Archive for January, 2019

From Mena to Waldron

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

SIXTH IN A SERIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early settlers grew cotton along the river.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Numerous arrests followed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From Mena to the mountain

Friday, January 11th, 2019

FIFTH IN A SERIES

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

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

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

The rapid growth slowed after 1900.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From De Queen to Mena

Friday, January 4th, 2019

FOURTH IN A SERIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gillham was incorporated in 1902.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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