Arkadelphia rising

In the May issue of Arkansas Life magazine there’s a profile of my hometown of Arkadelphia written by Heather Steadham.

The headline reads: “From its new town hall and hybrid police cars to its plans to send every child to college, Arkadelphia is a small town with a big vision.”

Following a riding tour of Arkadelphia with Jimmy Bolt, the city manager, Steadham wrote: “Behind the Amtrak station lies the old Arkadelphia Milling Co., which burned about a century ago but is still a giant part of Arkadelphia’s history and serves as a local landmark with its three old concrete silos standing stalwart against time and tornadoes. It seems like the town has always, in its way, tried to be progressive, and when Arkadelphia Milling Co. shut down, Arkadelphia looked toward tourism to help out its economy. Jimmy tells me how Arkadelphia used to be known for having more gas stations (per capita) than any other town and, in fact, the Encyclopedia of Arkansas reports that ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not’ proclaimed that the small God-fearing town had more service stations than — gasp! — churches.

“But these days there are much better things for Jimmy to brag about. He shows me the beauty of the flowerbed full of tulips and azaleas next to the Martin Luther King Jr. overpass that the Rotary Club constructed when he was president, making one of the two major entrances into town a joy upon arrival. He shows me the user-friendly arrangement of the Baptist Health System buildings, which are clustered together to form an entire medical village. And he shows me the super-inclusive recreation center at Feaster Park, where tourists and residents alike can enjoy a water park, a skateboard park, an indoor recreation facility, softball fields, outdoor basketball courts and other play areas all in one centralized location. It’s like … there was a plan.”

Steadham ends her glowing profile of the city this way: “When I leave Arkadelphia, driving back down the street that separates what I first thought were two contentious universities, I see what I somehow missed on my way in. Above the road, a bridge links the two sides of the ravine. Written along its face are the words ‘Arkadelphia: It’s a great place to call home.’ When a small town becomes unstuck after a devastating disaster, when good people fight to end intolerance, when the bitterest of rivalries become literally and metaphorically linked, and all of these become inextricably intertwined to form a community, I have to agree. It is a great place to call home.”

The article, mind you, was written before it was announced late last month that a Chinese company with 10,000 employees worldwide — Shandong Sun Paper — will build a $1.3 billion pulp mill near Arkadelphia to create materials for baby diapers and other products. It will be Sun Paper’s first North American operation and represents one of the largest private-sector investments in Arkansas history. So Arkadelphia is hotter than ever from an economic development standpoint.

More than 2,000 workers will be involved in the construction phase during the next three years, which should cause business at area motels, restaurants and retail locations to boom. Once it’s operating, the plant will employ 250 people directly. The biggest impact, however, will come from the 400 truckloads of pine timber the mill will consume daily once it’s at full capacity. That timber demand will create an estimated 1,000 additional jobs. That’s right: 400 truckloads per day.

In the decade since the housing downtown began, the south Arkansas pine belt has been producing timber more quickly than it can be harvested. There’s an enormous oversupply of pulpwood. Thousands of acres that once were row crops or cattle pastures in south Arkansas have been planted in pine, but the needed thinning hasn’t occurred due to a lack of demand. There’s more timber in Arkansas now than at any point in the past 75 years.

As the home of Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University, Arkadelphia will always be first and foremost a college town.

What the Sun announcement does, though, is position Arkadelphia and the rest of Clark County at the center of the state’s timber industry. Other south Arkansas cities have seen job cuts in the industry for at least the past decade, but Georgia-Pacific in nearby Gurdon already bucked the trend by investing $37 million in its lumber mill, increasing capacity by 60 percent.

In addition to being a college town since the late 1800s, Arkadelphia has a long tradition of processing products grown and found in the area.

The salt factory operated by John Hemphill just across the Ouachita River from Arkadelphia in the early 1800s was considered to be among the state’s first manufacturing concerns. A large salt kettle graces the lawn of the Clark County Courthouse. The plaque on the kettle (which for decades was on the Henderson campus) reads: “Used in the production of salt from the water of the Saline Bayou one mile east of Arkadelphia by John Hemphill, pioneer salt maker of Arkansas Territory. Given to the Henderson State Teachers College Museum by the family of Capt. Robert W. Huie, 1845-1929, friend and benefactor of the college.”

The Caddo Indians had been getting salt from the area for hundreds of years. In the late 1700s, Louis Badins referred to Saline Bayou, “whose water yields through evaporation a fifth of salt so corrosive that it consumes meats which are salted with it and it burns sacks in which it is placed.”

Hemphill’s salt refinery operated from 1812-51. There were other places in Clark County where salt was produced. In 1830, H.A. Whittington described the Barkman estate as having “about 5,000 acres with several salt springs on it, from which he makes about 5,000 bushels of salt per annum.”

The Confederates cranked back up salt production in the county during the Civil War. Kettles such as the one now on display at the courthouse could hold 200 gallons and were used to boil water, with the salt left at the bottom.

By the early 1900s, one of the most prosperous industries in Arkansas was the Arkadelphia Milling Co., which produced flour, meal and stock feed. The mill operated 24 hours a day and had the motto: “We never sleep.” Its Dolly Dimple brand of flour was known across the region. The mill unfortunately became a victim of the Great Depression and closed in 1932.

From 1915 into the 1920s, the Arkadelphia Lumber Co. operated one of the South’s largest sawmills west of Arkadelphia at the company town of Graysonia. Almost 500 employees produced more than 150,000 board feet of lumber each day. Graysonia no longer exists, long since having been overtaken by the pine forests that once provided a livelihood for the hundreds of people who lived there.

Arkadelphia was among the state’s leading cities in the early 1900s. In addition to the Arkadelphia Lumber Co. and the Arkadelphia Milling Co, the Temple Cotton Oil Co. also was thriving. The Arkadelphia Rotary Club was formed in 1919, just six years after the famous Club 99 had been established in Little Rock. The Arkadelphia club played a key role in raising money to update the city’s water system and lobbied for getting city streets paved.

Companies that added to the economic mix in Arkadelphia after World War II included Reynolds Metals Co., Hollywood Maxwell, Oberman Manufacturing, Ouachita Marine, Levi Strauss & Co. and the Tectum Corp.

Education long has been a major part of the economy.

Ray Granade wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Arkadelphia became an educational center with the opening of two colleges for white people (Ouachita Baptist College in 1886 and Arkadelphia Methodist College in 1890), two schools for African-Americans (Bethel College AME in 1891 and Colored Presbyterian Industrial School in 1896), and the first in a series of business colleges (Draughon’s in 1891).

“In addition to these, an elementary and secondary school for black students, called the Arkadelphia Presbyterian Academy, was founded in 1882. The Arkadelphia Baptist Academy opened in 1890, later updating its name and becoming associated with Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock in 1892. The activity by education-minded citizens led one local newspaper to refer to the community consistently as ‘the city of colleges’ while other locals called it ‘the Athens of Arkansas.’ Beginning with their first game in 1895 and continuing into present day, Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist University have maintained a football rivalry called the Battle of the Ravine because the two schools are positioned across from another on either side of U.S. Highway 67.”

Timber remained an important part of the area’s economy. In 1967, Esther Ross and her daughter, Jane Ross, began the Ross Foundation. Esther’s father, J.G. Clark, had been an owner of vast tracts of south Arkansas timberland.

The Ross Foundation manages more than 60,000 acres for conservation and charitable purposes. It has poured millions of dollars in charitable funds into the county through the years. Its most notable accomplishment occurred in 2010 when the foundation joined forces with the Arkadelphia-based Southern Bancorp to establish the Arkadelphia Promise, which ensures that college tuition is paid for graduates of Arkadelphia High School.

J.G. Clark had begun his empire in the forest products industry in the late 1800s. After her father’s death in 1955, Jane Ross managed her family’s business interests. She remained chairman of the Ross Foundation until her death in 1999. In 1979, Ross relinquished much of the control over the daily operations of the foundation to Ross Whipple, a relative. Whipple, who founded and later sold both Horizon Bancorp and Summit Bancorp, proved to be a shrewd manager of the foundation’s assets. He once described the foundation lands as being “like a mini-national forest. … I cut my teeth in the woods. Those trees don’t talk back to you. Here in Clark County, the strong history of the forest industry as well as the future growth excites me.”

In her article for Arkansas Life, Steadham described the Ross Foundation offices this way: “The circular silo-like centerpiece I saw from the outside is actually an atrium in the center of the building, its glass ceiling throwing the midday light onto a floor made from concentric wood rings fashioned like a cut tree stump. The walls are rock, and vines crawl up wood support beams. I immediately know I am in a place of uncommon thinking.”

In writing about the Arkadelphia Promise, Steadham said: “Since the scholarship program began in 2011, the Arkadelphia Promise has awarded almost $2 million in scholarships. It awards an average of more than $3,000 per student per year, and Arkadelphia students have attended more than 45 institutions of higher education in 10 states. What I find especially remarkable is how things are looking at the high school level: The retention rate at Arkadelphia High School was up to 87.1 percent for 2014. … Athens of Arkansas, indeed.”

At the same time Whipple was building his banking business, then-Gov. Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Mack McLarty, Rob Walton and other well-known Arkansans were teaming up with nonprofit organizations such as the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation to create the state’s first community development bank holding company in the 1980s. The goal was to use the proceeds from commercial banks to fund rural development activities rather than paying dividends to stockholders. The first bank purchased was Arkadelphia’s Elk Horn Bank & Trust Co. in 1988. Since then, additional banks have been purchased in Arkansas and Mississippi. Those acquisitions have made Southern Bancorp the largest rural development banking organization in the country.

On the day the Arkadelphia Promise was announced in 2010 by then-Gov. Mike Beebe, Whipple described it as “one of the best economic events to ever happen in Arkadelphia as well as being a tremendous educational benefit for every graduate of Arkadelphia High School.”

The announcement of Sun’s $1.3 billion investment was the biggest economic event in the city since the Arkadelphia Promise unveiling more than five years earlier. And, I can promise you, the existence of the Arkadelphia Promise is an incentive for companies such as Sun to locate facilities in the area.

In my weekly column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I wrote about Bill Clinton’s visit to Arkadelphia three days after the F4 tornado on March 1, 1997, that destroyed all or parts of 60 city blocks. During a reception following his walking tour of the destroyed downtown business sector, the president said to me: “I can’t say this publicly, but most towns in the south half of the state would never bounce back from something like this. But Arkadelphia will come back because it has strong banks and two colleges.”

Now, add to the mix one of the largest private-sector investments in Arkansas history.

Arkadelphia appears to be south Arkansas’ shining star, living up to the prediction made by President Clinton in those dark days of March 1997.

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