Archive for July, 2019

The trip ends in the Bootheel

Monday, July 29th, 2019


We’ve reached Greene County, the final county in our trip across north Arkansas on U.S. Highway 412.

Greene County was once an isolated place filled with swamps, but it has boomed in recent years alongside Craighead County to the south. Greene County’s population almost doubled from 24,765 in the 1970 census to 42,090 in the 2010 census.

Mark Hamblen writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “For many years, Greene County’s main attraction, Crowley’s Ridge, was isolated because of swamplands on three sides — the St. Francis bottoms to the north and east, and the Cache River and Black River lowlands on the west. But drainage of the swampland led to growth in the area.”

Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac, the French governor of Louisiana, likely was the first European to visit the area.

“In 1715, the French crown ordered him to explore the headwaters of the St. Francis River,” Hamblen writes. “Indians with whom he came into contact reported that the area contained silver, though he found only lead near Fredericktown, Mo. Suffering great discomfort while ascending the river, he wrote in his diary: ‘This colony is a monster. … I have never seen anything so worthless.’ However he felt about the area, he did move European civilization closer to what is now Greene County.”

The first European to actually live in the area appears to have been Pierre Le Mieux, who settled in the 1790s at Peach Orchard. He died in 1817.

Peach Orchard is in what’s now Clay County

“Le Mieux owned a small estate on the south shore of the Black River,” Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In 1816, he deeded that land to Lewis DeMunn. The deed shows that Le Mieux called the estate Petit Baril but that his English-speaking neighbors were already calling it Peach Orchard. Le Mieux (also known by his Americanized name Peter LeMew) relocated to Clover Bend, where he also owned land and where his wife’s family lived. Historians speculate that the English name of his estate was due to a peach orchard planted by Le Mieux, but no evidence of that orchard remains.”

Benjamin Crowley, for whom Crowley’s Ridge is named, moved his family to northeast Arkansas from Kentucky in 1815. He settled along the Spring River.

“In December 1821, Crowley crossed the Black and Cache rivers to explore the ridge area,” Hamblen writes. “Armed with a War of 1812 land grant, the man known as Old Ben selected a vacated Delaware Indian site that had developed around a large spring on a ridge. No one knows when the ridge became known as Crowley.

“Some pioneers had settled on the lower ridge area near Helena several years before Crowley’s home became the community meeting place where county officers discussed and solved civic matters. When the volume of legal and court activities required a seat of law, Isaac Brookfield and Lawrence Thompson wrote a petition seeking permission to organize a county. The Arkansas Territorial Legislature approved the petition in November 1833. … The county seat remained in Crowley’s home until it was moved.”

Some records say the county seat was moved to a community called Paris, but no records of such a town exist. In 1840, Gainesville became the county seat.

“Two documents were found in 1996 indicating that Gainesville was laid out with 86 lots,” Hamblen writes. “A state auditor’s report dated May 18, 1842, noted that ‘nearly all lots were sold and deeded to the purchasers.’ The lowlands of the St. Francis, Cache and Black rivers slowed settlement in Greene County. In 1849, Congress passed an act intended to reclaim the swamplands. It transferred all the Arkansas swamplands to the state and provided funds for locating, evaluating and draining them.”

Craighead County was created in 1859 from parts of Greene, Mississippi and Poinsett counties. Development of the area slowed due to the Civil War and Reconstruction.

“In November 1872, Cairo-Fulton Railroad construction crossed the Missouri border into Randolph County,” Hamblen writes. “Greene County officials watched helplessly as an economic boom followed to the west of them. By 1874, the line had become part of the Iron Mountain system. It operated across the full length of Arkansas. During the 1873 legislative session, state Rep. B.H. Crowley introduced a bill to create Clayton County from the northern part of Greene County. Because they did not like Gov. Powell Clayton, the citizens of the new county voted in 1875 to change the county name to Clay. Greene County then gained a small part of Randolph County, but it gave up a small northeast area to Clay County a decade later.”

Enter Jay Gould, James Paramore and the birth of Paragould, now the Greene County seat.

“Gould gained control of the Iron Mountain Railroad in 1880,” Hamblen writes. “He learned that Paramore’s St. Louis-Texas Railroad was licensed to build a cheaper narrow-gauge line through Arkansas to Texas. Gould decided to construct a regular-gauge line to closely parallel Paramore’s route. It would branch off the main Iron Mountain line at Knobel in Clay County and run through Greene County toward Helena. The railroads crossed six miles south of Gainesville. After the crossing gained a post office, the postmaster named the town Paragould, deriving the name from Paramore and Gould. The new town grew rapidly and became the county seat in 1884, beginning the sharp and sudden decline of Gainesville.”

We pass through the community of Light on our trip east and begin climbing Crowley’s Ridge before entering Paragould.

Crowley’s Ridge runs from southern Missouri to Helena. The only break is a small one at Marianna where the L’Anguille River runs through it. The ridge ranges in width from one to 12 miles.

“The ridge contrasts sharply with the surrounding flat land of the Delta,” Hubert Stroud writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In terms of formation, the ridge is generally thought to have once been an island between the Mississippi River and the Ohio River. It became a long and narrow hilly ridge after the rivers changed course millions of years ago. Prior to the change in course, the Mississippi River flowed along the west side of what’s now Crowley’s Ridge with the Ohio River meandering along the east side. The work of these major rivers and their subsequent shifting in course resulted in the formation of an erosional remnant that’s now Crowley’s Ridge.

“Crowley’s Ridge, completely surrounded by the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, is clearly visible because it rises some 250 feet above a relatively flat landscape. The ridge is capped by a deep layer of wind-deposited soils, a fine-grained soil created millions of years ago as glaciers moved across the continent. Extensive areas, including the Mississippi Alluvial Plain and Crowley’s Ridge, were covered by windblown soil. Rivers and streams that continued to meander across the plain washed away the loessial material. On Crowley’s Ridge, however, the loess continued to collect, up to 50 feet in depth in some locations. Since loess is easily eroded, steep slopes and deep valleys characterize much of Crowley’s Ridge.”

Many of the trees on the ridge are like those found in the Appalachian Mountains far to the east. It’s like no place else in Arkansas.

“The ridge is covered with a lush mixed forest of oak, hickory and uncommon hardwood trees such as American beech, sugar maple and yellow poplar,” Stroud writes. “Crowley’s Ridge also has extensive areas of pasture. Although the soil is relatively fertile, row crops such as soybeans and wheat are limited almost entirely to small floodplains along and near streams that flow out of the area. This is due to the highly erosive nature of the wind-blown soil of Crowley’s Ridge. The soil needs a protective vegetative cover of some type such as pasture grasses or forests to combat severe soil erosion.”

Paragould sits atop the ridge.

“Postmaster Marcus Meriwether named the town Paragould without any official approval,” Hamblen writes. “Paragould became a thriving community. Investors knew that the forests covering east Arkansas contained one of the few remaining quality hardwood sources in the nation. The availability of rail transportation brought about a surge of large investments. Men abandoned their farms and flocked to work in the timber mills and factories that had been hurriedly constructed around the area. Merchants and professionals followed.”

Hamblen notes that the “drained and newly cleared bottomland on both sides of Crowley’s Ridge led to the development of large farm operations before the turn of the century. Timber-related businesses continued to spur industrial growth through the 1920s, but as the timber business declined, production of cotton, corn and soybeans increased. Significant rice production didn’t come to the county until after World War II.”

A large railroad machine shop came to Greene County in 1911 and serviced locomotives into the 1950s, employing up to 300 people at times.

Paragould became the county seat after a countywide vote in 1884. Construction was completed on a courthouse there in 1888.

“Having noted that fire swept rapidly through the wooden buildings in downtown Gainesville in 1890, the Paragould City Council passed an ordinance requiring that all new buildings in the main part of town be constructed of brick,” Hamblen writes. “An electric light plant went into operation in 1891, telephone service appeared in 1896 and a municipally owned water works opened in 1898. By 1896, Paragould had six miles of gravel streets. It was 1912 before the downtown streets were paved.

“By 1890, there were 14 lumber mills in Paragould. Products included both slack and tight barrel staves, boxes, wood veneer, spokes, dowel pins, caskets, baskets, handles, shingles and railroad ties. The Wrape Stave & Heading Mill was shipping five million barrels a year, more than any factory in the state. In 1894, that firm shipped more whiskey barrels than any other plant in the world. … Paragould became the principal trading center of northeast Arkansas. The city’s infrastructure had been developed to the extent that it could support the demands of new industry and increased population. By 1910, the town had three department stores, an opera house, a hospital and six banks.”

Paragould became known as a sundown town — a place where blacks weren’t welcome after sundown.

“Attempts at violently expelling the local black population took place in 1888, 1892, 1899 and 1908,” Hamblen writes. “Black railroad crewmen were told they could stay in town as long as they were working, but their activities were limited to where they were boarding overnight. Black children were not provided any form of public education until 1948.”

One of the more interesting events in the city’s history occurred when a meteorite came crashing down in 1930.

“At 4:08 a.m. on Feb. 17, 1930, Paragould residents were awakened by a prolonged loud noise and a sky filled with a fiery glow made by a meteorite with a long reddish tail that streamed through the sky before striking the earth four miles southwest of Paragould near the small community of Finch,” Hamblen writes. “Two major fragments were found and displayed in Paragould for several weeks. The first one that was discovered was small but weighed about 75 pounds, unusually heavy for its size. The second fragment was found 30 days later. Buried nine feet into hard clay more than two miles from where the first rock was found, the big rock measured 24 inches in height, 28 inches in length and 24 inches in breadth. It weighted 820 pounds, and five men and a team of horses spent three hours dislodging it.”

It was given to the University of Arkansas.

Six years later, Paragould was back in the news thanks to a mastodon skeleton.

Hamblen writes: “While Frank Reynolds and his brother-in-law Lowell Rodgers were fishing in Hurricane Creek just north of Paragould, Reynolds hit something that gave off a metallic sound. Curious, the two men pulled out of the deep sand in the creek bed an enormous thigh bone, 3 1/2 feet in length. They worked almost continuously during the next 20 days removing all bones from the creek. The two men toured the state in a borrowed truck for three weeks, charging 10 cents a look. When the two got to Fayetteville, they were told by members of the University of Arkansas science faculty that they had found the skeleton of a 10,000-year-old mastodon. Reynolds was offered $5,000 for the bones by a man from Kentucky, but he chose to give them to the museum at Arkansas State University.”

Through the years, Paragould became one of the state’s manufacturing centers. City leaders were able to attract the Ely Walker shirt factory in 1937, the Ed White shoe factory in 1947, Wonder State Manufacturing in 1950, Foremost Foods’ dairy division in 1952 and Emerson Electric Co. in 1955.

We spend the final night of this trip at a bed-and-breakfast inn on Court Street known as the White House Inn. It’s in the 1892 Hays-Porter House.

The house was built by Alfred Hays, a Kentucky native who operated a hotel in Paragould and served a term as mayor. Hays died in 1932, but his descendants occupied the house until the 1960s. Marilyn and Bob White later renovated the home.

Dinner downtown that evening is at Chow at 118, a fine-dining establishment that resembles something one would expect in a far larger city.

Paragould has seen its population increase from 18,540 in 1990 to an estimated current population of 28,500. Better dining and overnight options have followed the growth.

We end the trip the next morning with the short drive to the state line. We cross the St. Francis River into the Missouri Bootheel, go as far as Cardwell (a depressed Delta town) and turn around.

The Bootheel is unlike the rest of Missouri but much like northeast Arkansas. Cotton became king here in the early 1900s. Most black families left the region (due to the mechanization of agriculture) for jobs in the upper Midwest. Bootheel counties are now predominantly white.

It was a pioneer planter named John Hardeman Walker in what’s now Pemiscot County who argued when Missouri was admitted to the Union that this area had more in common with the Mississippi River towns of St. Louis, Sainte Genevieve and Cape Girardeau in Missouri than with the Arkansas Territory. The area once was known at Lapland because it’s where Missouri laps over into Arkansas.

We cross back over the St. Francis River into Arkansas.

The river starts in the northeast corner of Iron County in Missouri and is a mountain stream for its first 25 miles. It reaches the Delta north of Poplar Bluff. It turns south and covers 207 miles before emptying into the Mississippi River just north of Helena in the St. Francis National Forest.

The part of the river between Lake City in Craighead County and Marked Tree in Poinsett County is known as the Sunken Lands. The land dropped several feet in this area during the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, forming a swamp. More than 27,000 acres of this region are now part of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission’s St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management Area.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “The St. Francis River was not navigable in its natural state, having numerous snags and rafts. In 1836-37, W. Bowling Buion surveyed the river under the auspices of the federal government with an eye toward improving navigation, but nothing came of it. Only after the Civil War did Congress begin funding the clearing of the river. Numerous clearing and dredging operations made the St. Francis navigable from its mouth up to Wappapello, Mo. Because the swampy Sunken Lands impeded progress on railroad construction until the land began to be drained in the late 1890s and early 1900s, steamboats continued to operate on the river until into the early 20th century.

“The St. Francis Levee District was created in 1893 and began constructing levees and drainage canals to control flooding. These measures were strengthened and increased after the catastrophic Great Flood of 1927 and the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1928. The levees and canals have greatly affected the natural course of the river and have included a number of diversion ditches that run somewhat parallel to the river along its course from southeastern Craighead County down through Lee County, thus providing an outlet for excess water in time of flood.”

The world’s largest siphons were placed on the St. Francis at Marked Tree in 1939 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help control flooding.

In 1977, the Corps built the W.G. Huxtable pumping plant southeast of Marianna to prevent the Mississippi River from backing up into the St. Francis. It’s one of the largest pumping plants of its kind in the world.

From Walnut Ridge to Paragould

Friday, July 26th, 2019


When I was asked to give an evening lecture last year at Williams Baptist University, I was told that I would spend the night at the Hotel Rhea in downtown Walnut Ridge.

Downtown Walnut Ridge?

I didn’t know you could spend the night downtown.

I had no idea what to expect, but I can tell you that it was delightful. I could hear the freight trains passing through town during the night, but I liked that. And it was just a short walk to breakfast the next morning at Moni’s Grill, where I was greeted by the city’s mayor, Charles Snapp.

We all know about the economic problems faced by towns in the Arkansas Delta. But a handful of those communities are revitalizing their downtowns and trying to buck the trend of population loss in the region.

Walnut Ridge belongs on that list.

With the Hotel Rhea at Walnut Ridge, the Lesmeister Guesthouse at Pocahontas and the Inn at Piggott, there are three towns in northeast Arkansas with old downtown properties that have been transformed into first-class overnight accommodations.

The first Hotel Rhea was constructed in phases from 1904-08. Once it was finished, it was considered to be among the finest hotels in the state. There was steam heat, running water and a bath in every room. The Rhea took up most of the 100 block of West Main Street before a fire on Nov. 16, 1914, destroyed part of the building.

The portion left standing was renovated in 1915-16 and became the home of Cooper Drugs. A dentist and doctor had their offices upstairs.

Those rooms later were used for apartments. The Snapp family bought the building in 2012 and created three suites upstairs and one suite downstairs. A separate area downstairs can be rented for private functions.

Unlike most Delta towns its size, Walnut Ridge isn’t bleeding population. The decrease in population from 2000 to 2010 was a small one — 4,925 to 4,890. The most recent population estimate for the city was 5,062.

Sales tax collections jumped considerably last year with the opening of additional businesses. Snapp told Talk Business & Politics: “It’s a larger variety of shopping opportunities. If our residents can buy what they need here, they don’t have to go to Jonesboro or Pocahontas or another town. We’re keeping our people here. Our sales have gone up and up. We plan for that to continue.”

The city’s annual Beatles at the Ridge festival in September had a record turnout, attracting almost 15,000 people. More than 100 vendors were in town for the two-day event, and there were two stages with live music. It was the eighth time for the festival to be held. It celebrates the fact that Walnut Ridge was the only Arkansas city visited by the Beatles.

Late on the evening of Sept. 18, 1964, Walnut Ridge businessman Jack Allison saw a large plane headed toward the city’s airport. He asked three teenage boys to go see who was on the plane. When the door opened, the members of the band stepped out. They had left a concert at Dallas and were on their way for some rest and relaxation at a dude ranch near Alton, Mo.

Their plane was too big to land at most airports in the area, but Walnut Ridge’s airport had long runways since it had been the Walnut Ridge Army Flying School during World War II.

“That year, the popularity of the Beatles was without rival,” Michael Bowman writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were mobbed by teenage fans at each public appearance. The Fab Four, as they were dubbed, had five singles in the top five slots on the Billboard charts. Their first film, ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ appeared in 500 U.S. theaters. The group’s first appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ drew an estimated 73 million viewers. In their legendary 1964 concert tour, they performed 32 shows in 34 days.”

After the concert in Dallas, the members of the group had boarded a plane operated by Reed Pigman, who owned American Flyers Airlines in Dallas. Pigman also owned the ranch near Alton that would serve as a place for rest and relaxation before the final concert of the year in New York.

“The Walnut Ridge airport provided the ideal spot for the group to change planes before heading to Missouri,” Bowman writes. “The runway was built as a training facility during World War II and could handle large aircraft. Also, the Beatles could avoid the crush of screaming fans by landing at a secluded airport at the edge of a small town.”

Pigman, who was also the pilot, would die on April 22, 1966, of a heart attack while at the controls of a Lockheed Electra coming into Ardmore, Okla. The crash that followed killed more than 80 members of the military who were being flown under a Department of Defense contract with Pigman’s company.

Nighttime landings were rare in Walnut Ridge in those days so a large plane circling at midnight created plenty of attention.

A smaller plane was already at the airport to take the band to Missouri. Word spread about the stop, and it was speculated that the Beatles would depart from Walnut Ridge on a Sunday.

“While most people attended Sunday morning church services, 200 to 300 people descended on the Walnut Ridge airport in anticipation of the Beatles’ return,” Bowman writes. “The plane that had carried the group across the United States sat on the runway waiting for their return from Missouri. Parents snapped photographs of their children next to the plane. Home movie cameras captured the crowd’s excitement. The sounds of teenagers singing Beatles songs could be heard across the runway.

“There were many false alarms that morning. Teenagers mobbed a local crop-duster mistaken for the Beatles plane. Little did they know that McCartney and Harrison had arrived at the airport an hour early and watched the spectacle from an old truck parked across the runway. Suddenly, a small commuter aircraft with Lennon and Starr landed and taxied up the runway. The two left the plane, walking through a gauntlet of polite but excited spectators. As Lennon and Starr ascended the steps to the larger plane, the old truck that held Harrison and McCartney pulled up next to it. All four Beatles quickly boarded and left for their last U.S. concert of the year. For many of the Walnut Ridge teenagers, it was their only chance to see the Beatles in person.”

In September 2011, civic leaders unveiled a monument in downtown Walnut Ridge designed to look like the cover of the album “Abbey Road.”

The next year, the town built the guitar-shaped plaza downtown. That plaza mainly honors the musicians who once traveled up and down U.S. Highway 67 to play at clubs in the area.

In 2009, the Arkansas Legislature designated a 111-mile stretch of the highway through Jackson, Lawrence, Randolph and Clay counties as Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway 67. A portion of the road in Miller County in southwest Arkansas later received the designation.

“The term rockabilly is defined as a mixture of blues, country and western and rhythm and blues music that saw its biggest popularity beginning in the post-World War II era and lasted until around the time of the so-called British Invasion of the early 1960s,” Keith Merckx writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Original rockabilly artists included Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis along with noted Arkansans Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Sonny Burgess and Billy Lee Riley. These same musicians are cited as influences by later musical legends –ranging from the Beatles to Bob Dylan — who credit rockabilly as an inspiration for their own distinctive styles of music.

“Establishments on U.S. 67 that hosted these acts included Bob King’s King of Clubs in Swifton, the Silver Moon Club in Newport and the rooftop of the Skylark Drive-In Theater in Pocahontas. … The idea to honor the road originated in 2005 with noted Pocahontas musician Gary Gazaway (who has performed and recorded with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Winwood, Joe Cocker and Phish). As a lifelong resident of the area, Gazaway had long recognized the significance of the highway as a musical artery. He suggested the idea to Michael Luster, the director of the Arkansas Folklife Program at Arkansas State University, and music historian Stephen Koch, co-founder and host of the radio program ‘Arkansongs.'”

The three men wanted the highway to be known as the Rockabilly Highway.

A committee was formed, and some members feared the term rockabilly would harken back to the stereotype of Arkansas hillbillies. The committee voted 8-5 in favor of using Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway 67. Gazaway was among those in the minority.

“This hillbilly culture is what made the music,” he said. “To call it anything else is to go against the historical aspect of it.”

Arkansas author and music historian Marvin Schwartz notes that the height of the rockabilly era was the late 1950s.

“Many Arkansas rockabilly groups such as Sonny Burgess & the Pacers and Billy Lee Riley & the Little Green Men had recorded for Sun Records and were rising to national attention,” he writes. “Dale Hawkins, a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, specialized in creating a sound (called Swamp Rock by some) that went on to help shape rock ‘n’ roll music. Bobby Brown of Olyphant in Jackson County was a popular rockabilly performer of the 1950s and 1960s, often playing at the Cotton Club in Trumann. On May 13, 1957, the Little Rock CBS television affiliate began broadcasting ‘Steve’s Show,’ hosted by Steve Stephens and featuring local teenagers who danced to hit records as rockabilly artists and other performers lip-synched the words.

“Sonny Burgess’ ‘Sadie’s Back in Town,’ released by Sun Records on Dec. 31, 1959, could be considered the last rockabilly hit of the era. The popular music industry was shifting to a softer format and more banal subject matter than rockabilly’s fast cars, rowdy women and rebellious partying. Arkansas rockabilly artists either modified their styles or retired from the music business. A rockabilly revival in the 1970s brought renewed attention to the genre, while European audiences have maintained a nearly cult-like devotion to the original sound. Arkansans such as Jason D. Williams of El Dorado continue to perform in a traditional rockabilly mode.”

In addition to capitalizing on its music traditions, Walnut Ridge has done an excellent job of putting interpretive signage downtown to give the history of the city’s old buildings. Walnut Ridge is home, however, to one of the newer courthouses in the state. The Lawrence County Courthouse was completed in 1966. Still, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015 because of its New Formalism style.

In 1870, the Legislature split Lawrence County into two judicial districts. Walnut Ridge served the eastern half of the county, and Powhatan served the western half.

A two-story courthouse built at Walnut Ridge in 1897 lasted until only 1900. In 1901, county offices moved into a building constructed by the Steward Brothers Co. of Newport and designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles Thompson.

“Powhatan’s courthouse suffered after decades of population depletion in the town, weakened commerce and neglect,” Jared Craig writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Lawrence County officials attempted to consolidate the county seats to Walnut Ridge three times, but voters turned down each measure. Meanwhile, Walnut Ridge’s courthouse deteriorated. County officials warned that both courthouses probably should be condemned. In 1963, county residents finally voted to consolidate the county seats to Walnut Ridge and approved the construction of a new courthouse.

“A record turnout voted in the special election, which was likely due to a $500 prize the Lawrence County Development Council awarded in a drawing to a participating voter. Additionally, Walnut Ridge merchants contributed money for another drawing, signaling the business community’s support. County officials alleviated residents’ concern of funding with an extension of a two-mill hospital tax and a hefty grant from the federal government that U.S. Rep. Wilbur Mills advocated. The courthouse cost $450,000.”

We leave Walnut Ridge and continue the trek east on U.S. Highway 412, soon crossing into Greene County. The Cache River forms the county line.

The Cache begins near the Arkansas-Missouri border and flows through northeast Arkansas until it empties into the White River near Clarendon.

“With the arrival of American settlers, steamboats began plying the waters of the Cache River, and towns were established in its vicinity,” writes Arkansas historian Guy Lancaster. “The town of Maberry in Woodruff County, founded in 1842, was a notable shipping point for cotton and locally harvested timber. So was Patterson in Woodruff County. However, the towns established along the White River, which runs nearly parallel to the Cache from Newport on south, grew larger given the White River’s greater reach and use as a transportation corridor.”

The lowlands between the Cache and L’Anguille rivers served as a major obstacle to the completion of the Little Rock & Memphis Railroad. The line linking the two cities wasn’t completed until 1871.

“Though the Cache River area was an important source of timber, the area was not as extensively cleared as were other parts of eastern Arkansas due to the river’s reputation for flooding,” Lancaster writes. “Major stands of native hardwood survived. Because the Cache moves at a slow speed due to its low amount of fall per mile — and the fact that the contour of the flat land surrounding it does not lend itself to levee construction — the Cache River can overflow its banks after only a few inches of rainfall. Work on the river in northeast Arkansas in the 1920s and 1930s straightened the channel, even splitting the river into two separate ditches between Bono and Egypt in Craighead County. That helped speed the flow of the river, but farming along it was still a risky endeavor.

“During the flood of 1937, the Cache River was one of a number of east Arkansas rivers that spilled across agricultural land. Planters and businessmen long advocated for some form of flood control along the Cache, which had no well-developed system of levees. The Flood Control Act of 1950 authorized the Cache River-Bayou DeView Project, which was a plan to dredge, clear and realign 140 miles of the Cache upstream from Clarendon along with 15 miles of the upper tributaries and 77 miles of Bayou DeView. Initial funds for the project, projected to cost $60 million, weren’t approved until 1969.”

A lengthy environmental battle ensued.

Indebted to east Arkansas planters, U.S. Rep. Bill Alexander pushed hard for the project. It was opposed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, the Arkansas Wildlife Federation and a large number of other organizations. A federal lawsuit was filed to stop the project. U.S. District Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in favor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May 1972, and his verdict was appealed. In July 1972, the Corps began clearing and dredging in the Clarendon area.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case to Henley in December 1972, noting that the Corps had not met the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. In March 1973, the court ordered that work be halted. The Corps’ environmental impact statement finally was approved three years later, but by then Congress had backed off funding such a controversial project.

“Opponents of the project worked to create a national wildlife refuge along the river, partly to block the project but also to protect the river from rampant development,” Lancaster writes. “In 1986, the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was established, stretching south from Grubbs in Jackson County to Clarendon and incorporating a large swath of Bayou DeView. North of Grubbs, the Cache River exists as little more than a ditch or series of ditches.”

From Portia to Walnut Ridge

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019


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.”

From Hardy to Black Rock

Friday, July 19th, 2019


The Spring River is just a few hundred yards to our right as we continue east on U.S. Highway 412 out of Hardy.

A huge spring at Mammoth Spring marks the start of the river, which travels almost 75 miles across north Arkansas before emptying into the Black River near Black Rock. More than 9 million gallons of water an hour comes from that spring.

“The Spring River is joined several miles downstream by the South Fork, which flows eastward from its origin near Salem,” Charles Crawford writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “As it is not fed by the spring, the South Fork of the Spring River carries a less consistent volume of water and sometimes isn’t suitable for canoeing during late summer and early fall. However, its extensive gravel bars provide good sites for camping and picnicking.

“The constant supply of cold, clear water provided by this river and its tributary creeks, along with the rich alluvial soil built by the regular flooding from heavy rainfall, attracted populations to the area. The early inhabitants were the Native Americans, who hunted, fished and maintained camps and villages in the valley between the river and the rocky bluffs and tree-covered hills flanking both sides of the stream. Artifacts and burial sites can still be found after each flood in the fields along the banks.”

Mammoth Spring National Fish Hatchery is adjacent to Mammoth Spring State Park. The hatchery is operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Jim Hinkle Spring River State Fish Hatchery, which is operated by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, is two miles downstream from Mammoth Spring.

“Two small dams are located on the Spring River, both near the origin of the stream at Mammoth Spring,” Crawford writes. “They are too near the headwaters of the river to provide flood control, thus leaving much of the river in a fairly natural state. The upper part contains numerous rocky rapids, several waterfalls and pools containing drifts and underwater snags.”

Before leaving Sharp County and crossing into Lawrence County, we pass the turn to Williford, which had a population of 75 residents in the 2010 census. That was down from a high of 357 residents in the 1920 census.

“During the early 20th century, it was one of the county’s largest and fastest-growing towns, but since then it has experienced a steady decline resulting in an almost nonexistent business district,” writes Arkansas historian Mike Polston, a Williford native.

The first white settler in the area was reportedly Jeremiah Pitt Baird, who established a home on the banks of the Spring River in 1841.

“Shortly after he settled his family on the opposite side of the river from the present-day town, others began to move into the area,” Polston writes. “Among those was Ambrose Williford, who became a prominent landowner after whom the town was named. In the community’s earliest days, homes were established on both sides of the river with the town eventually being established on the north side.”

The coming of the railroad that ran from Memphis to Springfield, Mo., brought growth. Railroad construction began in 1870 and was completed in 1883.

“On Oct. 1, 1883, the first train to pass through Williford attracted spectators from miles around,” Polston writes. “A station was soon built, and the town became a center of local shipping and commerce. The rail line later became part of the Frisco Railroad. The tracks are still in use today.

“A major contributor to local growth was the establishment of a limestone quarry east of town in 1884. Many of the town’s merchants sold goods to the workers. Ownership of the operation changed, and a new quarry was opened west of town where a better grade of stone was found. A work camp of 14 company houses was constructed with each being painted green, resulting in the name Greenville. The local economy prospered with merchants selling goods and many of the townspeople also working at the quarry. Forty to 50 railroad cars of stone were shipped each day.”

Williford had three general stores, a saloon, a cotton gin, a blacksmith shop, a one-room schoolhouse, a doctor’s office and a post office by 1890. A steel-frame bridge across the Spring River was constructed in 1907. The Sharp County Bank was established in 1911. A 10-room hotel opened the following year.

Then came the floods and fires from which Williford never fully recovered.

“Flooding of the town has always been a threat,” Polston writes. “In 1915, the town sustained major damage, and the river bridge was washed out. It was soon rebuilt. By the mid-1920s, the town had more than 25 businesses. A major fire destroyed seven of those in the spring of 1929. Most did not rebuild. … The growth of the town has always been tied to the railroad, whose tracks run not more than 100 yards from the business district. With the decline of passenger service and the development of roads and highways as an alternate means of trade and travel, growth became stagnant.”

Polston says the proposed construction of Bell Foley Dam on the nearby Strawberry River in the late 1960s “brought some hope for renewed growth, and work began on a vacation resort near the town in anticipation of the lake. However, the controversial dam was never built. In the 21st century, most of the old business buildings are vacant and in ruins.”

As we continue east, we leave Sharp County and move into the hill country of Lawrence County.

Lawrence County is divided by the Black River. On the west side, there are the Ozarks. On the east side, it’s the flat, row-crop country of the Arkansas Delta. Lawrence County is known as the Mother of Counties because it once covered most of north Arkansas, an area that eventually would be divided into 31 counties.

The county is named for James Lawrence, a naval hero in the War of 1812. It was created in 1815 as part of the Missouri Territory and was the second (after Arkansas County) of the five counties that would become the Arkansas Territory in 1819.

“White settlers first inhabited the county’s western regions, traveling on the Black River or, after 1811, over the Military Road,” John Jacobsen writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “This route, along with the swampy conditions in the east, explains the early settlement concentration in the county’s hilly western half. The earliest important settlement was at Davidsonville along the Black River. Named for territorial legislator John Davidson, the town served as the first county seat in 1816. Exaggerated tradition claims 3,000 Davidsonville residents before yellow fever ended the settlement. In 1829, the county seat moved to Jackson on the Military Road.”

The first Lawrence County community we pass through on our U.S. 412 route is Ravenden, which came about once the railroad was established in the 1880s.

“With the development of the town along the tracks, it soon became an important trade center in the area,” Polston writes. “The business sector is no longer located on the original site. In 1947, the business sector slowly began to move to the newly completed U.S. highway, where it remains today.”

The first white settler in the area was a former British soldier named William J. Ball, who had fought at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. He settled along the Spring River in 1858.

“He named his developing settlement Opposition, saying it was in opposition to the nearest town of Smithville,” Polston writes. “It never grew very large and died when it was bypassed by the railroad in the 1880s. With the completion of the main line of the Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis Railroad in 1883, it was decided to build a trunk line to the resort town of Ravenden Springs in Randolph County, about seven miles to the north. The new town at the intersection was to be called Ravenden Junction. Though the trunk line was never constructed, a settlement that had begun to develop along the main line before its completion began to thrive, especially with the completion of a depot and section house. Two passenger trains a day serviced the town. The last passenger coach passed through on Dec. 8, 1967.”

The sons of William Ball — Sam and Trick — were leading merchants in the area. The name Ravenden became official when a post office was established in 1891.

“The local economy was driven by the production of cotton and cattle, both of which could be shipped by train,” Polston writes. “The abundance of timber led to a thriving lumber trade, especially railroad ties. The town was incorporated on Nov. 15, 1901. The Bank of Ravenden, established in December 1905, was in continuous operation until closing during the Great Depression in 1930. Around 1905, John Chun founded a short-lived weekly newspaper call The Ravenden Hustler.”

A brick schoolhouse built in 1918 was used until consolidation with Sloan-Hendrix at Imboden in the 1940s.

“Sometime in the 1930s, the town suffered a major fire that destroyed or damaged all but one of the businesses on Main Street,” Polston writes. “Ravenden still maintains a small business district on the highway. Perhaps the most striking feature of the town is a 12-foot-tall raven first constructed in 1991.”

The next town we enter is Imboden. Paul Austin, the former head of the Arkansas Humanities Council who hails from Imboden, is along for this trip. We take a break on the back deck of his mother’s home, which overlooks the Spring River.

“Though a number of settlers lived in the area by the 1820s, the town, which became a local trade center, did not exist until the construction of the railroad in 1883,” Polston writes. “By the 1820s, the Military Road crossed the Spring River near the present town, attracting new settlers. There is evidence that a few houses and a store existed prior to the coming of the railroad. One of those early settlers was Benjamin Imboden, who moved his family to the area in 1828. Imboden acquired considerable property, eventually owning the largest amount of land in the area. The town would be named in his honor.

“In 1882, just prior to the coming of the railroad, Imboden sold the land where much of the town would be built to wealthy local developer W.C. Sloan. … The first business, Sloan Mercantile Co., opened in late 1883 and remained in business until 1930. It was soon followed by others, including the first hotel, known as The Strawn, and an African-American-owned barbershop that opened in 1885. The first brick building, owned by G.W. Hooper, was constructed in 1886.”

Imboden was incorporated in April 1889.

“At the time, it consisted of three general stores, two grocery stores, two saloons, a hotel, a livery stable, a school and a Catholic church,” Polston writes. “The population, which numbered a little more than 150 at the time, increased to more than 400 during the next 10 years.”

There was a ferry across the Spring River until the first bridge was constructed in 1898. A new bridge was built in 1938 by the federal Public Works Administration.

In 1891, the board of Hendrix College decided to establish five academies across the state. Sloan-Hendrix Academy was established at Imboden. It remained in operation until 1931 when the campus was sold to the Imboden School District. The name Sloan-Hendrix is still used for the public schools.

Polston writes about how town leaders bought a radio for the community: “Benches were set up, and people came into town on a nightly basis to listen to the broadcasts. In the 1920s, Otho Crouch opened a movie theater called the Hippodrome. Movies were also screened at the school until the 1930s by the school organization known as the Sloan-Hendrix Helpers.”

Ravenden had 470 residents in the 2010 census; Imboden had 677.

Black Rock marks the end of the Ozarks as you head east. Once the railroad came, timber companies began moving in to cut the virgin timber in the Ozark foothills. Black Rock boomed for a time.

“General stores were quickly established, and a sawmill was built on the Black River,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In 1884, the city incorporated with a recorded population of 277. By 1890, the city had about 10 sawmills. The decade of the 1890s saw the creation of numerous industries, many linked to the timber businesses — shingle mills, planing mills, a furniture factory, a handle factory and a wagon factory. In addition, Black Rock featured a stone quarry and the Southern Queensware Co., which was established in 1896 to produce porcelain, earthenware, encaustic tiles and enamel brick. Between 1890 and 1900, the city grew from 761 to 1,400.”

The population was down to 662 residents by the 2010 census.

When J.H. Myers found a large pink pearl inside a mussel in 1897, a pearl rush ensued.

“Most people simply threw away the mussel shells they opened, but Myers shipped a load of ostensibly worthless shells to Lincoln, Neb., in 1899 to be used in the manufacture of buttons,” Lancaster writes. “Along with partners N.R. and H.W. Townsend, Myers established the Black Rock Pearl Button Co., which was reportedly the first button factory in the South. It was later purchased by a company in Davenport, Iowa, and expanded. The Chalmers Button Factory opened in 1909.

“After World War II, with the increased availability of plastic buttons, the industry foundered. The last button factory in Black Rock closed in 1954, though mussels are still harvested from the Black River and shipped to China, where they are used for cultured pearls.”

We cross the Black River at Black Rock on the bridge that opened in May 2015 to replace a bridge that had been built in 1949.

Three rivers join in southeast Missouri to form the Black River. It crosses into Arkansas northeast of Corning in Clay County. Its route then takes it through the Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area, through Randolph County to the county seat of Pocahontas and then past Davidsonville, Black Rock and Powhatan.

“From there, it flows south through the Shirey Bay-Rainey Brake Wildlife Management Area, crosses the southern border of Lawrence County and forms the east-west border between Independence and Jackson counties,” Jerry Cavaneau writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “It finally turns southeast and enters the White River at Jacksonport, just north of Newport. Its Arkansas tributaries are the Current, Spring and Strawberry rivers. The Black has numerous sharp bends, many with colorful names such as Deadman and Hole in the Wall in the Davidsonville area along with the Box Factory, Battle Axe and Dead Mule bends along the lower course of the river.

“The river and the wildlife management areas through which it flows provide abundant opportunities for hunters, fishermen, hikers and wildlife watchers. The main species of fish are largemouth bass, crappie and catfish. Duck, squirrel, deer, rabbit and turkey hunting are popular along its course. Both the Donaldson and Shirey Bay WMAs offer fine green tree reservoir habitat for ducks. There’s also a population of furbearers such as beaver, muskrat, mink and raccoon.”

Batesville lawyer Fent Noland wrote in 1839: “The country up White River and the Black is destined to be the finest in Arkansas. Nature has done all she could. Man will do the rest.”

By the late 1800s, more than 40 steamboats were operating on the Black River.

“The first train arrived in Pocahontas in 1896, and the railroads gradually replaced river traffic,” Cavaneau writes. “As late as the 1920s, however, steamboats and snag boats (used to clear river debris) were still in operation.”

Highland, Cherokee Village and Hardy

Friday, July 12th, 2019


We roll through Highland on our trip east on U.S. Highway 412. We quickly enter Cherokee Village and then Hardy. The three communities are connected.

When the Hardy and Ash Flat school districts consolidated in 1962, they built a new high school between the two cities. The businesses and neighborhoods that sprang up around the school became the city of Highland, which had a population of 1,045 residents in the 2010 census.

“When Sharp County was created in 1868, much of it consisted of heavily forested hillsides,” Steven Teske writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The first official landowners in what would become Highland were Thomas Irvie, who bought his land in 1889, and Thomas J. Harris, who bought his land in 1895. By this time, the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway had been built through Hardy, facilitating shipping of the timber that was being cut in Sharp County and the crops grown on the cleared land. Already the area was being called Highland, presumably because it consists of a ridge between two lower areas.

“A post office was established in Highland in 1878, but it closed in 1901 because the area was so sparsely settled. The settlement’s postmaster, W.W. Hill, served a term as county surveyor and studied the natural features of Sharp County. The early history of the area is also remembered for the residency of the Porter family, who established a Baptist mission in which two-hour sermons were standard fare. … Until the consolidation of the Ash Flat and Hardy schools, few residents could have predicted the emergence of a city at Highland.”

Along with the school, the creation of Cherokee Village as a retirement community changed everything.

“Many restaurants and stores were built in Highland,” Teske writes. “Eventually, the citizens of the community voted to incorporate as a second-class city in 1998. On Feb. 5, 2008, a tornado tore through Sharp County, devastating Highland and other nearby communities. Although no lives were lost, many homes and businesses were destroyed. Some were rebuilt, but difficult economic times prevented complete recovery.”

Nearby Hardy, which had 772 residents in the 2010 census, is a much older city than either Highland or Cherokee Village.

Hardy was established in 1883 when the railroad came through this part of the Ozarks. The accessibility provided by the trains helped make the area a tourist destination.

In 1867, the Arkansas Legislature voted to pay companies $10,000 for every mile of railroad track they laid. That incentive created a boom in railroad construction.

“Named for railroad contractor James Hardy of Batesville, the town was developed on 600 acres by early settler Walker Clayton to serve the needs of travelers,” writes historian Wayne Dowdy of Memphis. “Clayton also donated the land for what’s now called the Hardy Cemetery Historic Section. Residents wanted to name the town Forty Islands after a nearby creek, but the U.S. Post Office insisted on Hardy because that designation was used to deliver mail to railroad workers in the area. This was not the last time an outsider influenced the direction of Hardy’s development.

“When Hardy was incorporated, it was far removed from the county seat in Evening Shade. Feeling isolated from their government, Hardy residents asked the General Assembly to come up with a solution to the problems of distance and poor roads. In 1894, the state divided Sharp County into two sections with Hardy named county seat of the Northern District. A court was established along with other government offices, which increased Hardy’s population to 347 people by 1900. As the 20th century progressed, better roads made the dual county seat structure unnecessary. Ash Flat was designated the county seat in 1963.”

A Memphis doctor named George Gillespie Buford was stranded along with his wife in Hardy in 1908 due to train problems.

“The couple climbed Wahpeton Hill on the south bank of the Spring River and was charmed by the area’s natural beauty,” Dowdy writes. “The following year, the Bufords purchased 50 acres on Wahpeton and built a summer cottage. During the next few years, Buford expanded his land holdings by purchasing the nearby Jordan and East Wahpeton hills. In 1912, the Memphis physician constructed 10 cottages for summer visitors on his newly acquired property, which he named Wahpeton Inn.”

Others from the Delta also viewed the area as a nice escape from the heat and mosquitoes in the lowlands during the summer.

L.L. Ward of Blytheville opened a resort known as Rio Vista in 1932. The Girl Scouts of Memphis established Camp Kiwani in 1922. The YWCA of Memphis built Miramichee in 1916. And the Boy Scouts of Memphis built Kia Kima in 1916.

“In addition to the railroad, bus service connected Hardy to the rest of the world,” Dowdy writes. “By 1930, the town had 508 permanent residents. The visitor population swelled to 1,000 per day between July and September. The tourism boom spawned by Wahpeton, Rio Vista and the summer camps led to economic growth. Two blocks of Main Street were filled with businesses, including a bank, two cafes, two drugstores, a Ford automobile dealership and a grocery.

“Town leaders — most notably drugstore owner William Johnston — tirelessly promoted Hardy as a place where city dwellers could find relaxation. In an interview with a Memphis Press-Scimitar reporter, Johnston boasted that Hardy had the ‘finest fishing in the world.’ Although most residents welcomed tourists, some townspeople found it difficult to adjust as the average population increased by thousands during the summer months. In 1935, cafe owner Tennie Meeker said: ‘You take a big trainload of people and dump them down suddenly in a small town like Hardy, and it nearly works everybody to death.'”

Later in the 20th century, tourists arrived in the Hardy area via automobile rather than train.

“Resting near the intersection of national highways 62 and 63, Hardy was easily accessible for those who traveled by car,” Dowdy writes. “When large-scale federal highway construction began in the 1950s, the tourism population shifted from long-term visitors to those looking for a weekend getaway. Recognizing this trend, the Wahpeton resort individually sold its cottages in 1953. The established tourism industry in Hardy was augmented with the construction of retirement homes by West Memphis developer John Cooper. The founding of Cherokee Village increased tourism to the Ozark foothills, and within a decade, the Hardy area was recognized as an important retirement center.

“In 1968, the Arkansaw Traveller Folk Theater was established in Hardy to preserve the culture of the Ozarks. When the railroad depot closed in the 1970s, some Main Street businesses relocated. This relocation accelerated when the Spring River flooded in December 1982. In their place, shops specializing in antiques and crafts were opened, which, along with the draw of the Ozarks’ natural beauty, has helped Hardy remain a popular tourist destination.”

Cooper had purchased 400 acres along the south bank of the Spring River near the mouth of Otter Creek in 1948. What became known as the Otter Creek Ranch was a place to entertain friends and family members.

“After purchasing additional land, Cooper formed the Cherokee Village Development Co. in 1953, divided the property into lots and constructed individual homes,” Dowdy writes. “When the property was formally opened in June 1955, Gov. Orval Faubus declared it to be ‘the coming Mecca of the Ozarks.’ By 1961, retirees from across the United States had relocated to the Spring River area, transforming Cherokee Village into a popular retirement center. Cooper’s development company opened Bella Vista in northwest Arkansas in 1967 and three years later opened Hot Springs Village. The introduction of these three communities established Arkansas as one of the most important retirement destinations in the United States. In addition to homes, the Cherokee Village Development Co. added two golf courses, seven lakes, three recreation centers, 350 miles of roads and a water system for its residents.”

In 1964, Cooper offered the Boy Scouts a larger tract of land on the South Fork of the Spring River in exchange for the land housing Kia Kima. Following negotiations, Cooper agreed to construct buildings for the Boy Scouts on the new property.

“The Kia Kima trade and other land purchases expanded Cherokee Village to 13,500 acres by 1980,” Dowdy writes. “When Cherokee Village was established, no provisions had been made for residents to share the costs of maintaining the roads and recreational facilities operated by the development corporation. Not wanting to fund these services exclusively, the corporation’s board of directors suggested the creation of a suburban improvement district in 1968. … About 1,100 property owners petitioned the circuit court for permission to establish the district, but not all Cherokee Village residents approved of the plan.”

Following court challenges, the Cherokee Village Suburban Improvement District was formed and a three-person board of commissioners was chosen to oversee it in 1975. The city of Cherokee Village was established in the late 1990s.

“In addition to a mayor and city council, a police force was created and a district court established,” Dowdy writes. “Although the improvement district remained a vital entity, the city of Cherokee Village took over some of its duties. For example, the city assumed responsibility for street maintenance in 2003.”

A few weeks after passing through Cherokee Village on the Highway 412 trek, I was back for the first Arkansas Pie Festival.

More than 700 people bought tickets to the festival on the day before Easter. The weather couldn’t have been better, and that helped. This obviously was an idea whose time had come. Not only did the festival bring people to the Cherokee Village town center to spend part of the day, it also attracted statewide media attention to a retirement community that many people had thought was past its prime.

Bella Vista has benefited from being part of the booming northwest Arkansas region. Hot Springs Village has benefited from its proximity to Hot Springs and Little Rock. The more rural retirement communities such as Cherokee Village — along with nearby Horseshoe Bend in Izard County, Holiday Island near Eureka Springs and Fairfield Bay on Greers Ferry Lake — have had a much tougher time redefining themselves in an era when retirees want to be close to major hospitals and cultural amenities.

Fortunately for this area of the state, there’s a group of talented young people determined to craft a future for a beautiful but isolated region.

One of them is Graycen Bigger, the executive director of the Spring River Innovation Hub. Bigger has worked in the arts and education sectors as a lecturer and researcher. She became what’s known as the director of placemaking for Cherokee Village, working to use the arts to spur economic development and improve the quality of life for residents of Sharp, Fulton and Izard counties.

Bigger has a master’s degree in art business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York and wants to help artisans throughout the Ozarks earn a living. She says her efforts are about “supporting small businesses, entrepreneurship, innovation and creative ideas. Part of that is thinking of the next generation.”

Proceeds from the Arkansas Pie Festival will go to science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (commonly known as STEAM) programs sponsored by the innovation hub.

Another of the people behind efforts to revitalize this part of the state is Jonathan Rhodes, whose father Ron has been involved in real estate development at Cherokee Village for 48 years. Ron Rhodes grew up at Corning and first came to this area on dirt roads to attend Boy Scout camp.

“My parents settled in Cherokee Village and raised their family here,” Jonathan Rhodes says. “This is home. … It’s our privilege to carry on what John Cooper started here more than 60 years ago.”

Rhodes graduated from Hendrix College at Conway in 1998. He worked for U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Washington for seven years and earned a master’s degree in urban and environmental planning from the University of Virginia in 2003. He later joined the United Nations World Food Program. Rhodes worked in its Rome headquarters and in Sudan on a two-year assignment.

In 2012, Rhodes moved back to Cherokee Village to join the family real estate and property management business. He also put his master’s degree to work as the director of community development for Cherokee Village.

In 2017, Rhodes, Bigger and others came up with the idea of the Spring River Innovation Hub. They received a grant from the Delta Regional Authority and launched a small business incubator in Cherokee Village last year. The organization’s mission statement notes that it will provide a “creative culture of innovation and entrepreneurship through an inclusive, collaborative network of diverse resources and opportunities.”

An unused portion of Cherokee Village’s town center was transformed into a co-working space.

Rhodes and Bigger hope the hub eventually will be viewed as a pacesetter for rural development in the South. There are professional development opportunities, networking events, business counseling, mentorships, community programs, high-speed Internet, video-conferencing capabilities and more.

Just as John Cooper was an innovator in the 20th century, Rhodes and Bigger want to be innovators for the 21st century by creating a model that struggling rural communities across the region can emulate.

In an era when most parts of rural Arkansas are losing population, it certainly beats wringing one’s hands and reminiscing about the good old days.