From Montrose to Wilmot

SECOND IN A SERIES

Montrose is the place where two U.S. highways — 165 and 82 — meet.

The town’s population was 354 people in the 2010 census, down from a high of 641 in the 1980 census. Like most small towns in this part of southeast Arkansas, Montrose struggles to remain relevant.

Timber companies cleared the virgin hardwood trees during the period of Arkansas history known as the Big Cut (which lasted from about 1880 to 1930), and men such as W.T. Cone and Sam Wilson bought up the land to raise cotton.

“Cone had been a merchant in Hamburg before acquiring farmland in the Montrose area,” Steve Teske writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In 1922, with the national decline in cotton prices, Cone sold his land to Wilson and left the area. Cotton remained the main crop throughout the 20th century. Around the beginning of the century, the Iron Mountain Railroad built a line that extended into Louisiana. It established depots at regular intervals where train engineers could obtain additional fuel and water. Many of these depots were named for railroad executives and employees. This is probably the case for Montrose, although no record of the namesake has been preserved.

“A post office was established at the Montrose stop in 1898. The Montrose depot became more significant when a team of investors created a short-line railroad called the Mississippi River, Hamburg & Western Railway. It connected the Crossett area to Luna Landing on the Mississippi River. This line intersected the Iron Mountain line at the Montrose depot. Both lines became part of Missouri Pacific later in the century. Homes and businesses were quickly built around the depot, and Montrose incorporated as a second-class city in 1904.”

The area was ravaged by the Great Flood of 1927 and the Great Depression.

“By the middle of the century, the combination of mechanized agriculture and social changes brought about a decline in population as many farm workers sought better-paying jobs in the larger cities of Arkansas as well as in Northern states,” Teske writes. “Due to school consolidation, all the schools in the area are now part of the Hamburg School District, which doesn’t have any school buildings in Montrose. In 1986, Bill Jones opened a business in Montrose based around the barbecue sauce recipe of his grandfather, Jasper Jones of Mississippi. Sassy Jones Sauce & Spice Co. makes and distributes various foods, including sauces, jams, jellies and syrups.”

The next town headed south is Portland, which was once a steamboat port on the Bayou Bartholomew.

“The earliest known settlers were John P. Fisher and William Brady, who were there in the 1830s,” writes Rebecca DeArmond-Huskey, the author of two books about life along the Bayou Bartholomew. “Fisher arrived in 1833, established a plantation and constructed a two-story house on the west side of the bayou. A short distance down the bayou from Fisher’s house, a small settlement emerged on the opposite side. Steamboat captains called this stopping place ‘the port.’ Upon establishment of a post office in 1857, it was named Portland.

“The bayou village consisted largely of mercantile stores that received their goods from steamboats and served the plantations and smaller farms. Brothers John Cicero Bain, James Oliver Bain and their half-brother Dolphus Leroy Bain installed a steam gin and traded in cotton and cottonseed. A Mr. Culpepper operated a sawmill. He cut the lumber for Fisher’s house. A one-room school and a church stood on a bluff facing the bayou.”

The railroad reached the area in 1890, and many merchants moved almost two miles so they would be by the railroad rather than the bayou.

“Three stores opened the next year and two more in 1892,” DeArmond-Huskey writes. “The town incorporated in October 1893. Instrumental in incorporation were Robert Aaron Pugh, Joseph Cicero Bain and Edward J. Camak. Agriculture continued to be the basis of the economy, but the railroad soon attracted the timber industry. William Harrell Wells was in the barrel stave business in 1896, and the Stell & Boothby Stave Mill was open by early 1897. The first Northern-based concerns were American Forest Lumber and Wheeler Cypress Lumber Co.”

By the early 1900s, there were four large hardwood mills operating in or near Portland.

“When most of the timber was cut by the end of World War I, the mills began to close,” DeArmond-Huskey writes. “Despite the loss of the timber industry, agriculture thrived, and the town continued to grow until the Great Depression. Many small businesses closed, and small farmers began to sell their land in the 1930s. This continued through World War II. With the loss of tenant labor during the war and the emergence of farm mechanization, the surviving large mercantile businesses gradually closed.”

Some of the largest, most prosperous farms in the state traditionally have been in this area of Arkansas. Planters built homes in Portland that reflected their wealth. Noted architect Charles Thompson of Little Rock was hired to design the Joel Wilson Pugh house and the Jess Dean house. The Pugh house, the Dean house and the Henry Naff house all were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

I continue south to Parkdale. Folks my age might best remember Parkdale as the little school that won the state’s Overall Basketball Tournament. It was our state’s version of the movie “Hoosiers.”

I was there that night in March 1979 on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas when the Class B school (which was consolidated with Hamburg in 1994) won it all.

I was a young sportswriter looking to see history made as the Parkdale Dragons beat Marmaduke. The Dragons had earlier defeated Osceola and Pine Bluff in the tournament. Ronald Claiborne scored 32 points for Parkdale in the championship game.

Parkdale originally was known as Poplar Bluff.

“Once a busy, prosperous and even violent city, Parkdale has become a relatively quiet community in the 21st century,” Teske writes. “John Tillman Hughes built a store at the present location of Parkdale in 1857. Some farmers were already working the land near the bayou, including William Morris, John Harris and William Butler. Morris’ son, John William Morris, worked as a clerk in Hughes’ store and later opened his own store.”

The Bayou Bartholomew steamboat landing derived its original name from a grove of poplar trees along the bayou. Union troops raided Poplar Bluff in January 1865, burning a gristmill, a distillery and a large amount of corn and cotton.

“Following the war, the settlement was rebuilt with stores, saloons, mills, a post office and the Baptist church,” Teske writes. “A public school was established in 1884. Poplar Bluff incorporated as a town in 1889. The railroad through Poplar Bluff was completed in the early 1890s. Because the railroad also served the larger city of Poplar Bluff, Mo., railroad officials named the depot Parkdale. The name of the post office and of the city followed. Sawmills were built to process timber, and the city grew rapidly.”

The Bank of Parkdale was established in 1905. A new schoolhouse and bridge across the bayou opened in 1908. There was a telephone exchange by 1912.

“In the early part of the 20th century, Parkdale became notorious for violent crimes, including murders,” Teske writes. “Historian Y.W. Ethridge described Parkdale as a ‘boisterous community’ due to the railroad, sawmills and saloons. One citizen later said: ‘Parkdale was terrible. There were a bunch of outlaws. It was a shoot-up town. … There was a rough and rowdy white element here. It was wild.’

“One of the most unusual crimes in Parkdale was the lynching of Ernest Williams, an African-American man, in June 1908. A group of African-American women had organized a league to enforce better moral conduct, and Williams had evidently not complied with their standards. Consequently, they seized him one evening, dragged him to a telegraph pole on the outskirts of Parkdale and hanged him. His body wasn’t discovered by local authorities until the next morning, and no one was ever charged with the crime.”

Parkdale’s population peaked at 471 people in 1980. A 1910 Baptist church, a 1926 Methodist church and the homes of two doctors (the M.C. Hawkins home built in 1912 and the Robert George Williams home built in 1903) are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Wilmot is the last community headed south before crossing into Louisiana. It’s along Lake Enterprise, an oxbow of the Bayou Bartholomew.

The community once was known as Enterprise, but the post office was called Bartholomew when it was established in 1880. The name Wilmot eventually was used in honor of a surveyor for the railroad, which arrived in 1890.

“J.W. Harris anticipated the coming of the railroad and bought large portions of land, reselling the parcels after the surveyor had planned the city surrounding the depot that bore his name,” Teske writes. “Edward O. McDermott, a physician and the son of inventor Charles McDermott, was hired by the railroad as a tie contractor. He made his home in Wilmot ¬†and opened a store in the growing city.”

A theater opened in 1911, the same year a two-story school building was finished. A newspaper was established the following year. Edward McDermott even built a hotel on the banks of Lake Enterprise. A golf course was constructed in the 1920s.

“The businesses of Wilmot were largely agricultural,” Teske writes. “Several plantations shipped out cotton, corn and other produce. Cypress trees were harvested from the lake and made into shingles. The city also had a stave mill and a furniture store. A cottonseed oil mill was built in 1902.

“Following the Great Depression and World War II, the population of the area dropped as agriculture became more mechanized and as industry attracted workers to cities in Arkansas and in Northern states. Historians estimate that half the black residents of eastern Ashley County emigrated in the middle of the 20th century. Remaining farmers, with financial support from the federal government, diversified their crops, adding rice, soybeans and cattle.”

Wilmot now has almost four times as many black residents as white residents.

This is the Delta part of Ashley County, far different from the pine woods of the Gulf Coastal Plain that surround Crossett and Hamburg.

Ashley County was formed in November 1848 out of parts of Chicot, Drew and Union counties. It became the sixth-largest county in terms of area. It was named for Chester Ashley, the third Arkansan elected to the U.S. Senate.

“When U.S. surveyor Nicholas Rightor entered the Arkansas Territory in 1826, he found settlers who had come to a land that they found to be abundantly fertile and in which game and fish were plentiful,” Deirdre Kelly and Bill Norman write for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The area abounded with timber, especially hardwood. As the hardwood was cleared for cultivation, pine took over. … By 1855, many farms were producing cotton, corn, wheat, potatoes and livestock. … Both rafting and timber were profitable, though rafting stopped when the railroads arrived.”

The population of Ashley County soared from 2,058 residents in the 1850 census to 8,590 residents in the 1860 census.

Like most south Arkansas counties, Ashley County is losing population these days. The population fell from 26,538 in the 1980 census to 21,853 in the 2010 census.

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