Starting at Benton

FIRST IN A SERIES

We’ll take the old road — U.S. 67 rather than Interstate 30 — from Benton to Texarkana.

It’s the road we would often travel when I was a child since parts of the interstate were still being constructed. The most common trips back then were from our home in Arkadelphia to visit my grandparents at their small house at 111 Olive St. in Benton.

My father had been raised in Benton during the Great Depression, the youngest of three children.

Days spent with my grandparents, both of whom lived into their 90s, were magical times. My grandmother (who never learned to drive) and I would often walk downtown so she could shop, pay bills and maybe even take me to a movie at the Royal Theatre. Even more special were the early fall days when we would walk all the way to the Saline County Fair and the summer days when we would load into my grandfather’s old Chevrolet in order to wade and pick up mussel shells at Peeler Bend on the Saline River.

My father had graduated from Benton High School in the spring of 1942 and gone to work for the Chicago Bridge & Iron Co., which was working overtime to build aluminum plants at Bauxite that could aid in the war effort. He was paid union wages, making more at age 18 than his father, who worked for the city of Benton as the street superintendent and fire chief.

Due to those good wages and the promise that the next stop would be Brazil, my father decided he would stay with the company. Having been a football star for the Benton Panthers, he was being wooed by Ouachita coach Bill Walton. Neither of my grandparents had attended college. My grandmother insisted that he go to Ouachita that fall rather than staying on with Chicago Bridge & Iron.

Though the mining and aluminum production were centered in nearby Bauxite, the activities there shaped life for all of Saline County in those days.

“The Arkansas bauxite region covers about 275 square miles in the northern part of the West Gulf Coastal Plain and is divided into two mining districts,” J. Michael Howard writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “One area is in Pulaski County, south and east of Little Rock, and the other is in nearby Saline County, northeast and east of Benton. Much of the early-mined Arkansas bauxite deposits were exposed on the surface as outcrops or were beneath only a thin layer of sedimentary cover. Consequently, surface-mining methods were initially the most practical and economical.

“Before and during World War II, significant tonnages were mined underground. Some years after the war, surface operations resumed. Open-pit panel mining has been the normal surface method used since the early 1960s. A strip or block of bauxite is exposed and mined, and then another panel is exposed. The first panel is normally refilled with waste rock. Several panels typically were open at the same time to supply the proper blend of ores to meet mill specifications. Beginning in the early 1990s, major reclamation projects were begun to restore not only the recently mined land but much of the land that was disturbed before reclamation laws went into effect.”

Bauxite was first mined in Arkansas in 1896, nine years after state geologist John Branner identified its presence in Pulaski County.

“During the 20th century, Arkansas provided about 90 percent of all domestic tonnage mined,” Howard writes. “As aluminum became more widely available, many new uses of the metal (and of the byproducts of the aluminum industry) were discovered, and consumption increased rapidly. Tonnages of bauxite mined in Arkansas increased much more slowly than U.S. national consumption because larger deposits supplying higher-grade bauxite were readily available in the Caribbean region.

“In the early stages of World War II, merchant freighters carrying bauxite to the United States suffered major losses to enemy submarines. The tonnage of bauxite mined in Arkansas quickly increased to meet wartime demands for aluminum, which was especially critical to the military aircraft industry. During the war, the federal government essentially controlled national production of certain strategic and critical minerals like bauxite. In 1943, more than 6 million long tons (2,240 pounds per long ton) of bauxite were mined.”

The last year in which bauxite was mined in Arkansas for aluminum was 1982.

“Small tonnages continued to be mined and used in the production of a variety of alumina-based materials, including various chemicals, abrasives and propants — high-density spherical grains that are used in the oil and gas industry to fracture formations and maximize gas or oil flow,” Howard writes. “Two international companies continued major mining operations in the Bauxite area following the end of World War II. Alcoa and Reynolds Metals Co. had refineries located near Bryant. However, early in 1982, Reynolds closed and disassembled its Hurricane Creek Plant.”

Soon after Branner reported the presence of bauxite, large tracts of land in Saline County were purchased by Ernest Smith and Robert Perry, stockholders in the Southern Bauxite & Mining Co.

“In 1895, General Bauxite Co. acquired the lands of Southern Bauxite & Mining Co.,” Laura Harrington writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Because of his knowledge of the mineral and the land, Perry was placed in charge of General Bauxite, which mined and shipped the first ore in 1896. This area was known as Perrysmith until the name was changed to Bauxite in 1903 after the establishment of the first ore-drying plant.

“In 1899, the Pittsburgh Reduction Co. heard about Perry’s shipment of bauxite ore and sent John Gibbons and his son, J. Felton Gibbons, to Arkansas to learn more about the deposits there. After conducting various experiments, the two men concluded that the ore in Arkansas was of good quality, and they were instructed to buy as much of the remaining land as possible. In 1905, Pittsburgh Reduction was able to buy out General Bauxite, and in 1907, its name changed to Aluminum Company of America (later shortened to Alcoa).”

Bauxite was a company town from the start. The company built churches, a general store, the post office, a barbershop, the movie theater and more.

“Perhaps the most important thing the company built was a school, parts of which are still used today,” Harrington writes. “Services were reserved for workers and their families only. For example, employees paid a small amount into the hospital fund each month, but then the hospital would treat miners and their families at little to no additional cost. With the outbreak of World War I came a higher demand for bauxite ore, which was used to make a variety of war supplies, the most important being aluminum. More workers were brought into the mines, and this meant a need for more houses.

“The company built various housing settlements or camps for its employees with names such as Alabama Town, Church Row, Italy, Mexico and Africa. Like much of America at this time, the camps were segregated, so the inhabitants of Italy were Italian, those in Mexico were Mexican and the ones in Africa were African American. ┬áThe company treated its employees well during the turbulent years of the Great Depression. A company farm produced vegetables that were given to employees. One resident remembered the huge turnip patch the company provided. It covered four acres, and the turnips were free.”

Water was furnished at no cost, and so was electricity in some cases.

“The World War II era was the most important in the history of Bauxite,” Harrington writes. “The U.S. government needed aluminum to build airplanes and various other supplies, so the chairman of the War Production Board, Donald Nelson, wrote to Alcoa requesting that it mine bauxite ore three shifts a day. After initial hesitation, the chairman of Alcoa, Arthur P. Davis, brought in thousands of miners from across the nation to run the mines nonstop. Prior to the war, the average annual bauxite production was 371,000 long tons. By 1943, the average annual bauxite production was more than 6 million long tons.”

The Hurricane Creek plant opened in 1942, and housing became an issue.

“Existing residents often rented out garages or spare bedrooms to miners, and it was reported that in some houses, there was at least one worker sleeping at all hours of the day because of the odd hours of mining schedules,” Harrington writes. “In 1944, production began to slow as the end of the war drew near. Mining continued even during the postwar years because aluminum was still in demand. Internal problems such as unionization made it more difficult for Bauxite to continue as a company-run town, and Alcoa soon found it more profitable to mine bauxite ore in foreign nations.”

Residents were notified in 1967 that Bauxite would cease to exist as a company-owned town on July 1, 1969. Some facilities were abandoned. Some were sold. Others were moved to Benton.

“Since the town had been run by the company, it never incorporated,” Harrington writes. “There was no need. After all, the company built all the buildings, paid everyone’s salary and performed all maintenance. After the company stopped doing this, the town nearly disappeared. However, it was able to incorporate on Jan. 16, 1973, with West Bauxite.”

Due to white flight from Little Rock, the Bauxite School District has grown tremendously in recent decades. The town itself had a population of 487 in the 2010 census.

Meanwhile, Benton’s population tripled from 10,399 in the 1960 census to 30,681 in the 2010 census. Benton now has almost 38,000 residents.

It’s a far different town from the one in which my father was raised. Named after U.S. Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of the Missouri Territory, the town started near the east bank of the Saline River in 1833.

“Rezin Davis deeded 80 acres to Benton and became its first mayor,” Patricia Laster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The first business, opened in 1834, was an in-house store owned by Joshua Smith. The next year, this neighborhood became Saline Township, and Green B. Hughes was appointed postmaster. He owned one of several area gristmills.”

Saline County was formed in November 1835 from part of Pulaski County. At the time, it included parts of what would become Grant, Perry and Garland counties. It was named for the Saline River, whose forks begin in the Ouachita Mountains of northwestern Saline County.

“After Arkansas became a state in 1836, local commissioners from the newly formed townships were elected to set a permanent county seat,” Laster writes. “There were three choices. Benton, which was situated on the road to Little Rock, had the advantage of being more populous, near the center of the county and more prestigious because of the long existence of Saline Crossing. Ezra Owen campaigned for Collegeville, which was also on the main road but lay several miles east. Charles Caldwell, representative for Saline County, wanted the county seat to be in Caldwellton, where he had settled. It was five miles northwest of the present town of Benton near the Kentucky community.”

In a November 1836 election, the five commissioners were selected. They decided on Benton. The first courthouse and jail were constructed in 1838.

By the 1880 census, Benton had 452 residents. Ashby Funeral Home (which is still around) was established in 1882 and what’s now Benton Utilities was established in 1916. Benton grew from 1,708 residents in 1910 to 3,445 in 1930 and 6,277 in 1950.

In addition to bauxite mining, the Benton area was once known for pottery.

“The county had small pottery works by the late 1800s, but this changed when John Hyten established Hyten Pottery Works,” Eddie Landreth writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “His son and successor, Charles ‘Bullet’ Hyten, renamed the company Eagle Pottery. Its pottery became renowned throughout the world. By the early 1900s, Charles Hyten was experimenting with a new pottery method that mixed colors of clay randomly on the potter’s wheel. This unique style became known as Niloak, which was ‘kaolin’ spelled backward (kaolin was the form of clay used in the process). This form of pottery came to be known as ‘mission swirl.'”

Niloak pottery continued to be produced until 1946. In the early years, the company had produced jugs, crocks and churns for local use. Two of Bullet Hyten’s brothers, Paul and Lee, left the business in 1901. That’s when Bullet entered into a partnership with Alfred Warren. An Ohio potter named Arthur Dovey moved to Arkansas in the early 1900s and began working for Ouachita Pottery in Hot Springs. He joined Hyten in 1909.

“Together, the two began production of Eagle Pottery’s Niloak Missionware line, using a process for mixing colored clays to achieve a swirled pattern in the finished product with a soft matte finish,” writes Arkansas historian Cindy Grisham. “While Dovey has long been credited as the creator of the swirling process, an undocumented claim exists that Niloak potter Fred Johnson invented the swirled design when he worked for Ouachita Pottery, bringing the process with him when he came to work for Niloak. Supporting that claim is a 1906 photograph of the interior of Ouachita Pottery that clearly shows several pieces of swirled pottery on display in the shop.”

Dovey is also in that photo.

“Whoever the creator was, the resulting product was an overwhelming success, although not without its setbacks,” Grisham writes. “Perfection of the swirled process took at least a year, and it was March 1910 before the first piece of Niloak was ready to be placed on the market. The pieces were first offered for sale in Benton at the Bush Drug & Jewelry Co. In July 1911, several Benton businessmen incorporated the Niloak Pottery Co. to produce the popular line. By 1915, the physical plant on Pearl Street in Benton had been expanded to cover two floors. Eagle Pottery continued to produce its more utilitarian line of churns, crocks and bowls until 1938.”

Niloak production ceased from 1918-21 but flourished later in the 1920s.

“The Arkansas Advancement Association had launched a massive campaign to promote the state’s economic benefits to the rest of the nation, and Niloak played a prominent role in that endeavor,” Grisham writes. “The quick pace of growth forced the company to move its production from individual potters to more standardized form just to keep up with demand. Sales slumped during the early years of the Great Depression, and Hyten believed the reason to be Missionware’s placement as a luxury item. In 1931, Hyten moved into a new phase of production, launching the Hywood Art Pottery line. Hywood was to be a more functional line of glazed pottery that would be accessible to a larger group of people.”

A group of Little Rock businessmen led by Hardy Winburn III purchased the company in 1934. Winburn streamlined production and improved marketing. During World War II, the company produced items such as porcelain electrical conductors for the government. It also produced more than a million clay pigeons for target practice.

“With the end of the war, military contracts ended, and the company re-entered the castware business,” Grisham writes. “But slumping sales called for a new direction. In the fall of 1947, Niloak was dissolved, and Winburn Tile Co. was born.”

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