From Wynne to Woodruff County

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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