From De Queen to Mena

FOURTH IN A SERIES

We stop for lunch in downtown De Queen at Stilwell’s, which is owned by my friends Chad and Jessica Gallagher.

Chad and I once worked together for Mike Huckabee in the governor’s office. Before that, Chad was the mayor of De Queen. In fact, he was one of the youngest mayors in the country at the time. He now splits his time between De Queen and Little Rock. We’re fortunate that he’s in the restaurant on this day so we can visit.

Stilwell’s is named for Arthur Stilwell, a Kansas City businessman who wanted to build a railroad from Kansas City to the Gulf of Mexico. De Queen is a product of the railroad.

“Stilwell ran out of money in the Panic of 1893,” writes Billy Ray McKelvy, a former De Queen mayor. “With no investment capital to be found, he made a trip to Holland, where he met Jan de Geoijen, a coffee merchant. With de Geoijen’s help, Stilwell sold an additional $3 million worth of stock, enabling him to finish the railroad. In Sevier County, the railroad ran through a settlement called Hurrah City. Stilwell was also president of Arkansas Townsite Co., a Missouri corporation that owned land around the settlement. The company sent in surveyors to mark off blocks, streets and alleys for the town.

“On opening day, April 26, 1897, a large crowd showed up and bought the lots, which were priced at $25 and up. This town was named De Queen, an Americanized rendering of de Geoijen’s name. De Queen was formally founded on June 3, 1897, when a petition signed by 42 residents asked Sevier County Judge Ben Norwood to incorporate the new town. … The railroad offered transportation for residents of the area and a way to ship crops to distant markets. Freight shipped from De Queen by train included peaches, vegetables, lumber, honey and barrel staves.”

Tragedy struck De Queen on Oct. 1, 1899, when a fire destroyed downtown wooden buildings containing 54 businesses. A brick factory was later built, and the reconstruction of De Queen began.

The Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad went into receivership the following year, but the business began to thrive again after being reorganized as the Kansas City Southern Railroad. New jobs moved to De Queen in 1909 when the railroad built a roundhouse and shop there. Additional jobs came from a booming timber industry in the years that followed.

“Herman Dierks of Iowa, the son of a German immigrant, purchased the Williams Brothers sawmill and timberlands in De Queen in 1900,” McKelvy writes. “After a fire destroyed the first mill, the Dierks Lumber & Coal Co. built another mill and began acquiring more timberland. It also practiced selective cutting and reforestation, buying up unproductive farms and replanting them with pine trees. The company developed the short-line De Queen & Eastern Railroad, chartered in 1900, to transport timber to mills. It even provided some passenger service. The line was pushed east to Dierks in Howard County and in 1921 connected with the Texas, Oklahoma & Eastern Railroad to Valliant, Okla. The Dierks Lumber & Coal Co. provided employment to thousands of residents of southwest Arkansas and southeast Oklahoma. It also operated a company store in downtown De Queen.”

De Queen’s population more than doubled from 1,200 in the 1900 census to 2,517 in the 1920 census. The county seat was moved from Lockesburg to De Queen in 1905.

The poultry industry began to grow alongside the timber industry, and De Queen’s population increased from 2,938 in the 1930 census to 6,594 in the 2010 census. The poultry industry attracted Hispanic laborers, and De Queen became the largest city in the state with a majority Hispanic population (53.5 percent) by 2010.

The De Queen Commercial Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in January 2012. It includes buildings constructed from 1900-61.

“The district boundaries encircle 35 buildings,” Antoinette Fiduccia Johnson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Contributing buildings retain many of their historic features with the historic integrity of this community at 55 percent intact. The identity of the area is defined through its proximity to the courthouse and its remaining historic structures. Historically, the buildings in this district were related to commerce, health care, recreation, culture and government. There was also a newspaper company (still operating) and a few upstairs apartments over stores and offices.

“The district is composed of portions of West De Queen Avenue, West Stilwell Avenue, North Second Street, North Third Street and North Fourth Street. It wraps around the Sevier County Courthouse. A cohesive whole, it comprises primarily commercial and government buildings with the commercial buildings of similar scale, pattern and building materials. The majority of the building facades are built of brick or stucco over brick.”

Construction began on the current courthouse in June 1930. It was dedicated in September 1934. Most businesses later abandoned downtown, but Hispanic-owned entities helped lead the move back into the city’s historic core.

“The popularity of the automobile and the construction of U.S. 71 in 1926, which did not link to downtown, stymied downtown growth,” Johnson writes. “During the 1950s, new businesses began along the highway, resulting in homes and existing businesses being led away from downtown. By the middle of the 20th century, major poultry corporations and their processing plants appeared. During the 1980s, an influx of Mexican immigrant workers arrived to work in the processing plants. They opened businesses in the underused downtown and bought or rented homes in the adjacent residential area.”

After being elected mayor in 1998, Gallagher made it a priority to obtain grant funds for downtown improvements such as new sidewalks, benches and improved lighting. Those efforts continue to this day.

The city also boasts Herman Dierks Park, which was created in 1954 when Dierks Lumber & Coal Co. gave the city of De Queen a 10-acre site where the company had operated a sawmill.

“Acquisitions and more gifts from the Dierks family have increased the size of the park to 45 acres,” McKelvy writes. “Building Herman Dierks Park was a community effort. Mayor James T. Manning proclaimed a work day and asked volunteers to clean the new park so improvements could be made. Workers supplied their own tools, and heavy equipment was provided by Sevier County. Industries operated split shifts so that employees could help with the effort. The Herman Dierks Park Foundation supported the park with annual donations after the park was finished.”

We walk around downtown after lunch and then head out to De Queen Lake. I wrote earlier in this series about the construction of Millwood Dam. As part of the larger flood-control effort in the Little River/Red River basin, smaller dams were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Rolling Fork, Saline and Cossatot rivers in southwest Arkansas.

The Rolling Fork River covers 55 miles before emptying into the Little River. It starts near Hatton in Polk County and flows south through Wickes and Grannis.

The Flood Control Act of 1958 authorized the construction of the dam on the Rolling Fork. That dam led to De Queen Lake. Work began in April 1966 and continued until 1977. The earthen dam is 160 feet tall. There are three campgrounds, six boat ramps and three swimming areas on the lake.

The Saline River (not to be confused with the much longer river of the same name to the east) also begins in the Ouachita Mountains of Polk County. It flows to the south through Howard County (forming the boundary between Howard and Sevier counties at one point) and empties into Millwood Lake. Work on Dierks Dam across the Saline River took place from 1968-75. The 1,360-acre lake is popular with area fishermen.

The Cossatot River also begins in the Ouachita Mountains of Polk County and flows south through Howard and Sevier counties before emptying into the Little River just north of Ashdown. Gillham Dam across the Cossatot forms 1,370-acre Gillham Lake. Work on the dam began in June 1963. The first concrete in the spillway was poured in November 1968. The dam began storing water in May 1975.

“It was 60 percent completed when a coalition of environmental groups (the Ozark Society, Audubon Society, Environmental Defense Fund and Arkansas Ecology Center) filed suit on Oct. 1, 1970, to stop the project, claiming that the dam would take away the last free-flowing and wild river in southwest Arkansas,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The coalition also argued that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had submitted an insufficient environmental impact statement. In February 1971, federal Judge G. Thomas Eisele ruled that the Corps had not sufficiently examined ecological consequences as required by law. After the Corps resubmitted its environmental impact statement, Eisele removed on May 5, 1972, the injunction against further construction on the dam. Work resumed in August 1972. Further appeals against the dam were fruitless.”

The Cossatot, however, remains one of the best whitewater streams for canoeists and kayakers between the Appalachians and the Rockies. Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area was established along the river north of Gillham Lake in 1988. In the early 1990s, 26.6 miles of the river were federally designated as scenic.

“The area along the Cossatot River, especially in the Ouachita Mountains, remained sparsely populated until the 20th century,” Lancaster writes. “The hills weren’t amenable to large-scale agriculture, and only the southern portion of the river below an area dubbed Three Chutes proved useful for transportation, though the stream would on occasion dry up. Robert C. Gilliam established a plantation along the Cossatot River after moving to the region in the 1830s. In the mid-1800s, antimony deposits were discovered along the river, though they weren’t exploited until the 1870s. This mining activity was concentrated in the town of Antimony City in Sevier County and continued until the early 20th century. Between 1898 and 1901, a gristmill was constructed at Three Chutes. In 1899, the Ultima Thule Highway was constructed across the river in the same region.”

The river’s name comes from a French term — casse-tete — meaning “crushed head.” The term made clear the severity of the rapids in the river.

We pass through the town of Gillham, which had a population of 160 people in the 2010 census, before leaving Sevier County. The community was originally known as Silver City. It was relocated and renamed when Stilwell’s railroad came through the county. The line missed Silver Hill by more than a mile. The town was renamed to honor Robert Gillham, the railroad’s chief engineer.

“A prosperous farmer named John Bellah claimed land in northern Sevier County in 1850,” Steven Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Sometime in the following decade, Bellah found a sample of gray metal on his land that he believed to be silver. He sank a shaft of 10 to 20 feet but found no further samples. During the 1860s, the Confederate government also sought silver on Bellah’s property without success. Following the Civil War, investors drawn into Arkansas during Reconstruction further investigated Bellah’s land, and a mining community was created that was named Silver Hill. A post office was established in 1874, and the community acquired a store that is said to have earned almost $10,000 a year during the mining boom.

“The material Bellah had found proved to be not silver but antimony. This metal, useful in alloys with lead or with tin, was attractive to miners who worked the area from 1873-1924 with peak production occurring during World War I.”

Gillham was incorporated in 1902.

“It had a large feed store, two sawmills, a hotel, a school, a newspaper called The Miner and about 400 residents,” Teske writes. “Local crops brought to town and shipped by rail included strawberries, turnips, cucumbers, green beans, squash, grapes, cantaloupes, radishes and blackberries. Timber was also an important industry for the area. A bank was chartered in 1905. By 1909, Gillham had a cotton gin, a gristmill, a second hotel, a restaurant, a Baptist church, a Methodist church, a Masonic lodge and a public school.

“The town remained economically strong through the 1920s, even after a fire in 1928 destroyed the telephone exchange, four businesses and three residences. It also damaged the bank and the Goff & Gamble Merchandise Store. Even with the tightening of the national economy during the Great Depression, fruit and vegetable production continued to provide jobs.”

In 1942, one packing company shipped 40,000 bushels of cucumbers from Gillham. But workers became scarce during World War II, and the fruit and vegetable industry started to die out. Gillham began a long decline.

As we continue our trip north on Highway 71, we head into Polk County, which covers about 858 square miles and had a population of 20,662 residents in the 2010 census.

“White settlement in Polk County began about 1830,” Roy Vail writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “At that time, the region was part of Sevier County. Polk County, named for President James K. Polk, was separated from Sevier County by the Legislature on Nov. 30, 1844. The 1860 census gave the Polk County population as 4,090 whites and 172 black slaves. Slaves weren’t widely used in Polk County because the mountainous terrain wasn’t good for row crops, though some corn, wheat, oats and cotton were farmed early on. Hunting and timber attracted many of the early settlers, who came principally from Illinois, Tennessee and Kentucky.”

Polk County’s first courthouse was in a community known as Dallas, which was named for Polk’s vice president, George Dallas. The first courthouse burned, and a second one was built in 1869. It burned in 1883.

“Dallas, with its location on Long’s Trail (which connected to the Butterfield Overland Mail Co. to the north and passed into what’s now Oklahoma to the south), became a regional center and a major stop for the stagecoach,” Vail writes. “At its height, it had a weekly newspaper, two churches, a dozen stores, three mills, livery stables and boarding houses.”

Stilwell chose a site three miles to the west for what became Mena. The railroad arrived there in August 1896. In a June 1898 special election, county residents voted to move the county seat to Mena.

Grannis, Wickes, Vandervoort and Hatfield all were products of Stilwell’s railroad.

“The heavily wooded slopes of the Ouachita Mountains were uninviting to the cotton farmers who first settled the area, and no landowners appear in records of the Grannis vicinity prior to 1893,” Teske writes. “The oldest monument to any human presence in the region is a tombstone on a hilltop that’s now the location of the Grannis cemetery. The name of the traveler buried there has been erased by weather, but the year 1881 is still legible on the monument. A sawmill was built nearby in the 1880s, and a post office was established in June 1883. The post office was named Leon Station, but the reason for that name has been forgotten.”

Stilwell named the depot “Grannis” at what had been Leon Station. He wanted to honor a railroad official with that name. The post office also changed its name the next year. Grannis was incorporated in October 1899.

“Even when the area was cleared of trees, the rocky soil was unfit for cotton,” Teske writes. “Landowners began to plant orchards of apple and peach trees. They also planted berry bushes, grapevines and melon patches. A two-room schoolhouse was built around 1909. By 1912, Grannis had six stores, two hotels, a livery stable, two planing mills, two custom mills and three churches. The Bank of Grannis opened in 1919. A Ford dealership began operations in Grannis in 1926. In 1938, the Grannis Canning Co. began to market canned fruits featuring blackberries and other fruits from the area.”

Clift and Dorothy Lane began processing chickens near their home in the early 1950s. As their business grew, they bought the depot at Grannis to use as offices. A rendering plant was opened in 1962, and a hatchery began operations in 1968. Lane Poultry became a major employer in the area. It was sold to Tyson Foods in 1986, and the Lane Poultry headquarters building parking lot ceased to be as full as it was when there was a large company headquartered in town.

“Grannis gained national notoriety in 1975 when several families gathered in a house in the city expecting the imminent return of Jesus Christ,” Teske writes. “Abandoning jobs and property, they existed upon the supplies from a store one of the family members owned. Several weeks later, local authorities intervened to return several children in the group to classes in the public schools. The next year, the waiting adults were removed from the house because of their failure to pay the mortgage on the property. Around the same time, Grannis received attention of a different kind when it embraced 238 Vietnamese refugees and other refugees from Southeast Asia, many of whom had previously been housed at Fort Chaffee near Fort Smith following their escape from Vietnam.”

Grannis had 554 residents in the 2010 census with about a quarter of them being identified as Hispanic. Wickes had a population of 754 with 393 of them identified as Hispanic.

Wickes was named for Thomas Wickes, a vice president of the Pullman Co., which built railroad cars for Stilwell. The post office there was established in 1897. Most of the jobs at Wickes these days are associated with the poultry industry.

Vandervoort had just 87 residents in the 2010 census. How did it get its interesting name?

Janice Kelley explains for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “When the town site was first laid out, it was known as Janssen, taking its name from the maiden name of Jan de Geoijen’s wife. There was another town in Arkansas with that name, however, and mail between the two towns was constantly being mixed up. In 1907, the town’s name was changed to Vandervoort in honor of the mother of Jan de Geoijen (Vandervoort was de Geoijen’s mother’s maiden name).

“Stilwell and his crew purposely missed established towns while laying out the railroad as their money came from land speculation, not rail traffic. For this reason, and because Vandervoort had a naturally marshy area adjacent to the planned route, the railroad built a large pond with a spillway to be used by the steam engines. Vandervoort was also a good halfway point for the trains to take on water. Through service between Kansas City and Port Arthur began after the last spoke was driven near Beaumont on Sept. 11, 1897.”

Vandervoort soon had more than 550 residents with eight general stores, four hotels, doctors, drugstores, a bank and a telephone office. Highway 71 later bypassed Vandervoort. The highway went directly from Hatton to Cove, and the decline of Vandervoort began.

Hatfield was named for a worker who died while building the railroad.

“The cause of the explosion that killed him was undetermined, but it followed a period of strife among foreign railroad workers from Ireland, Austria-Hungary, Italy and China, as well as local workers,” Teske writes. “Hatfield was incorporated as a town in 1901. The new town had several businesses. … A public school was also established. A bank opened in Hatfield in 1912. The town sponsored an annual fair, held first in an oak grove south of town, later on the school grounds and still later in a field north of town. As the highway through town became more traveled, several service stations opened in or near Hatfield.

“Hatfield prospered until 1938 when a fire destroyed most of the businesses on Main Street. … Although the post office was rebuilt, most of the other businesses ceased operation.”

Hatfield is now the home of the Christian Motorcyclists’ Association, whose facilities we pass as we head north on Highway 71.

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