From Portia to Walnut Ridge

EIGHTH IN A SERIES

We’ve left the Ozarks and are in the Delta now.

The first town we visit on this leg of our trek east across north Arkansas on U.S. Highway 412 is Portia, which long was known for its Fourth of July picnic that attracted politicians from across the state. The event was discontinued several years ago.

The railroad came to this area in the early 1880s, and Portia was incorporated in May 1886.

The town’s population in the 2010 census was 437, even less than the 571 people who resided there in 1890 when the virgin hardwood forests were being cleared and cotton was becoming king.

“Due to its convenient location to both river travel and the railroad, the town was considered for relocation of the Lawrence County seat,” Mike Polston writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “After much debate, the seat remained in Powhatan. Many believed that the move had been vetoed because of reporting by the local populist newspaper editors W.S. and S.W. Morgan and their criticism of the Democratic Party. The paper, the Portia Free Press, was published from 1886-88.”

The Portia Lumber Co. was a major employer by 1890 as the forests of the Delta were cleared during the period of Arkansas history known as the Big Cut.

“The town’s population began to decrease with the decline of the timber industry by the turn of the century,” Polston writes. “By 1903, the town had 11 businesses, including two cotton gins. It was also home to a section house and depot with two passenger and two freight trains passing through daily. … In 1906, a devastating fire swept through the town, having been ignited by a butcher shop’s exploding coal oil lamp. Winds quickly spread the fire until all the businesses on the south side of the tracks were destroyed. A number of homes were also burned, requiring some citizens to live temporarily in tents. The fire resulted in a town ordinance requiring new buildings to be constructed of brick or some other fire-retardant material. Many did not rebuild.”

A schoolhouse that was constructed in 1914 still stands at Portia. The Fourth of July event was on the grounds of the school, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

The picnic began in 1905. Some of the annual events attracted almost 10,000 visitors.

The next town on the route east is Hoxie, which received nationwide publicity in 1955 for becoming one of the earliest Southern cities to desegregate its public schools.

Danyelle McNeill writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Hoxie moved to desegregate in June 1955, becoming one of the first school systems in the state to do so. The superintendent of schools, Kunkel Edward Vance, gave three reasons for integration: It was ‘right in the sight of God,’ it complied with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling the previous year in Brown v. Board of Education and it saved money.

“Hoxie’s desegregation was not an uneventful one, though it had been uneventful at first. But when Life magazine ran a three-page article about the desegregation, segregationist groups traveled to the area and began a campaign to stop the integration. These segregationists circulated petitions and publicly protested at the school. Parents opposed to the integration boycotted the school by pulling their children out of classes. Consequently, Hoxie’s summer term ended two weeks early. A tense standoff between the Hoxie School Board and segregationists began. Gov. Orval Faubus refused to become involved.

“Meetings and hearings were held in an effort to determine if the integration should go forward. … Hoxie continued to experience difficulties due to segregationists’ attempts to challenge the decision. Their attempts failed, and a permanent injunction stating that the school had the right to integrate without outside interference was issued by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Hoxie schools officially integrated. Desegregation at Hoxie was overshadowed two years later by the 1957 desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School.”

Hoxie owes its existence to the fact that the leaders next door in Walnut Ridge couldn’t come to an agreement with officials of the Kansas City, Springfield & Memphis Railroad.

“They weren’t able to obtain enough land for a depot and terminal facilities at a reasonable price,” McNeill writes. “Mary Boas approached railroad officials and suggested that the railroad use her land instead. She informed the railroad that she would give them the right of way through her land for no charge. The railroad gladly accepted this offer. Boas’ husband, Henry, received a contract for part of the railroad’s construction, and the Boas family built a hotel near the tracks in 1879.”

Hoxie was incorporated in 1888. It was named for railroad executive H.M. Hoxie.

“Hoxie experienced strong economic growth in the early 1900s,” McNeill writes. “Due to the railroad’s installation of a roundhouse, repair shops and a railroad office, local steel workers, blacksmiths, carpenters, painters and other skilled laborers and office workers found employment. With the arrival of the railroad, businesses moved to the area. An ice plant and stockyards for cattle were opened. This was followed by the opening of the first Bank of Hoxie (which no longer exists), a bottling company and a lumber company. Jobs remained plentiful, and the town flourished until the 1920s. During this time, famous people traveled through the town by train. William Jennings Bryan and Jack Dempsey, the world heavyweight boxing champion, made short stops in Hoxie.”

A strike by the railroad workers in 1923 caused a number of families to leave the area. A tornado did damage in 1927, and railroad facilities later were moved from Hoxie to Poplar Bluff, Mo. The population of Hoxie dropped from 1,711 in the 1920 census to 1,448 in the 1930 census. Growth was slow until the 1960s.

Hoxie then grew from 1,886 residents in the 1960 census to 2,780 residents in 2010.

The adjacent county seat of Walnut Ridge, meanwhile, has grown from 1,798 residents in the 1910 census to 4,890 residents a century later.

“Col. Willis Miles Ponder, a Civil War veteran from Missouri, formally founded the town of Walnut Ridge in 1875,” McNeill writes. “He later served as its first mayor. Before applying for a post office, Ponder called the town Pawpaw because of the number of pawpaw trees in the area. The town’s name was changed after moving to its new location. Upon application for a post office at the new site, Ponder was informed that there was already another town in Arkansas with the name of Pawpaw. Ponder changed the name to Walnut Ridge due to the number of walnut trees in the new area.

“Both timber cutting and agriculture provided income for the citizens of Walnut Ridge. Cotton was the main crop. Corn and hay were also grown. … After many years of sharing a dual county seat with Powhatan, Walnut Ridge became the lone county seat in 1963. The Lawrence County Courthouse was completed in 1966.”

An ugly incident that became known as the Walnut Ridge Race War occurred in 1912.

Arkansas historian Guy Lancaster describes it as “an instance of violent nightriding in which a group of white vigilantes attempted to drive African Americans from Walnut Ridge. They did not succeed in making Walnut Ridge an all-white town, but they did manage to drive black laborers from certain local industries. This was often the aim of nightriders, who were frequently poor whites who wanted those jobs for themselves.”

Notices signed “Kit Karson and Band” were posted in April 1912. The notices ordered blacks to leave the city.

A group of white citizens posted a notice that said: “We will protect our help and prosecute you to the limit of the law. Furthermore, the white people will arm their servants with instructions to shoot the first intruders who disturb them.”

On the evening of April 19, 1912, a group of white men dynamited one black-owned home and fired upon another.

Business leaders contacted Gov. George Donaghey, and he called out the local militia to restore order.

“By the time the militia, under the command of Brig. Gen. William K. Surridge, arrived in the city from Black Rock, half of an estimated black population of 400 was reported to have fled,” Lancaster writes. “Some white citizens reportedly opposed the militia quartering there, but state and local newspaper accounts generally credit the action with restoring peace in the city. … This event bears similarities to other instances of nightriding in Lawrence County. On Jan. 12, 1894, a group of unknown vigilantes posted a notice warning all African Americans to leave Black Rock. At the time, about 300 black workers lived in the city, laboring in the timber and manufacturing industries. One third of them reportedly left in response to this threat, despite the fact that local industry leaders had pledged to protect them.”

A major boost for the city came when the federal government decided to create an Army Air Forces flying school near Walnut Ridge during World War II.

The flying school was among seven that were established across Arkansas. Contract primary flying schools were at Camden, Helena and Pine Bluff. Newport and Walnut Ridge had basic flying schools. Blytheville and Stuttgart had advanced twin-engine flying schools.

“The Walnut Ridge Army Flying School enrolled during its existence 5,310 students; 4,641 of them graduated,” Harold Johnson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In early April 1942, a board of three Army Air Forces officers went in search of a new location for a basic flying school. The site that was planned for Dyersburg, Tenn., was deemed unacceptable because it would require moving five million cubic yards of dirt. The three men flew over an area just northeast of Walnut Ridge that looked promising. Returning by car the next day, they looked over the site and checked on public schools, housing, utilities and transportation. On April 15, 1942, they recommended it for the flight school. ┬áThe U.S. government approved the recommendation, and construction on the airfield began June 20, 1942.

“The government paid $305,075 for 3,096 acres. The land housed private homes and the Moran School, a typical two-room rural public school. Forty-five families lived on the land and were forced to move out quickly. Their homes were torn down. Landowners were paid an average of $110 an acre for their land while the sharecroppers and tenant farmers who constituted most of those living on the land were reimbursed for a share of their crop.”

Auxiliary airfields were built at Biggers, Pocahontas, Walcott, Beech Grove and Bono. The government had to purchase 2,624 acres of farmland for those airfields.

“These other airfields were used for safety reasons,” Johnson writes. “There were about 250 airplanes based at the field, and students did extensive takeoff and landing practice. It would have been risky and impractical for that many airplanes to be in a traffic pattern at one time. Construction of the airfield brought in 1,500 workers. Walnut Ridge and Pocahontas residents opened their homes to the workers. The mayors and the Boy Scouts worked to find housing for them. Churches and civic groups provided recreational facilities. Residents rented out rooms, garages and attics to accommodate workers. … People who were once glad to get $1 a day could make 50 cents to $1 an hour or more at the airfield. They came from Jonesboro, Monette, Paragould, the Ozark foothills and southern Missouri.”

The airfield was activated on Aug. 15, 1942. The first 100 troops arrived 10 days later. There was no base housing yet, so the troops were transported each day from a Civilian Conservation Corps camp at Five Mile Spring north of Pocahontas. Due to delays, the first three classes of cadets scheduled for Walnut Ridge were sent to Blytheville instead.

“Blytheville was scarcely better prepared than Walnut Ridge,” Johnson writes. “Circus tents were used for operation headquarters and classrooms. The runways weren’t ready so flying was done from oil-coated dirt strips.”

Training at Walnut Ridge finally began on Oct. 12, 1942, as students began training on the BT-13. Forty-two students and instructors died while training. The last class graduated on June 27, 1944.

The airfield was transferred to the Department of the Navy on Sept. 1, 1944, and operated as a Marine Corps facility. It was decommissioned on March 15, 1945.

Walnut Ridge was selected after the war as a place to store obsolete planes.

“The planes came in droves with as many as 250 arriving in a single day,” Johnson writes. “An estimated 10,000 to 11,000 warplanes were flown to Walnut Ridge in 1945 and 1946 for storage and sale. At least 65 of the military’s 118 B-32 heavy bombers were flown to Walnut Ridge, many straight from the assembly line.”

The Texas Railway Equipment Co. bought 4,871 of the aircraft at Walnut Ridge in September 1946 for just more than $1.8 million.

“Two giant smelters were constructed to melt the scrap aluminum, which was formed into huge ingots for shipping,” Johnson writes. “In about two years, the planes were all scrapped. When the salvage was completed, the airfield proper, along with about 60 percent of the land, was turned over to the city of Walnut Ridge to be used as a public airport. All runways are still active, and one has been extended to 6,000 feet.”

Part of the grounds later would serve as the home of what’s now Williams Baptist University. Hubert Ethridge Williams, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pocahontas, decided that northeast Arkansas needed a Baptist college.

“Williams aggressively cultivated support from many area residents for the proposed college,” Kenneth Startup writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He found substantial encouragement from Jonesboro Baptist College alumni (the school had failed during the early years of the Great Depression) and from former students and supporters of Maynard Baptist Academy, another attempt at Baptist-sponsored education in the region that lasted from 1900-26. Williams’ relentless commitment to the cause culminated in the opening of the college, then named Southern Baptist College, in Pocahontas on Sept. 10, 1941. The college offered a two-year liberal arts curriculum, and a majority of the college’s early students studied to become clergymen or public school teachers.”

The city of Pocahontas made a community center that had been built by the Works Progress Administration available for classes. H.E. Williams became the school’s first president and stayed in the post for 32 years. The main building being used by Southern Baptist College burned on Dec. 26, 1946. That’s when negotiations began with the federal government to move the school to the former airbase.

“Sen. John L. McClellan and Rep. Wilbur Mills advocated for the college in its negotiations with the federal government,” Startup writes. “During the next several decades, the college transformed the airbase through millions of dollars of construction and renovations.”

In 1968, the school was formally adopted by the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.

The school became a four-year institution in the early 1980s. The name was changed to Williams Baptist College in 1990 and to Williams Baptist University in 2017.

In May 2016, residents of Walnut Ridge and College City, where Williams Baptist was officially located, voted to consolidate the two towns.

The Beatles had made a stop at the airport on the way to a ranch in nearby Missouri in the 1960s.

“To commemorate the Beatles’ stopover in Walnut Ridge in the 1960s, the town has changed the name of a downtown street to Abbey Road, erected a sculpture of the Beatles in a downtown park and created a music festival called Beatles at the Ridge,” McNeill writes. “The town has also added a guitar-shaped plaza downtown that has plaques honoring nine musicians who traveled U.S. Highway 67 and played around the Walnut Ridge area in the 1950s, including Sonny Burgess, Johnny Cash and Conway Twitty.”

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