Archive for June, 2020

On to Texarkana

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2020


The railroads changed things in this part of the state.

Along came the St. Louis Southwestern (the Cotton Belt); the Cairo & Fulton; the Mississippi, Ouachita & Red River and others. The railroads came in the late 1800s, and south Arkansas would never be the same.

“The Mississippi, Ouachita & Red River Railroad Co. was the first railroad to begin construction in Arkansas,” Van Zbinden writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Chartered in 1852 by John Dockery of Columbia County, the railroad began at Eunice in Chicot County in 1854. At the onset of the Civil War, the railroad was incomplete, extending about seven miles south and west from the Mississippi River. Completion of construction and actual operation of the railroad didn’t occur until well after the Civil War. The company never made a profit and was merged with the Little Rock, Pine Bluff & New Orleans Railroad in 1873.”

Dockery owned land at Lamartine in Columbia County. Dockery and others attending a railroad convention at Camden in December 1851 had determined that a south Arkansas railroad was necessary since parts of the Red River and Ouachita River weren’t navigable for much of the year.

“This fact, they felt, combined with a lack of internal improvements, prohibited southern Arkansas access to the Mississippi River, eastern markets and New Orleans,” Zbinden writes. “The new railroad was to begin at or near Gaines Landing in Chicot County and continue through or near Camden to Fulton in Hempstead County. From Fulton, the company was to build its railroad to a location on the border between Texas and Arkansas. The railroad was surveyed in 1853-54. Despite the difficulty of raising investment capital, the railroad hired renowned engineer Lloyd Tilghman as its chief engineer.”

Tilghman moved the railroad’s planned western terminus from Fulton to the vicinity of what’s now Garland on the Red River.

“This new path would take the railroad to Lamartine and down Beech Creek, crossing the Dorcheat Bayou half a mile north of the main road to Lewisville,” Zbinden writes. “Tilghman’s recommended route from Camden to the Red River is similar to the route later built by the St. Louis Southwestern Railway. Tilghman claimed that this new route would make the Red River a tributary of the railroad. He noted that the Red River above the Great Raft would always be ‘a barrier to the commerce of the vast regions above’ due to the ‘supineness and imbecility of our government.'”

A groundbreaking ceremony was held at Camden on July 6, 1854, but numerous lawsuits impeded process. Railroad supporters also had trouble raising funds. Dockery died in 1860, and the Civil War began the following year.

The railroad eventually was consolidated with the Little Rock, Pine Bluff & New Orleans in October 1873. The new company was named the Texas, Mississippi & Northwestern Railroad Corp., but the financial difficulties continued. Jay Gould later purchased the railroad and deeded it to the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad. The railroad was never completed farther west than Warren. It was operated for a number of years as the Warren subdivision of the Missouri Pacific Railroad.

The St. Louis Southwestern had more success. It began at Tyler, Texas, in 1875 and started construction in Arkansas six years later.

“When completed in 1883, the railroad ran diagonally across the state from Texarkana to St. Francis in Clay County,” Zbinden writes. “By 1930, the company operated 712 miles of track in Arkansas. The Cotton Belt, as it was better known, would reach its peak mileage in the state in the early 1930s. By the middle to late 1930s, the Great Depression and declining passenger revenue led the railroad to begin abandonment of many of its subsidiary companies and branch lines. Southern Pacific Railroad gained control of the Cotton Belt in 1932 in an effort to gain connections to eastern markets at St. Louis and Memphis.”

As part of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Cotton Belt was merged with the Union Pacific Railroad in 1996.

Gould, who owned the Missouri Pacific and Texas & Pacific Railroads, considered the St. Louis Southwestern a competitive threat. He purchased the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern in 1881 and ended business agreements with the Tyler-based railroad. Construction through Arkansas by what would become the Cotton Belt moved forward in 1881-82.

“The complete railroad stretched from Bird’s Point in Missouri to Gatesville in Texas,” Zbinden writes. “It entered Arkansas at St. Francis and traveled through Piggott, Paragould, Jonesboro, Brinkley, Pine Bluff, Rison, Fordyce, Camden, Lewisville and Texarkana. This ambitious construction program proved to be too great a financial burden on the company, and the choice of narrow gauge limited how effectively the railroad could compete with the parallel St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern.

“The Cotton Belt was foreclosed and placed into receivership in January 1884. From this receivership emerged the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railway. Samuel Fordyce was named president. Under Fordyce, the railroad was converted to standard gauge by Oct. 18, 1886, and began construction of branch lines to increase business. In Arkansas, this included the 430-mile Little Rock branch from Altheimer to what’s now North Little Rock and the Shreveport branch from Lewisville to Shreveport.”

Fordyce made a secret agreement with Gould in 1888 to operate the Cotton Belt in conjunction with the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern. Gould gradually gained full control of the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas. It was reorganized on June 1, 1891, as the St. Louis Southwestern.

Another successful railroad was the Cairo & Fulton, which is now the Union Pacific line from Missouri through Little Rock to Texarkana.

“Over a period of more than 100 years, the Cairo & Fulton merged first into the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern, then into the Missouri Pacific and finally into today’s Union Pacific,” Michael Condren writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “As the first railroad to connect Arkansas to Missouri and the eastern United States, the Cairo & Fulton opened up the state for development.”

The first Baring Cross Bridge over the Arkansas River at Little Rock was completed in December 1873. The railroad reached Texarkana the following month.

“Today, as a northbound mainline from Texas, the original Cairo & Fulton line serves as the main artery for the Texas petrochemical industry,” Condren writes. “It also transports the products of Arkansas to the northeastern United States.”

A site for a town was established along the Arkansas-Texas border at the point where the Cairo & Fulton tracks met the Texas & Pacific tracks in December 1873.

“The first lot was sold to J.W. Davis and later became the site of the Hotel McCartney, across from Union Station in Texarkana,” writes Arkansas historian Nancy Hendricks. “Another sale of a town lot that day led to the opening of the town’s first business, a grocery and drugstore operated by George Clark. There’s evidence that the city’s name existed before the city. Some say that as early as 1860, it was used by the steamboat Texarkana, which traveled the Red River. Others say a supposedly medicinal drink called Texarkana Bitters was sold in 1869 by a man who ran a general store in Bossier Parish in Louisiana.

“The most popular version credits a railroad surveyor, Col. Gus Knobel, who was surveying the right of way from Little Rock to southwest Arkansas for a railroad in the late 1860s. When Knobel came to the state line between Arkansas and Texas, and believing he was also at or near the Louisiana border, he reportedly wrote TEX-ARK-ANA on a board and nailed it to a tree with the statement ‘this is the name of a town which is to be built here.'”

A group on the Texas side of the state line met in December 1873 to organize the city. A charter was granted in June 1874.

In 1880, 29 people met and petitioned to incorporate Texarkana, Ark.

“Public sentiment was divided as an opposing group gathered 15 names of citizens who opposed organizing a government on the Arkansas side,” Hendricks writes. “But Texarkana, Ark., was granted a charter on Aug. 10, 1880.”

The first mayor was H.W. Beidler. Telephone service arrived in 1883 in what was becoming a thriving railroad town. By the 1890 census, there were more people on the Arkansas side (3,528) than the Texas side (2,852). The Miller County Courthouse was built in 1893. It was demolished in 1939 so the current facility could be built.

“Texarkana’s post office stood on the Arkansas side until residents of the Texas side requested one of their own,” Hendricks writes. “A post office known as Texarkana, Texas, operated from 1886-92. After it closed, postmarks then read Texarkana, Ark. A compromise was reached with Texarkana, Arkansas-Texas, which prevailed until the adoption of Texarkana, U.S.A. Both cities grew throughout the 1890s, installing streetcar lines, gas works, an electric light plant, an ice factory and sewer lines, often in as cooperative a manner as possible considering that the municipalities were in separate states.”

Growth in the area was helped immensely by the creation of the Red River Army Depot and the Lone Star Ammunition Plant during World War II.

“Along with being an important junction of railroad lines, Texarkana built a strong economy based on timber and minerals, along with agricultural crops such as corn, cotton, pecans, rice and soybeans,” Hendricks writes. “By 1952, the population was 40,490, with the Arkansas side reporting almost 16,000. By 1960, the Arkansas side had reached almost 20,000, and the total population was just more than 50,000.”

The establishment of a federal prison at Texarkana spurred additional growth. Texarkana, Ark., grew from 21,459 residents in the 1980 census to 29,919 people in 2010. Miller County had 43,462 residents in the 2010 census.

“Interstate 30 was completed through the area in the 1960s, and it was a double-edged sword,” writes Beverly Rowe of Texarkana College. “It brought many new businesses because of increased traffic and more efficient transportation of products to market. On the other hand, it took business away from Texarkana’s downtown, causing merchants to create what in essence was a new town along the interstate corridor. Since 1968, downtown buildings in Texarkana have deteriorated and businesses have closed. Perhaps the most vibrant businesses are the jails, law offices and bail bondsmen’s shops.

“Smaller Miller County towns such as Doddridge, Fouke, Garland and Genoa have continued to shrink while Texarkana’s city limits are pushing out on all sides. … Interstate 30 negatively affected passenger railroad traffic. In past decades, as many as nine railway companies served the area, using Texarkana’s Union Depot as the main station. Today, freight trains provide most of the railway traffic.”

The good news is that there seems to be a renewed effort to revitalize downtown Texarkana.

The most prominent current development is the restoration of the Hotel Grim, which was built in 1925. The building contains 103,200 square feet. When it was built, the eight-story structure was the second tallest building in the area. The development will feature commercial space on the first floor and apartment units on the other floors.

Texarkana also has embarked on what’s known as the Courthouse Square Initiative, the goal of which is to make improvements around the federal courthouse downtown. Fennell Purifoy Architects have created renderings of an area that will feature additional green space and enhanced walkability. Texarkana business and civic leaders eventually want to make improvements all the way down State Line Avenue to Interstate 30.

Despite the pandemic and current economic recession, an announcement was made in May that the former Texarkana National Bank building on the corner of State Line Avenue and Broad Street will be renovated. The redevelopment effort is being spearheaded by Texarkana Renewal Properties, led by David Peavy. The building will be redeveloped into apartments and condominiums, as well as overnight and extended-stay units. There also will be space for retail establishments and offices.

According to a news release from the developer: “The railroads founded our cities, but the wealth came from the timber. Virgin forest and a railroad transportation system combined to create prosperity in Texarkana. As the pine trees stopped several miles west of Texarkana and the trees became shorter and twisted, Dallas and other cities welcomed the opportunity to buy lumber from Texarkana timber barons. The Buchanans, the Cabes, the Bottoms, the Foukes and bankers like W.R. Grim created wealth from three critical essentials — an abundance of trees, transportation through the railroads and the great need for lumber in growing areas to the west.

“That great wealth was stored in Texarkana banks, most notably State First National Bank in Arkansas and Texarkana National Bank in Texas, one directly across the street from the other. State First National Bank was located on the first block of Broad Street in Arkansas, and Texarkana National Bank on the first block of Broad in Texas. This was the beginning of the competition between these banks. State Bank built a massive five-story bank and office building in 1904. In 1914, Texarkana Bank built an eight-story building directly across the street. In 1925, Texarkana Bank added an addition that doubled its size. The banking lobby was so ornate it might have reminded you of a palace with marble, granite, beautiful columns and ornate plaster molding.

“Each building made improvements through the years. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the competition intensified. State Bank built a new bank building blocks away. Texarkana Bank modernized its building with a huge renovation. It installed a new facade on the exterior and added new interiors. Lay-in ceilings covered the ornate plaster work, carpet covered the 1914 tile and new sheetrock covered the early-century woodwork.”

Now, those original elements will again be featured.

The trip would not be complete without ending with dinner at Cattleman’s Steak House, which is on the Arkansas side of State Line Avenue. It was one of just three restaurants inducted earlier this year into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame. It was founded by Roy Oliver more than half a century ago when State Line was still a two-lane road. In addition to the steaks, there’s seafood, quail, frog legs and other specialties that have had residents of Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma coming to the family-owned restaurant for decades.

As far as I know, it’s the only restaurant in Arkansas that has calf fries and turkey fries (if you don’t know what they are, you might want to ask before you order) on the menu. I usually get calf fries for an appetizer. For my main course, I order a chicken fried steak with one fried quail on the side.

We’ve done it. We’ve gone from Mississippi to Texas using only one highway, U.S. Highway 82.

Crossing the Red River

Monday, June 22nd, 2020


We cross the Red River as we continue west on U.S. Highway 82 and enter the community of Garland, which often is referred to by people in this area as Garland City.

I consider this the Fried Catfish Capital of Southwest Arkansas due to the presence of two restaurants — Doc’s and Westshore — that attract catfish eaters from all over this part of the state.

“The first and most famous resident of the area was William Wynn, who arrived at the banks of the Red River and established a farm around 1835,” writes Steven Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “At that time, confusion about the border between Arkansas and Texas and uncertainty about the size of Miller County resulted in many records placing Wynn’s land in Lafayette County. Wynn bought many acres of land, on which he grew cotton and other crops. By 1850, according to census records, he owned 96 slaves.

“Early in the 1850s, surveyors for the Mississippi, Ouachita & Red River Railroad planned a crossing of the Red River at Wynn’s plantation. Tracks had not yet been completed that far west when Wynn died in 1857. The Civil War then delayed construction of the railroad. Finally, by 1881, the St. Louis & Southwestern Railway (often called the Cotton Belt) built the proposed track, including a bridge across the Red River. A post office was established at the depot next to the bridge in 1883. It’s not known why the name Garland was designated.”

Farm and railroad workers made Garland home in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The town grew from 277 residents in the 1910 census to 425 by 1930. The city of Garland was incorporated in 1904.

“In the 1920s, the state of Arkansas began to plan highways for motor traffic to link the various parts of the state,” Teske writes. “Arkansas Highway 2 was developed to run parallel to the border of Arkansas and Louisiana, connecting Texarkana with Lake Village. A bridge across the Red River was built in Garland a short distance north of the railroad bridge. Originally a gravel road, Highway 2 was paved by 1932. The next year, it was re-designated U.S. Highway 82.

“Garland was guided through the Great Depression in part by local businesswoman Charline Person, who had managed a nearby 5,000-acre plantation since her husband’s death in 1911. In 1926, she was featured at the Women’s National Exposition in St. Louis. During the economic collapse, she took charge of soliciting and distributing goods as needed, as well as helping to raise funds to build the Garland Community Church.”

She was born Charline Woodford Beasley in December 1876 at Lewisville. She was almost 17 years old when she married Levin King Person Jr., who was 14 years older, in 1893. The couple had three children. Levin Person died following a stroke in January 1911.

“By 1914, Charline Person was heavily in debt, the property was run down and her workers were going hungry,” Colin Edward Woodward writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Miss Charline, as she was known, had no business experience. It was said that she had never even signed a check before having to take over the plantation. However, with prices rising during World War I, Person began making money in the cotton trade. By the mid-1920s, she had more than 100 families working for her, including white, African-American and Mexican laborers. In December 1925, a representative of the Cotton Belt wrote to her, saying that she was the most successful woman he knew of on the Cotton Belt system.

“In February 1926, Person was featured at the Women’s National Exposition. In honor of Person’s accomplishments, the railway constructed an exhibit showing a miniature field of cotton with several bales in the background. Person attended the exhibit as the Cotton Belt’s representative (the only woman from Arkansas so chosen). In a circular issued by the Cotton Belt concerning the St. Louis exposition, it was reported that Person was doing half a million dollars in business every year. She was called a woman of ‘dynamic and wide influence’ and the ‘most prominent woman cotton planter in Arkansas.'”

In addition to running the plantation, Person operated a general store in Garland.

“She also did her own housekeeping, raised chickens and tended a garden,” Woodward writes. “She rode on horseback with the overseers who handled the details of plantation management. By the mid-1920s, she was making her rounds in an automobile. In addition to her cotton land, she also had property devoted to timber and pecan trees. … Person ran a ferry across the Red River from Garland, was president of the Garland Levee District, served as secretary of Drainage District No. 2, was a majority stockholder of a cotton gin and directed the Bank of Garland. She assisted Henderson-Brown College at Arkadelphia when it almost closed due to lack of funds and was also active in the Red Cross.”

Person died at Texarkana in March 1951. She is buried at Lewisville next to her husband.

“After World War II, improvements to the highway resulted in new stretches of pavement for Highway 82, although the same bridge crossing was used,” Teske writes. “A portion of the older highway, three-quarters of a mile in length, has been preserved near Garland and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The population of Garland has fluctuated, growing during the Great Depression, then slowly declining, surging to more than 600 in 1980 before dropping back below 300 by 2010. The latter figure includes 67 white citizens and 174 African-American citizens.”

When Americans think of the Red River, many of them think about the border between Oklahoma and Texas. But the river has had a big influence on southwest Arkansas through the decades. The Red begins in the Texas Panhandle and flows east for almost 1,290 miles.

“In southwestern Arkansas near Fulton in Hempstead County, the Red River takes a decidedly southern turn before entering Louisiana, where it flows southeasterly before emptying into the Atchafalaya River,” writes Arkansas historian Guy Lancaster. “Although only about 180 miles of the Red River touches upon or passes through Arkansas, it has had a major impact upon the people of southwestern Arkansas. … Until the late 19th century, the Red River’s utility as a transportation corridor between the Mississippi River and points west of present-day Shreveport was impeded by the Great Raft, an enormous logjam that clogged the lower part of the river, extending to more than 130 miles at one point.

“The raft likely existed for hundreds of years. It was so old that, according to some sources, it actually became a part of Caddo mythology. In 1828, Congress set aside $25,000 for the raft’s removal, and Capt. Henry Miller Shreve, then serving as the superintendent of Western River Improvements, was assigned the task of clearing the raft. In 1838, he completed the task, though it re-formed farther up the river soon thereafter and eventually extended to the Arkansas border. Congress hesitated in setting aside more money for the clearance project, with many members feeling it to be a lost cause.”

Shreve, a steamboat captain and inventor, also used his snagboat to clear obstructions on the Arkansas River between Pine Bluff and Little Rock.

Shreve was born in New Jersey in October 1785. He spent much of his youth on rivers after his father moved the family to western Pennsylvania. He bought his first keelboat in 1807 and began hauling furs from St. Louis to Pittsburgh.

“In 1810, he set out for the lead mines run by the Sauk and Fox Indians on the Galena River,” Janet Brantley writes in “Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives.” “The first American to pilot a keelboat so far up the Mississippi system, Shreve struck a deal with the Indians and carried lead from the mines to New Orleans. Shreve married Mary Blair in 1811, and they had three children. The young husband was also married to the waters, and Mary spent a great deal of time raising their children alone.

“Shreve watched with interest as the Fulton-Livingston group inaugurated steamboat trade on the Mississippi. He soon became convinced that the design of Robert Fulton’s boat would not work well since the Mississippi and other rivers in the area were much shallower than those in the eastern part of the United States. Fulton’s design simply sat too deep in these shallow waters, and his boats frequently ran aground, with sometimes tragic results.”

Shreve invested in a steamboat with a flatter bottom and wider girth. His first boat of this style was the Enterprise, which left for New Orleans in 1814.

“His success encouraged him to design a steamboat even better adapted to the Mississippi,” Brantley writes. “The Washington had an even lower, shallower hull, two decks and twin smokestacks, a design that became the standard on inland waters. Perhaps the success of Shreve’s design, when compared to the problems of Fulton’s steamboats outside Eastern rivers, contributed to Shreve’s success when he mounted a legal challenge to the Fulton-Livingston monopoly on government contracts for shipping on the lower Mississippi in Louisiana.”

Shreve was named superintendent of Western River Improvements in January 1827. By 1829, he was clearing obstructions on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. By the early 1830s, he was at work on the Arkansas River.

“Like other inland rivers, the Arkansas was subject to cave-ins, as the natives called these periodic events,” Brantley writes. “During spring rains, runoff from fields into the rivers caused large chunks of soil along the riverbanks to fall into the streams, carrying saplings and even large trees along. Over time, this resulted in logjams that made navigation difficult, if not impossible. A congressional act in 1832 designated $15,000 for work on the Arkansas, noting that snagboats would be necessary to clear out the debris.

“Shreve supplied two snagboats, three machine boats and a steamboat. He made it from Pine Bluff to Little Rock by Feb. 22, 1834, and then did additional clearing above the capital city. In all, workers cleared 4,907 obstructions from the Arkansas. By some accounts, this averaged one snag every 88 yards. His work on the Arkansas River contributed to the success of steamboat travel and trade in Arkansas as the Arkansas River became effectively tied to the country’s main transportation artery, the mighty Mississippi.”

Clearing the Great Raft on the Red River, though, will always be the work Shreve is best known for. He worked to clear almost 200 miles of obstructions.

“The work was difficult, and the raft was so solid in places that new trees grew from the driftwood that accumulated in the middle of the riverbed,” Brantley writes. “A congressional report later described this work: ‘One snag raised by the Heliopolis contained 1,600 cubic feet of timber and could not have weighed less than 60 tons.’ Shreve was working on the raft in northern Louisiana in 1836 when local entrepreneurs incorporated a new town on the banks of the now free-flowing Red. They named the town Shreveport in gratitude for his efforts in clearing the raft.

“Shreve remained superintendent until 1841, when he was relieved of his appointed office by the new Whig administration. At the end of his term, he was in charge of five snagboats, the last of which was named the Henry M. Shreve. Shreve moved to St. Louis, where he farmed and repeatedly, if futilely, petitioned the federal government for compensation for his invention of the snagboat. Despite the findings of various committees that his work had saved the government hundreds of thousands of dollars, Congress never appropriated adequate compensation for Shreve, and he died without having reached agreement with the government.”

Shreve died in March 1851 and is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, which overlooks the Mississippi River at St. Louis.

In 1873, the second Red River raft was removed under the direction of Lt. Eugene Woodruff.

“Dams were placed along bayous emptying into the river to prevent any raft from re-forming,” Lancaster writes. “Despite the eventual clearing of the river, however, no major towns in Arkansas were established upon the Red, though Texarkana, Hope and Lewisville all lie at a few miles’ remove. Until 1900, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers straightened the channel of the river, with the result that steamboat traffic increased as boats were able to transport goods from the mouth of the Mississippi River through Arkansas and into Texas and Oklahoma and back again. For the whole of the year, the river was navigable to Garland, where the Cotton Belt crossed the river. This railroad — as well as the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway, which crossed the Red River at Fulton — provided stiff competition for steamboats, soon replacing them entirely.”

The federal Flood Control Act of 1938 authorized the Corps of Engineers to construct a dam on the Red River near Denison, Texas.

“After the Flood Control Act of 1946, the Corps of Engineers began a fairly constant spate of work on the river, including a variety of canals and locks and dams,” Lancaster writes. “In 1978, representatives of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana signed the Red River Compact, which provides an apportionment of the waters of the river to the four signatories as well as a means for conserving and protecting it.”

As we entered Garland, we also entered historic Miller County. Beverly Rowe describes it this way for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Miller County’s location in southwest Arkansas made it the Gateway to the Southwestern United States through its rivers, stagecoach roads and Native American trails. It is an area of flat plains and gentle hills with an abundance of pine and hardwood forests. The northern and eastern border is marked by the meandering Red River. The rich soil grows cotton, sorghum, rice, corn and other crops.”

The Arkansas Territorial Legislature established the first Miller County in April 1820. It also included parts of what are now Bowie, Cass, Delta, Fannin, Franklin, Hopkins, Hunt, Lamar, Morris, Red River and Titus counties in Texas.

“Miller County was part of the disputed Horse’s Head area of northeast Texas and southwest Arkansas, too far north for Mexico to control well and too far west for the United States to control well,” Rowe writes. “While it was technically under Mexican jurisdiction, it truly was not under any country’s control. The county was named for territorial Gov. James Miller, a native of New Hampshire. The first county seat was in the John Hall house in the Gilliland settlement. The county’s establishment was problematic because Mexico claimed much of east Texas.

“Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1836, and the first Miller County was abolished two years later. Gov. James Conway said the easiest solution would be to abolish the county and remove its record to a ‘more patriotic’ area — that is, in the United States. Until 1874, area settlers found themselves included in Lafayette County. The first Miller County had five post offices by 1835. There were at Jonesborough, McKinneyville, Mill Creek, Spanish Bluffs and Sulphur Fork. The southeastern United States provided the largest number of settlers to the area during this time as disheartened citizens of the old Confederacy moved west after the Civil War. One of the county’s earliest towns, Rondo, east of Texarkana, was founded before the war by Dr. L.C. Cully on land originally owned by James Sanders Trigg, who had been educated in France. Trigg named the town after the French game of chance known as rondeau.”

We’re in the cleared bottomlands of the Red River now, an area of row-crop agriculture that looks much like the Arkansas Delta far to the east. It’s time to get to Texarkana and end this trip across south Arkansas on U.S. Highway 82.


From Magnolia to the Red

Tuesday, June 16th, 2020


We leave Magnolia, continuing our trip west on U.S. Highway 82 across south Arkansas.

Before departing Columbia County, we pass just south of Waldo. Like many of the small towns in this part of the state, it came to life during the period of railroad construction in the 1880s.

“Waldo owes its founding and development to the construction of the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railroad into the surrounding timberlands in 1883,” writes Arkansas historian Mike Polston. “At that time, Lamartine in Columbia County was a thriving town in the area. But when the tracks were put down almost three miles to the south, citizens began to move there, with businesses soon to follow. Once the Lamartine post office was relocated along the tracks, it became a regular stop. The railroad company purchased 26 acres of land south of the tracks, organizing a subsidiary known as the Southwestern Improvement Association. Local landowner and businessman Dave Dixon donated additional tracts on the north side of the tracks. The area was surveyed into 96 business lots with equal numbers on each side of the tracks. The survey also included 120 residential lots.

“The city, which was named after a railway officer in 1884, was incorporated on Aug. 13, 1888. While the business sector initially developed on the south side of the tracks, by 1890 it had also spread to the north. Caspar Pace opened the first general store and also served as the first postmaster. This enterprise was soon followed by others opened by W. Starling and W.O. Benton. Much of the city’s early growth was prompted by the opening of the Neimeyer Lumber Co. in 1887, soon to be followed by other operations. At its peak in the 1890s, the area timberlands supported seven timber-based companies.”

The Bank of Waldo opened in 1899. Eleven years later, the Peoples Bank opened. The first newspaper began publishing in 1891.

“The town prospered in the early 20th century, and by the 1920s had a population of more than 700,” Polston writes. “The city was home to a number of mercantile businesses, a fertilizer works and a flour mill. … Large quantities of lumber and shingles were shipped from the local depot.”

Another wave of prosperity occurred when oil and gas exploration began in Columbia County in the late 1930s. The industry remained strong through the 1950s. In 1974, what was then Deltic Timber Co. opened a large mill at Waldo.

As is the case with many towns in rural south Arkansas, Waldo has experienced population declines in recent decades. The population fell from 1,722 in the 1960 census to 1,372 in the 2010 census. The Waldo School District was consolidated into the Magnolia School District in 2005.

We cross into Lafayette County, which is one of the smallest counties in the state from a population standpoint. The county peaked in population at 16,934 in the 1940 census and was down to just 7,645 residents by the 2010 census.

Lafayette County was carved out of part of Hempstead County in 1827. This area was the home of James Sevier Conway, the state’s first governor.

“The displacement of thousands of farmers by the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12 contributed to the settlement of Louisiana Purchase lands,” Glynn McCalman writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The quakes and war prompted President James Monroe in 1815 to survey and offer lands from the purchase to veterans and displaced farmers. He chose surveyor William Rector to direct the office at St. Louis, with responsibility for all U.S. lands west of the Mississippi River. Rector’s nephews, Henry Conway and James Sevier Conway, participated in the surveys. One result was that James Conway acquired hundreds of acres of fertile land along the Red River as part of what was called Long Prairie.

“Before James Conway settled on the prairie, however, a small caravan of post-War of 1812 pioneers on flatboats had arrived in 1819. In addition to their origin in Wilson County, Tennessee, a few miles east of Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, and their recent service in the War of 1812, they were bonded by intermarriage. East Tennessean James Conway would also marry one of them. One leader of the group was Col. James Bradley, who in 1813 had been ordered by Jackson to lead his troops to Natchez, Miss, for the defense of the ‘southern country.’ Thomas Dooley also served at New Orleans, and his name appears several times in Jackson’s documents at the Hermitage. George Duty served in the War of 1812 and lived a few miles from the Hermitage. William Crabtree Sr. was a resident of middle Tennessee and also served in the war.”

Life was tough on Long Prairie in those early years due to unhappy Caddo Indians, inadequate medical care and often harsh weather. James Conway married Polly Bradley in 1826. By then, much of the original group had moved east to what’s now Bradley County.

“The remnant on Long Prairie persevered, however,” McCalman writes. “In 1827, Lafayette County was formed out of Hempstead. Its original borders were the Ouachita River on the east, Louisiana on the south, Hempstead County to the north and Texas on the west. It was named for the Marquis de Lafayette, a French ally of the United States in the Revolutionary War. Although the initial settlers were from Tennessee, most of the county’s later settlers had more Southern roots. The extreme southeastern part of the county is even now sometimes referred to as the Alabama settlement. Many of Lafayette County’s pioneers owned slaves. Old deeds in the courthouse at Lewisville mostly record only the first names of the transferees and ignore the reality that among the ‘property’ were enslaved human beings.”

Though there wasn’t significant fighting in the county during the Civil War, residents suffered economically. Many were broke when the war ended.

“The post-slavery era resulted in the dissolution of several huge plantations into smaller acreage tracts owned and farmed by families,” McCalman writes. “A few former slaves were included among the new landowners, though their share of the land was relatively small, never attaining a proportionate share of the total. Land title abstracts of the era demonstrate the efforts of the large planters to retain their holdings with diminishing success. Families eagerly purchased, often with mortgages, small portions of the former plantations and sustained themselves with diversified production. Though cotton was the main cash crop, they also produced edible grains, hay for livestock, cane for sweetening and vegetable gardens.”

The advent of the railroads in the late 1800s allowed crops and timber to be shipped more easily from the county.

“During much of the 19th century, residents tried to rely on the Red River for heavy hauling, but they were hampered by the extensive and persistent logjam called the Great Raft,” McCalman writes. “From time to time during the second half of the century, the Great Raft was periodically declared cleared, especially after the work of snagboat engineer Henry Shreve. But it continued to be a nemesis until the river was mostly replaced as a means of transportation by the railroad.

“Although the Cotton Belt rail system reduced the need for some big-ticket retail stores in the county’s towns, better transportation increased the profitability of farming and timber harvest. It also dramatically reduced travel time to Shreveport, Texarkana and elsewhere. Cotton was brought from the gins to the rails, and impressive sawmills rose by the tracks at Stamps, Frostville, Canfield, Arkana and other communities. Residents of the county’s neighboring communities also recognized the railroad’s enhancement of the area. Several families came from Columbia County. Others came from Bossier Parish in Louisiana. Farmers from southern Miller County poured onto Long Prairie, especially into the Canal and Pleasant Valley communities.”

The county started to lose population due to the Great Depression, World War II and the mechanization of agriculture after the war.

“Young people, especially non-whites, began to imagine careers other than as cotton pickers or timber workers, so they migrated to Chicago, Detroit, California and elsewhere,” McCalman writes. “The population began to decline to a 19th-century level. Recent decades have seen a reduction of family farms and a return to large plantations, and more acreage devoted to pine timber. Contracted poultry production has also grown, especially in the northern part of the county.”

Our route on U.S. 82 takes us through the two largest towns in the county, Stamps and Lewisville.

Stamps, the childhood home of legendary writer Maya Angelou, got its start as a lumber town on the railroad. It has bled population in recent years, falling from 2,859 residents in the 1980 census to 1,693 residents in the 2010 census.

“Hardy James Stamps came to Lafayette County from Georgia in 1880 to operate the Bodcaw Lumber Co. mill,” writes Steven Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “When a post office was established at the settlement surrounding the mill in 1888, it was named for Stamps. The first postmistress at that location was Ella Crowell, Stamps’ daughter. The Louisiana & Arkansas Railroad was incorporated in Arkansas in March 1898 by William Buchanan of the Bodcaw Lumber Co. at Stamps. The town was initially home to the principal shops of the railway.”

The railroad eventually extended from Hope in the north to Louisiana. Stamps was incorporated in 1898.

“The Bodcaw sawmill expanded until it was reputedly the largest sawmill for yellow pine in the world,” Teske writes. “The mill pond, Lake June, covered almost 100 acres. The company store offered groceries, men’s and women’s clothing and hardware. The hardware division even sold coffins. A church, built at the end of the 19th century, was shared by several congregations until the Presbyterians erected their own building in the early 1900s.”

Stamps was hurt when the offices of the Louisiana & Arkansas moved to Minden, La., in 1923. The railroad eventually was acquired by the Kansas City Southern Railroad. Arkansas Power & Light Co. (now Entergy Arkansas) built a natural gas-fueled power plant at Stamps that provided some jobs in the 1940s. The plant was expanded in 1952, the same year the McAlester Fuel Co. drilled an oil well near Stamps.

Angelou was born in St. Louis in 1928 but spent much of her childhood in Stamps, where she was raised by a grandmother and uncle. Her novel “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is partially set in Stamps. The city renamed its park in her honor in 2014.

Lewisville, which is only about five miles to the west, is the county seat.

Lewis Barnes Fort bought land in the area in July 1836 after moving from Virginia. The resulting settlement was named Lewisville in his honor.

In 1828, the first Lafayette County courthouse had been built 10 miles southwest of Lewisville on the Red River. The second courthouse was built at Lewisville in 1841. Many of the landowners owned slaves at that time. Slaves outnumbered free whites in 1850.

“In 1882, the Cotton Belt Railroad built a line between Pine Bluff and Texarkana that passed two miles south of Lewisville,” Teske writes. “In 1888, the railroad added a line that began near Lewisville and ran south to Shreveport. A second line from Lewisville ran into Louisiana, built by the Louisiana & Arkansas Railroad. This line also chose the site south of downtown for its station. As a result, new homes and businesses were constructed closer to the station, until the entire town had moved. Since that time, residents speak of Old Lewisville and New Lewisville to distinguish the earlier settlement from the one prompted by the railroads.

“A new courthouse was built in New Lewisville in 1890. It was replaced by a newer courthouse in 1904, which in turn was replaced in 1940. The first bank in the county, Citizens Bank, was established at Lewisville in 1893 but lasted only a few years.”

The Works Progress Administration was responsible for the 1940 courthouse. Lewisville is now about 55 percent black, 42 percent white and 3 percent Hispanic. The population fell from 1,653 in the 1970 census to 1,280 in the 2010 census.

Arkansans often would read about Lewisville back when Ernie Deane was writing the “Arkansas Traveler” column for the Arkansas Gazette. Deane was born at Lewisville in October 1911 to railroad engineer Ernest Deane and Mabel Drew Deane. He attended public schools at Lewisville and Texarkana before receiving his bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1934 from the University of Arkansas, where he served as editor of the school newspaper. Deane received his master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University in Illinois in 1935. He joined the Gazette in 1956 and stayed at the Little Rock newspaper until the late 1960s, when he moved to Fayetteville. Deane taught journalism at his alma mater from 1968-76 and died in May 1991.

The Ernie Deane Award is presented annually by the University of Arkansas to the journalist or writer whose work “best exemplifies the spirit, style and courage of Ernie Deane.”

We don’t leave Lewisville without the obligatory stop at the original location of Burge’s. Alden Burge, who originally was from Louisiana, came to the area to work in the oil and gas industry. In 1953, he began smoking turkeys in a backyard smokehouse and supplying them to friends. He soon was also smoking chickens and selling meals on Friday nights before high school football games.

In 1962, the Burge family opened their restaurant in a former dairy bar. The smoked meats are shipped across the country. Burge’s, which also has a location at Little Rock, was inducted into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame in 2018.

According to the Burge’s website, “Along with his wife Margaret and their three children, Alden sold barbecue, burgers and ice cream. It was a family affair. They enjoyed providing a special level of service, like serving barbecued goat and homemade peppermint ice cream, as well as fireworks, on the Fourth of July. Alden continued to smoke his turkeys for the holidays. And while always delicious, some of them fell apart because they were so tender. By word of mouth, business grew, and he started shipping turkeys and hams through the mail to customers outside of the area.”

With the turkey sandwich and cherry limeade finished, it’s time to continue the trip west and cross the Red River.

Mulerider pride

Monday, June 15th, 2020


I’ll admit my bias on the front end. Trey Berry and I grew up together at Arkadelphia. Our parents were friends. Trey and I have been friends for longer than we care to admit.

I don’t make it a habit of writing columns about old friends, but what has been going on at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia in recent years deserves some coverage. Berry is the SAU president, and the school he heads has been one of the fastest-growing institutions of higher education in this part of the country since he became president in 2015. What’s truly amazing is that the growth came at a time when many small colleges across the country were struggling. It also has taken place in far south Arkansas, an area of the state that has suffered economically for decades.

Berry, who ranks among this state’s top historians, came to SAU in 2011 as professor of history and dean of the College of Liberal and Performing Arts. After just a year, he was promoted to provost and vice president for academic affairs. Before moving to Magnolia, Berry spent 18 years at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, two years at the University of Arkansas at Monticello and two years as deputy director of what was then the Department of Arkansas Heritage in Little Rock (now part of the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism).

In February 2015, it was announced that Berry would replace the school’s popular president, David Rankin, who was retiring the following July.

“Dr. Rankin has set us up in such a good way for the future,” Berry said at the time. “Now we have to shift gears and focus on people, planning, programs and philanthropy. We have to raise money for this institution.”

As an expert on the history of south Arkansas, Berry knew how important it was to strengthen ties with residents of Magnolia and surrounding communities.

“We need each other,” he said.

Upon his arrival in Magnolia, Berry plunged into civic activities. He joined the Rotary Club and also served on the boards of the Golden Triangle Economic Development Council and the Magnolia-Columbia County Chamber of Commerce. Bobbie Ruth Webb of Magnolia donated to the school a downtown building that had been in her family for more than a century. Her grandfather, K.S. Couch, opened a grocery store on the courthouse square in the early 1900s. Berry turned the building into a university retail store and an event space to further ties to the community.

Back on campus, two additional dorms opened at the start of the 2016-17 school year and two more dorms (one in a converted skating rink) opened the following school year. Berry says his biggest challenge during his first several years as president was “keeping up with the growth and all it entails.”

Berry says that when Rankin was president, the school began trying to determine what areas of study might be popular during the next decade. Programs that were added include engineering, game design and animation, musical theater, cybersecurity and marine and wildlife biology. The academic expansion was coupled with an aggressive marketing campaign. SAU recruits the booming Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area and hired a full-time staff member to live in that region.

Crippling budget cuts at colleges and universities in Louisiana and Oklahoma caused students in those states to look elsewhere. Some ended up at SAU. Marketing efforts also picked up in central Arkansas. And due to the popularity of programs such as a master’s degree in computer science, the number of international students grew.

“We’re seen as a place that’s affordable and student friendly,” Berry says. “Our faculty and staff have open-door policies. These things have worked together to create a sense of momentum here. That momentum breeds additional momentum. We’re not in a town with four-lane highway access, but we decided to make ourselves a destination despite that shortcoming. We have a strong social media presence. A lot of students these days surf the web to find programs that interest them and are affordable. That’s why we have students from so many states and countries. If you can get two or three students from a high school and they have a great experience, the word will get out. Kids spread the word, and it just continues to build.”

Rankin oversaw a $100 million construction effort when he was president. The enrollment growth has meant that Berry also must keep construction crews busy.

With the growth of SAU has come continued growth in the neighborhoods surrounding the school and in downtown Magnolia. On the trip across south Arkansas on U.S. Highway 82, Berry hosted me for the better part of a day in Magnolia. One of the places we went was Mule Kick on North Jackson Street. All I could think was this: “It’s something I would expect to find in a much larger town.”

There was ice cream from Loblolly Creamery in Little Rock. There was an extensive collection of Arkansas craft beers from breweries such as Bike Rack, Core, Lost Forty, Diamond Bear, Ozark, Rebel Kettle and Superior Bathhouse. There were specially sourced coffees, pizzas, salads, homemade pastries and more. I heard about Vinyl Night each Monday, Trivia Night each Wednesday and the groups of students who would walk over from the SAU campus in those days prior to the pandemic.

In an era when much of south Arkansas is losing population, Magnolia has a different feel. Since 1990, nearby El Dorado has seen its population drop from 23,000 to 18,000 despite the tens of millions of dollars spent on initiatives such as the El Dorado Promise scholarship program and the Murphy Arts District.

During that same period, Camden’s population has dropped from 15,000 to 11,000. Magnolia, meanwhile, has held its own. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the population has increased slightly from 11,300 to 11,500 since the 2010 census. In south Arkansas these days, holding your own is a victory.

Berry has made SAU an economic and cultural engine for south Arkansas. He hails from a college town (Arkadelphia) and understands the importance of a four-year university to a community. It’s why he was insistent on opening the SAU Beyond the Campus store on the downtown square. The same person who designed the courthouse square at Magnolia designed the square in booming Oxford, Miss. Berry, who earned his master’s degree and doctorate from Ole Miss, saw how the energy of the Oxford square helped school officials there when it came to recruiting students. Along with SAU, a strength of Magnolia is that it still has a vibrant downtown business district.

The SAU store is in a 3,400-square-foot building. It carries products and apparel promoting the Mulerider brand. The front half of the building is devoted to retail. The back half has a meeting room with a full kitchen that can be leased for various activities. Webb, who donated the building, was a 1949 graduate. Graduate students manage the store, which opened in August 2018. They learn skills such as supply chain management.

Along with connecting to the community, a key to SAU’s success has been the establishment of programs that are popular with students. Our next stop was the engineering building, which was dedicated in October 2016. What had been an Arkansas National Guard armory was given to the university in 2015. That led to a $1.4 million renovation project. The building houses the only accredited engineering program south of Little Rock. The program, which started in the fall of 2014, has seen steady enrollment growth. There are now about 220 engineering majors, and Berry says the program places 100 percent of its graduates in jobs.

The interior of the facility was named for Robert and Edna Cook Norvell. Edna Norvell gave $1 million to the school to honor those who had helped her at what was known as Magnolia A&M when she was a student. Areas of emphasis for the SAU engineering program include mechanical engineering, engineering technology and a welding engineering technology program that’s one of the few of its kind in the country. The program provides highly skilled welding supervisors for the region’s defense, aerospace and oil and gas industries.

Former Gov. Ben Laney, who died in 1977, spent his later years on a farm near Magnolia. The 700-acre farm was donated to SAU, and Berry has big plans for that property. Laney was governor from 1945-49.

“His most notable achievement was the state’s 1945 Revenue Stabilization Law, which prohibited deficit spending,” Tom Forgey writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Though he once said, ‘I’m not a politician,’ his conservative views put him in the spotlight at a time when the Democratic Party was becoming more liberal. Although he opposed desegregation, the University of Arkansas School of Law became the South’s first all-white public institution to admit black students during this tenure.”

Laney was born in November 1896 at Jones Chapel in Ouachita County. He was one of seven children, and his father was a farmer. Laney entered Hendrix College at Conway in 1915 but left the following year to teach. After having served in the U.S. Navy during World War I, he received a bachelor’s degree from what’s now the University of Central Arkansas at Conway in 1924. Laney worked in business and banking at Conway in 1925-26 and married Lucille Kirtley there in January 1926. The couple had three sons.

“In 1927, Laney returned to Ouachita County, where his business dealings included oil, banking, farming, cotton gins and retail stores,” Forgey writes. “He was the major of Camden from 1935-39 and a member of the Arkansas Penitentiary Board from 1941-44. His activities on behalf of John L. McClellan’s 1942 U.S. Senate bid solidified a friendship and political alliance. A relative unknown when he ran for the 1944 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, he had the support of conservative business and financial interests. His opponents were former Congressman David D. Terry and state Comptroller J. Bryan Sims.

“Sims withdrew 10 days before the election amid accusations of a negotiated deal, and Laney easily defeated Republican opponent H.C. Stump in the general election, as was the norm in this essentially one-party political era. His renomination and re-election in 1946 were effortless. The governor’s work on behalf of efficiency, economy and consolidation in state government and his encouragement of industrialization and broadly based economic development earned him the nickname Business Ben. These activities and his opposition to organized labor strengthened his ties with Arkansas business conservatives.

Laney pushed the Revenue Stabilization Law through the Legislature in 1945.

“Before 1945, appropriations were tied to specific taxes; as a result, some revenue streams came up short while others had more money than needed,” Forgey writes. “The new law created a single general fund from which all state appropriations were made and prohibited departments and institutions from spending if cash was not available. It also created an orderly system of budget cuts if the revenue was not available. In 1947, he successfully urged the Legislature to create a Legislative Council to provide research and bill-drafting assistance for Arkansas’ part-time legislators. However, Laney is remembered less for his streamlining of government structure and finance than for his opposition to proposals that would alter race relations and weaken or end segregation.

“Laney spoke out against progressive federal initiatives to outlaw lynching and the poll tax and quietly worked to prevent desegregation of state professional and higher education programs. Laney claimed that his actions were based on constitutional principles and states’ rights philosophy and not on racial considerations. But he had praised Arkansans as being close to what he described as good and pure Anglo-Saxon stock.”

Gunshots can be heard these days on the old Laney farm, which SAU is transforming into a world-class trapshooting facility. The school’s shooting team competes in the Association of College Unions International Collegiate Clay Targeting Program. When work is completed, the Laney farm will feature a clubhouse and three shooting ranges with each range consisting of five concrete lanes with high and low skeet houses.

It’s the same kind of innovative thinking that led SAU to establish a bass fishing team along with men’s and women’s disc golf teams. In what’s otherwise a grim period economically for south Arkansas, the SAU Muleriders are kicking it.

Last September, Farmers Bank & Trust of Magnolia donated $220,000 to help with construction of the facility.

“The impact of Farmers Bank & Trust is evident across our campus, from academic programs, to student scholarships, to our athletic programs,” Berry said at the time the gift was announced. “Trapshooting has become increasingly popular not only among youth. It’s also increasingly popular as a corporate event. The gift from Farmers benefits us all. SAU will be the only institution in the region for students to compete at the collegiate level, and our high schools benefit from having a facility to call home and both practice and host events. Companies and the community will be able to host events once the range is fully operational. This can really be a draw for visitors to Magnolia.”

More than 50 students signed up for the inaugural SAU team.

“Because of the commitment and dedication the sport requires, the caliber of students who shoot at this level is a perfect fit for SAU,” said Steve Crowell, the school’s trapshooting coach. “The clubhouse building and range will allow us to immediately become a force in recruiting on a national level. We’ve already had interest from students in New York, Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, Minnesota, South Dakota, California, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.”

Crowell grew up in southwestern Minnesota on a dairy, hog and crop farm. He has volunteered at every school in the Magnolia School District, served as a high school football referee and served on the city council.

Participants in the program must maintain a 2.0 grade point average for undergraduate students and a 3.0 grade point average for graduate students. Students have the opportunity to compete at the intramural level or the intercollegiate level. Students must provide their own guns, which are then stored in a secure campus location.

The school also features SAU eSports, which has been a hit among gamers. They live, study and practice together and then travel to competitions across the region. Their dedicated space on the second floor of the Reynolds Center has been expanded and has the latest in game technology so they can host tournaments. Meanwhile, the school’s disc golf teams compete in the national college championships. The bass fishing team was established in 2012 and also competes in tournaments across the country.

Berry sees it all as part of the plan to make SAU a center of activity for south Arkansas.

On to Magnolia

Tuesday, June 9th, 2020


We head west out of El Dorado on U.S. Highway 82 and soon find ourselves in Columbia County.

“Natural resources have been the mainstay of the Columbia County economy, from cotton in the 19th century; timber, oil and gas in the mid-20th century; and later bromine,” writes Mike McNeill of the online news site Magnolia Reporter. “The county’s fortunes have also been closely tied to the evolution of Southern Arkansas University. Columbia County, named after the female personification of America, wielded significant political influence in Arkansas during the first half of the 20th century with family and business ties to governors Thomas McRae, Sidney McMath and Ben T. Laney; Lt. Gov Lawrence E. Wilson; state Auditor T.C. Monroe; U.S. Reps. Robert Minor Wallace and Wade Kitchens; and businessman Harvey Couch. Columbia County is typified geographically by low, rolling hills and is heavily forested.”

White settlers began arriving in significant numbers after Arkansas became a state in 1836. In 1852, Columbia County was carved out of parts of Lafayette, Hempstead, Ouachita and Union counties. The county seat of Magnolia was incorporated in 1855.

“The early residents depended on an agricultural economy with cotton, and to a lesser extent corn, as a cash crop,” McNeill writes. “Some settlers brought slaves. Early tax records indicate that Columbia County had 1,675 slaves in a population of almost 6,000 in 1854. The first formal federal census of the county in 1860 showed a population of 12,449, of whom 3,599 were slaves. About 1,000 farms were in operation at that time. Columbia County played no significant role in the Civil War, although about 1,000 men did serve in the Confederate ranks. It’s estimated that about a third of the men never returned.”

Columbia County is the only county in the state not to have a river. It has never been an easy place to reach.

“The county’s creeks and bayous were more of an impediment than an aid to early travelers because they were too narrow and shallow to support water traffic,” McNeill writes. “The swampy conditions of the upper Dorcheat Bayou in Columbia County didn’t allow for practical use by boats. Rain made travel conditions worse. Only the arrival of railroads made it possible for Columbia County residents to enjoy a dependable, year-round transportation option.

“Plans made prior to the Civil War for the construction of a rail line fell through, and it wasn’t until the construction of the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railroad in the fall of 1882 that the first cotton was shipped from the county by railcar. The railroad led to the creation of the communities of McNeill (later McNeil) and later Waldo, which were incorporated in 1884 and 1888 respectively. Cut off from the planned railroad, civic leaders in Magnolia resolved to have a spur line built to the city. They pledged $6,000 in cash and property during a single meeting in 1881 and eventually raised more than $20,000 toward this goal. The branch was completed in 1883.”

Emerson and Taylor came to life in Columbia County as rail towns. The Louisiana & Northwest Railroad was a branch line from McNeil to Magnolia. It eventually was extended to Louisiana in 1899. Emerson was incorporated along the line in 1905. Meanwhile, the Louisiana & Arkansas Railroad was founded by William Buchanan, the owner of Bodcaw Lumber Co. It ran south from Stamps through Taylor. Harvey Couch was one of Buchanan’s partners and eventually gained control of the railroad. There was a post office at Taylor before the railroad was built, but the town wasn’t incorporated until 1913.

“Columbia County experienced a decline in farming and population during the Great Depression,” McNeill writes. “Its citizens suffered the same privations that the economic crisis presented for the rest of the nation. The discovery of producing oil and gas fields in the late 1930s led to positive changes almost overnight that continued into the 1950s. … The county’s population peaked at 29,822 in the 1940 census, almost 10 percent above the previous decade, a rate of growth not equaled since. The first blow of World War II struck Columbia County directly. Marine Private Carl Webb, a Waldo native, was killed aboard the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. Sixty Columbia County residents died in World War II.

“The war aided the development of industry in Columbia County beginning in 1942. A natural gas processing plant was built near the Macedonia community. A 130-mile pipeline linked sour gas fields in Columbia and Lafayette counties to an aluminum plant at Jones Mill in Hot Spring County. U.S. 79 in Columbia County received its first hard surface in the 1940s. The employment situation had changed so drastically by 1942 that County Judge J.B. McClurkin issued a proclamation saying that all able-bodied men who did not have jobs would be arrested for vagrancy.”

As in the rest of Arkansas, there was a move from rural areas to the county seat that intensified following World War II. Magnolia’s population more than doubled between 1940 and 1960.

“Housing construction filled in the two miles between downtown Magnolia and the SAU campus to the north,” McNeill writes. “This period also witnessed the construction of Magnolia’s two tallest buildings, the five-story McAlester Building and the five-story Magnolia Inn. Magnolia Airport was built with a hard-surface runway in 1953. Nine years of airline passenger service to Magnolia Airport ended in 1962 with the withdrawal of Trans-Texas Airways. The improvement of highways in the 1950s and 1960s led to the decline of Columbia County’s smaller communities as business centers as more retailers concentrated in Magnolia.

“The Peace and Columbia shopping centers were both in operation by the late 1960s. University Plaza shopping center arrived in 1979. Walmart, a presence in Magnolia since the 1960s, opened a Supercenter in 2003 on the U.S. 79-82 bypass. The Supercenter spurred a considerable amount of new business activity along the bypass, which had seen little retail business since its construction in the 1970s. … In November 2014, voters approved the sale of alcohol in the formerly dry county.”

Cotton was the chief crop in the county until well into the 20th century. There are now very few row crops grown in Columbia County.

“Offshoots from the cotton industry provided the area with its earliest trade and manufacturing base,” McNeill writes. “Chief among early manufacturing efforts was the organization by a consortium of local businessmen of the Magnolia Cotton Mill in 1928. It was the first textile mill in southwestern Arkansas and the largest manufacturer of any kind in Columbia County for many years. Functions and ownership of the mill changed through the decades, with the facility eventually becoming American Fuel Cells & Coated Fabric Co., or Amfuel. It employed about 300 people who chiefly manufactured fuel cells, mostly for military aircraft, before the company announced the closure of the plant in 2016.”

The Magnolia Oil Field was discovered on March 5, 1938.

“Gushing oil topped the Barnett No. 1 derrick,” McNeill writes. “This led almost overnight to the development of an oil and gas exploration industry within Columbia County that continues today. While the importance of oil and gas drilling declined steadily, a new natural resources industry arrived in the mid-1960s as chemical companies discovered the high bromine content of brine located thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface. Bromine is an element used in numerous chemical and manufacturing processes.

“On Jan. 18, 1966, Dow Chemical Co. broke ground for a bromine plant four miles west of Magnolia. A second plant soon followed (a joint venture of Ethyl Chemical Corp. and Great Lakes Chemical). Both plants eventually were consolidated under the ownership of Albemarle Corp., which owns dozens of brine wells and pipelines that crisscross Columbia and Union counties. Albemarle also operates three chemical plants in the two counties, the largest of which is located south of Magnolia. The company employs more than 700 regular and contract workers in southern Arkansas.”

Though the oil and gas industry has declined, the timber industry remains important in the area. But the real driver of the economy continues to be the presence of Southern Arkansas University.

“Higher education in Columbia County became a reality with an act of the 1909 Arkansas General Assembly, which authorized four agricultural high schools in the state, combining training in agriculture with high school-level courses,” McNeill writes. “County residents offered the state an inducement of $50,000 plus 390 acres just north of Magnolia for what became known as the Third District Agricultural School. The first classes were held on Jan. 11, 1911. The General Assembly authorized the Third District Agricultural School to become a junior college, and in 1925, the school was renamed Third District Agricultural & Mechanical College. High school courses were dropped in 1937, and in 1949, the school became a four-year institution.

“The named was changed to Southern State College in 1951. SSC was renamed Southern Arkansas University in 1976. SAU now has more than 3,000 graduate and undergraduate students. It’s best known for its degree programs in business administration, agricultural education, elementary and secondary education and nursing.”

Magnolia had 11,588 residents in the 2010 census, down slightly from the 11,909 recorded in 1980. When Columbia County was created, the first court met at a store in a swampy place called Frog Level. Three commissioners were appointed to find the geographical center of the county to establish a county seat.

“The geographical center ended up being in the bottoms of Big Creek, even lower than Frog Level, and so the site for the county seat was moved one mile to the east,” according to the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “On June 21, 1853, J.J. Thomas and John L. McCarty deeded the land on which the city was established, and a one-room log cabin was built to serve as a temporary courthouse. The commissioners were at a loss as to what to name the new city until, at a dinner with local planter R.G. Harper, the planter’s daughter suggested the name of Magnolia. According to another source, commissioner Norborn Young asked his fiancee to suggest a name for the  city and misunderstood her when she replied ‘Peoria.’ The absence of any actual magnolia trees didn’t keep the name from sticking.”

Col. M.G. Kelso, who surveyed and laid out the city, modeled it after Oxford, Miss., which he had also surveyed. In 1856, one year after the city was incorporated, a log courthouse was replaced by a larger frame structure. Before the railroad arrived, cotton was hauled from Magnolia to Camden to be shipped down the Ouachita River or to Shreveport to be shipped down the Red River. When what eventually would become the Cotton Belt bypassed Magnolia, the city leaders raised the money for the previously mentioned railroad spur.

The city’s phone system was established in 1899. Construction of a new courthouse was completed in 1906, three years prior to the establishment of the Third District Agricultural School. In 1939, a hospital was built as part of a Works Progress Administration project. The Civilian Conservation Corps was also active in the area. The camp later was used by the National Youth Administration. During World War II, it was used to house conscientious objectors under the name Camp Magnolia. It remained in use until a tornado destroyed it on April 10, 1945.

Magnolia had a history of being an education center long before the Third District Agricultural School was created. A school known as the Magnolia Female Institute operated in the 1870s. The Southwestern Academy, a private preparatory school, was established in 1894 and closed in the early 1900s. Its building was used by the Magnolia Grammar School until it burned. Magnolia High School was constructed in 1917.

When the Third District Agricultural School was established, there were three sister institutions that also were born. Those institutions would go on to become Arkansas State University at Jonesboro, the University of Arkansas at Monticello and Arkansas Tech University at Russellville.

“The Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union had campaigned vigorously in Arkansas and other states for these vocational high schools, an educational reform of the Progressive Era,” writes James Willis, a former history professor at SAU who wrote a book about the school. “Communities bid money and land in efforts to become sites for the Arkansas schools. Small farmers’ contributions won the Third District Agricultural School for Columbia County, where the cornerstone was laid on Aug. 24, 1910. The school’s first term began Jan. 11, 1911, with 75 students and five teachers.

“Five principals led the school: David H. Burleson (1911), Harper K. Sanders (1911-13), Dr. William S. Johnson (1913-14), Elbert E. Austin (1914-21) and Charles A. Overstreet (1921-45). Courses in agriculture and home economics dominated the curriculum. English, history, science and math provided the minimal requirement for a high school diploma. The legacy of the Farmers Union is evident today. SAU operates one of the state’s largest collegiate farms, and the school’s colors — blue and gold — are those of the union. The school’s agricultural roots are also evident in its unique symbol — Muleriders — adopted in 1912 when its football players rode mules, then ubiquitous and essential to Southern agriculture, to practice and games. The name Aggies competed with Muleriders, but the latter became the yearbook’s title in 1922.”

The student newspaper was named The Bray in 1923 with a mascot featuring a bucking mule ridden by a cowboy. Home football games still include a mule with a student riding it.

“To increase the supply of rural schoolteachers in the mid-1920s, Arkansas elevated the Third District Agricultural School and the other agricultural schools to junior college status with Act 229 of 1923 and Act 45 of 1925,” Willis writes. “Officially named State Agricultural & Mechanical College, Third District, the school was known everywhere as Magnolia A&M. The North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools accredited Magnolia A&M in 1929. Its agricultural and home economics emphasis remained. Animal industry instructor Ves Godley built a prize-winning dairy herd that included a 1937 national champion, Sultane’s Magnolia Belle. The school increasingly stressed its two-year associate of arts degree for students planning to go on to a four-year college.

“Despite economic hardship in the 1930s, the school enrolled several hundred students each semester and provided work for many. Costs were kept low in a deliberate effort to become the state’s least expensive college. Effective management created a rich extracurricular program for students. The U.S. government’s New Deal funding expanded the school’s physical plant, and graduating classes donated memorial constructions. The 1936 class contribution was a Greek amphitheater, largely built by students who were inspired by a young teacher named Samuel D. Dickinson. His ancient history course ended dramatically in the new amphitheater with a student performance of the Greek tragedy Antigone. The play became a central feature of graduation festivities that year.”

Magnolia A&M became a four-year college under the leadership of President Charles Wilkins. A 1951 legislative act renamed the school Southern State College.

“During its 25-year history, SSC grew enormously,” Willis writes. “Dr. Dolph Camp, a 1920 Third District Agricultural School graduate, served as president from 1950-59. He led the school to North Central accreditation in March 1955; hired new faculty; constructed a new library, music building and president’s home; and completed two new dormitories. New courses of study were added, leading to a variety of bachelor’s degrees. President Imon E. Bruce (1959-76) guided the school during enrollment expansion fueled by the baby boom. A 1930 Magnolia A&M graduate, Bruce’s ambitious construction program did much to erase the earlier campus he had attended.

“Over 16 years, 14 major buildings were erected, including an athletic facility and a nursing building for a new field of study. By 1975, student activities boasted more than 50 student clubs, 10 varsity sports for men and women, and newly established Greek fraternities and sororities. The largely uneventful racial integration at SSC in the mid-1960s was marred by administration conflict on a variety of issues with a student civil rights organization, Students United for Rights and Equality. The firing of its sponsor, Donald C. Baldridge, a tenured professor, led to censure by the American Association of University Professors for more than 20 years.”

SSC became Southern Arkansas University on July 9, 1976.

“SAU established master’s degree programs in several education specialties and in counseling, computer science, agriculture and public administration,” Willis writes. “At the Magnolia campus, student enrollment grew to more than 3,000. There was substantial diversity in minority presence among both faculty and student body. More than 150 international students attended each year. Student organizations grew to more than 80 clubs. An endowment fund begun in 1963 with a few thousand dollars grew to more than $30 million, annually funding more than 900 scholarships and other academic enrichment programs.”

SAU presidents were Harold T. Brinson from 1976-92, Steven G. Gamble from 1992-2002, David F. Rankin from 2002-15 and Trey Berry since February 2015. The school now offers the only engineering program in southern Arkansas along with the only computer game and animation design program in the state.