to be Missionware’s placement as a luxury item. In 1931, Hyten moved into a new phase of production, launching the Hywood Art Pottery line. Hywood was to be a more functional line of glazed pottery that would be accessible to a larger group of people.”

A group of Little Rock businessmen led by Hardy Winburn III purchased the company in 1934. Winburn streamlined production and improved marketing. During World War II, the company produced items such as porcelain electrical conductors for the government. It also produced more than a million clay pigeons for target practice.

“With the end of the war, military contracts ended, and the company re-entered the castware business,” Grisham writes. “But slumping sales called for a new direction. In the fall of 1947, Niloak was dissolved, and Winburn Tile Co. was born.”

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