Archive for January, 2022

From Wynne to Woodruff County

Thursday, January 27th, 2022

SEVENTH IN A SERIES

We’re staying on U.S. Highway 64 from Marion to Fort Smith on this journey.

A portion of the road in Crittenden County follows the historic Military Road of the 1800s, one of the first designated travel routes in the state.

“The creation of the state’s highway commission in 1913 meant a more systematic oversight of roads than had been possible under local control,” Steve Teske writes for the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “In 1925, a joint committee of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads and the American Association of State Highway Officials created a plan of national highways that included U.S. 64. The designation linked individual roads already built to connect cities and towns and also prompted new highway construction to accomplish that linkage.

“The commission reported that 9 percent of the roads in Arkansas were paved at the end of 1926. Through the 1920s and 1930s, U.S. 64 and its partner highways were improved. Much of the work was done in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. The emergence of the interstate system in the 1950s removed much of the traffic from U.S. 64, though it has continued to be used for more local travel and as an option to the interstates.”

U.S. 64 runs 2,326 miles from Arizona to North Carolina. It passes through six states and traverses 246 miles in Arkansas.

We’re now in Wynne, which was born in the early 1880s when the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad tracks were completed through the area.

“A train derailed and left behind a boxcar, which was turned upright and named Wynne Station,” Kimberly Seabaugh writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The town was named for Capt. Jesse Wynne of Forrest City. He was influential in starting Forrest City’s first bank. Wynne became the headquarters for construction of the railroad that was being built from Memphis to Bald Knob. With five saloons in Wynne, men working for the railroad drank and gambled there.

“By 1887, Wynne had six general stores, two drugstores, two hotels, three doctors, a jeweler, a blacksmith, a lawyer, two barbers and two meat markets. Development slowed after Sept. 2, 1887, when a fire destroyed more than two-thirds of the business district. Damage was estimated at $200,000.”

The east-west line of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad was finished by 1888. What had been known as Wynne Junction was incorporated as Wynne in May 1888. In 1903, the Cross County seat was moved from Vanndale to Wynne.

“Wynne had grown larger than Vanndale,” Seabaugh writes. “With its railroad connections, it was easier to access for many people. The courthouse was built in 1905. In 1897, the first telephone system came to Wynne. By 1955, more than 1,500 people had telephone lines. From 1918-26, water and light companies were built and major streets were paved. In 1929, Cherokee Public Service Co. became the first to supply natural gas.

“Wynne had schools as early as 1886. In 1902, a two-story brick building was constructed to serve all grades. When a high school was built in 1950, the original building was used for elementary grades. From 1896-1902, a Catholic school called St. Anselm’s was located in Wynne. From 1901-24, Wynne Normal & Industrial Institute served the African-American community for primary and secondary school.”

More than anything in those early years, Wynne was a railroad town. Thousands of people were brought to Wynne from the Delta lowlands during the Great Flood of 1927. Tent cities were established near the railroad tracks as people packed boxcars on inbound trains from both sides of Crowley’s Ridge.

“As part of the New Deal programs during the Great Depression, artists were paid to travel and place murals in local post offices,” Seabaugh writes. “In 1928, a Colorado artist, Ethel Magafan, and her twin sister Jenne placed the mural ‘Cottonpickers’ in the Wynne post office. This was one of 21 murals placed in Arkansas post offices and is one of 19 that still exist. The WPA also completed several projects in Wynne during that period.

“During World War II, the railroads in Wynne were busy as troop trains came through town. Members of the Missouri Pacific Women’s Booster Club served sandwiches, doughnuts and coffee to the troops. They also collected letters to be mailed. … World War II led to a shortage of farm workers. In 1944, local residents met to discuss the problem and agreed to receive German prisoners of war. By June 1944, 300 prisoners had arrived and were available to work on farms. A camp was established to house 600 prisoners.”

The prisoners also worked at the Gibbs-Harris rice dryer in Cross County and built another rice dryer at Wheatley. After the war, school consolidation picked up speed in Cross County as people moved into town. The Rolfe, McElroy, Hamlin and New Hope districts were consolidated with the Wynne School District. Wynne’s population grew from 3,633 in 1940 to 4,922 in 1960. School desegregation was completed in 1971.

“The last passenger trains came through Wynne on Aug. 28, 1965, signaling the decline of the railroad era and the rise of improved highways for transportation,” Seabaugh writes. “During the 2005-06 school year, the Parkin School District was consolidated into the Wynne School District. Wynne schools received more than 100 students from Parkin.”

We come off Crowley’s Ridge and find ourselves back in the Delta as soon as we head west out of Wynne. We soon cross the L’Anguille River, which begins just west of Harrisburg and flows south on the west side of Crowley’s Ridge until reaching Marianna. It then cuts east across the ridge and empties into the St. Francis River.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “In the 18th century, French trappers operated along the river, naming it after the French word for eel. Friedrich Gerstacker described the river basin as consisting of ‘swamps and thorns, creepers, wild vines, fallen trees, half or entirely rotted, deep and muddy water courses, bushes so thick that you could hardly stick a knife into them and, to complete the enjoyment, clouds of mosquitoes and gnats, not to mention snakes lying about on the edge of the water courses.’

“The L’Anguille River, like the Cache River to the west, proved to be a major obstacle for the construction of the railroad connecting Memphis and Little Rock. The gap in the line between the Cache and L’Anguille wasn’t completed until 1871. Like many other rivers in east Arkansas, which tend to be slow-moving streams, the L’Anguille is prone to flood. During both the Great Flood of 1927 and the Great Flood of 1937, the river spilled from its banks, inundating surrounding farmland.

“As with much of northeast Arkansas, the L’Anguille River basin was the site of enormous timber harvests in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After the land was cleared, the area became home to large-scale agricultural enterprises, especially the rice farming that was emerging west of Crowley’s Ridge. The L’Anguille watershed, which covers 938 square miles, has seen many of the channels that feed into the river straightened for agricultural use. That has increased soil erosion.”

Just before leaving Cross County, we pass through the community of Fair Oaks. It’s the home of one of the best dairy bars in the state, Kennon’s

In her book “Arkansas Dairy Bars,” Kat Robinson writes: “Kennon’s is one of those amazing secret spots that locals love and treasure. Hazel Kennon opened this dairy bar in 1971. Her son Doug and his wife Judy have kept it going strong. Not much has changed. The restaurant prides itself on a selection of Arkansas Delta dairy bar classics, including a barbecue sandwich, pizza burger, burrito deluxe, fried bologna sandwich and, of course, burgers,”

We cross into Woodruff County, which was established in November 1862 during the Civil War.

“Augusta, which had been the Jackson County seat in 1852-53, was named Woodruff County seat and remained so, even though court sessions sometimes were held in Cotton Plant and McCrory for convenience,” Paula Harmon Barnett writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The county was named for William Woodruff, founder of the Arkansas Gazette in 1819. Thomas Hough, an Augusta founder, played an important part in the organization of Woodruff County. In 1870, Hough sold his residence in Augusta to the county to be used for a courthouse and public square.

“During the Civil War, most of the citizens of Woodruff County opposed secession but lent their support to the Confederacy. Several battles were fought in the county. The most notable were the Action at Fitzhugh’s Woods and the Action at Hill’s Plantation, both Union victories. A small force of Union troops occupied Augusta for a short time in the winter of 1864-65. There was much unrest in the county after the war. In December 1868, Republican Gov. Powell Clayton declared martial law and sent a company of militia to search for members of the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK was strong in the county during Reconstruction. The commander of the militia, Gen. Daniel Phillips Upham, arrested 12 of the leading citizens of Augusta and held them to prevent resistance. Several people who protested were killed, and the town was looted by the militia.”

Woodruff County is one of the smallest counties in the state from a population standpoint. It has seen its population tumble from 22,682 in the 1930 census to just 6,269 in the 2020 census.

“Woodruff County, thick with trees and swampy areas, received little attention from Spanish or French explorers, though the French named the Cache River,” Barnett writes. “When the United States made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the area was sparsely settled. When Arkansas became a territory in 1819, what’s now Woodruff County was part of Lawrence and Arkansas counties.

“In 1820, part of present-day Woodruff County was included in Independence and Phillips counties when the counties were formed. In 1827, St. Francis County was formed from part of present-day Phillips and Woodruff counties. In 1829, Jackson County was formed and included the rest of present-day Woodruff County.”

Timber companies moved in during the 1880s to harvest the abundant bottomland hardwood timber in the area.

“Sawmills thrived,” Barnett writes. “In the late 1800s and early 1900s, railroads began to move into the county, and towns sprang up around them, increasing the county’s population each year and greatly improving the economy. Cotton, corn, oats and hay were grown in the fertile, well-watered soil.”

Woodruff County’s population soared from 6,891 in 1870 to 16,304 in 1900.

“In 1901, a court district was created to serve southern Woodruff County with money set aside for a courthouse and jail at Cotton Plant,” Barnett writes. “The old courthouse in Augusta was torn down for a new courthouse and jail. Both courthouses were designed by Charles Thompson. For a time, McCrory also had a courthouse. Functions of all three later were consolidated in Augusta.

“With high prices for rice prevailing during World War I and World War II, many acres in the county were cleared for rice production. Drainage districts were organized, and drainage channels were cut through the lowlands. From 1950-55, Woodruff County had about 3,000 acres cleared for rice. However, soybeans were becoming Woodruff’s County’s main crop by then.”

In 1880, there were about 40,000 acres being farmed in Woodruff County. With the clearing of the virgin forests, that number is now almost 285,000 acres.

Those farmers make extra money leasing their land to hunters. The popularity of hunting in Woodruff County has skyrocketed in recent decades.

“Much of this is because of the Rex Hancock Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area, established along the Cache River by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission,” Barnett writes. “Land was reforested and wetland complexes were developed to provide habitat for migrating waterfowl. The management area is bottomland and swamp, providing some of the best duck hunting in the state. Many hunters come from outside Arkansas, some flying into area airports to take up temporary residence in the county during duck and deer season. … Hunting clubs, bed and breakfast inns and specialty hunting enterprises sprang up due to the growing interest in hunting.”

The two remaining school districts in this rural county are the McCrory School District and Augusta School District. The Cotton Plant School District was consolidated into Augusta in 2004.

Like so many towns in this part of the state, McCrory is a product of the railroad. It was incorporated in 1890.

Situated on the banks of the White River, Augusta is much older than McCrory. It was a steamboat stop and was the county seat of Jackson County before Woodruff County was even created.

“The town’s placement at a natural river landing brought prosperity,” Barnett writes. “Boats from Memphis, hauling a variety of goods, land weekly at Augusta. Boats from New Orleans also made regular stops. Local tradition holds that long before white men set foot in what’s now Arkansas, members of the Chickasaw tribe built a settlement on a high bluff overlooking the White River. The site has long been called Chickasaw Crossing.

“In 1820, a man known only as Hamilton landed there and took up residence. About two years later, he sold his holdings to Rolla Gray, who settled there with his family. Other settlers followed. In 1847, John R. Elliott of Philadelphia and business partner William Polite opened the settlement’s first store at the west end of what’s now Main Street. Elliott soon retired, and Polite built a new store on an adjacent plot. Thomas Hough then moved into the Elliott-Polite building, and the settlement was on its way to becoming a town. In 1848, Hough had the settlement surveyed and laid out. He named the town in honor of his niece, Augusta Cald of Virginia. Incorporation followed in July 1860. At the time, Augusta was in Jackson County. It became part of Woodruff County when the county was formed in the 1860s.”

We’ll explore McCrory and Augusta further as we continue west on U.S. 64.

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Reaching Wynne

Tuesday, January 25th, 2022

SIXTH IN A SERIES

We cross the St. Francis River as we head west out of Parkin on U.S. Highway 64.

The river begins in Missouri and is a mountain stream for its first 25 miles before reaching the Mississippi Alluvial Plain (commonly called the Delta) just north of Poplar Bluff. The St. Francis turns south and travels more than 200 miles. It forms the boundary between the Missouri Bootheel and Arkansas before moving slowly along the east side of Crowley’s Ridge through east Arkansas.

The river empties into the Mighty Mississippi in the St. Francis National Forest north of Helena.

“Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet explored part of the lower St. Francis River and likely gave the river its name, though it’s uncertain which saint served as the namesake — perhaps either St. Francis of Assisi or St. Francois Xavier,” Jodi Morris writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “From the 1780s to the 1820s, the St. Francis River basin was again the site of Native American settlement as members of the Cherokee tribe moved to the area and established homes.

“Part of the river between Lake City in Craighead County and Marked Tree in Poinsett County is known as the Sunken Lands. Here, the river dropped six to eight feet during the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, causing the river to form a large, swampy overflow area. The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission now conserves more than 27,000 acres of this overflow area as the St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management Area.”

The St. Francis wasn’t one of Arkansas’ early navigable streams since it was filled with log rafts and snags.

“In 1836-37, W. Bowling Buion surveyed the river under the auspices of the federal government with an eye toward improving navigation, but nothing came of it,” Morris writes. “Only after the Civil War did Congress begin funding the clearing of the river. Numerous cleaning and dredging operations made the St. Francis navigable from its mouth up to Wappapello, Mo. Because the swampy Sunken Lands impeded progress on railroad construction until land began to be drained in the late 1890s and early 1900s, steamboats continued to operate on the river.”

The St. Francis Levee District was created in 1893. Congressional passage of the Flood Control Act of 1928 provided new funds for flood-control measures along the river.

“These measures have greatly affected the natural course of the river and have included a number of diversion ditches that run somewhat parallel to the river along its course from southeastern Craighead County down through Lee County,” Morris writes. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed the world’s largest siphons on the St. Francis at Marked Tree in 1939 to help with flood control. The Marked Tree Siphons are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The Corps built the W.G. Huxtable Pumping Plant southeast of Marianna in 1977 to prevent Mississippi River floodwater from moving into the St. Francis. It also removes water held back by the St. Francis River levee system. It’s considered the world’s largest pumping plant of its kind.”

As the virgin hardwood forests were cleared and the swamps were drained after the Civil War, the cotton plantations became larger and larger.

“David C. Cross, a planter and slave owner, owned thousands of acres in the area of Poinsett and St. Francis counties in 1860,” Richard Hartness writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “When the Civil War began, he organized a company of soldiers, paid for their uniforms and was elected their colonel. This was the Fifth Arkansas Infantry Regiment, part of the Confederate Army. Cross purportedly became ill with pneumonia, left the regiment and returned in February 1862 to his home in what’s now northern Cross County.

“On Nov. 15, 1862, the Legislature created Cross County as the state’s 53rd county with a temporary county seat at Wittsburg. Because of Union activity in the Wittsburg area, county business was conducted secretly in Pineville. After the war ended, the county seat was officially moved to Cleburne, named for Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne. The county seat remained there until 1868. In 1903, Wynne became the county seat.”

Because Wittsburg was on the river, large cotton warehouses were built there. It served as county seat from 1862-65 and 1868-84.

“Rebounding after the Civil War and surviving a major fire in 1874, Wittsburg grew due to the trade in cotton and dry goods,” writes Arkansas historian Derek Clements. “Wittsburg began to fade after being bypassed by railroad lines in 1882 and 1887. That drew trade to the west side of Crowley’s Ridge and Wynne.”

Wittsburg had developed near the intersection of Crowley’s Ridge, the Military Road and the St. Francis River.

“The geographic location of Wittsburg made it thrive,” Clements writes. “Due to population growth, a second incorporation was required in 1859 to increase the amount of land in the town. By 1860, Wittsburg had grown to 100 people. There was a dock, cotton warehouses, a post office, a newspaper called the Wittsburg Messenger, a gristmill and a school. … At the end of the Civil War, Wittsburg was one of two major sites for Confederate surrender in northeast Arkansas. The other was Jacksonport. About 2,100 men were paroled in Wittsburg.

“For Wittsburg, the Reconstruction era was a mixture of confusion, lawlessness and economic renewal. Politically, Wittsburg lost the position of county seat to Cleburne from July 3, 1865, to Aug. 2, 1868. Due to an April 1869 requirement passed by the Legislature, all municipalities in Arkansas had to reincorporate. Wittsburg reincorporated for the third time on May 13, 1869. The town seemed to weather Reconstruction fairly well. By 1866, there were more than 10 taxable businesses in Wittsburg as well as a post office and church. Efforts to improve the road to Memphis were coupled with a return to steamboat contact, thus improving trade. By 1874, the town had a population of 300.”

A huge fire occurred Nov. 6, 1874, but Wittsburg bounced back for a time.

“The trade in timber and furs, as well as the movement of some 30,000 bales of cotton annually, provided the economic stimulus to rebuild damaged parts of town,” Clements writes. “The 1880s began a period of decline for Wittsburg. The census revealed that the town had slipped to 209 people by 1880. The north-south route of the Helena & Iron Mountain Railroad (later the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern), completed in 1882, passed to the west side of Crowley’s Ridge.

“In 1885, the town’s last newspaper, the Wittsburg Chronicle, which had begun in 1878, moved to Vanndale as the Cross County Chronicle. The east-west line of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern from Memphis to Bald Knob ran north of Wittsburg, drawing trade to the other side of Crowley’s Ridge where both tracks crossed at Wynne. As Wynne grew, Wittsburg dissolved. By 1900, the Wittsburg post office had closed.”

The railroad went north of Wittsburg to take advantage of a natural gap in Crowley’s Ridge.

“The growth of Vanndale and Wynne along the railroad balanced the decline of river cities such as Wittsburg,” Hartness writes. “This transfer of population was increased by flooding when the St. Francis River broke through levees in 1912 and 1913, and especially during the Great Flood of 1927. The American Red Cross tended to many refugees on the higher ground of Wynne during that flood, and railroads were used to evacuate flood victims from the county.”

Following World War II, hundreds of workers left Cross County for industrial jobs. That mirrored what was happening in other Arkansas counties. Arkansas lost a larger percentage of its population than any other state from 1940-60.

“Soybeans and rice began to displace cotton as the chief crops in Cross County, but farms became mechanized, reducing jobs in the county,” Hartness writes. “A men’s clothing factory, Rainfair, opened in 1954, followed by Addison Shoe Co. in 1960 and Halstead Industries (a manufacturer of copper tubing and fabricator of air cooling units) in 1963.

“Desegregation of Cross County schools began in 1967. At the same time, many smaller school districts were being consolidated. Parkin schools were consolidated into the Wynne School District in 2005. Most other schools became part of the Cross County system.”

Continuing west on U.S. 64, we climb out of the Delta and up Crowley’s Ridge, which runs from southern Missouri to Helena. It’s from one to 12 miles in width with Delta farmland on either side.

“It’s made up of a continuous series of rolling hills except for a slight break at Marianna,” Hurbert Stroud writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “This break or gap was created by the L’Anguille as it flowed across the ridge. The ridge received its name from Benjamin Crowley, the first white settler to reach the area near present-day Paragould, sometime around 1820. Crowley’s Ridge is an unusual geological formation that rises above the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. The ridge contrasts sharply with the surrounding flat land of the Delta.

“In terms of formation, the ridge is generally thought to have once been an island between the Mississippi River and the Ohio River. It became a long and narrow hilly ridge after the rivers changed course millions of years ago. Prior to the change in course, the Mississippi River flowed along the west side of what’s now Crowley’s Ridge with the Ohio River meandering along the east side. The work of these major rivers and their subsequent shifting in course resulted in the formation of an erosional remnant that’s now Crowley’s Ridge.”

It’s easy to spot the ridge from miles away as one drives across the Delta.

“The ridge is capped by a deep layer of wind-deposited soils created millions of years ago as glaciers moved across the continent,” Stroud writes. “Extensive areas, including the Mississippi Alluvial Plain and Crowley’s Ridge, were covered by windblown soil. Rivers and streams that continued to meander across the plain washed away the loessial material. On Crowley’s Ridge, however, the loess continued to collect, up to 50 feet in depth in some locations. Since loess is easily eroded, steep slopes and deep valleys characterize much of Crowley’s Ridge.

“One of the unique features of the ridge is its natural vegetation. Many of the trees that make up the forest on Crowley’s Ridge are similar to those found in the west Appalachian Mountains. The ridge is covered with a lush mixed forest that includes oak, hickory and uncommon hardwood trees such as American beech, sugar maple and yellow poplar. Crowley’s Ridge also has extensive areas of pasture. Although the soil is relatively fertile, row crops such as soybeans and wheat are limited almost entirely to small floodplains along and near streams that flow out of the region. This is due to the highly erosive nature of the wind-blown soil. These soils need a protective vegetative cover of some type (such as pasture grasses or forests) to combat severe erosion.”

This area of Crowley’s Ridge received a huge boost when Village Creek State Park was created. In 1967, the Legislature authorized a study to determine the need for a major state park in east Arkansas. Thomas Seay of Forrest City was the driving force in the park being located about six miles south of Wynne.

Land acquisition took place from 1972-78, resulting in the purchase of more than 6,900 acres by the state. Dedication ceremonies for the park were held in June 1976 with Charlie Rich, a native of nearby Colt, performing. An estimated 20,000 people attended the event.

Two lakes were created in the park. Lake Dunn is named after Poindexter Dunn, who served this area in Congress from 1879-89. Lake Austell is named for Samuel Austell, the first county judge of Cross County.

According to the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism: “While Village Creek State Park is named for a stream that flows through the area, it also preserves part of the rich history of the region. Early settlers named the area Old Cherokee Village, though there’s little evidence of Cherokee occupation outside scattered camp remnants. A section of the Military Road that once linked Memphis to Little Rock is still visible. It became a major route of Indian removal for Creek, Chickasaw and Cherokee tribe members from 1832-39.

“The park also contains part of William Strong’s Spanish land grants. He built his 20-room mansion within view of Crowley’s Ridge, near the Military Road on land just east of the park boundary. Strong became one of the largest landowners and leading politicians in the region between 1820 and 1840. He was the first postmaster along the Military Road and served as county sheriff. He also was a delegate to the Arkansas Constitutional Convention of 1836. Strong was instrumental in bringing the Military Road to the area, thus ensuring its population would grow.”

We enter Wynne, which started off as a railroad town and has grown from a population of 4,142 in the 1950 census to 8,314 in the 2020 census. At a time when most other towns in this part of the state are losing population, Wynne has been a shining star.

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Across Cross County

Monday, January 24th, 2022

FIFTH IN A SERIES

We cross into Cross County as the trip west across Arkansas continues on U.S. Highway 64.

“Created during the Civil War, the county was largely shaped by railroad development during the Gilded Age, with small industry and tourism becoming more of a focus in the late 20th and early 21st centuries,” Richard Hartness writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Geologically, the county is divided roughly into thirds. Crowley’s Ridge, a glacial age erosional remnant covered with a unique topsoil, traverses the county north to south, rising 75 to 100 feet above ancient alluvial floodplains on either side.

“The eastern third of the county is drained primarily by the St. Francis River, while the western portion drains into the L’Anguille River. … The county’s lowlands are devoted to rice, soybeans and cotton while the ridge accommodates apple, peach and pecan orchards as well as herds of goats and cattle. Over time, the area has been home to black bear, bison and deer. … Around the time of the Louisiana Purchase, the sparse population of the area consisted of French hunters, Cherokee and a few English frontiersmen, some claiming ownership of Spanish land grants.”

The Native Americans were removed on the Trail of Tears in the 1830s.

“Settlers from Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Missouri moved in, making their homes in the area,” Hartness writes. “The new landowners brought slaves with them to work on the plantations and farms established in the county. Early settlements in the region included Vanndale, named for its first postmaster J.M. Vann, and Wittsburg, an important landing on the St. Francis River.”

I make my way into Parkin and stop at Parkin Archeological State Park, which interprets a Mississippian-era village that existed from about 1000 to 1550.

According to the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism: “European-made trade items from the era of Hernando de Soto’s expedition recovered at the park and written descriptions of the village support theories that the Spanish visited the Parkin site in 1541. Many archaeologists believe the site may be Casqui, mentioned prominently in the de Soto journals. Remnants of Indian villages similar to the Parkin site were once numerous in eastern Arkansas, but soil erosion, careless digging and farming destroyed virtually all of them during the 19th century.

“The prehistoric village on the eastern bank of the St. Francis River covered 17 acres and was enclosed by the river on the west and a soggy moat on three sides. Archaeological studies have determined a wooden palisade also surrounded the village. A large platform earthen mound, built by the natives, still overlooks the river today. It’s believed to be the most intact (that is, undisturbed by looters) native village of its time period remaining in northeast Arkansas.”

After the town of Parkin was established in the late 1800s, cotton farmers discovered it was difficult to cultivate across the wide ditch that had served as the village’s protective moat. A sawmill and homes were constructed instead. The lack of row-crop agriculture on the site actually helped protect it.

Charles R. McGinsey III conducted a field school for the University of Arkansas at the site in 1965. In 1966, the Arkansas Archaeological Society held its annual training program here.

According to the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism: “The reason for both was to determine if there were enough intact deposits to warrant turning the site into a state park. The idea for a park came about in the early 1960s when local residents and elected officials worked to get the idea off the ground. The Coldren family donated the mound within the larger village site to the city of Parkin in 1964. The Legislature authorized land acquisition for the larger site in 1965, but the village site land wasn’t acquired until 1975.

“Several homes and a church occupied the village site. Individual land parcels were purchased in phases over a period of years. Initial park development started in 1991, and the new visitors’ center was dedicated in October 1994. Since its beginning, the park has operated under a partnership with the Arkansas Archeological Survey. A research station is located in the visitors’ center. Visitors can watch research in progress and see firsthand the results of excavations and laboratory analysis.

“While finding conclusive evidence that de Soto visited Parkin would be an important discovery, the archaeologists are more focused on learning about the residents of the ancient village, including how they lived and why they ceased occupation of the area sometime after the Spaniards departed. Along with the initial survey work done in the 1960s, additional investigation were carried out by Phyllis Morse in the 1970s and Jeffrey Mitchem in the 1990s.”

The state park also features the restored Northern Ohio School, which was used in the early 1900s by the children of employees of the sawmill located there.

So just who was Casqui?

Mitchem writes in the book “Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives”: “Casqui was a Native American chief who ruled over a province in northeast Arkansas in the 1500s. He was the first Indian leader in Arkansas whose 1541 dealings with de Soto are recorded in detail in accounts of the expedition. Casqui was thus the earliest Arkansan about whom we have written historical information. In the Spanish writings, his name was variously recorded as Casqui, Casquin or Icasqui. The explorers used his name to refer to him, the town in which we resided and the area over which he ruled.

“Knowledge of Casqui is limited, but the narratives provide interesting details about his people and the territory under his control, as well as some of the events that occurred when the expedition traveled through the region. Archaeological, geographical and historical evidence indicate that the town where Casqui lived was the Parkin site. The Spanish accounts describe Casqui’s town as fortified and next to a river, with the chief’s house upon a manmade mound next to the river.”

De Soto’s expedition crossed the Mississippi River into what’s now Arkansas in the summer of 1541.

“The explorers soon heard of two powerful chiefs in what’s now northeast Arkansas, Casqui and Pacaha,” Mitchem writes. “As the expedition headed north, it entered land under Casqui’s control. Word was sent to Casqui from residents of his outlying towns that strangers were approaching. Along with a large number of his people, Casqui walked some distance from his town, bearing gifts of food, clothing and animal hides to welcome de Soto and members of his expedition. This was in marked contrast to most initial encounters between Indians and the de Soto expedition, which were violent.

“The Spanish accounts indicate that there were probably two reasons for the peaceful reception. First, a prolonged drought had afflicted the region for several years, causing a failure of the crops upon which Casqui’s people depended. Second, Casqui was at war with the neighboring chief Pacaha. According to de Soto expedition chronicles, Casqui believed that the de Soto entourage had come from heaven. He asked de Soto to intervene with heaven to end the drought and brought two blind men to be healed. De Soto had 12 Catholic priests accompanying the expedition, and he tried to explain his Christian beliefs to Casqui through interpreters.”

The priests celebrated mass. De Soto had a large cross made from a tree and erected it atop the mound where Casqui’s house was located. There’s no evidence that any of the Native Americans converted to Christianity.

“Casqui’s war with Pacaha had probably been going on for years, maybe even for generations,” Mitchem writes. “All of Casqui’s settlements were fortified by defensive moat-like ditches and palisade walls. Pacaha’s towns were similarly fortified, suggesting that warfare had been a fact of life in northeast Arkansas for a long time. By the 1540s, the conflict probably consisted of small skirmishes and ambushes in which a few enemy people were either captured and made slaves or killed. Casqui hoped that de Soto and his soldiers, with their formidable weapons and horses, would help defeat Pacaha. To Casqui’s disappointment, de Soto made a tenuous peace between the two chiefs before moving on to other parts of Arkansas.

“The accounts of the de Soto expedition offer some details of events that occurred during their stay in northeast Arkansas, including the sacking of Pacaha’s main town by Casqui’s people and subsequent efforts by de Soto to make peace between the two. Unfortunately, they tell us little about Casqui himself. One of the accounts indicates he was about 50 years old in 1541. The narratives suggest that he was the aggressor in the ongoing warfare. When the de Soto expedition moved farther west after about a month in the area, Casqui’s name disappeared from the written record. There exists no other information about him or his ultimate fate.”

The Parkin site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1966.

The site is about a mile below where the Tyronza River empties into the St. Francis. The soil here is well suited to growing crops.

“The Indians planted their fields along the river,” Mitchem writes. “Excavations have revealed that corn was the main crop, supplemented by beans, squash, sunflowers and tobacco. The Indians also stored many wild plants from the area, including pecans, persimmons and various seeds and fruits. Their primary source of meat was deer, which were abundant in the forests that covered the region. In addition to many smaller mammals, fish and turtles from the rivers provided food.

“Their success at farming and the area’s natural abundance supported population growth over hundreds of years. Other Indian groups in the region were also prospering and expanding, and competition for prime farmland and the desire of chiefs to expand their domains eventually led to warfare. By the time Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500s, chiefs were ruling over provinces consisting of 10 to 20 small villages. … The Parkin site is a prime example of one of these fortified Mississippian villages. A defensive ditch surrounded the settlement on three sides with the St. Francis on the fourth. Archaeologists excavated remains of a stockade wall of upright wood posts on the inside of the ditch.”

Parkin was a capital with about 20 villages around it.

“Similarity of pottery styles and other archaeological remains support the conclusion that the residents were part of a single culture,” Mitchem writes. “Archaeologists have found what may be part of de Soto’s cross at the Parkin site, though it’s impossible to prove beyond doubt. Spanish artifacts — including a glass bead, a brass bell, bell fragments and two lead shot — provide strong evidence for contacts between the residents of Parkin and the de Soto expedition.”

The current town of Parkin has seen its population fall from 2,035 in the 1980 census to 962 in the 2020 census.

Settlers Reuben and Smash Rodgers moved to a community known as Smithdale in 1852. It was about two miles from present-day Parkin.

Dr. John Stoner moved to the area in 1871 and built a large plantation. Further development came after the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad laid its tracks in 1887. William Parkin of Memphis was in charge of railroad construction in the area, and the town was named for him.

Soon, because of access provided by the railroad, people were coming to clear the vast tracts of virgin hardwood timber. The Fee brothers from Pennsylvania established a lumber mill in 1890. George and Jake Mattox started a sawmill the same year. The Fee operation became Lansing Wheelbarrow Co., and the Mattox company eventually became Northern Ohio Cooperage & Lumber Co.

“Another major sawmill was established in 1902 by Henry Clay Coldren as the Parkin Cooperage Co.,” Kimberly Seabaugh writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Coldren’s company and Northern Ohio Lumber Co. merged in 1906 to form Northern Ohio Cooperage & Lumber Co. Lansing Wheelbarrow and Northern Ohio established the Northern Ohio School in 1910. This was a school for African-American children of the two companies’ workers. This school served children up to the eighth grade. In 1911, the main Parkin Elementary School for white children was built. Additional units were added in 1924.

“Parkin was incorporated as a town in 1912. That same year, a woman came to town to run one of its main industries. Agnes Hamill Park moved to Parkin from Michigan to manage Lansing Wheelbarrow, becoming the town’s first woman to hold such a position. Park was active in supporting local schools as well as assisting others in buying stock to organize First State Bank in 1925.”

Parkin sustained damage from major floods in 1912, 1913, 1927 and 1937. Residents often had to travel to government tent camps on Crowley’s Ridge. A tornado did considerable damage in 1928. The Great Depression began in 1929, and the Great Drought of 1930-31 followed.

“In 1938, Falls Equipment Co. was established, changing the area by introducing International Harvester farm machinery,” Seabaugh writes. “This would cause a change from the lumber industry to row-crop agriculture. By 1946, Northern Ohio had closed. Lansing Wheelbarrow also closed in the 1940s.”

A new high school for white students was constructed in 1951. In 2005, the Parkin School District was consolidated with the Wynne School District as the population losses increased.

“Parkin was once a hotspot for musicians from Memphis to perform,” Seabaugh writes. “Every weekend, residents were entertained. B.B. King frequently played in Parkin before his rise to fame. Chester Arthur ‘Howlin’ Wolf’ Burnett learned to play the harmonica while living in Parkin. Carl Perkins said it was after a show in Parkin that he overheard someone on the dance floor warning his date to stay away from his new blue suede shoes. He wrote down those words and recorded ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ in December 1955.”

Continuing west on U.S. 64, I cross the St. Francis River and head toward Wynne.

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From Earle into Cross County

Friday, January 21st, 2022

FOURTH IN A SERIES

Josiah Francis Earle was born in North Carolina in September 1828, the son of a man who owned trade ships that operated in the Atlantic Ocean between the United States and the West Indies.

“He moved to Arkansas as a young man, settling in Crittenden County,” writes historian David Sesser of Henderson State University. “He appeared on an 1850 listing of residents in Proctor Township in Crittenden County as a laborer. His mother also appeared on the list. In 1860, Earle appeared in the federal census as a court clerk with real estate valued at $5,000. Enlisting into Arkansas service at Marion on June 3, 1861, soon after the Civil War began, Earle was elected captain of his company, the Crittenden Rangers.

“The company enlisted into Confederate service on July 29, 1861, in Pocahontas. Originally Company C of the Sixth Arkansas Cavalry Battalion, the unit served in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi, seeing action at a number of battles. After the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, the battalion was disbanded, and part of the company was transferred to the Helena Artillery. The remainder became Company A of the Second Arkansas Cavalry.”

Earle continued to serve until resigning due to health reasons in 1863. He returned to Arkansas and later organized a company of Confederate cavalry in northeast Arkansas.

“Much of his time spent in the area focused on finding deserters and avoiding Union patrols and steamboats along the Mississippi,” Sesser writes. “At the conclusion of the war, Earle surrendered with his company at Wittsburg in Cross County. … Returning home, Earle married Louisa Burrus Richards on Nov. 15, 1865. The couple had four sons and two daughters with both daughters and one son surviving into adulthood.

“After the war, Earle became a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan in eastern Arkansas and western Tennessee. According to lore, Earle was captured in Tennessee and ordered to be hanged. After he was transported across the Mississippi River to Hopefield in Crittenden County, a group of fellow Klansmen rescued him. Earle became a significant landowner in western Crittenden County.”

Earle died in March 1884. I’m in Earle, the town named for him, on my trip across Arkansas on U.S. Highway 64.

The town named for this former Confederate officer and KKK member is now 72 percent black. Its population has declined from 3,517 in the 1980 census to 2,129 in the 2020 census.

“The history of Earle is really that of two towns — Earle and Norvell — which grew alongside each other for decades and were separated only by a boundary line running down present-day Ruth Street in Earle,” Adam Miller writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Both towns arose as a result of the timber industry boom following the Civil War and shared most of the same civic and business leaders.

“In 1888, a railroad line through the southern part of Earle was established, which benefited Earle more than its smaller neighbor, as the route of the railroad bypassed Norvell entirely. Talks of merging the two towns lingered for more than 60 years until Norvell was formally annexed by Earle in 1978. Prior to annexation, Earle shared municipal services and improvements with its smaller neighbor.”

When the railroad came through Earle in 1888, Josiah Francis Earle’s widow built a depot to encourage trains to stop. The most recent depot, which was built in 1922 and abandoned in the 1960s, is now a museum.

“Dr. James Throgmorton was a Norvell physician who once documented the sheer abundance of timber in the area and described the then sparsely populated land around Earle as a dense forest that was inhabited by bears, panthers and wolves until the late 1880s,” Miller writes. “This supply of timber brought rapid growth and prosperity to Earle and Norvell. Access to the railroad and the Tyronza River west of town provided reliable modes of transportation.

“Timber-related firms that once operated in Earle and Norvell included the Tyronza Lumber Co., the W.G. English sawmill, the C.T. Whitman Lumber Co., the Crittenden Lumber Co., the Boston Lumber Co. and the Earle Cooperage Co. Wynne businessman Luther Wallin moved to Earle in about 1900 and had extensive lumber interests through the area and three lumber mills in Crittenden County. His Earle sawmill closed in 1957 shortly after his death and was the last to operate in Earle.”

The Tyronza Lumber Co. mill had a daily capacity of 40,000 board feet. That mill closed in 1913.

The Lasater & Bailor stave mill, meanwhile, was on the banks of the river. Though it’s now little more than a drainage ditch, the Tyronza River once served as an important corridor into this area. The river often was used to float logs to sawmills.

“It no longer resembles the stream that it was up until the early 20th century as it has been channelized, ditched and had its meander loops cut off,” Cindy Grisham writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Before the formation of levee and drainage districts in the late 19th century that rerouted and channelized existing streams, the Tyronza rose out of a body of water called Carson Lake southwest of Osceola. From there, it flowed across low, swampy land, a region that locals referred to as the ‘scatters of Tyronza,’ into Tyronza Lake before narrowing down into the regular path it followed to the St. Francis River.

“Tyronza Lake was simply a widening of the river channel, probably as a result of the land falling during the series of earthquakes that occurred along the New Madrid fault line in 1811-12. Both Carson Lake and Tyronza Lake have since been drained and are used for agricultural land.”

Miller writes: “Population was sparse until the 1880s when the eyes of timber interests turned to eastern Arkansas and the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad built its line just south of Earle. A community that went by the names of Brown (named for Tom Brown, an early settler) and New Earle finally bore the name of Dr. Ben Norvell Sr., a town leader. Norvell was formally incorporated in 1904. Earle was incorporated in 1905 and remained the largest town in Crittenden County until it was surpassed by West Memphis in 1940.

“Norvell had a peak population of 522 in 1920, but its population growth was always overshadowed by Earle. Norvell lacked access to the railroad, and in an age when railroads determined the flow of commerce, the town’s best hope was to share in Earle’s prosperity.”

For a time, the Earle post office was in Norvell at a general store owned by brothers John and Jacob Watt.

“W.M. ‘Grat’ Brown, who owned property in Earle, wanted the post office moved, presumably to his property,” Miller writes. “Brown was fatally shot by John Watt on July 21, 1904. Watt claimed he shot Brown in self-defense and was acquitted at his trial even though Brown’s gun was never located. Many years later, Ben Norvell III found a fully loaded and cocked pistol inside a stump near the site of the shooting. That allegedly was Brown’s pistol, hidden there by a lady friend of Brown after he was killed.”

Miller says Norvell had “a handful of stores, saloons, a small mattress factory and a two-story hotel. Due to the terrain and perennial flooding problems, an elevated boardwalk was built along Norvell’s business district. It extended across a marsh into Earle, providing the only passable connection between the towns during inclement weather.”

Because Earle was the largest town in Crittenden County, Earle civic leaders dubbed it the “Pearl of the St. Francis.” As the hardwood timber was cleared and the forests were replaced by fields of cotton, gins and a compress facility were built at Earle.

“In 1908, Earle had a semiprofessional baseball team that played twice weekly,” Miller writes. “Starting in the 1920s, the Earle Cardinals professional basketball team played and brought national acclaim for its exceptional five-year record of 204 wins in 221 games. Earle High School began playing football in 1920 and was the first school system in Crittenden County to field a team.”

The Earle School District was established in 1919.

“The three-story brick structure that would later become Earle High School was built during this time and served as a junior-senior high school,” Miller writes. “During the next several decades, Works Progress Administration projects and other construction expanded the school until the district occupied three city blocks. During this time, the district operated numerous wing schools that served black students.

“The primary black school for the district was Dunbar High School, which was just north of the Earle School District facilities attended by whites. Integration commenced in the 1960s. Earle High School moved to a new facility on the east side of town in 1999. President Bill Clinton spoke at the dedication ceremony for the school.”

Like many Delta towns, Earle has a troubled history of race relations. In 1918, a black farm worker named Elton Mitchell was hanged by a mob for allegedly shooting and wounding the wife of a cotton planter.

“Mitchell’s personal history is a bit confusing with public records placing him in several adjacent counties in northeast Arkansas and northwest Mississippi,” Nancy Snell Griffith writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The Pine Bluff Daily Graphic reported that on June 12, 1918, Mitchell shot and wounded the wife of W.M. Langston. This is probably Earle resident William Monroe Langston, a farmer. His wife was listed as Peachie Maude Langston.

“According to the Graphic, Mitchell approached the Langstons in their garden to discuss a dispute over plowing. He was armed with a revolver, and when Mrs. Langston tried to run into the house, he shot her in the hip. W.M. Langton then got a shotgun, and the two exchanged fire. Mitchell’s shots missed, but Langston managed to wound him. Mitchell then ran to the farm of a black planter near Grassy Lake, three miles from Earle.”

Mitchell was advised by the planter to hide in the woods. The planter then went into Earle and told authorities where Mitchell was.

“On June 13, a posse approached Mitchell’s hiding place, and he fired on them,” Griffith writes. “They returned fire, killing him. Mrs. Langston was expected to live, which she apparently did. By 1920, she was living in Earle with her husband.”

In 1936, Earle town marshal Paul D. Peacher used the occasion of a strike by the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union to begin making arrests for vagrancy.

“Townsend S. Mitchell, Earle’s mayor and acting justice of the peace, then put 13 of the men Peacher arrested on trial, which was really no more than a sentencing,” Miller writes. “The men were found guilty of vagrancy and were sentenced to a fine and 30 days of labor on land worked by Peacher. This practice of debt repayment through peonage was common and had persisted in some places throughout the South since the end of the Civil War.”

The incident came to the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice. Peacher was found guilty in 1936 of violating an 1866 slave-kidnapping statute.

In 1970, Earle erupted again over school conditions.

“A group of unarmed black protestors was marching toward city hall to complain about inequality in segregated schools when a group of armed whites attacked them,” Miller writes. “This followed a student protest just a few days prior during which black children had been arrested.”

Probably the most famous person to have grown up in the Earle area was Carroll Cloar, a painter whose landscapes were based on memories of his childhood in the area. Cloar was born in January 1913 on a farm about 10 miles north of Earle. He had three brothers and one sister, and spent his childhood on his parents’ cotton farm. He moved to Memphis at age 17 and earned a bachelor’s degree in English from what’s now Rhodes College.

“After graduating in 1934, he traveled to Europe for a carefree vacation, then returned to Memphis and enrolled at the Memphis Academy of Art,” Erin Branham writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He studied there with painter George Oberteuffer.

“In 1936, Cloar moved to New York and attended the Art Students League, studying under Arnold Blanch, William McNulty and Harry Sternberg. Cloar focused on drawing with an ambition to be a comic strip artist. Teacher Ernest Fiene gave him his first experience with oil painting. It was at this time that Cloar also became interested in lithography, a printing method that allows the artist to draw on a flat stone.”

Cloar used family photos to create a series of lithographic prints from 1938-40. While in Mexico City in 1941, Cloar began to use his Arkansas heritage as a basis for his work.

Cloar joined the U.S. Army Air Corps at the start of World War II and served in the Pacific, often painting pin-up girls on the noses of bombers.

In 1948, Life magazine did a spread on Cloar headlined “Backwoods Boyhood.” He returned to Memphis in 1953.

“Cloar continued to produce paintings for the rest of his life, working in casein tempera — and later acrylic — on large canvases, depicting images drawn from photographs and his own memories,” Branham writes. “Cloar’s work almost always contains a strong narrative strain, and even if the story being told is not straightforward, its power can be sensed in the mysteriousness of the circumstances, whether that be a tree full of panthers or a football team lining up against an unseen opponent. His style has been described as both primitive and progressively modern.”

Cloar committed suicide in April 1993 after a long battle with cancer. His ashes were scattered across the former family farm near Earle.

Leaving Earle, I cross into Cross County as I head west on U.S. 64. It won’t be long until I’m climbing Crowley’s Ridge.

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Heading toward Earle

Thursday, January 20th, 2022

THIRD IN A SERIES

Levees and drainage districts have played a major role in the development of Crittenden County, where we’re beginning our trip across the state on U.S. Highway 64.

“An act of Congress in 1850 created the first organized efforts toward levee construction as well as the donation of about 8.6 million acres of swampland to Arkansas to be sold to make levee and drainage systems possible,” says well-known Arkansas writer Grif Stockley. “By 1852, a three-foot levee had been developed along the Mississippi River for most of the county’s border. It wasn’t until 1893, however, that major flood-control efforts resulted in the Arkansas Legislature’s creation of the St. Francis Levee District. Bonds were issued, and a levee had been constructed almost from the Missouri state line to Crittenden County in 1897 when spring floods turned the county into what one writer called ‘a perfect Venice.’

“Though there have been no Mississippi River levee breaks since 1927, the floods of 1927 and 1937 rendered hundreds of families in Crittenden County homeless because of backwaters from the St. Francis River. Because natural drains were blocked by the levee, Crittenden County landowners have been forced to rely on the creation of drainage districts. … Completion of the ditches eliminating swamps and brakes have allowed thousands of acres to be used for agricultural purposes.”

Before heading west on U.S. Highway 64, I visit the 1911 Crittenden County Courthouse at Marion.

According to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program: “The present-day courthouse is one of three structures that have been built in Marion to serve as the county’s seat of government. The original courthouse at Marion was a frame building, which was destroyed by a tornado several years after it was built. For many years afterward, court was held in various places, including churches and vacant storehouses. In 1873, a two-story brick courthouse was erected in the same location as the frame building at a cost of more than $100,000. The brick courthouse was destroyed by fire in 1909.

“The current courthouse at 85 Jackson St. is on the site of the previous two buildings. The structure was designed by Chamberlain & Co. of Fort Worth and was built by Falls City Construction Co. of Louisville. The cost to build the courthouse and jail was more than $100,000. … The interior of the courthouse was extensively remodeled in 1945 and 1955, resulting in lowered ceilings, paneled walls, carpeted floors and a remodeled courtroom. The original tile floor in the front entrance hall and the exterior of the building remained unaltered.”

Like most of the Arkansas Delta, Crittenden County has a troubled history of race relations.

“With a county electorate after the Civil War that was 67 percent African-American — because many supporters of the Confederacy had been declared ineligible to vote in 1867 as a result of the Reconstruction Acts — racial difficulties … became the rule rather than the exception,” Stockley writes. “As a terrorist organization that refused to accept the new Republican order, the Ku Klux Klan was extremely active in Crittenden County.

“Throughout parts of Arkansas, the Klan intimidated, threatened and murdered African-Americans as well as whites who supported the Republican Party. The response of the Republican governor, Powell Clayton, was to declare martial law in 14 counties, including Crittenden County. To implement his decision, Clayton prevailed upon the Arkansas Legislature to create a state militia that included African-Americans. A number of fierce skirmishes ensued. Only the intervention of William Monks, who commanded 600 troops from Missouri, saved a detachment of black militiamen from being slaughtered at the county courthouse in Marion.”

Reconstruction in Arkansas had ended by 1874, and Democrats were back in power.

“With its heavily black population now empowered with the right to vote for adult males, the eastern part of the state presented a major problem for powerful whites trying to keep black workers satisfied enough to stay in Arkansas and provide the essential labor force that kept the plantation system going,” Stockley writes. “The political solution in most of these counties, including Crittenden, was known as fusion. White and black residents agreed in advance each election cycle upon a division of county offices and representation in the Legislature. Though whites invariably retained most of the important offices, fusion worked for a while.

“By 1888, African-Americans occupied the following major offices in Crittenden County: county judge, county clerk, county assessor and a representative in the Legislature. Margaret Woolfolk (the author of the 1993 book “A History of Crittenden County”) writes that a group ‘of about 80 whites assembled at Marion about 10 a.m. July 13, 1888, and marched to the courthouse where county clerk David Ferguson was forced to resign at the muzzle of a Winchester rifle. … Other blacks were taken by wagon to the Mississippi River, then by boat to Memphis and released.’ Despite the fact that Crittenden County was overwhelmingly black in 1888, no African-Americans were elected to county office for the next 100 years.”

It’s documented that six black men were lynched in Crittenden County from 1900-36.

“It may well have been more,” Stockley writes. “With the Great Depression, Crittenden County exhibited some of the worst abuses perpetrated in the name of white supremacy. In 1936, a gang of white riding bosses and planters entered the Providence Methodist Church outside Earle, where 450 black sharecroppers were gathered for a meeting of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union. They began beating the sharecroppers with ax handles and pistol butts. That same year, Paul D. Peacher, a deputy sheriff who had a farming operation on the side, was revealed to be engaging in peonage. ‘Slavery in Arkansas’ was the headline in Time magazine on Dec. 7, 1936.

“Historian Michael Dougan of Jonesboro has written that Crawfordsville spent $57 on white education for every dollar spent on education for African-Americans. According to Woolfolk, Marion ‘never had a school building for the sole purpose of Negroes’ education.’ It wasn’t until 1925 that an elementary school for black children was built outside Marion in the all-black community of Sunset. Though some high school courses were available after 1935, people wanting higher education were forced to go to schools in Memphis, Little Rock, St. Louis and elsewhere. Even the high school courses available at Phelix High School in Sunset weren’t free to black students. Though buses were provided for white students, buses for black students weren’t used until the fall of 1946.”

A school building at Sunset, which is still a largely black community, is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Former slaves continued to live in the area as sharecroppers and tenant farmers after the Civil War.

“Friendship Lodge No. 39, a Masonic association for African-Americans, was organized in 1873,” writes Steve Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “A school for African-American children was built in 1924 with money provided by the Julius Rosenwald Fund. The school served children from Marion and the surrounding area through the eighth grade. High school classes were added in 1937 with families required to pay $8 a year until 1943.

“The original Rosenwald building became the high school when a new elementary school for African-Americans was built next door in 1955. Streets and homes were built around the school, and the community became known as the Sunset subdivision. Only a few businesses developed in Sunset — two cotton gins, a funeral home and some stores and cafes. There was also a lamp-manufacturing firm founded in 1963 by M.L. Pike Jr. The plant burned in 1973. It was rebuilt, but as the company grew, it built a larger plant south of Marion.”

The Rosenwald school building was no longer needed once Crittenden County schools were desegregated in 1970.

“The elementary school continued to be used for classes, serving both white and black children,” Teske writes. “Occasionally, the elementary school used the high school building for special events. The Rosenwald building was designated the Marion Colored High School, but locally it was known as Phelix High School. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on March 23, 1995.

“The subdivision received city services from Marion, but Sunset incorporated as a town in 1970 and began to seek federal funding to provide water and sewer services. Sewer service became available in 1978. When it incorporated, Sunset had about 450 residents, most of whom were African-American.”

The population was down to 182 by the 2020 census.

Two other communities with interesting histories that are located just north of Sunset are Jericho and Clarkedale.

Like Sunset, most of the residents of Jericho are black these days. The community was settled in the 1840s by a riverboat captain named Stephen Stonewall James and brother John James. They built a cotton gin and sawmill. They then named the community after a city in the Bible.

Railroad construction picked up in Crittenden County in the 1880s.

“The Frisco line ran through Jericho, where another line connected with the Frisco to carry logs from the diminishing forests,” Teske writes. “A post office was established at Jericho in 1886. A boardwalk east of the Frisco tracks led to Jericho’s main business establishment, a saloon with a gaming hall. Other stores were also built near the railroad.”

Jericho’s white population began to decline in the early 1900s.

“In 1910, a black man, Steve Green, fled the state after killing his white employer near Jericho,” Teske writes. “He claimed self-defense. Green was later arrested in Chicago, but activists and lawyers successfully prevented his return to Arkansas due to fears of mob violence.

“A Church of God in Christ was formed in 1916. It disbanded after a few years and then was reorganized in 1924. In the 1920s, Jericho was home to the East Arkansas Baptist Association Academy, one of the largest African-American schools in the area. In some years, more than 100 students were enrolled at the academy, many of whom boarded with local families.”

Jericho was incorporated as a town in 1986, and a renovated cotton gin was converted into the city hall. Clarkedale, meanwhile, wasn’t incorporated until 2001 even though it’s one of the oldest settlements in the county. Crittenden County’s first county seat of Greenock was within the current boundaries of Clarkedale.

After the railroad came through in the early 1880s, Cleveland B. Clarke opened a store and was named postmaster.

“At first, the post office and settlement were called Clarkton,” Teske writes. “Clarke had come to Arkansas from Peoria, Ill., where he had become wealthy manufacturing and selling rye whiskey. He established a plantation in a largely wooded area near the railroad and maintained a summer home there. A Missionary Baptist church was established in 1884.

“The name of the post office was changed from Clarkton to Clarkedale in 1910. A second plantation was established nearby by Henry Banks and William Danner, residents of Mississippi. They had a large number of tenant farmers, mostly African-Americans, who used more than 200 mules to cultivate the land.”

Clarke’s store was destroyed by a tornado in 1921 but rebuilt.

I finally head west out of Marion on U.S. 64 and soon find myself in Crawfordsville. The community has fewer than 500 residents, but a number of new homes have been built in recent years by people who work in downtown Memphis.

“Crawfordsville benefits from a slightly higher elevation in comparison to its immediate neighbors, and its history is largely unblemished by the devastation that floods have exacted on nearby communities,” Adam Miller writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The establishment of Crawfordsville began as an outgrowth of the timber industry in east Arkansas during the post-Civil War era. The opening of a railroad line through the community sustained city growth as its economy transitioned from timber to farming during the early 20th century.

“Unlike other communities in Crittenden County that diminished or disappeared once the timber-rich acreage had been cleared, Crawfordsville continued to prosper as an agricultural community after its formal incorporation in 1912. Crawfordsville was named for Adolphus Fountain Crawford, who fought for the Confederacy as a young man and settled in the area to work at the R.C. Wallace & Co. store, which was in Vincent (about two miles southeast of present-day Crawfordsville). Crawford is credited with opening the first store in what’s now Crawfordsville and also served briefly as the city’s first postmaster in 1870.”

The Swepston family was also prominent in the area. John Swepston originally was from Ohio and operated the Ware & Swepston mill on Cypress Bayou. He also operated a gristmill and sawmill on Alligator Bayou. His brother Smiley was a state representative.

“Wilsie Wise Swepston, one of John Swepston’s six children, became a leading area merchant and gin owner, establishing a store in Marion,” Miller writes. “He moved back to Crawfordsville in 1882, where he built a gin and opened another general mercantile business. He was a member of the district school board and served as Crawfordsville postmaster, county assessor, county sheriff and state representative. Beside the Swepstons, other families who migrated to the area are commemorated since almost every street is named for an early resident.

“Timber clearing and sawmill operations dominated local trade following the Civil War. The opening of a rail line through the city in 1888 encouraged timber interests near Crawfordsville to expand. Businesses that once thrived in Crawfordsville included St. John Rod & Pump Sucker Co., who daily loaded out two or three railroad cars of hickory, and the Gilt Edge Cooperage Co., which employed 70 people and produced 50,000 hoops each year. This railroad access facilitated commerce and also brought traveling salesmen.”

There once were four hotels within walking distance of Crawfordsville’s depot. In 1944, a camp for German prisoners of war was established just outside Crawfordsville. Local farmers used the prisoners for labor. The Crawfordsville camp closed in May 1946.

The first school district here was formed in 1869. Crawfordsville High School was built in 1911. It was enlarged in 1935 and burned in 1966. Incremental desegregation began in 1966, and the district was integrated by 1969.

“Following legal action from the U.S. Department of Justice, the district completely integrated, causing outlying wing schools to be closed,” Miller writes. “Students in the area now go to school in Marion or West Memphis.”

Crawfordsville was once the home of one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Arkansas, Uncle John’s. The restaurant on Main Street burned in June 2018 and wasn’t rebuilt.

Uncle John’s was opened in 1984 by John and Lucille Marconi. The couple had seven children. The youngest, Michael, ran the restaurant after his father died.

I get hungry just thinking about it as I leave Crawfordsville and enter Earle, named for Confederate officer and KKK member Josiah Francis Earle.

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From Marion west

Wednesday, January 19th, 2022

SECOND IN A SERIES

In recent decades, Marion has been known as the place where Toyota almost built automobile assembly plants twice before deciding on locations in Texas and Mississippi. There’s still an excellent site adjacent to a Union Pacific Railroad Co. intermodal terminal. Five Class One railroads operate in the area, which Southern Business & Development magazine once designated as the best place in the South for an automobile assembly plant.

Like so many other river towns, Marion once had a reputation as an unruly place.

“The ferry landing at Hopefield was known as a haven for drinking halls, gambling, horse racing and robbery,” Ralph Hardin writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “However, the traffic of local inns and rooming houses was indicative of a steady rate of growth. … The railroad later became important to the continued growth of Marion.”

As the Marion School District became more of an attraction for families, the city’s population soared from just 881 in the 1960 census to 12,345 in the 2010 census. During the next 10 years, Marion grew another 11.4 percent to 13,752 in the 2020 census. During that same 10-year period, nearby West Memphis’ population fell 6.6 percent to 24,520.

Marion became the county seat of Crittenden County in 1836 because it was easier to reach in this swampy area of the state than the original county seat of Greenock. The current Crittenden County Courthouse was completed in 1911.

“Marion’s history can be traced back to its settlement by Native American tribes, including the Quapaw,” Hardin writes. “Spanish exploration of the region occurred in the 1500s, and Spanish land grants in the area that’s now Marion were later granted to Francis Gragen and Justo Mecham. Fort Esperanza, established in 1797, was commanded by Augustine Grandee.

“The French government controlled the area for a short time until the Louisiana Purchase added the land to the United States. Grandee remained in the area and settled near Marion Lake, then known as Alligator Lake or Cypress Lake. Marion Lake was a lifeline for the area, which then included Mound City and Hopefield. In 1918, the lake was drained, creating between 600 and 800 acres of farmland. All that remains of the lake is a drainage ditch.”

It’s not clear how the town became known as Marion. When postal service began there in 1829, the name was already being used.

The Military Road southwest of Marion Lake was considered the center of town. Marion was first incorporated on April 19, 1851. A St. Louis land speculator named William Russell promoted settlement in the area, and Robertson Tally became the first mayor in 1851.

Early settlers included the Burgett, Cherry, Fooy and Welch families.

“On the southern edge of the New Madrid Fault zone, the area was rocked by earthquakes in 1811-12 with further significant seismic activity occurring in 1847, 1895 and other occasions,” Hardin writes. “Marion developed a reputation for unruliness like its neighbor across the Mississippi River. Marion’s population rose throughout the 1800s. Prominent families at this time included the Fogleman, Hodges and Pirani clans.

“Some of the businesses in operation at this time included L.D. Rhodes’ livery stable and Samuel Gilbert’s tavern. … The first levees to protect the city were three-foot earthworks erected during the 1850s. They were washed away by floods in 1858-59.”

As in the rest of Arkansas, the Civil War led to the widespread disruption of economic activity. Reconstruction wasn’t much easier.

“When the newly liberated African-American population gained a majority of elected positions in the town and county, there was outrage and disdain,” Hardin writes. “Ku Klux Klan-led terrorism and racial antagonism led to martial law being in place in Marion for a few months in 1869. In 1888, city and county governments were overturned by threats and violence, and African-American leaders who didn’t flee voluntarily were forcibly deported to Memphis.”

Beginning in 1853, two railroads were built in the area. By the 1880s, there was also a major effort in place to improve roads.

“With the advent of automobile use in the early 1900s, state and federal highways were built,” Hardin writes. “U.S. Highways 61 and 63 brought northbound and southbound traffic through the area while U.S. 70 (known as the Broadway of America) was a major east-west thoroughfare. These were largely supplanted by two of the nation’s busiest interstates, Interstate 40 and Interstate 55, which intersect two miles south of Marion.”

Major floods occurred in 1912, 1927, 1937, 1964 and 1987. There also was a series of major fires.

“Following World War II, Marion’s population grew steadily, nearly doubling from 758 in 1940 to 1,431 in 1970,” Hardin writes. “The primary focus remained on agriculture with many residents commuting to Memphis to work. … Marion’s first real attempt to stimulate commercial development began in the 1970s with the building of a shopping center, a new post office, law offices, a dentist’s office and several banks.

“A wave of commercial development beginning in the 1990s brought national chains to Marion as well as auto parts manufacturer Hino and a distribution hub for Family Dollar Stores.”

Crittenden County was named for Robert Crittenden, the first secretary of the Arkansas Territory. It was created in October 1825 and was the 12th Arkansas county. One of the county’s early and most promising settlements was Greenock, which was near the banks of the Mississippi River and was the first county seat.

“Alexander Ferguson, his wife and three sons (William, Horatio and Allen) arrived in the Arkansas Territory in 1820 and settled in present-day Crittenden County near the river,” writes Arkansas historian Mike Polston. “During the next few years, the family established its homestead and began plans for the founding of a town. Horatio Ferguson provided 50 acres for the sum of $1 with John Fooy supplying an additional five acres.

“In 1827, William Ferguson, who was serving as justice of the peace and county sheriff, surveyed the townsite, which was about 900 feet from the banks of the river. Ferguson also served in the Territorial Legislature and first state General Assembly. The town plat provided for streets with a width of about 50 feet enclosing a town square measuring 300 square feet. The name Greenock was chosen to commemorate Alexander Ferguson’s hometown in Scotland. Hopes ran high for the new town when in 1826 it was named as the first Crittenden County seat.”

A post office was established there the next year. But the town’s founders were disappointed by the lack of growth.

“Despite expectations that the town would become an important port on the Mississippi River, Greenock never grew to any substantial size,” Polston writes. “When the Military Road was built out of Memphis in the 1830s, it bypassed Greenock, isolating the town from a major transportation route. An even more severe blow occurred in 1836 when the seat of government was moved to Marion. Once the county seat moved, Horatio Ferguson regained title to most of the land he had donated.”

The post office at Greenock closed in 1846. It was briefly re-established in 1851. The railroad bypassed the town in the 1880s. The only reminder of the town these days is the Grenock Cemetery.

There’s one story about Greenock that may or may not be true.

Polston writes: “In 1831, a young man of 22 traveled up the Mississippi River on a return trip from delivering cargo to New Orleans. Sometime during the trip north, he was robbed of his money and was near destitute. When the boat docked at Greenock, the Ferguson family gave the young man a job cutting wood and a place to stay in their house for a short time. The story of Abraham Lincoln’s brief stay at Greenock is poorly documented and may be no more than local legend. However, it’s documented that Lincoln made such a trip to New Orleans in 1831 and would have passed by the Arkansas town.”

Hopefield was another town on the river that no longer exists. It served as both a railroad terminal and river landing.

Adam Miller writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas that Hopefield was “pivotal in the development of transportation and commerce between Tennessee and Arkansas during the 19th century. But devastation from war, disease, commercial setbacks and the power of the Mississippi River ultimately destroyed Hopefield in the early 20th century.”

Dutch immigrant Benjamin Fooy established an encampment known as Foy’s Point in the area in 1795. He was appointed by the Spanish governor of Louisiana as an agent to Native Americans and was in charge of tariff collections from river traffic.

“Fooy and several family members had also received generous land grants from the Spanish,” Miller writes. “The settlement was renamed Campo de la Esperanza in 1797 and was renamed Hopefield in 1803 after what’s now Arkansas was acquired by the United States with the Louisiana Purchase. Fooy remained at Hopefield after the land acquisition and served as a justice of the peace and U.S. magistrate. He was respected as a businessman and judge, and this reputation boosted the status of Hopefield until Fooy’s death in 1823. After that, Hopefield gained repute as a location for dueling and a rendezvous for gamblers seeking refuge from prosecution across the river in Memphis.”

In 1824, there were congressional appropriations made to construct the Military Road from Memphis to Little Rock. The road was completed by 1831, but it was often flooded in the Hopefield area. Flooding also prevented a railroad line to Little Rock from being completed until well after the Civil War.

“Before large-scale construction of railroads in Arkansas began, factions within the state argued about the geographical distribution of the lines and fought for federal dollars and land grants to implement their visions,” Miller writes. “In 1853, the Cairo & Fulton Railroad received a federal grant to develop a railroad that ran northeast to southwest across Arkansas, terminating at the Red River near Fulton. Implementation of this new railroad eventually shifted more toward Memphis and St. Louis. That benefited Hopefield.

“Efforts to connect the Memphis & Little Rock line to the Cairo & Fulton line began in 1854, but the work was slow due to the cost of constructing lines on embankments that would be safe from floods. A machine shop, rail depot and railroad support services boosted employment and growth, which led to the establishment of the Hopefield post office in 1858.”

The railroad shops at Hopefield were used as a Confederate armory during the Civil War.

“Its facilities were abandoned when Union forces seized Memphis in June 1862,” Miller writes. “Confederate guerrillas went on to sabotage the partially completed Memphis & Little Rock line and harassed Union operations. By February 1863, even the ferry service between Memphis and Hopefield was disrupted, which prompted the Union commanders in Memphis to give orders that Hopefield be burned to counteract the insurgency. The town was peacefully evacuated on Feb. 19, and Hopefield was burned.

“Following the Civil War, Hopefield was rebuilt to accommodate renewed construction of the railroad. Ferry operations across the river to Memphis flourished. The Memphis & Little Rock line was completed in 1871, but growth at Hopefield was stunted with an outbreak of yellow fever that ravaged Memphis beginning in 1873. Quarantine in Hopefield was effective at first, but another epidemic in 1878 decimated the town’s population. Continuous erosion from the flooding Mississippi did little to help matters. In 1887-88, several hundred feet of Hopefield shoreline were swallowed by the river, which necessitated the relocation of buildings and railroad tracks.”

The Kansas, Fort Scott & Memphis and Iron Mountain, St. Lous & Southern railroad lines established terminals and ferry inclines downriver from Hopefield. The first railroad bridge to Memphis was completed in 1892.

“Its high usage tolls compelled other lines to continue using the Hopefield ferry until another railroad bridge was completed in 1916,” Miller writes. “Levee construction in eastern Arkansas had been ongoing for several decades and was largely completed by the 20th century. Protective levees in Crittenden County had been erected back from the Mississippi, which left Hopefield defenseless against floods. The town was eradicated by a severe flood in 1912. After this flood, all railroad freight was transferred over the Frisco bridge (the one built in 1892). The opening of the Harahan bridge in 1916 eliminated demand for ferry services at Hopefield.

“Hopefield remained abandoned. The supporting piers of the Interstate 40 bridge rest atop the location. Several markers placed by a Boy Scout troop once detailed significant events and locations in town history, but years of neglect took their toll. Some building foundations and the railroad embankment remain. When the Mississippi is low, the submerged vessels then visible attest to the traffic that once flowed through the town.

 

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The Sultana

Tuesday, January 18th, 2022

FIRST IN A SERIES

It was quiet that day in Marion when I pulled up to the Sultana Disaster Museum at 104 Washington St.

I was the only visitor, but that didn’t discourage me. The museum tells a story that needs to be told, and it’s my first stop as I take U.S. Highway 64 from east to west across Arkansas.

The worst maritime disaster in U.S. history occurred April 27, 1865, in the Mississippi River near here. It’s estimated that between 1,200 and 1,800 of the Sultana’s 2,400 passengers were killed when three of the ship’s four boilers exploded and the Sultana burned. The sinking of the Titanic claimed 1,517 lives.

The Sultana disaster didn’t receive widespread attention due to the timing. President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated just 13 days earlier. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9. Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had been killed the day before the explosion as Union troops tracked him to a Virginia farm and shot him.

Sultana survivors formed a national association in the 1880s, and their descendants began holding reunions on the anniversary of the tragedy. City officials at Marion joined forces with historians several years ago to create this small museum. The goal was to attract some of the tens of thousands of annual visitors to Memphis. The photographs and interpretive panels, which record the names of soldiers, crew members and civilians on the Sultana, explain the events of that night.

The museum has accumulated far more material than it has room to exhibit, and fundraising efforts are ongoing so a larger facility can be built.

“The way I understand it, they used a raft to remove people from the wreckage and put them up in the treetops and then came back for everyone once all the survivors were away from the wreckage and the fire,” says Marion Mayor Frank Fogleman.

The Sultana left New Orleans on April 21 with between 75 and 100 cabin passengers. Livestock bound for market in St. Louis was also aboard the ship. The Sultana docked at Vicksburg so repairs could be made to the ship’s boilers. It was also a chance to take on more passengers.

The boat had a defective boiler that should have been replaced. In order to save time and money, a small patch reinforced the area that was leaking. That repair took one day. A complete replacement would have taken about three days. Meanwhile, hundreds of new passengers came aboard.

Nancy Hendricks writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas that those who boarded were “mostly Union soldiers from Midwestern states such as Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. Having been taken as prisoners of war, they were sent to the notoriously overcrowded Confederate prisons of Cahaba in Alabama and Andersonville in Georgia. Those who survived at war’s end were marched to Vicksburg for their return north.

“When the survivors came in sight of the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, they shouted and sang with joy. The Army was paying the Sultana’s captain — who was part-owner of the boat — $5 for each enlisted man and $10 for each officer taken aboard. Those who boarded the side-wheeler found a boat built for 376 that took on, by some reports, almost 2,400 men, as well as women and children who were in passenger cabins.”

The boilers were taxed to their limits as the crowded ship made its way upstream against strong currents. The river was swollen by spring rains. It was 2 a.m. on April 27, and the Sultana was a few miles upstream from Memphis when the nightmare began.

“It was like a tremendous bomb going off in the middle of where these men were,” said Jerry Potter, the author of “The Sultana Tragedy” and a Memphis lawyer. “And the shrapnel, the steam and the boiling water killed hundreds.”

One of the boilers had exploded, leading two of the other three boilers to also explode. Many survivors ended up on the Arkansas side of the river, which was still under Confederate control. One local resident who helped rescue survivors was an ancestor of the current Marion mayor.

Most boats on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River had been confiscated by Union solders during the previous months in an attempt to discourage Confederate raids. Arkansas residents set out in what few boats they had. Logs were strung together to form rafts.

In a story for National Public Radio, Jon Hamilton said the best explanation for why the tragedy didn’t receive much attention is that “after years of bloody conflict, the nation was simply tired of hearing about war and death. Today, though, the city of Marion thinks people are ready to learn about the Sultana. The museum it has created near City Hall includes pictures, personal items from soldiers, pieces of the Sultana and a 14-foot replica of the boat. But what the museum really has to offer is a powerful story of soldiers who died just days away from seeing their families and loved ones.”

The New York Times devoted only three lines to a disaster that resulted in all those deaths. Most Americans were unaware of what had happened.

The Union soldiers had somehow survived two of the worst prisons in American history, only to die on the way home. The story is a sad one, but it’s one Arkansans should know. Thanks to the folks at Marion, the Sultana disaster is no longer a forgotten part of Arkansas and American history.

And the museum is about to get much bigger and better.

John Fogleman, who served 26 years as a circuit judge in this area, walks me into an old gymnasium near downtown Marion and lays out his vision for the future.

He’s part of a group trying to raise $10 million. Some of that money will be used to turn this gym, which was built by the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s, into a state-of-the-art museum that will attract history buffs from across the country. The rest will be used as an endowment to fund future operations.

“We’ve already raised $3.4 million,” John Fogleman says. “And that was done during a pandemic.”

The gym was once a showplace in the Arkansas Delta. In 1939, LSU’s basketball team came up from Baton Rouge to play Southwestern of Memphis (now Rhodes) there. Fogleman remembers high school shop classes being taught in the building.

“We built furniture in here,” he tells me. “We’re giving new life to a historic structure.”

There will be more room to tell the stories of men such as survivor William Warner, who wrote: “I found myself floundering about in the water while the screams and cries of the injured and those who were unable to swim could be heard on all sides.”

Another survivor, James Kimberline, said: “The water around the boat for a distance of 20 to 40 feet was a solid, seething mass of humanity clinging to one another.”

In April 2021, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that the state will contribute $750,000 to the effort. On a day when more than 100 area business and civic leaders turned out, the governor said: “How can you understand the history of the Mississippi River without coming here to learn about the Sultana? This has never gotten the attention it should have received.”

Once the museum opens, it will mark the culmination of a decades-long effort to honor those who died. In 1885, Sultana survivors began meeting with the hope that the disaster wouldn’t be forgotten. The last reunion was in 1933.

In 1987, a Knoxville, Tenn., lawyer named Norman Shaw wanted to determine if there was still interest in the disaster. Dozens of people turned out at Knoxville’s Mount Olive Cemetery, and the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends was founded.

In 2011, the first public exhibition of Sultana artifacts took place on the Arkansas State University campus at Jonesboro. In 2013, the History Channel presented the first professionally produced Sultana documentary.

The Sultana Historical Preservation Society Inc. was formed in 2013, and the current museum opened two years later. In 2016, the Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Museum” aired a Sultana segment. The next year, a 90-minute documentary titled “Remember the Sultana” was released.

In 2019, the Arkansas Legislature established April 27 each year as Sultana Remembrance Day. That year also saw an exhibition of Sultana artifacts at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock.

Those working on the project are hopeful than an expanded facility (the current museum has 1,000 square feet; the new museum will have 23,000) will be an integral part of a future tourism corridor that will see people stay at the high-rise hotel now under construction at Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis and then head north on Interstate 55 to visit the Sultana exhibit, the model Delta town of Wilson, the Johnny Cash boyhood home at Dyess and the Cold War museum that’s being developed on the grounds of the former Eaker Air Force Base near Blytheville.

The Marion Advertising and Promotion Commission has pledged $500,000 toward the project while Sultana Historical Preservation Society members have pledged another $150,000. Studies funded by the society estimate the museum will attract 50,000 visitors each year.

“That could lead to additional shops and restaurants downtown,” John Fogleman says. “I can see people spending an hour in the museum, an hour shopping and another hour eating out. The bulk of the money raised so far has come from this area, but we’re reaching out to foundations across the country who take an interest in Civil War sites. We’ll never know if we don’t ask.”

I first was made aware of the efforts in Marion by Louis Intres, a Fort Smith native who graduated from what’s now the University of Central Arkansas at Conway and then spent 38 years in banking. Interested in history his entire life, Intres retired from banking at age 58 and went to Arkansas State University in Jonesboro to obtain a master’s degree and a doctorate so he could teach history.

Being from Fort Smith, he was well aware of the patience it has taken officials there to raise enough money for the U.S. Marshals Museum. Those involved in that effort had hoped to complete the almost $60 million facility so its opening would coincide with the 230th anniversary of the Marshals Service in September 2019. The museum still isn’t open.

But consider how fascinated Americans still are with the sinking of the Titanic. If an Arkansas museum could bring to life a tragedy that claimed as many or more victims, a lot more of the tourists visiting Memphis would have a reason to cross the river.

“I get emails every day from people across the country who are fascinated by the Sultana,” Intres told me several years ago. “What’s left of the boat is 37 feet beneath a soybean field. It’s now a mile to the river channel. We consider this hallowed ground, and there’s no way to remove what’s down there.

“What we can do is to build a museum that will tell the story of the people who were aboard. There’s a lot of competition for charitable dollars these days. I realize that. I also realize that we have one of the most significant events in American maritime history, and that story needs to be told here in Arkansas where what’s left of the Sultana now rests. If we don’t tell the story now, it could be lost forever.”

When the Sultana was launched in 1863, the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune described it as “one of the largest and best business steamers ever constructed.”

The Sultana was built to haul cotton. But the captain, J. Cass Mason, had financial difficulties and viewed it as his path to prosperity.

In Vicksburg, Mason entered into an arrangement with a Union officer named Reuben Hatch, whose family had connections to President Lincoln. Mason agreed to give Hatch a cut of his earnings if Hatch would guarantee a large load. Mason made the deal even though he knew that one boiler was dripping water through a ruptured seam.

Rumors were spread in Vicksburg that other available boats were tainted with disease. So it was that the Sultana was loaded far beyond capacity while two other steamboats left Vicksburg practically empty.

“The sites of most major battles of the Civil War have become either national parks or state parks,” Intres once told me. “People just don’t know about the Sultana. For more than a century, virtually nothing was written or said about it. A small group of people then began researching the incident.

“We’ve uncovered the life stories of those who were aboard the boat, and some of those stories are amazing. There are stories of heroism. There are stories of corruption. This has it all. We want to build the jewel of the Delta in Marion and use it to tell those stories.”

 

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