The boy from Billstown

One of the perks of hailing from southwest Arkansas is being able to correct people when they claim that Glen Campbell comes from a tiny town called Delight.

“Well, he’s actually from Billstown,” you say with a smile. “That’s a suburb of Delight.”

Glen Travis Campbell was born April 22, 1936, at Billstown to Carrie Dell Stone Campbell and John Wesley Campbell. He was one of 12 children.

“Many of his relatives were musicians, and young Campbell soon developed an interest in singing and playing,” Terry Buckalew writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “He received his first guitar at age four, performed in public by age six and made occasional appearances on the local radio station. The Campbell family moved first to Houston, Texas, and then to Albuquerque, N.M., where teenaged Campbell began performing in nightclubs. Campbell dropped out of school in the 10th grade to spend more time on music. In 1956, he joined the Sandia Mountain Boys, a local band led by his uncle, Dick Bills. Campbell stayed with the group until 1958.

“In 1958, Campbell formed his own band, Glen Campbell and the Western Wranglers. In 1960, Campbell disbanded the group and moved to Los Angeles. He hoped to establish himself as a solo performer but found himself instead to be a sought-after studio musician and guitarist. He worked for a year with the instrumental rock group The Camps (of ‘Tequila’ fame) before recording his first solo record in 1961.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

His 1967 recording of “Gentle On My Mind” hit the charts and earned him Grammy Awards in 1968 for Best Country Vocalist and Best Contemporary Vocalist.

Along came “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” in 1968.

“Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Southern Nights” were all huge hits for Campbell during the next few years.

He had a weekly variety program on CBS by 1969.

He appeared in the movie “True Grit” in 1969 and earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Newcomer.

In 1970, he played the title role in the movie “Norwood.”

Campbell was inducted into the inaugural class of the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in 1996 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

In his song “Arkansas,” Campbell sings about “Pike County’s sandy loam.”

The first transcribed version of the song that I could find on the Internet had it as “Park County’s sandy lawn.”

I suppose one can be forgiven for not knowing much about Pike County, a largely rural county in an often forgotten corner of the state.

Billstown is about six miles from Delight, and the Billstown schools consolidated with those in Delight at the start of the 1948-49 school year. Since then, Billstown has primarily been a small collection of homes.

Pike County was carved out of two existing counties — Clark and Hempstead — by the Arkansas Territorial Legislature in 1833 and named after explorer Zebulon Pike. In 1836, the year Arkansas became a state, a post office was established at Murfreesborough (later shortened to Murfreesboro).

The population of the county grew: 969 in 1840; 1,861 in 1850; 4,025 in 1860; 3,788 in 1870; 6,345 in 1880; 8,537 in 1890; 10,301 in 1900.

The high-water mark for the county came in 1910 when the census registered 12,565 residents. There were 11,291 residents a century later in the 2010 census.

By the early 1900s, railroad owner Martin White Greeson was lobbying officials to have a dam built on a section of the Little Missouri River known as the Narrows with the goal of preventing flooding downstream.

Greeson had been born in Van Buren County in 1866 and later taught school at Bee Branch and Morrilton. After getting a law degree from Cumberland University in Tennessee, he moved to Prescott in 1888 and joined the firm of Atkinson & Tompkins. He later owned the Murfreesboro-Nashville Southwest Railroad and purchased the Kimberlite Diamond Mining & Washing Co. at Murfreesboro in 1913.

“After pushing the idea at the local level, Greeson took it to the U.S. Congress in the 1920s, where it was repeatedly introduced and repeatedly forgotten,” William H. Pruden III writes of Greeson’s efforts to get a dam on the Little Missouri. “In an effort to facilitate the construction of both the dam and the flood-control project, he had bought some of the land. But the idea remained on the drawing board. Appointed to the Arkansas Flood Control Commission by Gov. Carl Bailey, Greeson continued to advocate for the idea until 1941, when Congress approved the Little Missouri River project and authorized $3 million for its implementation. However, the project was set aside during World War II, and construction did not begin until 1947.

Greeson didn’t live to see the project completed. He died in November 1949 and is buried at Prescott.

The dam was completed in 1950 and dedicated in 1951. It blocks a valley that’s 941 feet wide. The dam is known as Narrows Dam and rises 183.5 feet above the river. It forms Lake Greeson, which covers almost 7,000 acres. Eventually, the people attracted to the county by the lake caused the population losses to end. The lowest recorded population in Pike County after the 1880 census was 7,874 residents in 1960. People had been leaving the county for years as farming declined, the forests were cut down and the mines played out.

“In the early 1900s, practically every settlement in the county had its own cotton gin, gristmill and sawmill,” Doris Russell Foshee writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “By the 1920s, most of the forests had been cut over, and sawmills were not profitable anymore. In 1930, cinnabar, the principal ore of mercury, was discovered in a six-mile-wide area beginning in east Howard County, extending across Pike County and ending in west Clark County. Companies began to mine this mineral, providing jobs for the citizens of the county. In 1931, mining was done both above and below surface. Cinnabar was extracted from these mines until 1944. Some of the old, abandoned mines can still be seen around the shores of Lake Greeson.

“The first recorded mining of gypsum in Arkansas occurred in 1922. It was mined by open-pit methods. A formation of gypsum is exposed in a narrow belt extending from the Little Missouri River westward into adjacent Howard County. The greatest thickness of this gypsum bed is 12 feet at Plaster Bluff in Pike County. All of the mining occurring now is across the county line in Howard County.”

A settlement known as Highland, which was southwest of Murfreesboro, had what was reported to be the largest peach orchard in the country by 1904. There were almost 4,600 acres of trees, and more than 200,000 bushels of Elberta peaches were shipped out in good years. People would come from surrounding states to work the harvest until the orchards began to decline following 1915.

Along with Glen Campbell, Pike County is best known for its diamonds. Murfreesboro became a boomtown for a time after John Wesley Huddleston found diamonds near there in 1906. Another boom period occurred when Wesley Oley Basham discovered the 40.23-carat Uncle Sam diamond in 1924. The realization later would set in that not enough diamonds would ever be found to make diamond mining a viable industry in the county.

Like a lot of Pike County residents, Huddleston was a struggling farmer. Who would have dreamed that he would become recognized as the first person outside South Africa to find diamonds at an original volcanic source? He was simply walking through one of his fields on that August day in 1906 when he saw something shining on the ground.

Huddleston came from a family with deep roots in the county. His grandfather, David Huddleston, had served as county judge for 22 years. A great-uncle had been the sheriff for a decade.

Here’s how Dean Banks tells the Huddleston story for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “The grandparents, parents and other members of the large extended family settled along the Little Missouri River a few miles south of Murfreesboro and owned several properties by the 243-acre tract where the diamonds were found. John and Sarah Huddleston’s home farm, 49.26 acres purchased in 1889 for $1,000, lay only a mile from the future diamond field. They also owned about 40 acres beside the field until their growing family evidently prompted them to sell that property. Later, after the birth of the last of their six daughters in 1899, the couple bought another 40 acres in the same area.

“Huddleston was known as one of the many avid outdoorsmen and amateur prospectors of his era, and no doubt he became familiar with the wooded hills and gullies of those 243 acres before he and Sarah paid $2,000 for the big tract in July 1905. The Huddlestons intended to finance the new property not only by farming or other work but also by selling appreciating parcels of land or using the rising value of their home place to secure loans from a well-to-do landowner of the area.

“In August 1906, however, Huddleston found two unusual crystals along a public road running through the new property. Experts in Little Rock and New York City identified them as diamonds, and soon word of the discovery got out. When diamond-mining interests appeared on the scene in September 1906, the Huddlestons accepted $360 cash for an extendable six-month option on the 243 acres at a purchase price of $36,000. Afterward, they signed deed contracts and received payments on principal and interest for almost 10 years.

“In later accounts, Huddleston was presented as an irresponsible son of a sharecropper or a dreamy backwoodsman who received cash for the property and soon squandered it. But actually the couple used the bulk of their available cash to buy clear title to land in Murfreesboro, rural Pike County and adjoining Clark County. In early 1908, the entire family moved to Arkadelphia, the Clark County seat, primarily to give the five daughters the social and cultural benefits of a city. In Arkadelphia, the Huddlestons reportedly enjoyed a life of ease and leisure. John Huddleston soon purchased an automobile and often was seen driving near his old home and the diamond field.”

His wife died in December 1917, and his youngest daughter died in February 1918. Huddleston moved back to Murfreesboro. A 1920 Arkansas Gazette story described him as “a wealthy man, as wealth goes in this remote region.”

Huddleston died in November 1941 and is buried three miles south of the diamond field.

“As wealth goes in this remote region” is a good phrase for what has never been a wealthy part of the state.

“During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps was active in the area, and men from Murfreesboro assisted in CCC projects such as the Albert Pike campground in Montgomery County and Shady Lake in Polk County,” Foshee writes. “With Murfreesboro being a rural area, the majority of people at the time raised gardens. Wild berries and grapes grew abundantly in the countryside, where wild game also roamed. When the men went off to fight during World War II, many women moved themselves and their children to Texarkana or other nearby cities to look for employment, primarily in ordnance plants that were being built in southern Arkansas.”

Murfreesboro never reached 2,000 residents. The 2010 population was 1,641.

Delight, meanwhile, dropped from a high of 539 residents in 1910 (when it was bigger than Murfreesboro) to 279 people a century later.

What’s now Delight originally was known as the Wolf Creek settlement. A post office was established there in January 1832, and the community became a mail stop between Little Rock and Washington in Hempstead County.

One of the first settlers was Samuel Hasley, who purchased 43 acres from the government in what’s now Delight. The Hasley family name has been well known for decades in southwest Arkansas.

In the late 1800s, the Southwest Arkansas-Indian Territory Railroad Co. laid tracks through the area, which accelerated the harvest of Pike County’s abundant timber supplies. R.B.F. Key built a sawmill that began operation in 1897. Dr. William Kirkham, a prominent physician, was given the honor of naming the town in 1904. He chose the name Delight because it’s said that he was delighted to be living in the area.

The Ozan Lumber Co. was the area’s dominant business for much of the 20th century. The company owned 132,000 acres by 1956 and was sold to the Potlatch Corp. in the 1960s. Gravel mining also was common.

As the timber companies cleared the surrounding woodlands, farmers such as Glen Campbell’s father turned to growing cotton in the sandy loam. Like much of southwest Arkansas, Pike County no longer has any cotton acreage. These days, the sandy loam that Glen Campbell sang about has led to pine plantations, pastures for cattle and a state park where visitors can still search for diamonds.

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