Down in southwest Arkansas

In some ways, southwest Arkansas is the forgotten part of our state.

There’s a mystique to the Ozarks and the Delta, areas that long have been studied and written about.

The Ouachita Mountains also have a certain cachet.

The pine woods and blackland prairies of the southwest also have their charms, as evidenced by the reaction I received following a recent Arkansas Democrat-Gazette column I wrote about a trip from Little Rock to Nashville in Howard County with one-time Scrapper quarterback Tom DeBlack, now a history professor at Arkansas Tech University.

Tom and I both love Arkansas history.

I’m an amateur.

Tom is a professional — one of the top Arkansas historians.

As we drove west on Interstate 30 toward Arkadelphia on a Saturday afternoon, Tom suggested that we take “the back road,” which meant the curvy, shaded route through Hollywood, Antoine, Delight and Murfreesboro.

If you like rural Arkansas, it’s as scenic and filled with history as any drive in the state.

Within a few miles of exiting the interstate and heading west on Arkansas Highway 26, you’ll pass two of the most historic homes in southwest Arkansas, Magnolia Manor and the Bozeman House.

Construction on Magnolia Manor, which is maintained in pristine condition by current owners Bill and Sherri Phelps, began in 1855 and ended in 1857. Most of the raw materials for the house were obtained locally.

Thousands of Americans were moving west in the decades before the Civil War, and a South Carolina plantation owner named John B. McDaniel caught the fever. He sent his three sons and a nephew to Arkansas in 1853. He soon followed with his wife, Mary Ann, and two daughters. He hired a master carpenter and bricklayer named Madison Griffin to build a house for the family.

Here’s how the Clark County Historical Association describes his work: “Over the course of three years, Griffin produced a sturdy and serviceable, but not ornate, two-story structure of mixed Greek Revival and Italianate design. He sited the house facing east, toward Arkadelphia, but accounted for the course of the nearby Okolona Road as it swept in a broad curve from south to west. The east side faced the road and featured a traditional entry and corridor-flanked stairway. The south side extended to became an ell; in the center of that ell, Griffin created a second entrance with a hallway behind it. Whether one traveled southwest toward Okolona from Arkadelphia or in the reverse direction, one first encountered a mansion entrance.

“Foundation and chimney brick were fired from local mud. Nearby oak provided the hand-hewn beams, sills and joists. Local walnut served interior use, and plentiful pine became two-inch-thick floorboards. Griffin imported some materials from Little Rock for fine trim work. In keeping with common practice, he separated the two-room kitchen from the house but provided a covered walkway between the two structures. Scattered behind the main house were a gin and barn.

“Some house features were as foreign as the family. Lore has it that during the three years of building, McDaniel traveled to New Orleans on business and returned with a pair of magnolia seedlings, which he planted to flank the eastern face and signify his home’s true front. As they matured, they also provided the home’s name. Family lore provides another story about a building feature: A large iron ring built into the wall graces the front stairway landing, a ring to which McDaniel chained watchdogs at night.”

Mary Ann McDaniel lived in the home until her death in 1883. The home later fell into disrepair and was sold to state Sen. Fletcher McElhannon, who renovated Magnolia Manor in 1932. McElhannon was long a member of the board of what’s now Henderson State University, and a building on the Henderson campus is named for him.

Another state senator, Olen Hendrix from Pike County, and Arkadelphia philanthropist Jane Ross later would own the home. Both had deep roots in southwest Arkansas.

Hendrix, who was born in the Piney community of Pike County in July 1909, only attended school through the eighth grade but became one of the area’s leading businessmen. He was involved in the lumber business, banking and oil production. Hendrix was a president of the Bank of Prescott and the chairman of the Bank of Delight. He was appointed to the state Highway Commission in 1952 by Gov. Sid McMath and then was appointed in 1955 by Gov. Orval Faubus to the board that oversaw facilities for the mentally ill. Hendrix was elected to the state Senate in 1958 and served through 1982, chairing both the Legislative Council and the Joint Budget Committee during his tenure at the state Capitol.

Hendrix long was a member of the board at Harding University, where he endowed the Olen Hendrix Nursing and Home Economics Center in 1975. He served on the boards of Arkansas Cement Co. and the American Foundation Life Insurance Co. Hendrix died in August 1998.

Ross was born at Arkadelphia in December 1920, the daughter of prominent timberland owner Hugh Ross and his wife, Esther Clark Ross. J.G. Clark, her grandfather, had begun buying forests in southwest Arkansas in the 1880s.

Jane Ross graduated from Henderson in 1942 and then worked as a Navy photographer in Washington, D.C., in 1943. Ross served from 1944-46 in the Women’s Army Corps of the Army Air Force. She later studied color photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology, graduating from there in 1947. Ross returned to Arkadelphia to open a photo studio, which she operated until 1955. That was the year her father died, requiring her to devote her time to managing the family timber fortune.

Ross and her mother established the Ross Foundation in 1966. She was the chairman of the foundation board until her death in 1999. The Ross Foundation remains among of the state’s largest philanthropic organizations.

A few miles west of Magnolia Manor is the Bozeman House, which was built in the late 1840s by Michael Bozeman. The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

Like Magnolia Manor (which has been on the National Register since 1972), it remains in pristine condition. Bozeman bought a portable sawmill powered by eight mules, set it up on his plantation and sawed the lumber for the house. The Greek Revival home sits on oak sill beams. The house was surrounded by a gin, blacksmith shop, slave cabins and corn cribs.

The 1850 census listed Bozeman, his wife Lucy and four of their children as living in the home. The Bozeman plantation had an overseer named John Graham.

Bozeman later was elected to the state Senate. He also was part of a group that worked for years to make the Ouachita River navigable to Arkadelphia. During a meeting at Arkadelphia in October 1849, William Phillips & Co. of New Orleans promised to run the steamboat Lucy Wing to Arkadelphia on a regular basis if those in the area would pledge their support. A committee agreed to remove obstacles on the Ouachita from the mouth of the Little Missouri River to Arkadelphia. However, the logs and other debris in the river were more than they had bargained for. It wasn’t until February 1859 that the first steamboat made it all the way from New Orleans to Arkadelphia.

Planters such as Michael Bozeman and John McDaniel were attracted to the area because the blackland prairies proved highly suitable for growing cotton.

The Nature Conservancy describes the area this way: “The blacklands of southwestern Arkansas, a landscape dominated by tall native grasses and vibrant wildflowers, had a watery beginning. Millions of years ago, the Gulf of Mexico covered the region. As the gulf receded, it left behind deposits of shellfish that formed a chalky layer underneath a deep mantle of rich, black soil. It’s from this dark soil that the blacklands got their name. The state’s blackland prairies and associated woodlands harbor more than 600 types of plants, including 21 globally imperiled plant communities. Some 315 animal species are found at blackland sites.”

There once were almost 12 million acres of these blackland prairies in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama. There are only about 10,000 acres remaining in scattered patches. First, the grasslands were plowed to grow cotton. When the nutrients gave out, they became pastures and pine plantations.

In the 1980s, the Nature Conservancy partnered with the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission to identify the least disturbed blackland sites. The public can visit the Terre Noire Natural Area, a 490-acre preserve that’s just a few miles from the Bozeman House and Magnolia Manor.

The next community west of the Bozeman House is Hollywood. Settlers began taking advantage of the rich land along Terre Noire Creek and Hollywood Creek in the early 1800s. Notable Arkansans such as Albert Pike, Chester Ashley and Robert Crittenden visited the area as part of their law practices.

Nearby Greenville was the county seat of Clark County from 1830-42. It was on the Southwest Trail (later called the Military Road). Moses Collins offered 30 acres of land so a jail and courthouse could be built at Greenville in 1830. The county seat previously had been at Adam Stroud’s home a mile east of Hollywood. In 1842, the people of Arkadelphia hosted a large, festive picnic to promote its position on the Ouachita River and its 250 residents. Soon after that event, the Clark County Quorum Court voted to move the county seat from Greenville to Arkadelphia. When the route of the Military Road was changed, Greenville ceased to exist.

Hollywood continued to thrive, though. Methodists established the Davidson Campground about three miles from Hollywood in 1884, and summer meetings are still held there. Hollywood had a sawmill, cotton gin, Garrison’s General Store, Wingfield & Jackson General Store and E.S. Lee Grocery Store in 1890. The 20th century saw a slow decline. By 1950, all grades of the Hollywood schools had been consolidated with Arkadelphia, and there was only one store. The post office closed in 1975.

You’ll travel through thick forests west of Hollywood until crossing the Antoine River into Pike County. The small river forms in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains west of Amity and flows to the southwest for 35 miles before emptying into the Little Missouri River.

Guy Lancaster writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “There was apparently a bridge over the Antoine River by 1836. Though some early white settlers did grow cotton and other crops on the lower reaches of the river, the river never provided a major transportation corridor, and the area around the river remained rather sparsely settled until the arrival of the timber industry and the railroad in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Missouri Pacific worked on building its railroad along the west side of the river until 1905, when a rock slide that killed nine workers led the company to rebuild the route along the east side. This line paralleled much of the river until it reached Pike Junction.

“In 1907, the Arkadelphia Lumber Co. moved to a site near the Antoine River. This eventually became the town of Graysonia in Clark County, which for several years was home to one of the largest mills in the South. The cut-and-run practices of the lumber companies that operated along the river soon led to the decline of Graysonia and other mill towns. Unlike other waterways in this region of Arkansas — such as the Coassatot, Little Missouri, Caddo and Ouachita rivers — the Antoine River has not been dammed. This is likely because impounding the short river would not provide much flood control.”

You’ll find yourself in Antoine as soon as you cross the bridge. It was one of the first settlements in what’s now Pike County. The population in the 2010 census was 117 people, down from 233 in the 1940 census.

“Native Americans and French trappers operated on the land around Antoine during the 1700s,” Doris Russell Foshee writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The town was reportedly named for one of the French trappers. He was found dead at his camp near the road and the only identification to be found was the name Antoine. The citizens buried him on a hill above the river. People covered his grave with small stones and chiseled ‘Antoine’ on a large stone and placed it on his grave. The area around the grave became the town’s cemetery. Antoine’s tombstone disappeared in later years.

“Antoine was one of the finest settlements in that area. It was a stopping place for travelers on the Southwest Trail on their way to Texas in the early 1800s. Two bois d’arc trees marked the Southwest Trail, which followed what’s now Antoine’s Main Street on Highway 26. Antoine didn’t see much action during the Civil War, though the Skirmish at Terre Noire Creek took place near the community. During the war, Union soldiers reportedly encountered two young boys who were coming back with their family corn from the local gristmill, took the corn and then hanged the boys from a large chinquapin tree.

“In the early 1890s, there was a logging boom so the citizens had work that lasted through the Depression years. By 1890, Antoine included a bank, a school, a cotton gin, a post office, several churches, a gristmill, a bottling works, a blacksmith shop, a café and a pool hall. About 1911, the entire south side of Antoine — which had the bank, hardware store and several other stores — burned. A later fire destroyed a hotel. In 1947, the school burned. The citizens decided to not replace it but to consolidate with Delight.”

In the next post, we’ll continue our trip across Pike County.

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