From Mena to Waldron

SIXTH IN A SERIES

We’re in the Ouachita National Forest soon after leaving Mena. We’re heading north on U.S. Highway 71.

It originally was known as the Arkansas National Forest and was created when President Teddy Roosevelt issued an executive order on Dec. 18, 1907. Gifford Pinchot headed the U.S. Forest Service at the time (he was the first director) and commented that it was the only major shortleaf pine forest being protected by the federal government.

The national forest was created mostly from public domain lands south of the Arkansas River. What was known as the Weeks Law in 1911 authorized the federal government to purchase forests in the eastern part of the country. From 1933-41, there was a massive expansion of the system as the government attempted to renew cutover and farmed-out lands.

The name of the Arkansas National Forest was changed to the Ouachita National Forest in 1926. In 1930, the national forest was extended into eastern Oklahoma. The Ouachita National Forest now consists of almost 1.8 million acres in 12 Arkansas and two Oklahoma counties. It’s the largest and oldest national forest in the South with almost 60 recreational areas, several scenic byways and hundreds of miles of trails.

After passing through Acorn in Polk County, we enter Scott County. Much of this county is national forest land. Scott County had just 11,233 residents in the 2010 census, down from a population of 14,302 a century earlier.

“The county name was selected to honor Territorial Supreme Court Justice Andrew Scott,” Wes Goodner writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The act of the Territorial General Assembly that created the county in 1833 provided that the residence of Walter Cauthron, located near what’s now Booneville in Logan County, would serve as the ‘temporary seat of justice.’ In 1836, faced with choosing a county seat of a more permanent nature, commissioners chose the community of Cauthron and proceeded to establish a courthouse. Because of numerous redefinitions of Scott County’s boundaries, this site of Cauthron is now within present-day Logan County and is not the present-day Scott County community known as Cauthron.

“In 1840, popular opinion demanded that the county seat be in a more central location, and the community of Winfield, located about two miles northeast of present-day Waldron, was selected. This Winfield shouldn’t be confused with the present-day community with the same name.”

William G. Featherston settled near what’s now Waldron in the 1830s. He was a business owner and postmaster with the post office on his property going by the name of Poteau Valley.

“In 1845, Featherston offered 10 acres of his land for a town to serve as the county seat,” Goodner writes. “His offer of land was accepted, and owing in no small part to the poor road system to and from Winfield, the county seat was moved to what’s now known as Waldron. The land was later surveyed and a plat was designed by John P. Waldron, for whom Waldron is named. Following the establishment of Waldron as the county seat, several years of relative prosperity, progress and calm followed with the development of a merchant presence, hotels and facilities of county government.”

There wasn’t much fighting in Scott County during the Civil War, but Reconstruction proved to be a violent, controversial process, leading to a series of events known as the Waldron War. More on that later.

“As Reconstruction ended, a period of relative quiet and tranquility began,” Goodner writes. “The turn of the century brought railroads, a short-lived coal mining industry, cotton crops and a successful merchant district in downtown Waldron. In spite of difficulties and hardships, growth was sustained, if modest, even in the turbulent times of World War I and the stock market catastrophe. The local economy was buffered somewhat by the railroads, coal, cotton and the timber industry and was aided by the Depression-era relief measures, particularly the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps.

“The post-World War II era brought manufacturing jobs — primarily the crafting of furniture, milling of lumber and poultry production — while maintaining a solid merchant district along Main Street in Waldron. The largest employer in the county is the poultry industry. … With the coming of larger chain establishments, the commercial district of Waldron has shifted from Main Street to areas along the nearby Highway 71 bypass. With the installation of street lamps, a conservation easement and renovations to the historic former courthouse, efforts have been made to renovate and revitalize the downtown area.”

We pass through Y City as we drive north on Highway 71. When I was a boy growing up in Arkadelphia, we would take what I called the “back route” to Fayetteville. We would wind our way west through Alpine, Amity, Glenwood, Caddo Gap, Norman, Mount Ida and Pencil Bluff before connecting with Highway 71 at Y City. On trips when we left early in the morning, we would stop for breakfast at a place here called the Midway before heading north on Highway 71 to Fayetteville.

The next community we pass through is Boles, which is nine miles south of Waldron. Boles is along the Fourche La Fave River.

“In the 1860s, the Boles family settled in the community that would eventually be named after it,” Ty Richardson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The community was originally called Stringtown. The origin of the name comes from the first settler’s boat being strung up and down the banks of the Fourche La Fave River. Travel by boat was likely easier at the time than using wilderness trails. By 1887, the population of Boles increased from just a few people to around 100. A church, schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, wood shop, shoe shop, post office and hotel had been established in Boles by this time. Also active within the community were four merchants. … One of the main industries in Boles in the 19th century was cotton, and the town had a steam-powered gin. Water was hauled from the Fourche La Fave River by wagon.”

The last school at Boles closed in 1968. Students now go to Waldron for school.

The Fourche La Fave starts just west of Boles. It runs for about 140 miles through Scott, Yell and Perry counties before emptying into the Arkansas River. Construction of Nimrod Dam on the river in Perry County was completed in 1942 and created Nimrod Lake.

“The origin of the river’s name is open to debate,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Fourche is French for fork, and La Fave may be in reference either to a family that once lived along the river or to early settler Peter La Fave. The fork of the river is the South Fourche La Fave River, which rises in the Ouachita Mountains near Onyx in Yell County and empties into the Fourche La Fave River near Deberrie in Perry County.”

Early settlers grew cotton along the river.

“In 1841-42, German writer Friedrich Gerstacker resided and hunted in Arkansas, mostly along the Fourche La Fave,” Lancaster writes. “These experiences provided background for some of an 1844 book as well as an 1845 novel that describes vigilantism along the river. On another trip to the United States in 1867, he returned to Arkansas specifically to hunt along the Fourche La Fave and visit his friend Gustavus Klingelhoffer.

“Early transportation along the river was conducted by keelboat, but even this was challenging given the numerous shoals along the course of the waterway. On March 3, 1879, Congress passed an act to improve the river. This included dynamiting some of the rocky shoals to create a deeper channel for transportation. By 1889, the river was navigable up to either Perryville or Aplin in Perry County, depending on the level of the water.”

After leaving Boles, we pass through a community with an interesting name — Needmore.

Richardson explains: “Until around 1926, there were no businesses or religious establishments in the area now known as Needmore. That year, John Walls built a 10-by-20-foot building east of Highway 71 and south of Highway 28 and began selling necessities to residents. Sometime later, Pat Murphy began managing the store. Murphy stocked a limited supply of groceries, like most small stores in the county. When a customer would come into the store asking for something Murphy did not have, he would often reply by saying, ‘I need more of that.’

“This became a running joke with members of the community. Customers would intentionally ask for items he did not have in order to keep the joke running. People in the community began calling the store Needmore, and eventually the community was known by the same name.”

We make our way into Waldron, which is about 50 miles south of Fort Smith. The town is on the South Fork of the Poteau River.

Waldron officially was incorporated on Dec. 17, 1852. Featherston’s barn on Main Street served as the courthouse until a structure was built in 1859.

“The production of raw material on the surrounding farms and in the forests sustained the early economy,” Wanda Gray writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The landowners sold cotton, corn and lumber, enabling them to buy or barter for processed or manufactured goods. The businessmen of Waldron provided cotton gins, lumber mills and gristmills. … Early boarding houses and hotels provided accommodations for travelers along the Fort Smith-Red River Road, the major western Arkansas corridor passing through the center of Waldron.”

Goodner describes the so-called Waldron War as “a decade-long period of violence that began during the Reconstruction era and was characterized by arson, general lawlessness, personal and political feuds, electoral misconduct and violence — including murder — throughout Scott County. The civil strife resulted in Govs. Augustus Garland and William Miller dispatching the state militia to the county on at least three occasions to restore order. With much of Waldron burned by departing Union troops in 1864, the citizens faced the re-establishment of the infrastructure of the town. While hostile feelings remained between those sympathetic to the Union cause and the Confederate cause, much of the strife was attributed to personality conflicts within the local Republican Party. Although there was the occasional outburst of lawlessness such as arson and election fraud in the period immediately following the Civil War, for the most part the town progressed with rebuilding and economic growth.

“The cycle of contentious elections began in 1870 with the naming of the Scott County Board of Registrars by Gov. Powell Clayton. James M. Bethel, a member of the board, was later declared to have defeated the father of fellow board member W.J. Ellington in a race for the Legislature, resulting in rumors and accusations about the election. The gossip and intrigue were compounded by Bethel’s failure to arrive in Little Rock to begin his term. He was soon found dead on an area mountain, and published reports attributed Bethel’s death to causes varying from natural to weather-related to murder. The election of 1872 saw a pattern not unlike the election of 1870. Reports of voter registration books missing from the clerk’s office circulated as did rumors, accusations and innuendos about the election process.”

Numerous arrests followed.

Goodner notes that “increasing political pressure and personality conflicts ushered in a new intensity and violent fervor to the already unsettled political climate in 1874. The year was marked by a violent cycle, though with few apprehensions and convictions of rumored perpetrators. A longtime feud within the Republican Party was highlighted with the shooting of prominent citizen Cerop Malone. A former sheriff, Nathan Floyd, was charged with the shooting but was later acquitted. In 1875, Floyd sustained a gunshot wound and chose to leave the state. An outburst of violence in 1876 brought arson, which left Waldron’s business district in ashes, along with several murders.”

After the state militia was sent to Waldron in 1878 in an attempt to impose order, things settled down.

A branch of the Kansas City Southern Railroad reached Waldron in 1903, a stone jail was constructed in 1908 and the first automobile arrived in 1912.

“By 1920, the town had a bank, a weekly newspaper, a canning factory, a flour mill, a brick factory, a soda pop plant, an ice and cold storage plant, electricity, telephones, large lumber interests, natural gas, mercantile businesses and a population of 918 residents,” Gray writes. “The first movie houses in Waldron were small and did not have talking movies, but by the 1930s a new movie theater adorned Main Street and talking movies were the rage. The muddy main streets of the town were improved with a cover of hard-surface materials, the water systems were changed from private wells and cisterns to a central water system and the outdoor toilets were eliminated when a city sewer system was established.”

Unlike many surrounding towns, Waldron has grown steadily through the years. It had a population of 3,618 residents in the 2010 census.

The Waldron Commercial Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in September 2008. It consists of buildings along Main Street from First Street to Fifth Street. There are 35 structures in the area that were built between 1880 and 1958.

“Many new brick commercial buildings were built on Main Street during the 1880s and 1890s, including the Boston Cash Store building in 1880 and the Dozier & Son building in 1890,” Richardson writes. “Businesses flourished on Main Street after the turn of the century. In 1901, the Bank of Waldron and First National Bank both opened on South Main Street. … The City Garage, which sold Ford automobiles, opened directly west of the courthouse in 1916. In the 1930s, the New Deal brought the Works Progress Administration to Scott County to provide jobs for people in the area who were suffering during the Depression. Main Street was paved for the first time between First and Fifth streets. In 1931, the Pines Theatre opened on South Main Street. A new courthouse was completed in 1934 with help from the WPA. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Waldron shifted from a commercial center to an industrial town with less focus on the Main Street area.”

The Pines was renamed the Scott Theater in 1940. It still operates and is one of the oldest theaters in this part of the country.

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