South toward Gurdon

TWELFTH IN A SERIES

We leave Arkadelphia and continue our trip down U.S. 67.

Five miles from Arkadelphia, we pass through Gum Springs, a community with a population of just 120 people in the 2010 census.

“Gum Springs is thought to have received its name due to a spring located near a gum tree on the original plot of land,” Jacob Worthan writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In the mid-20th century, the town rose from a farming community to become an industrial center in Clark County. Today, Gum Springs has dwindled to a small rural community, as have many of the neighboring towns. Little is known about the origins of the town, other than the fact that the Clark County poor farm was established near the eventual site in 1887, and a post office was established in February 1889 under the direction of postmaster Henry Gerrell.

“In the early 1900s, the town — which was established along the Missouri Pacific Railroad — was primarily a small agricultural community composed of farmers and sharecroppers. The white Baptist church burned in about 1925, never to be rebuilt. In 1922, the post office closed in favor of a rural mail carrier. Several years later, the train depot closed. In 1949, the white school was consolidated with the Arkadelphia School District. The African American school consolidated into Arkadelphia’s schools later.”

Like many Southern communities, Gum Springs was split by race.

“The west side of the town was primarily populated by African Americans while whites occupied the eastern part,” Worthan writes. “This changed in the 1950s with the establishment of the Reynolds Metals Co. aluminum plant along the eastern side of the railroad in Gum Springs. This forced several families, primarily black families, to move their homes to other areas of town. Shortly after the establishment of the plant, Gum Springs was incorporated, cementing the cooperation between the two sides of town under one central government.

“The Reynolds plant began production of aluminum in February 1954 and continued aluminum production until its closure in June 1984. Combined with the 5,000-acre farm, also owned by the company, Reynolds provided much of the employment and economic stability for Gum Springs residents.”

Clark County built an industrial park at Gum Springs in 1979. For the past several years, area residents awaited construction of a giant Chinese-owned pulp mill that was to have been the most expensive industrial project (at a cost of almost $1.8 billion) in state history. With the breakdown in U.S.-Chinese relations, though, plans for the plant, to be built by a company known as Sun Bio, were abandoned.

In the Gum Springs area, one can still see stretches of pavement from the old highway that was constructed in the 1920s and the remains of tourist courts and other businesses that were in operation when this was the main route to Texas.

The next community we pass on our way to Texarkana is Curtis.

“Originally used as a refueling stop for trains along the Iron Mountain Railroad, it became a timber community heavily dependent on the surrounding forests,” Worthan writes. “During the mid-1900s, the community became home to a successful semi-professional baseball team. Curtis was established in the 1870s, largely due to promotional brochures distributed by the railroad, advertising the area and encouraging people to settle there.

“Curtis started as a fuel chute along the Iron Mountain. At first, the fuel chute only supplied wood to the railroad traffic. The chute was later converted to dispense coal. The first train stopped on June 20, 1873, with a small celebration by local residents and friends of the railroad. The community had not yet been named. When it was suggested that one be given, the engineer of the first train to refuel asked that it be named for him. Thus it was named Curtis in his honor. By 1880, the railroad had also established a depot at Curtis.”

Several lumber mills were established in the area. Thomas Brothers Mill at Curtis operated until a large fire in 1952. A fire destroyed the Curtis cotton gin at about the same time.

A number of Welsh families moved to the area in 1881. Swedish families also moved here.

“During the 1940s, baseball became a favorite pastime for the citizens of Curtis and the surrounding area,” Worthan writes. “In the post-World War II era, Curtis was home to an amateur team composed primarily of local players, as well as a semi-pro team. The semi-pro team was managed by R.W. ‘Witt’ Stevenson. It won at least two state championships and played in a national championship tournament. The baseball field built for the two teams was surrounded by a wooden fence and contained a grandstand.

“During the summer of 1940, a detachment of U.S. Army personnel was bivouacked at Curtis for several weeks at three locations. While stationed in the community, the unit established a warehouse on the school grounds. During this time, Lt. Gen. Ben ‘Yoo-Hoo’ Lear made visits to the area to inspect the troops. During the 1950s, Curtis suffered several natural disasters. On Sunday, March 26, 1950, a tornado struck Curtis. There were no reported fatalities, but one person was seriously injured.”

The school at Curtis was consolidated into the Arkadelphia School District in the early 1960s.

Leaving Curtis, we cross Terre Noire Creek and what are known as the boat ditches. Ron Deaton, who graduated from Arkadelphia High School in 1962 and Ouachita Baptist University in 1966, wrote a lengthy article in 2016 for the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, telling how the boat ditches got their name.

The article also outlined the history of the Ross Drainage District, which Deaton described in a letter to me as “one of the most successful drainage districts in the history of Arkansas in that the Ross governing structure is still in existence and operating while most others have ceased to exist as legal entities. The law creating the district was passed in 1917, and the canals were dug in 1919-22.”

Deaton taught history at Prince George’s College in Maryland and also worked for several members of Congress and President Jimmy Carter before retiring.

Dozens of drainage districts across the state were created by the Legislature and local governments from 1907-27.

“Many of them ultimately failed to create workable drainage programs,” Deaton writes for the Arkansas Historical Quarterly. “Such efforts were usually led by local elites, especially more established planters and merchants seeking to protect their properties and crops from flooding. The controversy over drainage in Clark County began in 1908 when a plan was proposed for controlling flooding on Terre Noire Creek. Terre Noire is a French term that means black earth or black land. The creek’s fertile floodplain had become an important site for cotton and grain production by the middle of the 19th century.

“Terre Noire Creek (often spelled Terre Noir in older sources) traverses the entire county, generally flowing southeast. Its valley is thus a formidable watershed draining much of the land surface within Clark County, though the county itself is bounded on the east by the much larger Ouachita River and one the west by the Little Missouri River and its tributary, the Antoine River. All these streams originate in the Ouachita Mountains north of Clark County and have historically been prone to flooding. The terrain in the creek valley varies significantly. Elevations are over 600 feet above sea level at the top of Chalybeate Mountain at the north end of the county, dropping to 120 feet in the southeast portion.”

The creek leaves the mountains and enters the Gulf Coastal Plain, where it becomes a slower, sometimes swampy stream.

“The steep decline of the creek bed from a higher elevation into this lowland greatly accelerates the intensity of flooding there, making farming a risky endeavor,” Deaton writes. “Despite this threat, the rich soil and level land of the creek bottom made it one of the most desirable locations for crop production in south Arkansas. Jacob Barkman, who arrived in the area from Kentucky in 1811, established Arkadelphia beside the Ouachita River. As other settlers moved in, they were drawn to the alluvial plains of the local streams, especially Terre Noire Creek. The village of Greenville was established near the creek, becoming the first county seat in 1823. By the 1850s, farmers in the county, some using slave labor, grew hundreds of bales of cotton each year and transported them down the Ouachita, Red and Mississippi rivers to markets in New Orleans.

“One of the county’s antebellum settlers would eventually help lead the effort to control flooding on Terre Noire Creek. Jesse Arendall Ross was born in Alabama on Oct. 26, 1838, but his family relocated by wagon train to Clark County, arriving in 1846. His name first appeared on the 1850 census record as a resident of the Shiloh community 10 miles southwest of Arkadelphia, where his family had acquired land and began farming in the bottomlands of Terre Noire Creek. ”

Ross served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and was known by friends as Major Ross after the war. He was elected Clark County clerk in 1880, served two terms in the state Senate and was appointed in the 1890s by President Grover Cleveland as the registrar of federal lands for south Arkansas.

“Despite his military and public service positions, Ross remained primarily a planter and businessman,” Deaton writes. “Like most who owned land or farmed in the Terre Noire Creek bottomlands, he experienced regular flooding of his crops and took various actions to deal with the situation. The Arkadelphia historian Farrar Newberry reported that Ross ‘set up a plant on one of his farms to manufacture drainage tiles, and came to enjoy a lucrative business. In fact, making of tile occupied much of his time in the years following his tenure in the clerk’s office, and his product was widely used in Clark and surrounding counties.’ These drainage tiles were intended to control flooding, but Ross and other landowners soon needed a more effective method for draining their wetlands.

“By the end of the 19th century, steam engine dredges, often called steam shovels, came to be widely used for improving drainage by digging ditches and canals up and down rivers and their tributaries that could divert overflow. These early experiments with ditching and dredging for drainage would accelerate the development of Southern agriculture by opening wetlands for cultivation. A number of states established drainage districts. Arkansas’ ‘ditching act’ of 1902 conferred authority on counties to create drainage districts for dredging, subject to feasibility studies.”

In a letter to the editor of the Arkadelphia newspaper Southern Standard in November 1907, attorney R.W. Huie stated that a plan was under discussion “whereby the swamp land and overflow district of Terre Noir Creek and its tributaries can be successfully drained and fully reclaimed, thereby making them the most valuable lands in Clark County, for agricultural purposes, and at a reasonable cost, extending over a period of 30 years.”

In January 1908, the newspaper reported that the drainage district had been organized. Opposing creation of the district were two Chicago attorneys who had become involved in timberland speculation in the area. The attorneys were Charles Thornton and Justus Chancellor, whose firm was described as one of the most prosperous in Chicago.

“As they became increasingly prosperous in their law practice, the partners began investing in the untapped natural resources of the South, especially timberlands, which were becoming more accessible with the expansion of railroads,” Deaton writes. “A major sawmill and lumber industry had emerged in Arkansas in the 1880s as railroads made it possible for speculators (including the railroads themselves) to reach previously inaccessible timberlands and ship out lumber.

“Northern economic interests usually provided the necessary capital and economic expertise, which was often not otherwise available in the post-Civil War South. Based in Chicago, Thornton and Chancellor had access to these resources and, when allied with a railroad, they also were well positioned to oppose the creation of a drainage district. … By 1900, a significant amount of timberland in Clark County had come into the possession of Thornton and Chancellor, aided by advantageous state law. At that time, it was not uncommon for poor homesteaders and squatters to lose their land because of unpaid taxes.”

Thornton and Chancellor hired the law firm of J.H. Crawford in Arkadelphia. In June 1905, Crawford filed notice that the two men from Chicago were paying taxes on 20,514 acres of tax-delinquent land in the county. The court granted them ownership in December 1908, putting them among the state’s largest landowners.

“These 1908 timberland acquisitions occurred in the very year that Jesse Ross and the planters upstream on the creek initiated their plans for a drainage district to protect their farms from flooding,” Deaton writes. “A prolonged struggle soon ensued as some of the lands that Thornton and Chancellor had acquired were proposed for inclusion in the district. The pair had little interest in paying taxes to drain land they wanted simply to cut, rather than cultivate. As historian Jeannie Whayne notes, in examining such controversies in northeast Arkansas, ‘many speculators and lumber companies opposed drainage as they had no intention of incurring the taxes required to fund construction.'”

The Southern Standard was editorially supportive of Ross and other planters. The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the planters in January 1910, but additional legal challenges followed. Cost studies were still incomplete when Ross died on Feb. 4, 1913. In 1917, the planters asked the Legislature to approve the district and named the district in honor of Ross.

Speaker of the House Lee Cazort declared: “If the United States is forced into war, we all know that the farmer will assume additional importance. … I believe that it is a part of preparedness to adopt every measure that will increase the production of our farms.”

Bonds to finance dredging and construction of canals on either side of Terre Noire Creek were sold in November 1918. A contract with the J.S. Sternberg Co. of St. Louis called for removing 170 million cubic yards of earth. The Southern Standard reported in February 1919 that Sternberg “is here, and getting his forces ready. The ditches, which are to be 10 feet deep and 20 feet wide, will be run close to the hills on either side” of the creek.

The dredged material would be deposited to form levees.

In July 1919, the newspaper reported: “The steam shovel began moving dirt last week on the big ditches to be dug in Terre Noir bottom. Work has been going on for some time getting ready for the shovel, which had to be placed on a large boat, to be floated downstream as the work progresses. A hole was first dug by hand large enough to float the boat.”

A second boat provided housing and cooking facilities for the dredging crews. The canals thus became known as the boat ditches. The U.S. Geological Survey later would name them the North Boat Ditch and the South Boat Ditch.

In 1921, the district sold additional bonds to the St. Louis Union Trust Co. The bank secured a lien on the taxable properties of landowners.

“By 1932, during the depths of the Great Depression, the district board proved unable to make the interest and principal payments due on the bonds,” Deaton writes. “The St. Louis bank responded with a foreclosure suit against the Ross Drainage District in federal court in Little Rock. The court placed the Ross Drainage District into receivership. … Receivership ended in April 1937 when a new refinancing agreement was reached between the district and Union Planters National Bank & Trust Co. of Memphis, giving a new start to the district. Refinancing the debt owed by the district allowed it to narrowly avoid failure.”

The last of the so-called refunding bonds from 1937 were retired by the Ross Drainage District in 1980.

“The decades after World War II saw a transformation of the farm economy in Arkansas with a decline in sharecropping and an increase in mechanization, resulting in larger farms and fewer farmers,” Deaton writes. “Cotton lost its primacy as many farmers turned to other crops. The last cotton gin in Clark County closed in the early 1960s, reflecting the overall shift to soybean cultivation. As farms were consolidated, fewer members owned larger portions of land in the district. Many of them turned to raising timber, creating pine plantations that did not require intense management.

“Cattle raising also expanded because hay production had become mechanized, too. All these changes reduced the role of traditional planters in the Ross Drainage District and gradually changed its emphasis as well. Maintenance of the levees rather than enlargement of the district became the primary goal of the district board.”

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service provided $100,000 for levee repairs, with the district contributing another $26,000.

Deaton writes: “While drainage efforts in south Arkansas have been little studied, the story of the Ross Drainage District in Clark County reflects broad developments in the state’s history — the arrival in the late 19th century of railroads and extractive industry often dominated by out-of-state capital; the emergence of a fractious politics in the districts and planters wielding their influence in state government to overcome local opposition; the state’s increasing dependence on federal aid for improvement and maintenance of its waterways; and the shift away from cotton to other staple crops and, in south Arkansas, pine plantations. More than a century after its first conception, the Ross Drainage District is still providing drainage protection to the lands between the canals, even if the future of its levees remains uncertain.”

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