Archive for the ‘Traveling Arkansas’ Category

On to Texarkana

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2020


The railroads changed things in this part of the state.

Along came the St. Louis Southwestern (the Cotton Belt); the Cairo & Fulton; the Mississippi, Ouachita & Red River and others. The railroads came in the late 1800s, and south Arkansas would never be the same.

“The Mississippi, Ouachita & Red River Railroad Co. was the first railroad to begin construction in Arkansas,” Van Zbinden writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Chartered in 1852 by John Dockery of Columbia County, the railroad began at Eunice in Chicot County in 1854. At the onset of the Civil War, the railroad was incomplete, extending about seven miles south and west from the Mississippi River. Completion of construction and actual operation of the railroad didn’t occur until well after the Civil War. The company never made a profit and was merged with the Little Rock, Pine Bluff & New Orleans Railroad in 1873.”

Dockery owned land at Lamartine in Columbia County. Dockery and others attending a railroad convention at Camden in December 1851 had determined that a south Arkansas railroad was necessary since parts of the Red River and Ouachita River weren’t navigable for much of the year.

“This fact, they felt, combined with a lack of internal improvements, prohibited southern Arkansas access to the Mississippi River, eastern markets and New Orleans,” Zbinden writes. “The new railroad was to begin at or near Gaines Landing in Chicot County and continue through or near Camden to Fulton in Hempstead County. From Fulton, the company was to build its railroad to a location on the border between Texas and Arkansas. The railroad was surveyed in 1853-54. Despite the difficulty of raising investment capital, the railroad hired renowned engineer Lloyd Tilghman as its chief engineer.”

Tilghman moved the railroad’s planned western terminus from Fulton to the vicinity of what’s now Garland on the Red River.

“This new path would take the railroad to Lamartine and down Beech Creek, crossing the Dorcheat Bayou half a mile north of the main road to Lewisville,” Zbinden writes. “Tilghman’s recommended route from Camden to the Red River is similar to the route later built by the St. Louis Southwestern Railway. Tilghman claimed that this new route would make the Red River a tributary of the railroad. He noted that the Red River above the Great Raft would always be ‘a barrier to the commerce of the vast regions above’ due to the ‘supineness and imbecility of our government.'”

A groundbreaking ceremony was held at Camden on July 6, 1854, but numerous lawsuits impeded process. Railroad supporters also had trouble raising funds. Dockery died in 1860, and the Civil War began the following year.

The railroad eventually was consolidated with the Little Rock, Pine Bluff & New Orleans in October 1873. The new company was named the Texas, Mississippi & Northwestern Railroad Corp., but the financial difficulties continued. Jay Gould later purchased the railroad and deeded it to the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad. The railroad was never completed farther west than Warren. It was operated for a number of years as the Warren subdivision of the Missouri Pacific Railroad.

The St. Louis Southwestern had more success. It began at Tyler, Texas, in 1875 and started construction in Arkansas six years later.

“When completed in 1883, the railroad ran diagonally across the state from Texarkana to St. Francis in Clay County,” Zbinden writes. “By 1930, the company operated 712 miles of track in Arkansas. The Cotton Belt, as it was better known, would reach its peak mileage in the state in the early 1930s. By the middle to late 1930s, the Great Depression and declining passenger revenue led the railroad to begin abandonment of many of its subsidiary companies and branch lines. Southern Pacific Railroad gained control of the Cotton Belt in 1932 in an effort to gain connections to eastern markets at St. Louis and Memphis.”

As part of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Cotton Belt was merged with the Union Pacific Railroad in 1996.

Gould, who owned the Missouri Pacific and Texas & Pacific Railroads, considered the St. Louis Southwestern a competitive threat. He purchased the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern in 1881 and ended business agreements with the Tyler-based railroad. Construction through Arkansas by what would become the Cotton Belt moved forward in 1881-82.

“The complete railroad stretched from Bird’s Point in Missouri to Gatesville in Texas,” Zbinden writes. “It entered Arkansas at St. Francis and traveled through Piggott, Paragould, Jonesboro, Brinkley, Pine Bluff, Rison, Fordyce, Camden, Lewisville and Texarkana. This ambitious construction program proved to be too great a financial burden on the company, and the choice of narrow gauge limited how effectively the railroad could compete with the parallel St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern.

“The Cotton Belt was foreclosed and placed into receivership in January 1884. From this receivership emerged the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railway. Samuel Fordyce was named president. Under Fordyce, the railroad was converted to standard gauge by Oct. 18, 1886, and began construction of branch lines to increase business. In Arkansas, this included the 430-mile Little Rock branch from Altheimer to what’s now North Little Rock and the Shreveport branch from Lewisville to Shreveport.”

Fordyce made a secret agreement with Gould in 1888 to operate the Cotton Belt in conjunction with the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern. Gould gradually gained full control of the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas. It was reorganized on June 1, 1891, as the St. Louis Southwestern.

Another successful railroad was the Cairo & Fulton, which is now the Union Pacific line from Missouri through Little Rock to Texarkana.

“Over a period of more than 100 years, the Cairo & Fulton merged first into the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern, then into the Missouri Pacific and finally into today’s Union Pacific,” Michael Condren writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “As the first railroad to connect Arkansas to Missouri and the eastern United States, the Cairo & Fulton opened up the state for development.”

The first Baring Cross Bridge over the Arkansas River at Little Rock was completed in December 1873. The railroad reached Texarkana the following month.

“Today, as a northbound mainline from Texas, the original Cairo & Fulton line serves as the main artery for the Texas petrochemical industry,” Condren writes. “It also transports the products of Arkansas to the northeastern United States.”

A site for a town was established along the Arkansas-Texas border at the point where the Cairo & Fulton tracks met the Texas & Pacific tracks in December 1873.

“The first lot was sold to J.W. Davis and later became the site of the Hotel McCartney, across from Union Station in Texarkana,” writes Arkansas historian Nancy Hendricks. “Another sale of a town lot that day led to the opening of the town’s first business, a grocery and drugstore operated by George Clark. There’s evidence that the city’s name existed before the city. Some say that as early as 1860, it was used by the steamboat Texarkana, which traveled the Red River. Others say a supposedly medicinal drink called Texarkana Bitters was sold in 1869 by a man who ran a general store in Bossier Parish in Louisiana.

“The most popular version credits a railroad surveyor, Col. Gus Knobel, who was surveying the right of way from Little Rock to southwest Arkansas for a railroad in the late 1860s. When Knobel came to the state line between Arkansas and Texas, and believing he was also at or near the Louisiana border, he reportedly wrote TEX-ARK-ANA on a board and nailed it to a tree with the statement ‘this is the name of a town which is to be built here.'”

A group on the Texas side of the state line met in December 1873 to organize the city. A charter was granted in June 1874.

In 1880, 29 people met and petitioned to incorporate Texarkana, Ark.

“Public sentiment was divided as an opposing group gathered 15 names of citizens who opposed organizing a government on the Arkansas side,” Hendricks writes. “But Texarkana, Ark., was granted a charter on Aug. 10, 1880.”

The first mayor was H.W. Beidler. Telephone service arrived in 1883 in what was becoming a thriving railroad town. By the 1890 census, there were more people on the Arkansas side (3,528) than the Texas side (2,852). The Miller County Courthouse was built in 1893. It was demolished in 1939 so the current facility could be built.

“Texarkana’s post office stood on the Arkansas side until residents of the Texas side requested one of their own,” Hendricks writes. “A post office known as Texarkana, Texas, operated from 1886-92. After it closed, postmarks then read Texarkana, Ark. A compromise was reached with Texarkana, Arkansas-Texas, which prevailed until the adoption of Texarkana, U.S.A. Both cities grew throughout the 1890s, installing streetcar lines, gas works, an electric light plant, an ice factory and sewer lines, often in as cooperative a manner as possible considering that the municipalities were in separate states.”

Growth in the area was helped immensely by the creation of the Red River Army Depot and the Lone Star Ammunition Plant during World War II.

“Along with being an important junction of railroad lines, Texarkana built a strong economy based on timber and minerals, along with agricultural crops such as corn, cotton, pecans, rice and soybeans,” Hendricks writes. “By 1952, the population was 40,490, with the Arkansas side reporting almost 16,000. By 1960, the Arkansas side had reached almost 20,000, and the total population was just more than 50,000.”

The establishment of a federal prison at Texarkana spurred additional growth. Texarkana, Ark., grew from 21,459 residents in the 1980 census to 29,919 people in 2010. Miller County had 43,462 residents in the 2010 census.

“Interstate 30 was completed through the area in the 1960s, and it was a double-edged sword,” writes Beverly Rowe of Texarkana College. “It brought many new businesses because of increased traffic and more efficient transportation of products to market. On the other hand, it took business away from Texarkana’s downtown, causing merchants to create what in essence was a new town along the interstate corridor. Since 1968, downtown buildings in Texarkana have deteriorated and businesses have closed. Perhaps the most vibrant businesses are the jails, law offices and bail bondsmen’s shops.

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

The good news is that there seems to be a renewed effort to revitalize downtown Texarkana.

The most prominent current development is the restoration of the Hotel Grim, which was built in 1925. The building contains 103,200 square feet. When it was built, the eight-story structure was the second tallest building in the area. The development will feature commercial space on the first floor and apartment units on the other floors.

Texarkana also has embarked on what’s known as the Courthouse Square Initiative, the goal of which is to make improvements around the federal courthouse downtown. Fennell Purifoy Architects have created renderings of an area that will feature additional green space and enhanced walkability. Texarkana business and civic leaders eventually want to make improvements all the way down State Line Avenue to Interstate 30.

Despite the pandemic and current economic recession, an announcement was made in May that the former Texarkana National Bank building on the corner of State Line Avenue and Broad Street will be renovated. The redevelopment effort is being spearheaded by Texarkana Renewal Properties, led by David Peavy. The building will be redeveloped into apartments and condominiums, as well as overnight and extended-stay units. There also will be space for retail establishments and offices.

According to a news release from the developer: “The railroads founded our cities, but the wealth came from the timber. Virgin forest and a railroad transportation system combined to create prosperity in Texarkana. As the pine trees stopped several miles west of Texarkana and the trees became shorter and twisted, Dallas and other cities welcomed the opportunity to buy lumber from Texarkana timber barons. The Buchanans, the Cabes, the Bottoms, the Foukes and bankers like W.R. Grim created wealth from three critical essentials — an abundance of trees, transportation through the railroads and the great need for lumber in growing areas to the west.

“That great wealth was stored in Texarkana banks, most notably State First National Bank in Arkansas and Texarkana National Bank in Texas, one directly across the street from the other. State First National Bank was located on the first block of Broad Street in Arkansas, and Texarkana National Bank on the first block of Broad in Texas. This was the beginning of the competition between these banks. State Bank built a massive five-story bank and office building in 1904. In 1914, Texarkana Bank built an eight-story building directly across the street. In 1925, Texarkana Bank added an addition that doubled its size. The banking lobby was so ornate it might have reminded you of a palace with marble, granite, beautiful columns and ornate plaster molding.

“Each building made improvements through the years. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the competition intensified. State Bank built a new bank building blocks away. Texarkana Bank modernized its building with a huge renovation. It installed a new facade on the exterior and added new interiors. Lay-in ceilings covered the ornate plaster work, carpet covered the 1914 tile and new sheetrock covered the early-century woodwork.”

Now, those original elements will again be featured.

The trip would not be complete without ending with dinner at Cattleman’s Steak House, which is on the Arkansas side of State Line Avenue. It was one of just three restaurants inducted earlier this year into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame. It was founded by Roy Oliver more than half a century ago when State Line was still a two-lane road. In addition to the steaks, there’s seafood, quail, frog legs and other specialties that have had residents of Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma coming to the family-owned restaurant for decades.

As far as I know, it’s the only restaurant in Arkansas that has calf fries and turkey fries (if you don’t know what they are, you might want to ask before you order) on the menu. I usually get calf fries for an appetizer. For my main course, I order a chicken fried steak with one fried quail on the side.

We’ve done it. We’ve gone from Mississippi to Texas using only one highway, U.S. Highway 82.

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Crossing the Red River

Monday, June 22nd, 2020


We cross the Red River as we continue west on U.S. Highway 82 and enter the community of Garland, which often is referred to by people in this area as Garland City.

I consider this the Fried Catfish Capital of Southwest Arkansas due to the presence of two restaurants — Doc’s and Westshore — that attract catfish eaters from all over this part of the state.

“The first and most famous resident of the area was William Wynn, who arrived at the banks of the Red River and established a farm around 1835,” writes Steven Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “At that time, confusion about the border between Arkansas and Texas and uncertainty about the size of Miller County resulted in many records placing Wynn’s land in Lafayette County. Wynn bought many acres of land, on which he grew cotton and other crops. By 1850, according to census records, he owned 96 slaves.

“Early in the 1850s, surveyors for the Mississippi, Ouachita & Red River Railroad planned a crossing of the Red River at Wynn’s plantation. Tracks had not yet been completed that far west when Wynn died in 1857. The Civil War then delayed construction of the railroad. Finally, by 1881, the St. Louis & Southwestern Railway (often called the Cotton Belt) built the proposed track, including a bridge across the Red River. A post office was established at the depot next to the bridge in 1883. It’s not known why the name Garland was designated.”

Farm and railroad workers made Garland home in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The town grew from 277 residents in the 1910 census to 425 by 1930. The city of Garland was incorporated in 1904.

“In the 1920s, the state of Arkansas began to plan highways for motor traffic to link the various parts of the state,” Teske writes. “Arkansas Highway 2 was developed to run parallel to the border of Arkansas and Louisiana, connecting Texarkana with Lake Village. A bridge across the Red River was built in Garland a short distance north of the railroad bridge. Originally a gravel road, Highway 2 was paved by 1932. The next year, it was re-designated U.S. Highway 82.

“Garland was guided through the Great Depression in part by local businesswoman Charline Person, who had managed a nearby 5,000-acre plantation since her husband’s death in 1911. In 1926, she was featured at the Women’s National Exposition in St. Louis. During the economic collapse, she took charge of soliciting and distributing goods as needed, as well as helping to raise funds to build the Garland Community Church.”

She was born Charline Woodford Beasley in December 1876 at Lewisville. She was almost 17 years old when she married Levin King Person Jr., who was 14 years older, in 1893. The couple had three children. Levin Person died following a stroke in January 1911.

“By 1914, Charline Person was heavily in debt, the property was run down and her workers were going hungry,” Colin Edward Woodward writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Miss Charline, as she was known, had no business experience. It was said that she had never even signed a check before having to take over the plantation. However, with prices rising during World War I, Person began making money in the cotton trade. By the mid-1920s, she had more than 100 families working for her, including white, African-American and Mexican laborers. In December 1925, a representative of the Cotton Belt wrote to her, saying that she was the most successful woman he knew of on the Cotton Belt system.

“In February 1926, Person was featured at the Women’s National Exposition. In honor of Person’s accomplishments, the railway constructed an exhibit showing a miniature field of cotton with several bales in the background. Person attended the exhibit as the Cotton Belt’s representative (the only woman from Arkansas so chosen). In a circular issued by the Cotton Belt concerning the St. Louis exposition, it was reported that Person was doing half a million dollars in business every year. She was called a woman of ‘dynamic and wide influence’ and the ‘most prominent woman cotton planter in Arkansas.'”

In addition to running the plantation, Person operated a general store in Garland.

“She also did her own housekeeping, raised chickens and tended a garden,” Woodward writes. “She rode on horseback with the overseers who handled the details of plantation management. By the mid-1920s, she was making her rounds in an automobile. In addition to her cotton land, she also had property devoted to timber and pecan trees. … Person ran a ferry across the Red River from Garland, was president of the Garland Levee District, served as secretary of Drainage District No. 2, was a majority stockholder of a cotton gin and directed the Bank of Garland. She assisted Henderson-Brown College at Arkadelphia when it almost closed due to lack of funds and was also active in the Red Cross.”

Person died at Texarkana in March 1951. She is buried at Lewisville next to her husband.

“After World War II, improvements to the highway resulted in new stretches of pavement for Highway 82, although the same bridge crossing was used,” Teske writes. “A portion of the older highway, three-quarters of a mile in length, has been preserved near Garland and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The population of Garland has fluctuated, growing during the Great Depression, then slowly declining, surging to more than 600 in 1980 before dropping back below 300 by 2010. The latter figure includes 67 white citizens and 174 African-American citizens.”

When Americans think of the Red River, many of them think about the border between Oklahoma and Texas. But the river has had a big influence on southwest Arkansas through the decades. The Red begins in the Texas Panhandle and flows east for almost 1,290 miles.

“In southwestern Arkansas near Fulton in Hempstead County, the Red River takes a decidedly southern turn before entering Louisiana, where it flows southeasterly before emptying into the Atchafalaya River,” writes Arkansas historian Guy Lancaster. “Although only about 180 miles of the Red River touches upon or passes through Arkansas, it has had a major impact upon the people of southwestern Arkansas. … Until the late 19th century, the Red River’s utility as a transportation corridor between the Mississippi River and points west of present-day Shreveport was impeded by the Great Raft, an enormous logjam that clogged the lower part of the river, extending to more than 130 miles at one point.

“The raft likely existed for hundreds of years. It was so old that, according to some sources, it actually became a part of Caddo mythology. In 1828, Congress set aside $25,000 for the raft’s removal, and Capt. Henry Miller Shreve, then serving as the superintendent of Western River Improvements, was assigned the task of clearing the raft. In 1838, he completed the task, though it re-formed farther up the river soon thereafter and eventually extended to the Arkansas border. Congress hesitated in setting aside more money for the clearance project, with many members feeling it to be a lost cause.”

Shreve, a steamboat captain and inventor, also used his snagboat to clear obstructions on the Arkansas River between Pine Bluff and Little Rock.

Shreve was born in New Jersey in October 1785. He spent much of his youth on rivers after his father moved the family to western Pennsylvania. He bought his first keelboat in 1807 and began hauling furs from St. Louis to Pittsburgh.

“In 1810, he set out for the lead mines run by the Sauk and Fox Indians on the Galena River,” Janet Brantley writes in “Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives.” “The first American to pilot a keelboat so far up the Mississippi system, Shreve struck a deal with the Indians and carried lead from the mines to New Orleans. Shreve married Mary Blair in 1811, and they had three children. The young husband was also married to the waters, and Mary spent a great deal of time raising their children alone.

“Shreve watched with interest as the Fulton-Livingston group inaugurated steamboat trade on the Mississippi. He soon became convinced that the design of Robert Fulton’s boat would not work well since the Mississippi and other rivers in the area were much shallower than those in the eastern part of the United States. Fulton’s design simply sat too deep in these shallow waters, and his boats frequently ran aground, with sometimes tragic results.”

Shreve invested in a steamboat with a flatter bottom and wider girth. His first boat of this style was the Enterprise, which left for New Orleans in 1814.

“His success encouraged him to design a steamboat even better adapted to the Mississippi,” Brantley writes. “The Washington had an even lower, shallower hull, two decks and twin smokestacks, a design that became the standard on inland waters. Perhaps the success of Shreve’s design, when compared to the problems of Fulton’s steamboats outside Eastern rivers, contributed to Shreve’s success when he mounted a legal challenge to the Fulton-Livingston monopoly on government contracts for shipping on the lower Mississippi in Louisiana.”

Shreve was named superintendent of Western River Improvements in January 1827. By 1829, he was clearing obstructions on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. By the early 1830s, he was at work on the Arkansas River.

“Like other inland rivers, the Arkansas was subject to cave-ins, as the natives called these periodic events,” Brantley writes. “During spring rains, runoff from fields into the rivers caused large chunks of soil along the riverbanks to fall into the streams, carrying saplings and even large trees along. Over time, this resulted in logjams that made navigation difficult, if not impossible. A congressional act in 1832 designated $15,000 for work on the Arkansas, noting that snagboats would be necessary to clear out the debris.

“Shreve supplied two snagboats, three machine boats and a steamboat. He made it from Pine Bluff to Little Rock by Feb. 22, 1834, and then did additional clearing above the capital city. In all, workers cleared 4,907 obstructions from the Arkansas. By some accounts, this averaged one snag every 88 yards. His work on the Arkansas River contributed to the success of steamboat travel and trade in Arkansas as the Arkansas River became effectively tied to the country’s main transportation artery, the mighty Mississippi.”

Clearing the Great Raft on the Red River, though, will always be the work Shreve is best known for. He worked to clear almost 200 miles of obstructions.

“The work was difficult, and the raft was so solid in places that new trees grew from the driftwood that accumulated in the middle of the riverbed,” Brantley writes. “A congressional report later described this work: ‘One snag raised by the Heliopolis contained 1,600 cubic feet of timber and could not have weighed less than 60 tons.’ Shreve was working on the raft in northern Louisiana in 1836 when local entrepreneurs incorporated a new town on the banks of the now free-flowing Red. They named the town Shreveport in gratitude for his efforts in clearing the raft.

“Shreve remained superintendent until 1841, when he was relieved of his appointed office by the new Whig administration. At the end of his term, he was in charge of five snagboats, the last of which was named the Henry M. Shreve. Shreve moved to St. Louis, where he farmed and repeatedly, if futilely, petitioned the federal government for compensation for his invention of the snagboat. Despite the findings of various committees that his work had saved the government hundreds of thousands of dollars, Congress never appropriated adequate compensation for Shreve, and he died without having reached agreement with the government.”

Shreve died in March 1851 and is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, which overlooks the Mississippi River at St. Louis.

In 1873, the second Red River raft was removed under the direction of Lt. Eugene Woodruff.

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

The federal Flood Control Act of 1938 authorized the Corps of Engineers to construct a dam on the Red River near Denison, Texas.

“After the Flood Control Act of 1946, the Corps of Engineers began a fairly constant spate of work on the river, including a variety of canals and locks and dams,” Lancaster writes. “In 1978, representatives of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana signed the Red River Compact, which provides an apportionment of the waters of the river to the four signatories as well as a means for conserving and protecting it.”

As we entered Garland, we also entered historic Miller County. Beverly Rowe describes it this way for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Miller County’s location in southwest Arkansas made it the Gateway to the Southwestern United States through its rivers, stagecoach roads and Native American trails. It is an area of flat plains and gentle hills with an abundance of pine and hardwood forests. The northern and eastern border is marked by the meandering Red River. The rich soil grows cotton, sorghum, rice, corn and other crops.”

The Arkansas Territorial Legislature established the first Miller County in April 1820. It also included parts of what are now Bowie, Cass, Delta, Fannin, Franklin, Hopkins, Hunt, Lamar, Morris, Red River and Titus counties in Texas.

“Miller County was part of the disputed Horse’s Head area of northeast Texas and southwest Arkansas, too far north for Mexico to control well and too far west for the United States to control well,” Rowe writes. “While it was technically under Mexican jurisdiction, it truly was not under any country’s control. The county was named for territorial Gov. James Miller, a native of New Hampshire. The first county seat was in the John Hall house in the Gilliland settlement. The county’s establishment was problematic because Mexico claimed much of east Texas.

“Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1836, and the first Miller County was abolished two years later. Gov. James Conway said the easiest solution would be to abolish the county and remove its record to a ‘more patriotic’ area — that is, in the United States. Until 1874, area settlers found themselves included in Lafayette County. The first Miller County had five post offices by 1835. There were at Jonesborough, McKinneyville, Mill Creek, Spanish Bluffs and Sulphur Fork. The southeastern United States provided the largest number of settlers to the area during this time as disheartened citizens of the old Confederacy moved west after the Civil War. One of the county’s earliest towns, Rondo, east of Texarkana, was founded before the war by Dr. L.C. Cully on land originally owned by James Sanders Trigg, who had been educated in France. Trigg named the town after the French game of chance known as rondeau.”

We’re in the cleared bottomlands of the Red River now, an area of row-crop agriculture that looks much like the Arkansas Delta far to the east. It’s time to get to Texarkana and end this trip across south Arkansas on U.S. Highway 82.


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From Magnolia to the Red

Tuesday, June 16th, 2020


We leave Magnolia, continuing our trip west on U.S. Highway 82 across south Arkansas.

Before departing Columbia County, we pass just south of Waldo. Like many of the small towns in this part of the state, it came to life during the period of railroad construction in the 1880s.

“Waldo owes its founding and development to the construction of the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railroad into the surrounding timberlands in 1883,” writes Arkansas historian Mike Polston. “At that time, Lamartine in Columbia County was a thriving town in the area. But when the tracks were put down almost three miles to the south, citizens began to move there, with businesses soon to follow. Once the Lamartine post office was relocated along the tracks, it became a regular stop. The railroad company purchased 26 acres of land south of the tracks, organizing a subsidiary known as the Southwestern Improvement Association. Local landowner and businessman Dave Dixon donated additional tracts on the north side of the tracks. The area was surveyed into 96 business lots with equal numbers on each side of the tracks. The survey also included 120 residential lots.

“The city, which was named after a railway officer in 1884, was incorporated on Aug. 13, 1888. While the business sector initially developed on the south side of the tracks, by 1890 it had also spread to the north. Caspar Pace opened the first general store and also served as the first postmaster. This enterprise was soon followed by others opened by W. Starling and W.O. Benton. Much of the city’s early growth was prompted by the opening of the Neimeyer Lumber Co. in 1887, soon to be followed by other operations. At its peak in the 1890s, the area timberlands supported seven timber-based companies.”

The Bank of Waldo opened in 1899. Eleven years later, the Peoples Bank opened. The first newspaper began publishing in 1891.

“The town prospered in the early 20th century, and by the 1920s had a population of more than 700,” Polston writes. “The city was home to a number of mercantile businesses, a fertilizer works and a flour mill. … Large quantities of lumber and shingles were shipped from the local depot.”

Another wave of prosperity occurred when oil and gas exploration began in Columbia County in the late 1930s. The industry remained strong through the 1950s. In 1974, what was then Deltic Timber Co. opened a large mill at Waldo.

As is the case with many towns in rural south Arkansas, Waldo has experienced population declines in recent decades. The population fell from 1,722 in the 1960 census to 1,372 in the 2010 census. The Waldo School District was consolidated into the Magnolia School District in 2005.

We cross into Lafayette County, which is one of the smallest counties in the state from a population standpoint. The county peaked in population at 16,934 in the 1940 census and was down to just 7,645 residents by the 2010 census.

Lafayette County was carved out of part of Hempstead County in 1827. This area was the home of James Sevier Conway, the state’s first governor.

“The displacement of thousands of farmers by the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12 contributed to the settlement of Louisiana Purchase lands,” Glynn McCalman writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The quakes and war prompted President James Monroe in 1815 to survey and offer lands from the purchase to veterans and displaced farmers. He chose surveyor William Rector to direct the office at St. Louis, with responsibility for all U.S. lands west of the Mississippi River. Rector’s nephews, Henry Conway and James Sevier Conway, participated in the surveys. One result was that James Conway acquired hundreds of acres of fertile land along the Red River as part of what was called Long Prairie.

“Before James Conway settled on the prairie, however, a small caravan of post-War of 1812 pioneers on flatboats had arrived in 1819. In addition to their origin in Wilson County, Tennessee, a few miles east of Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, and their recent service in the War of 1812, they were bonded by intermarriage. East Tennessean James Conway would also marry one of them. One leader of the group was Col. James Bradley, who in 1813 had been ordered by Jackson to lead his troops to Natchez, Miss, for the defense of the ‘southern country.’ Thomas Dooley also served at New Orleans, and his name appears several times in Jackson’s documents at the Hermitage. George Duty served in the War of 1812 and lived a few miles from the Hermitage. William Crabtree Sr. was a resident of middle Tennessee and also served in the war.”

Life was tough on Long Prairie in those early years due to unhappy Caddo Indians, inadequate medical care and often harsh weather. James Conway married Polly Bradley in 1826. By then, much of the original group had moved east to what’s now Bradley County.

“The remnant on Long Prairie persevered, however,” McCalman writes. “In 1827, Lafayette County was formed out of Hempstead. Its original borders were the Ouachita River on the east, Louisiana on the south, Hempstead County to the north and Texas on the west. It was named for the Marquis de Lafayette, a French ally of the United States in the Revolutionary War. Although the initial settlers were from Tennessee, most of the county’s later settlers had more Southern roots. The extreme southeastern part of the county is even now sometimes referred to as the Alabama settlement. Many of Lafayette County’s pioneers owned slaves. Old deeds in the courthouse at Lewisville mostly record only the first names of the transferees and ignore the reality that among the ‘property’ were enslaved human beings.”

Though there wasn’t significant fighting in the county during the Civil War, residents suffered economically. Many were broke when the war ended.

“The post-slavery era resulted in the dissolution of several huge plantations into smaller acreage tracts owned and farmed by families,” McCalman writes. “A few former slaves were included among the new landowners, though their share of the land was relatively small, never attaining a proportionate share of the total. Land title abstracts of the era demonstrate the efforts of the large planters to retain their holdings with diminishing success. Families eagerly purchased, often with mortgages, small portions of the former plantations and sustained themselves with diversified production. Though cotton was the main cash crop, they also produced edible grains, hay for livestock, cane for sweetening and vegetable gardens.”

The advent of the railroads in the late 1800s allowed crops and timber to be shipped more easily from the county.

“During much of the 19th century, residents tried to rely on the Red River for heavy hauling, but they were hampered by the extensive and persistent logjam called the Great Raft,” McCalman writes. “From time to time during the second half of the century, the Great Raft was periodically declared cleared, especially after the work of snagboat engineer Henry Shreve. But it continued to be a nemesis until the river was mostly replaced as a means of transportation by the railroad.

“Although the Cotton Belt rail system reduced the need for some big-ticket retail stores in the county’s towns, better transportation increased the profitability of farming and timber harvest. It also dramatically reduced travel time to Shreveport, Texarkana and elsewhere. Cotton was brought from the gins to the rails, and impressive sawmills rose by the tracks at Stamps, Frostville, Canfield, Arkana and other communities. Residents of the county’s neighboring communities also recognized the railroad’s enhancement of the area. Several families came from Columbia County. Others came from Bossier Parish in Louisiana. Farmers from southern Miller County poured onto Long Prairie, especially into the Canal and Pleasant Valley communities.”

The county started to lose population due to the Great Depression, World War II and the mechanization of agriculture after the war.

“Young people, especially non-whites, began to imagine careers other than as cotton pickers or timber workers, so they migrated to Chicago, Detroit, California and elsewhere,” McCalman writes. “The population began to decline to a 19th-century level. Recent decades have seen a reduction of family farms and a return to large plantations, and more acreage devoted to pine timber. Contracted poultry production has also grown, especially in the northern part of the county.”

Our route on U.S. 82 takes us through the two largest towns in the county, Stamps and Lewisville.

Stamps, the childhood home of legendary writer Maya Angelou, got its start as a lumber town on the railroad. It has bled population in recent years, falling from 2,859 residents in the 1980 census to 1,693 residents in the 2010 census.

“Hardy James Stamps came to Lafayette County from Georgia in 1880 to operate the Bodcaw Lumber Co. mill,” writes Steven Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “When a post office was established at the settlement surrounding the mill in 1888, it was named for Stamps. The first postmistress at that location was Ella Crowell, Stamps’ daughter. The Louisiana & Arkansas Railroad was incorporated in Arkansas in March 1898 by William Buchanan of the Bodcaw Lumber Co. at Stamps. The town was initially home to the principal shops of the railway.”

The railroad eventually extended from Hope in the north to Louisiana. Stamps was incorporated in 1898.

“The Bodcaw sawmill expanded until it was reputedly the largest sawmill for yellow pine in the world,” Teske writes. “The mill pond, Lake June, covered almost 100 acres. The company store offered groceries, men’s and women’s clothing and hardware. The hardware division even sold coffins. A church, built at the end of the 19th century, was shared by several congregations until the Presbyterians erected their own building in the early 1900s.”

Stamps was hurt when the offices of the Louisiana & Arkansas moved to Minden, La., in 1923. The railroad eventually was acquired by the Kansas City Southern Railroad. Arkansas Power & Light Co. (now Entergy Arkansas) built a natural gas-fueled power plant at Stamps that provided some jobs in the 1940s. The plant was expanded in 1952, the same year the McAlester Fuel Co. drilled an oil well near Stamps.

Angelou was born in St. Louis in 1928 but spent much of her childhood in Stamps, where she was raised by a grandmother and uncle. Her novel “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is partially set in Stamps. The city renamed its park in her honor in 2014.

Lewisville, which is only about five miles to the west, is the county seat.

Lewis Barnes Fort bought land in the area in July 1836 after moving from Virginia. The resulting settlement was named Lewisville in his honor.

In 1828, the first Lafayette County courthouse had been built 10 miles southwest of Lewisville on the Red River. The second courthouse was built at Lewisville in 1841. Many of the landowners owned slaves at that time. Slaves outnumbered free whites in 1850.

“In 1882, the Cotton Belt Railroad built a line between Pine Bluff and Texarkana that passed two miles south of Lewisville,” Teske writes. “In 1888, the railroad added a line that began near Lewisville and ran south to Shreveport. A second line from Lewisville ran into Louisiana, built by the Louisiana & Arkansas Railroad. This line also chose the site south of downtown for its station. As a result, new homes and businesses were constructed closer to the station, until the entire town had moved. Since that time, residents speak of Old Lewisville and New Lewisville to distinguish the earlier settlement from the one prompted by the railroads.

“A new courthouse was built in New Lewisville in 1890. It was replaced by a newer courthouse in 1904, which in turn was replaced in 1940. The first bank in the county, Citizens Bank, was established at Lewisville in 1893 but lasted only a few years.”

The Works Progress Administration was responsible for the 1940 courthouse. Lewisville is now about 55 percent black, 42 percent white and 3 percent Hispanic. The population fell from 1,653 in the 1970 census to 1,280 in the 2010 census.

Arkansans often would read about Lewisville back when Ernie Deane was writing the “Arkansas Traveler” column for the Arkansas Gazette. Deane was born at Lewisville in October 1911 to railroad engineer Ernest Deane and Mabel Drew Deane. He attended public schools at Lewisville and Texarkana before receiving his bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1934 from the University of Arkansas, where he served as editor of the school newspaper. Deane received his master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University in Illinois in 1935. He joined the Gazette in 1956 and stayed at the Little Rock newspaper until the late 1960s, when he moved to Fayetteville. Deane taught journalism at his alma mater from 1968-76 and died in May 1991.

The Ernie Deane Award is presented annually by the University of Arkansas to the journalist or writer whose work “best exemplifies the spirit, style and courage of Ernie Deane.”

We don’t leave Lewisville without the obligatory stop at the original location of Burge’s. Alden Burge, who originally was from Louisiana, came to the area to work in the oil and gas industry. In 1953, he began smoking turkeys in a backyard smokehouse and supplying them to friends. He soon was also smoking chickens and selling meals on Friday nights before high school football games.

In 1962, the Burge family opened their restaurant in a former dairy bar. The smoked meats are shipped across the country. Burge’s, which also has a location at Little Rock, was inducted into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame in 2018.

According to the Burge’s website, “Along with his wife Margaret and their three children, Alden sold barbecue, burgers and ice cream. It was a family affair. They enjoyed providing a special level of service, like serving barbecued goat and homemade peppermint ice cream, as well as fireworks, on the Fourth of July. Alden continued to smoke his turkeys for the holidays. And while always delicious, some of them fell apart because they were so tender. By word of mouth, business grew, and he started shipping turkeys and hams through the mail to customers outside of the area.”

With the turkey sandwich and cherry limeade finished, it’s time to continue the trip west and cross the Red River.

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Mulerider pride

Monday, June 15th, 2020


I’ll admit my bias on the front end. Trey Berry and I grew up together at Arkadelphia. Our parents were friends. Trey and I have been friends for longer than we care to admit.

I don’t make it a habit of writing columns about old friends, but what has been going on at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia in recent years deserves some coverage. Berry is the SAU president, and the school he heads has been one of the fastest-growing institutions of higher education in this part of the country since he became president in 2015. What’s truly amazing is that the growth came at a time when many small colleges across the country were struggling. It also has taken place in far south Arkansas, an area of the state that has suffered economically for decades.

Berry, who ranks among this state’s top historians, came to SAU in 2011 as professor of history and dean of the College of Liberal and Performing Arts. After just a year, he was promoted to provost and vice president for academic affairs. Before moving to Magnolia, Berry spent 18 years at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, two years at the University of Arkansas at Monticello and two years as deputy director of what was then the Department of Arkansas Heritage in Little Rock (now part of the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism).

In February 2015, it was announced that Berry would replace the school’s popular president, David Rankin, who was retiring the following July.

“Dr. Rankin has set us up in such a good way for the future,” Berry said at the time. “Now we have to shift gears and focus on people, planning, programs and philanthropy. We have to raise money for this institution.”

As an expert on the history of south Arkansas, Berry knew how important it was to strengthen ties with residents of Magnolia and surrounding communities.

“We need each other,” he said.

Upon his arrival in Magnolia, Berry plunged into civic activities. He joined the Rotary Club and also served on the boards of the Golden Triangle Economic Development Council and the Magnolia-Columbia County Chamber of Commerce. Bobbie Ruth Webb of Magnolia donated to the school a downtown building that had been in her family for more than a century. Her grandfather, K.S. Couch, opened a grocery store on the courthouse square in the early 1900s. Berry turned the building into a university retail store and an event space to further ties to the community.

Back on campus, two additional dorms opened at the start of the 2016-17 school year and two more dorms (one in a converted skating rink) opened the following school year. Berry says his biggest challenge during his first several years as president was “keeping up with the growth and all it entails.”

Berry says that when Rankin was president, the school began trying to determine what areas of study might be popular during the next decade. Programs that were added include engineering, game design and animation, musical theater, cybersecurity and marine and wildlife biology. The academic expansion was coupled with an aggressive marketing campaign. SAU recruits the booming Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area and hired a full-time staff member to live in that region.

Crippling budget cuts at colleges and universities in Louisiana and Oklahoma caused students in those states to look elsewhere. Some ended up at SAU. Marketing efforts also picked up in central Arkansas. And due to the popularity of programs such as a master’s degree in computer science, the number of international students grew.

“We’re seen as a place that’s affordable and student friendly,” Berry says. “Our faculty and staff have open-door policies. These things have worked together to create a sense of momentum here. That momentum breeds additional momentum. We’re not in a town with four-lane highway access, but we decided to make ourselves a destination despite that shortcoming. We have a strong social media presence. A lot of students these days surf the web to find programs that interest them and are affordable. That’s why we have students from so many states and countries. If you can get two or three students from a high school and they have a great experience, the word will get out. Kids spread the word, and it just continues to build.”

Rankin oversaw a $100 million construction effort when he was president. The enrollment growth has meant that Berry also must keep construction crews busy.

With the growth of SAU has come continued growth in the neighborhoods surrounding the school and in downtown Magnolia. On the trip across south Arkansas on U.S. Highway 82, Berry hosted me for the better part of a day in Magnolia. One of the places we went was Mule Kick on North Jackson Street. All I could think was this: “It’s something I would expect to find in a much larger town.”

There was ice cream from Loblolly Creamery in Little Rock. There was an extensive collection of Arkansas craft beers from breweries such as Bike Rack, Core, Lost Forty, Diamond Bear, Ozark, Rebel Kettle and Superior Bathhouse. There were specially sourced coffees, pizzas, salads, homemade pastries and more. I heard about Vinyl Night each Monday, Trivia Night each Wednesday and the groups of students who would walk over from the SAU campus in those days prior to the pandemic.

In an era when much of south Arkansas is losing population, Magnolia has a different feel. Since 1990, nearby El Dorado has seen its population drop from 23,000 to 18,000 despite the tens of millions of dollars spent on initiatives such as the El Dorado Promise scholarship program and the Murphy Arts District.

During that same period, Camden’s population has dropped from 15,000 to 11,000. Magnolia, meanwhile, has held its own. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the population has increased slightly from 11,300 to 11,500 since the 2010 census. In south Arkansas these days, holding your own is a victory.

Berry has made SAU an economic and cultural engine for south Arkansas. He hails from a college town (Arkadelphia) and understands the importance of a four-year university to a community. It’s why he was insistent on opening the SAU Beyond the Campus store on the downtown square. The same person who designed the courthouse square at Magnolia designed the square in booming Oxford, Miss. Berry, who earned his master’s degree and doctorate from Ole Miss, saw how the energy of the Oxford square helped school officials there when it came to recruiting students. Along with SAU, a strength of Magnolia is that it still has a vibrant downtown business district.

The SAU store is in a 3,400-square-foot building. It carries products and apparel promoting the Mulerider brand. The front half of the building is devoted to retail. The back half has a meeting room with a full kitchen that can be leased for various activities. Webb, who donated the building, was a 1949 graduate. Graduate students manage the store, which opened in August 2018. They learn skills such as supply chain management.

Along with connecting to the community, a key to SAU’s success has been the establishment of programs that are popular with students. Our next stop was the engineering building, which was dedicated in October 2016. What had been an Arkansas National Guard armory was given to the university in 2015. That led to a $1.4 million renovation project. The building houses the only accredited engineering program south of Little Rock. The program, which started in the fall of 2014, has seen steady enrollment growth. There are now about 220 engineering majors, and Berry says the program places 100 percent of its graduates in jobs.

The interior of the facility was named for Robert and Edna Cook Norvell. Edna Norvell gave $1 million to the school to honor those who had helped her at what was known as Magnolia A&M when she was a student. Areas of emphasis for the SAU engineering program include mechanical engineering, engineering technology and a welding engineering technology program that’s one of the few of its kind in the country. The program provides highly skilled welding supervisors for the region’s defense, aerospace and oil and gas industries.

Former Gov. Ben Laney, who died in 1977, spent his later years on a farm near Magnolia. The 700-acre farm was donated to SAU, and Berry has big plans for that property. Laney was governor from 1945-49.

“His most notable achievement was the state’s 1945 Revenue Stabilization Law, which prohibited deficit spending,” Tom Forgey writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Though he once said, ‘I’m not a politician,’ his conservative views put him in the spotlight at a time when the Democratic Party was becoming more liberal. Although he opposed desegregation, the University of Arkansas School of Law became the South’s first all-white public institution to admit black students during this tenure.”

Laney was born in November 1896 at Jones Chapel in Ouachita County. He was one of seven children, and his father was a farmer. Laney entered Hendrix College at Conway in 1915 but left the following year to teach. After having served in the U.S. Navy during World War I, he received a bachelor’s degree from what’s now the University of Central Arkansas at Conway in 1924. Laney worked in business and banking at Conway in 1925-26 and married Lucille Kirtley there in January 1926. The couple had three sons.

“In 1927, Laney returned to Ouachita County, where his business dealings included oil, banking, farming, cotton gins and retail stores,” Forgey writes. “He was the major of Camden from 1935-39 and a member of the Arkansas Penitentiary Board from 1941-44. His activities on behalf of John L. McClellan’s 1942 U.S. Senate bid solidified a friendship and political alliance. A relative unknown when he ran for the 1944 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, he had the support of conservative business and financial interests. His opponents were former Congressman David D. Terry and state Comptroller J. Bryan Sims.

“Sims withdrew 10 days before the election amid accusations of a negotiated deal, and Laney easily defeated Republican opponent H.C. Stump in the general election, as was the norm in this essentially one-party political era. His renomination and re-election in 1946 were effortless. The governor’s work on behalf of efficiency, economy and consolidation in state government and his encouragement of industrialization and broadly based economic development earned him the nickname Business Ben. These activities and his opposition to organized labor strengthened his ties with Arkansas business conservatives.

Laney pushed the Revenue Stabilization Law through the Legislature in 1945.

“Before 1945, appropriations were tied to specific taxes; as a result, some revenue streams came up short while others had more money than needed,” Forgey writes. “The new law created a single general fund from which all state appropriations were made and prohibited departments and institutions from spending if cash was not available. It also created an orderly system of budget cuts if the revenue was not available. In 1947, he successfully urged the Legislature to create a Legislative Council to provide research and bill-drafting assistance for Arkansas’ part-time legislators. However, Laney is remembered less for his streamlining of government structure and finance than for his opposition to proposals that would alter race relations and weaken or end segregation.

“Laney spoke out against progressive federal initiatives to outlaw lynching and the poll tax and quietly worked to prevent desegregation of state professional and higher education programs. Laney claimed that his actions were based on constitutional principles and states’ rights philosophy and not on racial considerations. But he had praised Arkansans as being close to what he described as good and pure Anglo-Saxon stock.”

Gunshots can be heard these days on the old Laney farm, which SAU is transforming into a world-class trapshooting facility. The school’s shooting team competes in the Association of College Unions International Collegiate Clay Targeting Program. When work is completed, the Laney farm will feature a clubhouse and three shooting ranges with each range consisting of five concrete lanes with high and low skeet houses.

It’s the same kind of innovative thinking that led SAU to establish a bass fishing team along with men’s and women’s disc golf teams. In what’s otherwise a grim period economically for south Arkansas, the SAU Muleriders are kicking it.

Last September, Farmers Bank & Trust of Magnolia donated $220,000 to help with construction of the facility.

“The impact of Farmers Bank & Trust is evident across our campus, from academic programs, to student scholarships, to our athletic programs,” Berry said at the time the gift was announced. “Trapshooting has become increasingly popular not only among youth. It’s also increasingly popular as a corporate event. The gift from Farmers benefits us all. SAU will be the only institution in the region for students to compete at the collegiate level, and our high schools benefit from having a facility to call home and both practice and host events. Companies and the community will be able to host events once the range is fully operational. This can really be a draw for visitors to Magnolia.”

More than 50 students signed up for the inaugural SAU team.

“Because of the commitment and dedication the sport requires, the caliber of students who shoot at this level is a perfect fit for SAU,” said Steve Crowell, the school’s trapshooting coach. “The clubhouse building and range will allow us to immediately become a force in recruiting on a national level. We’ve already had interest from students in New York, Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, Minnesota, South Dakota, California, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.”

Crowell grew up in southwestern Minnesota on a dairy, hog and crop farm. He has volunteered at every school in the Magnolia School District, served as a high school football referee and served on the city council.

Participants in the program must maintain a 2.0 grade point average for undergraduate students and a 3.0 grade point average for graduate students. Students have the opportunity to compete at the intramural level or the intercollegiate level. Students must provide their own guns, which are then stored in a secure campus location.

The school also features SAU eSports, which has been a hit among gamers. They live, study and practice together and then travel to competitions across the region. Their dedicated space on the second floor of the Reynolds Center has been expanded and has the latest in game technology so they can host tournaments. Meanwhile, the school’s disc golf teams compete in the national college championships. The bass fishing team was established in 2012 and also competes in tournaments across the country.

Berry sees it all as part of the plan to make SAU a center of activity for south Arkansas.

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On to Magnolia

Tuesday, June 9th, 2020


We head west out of El Dorado on U.S. Highway 82 and soon find ourselves in Columbia County.

“Natural resources have been the mainstay of the Columbia County economy, from cotton in the 19th century; timber, oil and gas in the mid-20th century; and later bromine,” writes Mike McNeill of the online news site Magnolia Reporter. “The county’s fortunes have also been closely tied to the evolution of Southern Arkansas University. Columbia County, named after the female personification of America, wielded significant political influence in Arkansas during the first half of the 20th century with family and business ties to governors Thomas McRae, Sidney McMath and Ben T. Laney; Lt. Gov Lawrence E. Wilson; state Auditor T.C. Monroe; U.S. Reps. Robert Minor Wallace and Wade Kitchens; and businessman Harvey Couch. Columbia County is typified geographically by low, rolling hills and is heavily forested.”

White settlers began arriving in significant numbers after Arkansas became a state in 1836. In 1852, Columbia County was carved out of parts of Lafayette, Hempstead, Ouachita and Union counties. The county seat of Magnolia was incorporated in 1855.

“The early residents depended on an agricultural economy with cotton, and to a lesser extent corn, as a cash crop,” McNeill writes. “Some settlers brought slaves. Early tax records indicate that Columbia County had 1,675 slaves in a population of almost 6,000 in 1854. The first formal federal census of the county in 1860 showed a population of 12,449, of whom 3,599 were slaves. About 1,000 farms were in operation at that time. Columbia County played no significant role in the Civil War, although about 1,000 men did serve in the Confederate ranks. It’s estimated that about a third of the men never returned.”

Columbia County is the only county in the state not to have a river. It has never been an easy place to reach.

“The county’s creeks and bayous were more of an impediment than an aid to early travelers because they were too narrow and shallow to support water traffic,” McNeill writes. “The swampy conditions of the upper Dorcheat Bayou in Columbia County didn’t allow for practical use by boats. Rain made travel conditions worse. Only the arrival of railroads made it possible for Columbia County residents to enjoy a dependable, year-round transportation option.

“Plans made prior to the Civil War for the construction of a rail line fell through, and it wasn’t until the construction of the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railroad in the fall of 1882 that the first cotton was shipped from the county by railcar. The railroad led to the creation of the communities of McNeill (later McNeil) and later Waldo, which were incorporated in 1884 and 1888 respectively. Cut off from the planned railroad, civic leaders in Magnolia resolved to have a spur line built to the city. They pledged $6,000 in cash and property during a single meeting in 1881 and eventually raised more than $20,000 toward this goal. The branch was completed in 1883.”

Emerson and Taylor came to life in Columbia County as rail towns. The Louisiana & Northwest Railroad was a branch line from McNeil to Magnolia. It eventually was extended to Louisiana in 1899. Emerson was incorporated along the line in 1905. Meanwhile, the Louisiana & Arkansas Railroad was founded by William Buchanan, the owner of Bodcaw Lumber Co. It ran south from Stamps through Taylor. Harvey Couch was one of Buchanan’s partners and eventually gained control of the railroad. There was a post office at Taylor before the railroad was built, but the town wasn’t incorporated until 1913.

“Columbia County experienced a decline in farming and population during the Great Depression,” McNeill writes. “Its citizens suffered the same privations that the economic crisis presented for the rest of the nation. The discovery of producing oil and gas fields in the late 1930s led to positive changes almost overnight that continued into the 1950s. … The county’s population peaked at 29,822 in the 1940 census, almost 10 percent above the previous decade, a rate of growth not equaled since. The first blow of World War II struck Columbia County directly. Marine Private Carl Webb, a Waldo native, was killed aboard the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. Sixty Columbia County residents died in World War II.

“The war aided the development of industry in Columbia County beginning in 1942. A natural gas processing plant was built near the Macedonia community. A 130-mile pipeline linked sour gas fields in Columbia and Lafayette counties to an aluminum plant at Jones Mill in Hot Spring County. U.S. 79 in Columbia County received its first hard surface in the 1940s. The employment situation had changed so drastically by 1942 that County Judge J.B. McClurkin issued a proclamation saying that all able-bodied men who did not have jobs would be arrested for vagrancy.”

As in the rest of Arkansas, there was a move from rural areas to the county seat that intensified following World War II. Magnolia’s population more than doubled between 1940 and 1960.

“Housing construction filled in the two miles between downtown Magnolia and the SAU campus to the north,” McNeill writes. “This period also witnessed the construction of Magnolia’s two tallest buildings, the five-story McAlester Building and the five-story Magnolia Inn. Magnolia Airport was built with a hard-surface runway in 1953. Nine years of airline passenger service to Magnolia Airport ended in 1962 with the withdrawal of Trans-Texas Airways. The improvement of highways in the 1950s and 1960s led to the decline of Columbia County’s smaller communities as business centers as more retailers concentrated in Magnolia.

“The Peace and Columbia shopping centers were both in operation by the late 1960s. University Plaza shopping center arrived in 1979. Walmart, a presence in Magnolia since the 1960s, opened a Supercenter in 2003 on the U.S. 79-82 bypass. The Supercenter spurred a considerable amount of new business activity along the bypass, which had seen little retail business since its construction in the 1970s. … In November 2014, voters approved the sale of alcohol in the formerly dry county.”

Cotton was the chief crop in the county until well into the 20th century. There are now very few row crops grown in Columbia County.

“Offshoots from the cotton industry provided the area with its earliest trade and manufacturing base,” McNeill writes. “Chief among early manufacturing efforts was the organization by a consortium of local businessmen of the Magnolia Cotton Mill in 1928. It was the first textile mill in southwestern Arkansas and the largest manufacturer of any kind in Columbia County for many years. Functions and ownership of the mill changed through the decades, with the facility eventually becoming American Fuel Cells & Coated Fabric Co., or Amfuel. It employed about 300 people who chiefly manufactured fuel cells, mostly for military aircraft, before the company announced the closure of the plant in 2016.”

The Magnolia Oil Field was discovered on March 5, 1938.

“Gushing oil topped the Barnett No. 1 derrick,” McNeill writes. “This led almost overnight to the development of an oil and gas exploration industry within Columbia County that continues today. While the importance of oil and gas drilling declined steadily, a new natural resources industry arrived in the mid-1960s as chemical companies discovered the high bromine content of brine located thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface. Bromine is an element used in numerous chemical and manufacturing processes.

“On Jan. 18, 1966, Dow Chemical Co. broke ground for a bromine plant four miles west of Magnolia. A second plant soon followed (a joint venture of Ethyl Chemical Corp. and Great Lakes Chemical). Both plants eventually were consolidated under the ownership of Albemarle Corp., which owns dozens of brine wells and pipelines that crisscross Columbia and Union counties. Albemarle also operates three chemical plants in the two counties, the largest of which is located south of Magnolia. The company employs more than 700 regular and contract workers in southern Arkansas.”

Though the oil and gas industry has declined, the timber industry remains important in the area. But the real driver of the economy continues to be the presence of Southern Arkansas University.

“Higher education in Columbia County became a reality with an act of the 1909 Arkansas General Assembly, which authorized four agricultural high schools in the state, combining training in agriculture with high school-level courses,” McNeill writes. “County residents offered the state an inducement of $50,000 plus 390 acres just north of Magnolia for what became known as the Third District Agricultural School. The first classes were held on Jan. 11, 1911. The General Assembly authorized the Third District Agricultural School to become a junior college, and in 1925, the school was renamed Third District Agricultural & Mechanical College. High school courses were dropped in 1937, and in 1949, the school became a four-year institution.

“The named was changed to Southern State College in 1951. SSC was renamed Southern Arkansas University in 1976. SAU now has more than 3,000 graduate and undergraduate students. It’s best known for its degree programs in business administration, agricultural education, elementary and secondary education and nursing.”

Magnolia had 11,588 residents in the 2010 census, down slightly from the 11,909 recorded in 1980. When Columbia County was created, the first court met at a store in a swampy place called Frog Level. Three commissioners were appointed to find the geographical center of the county to establish a county seat.

“The geographical center ended up being in the bottoms of Big Creek, even lower than Frog Level, and so the site for the county seat was moved one mile to the east,” according to the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “On June 21, 1853, J.J. Thomas and John L. McCarty deeded the land on which the city was established, and a one-room log cabin was built to serve as a temporary courthouse. The commissioners were at a loss as to what to name the new city until, at a dinner with local planter R.G. Harper, the planter’s daughter suggested the name of Magnolia. According to another source, commissioner Norborn Young asked his fiancee to suggest a name for the  city and misunderstood her when she replied ‘Peoria.’ The absence of any actual magnolia trees didn’t keep the name from sticking.”

Col. M.G. Kelso, who surveyed and laid out the city, modeled it after Oxford, Miss., which he had also surveyed. In 1856, one year after the city was incorporated, a log courthouse was replaced by a larger frame structure. Before the railroad arrived, cotton was hauled from Magnolia to Camden to be shipped down the Ouachita River or to Shreveport to be shipped down the Red River. When what eventually would become the Cotton Belt bypassed Magnolia, the city leaders raised the money for the previously mentioned railroad spur.

The city’s phone system was established in 1899. Construction of a new courthouse was completed in 1906, three years prior to the establishment of the Third District Agricultural School. In 1939, a hospital was built as part of a Works Progress Administration project. The Civilian Conservation Corps was also active in the area. The camp later was used by the National Youth Administration. During World War II, it was used to house conscientious objectors under the name Camp Magnolia. It remained in use until a tornado destroyed it on April 10, 1945.

Magnolia had a history of being an education center long before the Third District Agricultural School was created. A school known as the Magnolia Female Institute operated in the 1870s. The Southwestern Academy, a private preparatory school, was established in 1894 and closed in the early 1900s. Its building was used by the Magnolia Grammar School until it burned. Magnolia High School was constructed in 1917.

When the Third District Agricultural School was established, there were three sister institutions that also were born. Those institutions would go on to become Arkansas State University at Jonesboro, the University of Arkansas at Monticello and Arkansas Tech University at Russellville.

“The Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union had campaigned vigorously in Arkansas and other states for these vocational high schools, an educational reform of the Progressive Era,” writes James Willis, a former history professor at SAU who wrote a book about the school. “Communities bid money and land in efforts to become sites for the Arkansas schools. Small farmers’ contributions won the Third District Agricultural School for Columbia County, where the cornerstone was laid on Aug. 24, 1910. The school’s first term began Jan. 11, 1911, with 75 students and five teachers.

“Five principals led the school: David H. Burleson (1911), Harper K. Sanders (1911-13), Dr. William S. Johnson (1913-14), Elbert E. Austin (1914-21) and Charles A. Overstreet (1921-45). Courses in agriculture and home economics dominated the curriculum. English, history, science and math provided the minimal requirement for a high school diploma. The legacy of the Farmers Union is evident today. SAU operates one of the state’s largest collegiate farms, and the school’s colors — blue and gold — are those of the union. The school’s agricultural roots are also evident in its unique symbol — Muleriders — adopted in 1912 when its football players rode mules, then ubiquitous and essential to Southern agriculture, to practice and games. The name Aggies competed with Muleriders, but the latter became the yearbook’s title in 1922.”

The student newspaper was named The Bray in 1923 with a mascot featuring a bucking mule ridden by a cowboy. Home football games still include a mule with a student riding it.

“To increase the supply of rural schoolteachers in the mid-1920s, Arkansas elevated the Third District Agricultural School and the other agricultural schools to junior college status with Act 229 of 1923 and Act 45 of 1925,” Willis writes. “Officially named State Agricultural & Mechanical College, Third District, the school was known everywhere as Magnolia A&M. The North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools accredited Magnolia A&M in 1929. Its agricultural and home economics emphasis remained. Animal industry instructor Ves Godley built a prize-winning dairy herd that included a 1937 national champion, Sultane’s Magnolia Belle. The school increasingly stressed its two-year associate of arts degree for students planning to go on to a four-year college.

“Despite economic hardship in the 1930s, the school enrolled several hundred students each semester and provided work for many. Costs were kept low in a deliberate effort to become the state’s least expensive college. Effective management created a rich extracurricular program for students. The U.S. government’s New Deal funding expanded the school’s physical plant, and graduating classes donated memorial constructions. The 1936 class contribution was a Greek amphitheater, largely built by students who were inspired by a young teacher named Samuel D. Dickinson. His ancient history course ended dramatically in the new amphitheater with a student performance of the Greek tragedy Antigone. The play became a central feature of graduation festivities that year.”

Magnolia A&M became a four-year college under the leadership of President Charles Wilkins. A 1951 legislative act renamed the school Southern State College.

“During its 25-year history, SSC grew enormously,” Willis writes. “Dr. Dolph Camp, a 1920 Third District Agricultural School graduate, served as president from 1950-59. He led the school to North Central accreditation in March 1955; hired new faculty; constructed a new library, music building and president’s home; and completed two new dormitories. New courses of study were added, leading to a variety of bachelor’s degrees. President Imon E. Bruce (1959-76) guided the school during enrollment expansion fueled by the baby boom. A 1930 Magnolia A&M graduate, Bruce’s ambitious construction program did much to erase the earlier campus he had attended.

“Over 16 years, 14 major buildings were erected, including an athletic facility and a nursing building for a new field of study. By 1975, student activities boasted more than 50 student clubs, 10 varsity sports for men and women, and newly established Greek fraternities and sororities. The largely uneventful racial integration at SSC in the mid-1960s was marred by administration conflict on a variety of issues with a student civil rights organization, Students United for Rights and Equality. The firing of its sponsor, Donald C. Baldridge, a tenured professor, led to censure by the American Association of University Professors for more than 20 years.”

SSC became Southern Arkansas University on July 9, 1976.

“SAU established master’s degree programs in several education specialties and in counseling, computer science, agriculture and public administration,” Willis writes. “At the Magnolia campus, student enrollment grew to more than 3,000. There was substantial diversity in minority presence among both faculty and student body. More than 150 international students attended each year. Student organizations grew to more than 80 clubs. An endowment fund begun in 1963 with a few thousand dollars grew to more than $30 million, annually funding more than 900 scholarships and other academic enrichment programs.”

SAU presidents were Harold T. Brinson from 1976-92, Steven G. Gamble from 1992-2002, David F. Rankin from 2002-15 and Trey Berry since February 2015. The school now offers the only engineering program in southern Arkansas along with the only computer game and animation design program in the state.

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Going MAD in El Dorado

Friday, March 6th, 2020


Just across Cedar Street from the 1929 Rialto Theater in downtown El Dorado is a small park with displays chronicling the oil boom that transformed this south Arkansas city.

One marker describes the cold afternoon of Jan. 10, 1921, when a physician and oil speculator named Sam Busey struck oil at a well near El Dorado. The plume of oil that sprayed into the sky could clearly be seen throughout the town of 3,800 residents.

By 1925, El Dorado’s population had soared to almost 30,000.

“The town would never be the same,” the marker reads. “Church bells rang, the sawmill whistle sounded and people streamed out of town to see the oil spewing up through the 75-foot wooden derrick.”

Writing for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Kenneth Bridges describes the transformation of El Dorado: “The discovery well touched off a wave of speculators into the area seeking fame and fortune from oil. The state Legislature immediately sent an exploratory train from Little Rock for legislators to inspect the find. Oil production increased exponentially in a matter of months. In March 1921, Arkansas produced 38,000 barrels of oil to sell on the open market, which increased to 908,000 barrels by June.

“By 1922, 900 wells were in operation in the state. … El Dorado became the epicenter of the oil boom. It changed from an isolated agricultural city to the oil capital of Arkansas. Twenty-two trains each day ran in and out of El Dorado to Little Rock and Shreveport.”

Now, 99 years after the oil boom began, downtown El Dorado is hopping again. But this has nothing to do with the oil and gas industry, which has been depressed in these parts for years. Instead, it’s about music, theater, art and even fine food and wine. It’s an effort by the city’s business and civic leaders to reverse a decades-long pattern of population loss. The goal is to turn El Dorado into the arts and entertainment capital of a region that includes south Arkansas, north Louisiana, east Texas and even parts of west Mississippi.

Many consider it to be El Dorado’s last, best chance to break out of the economic doldrums infecting so much of south Arkansas.

El Dorado Festivals & Events Inc. was created several years ago and then charged with giving life to this vision. More than $60 million was raised for the first phase of the project. The Griffin Building, constructed in 1928-29 during the oil boom to house a Ford dealership and a gas station, was transformed into a fine-dining venue and an indoor performance hall that holds more than 2,000 seated patrons.

An adjacent amphitheater was built to hold 8,000 people for outdoor concerts. There’s even a two-acre children’s playground and splash pad.

A planned second phase of the project will transform the Rialto into an 850-seat hall for film festivals, touring productions and performances by the South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. A new lobby will connect the Rialto to the 1928 McWilliams Building, a former furniture store that will become an art gallery, provide housing for artists and host traveling exhibitions from around the world.

Once all is said and done, more than $100 million will have been spent in downtown El Dorado.

The sounds of construction can be heard downtown as workers rush to complete a boutique hotel known as The Haywood.

Last spring, I went to El Dorado to emcee the groundbreaking event for the hotel. The shovels went into the dirt and the cameras clicked as city leaders, all wearing hardhats for the photo op, participated in the ceremony. The early spring weather couldn’t have been much better that day with temperatures in the 70s. In the old neighborhoods throughout the city, azaleas and dogwoods were beginning to bloom. Hope springs eternal in the spring, and the folks in El Dorado are hoping The Haywood will be another successful piece in the complex puzzle that’s designed to offset the population losses that beset this part of the state.

Despite the presence of companies such as Murphy Oil Corp., Murphy USA and what’s now PotlatchDeltic, El Dorado’s population has decreased from 23,146 in the 1990 census to about 18,000 today. There are plenty of jobs available, mind you. There are also visionary leaders, scholarships for graduates of El Dorado High School and more things to do than ever before thanks to the money being sunk into the Murphy Arts District (known locally as MAD).

“If we can’t make it work here with the inherent advantages we already have, I’m not sure it can work at all in rural areas in this part of the country,” one business executive told me.

Rather than being resigned to consistent population losses, El Dorado’s leaders began fighting back more than a decade ago when they implemented the El Dorado Promise. The scholarship program provides graduating seniors with a grant for tuition and expenses at any two-year or four-year institution of higher education in the country. The initiative was the brainchild of Claiborne Deming, who at the time was the chief executive officer at Murphy Oil. Deming modeled it after the Kalamazoo Promise in Michigan. The Murphy Oil board approved an investment of $50 million to fund the scholarships.

Later that year, local voters passed an economic development tax. In 2011, a $43 million high school opened, and numerous advanced placement courses were added to the high school curriculum.

The El Dorado Conference Center, a $14.4 million facility downtown, was dedicated in 2011.

Even with all of these developments, El Dorado’s population has dropped by another 2,000 residents since 2007.

In August 2017, I spent a day in El Dorado with Deming and Madison Murphy to learn more about MAD. I asked Deming during lunch if the vast amount of money being spent on MAD was, in essence, an admission that the El Dorado Promise hadn’t worked as well as its founders had hoped.

Before Deming could answer, Murphy interjected: “I would hate to think where we would be without it.”

MAD is the next step in a coordinated effort to create a jewel in the pine woods of far south Arkansas. During that 2017 visit, Murphy told me that he was convinced that MAD would be enough to make a high-quality downtown boutique hotel — something along the lines of The Alluvian at Greenwood, Miss. — feasible.

“I regret that the hotel isn’t already open,” he said that day. “But I believe it will happen.”

Less than two years later, the dirt was being turned for a 70-room hotel that will cost more than $14 million.

The concept of “build it and they will come” doesn’t always play out. But I’ve seen it happen with The Alluvian, which was opened in 2003 by Viking Range Corp. in the Delta city where the high-dollar appliances are manufactured. The Alluvian is in the former Hotel Irving in downtown Greenwood. In 2005, Viking added a 7,000-square-foot spa, cooking school and store across the street.

During the four years I spent with the Delta Regional Authority, I attended numerous meetings at Greenwood. I noticed the prosperous couples who were coming there to spend long weekends from as far away as the state capital at Jackson, Little Rock and even New Orleans.

Greenwood offers a nationally known cooking school and spa, but El Dorado will have the concerts at MAD, fine dining, a top golf course (Mystic Creek) and world-class art exhibitions.

Murphy Oil, Murphy USA and PotlatchDeltic must compete for talent against companies with headquarters in Houston and other large metropolitan areas. Deming, a Tulane University graduate who began working as an attorney for Murphy Oil in 1979, is often asked why one of the best scholarship programs of its kind in the country didn’t do more to stop population loss.

“The fact that it didn’t shows just how daunting the situation is in south Arkansas,” he says. “Almost all of the Arkansas counties south of Interstate 40 are facing similar challenges.”

Murphy interjects: “It takes more than one thing to change long-term trends. You have to have a confluence of events.”

Murphy is a former chairman of the Arkansas Highway Commission and headed the Murphy Commission, which from 1996-99 studied ways to make Arkansas state government more efficient and accountable to taxpayers. His interest in public policy was inherited from his father, the late Charles Murphy, who was considered to be among the state’s greatest business and civic leaders of the 20th century. Charles Murphy died in March 2002 at age 82.

“We started this effort with some ideas about how we could turn the economic situation around,” Madison Murphy says. “What you see now is far different from our original concepts. I don’t know what it’s going to look like years from now, but this could be a catalyst for things we haven’t even thought about yet.”

Murphy would like to see more people living downtown. Asked why arts and entertainment was the sector the business leaders decided to focus on, Murphy says bluntly: “Because we’re not going to get the next Toyota plant.”

He goes on the explain: “I see four drivers when it comes to attracting jobs. Those are education, infrastructure, tax rates and quality of life. Quality of life was our weakest link.”

Deming says: “We have a lot of white-collar jobs here because of the companies that are headquartered in El Dorado, and we have high-paying blue-collar jobs. So we have jobs. We also have the El Dorado Promise. And we were still losing population. So what do we do? We address those quality-of-life issues.”

Murphy quotes Daniel Burnham, one of the country’s most famous architects and urban planners in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Speaking about the design for the city of Chicago, Burnham said: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans, aim high.”

“This is not a small plan,” Murphy says of the effort to transform El Dorado into a four-state arts and entertainment hub. “It’s blood stirring.”

Deming believes the attention that MAD will bring to El Dorado could put it on the radar screen for everyone from young families to retired couples.

“The most appealing lifestyle in the country these days is the lifestyle of the small-town South,” he says. “People here are friendly. It’s easy to get around. This lifestyle is contagious. What we must do is be able to grow without losing that small-town feel. This is already a wonderful place to live. We now have the opportunity to make it even better while attracting the attention of people across the region.”

Murphy says those behind MAD aren’t oblivious to the challenges they still face.

“We’re not on an interstate highway,” he says. “We don’t have adequate air service. At least people in this region are willing to drive some distance for events.”

The focus is on what the visionaries behind MAD hope will be future growth. Still, they haven’t forgotten the past. A 110-foot oil derrick was placed adjacent to the Griffin Building, paying homage to the boom that first put El Dorado in the national spotlight. Once more, El Dorado seeks to draw the nation’s attention.

“The team we’ve assembled here makes me proud,” Murphy says. “These folks are living it, breathing it, walking it, talking it, making it happen. We’re going to succeed.”

As we toured MAD just before its formal opening back in 2017, Murphy stopped to take a call on his cell phone. I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that the subject of the phone conversation was wine. After all, the Murphy family owns a California winery named Presqu’ile in the heart of Santa Barbara County’s Santa Maria Valley.

After the call, Murphy told me that the fine-dining restaurant at the Griffin would have one of the best wine lists around. He’s right. And every meal I’ve had there since it opened has been wonderful.

Everything about MAD is first class, from the wine list to the entertainment venues. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this audacious (yes, some would say they’re mad) effort to turn El Dorado into a regional arts and entertainment center is the leadership team that has been put together.

There has been worldwide attention — and rightfully so — on what Alice Walton has done to transform Bentonville into an arts hub. What has happened in the far northern part of the state since Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened on Nov. 11, 2011, has made Arkansans in all 75 counties proud. Meanwhile, down in far southern Arkansas, there’s a team at work whose background might surprise you.

It starts with Terry Stewart, the former CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the shores of Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland. He took over the Cleveland institution in 1999 (it had opened in 1995) and stayed there until 2013.

What on earth is he doing in south Arkansas?

For starters, he’s a south Alabama native. Stewart understands the rural South and was excited by the opportunity to help transform a city and maybe even an entire region of a state by improving the quality of life. I first met Stewart five years ago while sitting with a group in the back yard of well-known El Dorado downtown developer and writer Richard Mason. Stewart’s enthusiasm was contagious from the get-go.

Prior to joining the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Stewart was the president and chief operating officer of the comic book company Marvel Entertainment Group. Marvel became a public company in 1991, and Stewart was named that year by CNBC as the Marketing Executive of the Year.

“My career has taken many twists and turns through the years, and that’s how I like it,” Stewart said when he was hired at El Dorado in August 2014. “Working with El Dorado Festivals & Events will give me an opportunity to harness my passions and hopefully improve the quality of life for this region.”

El Dorado Festivals & Events was formed in 2011 following the completion of a study by Roger Brooks, a nationally known destination development expert. Business leaders in El Dorado asked Brooks to go beyond the old concepts of industrial development and come up with a new way to stem the tide of population decline in El Dorado. It was Brooks who suggested an arts and entertainment district that would draw visitors from across the region.

“Many industry people think I’m mad when I tell them about the El Dorado project,” Stewart said in interview with the El Dorado newspaper. “But it’s going to be the most important work of my carer when one considers the lives that will be changed by the economic redevelopment and cultural infusion we’re working to achieve. … We’re bringing song, dance, good food and theater to a community and region that has long been underserved.”

In a recent article for The Bitter Southerner, Tony Rehagen wrote: “Stewart brought in architect Paul Westlake, who had a hand in designing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and four of the six largest performing arts centers in the United States. The MAD chief marketing officer, Bob Tarren, came from jobs with Circuit City corporate, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Frick Pittsburgh, and he was succeeded in late 2019 by Lisaann Dupont, the former communications and digital marketing guru for the Ryman Auditorium. Even Austin Johnson, executive chef in charge of the Griffin and the food at the other venues, has a Parisian pedigree. If the scale of this project sounds a bit outsized for a town of 18,000 people, it is. But MAD president and COO Pam Griffin says there are already shoots of early progress: Annual sales tax receipts are up 15 to 20 percent from pre-MAD levels, downtown businesses are growing and The Haywood … is set to open downtown this summer.

“But El Dorado doesn’t just want transient tourism dollars. The city wants to rebuild its cultural scene, its nightlife, its infrastructure and the community to make it attractive for companies that might consider relocating here. More importantly, it wants to keep the talented young people who make the Murphy companies run and who could help new companies thrive. And the only thing bigger than the investment of capital and energy into MAD are the stakes riding on its success.”

Murphy told Rehagen: “It has always been a little difficult to recruit here. And if we can’t recruit people, we can’t stay.”

Murphy later told the writer: “We’re going to go down swinging.”

Rehagen wrote: “The idea for MAD wasn’t drawn out of a hat. El Dorado is unique in that it has an appreciation for the arts that rivals most Southern towns’ passion for high school football. The tradition dates back to the oil boom when businessmen who flooded the town needed something to do with their families in the off hours. The grand Rialto was built in 1929 as a draw for fans of vaudeville and increasingly popular moving picture shows. Founded here in 1956, the South Arkansas Symphony is the oldest continually operating orchestra in the state. Walk into the South Arkansas Arts Center, opened in 1964 on the western edge of downtown, on any given Friday and you’ll see exhibits by local visual artists, perhaps a touring exhibition and hear singing or music from the auditorium where children rehearse for recitals, concerts or plays.

“Although plenty of townspeople knew about art and the lords of local industry knew about economic development, no one really seemed to connect the two. Enter Austin Barrow, an El Dorado community theater expat who left right after high school, went to Fayetteville and earned a master’s degree in drama at the University of Arkansas, then ended up building a career in marketing and promotion for theaters and art galleries on the West Coast before moving to Georgia, where he was a drama department chair at a small college. In 2010, Madison Murphy and several other town leaders approached Barrow about coming home to oversee their best guess at what might work — an El Dorado Shakespeare Festival.”

Barrow, who resigned from MAD last year to return to the theater, told Rehagen: “I told them it was an absolutely crazy idea. Who’s going to come watch Shakespeare in El Dorado?”

Rehagen writes: “But Barrow was intrigued by the raw potential in his hometown. … Barrow joined Stewart, Tarren and Pam Griffin, then chair of the chamber of commerce. The group pitched the two-phase project to the city and met with little to no resistance. MAD was on its way to becoming reality.”

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Arkansas’ original boomtown

Wednesday, March 4th, 2020


We pass through Strong on our way from Crossett to El Dorado. It was founded in the early 1900s as a community along the railroad tracks. Many of its residents (the city dropped from a high of 839 in the 1950 census to 558 in the 2010 census) are involved in the timber industry.

“Once the El Dorado & Bastrop Railway was completed, management posted notices calling leaders of surrounding small southern Union County communities to a meeting to discuss area development,” Mike Polston writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “During the poorly attended meeting in Collinston, La., James Solomon Coleman offered a right-of-way to his land at present-day Strong for development. Railroad executives dispatched William Strong, who accepted the property after examination. Strong named the soon-to-be-constructed rail stop Victoria.

“Coleman had a 120-acre plot surveyed and began to sell lots in 1902. Henry Clay, who became the community’s first law enforcement officer, and his family were the first settlers. With Ernest J. Dugal as the first depot agent, Victoria began to grow. On April 10, 1903, the post office at nearby Concord in Union County was relocated to the new community with Stephen McBride as postmaster. By 1903, the Gorman brothers had opened the first mercantile store. The Victoria Bank also opened. The community was incorporated as a second-class city on Sept. 7, 1903.”

Here was the problem: Coleman named the train stop Strong in honor of the railroad employee. Also, postal officials discovered there was already a post office in Arkansas named Victoria. In August 1904, the post office was also referred to as Strong.

“Even into the 1940s, many local citizens continued to refer to it as Victoria,” Polston writes. “The growing city became an important supply source for local lumber operations and a shipping point for area cotton farmers. Soon, a city government was organized with H.A. Nelson as the first mayor. In 1903, Baptists were holding services in a local store. By 1906, the businesses included an ice house and bottle works. Electricity became available in 1914 when Arch Herring built a generating plant. Power was provided daily on a limited basis. A number of local men served in World War I with many of the women assisting the Red Cross in providing clothing for the troops. These women met regularly in a room over a local business to knit clothing and roll bandages. By 1920, the city’s population exceeded 500.”

The Strong Lumber Co. became the leading business in town.

“On May 9, 1927, a tornado hit the city,” Polston writes. “In the afternoon, the storm entered the southwestern tip of the city, passing through the main business district. Before leaving the town, the twister destroyed an area about three blocks wide and more than a mile long. Thirty people were killed, and an estimated 100 or more were injured. The Red Cross operated an aid station to provide assistance. Some of the dead were buried in combined funerals. The city quickly recovered from the deadly storm with much of the business district being replaced by new brick structures. Included in the new construction were a large warehouse, two electric cotton gins and a 16-room schoolhouse with an auditorium.

“By the 1930s, perhaps due to its proximity to sawmill camps, the city had begun to develop a reputation as a rough place. It was reported to be home to several houses of prostitution. During Prohibition, alcohol was supplied by local moonshiners. After repeal, the city had as many as eight alcohol-serving establishments, including one called the Bloody Bucket. Fights were said to be common, and a few deaths were reported.”

If it had not been for the discovery of oil, nearby El Dorado likely would be a much smaller place with an economy dependent on the timber industry. But the oil boom changed everything. It also produced larger-than-life figures such as Samuel Thompson Busey, T. H. Barton and Charles H. Murphy Jr. Let’s start with Busey.

Busey was born in Illinois in 1867. He was trained as a physician but later became a geologist.

“Busey came from a family of adventurers and community activists,” Kenneth Bridges and John Ragsdale write for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “His father was a farmer until 1845, when he left farming to travel across the United States. His father then took over his own father’s farm in 1856. John Busey would later win election as a Democrat to the Illinois Houses of Representatives in 1862 and would continue his interests in agricultural issues as he became involved in the Greenback Party in the 1870s and the sale of agricultural implements.

“Busey’s namesake and his father’s brother, Samuel Thompson Busey, rose to the rank of brevet brigadier general of Illinois volunteers during the Civil War and later served as a Democratic congressman from 1891-93. Busey’s maternal grandfather, Dr. Jacob F. Snyder, left his medical practice in Indiana for California in 1849 to participate in the gold rush before heading to Urbana, Ill, in 1850 to resume work as a physician.”

Beginning in 1890, Samuel Busey traveled to Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina. For a time, he lived in Mexico City and practiced medicine there. Busey went to Texas in 1901 to look at the Spindletop oil well near Beaumont.

“Afterward, he and a group of investors attempted to drill oil wells near Vera Cruz with mixed results,” Bridges and Ragsdale write. “As the Mexican Revolution erupted in 1910, Busey closed his medical practice and once again resumed traveling. He eventually made his way to Bolivia, involving himself in a number of business activities. He organized the financing of the first successful rubber plantation in Bolivia and in 1915 successfully completed an oil well in that country. He returned to the United States, excited by his success in Bolivian oil. He lived for a time in New Jersey, Oklahoma and Louisiana in the late 1910s, continuing to explore for oil.

“In 1920, a well east of El Dorado was drilled and showed a large natural gas flow. Busey was in Homer, La., about 40 miles away, and rode a horse to El Dorado to confirm the well information the next day. Unable to find a room, Busey bought the Arcade Hotel for $2,500.  By this time, the Mitchell-Bonham Drilling Co. had acquired drilling rights on the 80-acre David R. Armstrong farm southwest of El Dorado. It had drilled a well to a depth of about 1,700 feet, but operations were suspended for financial difficulties. On Nov. 15, 1920, Busey met with local investors and took 51 percent ownership of the company, along with rights to the well, all tools and the 80-acre tract that was being drilled.”

Drilling resumed, but Busey had to sell some shares of the company in order to meet drilling expenses.

“On Jan. 10, 1921, at 4:30 p.m., the Busey No. 1 well, as it was then named, was drilled to a depth of 2,233 feet and struck oil,” Bridges and Ragsdale write. “Oil erupted to the surface, spraying the area with oil for more than a mile around. Busey’s rich discovery well produced an astounding 15 million to 35 million cubic feet of natural gas and between 3,000 and 10,000 barrels of oil and water daily. This led to the oil boom that began petroleum development in Arkansas.

“A frenzy struck El Dorado as thousands of speculators swarmed into the area seeking their fortunes, with Busey credited for it all. He quickly sold the hotel for $5,000 and was besieged by offers for the well. People sent money from all over the country to Busey for him to invest in the new south Arkansas oil industry. He declined the offers for the well and quietly returned all the money sent to him. He began drilling in other areas of Union County.”

Busey and other speculators later believed oil would be found near Monticello. He predicted that Monticello would be “the next El Dorado,” but no oil reserves were found there. Busey operated oil leases in the El Dorado and Smackover areas until 1928 when he sold his Arkansas properties. He later lived in Michigan, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Busey died in 1962 in Maryland.

Barton, whose name lives on with Barton Coliseum in Little Rock, was born at Marlin, Texas, in 1881. He attended Texas A&M for a time, served in the U.S. Army from 1901-04 and eventually found his way to Arkansas, where he worked in the lumber and banking industries in Dallas County. Barton was in the U.S. Army Reserve from 1920-36, when he was discharged with the rank of colonel. He was widely known as Col. Barton for the rest of his life.

“Barton arrived in El Dorado in January 1921, only days after oil was discovered,” Don Lambert and Ragsdale write for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He quickly organized the El Dorado Natural Gas Co. and expanded it into the Natural Gas & Fuel Corp. in 1924. He served as its president until 1929 when he sold it to Cities Service Co. During this time, he became the principal stockholder in the struggling Lion Oil Refining Co.

“On July 13, 1925, Barton married Madeline Mary Latimer. Their plans to travel were curtailed in 1929 when he agreed to serve as Lion Oil’s president. Within three months, Lion had purchased producing leases in the Smackover oil field, which was literally overflowing with a colossal output of petroleum. The company continued to expand and, in 1935, discovered the third major producing geological zone in the Smackover Field. In 1937, Lion drilled the wildcat discovery well in the Shuler Field, 15 miles west of El Dorado. Barton leased 7,000 acres and initiated development in a field that ranked second only to the Smackover discovery. By 1955, the company employed 3,000 people. Lion products were sold by 2,000 service stations across the South.”

Barton became one of the state’s leading philanthropists. He worked with the Arkansas Livestock Show Association, which named Barton Coliseum for him when it was dedicated in September 1952. He also was a major donor to what’s now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock along with major institutions in El Dorado such as Warner-Brown Hospital, Barton Library and Memorial Stadium. He died in December 1960 at his home in El Dorado.

Another oil baron who remained in El Dorado until he died was Charles Haywood Murphy Jr. He was born in El Dorado in March 1920. His father had moved there in 1904 to operate a bank. By 1907, the elder Murphy owned 13 banks in Arkansas and the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The elder Murphy also built a sawmill south of El Dorado at Cargile and then constructed a railroad to supply the mill with timber.

“Land acquisitions in south Arkansas and north Louisiana led to oil exploration ventures, which provided royalties and operating interests,” Ragsdale writes. “Murphy’s father had him manumitted by court order at the age of 16 so that he could legally transact business for himself, and Murphy entered the petroleum industry as an independent operator (not affiliated with some of the major companies already operating in the area) while in his teen years. When his father had a stroke in 1941, Murphy had to take over management of the various businesses.

“Murphy attended the Gulf Coast Military Academy at age 16 and then received extensive tutoring, primarily in French. He was a voracious reader. Murphy graduated from El Dorado High School in 1938 and married Johnnie Azelle Walker on Oct. 12, 1938. They had three sons and one daughter. He spent three years in the Army during World War II and returned to lead the Murphy businesses, having selected M.C. Hoover to run them in his absence. In 1946, Murphy and his siblings — Caroline M. Keller, Bertie M. Deming and Theodosia M. Nolan — pooled their business interests into C.H. Murphy & Co. Murphy was selected as the managing partner. In 1950, C.H. Murphy & Co. was incorporated as Murphy Corp. with Murphy as president, a position he held until 1972. He also served as chairman of the board until 1994.”

Murphy expanded the corporation as it participated in the development of oil-producing properties in the North Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, Venezuela, Canada and elsewhere.

“Early entry in potential operations and vigorous leadership made Murphy Oil a viable corporation,” Ragsdale writes. “Murphy also served as a director of First Commercial Corp., later Regions Bank. He served as chairman of the National Petroleum Council and as a director of the American Petroleum Institute. He also served 17 years on the Arkansas Board of Higher Education, served 10 years as a trustee of Hendrix College and established the Murphy Institute of Political Economy at Tulane University in 1980. He was a director of the Smithsonian Institution and a trustee of the Ochsner medical center in New Orleans. Beyond serving on boards and providing funding, Murphy was active as a lecturer on economics, responsible civic actions, energy and education, never charging a fee. … Murphy also enjoyed yachting and wrote two books on the subject.”

Murphy died in March 2002 at age 82.

When oil was discovered in the Caddo Field north of Shreveport in 1907, Charles Murphy Sr. decided to begin purchasing additional land in the event oil was discovered in south Arkansas.

“When the large Smackover Field in Ouachita and Union counties was discovered in 1922, Murphy Sr. had oil royalty interests in it,” Ragsdale writes. “He and joint operators owned about 100,000 acres in the Union County area. In 1936, Phillips Petroleum discovered a small oil field at Snow Hill in Ouachita County, but the area’s extent was limited. Murphy preferred to spread drilling and producing risks. He did not have an extensive operating company but rather owned interest in different operations.

“In 1937, an abandoned Phillips Petroleum well in western Union County, where some Murphy acreage was located, was re-entered by Lion Oil, which discovered deeper multiple zones between 5,000 and 8,000 feet below the surface in the Shuler Field. This included the Smackover limestone, which led to development of fields in the Smackover limestone throughout south Arkansas. Then, in 1944, Murphy land was included in the development of Louisiana’s Delhi Field, a major oil producer. This was the largest field on extensive acreage for Murphy.”

As noted earlier, Murphy Sr.’s four children pooled their timberland and oil interests in 1946 to form C.H. Murphy & Co. It became the Murphy Corp. in 1950 and Murphy Oil Corp. in 1964.

“From this stable beginning, the company continued operation in the oil and gas business,” Ragsdale writes. “In 1951, the company began production in the large East Poplar Field in Montana and began moving on to other areas. Four years later, the company acquired Marine Oil Co., which operated in the Smackover Field and other fields in south Arkansas and of which Charles Murphy Sr. had been a joint owner.

“In 1956, Murphy Oil became a public company by sale of stock on the American Stock Exchange. This allowed acquisition of Superior Refinery, Spur Oil Co. and Ingram Oil & Refining Co. Subsequently, Murphy acquired Amurex Oil Co., which was to be combined with the Murphy Oil Co. LTD in Canada. In 1957, Murphy and other operators joined in exploration and developed oil production in Venezuela, their first foreign development. The company established production in Iran in 1966, the North Sea in 1969, Libya in 1969 and Spain in 1979. Murphy also acquired an interest in the massive Syncrude Project in Alberta, Canada. Additional production was established in Ecuador in 1987 and the Gulf of Mexico in 1988.”

Murphy was heavily involved with the Ocean Drilling & Exploration Co., which named one of its barges the “Mr. Charlie.” According to Ragsdale, it became “the prototype for other submersible drilling barges and some semi-submersible barges, the latter being barges that can either float or be submerged to the sea floor. This decision replaced the costly driving of piles and then decking for drilling rig usage. This was a great development in increasing the mobility of drilling equipment in shallow water of up to 65 feet deep. It was used offshore in Louisiana.

“Other operations to support oil production were the Butte Pipeline Co. in Montana, established by Murphy Oil and other producers for the transportation of crude, and the River States Oil Co. in Wisconsin, a company purchased by Murphy to transport petroleum products. Refining operations included the Lake Superior Refining Co. in Superior, Wisc.; the Ingram Refinery in Meraux, La.; and the Milford Haven in Wales.”

Deltic Farm & Timber Co. was spun off from Murphy Oil Corp. in 1996 to form Deltic Timber Corp. The company owned thousands of acres of timberlands in Arkansas and Louisiana along with processing plants at Waldo and Ola. In 2018, Deltic merged with the larger Potlatch Corp. of Seattle (which had long had operations in Arkansas) to form the PotlatchDeltic Corp.

Murphy’s retail gas sales increased tremendously after an agreement with Walmart to operate stations in the parking lots of the company’s stores. The retail operations were spun off in 2013 into Murphy USA. Murphy Oil now focuses on exploration and production rather than retail sales.

The chemical industry remains strong in El Dorado, dating back in part to the Ozark Ordnance Works. The federal War Department informed U.S. Rep. Oren Harris of El Dorado in October 1941 that it had approved $23 million for an ammonia plant. Ozark Ordnance Works produced ammonia and ammonium nitrate used in manufacturing explosives and in filling bombs and shells. The plant was built and operated by Lion Oil.

In a 1947 interview, Barton said: “When we were negotiating for this plant, the War Department told us flatly we could not produce ammonia from natural gas. They did not know us Southerners. It took a lot of talk and argument, but we finally won out.”

Lion hired 17 engineers and immediately sent them to Canada for training. Production took place from 1943 until the end of World War II in 1945. The building that housed the gas engines that produced electricity to power the plant was the size of two football fields. There were almost 700 employees during the war.

After the war, Lion continued production for commercial purposes. Monsanto merged with Lion’s chemical division in 1955 and operated the plant under the Monsanto name until July 1983. It was sold to El Dorado Chemical Co. that year.

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From Crossett to El Dorado

Thursday, February 20th, 2020


In 1934, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service established the Crossett Experimental Forest.

“Large-scale lumbering in Ashley County followed the 1899 incorporation of the Crossett Lumber Co.,” Don Bragg and James Guldin write for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “By 1902, a growing CLC consumed incredible quantities of pine and hardwood. Lumbering continued unabated well into the 1920s when it became obvious that the virgin timber was running out. The CLC was facing the choice of either changing its practices and engaging in sustainable forestry or going out of business. Even with the help of Yale University professor Herman Haupt Chapman and the efforts of company foresters, too little was known about the silviculture of loblolly and shortleaf pine forests to manage the lands effectively.

“To address this lack of information, the CLC began working with the Southern Forest Experiment Station of the Forest Service. In July 1930, the experiment station hired Russell R. Reynolds, a recent University of Michigan forestry graduate, to conduct inventories and help landowners develop sustainable forestry plans. Two years later, Reynolds and the experiment station assisted the Ozark-Badger Lumber Co. of Wilmar, and Reynolds became familiar with the CLC. Around this time, Albert E. Wackerman, one of the first CLC foresters, came to work for the experiment station. Both the CLC and the experiment station recognized the opportunity for Reynolds and Wackerman to help manage the CLC’s timberland, including their last 25,000 acres of virgin pine.”

Reynolds moved to Crossett in August 1933 and enlisted the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps to inventory and market timber. He began studies on the use of trucks in logging and the partial harvests of Southern pines.

“As valuable as these initial studies were, an experimental forest was also needed for properly controlled long-term research,” Bragg and Guldin write. “In the fall of 1933, Reynolds and Wackerman searched for a suitable location on the CLC’s cutover land. About seven miles south of Crossett, the boundary of the new Crossett Experimental Forest was laid out in October 1933. This 1,680-acre parcel had been cut before 1920 by loggers from the Hickory Grove Camp of the CLC. The CLC agreed to a long-term arrangement with the experiment station that gave the Forest Service the land in exchange for the standing volume of the timber and a promise to conduct research continually on the site for the next 50 years. A warranty deed finally conveyed the property to the government on Aug. 2, 1934.

“Work on the CEF facilities began in late 1933 with help from civilian relief programs. A civilian work project to build roads on the CEF was granted by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration on Dec. 16, 1933, and construction started immediately. By September 1934, workers were building structures to lodge the CCC inventory crew, and sites for a house, filling station and garage were established. Construction of these buildings began in September 1935 under a new relief program, the Works Progress Administration. Along with other buildings, a log cabin-style home for Reynolds and his family was finished enough to permit occupancy on July 9, 1936. This remained their home for the next 33 years.”

The initial round of construction ended in 1936. Buildings were later added by the CCC in 1939-40. Three of them are on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The primary objective of Reynolds and his staff at the CEF was to develop silvicultural principles and practices to manage the cutover second-growth loblolly-shortleaf pine-hardwood stands typical of the area,” Bragg and Guldin write. “The challenge was whether it was possible to rehabilitate existing stands while simultaneously providing landowners with an acceptable return on their investment. If so, CEF research had considerable practical application not just for the CLC but also for other companies and landowners across the South.”

Arson had become a problem in the area, and fire prevention was an early goal. Reynolds divided the experimental forest into 24 blocks of 40 acres each. Firelines were built between blocks by WPA employees.

Reynolds worked at the experimental forest until 1969.

“Cuts in the Forest Service budget prompted the experiment station to close the CEF on Aug. 9, 1974, after serving Crossett and the nation for 40 years,” Bragg and Guldin write. “Shortly thereafter, it became clear that the CEF would revert back to the original landowner without an active research program. Even though the Forest Service had tried to close the CEF just a few years earlier, the imminent loss of the assets, including the historic buildings and the irreplaceable long-term demonstrations and studies, came to the attention of the Forest Service chief, John McGuire. He decided to re-establish the research unit. The newly rededicated CEF opened with considerable fanfare on Feb. 14, 1979.”

We leave the Forestry Capital of the South and head west on U.S. Highway 82. We soon find ourselves in the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge covers almost 65,000 acres in parts of Ashley, Union and Bradley counties. It was established in 1975 in a wild, remote part of the state where the Saline River meets the Ouachita River. There are oxbow lakes, bayous such as Caney Bayou and creeks such as Big Brushy Creek in the refuge. The Felsenthal Lock & Dam on the Ouachita River forms what’s known as Lake Jack Lee.

The refuge is a prime spot to see migrating waterfowl, eagles and even the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. The waterways are filled with alligators. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service operates a visitors’ center right along U.S. 82.

Five years after Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge was established, the nearby Overflow National Wildlife Refuge was created to protect large tracts of bottomland hardwood in Ashley County. The refuge was designated a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy. In 1991, about 8,000 acres of farmland were added to the original 6,500 acres and planted in hardwoods. Overflow Creek, a tributary of the Bayou Bartholomew, runs through the wildlife refuge. Land on either side of the creek is covered with bottomland trees — cypress, water tupelo, willow oak and overcup oak.

We cross the Ouachita River as we continue west. This river begins in the Ouachita Mountains near the Arkansas-Oklahoma border not far from Mena and then flows almost 600 miles before joining the Black River in Louisiana. The river flows through 11 of Arkansas’ 75 counties and through five Louisiana parishes.

“The Ouachita is a river of diverse beauty,” Glenn Gore wrote for the Ouachita River Foundation. “It begins as a small mountain stream near Eagleton in Polk County and flows eastward about 120 miles. It winds through lush mountain valleys, steadily building as it flows between huge boulders beneath mountain bluffs. It flows onward on its 600-mile course amid banks of moss-covered oaks and cypress trees in the swampy bottoms of Louisiana.

“The Ouachita is noted for its great fishing, especially bass and bream. Wildlife is prolific along the banks of the river. Deer, turkeys and even an occasional bear can be seen in secluded areas. Alligators and bald eagles have also returned to the area after having been driven out in the early 1900s. The Ouachita is also a major flyway for ducks and geese feeding and resting in the river’s oak-laden backwater flats and cypress swamps, as well as in the rice and soybean fields along its banks.”

Towns like Arkadelphia and Camden owe their existence to the Ouachita River.

“The Ouachita played a great role in the establishment of the towns for it was the river that provided access to these areas for buyers from as far away as New Orleans who were purchasing cotton. … In 1819, the first steamboat came up the Ouachita, making such a strange sound and presenting such a monstrous sight that it was described as a ‘puffing dragon.’ After that frightful debut, steamboats began to play an integral part in the colorful history connected with the Ouachita. From 1819-1910, the Ouachita was the great highway of commerce and transportation for the entire river valley. Steamboats came from as far away as New Orleans, reaching even Camden and Arkadelphia during times of high water. Steamboats began to vanish in the early 1900s with the proliferation of the railroads.”

The famous novelist Charles Portis wrote a piece on the Ouachita River for the September 1991 issue of the Arkansas Times.

In a story titled “The Forgotten River,” Portis wrote: “I grew up in south Arkansas and thought of the Ouachita only in local terms, certainly not as an outlet to the sea. It was a place to swim and fish. I knew you could take a boat down it from the Highway 82 bridge near Crossett to Monroe because I had done it once with a friend, Johnny Titus. It was shady a good bit of the way and we had the river pretty much to ourselves. The keeper at the old Felsenthal lock was annoyed at having to get up from his dinner table to lock through two boys in a small outboard rig.

“But I knew no river lore … and it came as a great surprise to me lately when I learned that there was regular steamboat service on this modest green river, as late as the 1930s, and as far up as Camden. I am not speaking of modern replicas or party barges, rented out for brief excursions, but of genuine working steamboats, with big paddle wheels at the rear, carrying bales of cotton down to New Orleans and bringing bananas and sacks of sugar back upstream, along with paying passengers.

“There were two vessels, the Ouachita and the City of Camden, and they ran on about a two-week cycle — New Orleans-Camden-New Orleans, with stops along the way. The round-trip fare, including a bed and all meals, was $50. Traditional steamboat decorum was imposed, with the men required to wear coats in the dining room. At night, after supper was cleared, the waiters doubled as musicians for a dance.”

We cross the Ouachita on the U.S. 82 bridge and enter Union County, the state’s largest in terms of square miles. Ninety percent of the county is forested. The Arkansas Territorial Legislature formed Union County in November 1829 out of parts of Hempstead and Clark counties.

“The next spring, the county court convened at the former colonial trading post of Encore Fabre (now Camden in Ouachita County) on a bluff overlooking the Ouachita River,” writes noted Arkansas historian Ben Johnson of El Dorado. “In 1837, county officers anticipated that a pending division of the county would slice away the Encore Fabre region and approved the relocation of the county seat farther down the river to another port, Scarborough’s Landing (later renamed Champagnolle). Over the following two decades, three counties and parts of six others were carved from the original Union County.

“Reflecting a changing economy, many residents in 1843 signed a petition requesting that the county seat be moved inland from the river floodplain and closer to major cotton farms. Three commissioners asked Matthew Rainey to surrender 160 acres he had preempted on a ridge that was the county’s highest point, about 12 miles from the river. A surveyor platted the newly christened El Dorado, and officials approved $200 to build a courthouse on the town square.”

With the soil depleted where they lived, settlers from Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi moved into the area during the 1840s to raise cotton. There were 12,288 residents of the county in the 1860 census, and more than half of them were slaves.

“About five percent of the landholders were planters (holding 20 or more slaves), and a third of the county’s slaves labored on these larger farms,” Johnson writes. “Besides raising cotton and corn, Union County was second in the state in the production of peas, beans and sweet potatoes. By 1833, Methodist circuit riders conducted church services in cabins while a Primitive Baptist congregation met in the southeast part of the county. About 1843, immigrants from the Carolinas who clung to their Scottish ancestry organized the first Presbyterian church.”

No battles were fought in Union County during the Civil War.

“White landowners had enjoyed considerable wealth in antebellum Union County,” Johnson writes. “While the war led to widespread devastation, prewar plantation families retained their land and position. Falling cotton prices throughout the late 19th century pushed many farmers into tenancy, but this was less pronounced in Union County than in other old plantation districts. Immigrants in the 1870s spurred a rise in black residents that exceeded the increase in the county’s white population. The newcomers forged new lives in the midst of the faltering cotton economy. Black land ownership at the turn of the century exceeded state averages. In 1870, Rev. Joseph Henry became the first pastor of the El Dorado Baptist Church, which became the largest black congregation in the county.”

The first passenger train arrived in El Dorado from Camden on July 4, 1891.

“The railroads created the local timber industry,” Johnson writes. “In 1892, J.S. Cargile formed a partnership with some El Dorado businessmen to build a sawmill and a town for workers on Loutre Creek. The partners formed the Arkansas Southern rail company to extend the Iron Mountain line from El Dorado to the mill. This transit artery led to the founding of Smackover and Junction City as rail terminals. The Union Saw Mill Co. built a line in 1904 to the new mill site of Huttig, soon the county’s largest sawmill community. This north-south network supplanted the east-west system between the old river landings and the interior region.”

Oil leases were being bought in the county as early as 1914. The first test wells, however, were dry. But then came the 1920 arrival of Dr. Samuel Busey, a medical doctor and shrewd businessman who earlier had invested in oil leases in Bolivia. He arrived in El Dorado and bought not only an interest in an oil well but also a hotel since he was confident of a coming boom.

“On Jan. 10, 1921, his well erupted with a thick column of oil that soiled clothes on wash lines a mile away,” Johnson writes. “The rural market center was unprepared to become a boomtown. Hotels and rooming houses overflowed, and tent-covered cot spaces, restaurants and shops went up along South Washington Street. A newspaper reporter noted that a person walking along what became known as Hamburger Row could ‘purchase almost anything from a pair of shoes to an auto, an interest in a drilling tract or have your fortune told.’

“Smackover became the second oil boomtown when a discovery oil well confirmed in July 1922 what an earlier gas explosion at a well site had indicated: The Smackover field held tremendous reserves of crude. By 1925, nearly 3,500 wells were pumping 69 million barrels of oil, the greatest rate in the world. The influx of wildcatters and oil field workers overwhelmed local authorities.”

Johnson notes that the drillers didn’t worry about the environment. They also ignored basic recovery practices, leading to a drop in production by the early 1930s.

“The oil booms introduced a new industrial elite into a state where the alluvial cotton-growing region had been the traditional source of wealth,” he writes. “For the rest of the 20th century, Union County was at the top of per capita income for the state. The county also was among the first to suffer from industrial pollution. The saltwater that surfaced with oil was released to turn surrounding creeks into undrinkable bogs and forests into a scorched landscape.”

A visitor who arrived in Union County by train in 1937 said: “I wondered what I had come to. It looked like a moonscape.”

El Dorado had about 4,000 residents when the oil boom began. By 1923, there were 59 oil contracting companies, 13 oil distributors and refiners and another 22 oil production companies in the city. Some estimated that the city had 30,000 people by 1925. The population had dropped to 16,241 by the 1930 census.

A rebound occurred in 1937 when Lion Oil financed discovery wells in the Shuler Field. Col T.H. Barton had acquired Lion Oil and become one of the state’s top business leaders. He sold his company to the Monsanto Corp. in 1955. One company that didn’t sell was Murphy Oil Corp., which is still controlled by the Murphy family.

“With the onset of World War II, Union County’s industrial base attracted the attention of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Johnson writes. “Entering a unique partnership with Lion Oil, the Corps supplied $28 million for construction of the Ozark Ordnance Plant to produce ammonium nitrate. The private company oversaw the operation of the plant and acquired it for a fraction of the construction costs at the end of the war. In 1983, the enterprise became El Dorado Chemical, which continued to make explosives as well as fertilizer.

“World War II encouraged dramatic growth in manufacturing, and state lawmakers authorized local communities to provide financial incentives to attract industry. Union County established one of the first industrial development organizations, enticing Jess Merkle to build a large-scale poultry processing plant that became the largest employer in El Dorado. Beginning in 1965, Great Lakes Corp. processed the underground brine into a variety of brominated products, including flame retardants.”

El Dorado’s population has since dropped from a high of 25,292 in the 1960 census to about 18,000 today. The Union County population hit a peak of 55,800 in the 1930 census and is less than 40,000 these days.

El Dorado once was known as the Queen City of South Arkansas. It later became known as Arkansas’ Original Boomtown and is now known for the Murphy Arts District (MAD for short) as the Murphy family spends more than $100 million to make the city a cultural attraction. The plan is not only to attract visitors but to make it easier for companies like Murphy Oil and Murphy USA to attract talented young employees to live in El Dorado.

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From Lake Village to Crossett

Friday, February 14th, 2020


We head west out of Lake Village on U.S. Highway 82 and cross the Boeuf River, which is little more than a drainage ditch in this part of southeast Arkansas. The river, located between Macon Bayou and Bayou Bartholomew, begins in this part of the state and flows for almost 220 miles before entering the Ouachita River in Catahoula Parish in Louisiana.

We’re still in the Delta as we cross into Ashley County and find ourselves at Montrose, which had a population of 354 people in the 2010 census. This was once cotton country. Now cotton must share space on the area’s massive farming operations with rice, soybeans, corn and winter wheat.

“Although western Ashley County is noted for the timber industry, which is centered in Crossett, the eastern part of the county belongs to the Mississippi River Delta region, which was home to numerous cotton plantations before and after the Civil War,” Steven Teske writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Dugald McMillan was the first landowner who registered a patent for the land where Montrose now stands. His plantation, like others in the region, employed a large number of slaves, many of whom remained after the war, working as tenant farmers for the same landowners. Consequently, African-Americans have outnumbered whites in the area from the time slavery ended until now.”

W.T. Cone, a merchant from Hamburg, began acquiring land in the area early in the 20th century along with Sam Wilson.

“In 1922, with the national decline in cotton prices, Cone sold his land to Wilson and left the area,” Teske writes. “Cotton remained the main crop through the 20th century. Around the beginning of the 20th century, the Iron Mountain Railroad built a line in the Mississippi River Valley that extended into Louisiana. It established depots at regular intervals where train engineers could obtain additional fuel and water. Many of these depots were named for railroad executives and employees. This is probably the case for Montrose, although no record of the namesake has been preserved.

“A post office was established at the Montrose stop in 1898. The Montrose depot became more significant when a team of investors created a short-line railroad — called the Mississippi River, Hamburg & Western Railway — to connect the Crossett area to Luna Landing on the Mississippi River. This line intersected the Iron Mountain line at the Montrose depot. Homes and businesses were quickly built around the depot, and Montrose incorporated as a second-class city in 1904.”

Montrose has been losing population since the 1980 census, when there were 641 residents. All schools in this part of the county are now part of the Hamburg School District.

Ashley County was carved out of parts of Union, Drew and Chicot counties in November 1848. It became the state’s 53rd county and was named for Chester Ashley, the third Arkansan in the U.S. Senate. In addition to Montrose, the communities of Parkdale, Portland and Wilmot also thrived in this part of the county when cotton was king and the bottomland hardwoods were being cut.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “After the Civil War, the county enjoyed prosperity until the Great Depression. The railroads that had developed in the late 1890s helped support the economy but were later supplanted by the growth in highway transportation. Communities in the eastern part of the county were supported by farming, while Crossett continued its growth as a manufacturing center. Ashley County was within the flood zone of the Great Flood of 1927. The greatest effect of the flood was felt in the low-lying Delta region of the county, while the upland wood-product manufacturing area experienced only minor disruptions of activity.

“Ashley County was home to an important federal experiment in the public health sector during this era. In 1916, a mosquito-eradication project was funded, which reduced the incidence of malaria by almost 80 percent using a system of drainage and poisoning. This system became known as the Crossett Project and was used as an example in other parts of the country. The county’s population began to decline after World War II as agricultural workers were replaced by machines and other workers left for better-paying jobs.”

Leaving Montrose, we soon cross Bayou Bartholomew, the longest bayou in the country. It begins near Pine Bluff and then goes through Jefferson, Lincoln, Desha, Drew, Chicot and Ashley counties before entering Louisiana and flowing through Morehouse Parish. Like the Boeuf River, Bartholomew empties into the Ouachita River. Before the railroads came to this part of Arkansas, Bayou Bartholomew was the main transportation corridor.

“The present bayou bed was formed by the waters of the Arkansas River during a period when it was constantly changing course,” writes Rebecca DeArmond-Huskey, the foremost expert on the bayou’s history. “About 1,800 to 2,200 years ago, the river diverted from the present area of the bayou, and the leisurely bayou began to develop in the old riverbed. The first inhabitants along the bayou were Native Americans, who left artifacts along the banks from its source to its mouth. French explorers crossed the bayou in 1687. Henri Joutel, a member of the ill-fated La Salle expedition, left Texas that year in search once again of the Mississippi River. Among the six men he chose to go with him was ‘Little Bartholomew, the Parisian.’

“His party crossed the Saline River and the bayou and eventually found Arkansas Post, where Bartholomew stayed. It is likely that the bayou was named after this young Parisian. Spanish colonists also took note of the bayou. Don Juan Filhiol, commandant of the District of Ouachita in the 1780s, was impressed with its navigation potential as well as the good agricultural land around it. The colonists used the bayou for transportation as there were no good roads in the area. They used flat-bottom barges, propelled by poling, rowing, cordelling (towing with ropes) or by sails if the wind was favorable.”

By the 1830s, there were steamboats on the bayou hauling out cotton and timber.

“All such commerce halted when the Civil War began but resumed soon after it was over,” DeArmond-Huskey writes. “With the advent of the railroad in 1890, steamboat activity began a slow decline, though it continued in Ashley County until some point between 1906-12. Major ports along the bayou in Morehouse Parish were at Point Pleasant and at Lind Grove near Bonita. In southeast Arkansas, the major ports were at Poplar Bluff (present-day Parkdale in Ashley County), Portland, Thebes, Boydell and Baxter. All steamboating was a treacherous business, but according to Ben Lucien Burman, who boated on both large rivers and bayous, ‘bayou steamboating was steamboating at its worst.’ The bayou was much more narrow and shallow than the river, and pilots had to avoid sharp bends, shoals, snags and overhanging trees.

“Although steamboat trade was put on hold during the Civil War, the bayou remained for the duration of the war a significant transportation route for steamboats carrying troops and supplies. … After the war, cotton was the primary export shipped down the bayou until the railroad prompted the development of an extensive timber industry, backed primarily by Northern capitalists. Although locals had used the bayou for log rafting since the 1830s, shipment by rail was much more expedient. The timber companies devastated the fine timber stands and then moved out. Farmers followed by clearing the cutover timberland for farms, which today remain the dominant enterprise along the bayou.”

Area residents had once used the bayou as their major recreation site. They drank water from it, fished in it, swam in it and were baptized in it. With the clearing of the timber, sediment polluted the stream, and it became jammed with logs.

Curtis Merrell of Monticello organized the Bayou Bartholomew Alliance in 1995 to bring the stream back to life. The group began monitoring water quality, planting trees along the bayou’s banks, picking up trash and removing logs and other obstructions.

Before reaching Hamburg on our trip west, we leave the Delta and enter the Gulf Coastal Plain. They grow pine trees here rather than cotton, soybeans, rice, corn and wheat.

Hamburg was laid out in October 1849, soon after Ashley County was formed. The first courthouse and county jail were built in 1850 in an area at the center of the county that once had been known as the Great Wilderness. Hamburg provided troops to the Confederacy during the Civil War. After the war, there were highly publicized lynchings there in 1877, 1884 and 1891.

“Because it’s near the county’s geographic center, Hamburg in some ways is pulled in two economic directions,” David Moyers writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Immediately east and west are prairie regions dedicated to the rice and soybean culture. A dozen miles east of Hamburg is the Delta, where cotton and soybeans dominate the economy. To the north and the south, the timber culture reigns. Many people in Hamburg work at the Georgia-Pacific mills in Crossett or in supporting industries. The city’s economic base is thus divided among agriculture and forestry.

“Agriculture continued as the dominant force of the economy through the early 1900s, though lumber production became increasingly important in later years. After the Great Depression, the city underwent major social and economic shifts. Many small farmers gave up their attempts to subsist on their land and left the region or went to work in sawmills or paper mills. After World War II, continued pressures on small farmers led to increased consolidations of agricultural enterprises with the small family farms replaced by larger, more efficient units.”

As the Delta declined and stores there closed, more residents from the eastern part of the county began coming to Hamburg to shop. The Hamburg School District increased in size as it consolidated with districts at Portland, Parkdale, Wilmot and Fountain Hill. Still, Hamburg’s population fell from 3,394 in the 1980 census to 2,857 in the 2010 census. It’s now estimated at less than 2,700.

“In the 21st century, the downtown square remains surrounded by retail businesses and professional offices, though the courthouse that occupied the center of town for more than a century is now a block away,” Moyers writes. “A gazebo is now in the center of the square.”

We leave Hamburg and head southwest to Crossett, the place once known as the Forestry Capital of the South.

The town was founded in the 1890s by three investors from Davenport, Iowa — Charles Warner Gates, John Wenzel Watzek and Edward Savage Crossett.

“In the last quarter of the 19th century, the demand for wood fiber for a growing country led lumbermen, investors and speculators into the vast forest that stretches from east Texas across the lower Mississippi River Valley to the Florida panhandle,” wrote the late Bill Norman of Crossett. “Demand having outstripped the forest resources of the Great Lakes region, other sources for timber were sought. One result of the interest in the forestland of the South was the founding of Crossett.

“The land in western Ashley County was of the upland forest variety and was largely undeveloped and sparsely settled in this era as the terrain was unsuitable for farming. Towns that were formed, such as Fountain Hill, had populations of less than 500. As an established community with rail service, Hamburg would seem to have been the logical site for a new sawmill. However, company officials eventually decided that the better course would be to establish a new town, and Crossett was born. The site chosen was about 15 miles west of Hamburg. Of the three investors, Crossett and Gates were veteran lumbermen. Watzek was Edward Crossett’s physician. Also considered a founder was Edgar Woodward ‘Cap’ Gates, Charles’ brother. Cap Gates was sent to Arkansas to acquire timberland and to oversee construction of the sawmill and the building of the town.”

The Crossett Lumber Co. was incorporated in 1899. Officials of the company formed close relationships with those at Yale University’s School of Forestry. This resulted in the end of the cut-and-leave practice of clearing forests in Arkansas. The Crossett Co. soon was hiring Yale-trained foresters.

“Yale’s initial research was later augmented by the studies at the 1,680-acre Crossett Experimental Forest, headquartered about seven miles south of town,” Norman wrote. “Established in 1934 and still in operation today, the U.S. Forest Service’s research program at Crossett focuses on the silviculture of naturally regenerated loblolly and shortleaf pine forests. Several of the buildings on the Crossett Experimental Forest are on the National Register of Historic Places.”

The Crossett Lumber Co. owned all the land and homes in town in the early 1900s. Those not wanting to live in company housing settled in communities known as North Crossett, South Crossett and West Crossett.

“The Roaring ’20s, the Great Depression and World War II came and went with little visible effect on the city,” Norman wrote. “Demand for its products grew steadily, and unemployment was low. … The founders insisted on having a first-class school system. Seeing the advantages of the city schools in the 1940s, many rural one-room schools voluntarily consolidated into the city’s school system, and an extensive busing operation developed. The Crossett School District was one of the smallest school districts included when it was accredited in the 1940s by the prestigious North Central Association.

“Crossett became a diversified forest products manufacturing center with the construction of a paper mill in the mid-1930s. A division producing and marketing specialty chemicals and charcoal followed. By 2006, employment in all paper operations was about 1,500 with an annual payroll of $160 million. Following a divisive labor strike in 1940, the workers in Crossett’s manufacturing plants were granted the right to establish trade unions.”

The Crossett Lumber Co. was purchased in 1962 by the Georgia-Pacific Corp. The company began producing plywood from Southern yellow pine at Crossett along with the chemical plant and the pulp and paper production facility.

Crossett has been hit hard in recent years by large layoffs. In September 2011, Georgia-Pacific announced that it was suspending operations at a sawmill and plywood manufacturing facility and laid off 700 people. In June 2019, Georgia-Pacific announced it was closing its bleached board mill and laying off another 530 people.

Despite all of the lost jobs, Georgia-Pacific remains a major employer in this part of south Arkansas. And the history of the Crossett Lumber Co., the Crossett Experimental Forest and their ties to Yale are fascinating.

When the company was founded, the three founders purchased 47,000 acres of land from the Michigan investment firm Hovey & McCracken for $7 per acre.

“At first, the company expanded slowly as new railroad connections were being built, and no commercial timber was sold until 1902, by which time investors had spent $1 million starting the company,” Bernard Reed writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Its first pine mill, built in May 1899, was an enormous operation with two band mills, dry kilns, a planer mill and other equipment to smooth and then distribute the lumber. In 1905, a second pine mill similar to the first was built, and the company was soon producing 84 million board feet annually.

“CLC continued to develop products that allowed company growth and added a paper mill, silo and chemical companies. These endeavors not only helped to eliminate waste but also allowed CLC to invest more in research and development programs to maintain the affordability of its products. These expansions spurred new railroad connections with the Crossett Railway Co., a non-company railroad, connecting Crossett and the settlement of Stephens (now Milo in Ashley County) 10 miles north. The company built houses, a school and a church for the workers and their families. In 1903, all of this was incorporated as the company town of Crossett.”

Electric service soon became available, and the first church opened in 1904. A newspaper began publishing in 1906. Telephone service was added in 1907.

The company remained stable during the Great Depression and provided the government with large amounts of lumber during World War II.

“The standard logging procedure was a cut-and-get-out strategy that resulted in many acres of useless land,” Reed writes. “However, because this cutover land was perfect for growing pine, CLC in 1926 hired a graduate of Yale’s School of Forestry, W.K. Williams. He helped the company begin a program of sustained yield. This involved ceasing the practice of cutting down trees as fast as they were growing. He then left the healthiest trees in an area to repopulate the soil. These techniques kept the forests alive rather than destroying them. Such procedures were progressive at the time in American forestry and had previously only been used in Germany. Soon, a federal forest research station was founded, and CLC was tackling and solving problems in the 1930s that would not be regarded as environmental issues until the 1970s.”

Edward S. Crossett’s son, Edward C. Crossett, died in 1955. Family heirs began to consider the option of selling their stock.

“Many larger Northern lumber companies had expressed an interest in purchasing or merging with CLC, and stockholders were becoming worried about the company’s stability,” Reed writes. “Although millions of dollars were spent in the late 1950s to modernize the company and give the impression of vitality, one of its board members, Peter Watzek, a relative of John Watzek, was instructed to prepare reports on companies with which a merger was possible. He also traveled to New York to meet with several merger prospects. Despite Watzek’s report that CLC was strong enough that a merger was not necessary, stockholders were still not satisfied.

“The announcement of a sale to Union Bag & Paper was made in May 1960, but by the fall of that year the plan had fallen through. For two years, business went on as usual at CLC with a rise in earnings in 1961. But a sale was still pursued.”

The announcement that Georgia-Pacific had purchased the company was made on April 18, 1962.

There have been two major strikes through the years.

“The first one, in 1940, came several years after the company decided to recognize a local union but refused to let it open a union shop,” Reed writes. “Workers commenced a 58-day strike that brought the community’s economy to a near standstill until a compromise was reached with the help of a young pastor named Aubrey C. Halsell.

“The second strike occurred in 1985 during negotiations for a new contract that would force workers to work outside of their traditional job classifications. Workers disapproved of the changes, their pay and the work expectations. When they went on strike, Georgia-Pacific ordered that permanent replacements be sent in. This was the first time that permanent replacements had ever been used in the paper industry. Although it effectively ended the strike, it left many of the union workers bitter. The town was, and in many ways still is, divided because of these issues.”

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The Delta’s ethnic mix

Thursday, January 16th, 2020


It’s fitting that my friend Joe Dan Yee is the mayor of Lake Village.

One of the things that makes the Delta unique is the mix of cultures that occurred as people immigrated to the region back when cotton was king. There were Italians, Irish, Chinese, Jews, Lebanese, Syrians. Their cultures mixed with the rich culture of the African-Americans who had been brought to this land in bondage.

When I penned a piece a few years ago about the ethnic stew that is the Delta, one Helena native wrote: “I was raised in Helena from 1938 until our family moved to Little Rock in 1955. There was no place in Arkansas that I could have been more exposed to various cultures. I remember going to temple services as part of the Methodist Youth Fellowship. I had friends who were either Greek, Jewish, Chinese, Italian, Lebanese or Sicilian. There’s nowhere else on this planet that I would have rather grown up than in the Delta. I still miss the sweet smell of kudzu, the scent of the soil and the balmy summer mornings.”

The Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss, which does a marvelous job documenting the food cultures of the South with its oral histories and much more, transcribed a series of interviews with Chinese-Americans in the Delta a few years ago. Yee, who at the time was still operating his family’s Yee’s Food Land, was one of the people interviewed.

The SFA wrote: “Chinese came to America in the late 19th century in search of the fabled Gam Sahn or Golden Mountain. When they arrived at the alluvial plains of the Mississippi Delta, all they found was backbreaking agricultural work. First introduced to the region as indentured servants by planters during Reconstruction, these early Chinese sojourners (mostly from the Guandong or Canton province) soon became disenchanted with working the fields. They moved off the plantations. Some left to go back home to China, but others stayed and opened small neighborhood grocery stores. Serving as an alternative to plantation commissaries and catering to the predominately African-American clientele, the Chinese-American grocer was a mainstay in many Delta neighborhoods well into the 20th century.

“Life in the grocery business was by no means an easy living. Early mornings and late nights were normal, as were the stresses of competition from large supermarket chains. Added to that were the stresses that they endured as immigrants navigating the complex socio-political structure of a region that historian James C. Cobb has called the most Southern place on earth. … Though the numbers of Chinese grocers diminish year by year, family stories tell an important history of immigration. They also speak to the formation of a unique food culture in the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas.”

Joe Dan Yee was described at the time as someone who “bucked the trend of many second- and third-generation Delta Chinese by staying home, after his parents retired, to take over the family market.”

“Joe Dan and his siblings can speak Catonese, something his parents insisted they learn growing up,” the SFA wrote. “And twice a day you can find them all eating a hot, multicourse Chinese meal.”

Yee said: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in New York and San Francisco, and everywhere I go they would tell my sister: ‘Bring your brother back in here. We love the Arkansas accent that he has on a Chinese accent.’ So I get a big kick out of that.”

He said Chinese restaurant owners will come to his table to hear him speak, noting that “we never heard a Chinese with a Southern accent.”

The SFA wrote: “After graduating with a degree in marketing at the University of Arkansas, Joe Dan Yee could have gone to Dallas, maybe gotten a job with a big department store there. He had already interviewed for a job and been accepted, but in the end he gave all that up to go back home to Lake Village.”

His father found his way to Dumas in the 1940s and began working in a grocery store for a man named Eugene Lee. His father later moved to Lake Village.

“Back in the early 1960s, there were at least eight to 10 (Chinese) families that were in Lake Village, and there were probably six Chinese stores on Main Street back then,” Yee said.

Many of those stores would open at 4 a.m. and remain open until midnight to serve sharecroppers and tenant farmers who were coming to town to shop.

“Lake Village was so busy you couldn’t even walk down Main Street,” Yee said.

He remembers Chinese families having cases of Chinese food shipped from San Francisco.

“You would split it up between the families and then you would divide the costs between the families,” Yee said. “That’s how they did it.”

He said his family never had strong relationships with Chinese families on the Mississippi side of the river.

“A different culture, you know,” Yee said. “It’s just like they did their thing and we did our thing. … We never got together and partied that much or associated that much with the Chinese people in Mississippi.”

By the way, his favorite Southern meal is fried chicken with mashed potatoes and cornbread. His favorite Chinese meals are pepper steak and Peking Duck.

There also was a strong Jewish influence in the Delta. My friend Raymond Abramson of Holly Grove, who serves on the Arkansas Court of Appeals, refers to himself as the last of the practicing Jewish lawyers in the Arkansas Delta. That list once included men such as Oscar Fendler of Blytheville, Kent Rubens of West Memphis, Eddie Graumann of Helena and David Solomon of Helena.

A number of the Jewish immigrants came to the Delta as traveling peddlers. Many of their descendants went on to become wealthy merchants, cotton ginners and planters. Due to a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, the Jewish population of Arkansas grew from 1,466 in 1878 to 8,850 by the time of the Great Flood of 1927.

There were 22 Jewish-owned businesses in Helena by 1909. Helena had a Jewish mayor, Aaron Meyers, from 1878-80. In 1867, Temple Beth El was founded at Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded at Pine Bluff. Later Delta congregations were formed at Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924 and McGehee in 1947.

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities: “Congregations in Helena, Blytheville and El Dorado closed, while others struggled to survive. The Jewish population has become concentrated in a few communities like Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville. In 1937, 13 cities in Arkansas had more than 50 Jews. By 2006, only four did. … The only exception to this downward trend is Bentonville. In the 21st century, as Walmart has encouraged major suppliers to open offices in its corporate hometown, Bentonville has seen its Jewish population skyrocket. In 2004, a group of 30 families founded Bentonville’s first Jewish congregation.”

The Delta Jewish merchants of the late 1800s and early 1900s received their goods from wholesalers in the river cities of Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis.

And then there were the Italians.

In an earlier installment in this series, I wrote about the strong Italian influence in this area of southeast Arkansas. Those interested in the subject of the Delta Italians might be interested in a couple of books written by Paul Canonici, who was born of Italian immigrant parents in Shaw, Miss. The books are titled simply Volumes I and II of “The Delta Italians.”

After being educated in the public schools at Shaw, Canonici headed to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain to study with Benedictine monks at St. Joseph Seminary in Covington, La. He obtained a master’s degree from Notre Dame and a doctorate in sociology from Mississippi State. Canonici was ordained to the priesthood in 1957 and was superintendent of Catholic schools in the state of Mississippi from 1970-83.

Groups of Italian immigrants showed up to work on the Sunnyside Plantation near Lake Village in 1895 and 1897.

Canonici says the books are “based on the premise that Italians who went to the Sunnyside Plantation, and subsequently to other plantations in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta, had similar characteristics and experiences. … Italians who settled on Delta plantations were mostly from central Italy, with a few from the northern provinces. Most were experienced farmers in a well-structured farming system called mezzadria.”

Under this system, extended families lived under one roof on land that belonged to the man known as the padrone. They shared the harvest with the owner of the land.

“They worked hard and lived simply, but generally there was sufficient food to sustain the family,” Canonici writes. “There was a saying that one might work himself to death but he did not starve to death. Their reason for leaving their native soil was to search for a better life. Many crossed the Atlantic with the intention of returning and would have returned if they had had the means.”

Canonici notes that unlike some cultures, where the men came first for several years, Italians immigrated as family units.

“Once in the Delta, the extended family maintained close ties but no longer lived and worked under the same roof,” he writes. “Most had become indebted to Delta planters before they arrived because they had been forwarded travel and living expenses. They began as tenant farmers, and although disillusioned by the living conditions they encountered, they continued to work hard.

“Italian settlers in the Delta had large families, an advantage for farmers who wanted to save money and improve their lifestyle. They formed their own social and religious communities, retained their Italian language through the first generation in America and remained faithful to their Catholic faith. They married among themselves, and there was minimal divorce.

“Once in the Delta, the Italians struggled to free themselves from debt. Those who were unable to pay off their debts sometimes escaped in the dark of night to avoid foreclosure. Families made numerous moves in search of the better life. Eventually many saved sufficient money to free themselves from tenant living. Some established themselves on their own farms, some found work in cities, a few returned to Italy. Most did eventually find the better life they sought, although not in the exact model of their dreams.”

Canonici recounts a visit to the historic Hyner Cemetery near Lake Village. It was his first visit to the cemetery, which is about six miles north of the bridge that connects Arkansas and Mississippi.

Here’s how Canonici describes the scene: “Soybean fields border the front and west sides of the cemetery. Fifty yards to the front are the road and the power lines that seem to follow the river. … Across the road, cotton fields are almost ready for picking, a reminder of the early days when these rugged, precious Italians were introduced to the crop that would be their livelihood for posterity. Occasionally a car or truck speeds by, breaking the silence of this holy place that contains the dust and bones of our brave ancestors.

“The sinking sun is surrounded by light clouds, forming a bright, flaming horizon. I am totally imbued by the spirit of Sunnyside as I brush my feet against the sandy loam dust just outside the cemetery gate and gaze on that eternal flame over the horizon. The spirit of the settlers of 1895 cries out to me from every side: ‘Come and see, come and see.’ So I walk past the historic marker, down a cotton row. The cotton stalks brush against my armpits and healthy cotton bolls slap against my legs. I think to myself, “What would they say about this crop?’ Then, as the sun sinks completely over the cotton fields of Sunnyside, I hear those voices again. Now they say, ‘Write on, write on, Paul.'”

So Canonici began writing about those who settled the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta.

“Our original settlers are dead,” he writes. “I do have some taped interviews, begun in the 1970s, of people who were children at the turn of the last century. This task should have been accomplished 30 or 40 years ago when the old-timers were still alive. Nevertheless, there will be no better time than today to start. So I begin my account this evening, standing on the dust of those courageous people who paved for us the way to that better life they sought. How sad that most of them never lived to experience the better life.”

It must be noted that Canonici was on a list of 37 Catholic priests, deacons and other ministers in Mississippi that the Diocese of Jackson identified last year as having been “credibly accused” of sexual abuse of minors.

If you’re interested in the rich cultural mix that is the Arkansas Delta, simply talk to some of those of Chinese, Jewish, Italian and Lebanese descent who have remained. They’re proud of their heritage and most are willing to regale you with family stories.

It’s time to head west. We’ll soon exit the Delta and be in the Gulf Coastal Plain for the rest of this trip across south Arkansas on Highway 82.

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