It’s as if we’ve stepped back in time to an era when the buffalo roamed the blackland prairies of southwest Arkansas.
Paul Austin, the executive director of the Arkansas Humanities Council, and I are driving on a Wednesday afternoon through the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission’s Rick Evans Grandview Prairie Wildlife Management Area.
As we make our way down the gravel road, we look out on acres and acres of native grasses and wildflowers. At 4,885 acres, it’s the largest blackland conservation site in the country.
The blackland prairie once covered 12 million acres of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. It was the home of more than 600 plant and 300 animal species. Because of the fertile soils and treeless landscapes, settlers were busy converting the blackland prairie to cotton fields and cattle pastures by the 1800s.
Only about 10,000 acres of this prairie remains in its native condition. The prairie was hurt through the decades by the absence of fires, which were needed to keep species such as the Eastern red cedar at bay. Invasive plants took over. As cedars flourish, they block sunlight from the ground, meaning that wildflowers and other native plants cannot grow.
What once was the site of the antebellum Grandview Plantation was purchased by the state in 1997 from owners who had operated it as a hunting preserve with pen-raised native and non-native upland game birds. There also were two lakes built for bass fishing.
The state’s first order of business was to cut down thousands of cedar trees. Controlled burns followed, removing fescue, Johnson grass, Chinese bush clover and over invasive plants.
The results have been spectacular. On the day we were there, a teacher workshop was being held at the Grandview Prairie Conservation Education Center, which has room for overnight guests. The teachers were out admiring the prairie as we drove through.
After the visit to Washington in Hempstead County (discussed in yesterday’s Southern Fried blog post), Paul and I eschewed the direct route home on Interstate 30 and took what I call the “back route” from Washington to Arkadelphia. We went through Ozan, Tollette, Mineral Springs, Nashville, Murfreesboro, Delight, Antoine and Hollywood.
Football is big in southwest Arkansas, and Paul and I are both football fans. One reason we didn’t go directly to Nashville after leaving Grandview is because we wanted to see the smallest school in the state — Mineral Springs — with artificial turf on its football field.
The blacklands of southwest Arkansas were covered by the Gulf of Mexico millions of years ago. As the water receded, deposits of shellfish were left behind. They formed a chalky layer underneath the rich, black soil. Fossils of marine life from millions of years ago have been found at Grandview. The area also was heavily used by the Caddo tribe, and Indian artifacts abound.
I’ve written before on the Southern Fried blog that Nashville is among my favorite towns in Arkansas — from its love of Scrapper football to the fact that it has two competing newspapers to its vibrant downtown, Nashville is a special place.
In an age when the downtowns of so many small towns consist of empty storefronts and cracked sidewalks, a trip to downtown Nashville is like stepping back into the 1960s. Locally owned businesses fill both sides of the street. Most of the parking places are taken on this Wednesday afternoon in June.
From Nashville, we take Arkansas Highway 27 to Murfreesboro, crossing from Howard County into Pike County. In his song “Arkansas,” native son Glen Campbell sings of “Pike County’s sandy loam.” The county sports an amazing geological diversity.
We don’t have time on this day to visit the Crater of Diamonds State Park, the volcanic crater that’s home to one of the 10 largest diamond deposits in the world and is the only site where the public can search for diamonds and keep what’s found. It remains a unique Arkansas attraction, drawing tourists from around the world.
Farmer and prospector John Wesley Huddleston first found diamonds here in 1906, sparking a flood of fortune hunters who descended on the county. A town known as Kimberly was born to accommodate the new residents.
Two rival companies, the Arkansas Diamond Co. and Ozark Diamond Mines Corp., competed for years. The online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture says it best when it notes that the period was marked by “constant financial strain, poor management, lawsuits and sabotage.”
The rival companies formed a partnership in 1952 and began operating a tourist attraction known as the Crater of Diamonds. The state purchased the property in 1972 and turned it into the state park.
Murfreesboro, with a population of 1,641 in the 2010 census, remains a fascinating town. When I worked in the governor’s office, we chose Murfreesboro as the site for the unveiling of the Arkansas quarter on Oct. 28, 2003. The Arkansas quarter, the 25th to be released in the series of state quarters, featured a diamond as part of its design.
Arkansas’ territorial legislature created Pike County on Nov. 1, 1833, out of parts of Clark and Hempstead counties. It was named for explorer Zebulon Pike and was the state’s 26th county. A post office named Murfreesborough was established in 1836. The spelling later was changed to Murfreesboro.
In 1900, Pike County railroad and property owner Martin White Greeson began a campaign for a dam on the Little Missouri River northwest of Murfreesboro. Congress finally approved the project in 1941 and authorized $3 million. Construction began on June 1, 1948, and ended on July 12, 1951. The dam was named Narrows Dam and the lake was named Lake Greeson.
Before DeGray Lake was completed on the Caddo River by the Vicksburg District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, my dad would make the trip over from Arkadelphia to fish for bass on Greeson on a regular basis.
Occasionally, he would fish for trout in the Little Missouri River just below the dam. I would attend Boy Scout camp each June at Camp Tula on the banks of the lake. Much later in life, I would go to Lake Greeson on a regular basis for meetings and retreats at Gov. Mike Huckabee’s lakehouse.
From Murfreesboro, Paul and I make our way east on Arkansas Highway 26 to Delight. It’s common for people to write that Glen Campbell was raised at Delight, but he actually was born about six miles to the southwest at Billstown on April 22, 1936. His parents were Wes and Carrie Campbell.
Billstown’s schools consolidated with Delight in the fall of 1948.
Delight first was known as Wolf Creek. A post office was established there on Jan. 18, 1832, and became an important stop between Little Rock and Washington. The residents later decided to allow a popular doctor, William Kirkham, to come up with a new name for the town. He decided to call it Delight because he considered it a delightful place to live. Delight was incorporated on Sept. 15, 1904.
Delight was blessed to be in the middle of a productive timber area in the early 1900s. The Ozan Lumber Co. owned 132,000 acres in the area by 1956. That land was sold to the Potlatch Corp. in 1965.
Paul and I continue to make our way east to Antoine, where we cross one of this state’s many beautiful small rivers — the Antoine River – and enter my native Clark County. The river is a short one at 35 miles. It begins with a confluence of creeks in the Ouachita Mountains of Pike County and empties into the Little Missouri River near Okolona. The river is an excellent fishing stream, though the water levels are low in this dry June.
Near here was Graysonia, which at its peak was home to one of the biggest timber mills in the South. Graysonia is now a ghost town. William Grayson and Nelson McLeod purchased the Arkadelphia Lumber Co. in 1902 and moved to a site near the Antoine River in 1907 to take advantage of the area’s virgin forests.
From 1915-20, more than 500 men worked at the Graysonia mill, producing 150,000 board feet per day. Graysonia was a company-owned town with a large commissary, a movie theater, three hotels, a school, electricity and a water system.
The Bemis family bought the company in 1924 and renamed it the Ozan-Grayson Lumber Co. Due to the cut-and-move philosophy of timber companies in those days and the ravages of the Great Depression, the mill eventually closed.
During the 1930s, the Ozan-Grayson board of directors reported to stockholders that the land in the vicinity of Graysonia was worthless and not worth the tax burden. The McMillan family of Arkadelphia bought 10,000 acres. The Bemis family, meanwhile, built a mill at Delight, using some of the equipment from Graysonia.
The post office at Graysonia closed on Nov. 19, 1950.
The route from Antoine to Hollywood is lovely and shady on an early summer day with large trees on either side of the highway forming a canopy over the road.
The Hollywood area has its own colorful history. Settlers began farming along Terre Noire Creek as early as 1811. Greenville (which no longer exists) became the county seat of Clark County in 1830 and served in that role for a dozen years until the county seat was moved to Arkadelphia in 1842.
Arkadelphia’s civic leaders held a picnic in 1842 and invited all the residents of surrounding areas. Speakers boasted of Arkadelphia’s population of 250, its central location in the county and its position on the Ouachita River. Those at the meeting were enthused by the speeches, and the Clark County Quorum Court soon moved the county seat from Greenville to Arkadelphia. When the Southwest Trail (also known as the Military Road) was rerouted to bypass Greenville, the town ceased to exist.
A post office was established at Hollywood — named for the native holly trees in the area — in 1860. A year later, as the Civil War began, a two-story building was constructed there to house both a school and a Masonic lodge.
Hollywood was incorporated in February 1880 with a population of 103. In 1884, the Davidson Methodist Campground was established near Hollywood. It still conducts summer camp meetings and is among the oldest campgrounds of its type.
By 1931, junior high and high school students at Hollywood were going to school at Arkadelphia. By 1950, all grades had been consolidated into the Arkadelphia School District.
On the way to Arkadelphia, we pass the beautifully restored Bozeman House, built in the 1840s by wealthy planter Michael Bozeman. Just as we enter Arkadelphia, we pass Magnolia Manor, built between 1854 and 1857 by master builder Madison Griffin. It still sports its namesake magnolia tree, the seedling for which was brought by river from New Orleans.
A catfish dinner awaits. It has been a day of history along the back roads of southwest Arkansas.