FIRST IN A SERIES
In 1992, historian James C. Cobb from the University of Georgia came out with a book titled “The Most Southern Place on Earth.”
The book is about the Mississippi Delta, a region like none other.
Plumerville native Rupert Vance, who became a noted sociologist at the University of North Carolina, described the region in 1935 as “cotton obsessed, Negro obsessed. Nowhere but in the Mississippi Delta are antebellum conditions so nearly preserved.”
I’m driving south on this summer day on the stretch of road that I consider the most Southern place in Arkansas — not only geographically but also historically and culturally. I’m on U.S. Highway 165, traveling from Dermott in Chicot County to the Louisiana state line just below Wilmot in Ashley County.
Cotton and other row crops remain king in this part of the state.
Along the route are things that have come to represent the Delta in the minds of Arkansans — the well-kept homes of farm owners, the rundown homes of laborers, the flat landscape, a man selling produce alongside the highway, empty buildings in decaying downtowns whose businesses once catered to sharecroppers who no longer live here, Spanish moss dripping from the cypress trees in Lake Enterprise.
About 20 miles to the east is the Mississippi River.
Just to the west of the highway is the Bayou Bartholomew, the longest bayou in the country. The bayou begins in Jefferson County near Pine Bluff and then heads south through Lincoln, Desha, Drew, Chicot and Ashley counties before entering Louisiana and emptying into the Ouachita River.
“Bayou Bartholomew was, until the construction of railroad lines in the area in 1890, the most important stream for transportation in the interior Delta,” writes Rebecca DeArmond-Huskey, who in 2001 was the author of a book titled “Bartholomew’s Song: A Bayou History.”
She writes: “While the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers served their adjoining areas, it was the bayou that provided a transportation route into an otherwise landlocked area. This route allowed the development of one of the richest timber and agricultural tracts in the Delta. The present bayou bed was formed by the waters of the Arkansas River during a period when it was constantly changing courses. About 1,800 to 2,200 years ago, the river diverted from the present area of the bayou, and the leisurely bayou began to develop in the old river bed.”
It’s likely that the bayou was named after a man known as “Little Bartholomew, the Parisian.” He was part of Henri Joutel’s 1687 band of French explorers who crossed the bayou before finally reaching Arkansas Post.
“Spanish colonists also took note of the bayou,” DeArmond-Huskey writes. “Don Juan Filhiol, commandant of the District of Ouachita in the 1780s, was impressed with its navigation potential as well as the agricultural land around it. The colonists used the bayou for transportation as there were no good roads in the area. They used flat-bottom barges, propelled by poling, rowing, cordelling (towing with ropes) or by sails if the wind was favorable.
“The advent of the steamboat made the bayou a major thoroughfare for exporting cotton, timber and other goods as well as for importing supplies. These boats were on the bayou in Morehouse Parish in Louisiana before 1833. All such commerce halted when the Civil War began but resumed soon after it was over. With the advent of the railroad, steamboat activity began a slow decline, though it continued in Ashley County until some point between 1906 and 1912. … All steamboating was a treacherous business, but according to Ben Lucian Burman, who boated on both large rivers and bayous, ‘bayou steamboating was steamboating at its worst.’ The bayou was more narrow and shallow than the river, and pilots had to avoid sharp bends, shoals, snags and overhanging trees.”
There were ports along the bayou at Point Pleasant and Lind Grove in Morehouse Parish.
In Arkansas, there were ports at Poplar Bluff (now Parkdale), Portland, Thebes, Boydell and Baxter.
“Although steamboat trade was put on hold during the Civil War, the bayou remained, for the duration of the war, a significant transportation route for steamboats carrying troops and supplies,” DeArmond-Huskey writes. “In 1865, Union cavalrymen under the leadership of Col. Embury D. Osband carried out a raid to impede this supply route. They reached the bayou in Chicot County and continued down it to Portland and Parkdale, where they captured the Confederate steamer Jim Barkman, which was loaded with corn. After using the Barkman at Point Pleasant in Morehouse Parish to transport their own troops across the bayou, they burned the boat.
“After the war, cotton was the primary export shipped through the bayou until the railroad prompted the development of an extensive timber industry, backed primarily by Northern capitalists. Although locals had used the bayou for log rafting since the 1830s, shipment by rail was much more expedient. The timber companies devastated the timber stands and then moved out. Farmers followed by clearing the cutover timberlands for farms, which today remain the dominant enterprise along the bayou.”
DeArmand-Huskey notes that the bayou played a major role in the lives of those who lived along it.
She writes: “They swam and fished in it, held barbecues and picnics by it, and were baptized in it.”
In 1995, Curtis Merrell of Monticello organized the Bayou Bartholomew Alliance to restore the natural beauty of the stream following decades of neglect. He secured the help of state agencies, federal agencies and nonprofit groups such as the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited.
Dermott thrived in the early 1900s as a railroad and timber town, growing from 467 residents in 1900 to 1,602 in 1910. It reached its highest population of 4,731 residents in the 1980 census but had fallen to 2,316 by 2010.
“The first settlers chose the rich and heavily timbered land along the bayou,” DeArmand-Huskey writes. “John Smith and his wife, Sarah Bowden, arrived in 1811 and opened the first settlement in the vicinity. The town was named after Dr. Charles McDermott, who first visited in 1834. He bought land and established a plantation. He moved there in 1844, and the settlement began to progress.”
In the early 1870s, the Mississippi, Ouachita & Red River railroad line was constructed from Gaines Landing in Chicot County to the Mississippi River. It would later become part of the Iron Mountain line. In 1887, the north-south line of the Houston, Central Arkansas & Northern Railroad intersected with the Iron Mountain at Dermott. A depot, general merchandise store, cotton gin and saloon sprang up. As the town became busier, drugstores and grocery stores were added to the mix.
Dermott was known for its wide, tree-lined streets. J. Tom Crenshaw, the first mayor, and city recorder C.H. VanPatten had oak trees planted along major streets in the 1890s.
“The French Oak Stave Co. opened in 1891, employing more than 150 people,” DeArmand-Huskey writes. “William Henry Lephiew Jr. established shingle mills in the early 1900s. The Leavitt Land & Lumber Co. installed a mill in 1908 and cut more than 28,000 acres of timber west of the city limits. Around 1907, the Schneider Stave Co. built a slack barrel stave mill that could produce 45,000 staves a day.
“The Bimel-Ashcroft Manufacturing Co. was in existence by about 1910. It produced oak and hickory products such as single trees for plows, tool handles, yokes and spokes. In 1912, W.B. Bynum established Bynum Cooperage, which made whiskey barrel staves. The Burleigh family of Scotland owned a handle mill, managed locally by Sherer Burleigh. Two other mills, Mark’s Veneer and Frecration, produced hardwood flooring.”
In addition to having a growing timber industry, Dermott was doing well as a railroad town. Several hotels were constructed. The town even had a bottling plant and an ice cream factory. The Exchange Bank, the Dermott Bank & Trust Co. and the Bank of Dermott opened between 1916-22.
“Jewish and Chinese families contributed to the town’s economy,” DeArmand-Huskey writes. “Many Jewish families owned clothing stores. Having come to the town as peddlers, several Chinese families established grocery stores. Descendants of these families still live in Dermott. African-American families worked primarily in the agriculture and timber industries, but the town had several black doctors as early as 1887.
“The town was booming at the outbreak of the Great Depression. Most business concerns were locally owned, and the timber industry was still strong with five mills in operation. During the decade, many smaller businesses closed, but the town survived and struggled onward just as it did after the Civil War. During World War II, Dermott remained a thriving town. The stave mills and three gins continued to operate. Camp Dermott housed German POWs. After the war, several new businesses opened.”
In 1940, the Benedictine Sisters opened St. Mary’s Hospital. It operated until 1971.
Traveling south on U.S. 165, I pass into a corner of Drew County and enter the community of Jerome, which had just 39 residents in the 2010 census. A sawmill town called Blissville was established at the spot where the railroad tracks met the bayou. The town was incorporated in 1908.
Like nearby Dermott, Jerome benefited from the railroad and the timber companies that had come to southeast Arkansas to clear the virgin hardwood forests.
“In 1835, Moses Upshard Payne of New Orleans purchased several tracts of land near the bayou as an investment,” Steve Teske writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Some cotton was grown on the clearer patches of land, but much of the land was swampland. … The land was frequently rented or sold during the remaining years of the 19th century with little development taking place. In 1886, J.M. Waddell of New Orleans, along with at least two partners, acquired an interest in the land. The group of investors conveyed a right of way for a railroad line to E.P. Reynolds & Co. in 1890. The company was building a rail line for the Houston, Central Arkansas & Northern Railroad. The line through Jerome would eventually become part of the Missouri Pacific system, which later folded into the Union Pacific Railroad.
“In 1900, interest in the land was acquired by the Chicot Lumber Co. of Chicago, which sold the same interest in 1905 to Aaron Bliss, who began the Bliss-Cook Oak Co. at that time. … At the time the town was incorporated in 1908, it consisted of 25 men living on 260 acres. Herman Moehler, the secretary of the company, owned the sawmill in the town and began to refer to the company as the Jerome Hardwood Lumber Co. in honor of his son, Jerome Moehler. In 1919, Moehler officially incorporated the company under the name he had chosen, and the next year the town also reincorporated as Jerome, though its incorporation would later lapse.”
In the 1920s, Jerome had a pharmacy, three doctors, several hotels and a school. Things began to go downhill as timber cutting wound down in the area. A major sawmill burned in 1927 and wasn’t replaced. The hardwood lumber company sold its land and buildings to Sam Wilson of Montrose in 1937. Two years later, Wilson sold the property to the federal government for $100,000.
“The government received 3,508 acres of land, all the houses in Jerome, a cotton gin, a general store, 65 mules and three tractors,” Teske writes. “Under the guidance of the Farm Security Administration and the National Youth Administration, Jerome became a resettlement colony, populated by 36 families who were moved from the Sunnyside Plantation near Lake Village. A different group of Americans was resettled into the Jerome area after the United States entered World War II. Japanese-American citizens were removed from their homes in the western states of California, Oregon and Washington and resettled inland based on fears that these Americans might cooperate with the government of Japan during the course of the war.”
These days, Jerome is best known statewide for having been the site of one of the two Japanese-American relocation camps in the state. The other camp was at nearby Rohwer in Desha County. The Jerome Relocation Center operated from Oct. 6, 1942, until June 30, 1944. The peak population of the camp was 8,497.
The camp at Jerome was the last of the 10 relocation camps across the country to open and the first to close. The A.J. Rife Construction Co. of Dallas built it for about $4.7 million. It covered more than 10,000 acres between Big Bayou and Crooked Bayou. Once the Japanese-Americans were sent to other camps in June 1944, the structures were used until the end of the war for German POWs.
“After the war, the government began selling the land it had acquired,” Teske writes. “The town of Jerome was purchased by John Baxter, who then sold the land to Charles Clifford Gibson Sr. Gibson and his son used the town as a headquarters for their extensive farming operations, running both the general store and the cotton gin. The Jerome School District was consolidated with that of Dermott in 1950, and the main school building was moved to Dermott, where it was used exclusively for black students until the end of segregation. In 1954, the Alice-Sidney Dryer & Seed Co. built a large drying plant along the railroad tracks in Jerome. The dryer has a storage capacity of 267,000 bushels of grain.”
Russell Bearden described the relocation camp this way for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “The compound eventually became nearly 500 acres of tar-papered, A-framed buildings arranged into specifically numbered blocks. Each block was designed to accommodate about 300 people in 14 residential barracks with each barrack (20 feet by 120 feet) divided into four to six apartments. This was the traditional military style for barracks, though the internees rebuilt or remodeled the insides. Each block also included a recreational building, a mess hall, a laundry building and a building for a communal latrine.
“All the residential buildings were without plumbing or running water and were heated during the winter months by wood stoves. The camp also had an administrative section that was segregated from the rest of the camp to handle camp operations, a military police section, a hospital section, a warehouse and factory section, a segregated residential section for barracks for white War Relocation Authority personnel, barracks for schools and auxiliary buildings for such things as canteens, motion pictures, gymnasiums, auditoriums, motor pools and fire stations. The camp itself was partially surrounded by barbed wire or heavily wooded areas with guard towers situated at strategic areas and guarded by a small contingent of soldiers.”
The route south out of Jerome on U.S. 165 takes me into Ashley County. I drive through Boydell and into Montrose, which is where the highway I’m on meets U.S. 82.
When most Arkansans think of Ashley County, they picture the vast pine forests and timber industries near Crossett and Hamburg. But as Teske notes: “This eastern part of the county belongs to the Mississippi Delta region, which was home to numerous cotton plantations before and after the Civil War. Dugald McMillan was the first landowner who registered a patent for the land where Montrose now stands. His plantation, like others in the region, employed a large number of slaves, many of whom remained after the war working as tenant farmers for the same landowners. Consequently, African-American citizens have outnumbered white citizens in the area from the time slavery ended up to the present time.”
We’ll continue south in the next part of the trip. We’ll remain in Ashley County until we reach the Louisiana line and pass through four small communities. In the 2010 census, Montrose had 354 residents while Portland had 430, Parkdale had 277 and Wilmot had 550.