There wasn’t much traffic on a beautiful Friday morning as my friend Nate Coulter and I traveled west on U.S. Highway 371. We had left Interstate 30 at Prescott and were making our way through Blevins and McCaskill.
Our destination: Nashville, Nate’s hometown and one of my favorite towns in Arkansas.
The people of Nashville have always had an intense pride, as exemplified by their support of the Nashville Scrappers high school football team.
My older sister’s first job out of college was teaching at Nashville. She fell in love with the place. I can remember going there with my parents to visit her and see Jerry Clower perform at the high school football stadium during the regional poultry festival.
On the day Nate and I made the trip, Nashville High School was still looking for a head football coach, and the search was the talk of the town.
One of the best articles I’ve read in recent years was a lengthy piece Kane Webb wrote several years ago for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on the importance of high school football in Nashville. That article is framed on the walls of the Nashville Coca-Cola Bottling Co., a business whose colorful history is also a source of pride for Nashville residents.
Kane, by the way, is now living in Kentucky, where he’s the editor of Louisville magazine. I plan to see him in May when I go to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby.
In an era when the Main Streets in too many Arkansas towns are sad shadows of their former selves, Nashville maintains a vibrant downtown business district. It’s also the home of something that’s rare even in large cities these days — competing newspapers — as different parts of the Graves family publish the Nashville Leader and the Nashville News.
One of the first people of European ancestry to settle in what’s now Nashville was Isaac Cooper Perkins, a farmer and Baptist missionary. There are still plenty of Baptists in these parts, not to mention a healthy population of members of the Church of Christ.
Perkins was a traveling preacher who served congregations from Little Rock to what was then the booming cotton capital of Jefferson, Texas. His earliest land grant in the Nashville area is dated 1836, the year Arkansas became a state. Some local historians, however, believe Perkins first built a house in the area in the 1820s.
Steven Teske tells this story in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net) about how the town got its name: “In 1856, the name of the post office was changed to Nashville at the request of new resident Michael Womack, who felt that the name Hell’s Valley was inappropriate for a community consisting largely of Baptists. Although it is not known why he chose the name Nashville, many speculate that he named the settlement for Nashville, Tenn.
“By that time, two Baptist congregations had been established, one planted by Perkins in 1835 and another that broke away from that congregation in 1853. At least two schoolhouses were built in the area during the 1850s: Community Rock Hill School and Mount Olive School, both of which had one room. The Mine Creek Male and Female Academy was also advertised in the late 1850s. It appears to have been established in 1854.”
Howard County was formed in 1873, having been carved out of parts of Hempstead, Sevier, Polk and Pike counties. The first county seat was Center Point, but the county seat moved to Nashville in 1905. The Arkansas & Louisiana Railroad had built a line between Nashville and Washington in Hempstead County in 1883.
The Nashville News was established in 1878, a telegraph line was established in 1884 and the first phone line came in 1887. The biggest boost to the economy, though, came in the early 1900s when Bert Johnson planted a 100-acre demonstration peach orchard near the town. That orchard was a success, and the peach industry flourished for several decades.
There eventually were more than 13,000 acres planted in peach trees with 1.25 million bushels produced each year.
The Nashville Ice, Coal & Light Co. began electric service in 1911, Main Street was paved in 1929 and natural gas arrived that same year.
In 1938, William T. Dillard established his first department store at Nasvhille.
Most of the peach orchards are now gone, replaced by cattle, poultry and pine trees.
Over at the Nashville Coca-Cola Bottling Co., work continues at one of the oldest family-owned businesses in the state.
Last June, the company, run by four generations of the Wilson family, celebrated 100 years of bottling Coke.
A history of the company released for the occasion noted: “The year 1896 saw the birth of Nashville’s third-oldest industry. First had been the lumber mills, then the woolen mill. Now came the Nashville Bottling Co., started by J.H. Moore.
“Ownership later passed to Hill Brothers Wholesale Grocery. Soda pop, deriving its name from the spring stopper bottle, was being bottled by a black man named Hence Wilder. When W.W. Wilson and his son Forrest bought the grocery and bottling works on Main Street, Hence Wilder continued to bottle for them.
“On Jan. 1, 1911, W.W. and Forrest Wilson obtained a contract to bottle Coca-Cola, a drink developed in 1886 by a pharmacist and wholesale-retail druggist in Atlanta. That same year, Coca-Cola received a registered trademark. All machinery used in bottling was hand operated.”
The first accurate sales records show that 315 cases of Coke were sold at Nashville in August 1914. The first bottles were brown, but a 1915 patent was secured by the Atlanta-based company for the contour green bottle that would become recognized around the world as a Coke bottle.
The bottling company at Nashville survived sugar rationing in World War I, a cotton bust and the Great Depression. In addition to Coke, the Wilsons bottled Nu-Grape, Orange Crush, Lemon Crush and a Hence Wilder secret formula known as Hot-Shot.
The company moved to a new building on Sypert Street next to a blacksmith shop in 1921. Operations were expanded to De Queen in the 1920s.
Forrest Wilson took over the company following his father’s death in 1932. Forrest’s son, Ramon Wilson, acquired stock in the company and became a full-time employee in 1943.
After serving in the Marines in 1944-45, including being a part of the invasion of Iwo Jima, Ramon Wilson returned to the family company. He’s 88 now but was in his office Friday morning to greet Nate and me. He was wearing a Scrappers windbreaker, of course.
As his son Kenneth and his daughter Elizabeth listened, Mr. Wilson regaled us with stories of the company’s history.
In 1948, Ramon Wilson helped oversee the installation of a bottling machine that could produce 63 bottles per minute. In 1953, the Mena Coca-Cola Bottling Co. was purchased. That added Polk, Scott and Montgomery counties to a territory that already included Howard, Hempstead, Sevier, Pike and Little River counties.
Kenneth Wilson joined the company in 1977, helped oversee the move to the company’s current building in 1981 and became company president in 1988.
On April 18, 1988, Kenneth Wilson signed an agreement acquiring Dr Pepper franchise rights for much of southwest Arkansas. Let me put it this way: They like their Dr Pepper in southwest Arkansas. By 1999, the Nashville company was the highest per capita bottler of Dr Pepper in the world.
For years, there was a sign out front that proclaimed: “#1 Dr Pepper Bottler In The World.”
Elizabeth has covered the walls of the facility with memorabilia, turning it into a museum of sorts — a Coca-Cola museum, a Nashville museum, a Wilson family museum. There are even old Orchard bottles, a local brand named in honor of the peach industry. During the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Orchard drinks were bottled in peach, orange, grape, lemon and lime flavors. In fact, the Wilson family owned its own peach orchard at one time.
Driven forward through the years by business leaders such as Ramon Wilson, Nashville remains a peach of a town.