From Siloam Springs to Huntsville

SECOND IN A SERIES

We leave Siloam Springs and head east on U.S. Highway 412, passing through a bit of bucolic Ozarks countryside before entering the congested confines of Springdale.

We cross the Illinois River twice. The river flows to the northwest and then to the southwest through Washington and Benton counties before entering Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Legislature declared the Illinois to be a State Scenic River in 1970. That set the stage for decades of litigation between the two states with Oklahoma claiming that the runoff of poultry waste along with pollution from wastewater treatment facilities in booming northwest Arkansas had sullied the stream.

We go from Benton County into Washington County, which saw its population almost quadruple from 55,797 in the 1960 census to 203,065 in the 2010 census. The current population is estimated at about 235,000 residents.

Washington County was established in October 1828 from Lovely County.

“Conflict between the Osage and Cherokee in what’s now Washington County led to intermittent raids, which Indian agents and U.S. Army leaders attempted to end, often without success,” Matthew Bryan Kirkpatrick writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “William L. Lovely was assigned as the agent to the Western Cherokee by the U.S. government and sought to settle the dispute between the two warring tribes and the white settlers. In 1816, Lovely made what was known as the Lovely Purchase through an unauthorized sale of land from the Osage. The actual western border of the Cherokee land, which included portions of Washington County, was vague and remained unsurveyed until 1825.

“On Oct. 13, 1827, the Arkansas Territorial Legislature created Lovely County. Present-day Washington County was within the borders of this county. The seat of Lovely County was established at Nicksville, Okla. Many early settlers to Washington County came to the area after the establishment of Lovely County. The county was formed after the Cherokee were removed and the area was deemed safe for white settlement.”

There were settlements at Cane Hill by 1827 and at Shiloh (now Springdale) and Fayetteville by the 1830s.

“Lovely County was abolished by October 1828, most of it ending up, when the border was drawn, in Indian Territory,” Kirkpatrick writes. “From much of what was left in Arkansas Territory, Washington County was formally created three days later. … Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, Washington County started to attract more affluent citizens. This is probably due to the good climate and availability of inexpensive land. Archibald Yell may be the most famous man from early Washington County. In the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson appointed him a judge in the region. Yell built his home, Waxhaw, in Fayetteville and practiced law in and around Fayetteville. In 1836, he was Arkansas’ first congressman. In 1840, he became Arkansas’ second governor.”

By the late 1800s, this had become one of the nation’s top fruit-growing regions.

“As early as 1852, area farmers sent crates of their ‘striped Ben’ apples across the Boston Mountains to sell at settlements along the Arkansas River,” Kirkpatrick writes. “Orchard production remained small until after the Civil War. Agriculture received a great boost with the completion of the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railway. It was completed in 1882 and provided a quick, reliable mode of transportation for commerce. Washington County’s apple harvest was the highest in the state in 1890 with 211,685 bushels. By 1900, production had nearly tripled to 614,924 bushels. The Western Arkansas Fruit Growers & Shippers Cooperative Association was organized at Springdale in 1888. … By 1900, Washington County was also exporting fence posts, hardwood lumber, railroad ties, spokes and posts throughout the country.”

The fruit business waned in the 1920s, and the timber boom slowed with the virgin timber having been cut. Fortunately for Washington County residents, the poultry industry took off.

“The Aaron Poultry & Egg Co. created the county’s first modern poultry processing facility in 1914 at an old mill building on Dickson Street in Fayetteville,” Kirkpatrick writes. “In 1916, the Aaron Co. decided not to build a permanent plant in Fayetteville. But Jay Fulbright, the father of future U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, built a processing plant along with other investors on West Avenue in Fayetteville. The company improved local stock both in egg production and the quality of roosters. Chickens slaughtered in the Fayetteville plant were shipped to markets throughout the nation. The plant grew, changed owners and eventually was acquired by the Campbell Soup Co. in 1955. Feed mills dot the landscape up and down U.S. Highway 71.”

We reach the suburban sprawl of the Fayetteville-to-Bentonville corridor and find ourself in Tontitown, a historic Italian community that has seen its population soar from 209 people in 1960 to an estimated 3,800 people today. Father Pietro Bandini led a group of Italian Catholic immigrants across the state from the Lake Village area to settle Tontitown in 1898.

The town was named in honor of explorer Henri de Tonti.

“The Tontitown Italians were tenant farmers on a south Arkansas plantation known as Sunnyside,” writes Susan Young of the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History at Springdale. “Groups from northern and central Italy arrived there in 1895 and 1897 and soon found themselves battling poor sanitation, disease, unfamiliar farming methods, language barriers and contract disputes. In early 1898, about 40 families chose to follow Bandini, the plantation’s resident priest, to the Arkansas Ozarks where the climate, terrain and small-scale agriculture were more similar to northern and central Italy. They settled on a parcel of rocky land west of Springdale. Abandoned cabins and outbuildings provided shelter until homes could be built. Horses and plows were bought on credit. Land was cleared, and vegetable gardens, vineyards, apple orchards, peach orchards and fields of strawberries were planted.

“At the end of June 1898, Tontitown settlers held a picnic in observance of the Feast of St. Peter, Bandini’s patron saint. The annual picnic, which was moved to August in 1913 to coincide with the grape harvest, was the forerunner of today’s Tontitown Grape Festival. Early on, a group of thugs tried to burn down Tontitown’s schoolhouse, which also served as the church and residence of Bandini. According to local tradition, a picture of St. Joseph hanging in the schoolhouse was untouched by the fire, and so the parish was named for the saint. A new church building was dedicated in 1900, a post office was established the same year and the first mercantile store was opened by John Pozza.”

Bandini, who died of a stroke in January 1917, was intent on creating a model community. St. Mary’s Academy, a boarding and day school operated by the Sisters of Mercy from Fort Smith, opened at Tontitown in 1906. The town was incorporated in 1909, and Bandini was elected the first mayor in 1910. The railroad arrived in 1912.

“Grapes became Tontitown’s signature crop, especially with the arrival of a Welch grape juice factory in nearby Springdale in the early 1920s,” Young writes. “Tontitown’s vineyards often produced three to five tons of grapes per acre. The Mantegani and Granata family wineries produced some of Tontitown’s most popular wines. … The Grape Festival expanded to multiple days in the 1930s. At the heart of it all is the spaghetti dinner prepared by members of St. Joseph Catholic Church. Beginning in July each year, volunteers prepare hundreds of pounds of homemade pasta and sauce. Thousands of festival-goers are served the spaghetti dinner, which also includes fried chicken, salad with homemade Italian dressing, homemade rolls and, of course, Concord grapes. Proceeds from the spaghetti dinner and the Queen Concordia contest go to support the parish.

“In 1932, Albina Mantegani was crowned as the first Grape Festival queen. The queen contest didn’t resume until 1942 when Elsie Mae Fiori was chosen as festival queen with the title of Queen Concordia. The contest has been held every year since then. … The queen’s coronation is presided over by a local dignitary. Those who have crowned the queen in past years include Congressman Claude Fuller, Gov. Orval Faubus and Gov. Bill Clinton.”

It’s a Monday, and that means we can’t get fried chicken and spaghetti for lunch at Tontitown. Both the Venesian Inn and Mama Z’s Cafe are closed on Mondays. And, alas, Mary Maestri’s is long gone.

We head to another Arkansas classic, the AQ Chicken House at Springdale. Roy Ritter opened the restaurant on July 20, 1947. He was one of the first people to build large poultry houses in the region and later constructed a poultry processing plant.

AQ stands for “Arkansas Quality.” There once were several locations across the state. Now there’s just the original here in Springdale, and it’s as good as ever. It’s somewhat fitting that we eat chicken in Springdale, the heart of the Arkansas poultry industry.

“In 1940, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recognized Arkansas as the largest producer of chickens,” Velda Brotherton writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Soon the Rural Electrification Administration began to supply electricity to farms, which revolutionized poultry production. Led by Tyson Foods Inc., poultry production increased by 333 percent between 1935 and 1950. It increased another 336 percent during the next 10 years. In 1962, Arkansas growers for all poultry plants raised 25 million broilers. The county soon became one of the five most heavily industrialized in Arkansas. Meanwhile, the cattle industry of northwest Arkansas grew out of the use of chicken litter to improve pastures.

“The poultry industry spawned other businesses. Tyson Foods opened a hatchery, as did many others. George’s Inc. and Jeff Brown built feed mills and increased the size of their hatcheries. Others followed. Locals, many of whom had left the area for work, found jobs that had not previously been available. Farmers, who were hacking out a bare existence, turned to raising poultry and cattle. The city’s population increased steadily. The trucking industry grew primarily out of growers’ needs to transport their birds. Harvey Jones went into the hauling business with a wagon and a team of two mules in 1918. That launched Jones Truck Lines. Others soon followed such as Joe Robinson, Lindley Truck Lines, Willis Shaw and J.B. Hunt.”

By 2005, there were 26 truck lines with operations at Springdale. There are more than 75 manufacturing and poultry-processing plants in the city.

We continue east on U.S. 412 and soon find ourselves crossing the lower part of Beaver Lake.

Beaver Dam on the White River is to the north in Carroll County, but the lake it creates is about 73 miles long and two miles wide at its widest point. The lake reaches from almost Eureka Springs to almost Fayetteville. It serves the water needs of one of the nation’s most rapidly growing areas.

“Beaver was one of the first U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs in the country to provide for municipal and industrial water supply,” Scott Branyan writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “This additional use was authorized by the Water Supply Act of 1958, provided a local sponsor could be found to pay for the extra storage capacity. The cities of Rogers, Bentonville, Fayetteville and Springdale agreed to buy water from the newly formed Beaver Water District, which paid a share of the cost of the project.”

The dam is 2,575 feet long and creates a reservoir that covers 28,200 acres.

“While the possibility of a dam on the upper White River was examined as early as 1911, the first feasibility studies by the Corps of Engineers for constructing such a dam were made in 1929 and 1930,” Branyan writes. “However, it was not until 1954 that Congress passed a flood-control act authorizing its construction. Several proposed sites for the dam were determined to be unsuitable. One of these was near Beaver in Carroll County, a town named after 1850s settler Wilson Ashbury Beaver. That led to the name of the project. The Corps of Engineers chose a final location a few miles upstream near Bush.”

The first construction funds were included in a 1959 bill, but the legislation was vetoed by President Dwight Eisenhower.

“Eisenhower had objected to Beaver Dam because of uncertainties over marketing the hydropower from the project,” Branyan writes. “The Southwestern Power Administration had reported that the project was only marginally justifiable. Congress, however, overrode the president’s veto, and bids for the project were received the following year. The actual construction process began in November 1960.”

A groundbreaking ceremony was held on Nov. 22, 1960. Power generation began in May 1965. The reservoir was full by 1968.

“Unlike earlier projects in Arkansas, the Corps only acquired flowage easements around the White River,” Branyan writes. “As soon as the federal land office opened to acquire land for the reservoir in October 1959, developers began to buy and sell property around the proposed lake. Out-of-state investors were quick to buy large acreages that could later be subdivided. By and large, Beaver is known as a residential lake. Situated close to the cities of northwest Arkansas, the lake area is home to many people who commute to work.

“Enthusiastic fishing reports published in newspapers and national outdoor magazines contributed to interest in the new lake. One newspaper article dubbed Beaver the ‘queen of the White River lakes.’ Promoter Ray Scott first brought the lake to prominent attention as a fishing destination. Scott held the first modern bass tournament at Beaver on June 5-7, 1967.”

The suburban sprawl of northwest Arkansas begins to thin out after we cross the lake. We soon find ourselves in Madison County.

The earliest white settlers arrived in this area in the late 1820s.

“Settlers who migrated to the area from Huntsville in Madison County, Ala., named both Huntsville and Madison County,” Rebecca Haden and Joy Russell write for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The majority of the settlers came from Tennessee, traveling by flatboat and wagon. The name Madison honors the fourth president, James Madison. Huntsville, in the geographical center, has always been the county seat. The Legislature established Madison County during its first session in 1836. It was formed from parts of Washington, Carroll and Newton counties. Its northern boundary originally extended to Missouri.

“The boundaries were changed many times before being finalized in 1885. The odd rectangle that resulted is 38 miles from north to south and 22 miles from east to west. … Future Gov. Isaac Murphy settled in Huntsville in 1854, was appointed governor in 1864 and served until 1868. He returned to Huntsville at the end of his term and lived there until his death in 1882.”

The railroads opened up the area’s hardwood forests for harvest.

“In the southern part of the county, millions of feet of virgin hardwood trees were harvested to be sawed into lumber, railroad ties and barrel staves to be shipped to other states,” Haden and Russell write. “On Sept. 4, 1886, the state granted a charter to the Fayetteville & Little Rock Railroad. Within a couple of years, tracks were laid from Fayetteville to Pettigrew so that the timber could be easily shipped. The railroads also allowed the development of cash crops, including tomatoes and watermelons. There were small commercial canneries in several of the towns.

“Many small towns sprang up along the rails, St. Paul being the largest. In 1900, its population was more than 1,000, making it larger than the county seat of Huntsville. The timber harvest lessened, the Great Depression set in and the railroad ceased operation on July 31, 1937. Most of the boomtowns along the railroad tracks declined and became ghost towns. Madison County was particularly hard hit by the Great Depression. The methods used by those who had harvested the timber led to the erosion of topsoil, limiting the productivity of the county’s small farms. Diseases plagued the area. Malnutrition was a serious problem.”

The population of the county dropped from a high of 19,864 in 1900 to a low of 9,068 in the 1960 census. Things soon began to turn around, though.

“Livestock became a popular income source in the county, especially dairy cattle,” Haden and Russell write. “Later, beef cattle production increased. It remains one of the top income sources. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, northwest Arkansas became a major poultry-producing area. Chicken and turkey production became a significant source of income for many residents.”

The boom in nearby Washington and Benton counties bled over into Madison County. By the 2010 census, the county’s population had rebounded to 15,717.

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