Ola to Russellville

NINTH IN A SERIES

We cross the Petit Jean River just north of Ola as we make our way north on Arkansas Highway 7.

Several creeks come together in Scott County to form this river, which eventually empties into the Arkansas River about 115 miles east of where it starts.

“The Petit Jean River has never developed into a major transportation corridor, though the steamship Danville did progress up it in 1840, lending its name to the city of Danville, which was laid out the following year,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Danville remains the largest community established along the river. In 1879, a 100-foot bridge over the Petit Jean River was constructed at Danville. During the 1890s, the Choctaw Railroad constructed a line linking Little Rock with the town of Howe in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). This line crossed the Petit Jean River at Danville. The development of the railroad led to the growth of the timber industry along the river.”

We’re downstream from Danville on this day.

Upstream from Danville, work began in 1940 on a dam constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Work halted in 1942 as World War II drew government resources away from civilian projects,” Lancaster writes. “Work picked up again after the war, and the dam was completed in June 1947. The resulting reservoir is known as Blue Mountain Lake and is a popular local attraction.”

We’ve left the Ouachita Mountains now and entered the Arkansas River Valley, one of the six natural divisions in the state.

“The broad bottomlands along the Arkansas River, sometimes more than 10 miles wide, add to its distinctiveness,” Thomas Foti once wrote for the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. “The streams that flow through these Arkansas Valley plains reflect their character. They flow gently, are bordered by bottomlands and are often muddy. The Petit Jean River is the largest river to flow entirely within the valley from its head to its mouth at the base of Petit Jean Mountain. People found the Arkansas Valley to be a practical travel route and a hospitable environment to live in from the time it was populated by Native Americans, who had large villages in some areas such as Carden Bottom along the lower Petit Jean River in Yell County. … Thomas Nuttall traveled by boat up and then back down the Arkansas River in 1819, soon after the creation of Arkansas Territory, and kept a journal that described the region at that time. He provided vivid descriptions of the prairies and wooded ridges in the vicinity of Fort Smith.”

The Arkansas River Valley is filled these days with cattle pastures and chicken houses.

We’re now in Yell County, a distinctive place that the natives like to refer to as the Free State of Yell. The county was formed in December 1840 from parts of Scott and Pope counties. It was named for Gov. Archibald Yell.

“Immigrants from Tennessee and North Carolina were prominent in its early development,” Mildred Diane Gleason writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “By 1860, the population reached 6,333, of which 3.9 percent were slaves. Slavery was concentrated near Dardanelle in the bottomlands adjacent to the Arkansas River. Only three slave owners were certified as planters in 1860. Most slave owners were small farmers. The first cotton gin opened in 1838 in Riley Township near Belleville.”

And what about that Free State of Yell?

Gleason explains: “Politics has always been serious business and a form of Yell County entertainment. The county’s political mystique was enriched in 1915 during a circuit judgeship special election. The Yell County candidate, A.B. Priddy, carried the county and barely lost in the other two counties involved, and yet he won the election by 2,500 votes. It was reported that names taken from tombstones and bird dogs were recorded as voters in Yell County. Thus was born the phrase the Free State of Yell, signifying a tendency of the county to act as an independent nation.”

The sun is beginning to set as we enter Dardanelle, so we get off Highway 7 to make our way to the top of Mount Nebo. The state park store is about to close as we get the keys to our cabin, and it’s starting to rain. We don’t want to go back down the mountain so we buy canned chili and crackers. Along with the parched peanuts purchased earlier in the day at Hollis, that will be our supper on a cold, rainy Tuesday night as we start a fire in the fireplace.

The rain has stopped by the time we awake early the next morning. Paul Austin, who packed his own coffee beans and grinder, makes coffee.

After a short drive around the top of the mountain, we head down, reconnect with Highway 7 and make our way into Dardanelle.

This historic river port is one of Arkansas’ oldest towns. It was platted in 1847 and incorporated in 1855.

“The origin of the town’s name is open to conjecture,” Gleason writes. “Perhaps the 300-foot-high rock face at the river’s edge reminded early explorers of the Dardanelles in Turkey or perhaps the early French coureur de bois and holder of a 600-acre Spanish land grant in the area, Jean Baptiste Dardenne, is the source of the town’s name. … Dardanelle became an important river town and emerging trade center during the antebellum era, receiving weekly steamboat visits from New Orleans, Memphis and Little Rock. Dardanelle’s boomtown reputation was aided by its trade in rum, gin and cotton. By 1860, the town had three taverns, several mercantile businesses and cotton gins, three churches (Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian), a weekly newspaper, a doctor, a school, several attorneys and a Masonic lodge.”

By 1860, Dardanelle was connected by telegraph to Little Rock and Fort Smith. Union troops had taken over Dardanelle by the fall of 1862 and skirmishes in the years that followed left part of the community destroyed. As Reconstruction began to wind down, Dardanelle grew again. The courthouse for the northern district of Yell County was built in 1878. The first ice plant in Arkansas opened in 1888.

“From 1873 through the late 1880s, Dardanelle experienced new immigration as numerous Slovak, Moravian, Bohemian and Czech families arrived,” Gleason writes. “Mainly farmers and coal miners, these new immigrants expanded ethnic diversity into the town’s primarily Scotch-Irish and English residents, introducing new languages and religions. In October 1890, Dardanelle’s pontoon bridge, the longest in the world at the time, opened. The floating bridge was financed by tolls of five cents per foot passenger round trip and 25 cents per loaded wagon round trip.”

Diversity these days is supplied by Hispanic families. The city’s Hispanic population had soared to 36.1 percent by the 2010 census as these workers showed up for jobs in the poultry industry.

“By the 1960s, a fundamental agricultural transition was under way involving a decline in row-crop production (especially cotton) and a shift to livestock production,” Gleason writes. “The poultry industry soon became the primary agricultural activity and employment source.”

Dardanelle Lock & Dam is a key part of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. At the time it opened, the system was the largest civil works project ever undertaken by the Corps of Engineers. The project provides a minimum nine-foot-deep channel from the mouth of the river to Catoosa, Okla., which is near Tulsa. President Richard M. Nixon was the keynote speaker when dedication ceremonies took place at Catoosa on June 5, 1971.

Construction began in the Dardanelle area in 1958. Navigation was opened to Little Rock in October 1968 and a postage stamp was issued with the words “Arkansas River Navigation” to mark the occasion. The first commercial barges docked at the Port of Little Rock on Jan. 4, 1969. The system — covering 443 miles and consisting of 17 locks and dams — was ready for full use on Dec. 30, 1970.

We cross the Arkansas River into Pope County and Russellville. Nearby is the state’s only nuclear power plant, Arkansas Nuclear One.

The last census in which Dardanelle was larger than Russellville was the 1890 census when Dardanelle had a population of 1,456 and Russellville had 1,321 residents. From the 1970 census to the 2010 census, Dardanelle grew from 3,297 to 4,745. Russellville, meanwhile, soared from 11,750 to 27,920.

Russellville’s growth was spurred soon after the Civil War by the construction of the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad.

“After the line came through Russellville in 1873, the town grew rapidly,” David Vance writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Russellville’s first newspaper, the Herald, was founded in 1870. By 1876, the town boasted a population of about 800 people who were serviced by 15 stores, two cotton gins and six doctors. The town’s growth prompted a debate on moving the county seat, which had been located in Dover since 1841, to one of the growing business centers adjacent to the new tracks. On March 19, 1887, an election was held in which Russellville beat out all competing towns, though Atkins finished a close second on the ballot.”

Growth later was spurred by the construction of Interstate 40 in the late 1950s. Arkansas Nuclear One began operations in 1974. The biggest driver of economic activity, however, has been the explosive growth of the student population at Arkansas Tech University in the past decade.

In 1909, the Arkansas Legislature passed an act to establish agricultural schools in four districts across the state. Legislators had been lobbied for years by the Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union to create such schools in an attempt to reverse what the leaders of the organization viewed as the decline of rural life in Arkansas. Competition was particularly stiff for the Second District Agricultural School. Russellville was chosen following a spirited competition with Fort Smith, Morrilton and Ozark.

Cities interested in landing the school were required to pledge at least $40,000 and 200 acres. Russellville threw in free water and electricity for three years. The district school, which initially served high school-age students, opened in the fall of 1910 with 186 students. It grew to 350 students by the fall of 1913.

In February 1925, the Legislature changed the name of the Second District Agricultural School to Arkansas Polytechnic College. The other three district agricultural schools went on to become Arkansas State University at Jonesboro, Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia and the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

Life wasn’t always easy at Arkansas Tech. The Great Depression led to budget shortfalls and legislative discussions about closing the four district schools. More problems came at the onset of World War II when most males joined the armed services. Tech’s enrollment dropped to 133 students in the fall of 1943. Empty dorm space was utilized by members of the Women’s Army Corps and naval air personnel who trained on the campus.

In recent years, Tech has been among the fastest-growing colleges in the region with almost 12,000 students now enrolled on campuses in Russellville and Ozark.

Breakfast on this Wednesday is at that Arkansas classic known as the Old South, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1999. The Art Moderne modular diner was built in six days in 1947 out of manufactured parts produced by the National Glass & Manufacturing Co. of Fort Smith. A similar Old South restaurant earlier had opened at Fort Smith but is long gone. The Russellville restaurant serves one of my favorite breakfasts in the state. I like to get things I can’t often find on menus elsewhere, and so corned beef hash is the choice on this chilly day.

William E. Stell, the owner of the Fort Smith manufacturing company, built the restaurant for Russellville businessman Woody Mays. At one time, the restaurant was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The National Register nomination states: “When it was constructed, the Old South was located in an undeveloped stretch of Highway 64, at that time the main travel route from Tennessee to Oklahoma.”

The restaurant’s website says that the Old South still “looks virtually the same on the exterior and interior as it did when constructed in 1947. Its streamlined design, round windows, soft metal skin, neon lights, aluminum fixtures and padded booths typify its Art Moderne design. Even the menu offers many of the same items that were originally served, including the famous cream soups and salad dressing developed by R.C. Strub for the prototype Old South in Fort Smith.”

The Fort Smith restaurant was at 711 Towson Ave.

Noted Arkansas food writer Kat Robinson says that Stell, who was born in Oklahoma, formed his company at Fort Smith in 1929.

“The company created fixtures, furniture and metalwork for restaurants and department stores,” she writes. “It wasn’t a far jump for Stell to develop a modular diner system to take advantage of the new automobile culture developing. Unlike the Streamliner design (which was a contained prefab unit), Stell’s idea was for a modular build-on-site system that could be adapted to the location. He employed the help of architect Glenn Pendergrass (who designed the El Chico restaurants around Dallas) to design the concept he envisioned.

“The first, that Fort Smith store, was an experiment. Stell brought in a guy from New York City to form a menu — that man was none other than Schwab’s R.C. Strub. The style of a Kansas City-style steakhouse menu was adopted for use in what would be a series of roadside diners. The idea was to create a restaurant quickly. And it did catch on.  No one knows for certain how many Old South restaurants were built, but the last other restaurant (in Camden, S.C.) apparently closed in 2005. The original location in Fort Smith was demolished in the 1970s.”

We take our time at breakfast before heading north through Dover and into the Ozark Mountains.

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