Bouncing back in Cleveland County

The Cleveland County Courthouse in downtown Rison is a graceful structure, designed by Theodore Sanders and incorporating the Modern Renaissance and Classical Revival styles of architecture.

This courthouse deep in the pine woods of south Arkansas was completed in 1911 following a lengthy, contentious battle over where the Cleveland County seat should be located. The county was formed in 1873 by the Reconstruction-era Arkansas Legislature from parts of Bradley, Dallas, Jefferson and Lincoln counties and named Dorsey County in honor of Republican U.S. Sen. Stephen Dorsey.

Dorsey, the son of Irish immigrants, was born on a farm in Vermont and later moved with his family to Oberlin, Ohio. He served in the Union Army, returned to Ohio after the Civil War, founded a tool company and became active in Republican politics.

Dorsey came to Arkansas in 1871 when he was elected president of the Arkansas Central Railway Co. From his base in Helena, he took advantage of legislation that allowed railroad companies to sell government-backed bonds to finance expansion. The Arkansas Legislature chose him as the state’s junior senator in 1872. Dorsey served until 1878 and then moved to New Mexico, where he was plagued by lawsuits concerning his business dealings.

Suzanne Ristow writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Dorsey was quickly accepted into the Arkansas political realm, at the time characterized by its carpetbag politics. The Arkansas Legislature elected Dorsey as its junior senator in the 1872 elections, and Dorsey resigned from the Arkansas Central. … During the last two years of his term, Dorsey chaired the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia. During the Brooks-Baxter War, Dorsey took the side of Joseph Brooks. Elisha Baxter’s success in retaining the office of governor marked an end to Dorsey’s political future in Arkansas, and he did not seek re-election to the Senate in 1878.

“However Dorsey remained active for a time in national politics. In 1876, he was made a member of the Republican National Committee. In 1880, when the Republicans nominated James Garfield for president and Chester Arthur for vice president, Dorsey became the secretary of the Republican National Committee. His reputation was tarnished, though, by a scandal involving the U.S. Postal Service, in which Dorsey and his partners were accused of defrauding the government out of $412,000. Though he was eventually found not guilty, the cost of his defense and the damage to his reputation all but destroyed Dorsey’s political and financial ambitions.

“After his term in the Senate, Dorsey moved to New Mexico, where he raised cattle. He also owned a home in Denver and invested money in mining. Although he named one New Mexico town for himself and another for his son, Clayton, neither community prospered. During his later years, Dorsey was plagued by more lawsuits, some of which were related to the railroad shares he had sold in Arkansas in the 1870s. Dorsey moved to Los Angeles, where he died on March 20, 1916.”

With former Confederates back in control of the Arkansas Legislature, the name of Dorsey County was changed to Cleveland County in 1885 to honor President Grover Cleveland. A fire destroyed the courthouse at Toledo in 1889, and residents of Rison, Kingsland and New Edinburg sought the county seat. Following two contested elections, the Arkansas Supreme Court finally named Rison the county seat in April 1891.

A frame courthouse was constructed in 1892 at a cost of $8,000. It had become dilapidated by the time the 1911 courthouse was built for $65,000. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in April 1977.

Danny Groshong writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “An octagonal dome roof overlooks the town, with a clock tower rising 20 feet above it. The clock has four faces and is surrounded by Tuscan pilasters, which also cover the front façade of the building. The four corners of the central wing are marked with quoins (masonry blocks placed at the junction of two walls), creating an image of permanence and strength. The front portico is supported by Tuscan columns made of limestone. The interior looks much the same in the 21st century as it did when it was built. The floor is made of brightly colored ceramic tiles while the original pressed tin ceilings are in exceptionally good condition.”

Despite this stately anchor in downtown Rison, Britt Talent, publisher of the Cleveland County Herald, noticed something in 2012 after the Fordyce Bank & Trust Co. acquired the Bank of Rison.

Talent says: “The departure of the Bank of Rison was going to leave my newspaper office, a hardware store and a law office as the only businesses on my block of Main Street.”

Talent published an article asking people to attend a meeting on March 1, 2012, to discuss the future of downtown. About 20 people showed up, enough for Talent to call a second meeting two weeks later.

“Our whole idea was to generate traffic to downtown Rison,” he says. “Once we had people coming on a regular basis, we hoped businesses would follow.”

An organization known as Rison Shine Downtown Development was formed, and a Christmas parade was held for the first time in many years.

“Despite it literally raining on the parade, there was a huge turnout,” Talent says. “I recall some people telling me it was the most people they had seen in downtown Rison in several years.”

The group later developed a small park on a vacant lot on Main Street that’s centered around a giant live oak tree. A restaurant was recruited for a vacant building adjacent to the park, a weekly farmers’ market was organized and an annual Halloween event was created. Almost 200 people showed up on the afternoon of July 11, 2013, for the dedication of the park. The crowds downtown for that year’s Halloween event were even larger.

“I don’t think anyone had any idea there would be that many people,” Talent says. “I estimated about 1,000 people showed up. The Dollar General practically sold out of candy that afternoon because no one came prepared for the crowd. I wasn’t expecting any sort of turnaround in the downtown area overnight. We’ve made a dent, but we still have a ways to go. I’m seeing more traffic downtown on a regular basis than I’ve seen in a while. Hopefully more people will see this progress and be willing to take a chance on opening a business.”

On the late Friday afternoon in February when Talent gave me a walking tour of downtown, a steady stream of people was heading into the Main Street Café adjacent to the small park built around the live oak tree. Meanwhile, the Rison Pharmacy has opened in a former bank building, the Rison Athletic Club has expanded its operation in the old City Pharmacy building and there was new construction downtown in 2016 for the first time in about 25 years with the completion of a banking facility and a floral shop.

The effort to spur activity in one of Arkansas’ least populous counties — Cleveland County had 8,689 residents in the 2010 census, almost 5,000 fewer people than lived there a century earlier — has spread to Kingsland, New Edinburg and Woodlawn.

Mark Peterson, a community development specialist for the University of Arkansas’ Cooperative Extension Service, spoke to Rison Shine members in February 2015 and urged them to expand their efforts across the country. A month later, Kickstart Cleveland County was born.

On the Friday night of my visit to Rison, people from all parts of the county gathered at the Cleveland County Fairgrounds to celebrate the initiative. During a conference in Little Rock last summer, the Cooperative Extension Service presented Kickstart Cleveland County with an award for having the top community development effort of its type in the state.

“There were several worthy candidates, but Kickstart Cleveland County’s strong record of accomplishments and community involvement throughout the county won the day,” Peterson says.

At a time when many rural counties across south and east Arkansas are losing population, Cleveland County has shown slow but steady growth. When Arkansans from other parts of the state think about Cleveland County at all, it’s likely because of the excellent deer hunting or the traditionally potent football program at Rison High School. But those who live in a county that claims both Johnny Cash and Paul “Bear” Bryant as natives understand that economic development in the 21st century is far different than it was several decades ago when it was all about trying to attract manufacturing facilities.

A recent story in the Cleveland County Herald noted: “Talent said Rison Shine still has a long way to go before realizing its ultimate goal of having a thriving downtown area. He said he and a few others have been kicking around the idea of having live music on the new deck at FBT Community Park on Friday nights during the late spring and summer. He said the group will also be considering ways to strengthen its existing events as well as ways to make downtown Rison more attractive.”

Across town, a group known as Friends of Pioneer Village is working to reinvigorate a Rison attraction.

The Cleveland County Herald reported: “The first priority was to replace the roof in the mercantile building, which had fallen in and was allowing rain to rot the interior walls and floors. This project was completed using donations given by residents and former residents of Rison who had close personal connections to the village.

“The Mt. Olivet Church building at the village was adopted by the Mt. Olivet Methodist Church at Calmer. Jimmie Boyd, a longtime church member, approached the congregation about financing the restoration and has since led the effort to repair the wooden floors inside the church and replace the porches and railings. The mercantile, which formerly served as the county clerk’s office, and the Mt. Olivet Church have been improved enough that about the only project left for them is exterior paint.”

Rison will host the South Arkansas Homesteading Conference this Friday and Saturday. The first conference was held April 5, 2014, at Pioneer Village. There were five sessions, and about 150 people attended.

“What really surprised me about that first conference was that we had visitors from 18 counties in Arkansas,” Talent says. “We had some from as far away as Jonesboro and Batesville.”

Here’s how the Cleveland County Herald describes the county’s homesteading brand: “When community development specialist Dr. Mark Peterson looks for ways to help a community grow and flourish, he says one of the first things he looks for is something unique about that community that separates it from every place else. For Rison and Cleveland County, he identified that asset early on: Its connection to the Arkansas Homesteading Conference.

“Peterson is a professor of community and economic development at the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service. He’s the founder of Breakthrough Solutions, an economic/community development program that leverages a community’s assets to create breakthroughs that can move them forward, sometimes in dramatic ways.

“Homesteading, as defined by Wikipedia, ‘is a lifestyle of self-sufficiency. It is characterized by subsistence agriculture, home preservation of foodstuffs, and it may or may not also involve the small-scale production of textiles, clothing and craftwork for household use or sale.’

“Peterson said the homesteading niche seemed like a natural fit for Cleveland County. In fact, he made Cleveland County one of the subjects for a branding workshop that was conducted at his statewide Breakthrough Solutions Conference in June 2015. Martin Thoma of Thoma Thoma in Little Rock led the workshop for Cleveland County. Thoma Thoma is a regional brand strategy and marketing communications firm with expertise in branding communities and destinations. The focus group working on the branding workshop for Cleveland County included dozens of community development professionals, elected officials and others from outside Cleveland County.

“After more than two hours of discussion, the group came up with the following brand idea: ‘America’s Homestead — Real. Simple. Life.’ Many of those who took part in the workshop said they felt like the brand was an accurate reflection of the rural culture and its connection with homesteading. The Kickstart Cleveland County steering committee presented the idea at one of its subsequent meetings, and the group voted to adopt the slogan as its official brand.”

Here’s how Peterson explains what’s happening in Cleveland County: “We realized the tremendous potential that comes with an excellent brand for a community, organization or business. Cleveland County was willing to participate as a pilot community. My sense is that it was a good fit for Cleveland County because it emphasizes strong values that most rural people readily embrace, and it would attract people to Cleveland County who would be good citizens and neighbors. To those who see this brand as too restrictive, a recent study revealed that when people come to visit a community because of the brand, they spend 70 percent of their time and money on other things not related to the brand.”

A key to economic development these days is creating a quality of life good enough that those natives who go elsewhere for college might return to start small businesses and raise their families. There may be fewer than 10,000 people in the county, but its business and civic leaders appear to have figured that out.

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