From Norfork to Calico Rock

THIRD IN A SERIES

I leave Norfork in Baxter County and continue the trip south on Arkansas Highway 5, crossing into Izard County.

Izard County once was much larger than it is today.

“In the 19th century, Izard County served as a gateway to settlement across northern Arkansas and was the parent county of seven other counties,” Susan Varno writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Later, Izard County’s virgin yellow pine forests provided lumber to other parts of the state. … Izard County hasn’t changed a great deal since the settlers first arrived. Then and now, oak and pine forests cover much of the southern Ozark hills. The county’s high elevations are in the Boswell and Sylamore area. Limestone bluffs grace parts of Pine Creek and the White River. Grassy valleys are dotted with small towns.”

Settlers came here from the Carolinas, Tennessee and Kentucky. A writer named Augustus Jeffrey once said of Izard County: “From 1815-20, the White River valley was overrun by hunters, stock raisers, horse thieves, murderers and refugees from prisons.”

He noted that “about 1827, a revival of religion commenced under the preaching of the Baptist, Methodist and Cumberland Presbyterian churches.”

The territorial government in Little Rock split off part of Independence County in 1825 and named the new county for Gov. George Izard.

Varno writes: “Adding Osage (1827) and Cherokee (1828) lands, Izard County covered most of north-central Arkansas. In 1833, western Izard County was divided into Van Buren, Carroll and Johnson counties. Later, sections of Izard County were split off to become Marion (1836), Fulton (1842) and parts of Baxter (1873) and Stone (1873) counties.”

The first county seat at what’s now Norfork was moved to Athens in 1830 and Mount Olive in 1836.

Mill Creek (later Melbourne) became the county seat in 1875 and has remained the seat of government since then. Courthouses burned in 1889 and 1937 at Melbourne. The current courthouse was built from 1938-40 by the National Youth Administration.

The White River has always played an important role in the lives of those who live in this area.

“Keelboats began bringing settlers up the White River in the early 1800s,” Varno writes. “By 1844, steamboats were traveling the White River as far as Izard County, bringing in passengers and mail and leaving with cash crops. As a result, the county’s population increased from 1,266 in 1830 to 7,215 in 1860. Steamboats made regular stops at Guion and Calico Rock. From the 1820s, pine was harvested, some with slave labor, and floated down the river or taken by steamboat.”

The 1860 census reported that there were 382 black residents of Izard County. In the most recent census in 2010, there were only 175 black residents out of a total population of 13,696. That’s about the same as in 1870 when there were 164 black residents. Varno says that freed slaves were driven out of the county in the years after the Civil War by “lack of work, discrimination and the Ku Klux Klan.”

“Cash crops were cotton, corn, wheat, pork, beef and pine timber,” she writes. “Residents supplemented their farm produce with fish, wild game, mussels from the White River, berries and nuts. Almost every family in Izard County owned land. Abundant timber for building and firewood allowed each family to have as large a house as they wanted. Women spun cotton thread and made cloth on looms. Besides farming, residents found employment as lumberjacks or in local gristmills, cotton gins, sawmills and general stores.”

The railroad, running along the northern bank of the White River, came to this isolated part of the state in 1903. That ended steamboat traffic along the upper White River.

The county’s population fell from 13,871 in the 1920 census to just 6,766 in the 1960 census.

“Farming became less viable, and many county residents moved to Oklahoma or Texas,” Varno writes. “During the Great Depression, others went to the state of Washington to work in the apple orchards, some returning home after the harvest. Cotton farming died out after World War II.”

The trend of population loss ended in the early 1960s. Since 1960, the county’s population has more than doubled. What happened?

Tourism took off with the advent of world-class trout fishing on the White River, the planned community of Horseshoe Bend brought retirees to the county, an aircraft fabrication plant opened near Melbourne in 1964 and the state opened a prison unit just north of Calico Rock in 1990. The prison now serves as the county’s largest employer.

I roll into Calico Rock, which I’ve always considered to be among the most charming small towns in Arkansas.

It was first a steamboat landing on the White River known as Calico Landing. The population soared in the early 1900s as those working on the new railroad were housed there.

How did the city — which had 1,545 residents in the 2000 census — get its name?

Ed Matthews writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas that the name came about “because of the wide strips of color — blue, black, gray, red and orange — giving the appearance of alternate widths of calico cloth on the bluffs bordering the river on the north. No other city in the United States has the name. Early French explorers took note of the pristine beauty of the river valley, naming the river La Riviere Blanche. In writing of his tours of Missouri and Arkansas in 1818-19, author and scientist Henry Schoolcraft referred to the shore as ‘calico rock.’ Calico Rock’s boat landing was at the river’s confluence with Calico Creek, which flows between the two bluff formations on the river’s north bank. It was the most popular docking site above Batesville.”

The first post office opened in 1851. It soon closed and wasn’t re-established until 1879.

Matthews says of the years during and just after the Civil War: “There was considerable jayhawking, including general harassment, stealing, looting and burning. This, along with the commerce around the boat landing and the arrival of railroad construction crews, caused Calico Rock to acquire a reputation as a tough frontier town.”

Though the soil was rocky, cotton was grown in the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“The marketing and shipping of timber products was also a major industry of the town,” Matthews writes. “A barge-building entity operated for a short time on the north bank of the river, though the building of the railroad was the principal factor in Calico Rock’s economic growth. Churches were slow in coming to the reputedly tough frontier, and religious congregations often met in people’s homes. The Methodist and Presbyterian congregations of the town used the same building until 1907 when the Presbyterians built their own.”

The Bank of Calico Rock opened in 1903. In 1923, a spark from a locomotive started a fire that destroyed more than 20 businesses.

Matthews writes: “A planer mill, complete with dry-kiln chambers, was part of the town by 1904. Robert Hays and his brother converted it to a hardwood flooring mill by the 1950s. It wasn’t uncommon by 1907 to see more than 100 wagons arriving daily with timber products. The Benbrook Flour Mill, a water-powered corn-grinding mill, contributed to the region’s economic strength. Calico Rock became quite a shopping center as farmers brought their produce and did their shopping, frequently from such distances that they would camp overnight in the wagon yard known still as Peppersauce Alley because of the moonshine whiskey traded there.”

The Great Depression was especially tough on this area of the state as it continued to lose population from World War II until the 1960s.

“During World War II, the economy of this already struggling town was hit hard,” Matthews writes. “There was a great deal of outmigration to Kansas by people seeking employment in an ammunition manufacturing arsenal. After that plant closed, many former residents of Calico Rock stayed in the Kansas City area, and their families followed them there. About the same time, there was a noted migration of residents to work in the orchards of Washington state, gathering apples, pears, cherries and other fruit. … Calico Rock has never attracted much industry to sustain it.”

Retirees, however, helped the population grow from 991 in the 2000 census to 1,545 in the 2010 census. Calico Rock also became easier to reach. A bridge was built over the White River on Highway 5 in 1967 to replace the ferry that long had operated there.

What’s known as the Calico Rock Historic District covers a downtown block along the highway along with the historic Riverview Hotel a block away.

“These buildings, erected from 1903-24, represent early 20th-century architectural styles,” Varno writes. “The district is typical of downtown districts that emerged along railroad lines, though Calico Rock stands out for having been built on a hillside. The district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on Nov. 19, 1985. … Every spring, heavy rains caused the White River to rise, which made Calico Creek flood. In 1902, Izard County surveyor Elbert Benbrook platted the town’s business district on the hillside above the creek. That year, Joseph T. Garner erected a two-story frame building on the new Main Street. He opened a mercantile store. Soon after, Edward Nicholas Rand built two stone buildings on the high side of the street for his mercantile store and warehouse.

“Calico Rock quickly became a regional commercial center. Every Saturday, men and women from Izard, Stone, Baxter and Fulton counties came by train, wagon, truck or automobile to transact business, see doctors, shop, visit restaurants or see movies. Other buildings on the high side of Main Street were the Calico Rocket newspaper office (1904), the Wiseman Hotel (about 1912), the People’s Bank (1912) and Evans Brothers Pharmacy (1918).”

All of the buildings on the lower side of Main Street, which were of wood construction, burned in the 1923 fire. They were rebuilt with brick and stone.

“After the fire, businesses on the low side included Marshall Floyd’s Grocery (1924), Hayden’s Dry Goods (late 1920s), the Green Tavern Cafe (1925), the Hillbilly Cafe (1926) and City Barber Shop (1925),” Varno writes. “These buildings have basements with doors that open in the rear onto Peppersauce Alley, which is about 10 feet below Main Street. In 1924, Benjamin Sanders built the Riverview Hotel on Rodman Street above Main. He used cement blocks fired in a kiln in the hotel’s front yard.”

The Calico Rock Heritage Museum & Visitor Center was dedicated downtown in April 2014. It was the result of an effort that began in 2007 when a group of area residents formed the Calico Rock Organization for Revitalization Efforts to promote tourism. CORE later signed an agreement with the city to develop exhibits in the back room of a former bank building. The nonprofit Calico Rock Museum Foundation was chartered in 2008.

Jim Murphy offered in 2009 to sell a downtown building to the foundation at the discounted price of $80,000. Prisoners from the nearby state prison helped rehabilitate the building. Historic exhibits were placed in the building, and it opened to the public in January 2011. The Calico Rock Artisans Cooperative also sold arts and crafts in the building.

In 2012, the city sold a former bank building to the foundation for $1. The various facilities have now made Calico Rock an interesting stop for those driving along Highway 5.

The Calico Rock Heritage Museum and Visitors Center is open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. on Saturday. The adjoining Tomlinson Arts & Science Center is open from noon until 4 p.m. on Wednesday, from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Thursday and Friday and from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. on Saturday.

Another popular stop is the Printing Press Cafe & Ice Cream Parlor, which is open from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

We leave Calico Rock, cross the White River and head through Stone County to Mountain View as we continue south on Highway 5.

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