Crossing Woodruff County

EIGHTH IN A SERIES

We enter McCrory, the next stop on our trip across Arkansas on U.S. Highway 64.

“There are several versions of how an early settlement in this area was named,” Paula Harmon Barnett writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “As one story goes, a traveler riding through what’s now Woodruff County in about 1840 stopped at a cabin in the woods to ask for directions. A woman named Jennie came to the door, surrounded by children. Later, the traveler jokingly said he had stopped at Jennie’s Colony, referring to the multitude of children. The name stuck, and for many years the area was known as Jennie’s Colony.

“Another story claims the area was named for the wife of early settler James Barnes. Others say it was named for Jennie Edmonds, an early inhabitant of the area. Whatever the truth, part of the colony became McCrory. … The population of the area showed no significant growth until after the railroads arrived in 1886. Much of the region was swampland. Cotton was the main crop, and a few cotton farmers had large holdings and owned a number of slaves.

“Tax records show that Cyrus McCrory owned six slaves in 1861 when he moved from Tennessee to Tuckerman. In 1862, McCrory paid $3,500 in Confederate money for 400 acres and moved his family to what’s now McCrory. The town was named for him.”

Cyrus McCrory died in 1869. A year later, his son, Wade McCrory, moved the family to Batesville. In 1890, the year McCrory was incorporated, the family moved back. Several years earlier, a railroad agent had begun visiting with Wade McCrory about obtaining right of way and building a depot.

“Wade McCrory, recognizing the importance of the railroad to the community, signed deeds giving the depot site and 15 acres on the south end of his farm for the right of way,” Barnett writes. “As word spread, plans were made for laying out the town, a post office opened and industry began to flourish. The first train steamed into town in 1887. When the county court granted the incorporation petition for McCrory on Jan. 20, 1890, its population was about 300.

“When the railroad began running, one resident said, ‘It was like a storm.’ Soon, the town gained a hotel, school, churches, a stave mill, a furniture store, drugstores and lumber mills. Wade McCrory donated the land for churches and half the land for a school. In 1903, he helped organize the Bank of McCrory. It was the county’s only bank to remain in operation during the Great Depression.”

McCrory became a regional hub. People throughout the area read a succession of newspapers owned by Walter Raney and came to McCrory to shop.

“Raney also owned and operated a funeral business and organized the first burial association in Woodruff County, the Raney Burial Association,” Barnett writes. “He served as mayor, county judge, state representative and state senator. His efforts procured a pension for Confederate veterans and their widows.”

These days, the town revolves around farming and the McCrory School District.

“The first school of record was a family school in a log cabin on the Bronte farm in the early 1880s,” Barnett writes. “The first school building was constructed in 1888 in a rural area described only as near the ‘old pine tree.’ In 1900, the school moved into a former hotel in downtown McCrory. In 1930, the DeView, Beards, Grays and Fakes Chapel schools consolidated with McCrory, and the first buses were used.”

McCrory’s population has dropped from 1,942 in the 1980 census to 1,383 in the 2020 census. The 770,000-square-foot American Greetings manufacturing plant closed in 2003 after 27 years in operation.

We leave McCrory, cross the Cache River at Patterson and make our way west on U.S. 64 to Augusta on the banks of the White River. Augusta is the Woodruff County seat and became a city long before McCrory due to its location on the river.

These days, Augusta is losing population even more rapidly than McCrory. It has fallen from 3,496 residents in the 1980 census to 1,851 in the 2020 census.

“Most families that settled in Augusta came from Eastern states and brought culture with them,” Barnett writes. “Visitors often remarked on the beauty of the homes in what was otherwise a wilderness. Some stayed to join in building the town. By the start of the Civil War, Augusta’s population had grown to about 600 people. … The town was almost destroyed during the war. The river landing made Augusta a target for the Union.

“In 1864, citizens fled from Union troops, who tore down houses and used the boards to build shelters in their camps. The finer houses were spared as headquarters for officers. A skirmish took place at Augusta on Aug. 10, 1864, and expeditions through the area occurred the following December and January. Almost as much tragedy followed the war. Unrest in Woodruff County caused Republican Gov. Powell Clayton to declare martial law and send a company of militia to root out Ku Klux Klan members in 1868. The commander immediately arrested 12 of the leading citizens of Augusta to ensure the cooperation of residents. Several people were killed, and the town was looted.”

When railroads began crossing the county, Augusta’s leaders decided to concentrate instead on river trade. It was a big mistake. Finally, a short-line railroad was built in 1887 to connect with the main line between Bald Knob and Memphis. What was known as the Little Dummy Line continued operations until 1958.

“A big event for Augusta occurred in 1930 when a $614,734 bridge was completed across the White River, closing the last gap in U.S. 64,” Barnett writes. “A celebration was held with a parade across the bridge and many dignitaries present. The original bridge, which was on the National Register of Historic Places, was replaced in 2001 with a four-lane bridge at a cost of $17.6 million.

“During the Great Depression, crop prices dropped, and the Bank of Augusta closed. Augusta businessman Ed Bonner loaned the school $10,000 so it could stay open, and teachers agreed to work one month out of every eight months without pay.”

The Augusta School District annexed the Cotton Plant School District in 2004.

The Woodruff County Courthouse at Augusta, which opened in 1902, has been on the National Register of Historic Places since December 1982.

According to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program: “Augusta has hosted four courthouses through the years. There have also been court sessions in Cotton Plant and McCrory out of convenience for those residents. Augusta’s first courthouse was a modest wood-frame building. The county offices soon moved into a larger two-room wooden structure. In April 1870, Augusta founder Thomas Hough sold his residence to the county for $28,000, and it became the third courthouse. It stood on the site of the current Woodruff County Courthouse. The two-story brick residence featured a wide lawn and served as Union Gen. Frederick Steele’s headquarters in July 1862 before a march to Helena.

“By 1901, county offices had outgrown the Hough house, leading to its demolition. County officials appointed T.H. Connor as building commissioner for a new courthouse in Augusta along with one in Cotton Plant to serve southern Woodruff County. The county appropriated $44,000, including $30,000 for the Augusta building. Charles Thompson, a prolific Arkansas architect, drew the plans for both projects.

“Thompson planned the Augusta courthouse in the Richardson Romanesque style, an eclectic design named after the work of architect Henry Hobson Richardson. Connor awarded the contract to build the structure to C.W. Clark of Little Rock. The most distinctive outside feature is a clock tower that crowns the pressed-brick building, along with the pyramidal and high-hipped roofing. Inside, a multicolored tile mural covers the main level. Pine wainscoting adorns the second-floor courtroom.

“The building opened in December 1902 with much fanfare. The Arkansas Democrat reported: ‘To say it’s a beauty is putting it very mildly.’ Judge E. D. Robinson started the building’s first court session with 68 cases on the docket, including 38 filings for divorce.”

Headed toward the west, I cross the White River, the river that once gave Augusta its reason for being.

“Keelboats were an early mode of transportation for Arkansas’ early settlers,” Aaron Rogers writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Above Newport, sharp bends, rapids and low water levels along the river during the summer months — as well as the additional manpower required to move keelboats upriver against the current — generally allowed travel only downriver. The lower White River was navigable in both directors from the Mississippi River to Newport.

“The river served as a highway carrying supplies and crops back and forth from the frontier settlements to river cities such as Memphis and New Orleans. … After the Civil War, steamboats were gradually replaced by railroads.”

We’re in the lowlands of the White River now, and ducks can be seen flying, a reminder that this is one of Arkansas’ prime areas for hunting and fishing. In this part of the state, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge, the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge and the Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge.

Meanwhile, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission operates the Henry Gray Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area, the Steve N. Wilson Raft Creek Bottoms Wildlife Management Area and the Rex Hancock Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area.

The White River National Wildlife Refuge covers more than 160,000 acres in parts of Monroe, Arkansas, Phillips and Desha counties. It borders the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge to the north. The refuge was created in 1935 and has expanded through the decades to serve as a home for migrating waterfowl, black bears and eagles.

There are 356 natural and manmade lakes in the refuge covering almost 4,000 acres. The refuge is classified as a Wetland of International Importance.

Meanwhile, the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge covers almost 70,000 acres. It has land in parts of Woodruff, Jackson, Prairie and Monroe counties. The Cache and White River refuges combine to preserve the largest tract of contiguous bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the country.

The youngest of the three national wildlife refuges in the area is Bald Knob, which covers about 14,800 acres in White County.

“The Bald Knob refuge was acquired as part of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan in 1993,” Candice McGee writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Most of the land consists of a rice farm that had been owned by John Hancock Insurance Co. Unlike many wildlife refuges, Bald Knob includes cropland that continues to be farmed. Much of the crop is left unharvested to feed and shelter migratory birds and wildlife. The irrigation system on the farm is still in use, maintaining mudflats that support migrating waterfowl while also providing a home for shorebirds.

“Other sections of the refuge are being reforested or have been returned to wetland conditions. The terrain includes bald cypress, tupelo, swamp brakes, small oxbow lakes, Southern bottomland hardwood forests and the waters of Overflow Creek. Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge is also home to bald eagles and peregrine falcons. Both of these species have recovered significantly after being at perilously low populations.

“Through cooperative efforts with local farmers, the refuge is able to provide an excellent food source and habitat for wintering waterfowl. Farmers plant rice, milo, millet and other crops. As part of the refuge’s cooperative farming agreement, they leave part of the crops unharvested. About 20,000 people visit the refuge annually.”

Henry Gray Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area covers parts of White and Woodruff counties. The area consists of 17,000 acres of prime bottomland hardwoods with numerous sloughs cutting through the woods. The White River is on the east, and the Little Red River separates about 4,000 acres from the main body of the WMA. Glaise Creek is another major tributary in the area. Oxbow lakes have names such as Big Hurricane, Little Hurricane, Big Bell, Little Bell, Whirl Lake, Honey Lake, Big Brushy and Mallard Pond.

The WMA was established in 1958. The owner of most of the land was once the company that made Singer sewing machines. In the 1930s, the land was sold to Fisher Body Co.

According to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission: “Each year about 500 to 600 acres of timber are cruised, marked and cut to improve the composition and diversity of the forest and increase the quality of the habitat for forest wildlife. WMA personnel plant about 30 acres of food plots each year. Future plans are to establish food plots in clover and other perennials. One 60-acre field will be reforested in hardwoods.”

The Steve Wilson Raft Creek Bottoms WMA in White County covers almost 4,000 acres. Raft Creek was an overflow hardwood bottomland and backwater area until the late 1960s and early 1970s when it was cleared for soybean farming.

According to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission: “The AGFC and Natural Resources Conservation Service are in the process of restoring the area’s hydrology and native vegetation. This includes creating about 1,400 acres of shallow-water areas and about 11 miles of restored channels of Raft Creek and its tributaries that can be used as boat lanes. Restored channels, sloughs and brakes are fringed with cypress and overcup oak plantings. The remainder of the site is planted in Nuttall oak, cherrybark oak, willow oak, water oak, sweet pecan and green ash.”

The Rex Hancock Black Swamp WMA in Woodruff County began in 1971 when 3,888 acres were purchased from three owners. In 1983, 1,694 acres were purchased by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission from the timber giant Potlatch. That land was later deeded to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission.

Another 377 acres known as the LeBlanc Unit were purchased in cooperation with Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy in 1990. In 1995, a 427-acre tract was deeded to the commission to bring the total acreage to almost 6,400 acres.

According to the commission: “The WMA is mostly low bottomlands and swamps. The Cache River splits the area in the middle. Major hardwood species are cypress, tupelo, oak and hickory. About 30 acres of permanent food plots are in the process of being established in perennials such as clovers and rye grass. About 120 acres have been reforested in hardwood seedlings. Two wetland complexes are being developed to provide about 50 acres of habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds.

“The WMA has several stands of virgin cypress and tupelo. Most stretches of the Cache River within this area are lined with these species, providing an environment that is aesthetically attractive and increasingly unusual. The WMA provides one of the best opportunities available anywhere to experience this type of river swamp environment.”

The WMA was named for the Stuttgart man who led the long fight to protect the lower Cache River and the surrounding Big Woods.

“Conservation needs more than lip service, more than professionals,” Rex Hancock once said. “It needs ordinary people with extraordinary desire.”

The Nature Conservancy has described this battle in east Arkansas as “one of ecological setbacks, protection victories and painstaking restoration. Yet the final chapter has yet to be written. In 1970, at the request of local landowners, the state slated 232 miles of the meandering Cache River and Bayou DeView for channelization to control flooding on upstream fields. A group of concerned sportsmen led by Hancock joined conservation agencies and organizations to launch a campaign that eventually brought a halt to ditching of nearly all of the lower Cache. During the battle, seven miles of the river were channelized.

“Soon afterward, a partnership of agencies, conservation groups, businesses and landowners began working to conserve the remaining forests in the lower Cache basin. Major victories included securing federal funding that created the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge and later working to add 41,000 acres of Potlatch lands to the White River National Wildlife Refuge. Through the Wetlands Reserve Program, tens of thousands of bottomland acres were reforested. All told, the partnership has reforested more than 50,000 acres and safeguarded more than 130,000 acres in the Big Woods.

“While the conservation strides were significant, the work on the channelized stretch of the Cache remained incomplete. When the restoration is finished, this stretch of the Cache will once again enjoy thriving fish populations and flourishing habitat that supports waterfowl and hundreds of resident and migratory bird species. With channelization, the Cache basin’s productive aquatic habitats and richly diverse bottomland forests declined. This harmed millions of wintering waterfowl that flocked to the area, black bears that roamed freely in surrounding woods and prized sport fish that defined the Cache’s waters.

“Restoring the Cache pays homage to and helps sustain the deeply rooted Delta river culture so cherished throughout Arkansas. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the city of Clarendon, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, Arkansas Audubon, Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy worked together to restore a four-mile portion of the channelized river upstream from Clarendon.

“Restoring the river to its more natural state involved removing plugs at the start of old meanders and constructing weirs, which are rock structures that redirect water to flow into the river’s historic meanders. Using these methods, a significant stretch of river was restored with fairly limited construction work. Work to remove the earthen plug at the most upstream meander was completed in June 2013.”

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