Archive for March, 2022

City of colleges

Wednesday, March 16th, 2022


Faulkner County has come a long way since the first permanent white settlement in central Arkansas was established near the confluence of Cadron Creek and the Arkansas River, about five miles west of what’s now Conway.

In the early 1800s, the term Cadron Settlement referred to 30 or 40 families scattered along this part of the Arkansas River Valley. Many of those early settlers were veterans of the War of 1812. In 1818, a trader named John McElmurry and three investors laid out what would become the town of Cadron.

“Naturalist Thomas Nuttall visited Cadron in 1819 and described a tavern and a settlement of a few families,” Aaron Rogers writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In the spring of 1834, members of the Cherokee tribe died of cholera and measles near Cadron Creek while traveling from Georgia to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears. By the 1850s, Cadron had vanished.”

In 1869, Col. Asa Peter Robinson moved from New York to Little Rock to help build a railroad. Robinson was granted 640 acres upon his retirement. He platted what was known as Conway Station in 1871.

“The town grew along the westward bend that was created when the railroad track’s course was changed slightly to utilize the shallower grade of Cadron Gap to the west,” Rogers writes. “Conway became a center for farmers in the surrounding area to sell or gin their crops and buy supplies. The city, incorporated in October 1875 as simply Conway, was named for a famous Arkansas family that included the state’s first elected governor, James Sevier Conway.

“Controversies surrounded the creation of Faulkner County in 1873 and the choice of Conway as its seat. Eventually the town and Faulkner County became home to large German and Irish populations. A fire in 1878 destroyed part of the town.”

In 1890, Hendrix moved to Conway from Altus, where it had been established in 1876 as Central Institute.

Several years later, Central College for Women was established.

In September 1908, Arkansas State Normal School opened as the first college for teachers in the state. It became Arkansas State Teachers College in 1925, State College of Arkansas in 1967 and UCA in 1975.

In 1952, the Baptist Missionary Association of Arkansas bought the former Central College for Women campus and established Central College for Christian Workers. The name was later changed to Conway Baptist College and then Central Baptist College.

Even with the explosive growth of recent decades, Conway remains first and foremost a college town.

Memories of the Civil War were still vivid in Arkansas in 1876. During the Reconstruction period following the war, pastors of various denominations worked to establish colleges to train ministers and teachers. At Altus that year, Rev. Isham Lafayette Burrow started Central Institute with 20 students.

During the 1881-82 school year, the name was changed to Central Collegiate Institute. In 1884, with his school running short of funds, Burrow asked the Methodist church for help.

“The following year, the conference raised funds to purchase the school and elected Burrow as president,” Katherine Stanick writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In June 1887, Burrow was replaced by Alexander Copeland Millar. The first four-year degrees had been awarded in 1885.

“On June 10, 1889, the name was changed to Hendrix College, honoring Bishop Eugene Russell Hendrix of Kansas City, who had recently been named presiding bishop of the Arkansas Conference. On March 22, 1890, the board voted to move the college to Conway. The college opened there on Sept. 18, 1890.”

These days, Conway and Little Rock are the only cities in the state with three traditional four-year institutions of higher learning. The capital city has the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Philander Smith College and Arkansas Baptist College.

“Millar was replaced at Hendrix in 1902 by Rev. Stonewall Anderson,” Stanick writes. “Lacking strong support from the Methodist church and finding few resources in the depression-ridden Southern states, Anderson sought and received financial assistance from the General Education Board of New York, a philanthropic organization founded in 1903 and funded by John D. Rockefeller. Receiving assistance from outside sources broadened the college’s orientation and was a continuing source of revenue for years, though it tended to move the college away from strict church-dominated roots.

“On Jan. 10, 1910, Anderson resigned due to his frustration with the church spreading its support among three colleges — Hendrix, Henderson in Arkadelphia and Galloway Women’s College in Searcy. Millar returned to office. The college prospered under his administration, and a number of improvements were made. But Millar resigned over conflicts with the board in 1913.”

While Hendrix was trying to find its footing, the Arkansas Legislature in 1907 approved Act 317, which created Arkansas State Normal School to train teachers. Board members were appointed in May of that year.

Conway, Russellville, Benton, Fort Smith and Quitman submitted bids to the state for the school. Conway was chosen after offering three tracts of land and $51,753 in cash.

Arkansas State Normal School began operating on Sept. 21, 1908.

“The first president was John James Doyne, former state superintendent of schools,” writes Jimmy Bryant, the former UCA archivist who now heads state government’s Division of Arkansas Heritage. “He served as president until Aug. 31, 1917. The first degree offered was licentiate of instruction. This two-year degree was the equivalent of a professional license. The curriculum for bachelor of arts wasn’t created until 1920.

“The school grew rapidly and went from about 100 students in 1908 to 200 students in 1909. Before Doyne left office, enrollment reached 441 students in 1916. Doyne’s successor was Burr Water Torreyson, previously state high school inspector for Arkansas. World War I’s impact on the school’s enrollment was significant. By the spring of 1918, 302 students were enrolled, and only 12 of them were men.”

The student population grew to 871 by 1925.

Down the street, Central College for Women was established in 1892 and operated until the late 1940s. The Arkansas Baptist State Convention had appointed a committee in 1891 to determine if a college for women was needed. The committee purchased land for the school. Central College first operated in a Baptist church until a building on campus was completed. The school received national accreditation from the North Central Association in 1925.

Back at Hendrix, John Hugh Reynolds became president in 1913, the first non-clergyman to hold the job. He served until his retirement in 1945.

“His policy was to provide a good liberal arts education for a small number of carefully selected students,” Stanick writes. “In 1914, Hendrix was placed on Columbia University’s list of first-class colleges whose students were admitted unconditionally. In 1914, Reynolds initiated the Arkansas Pastors’ School at the college, and it became an annual event of the Southern Methodist Church. Hendrix was added to the North Central Association in 1924, and in 1929 was approved by the American Association of Colleges.”

Methodist officials decided in 1929 to close the Arkadelphia school and merge it with Hendrix. It was known for a couple of years as Hendrix-Henderson College before going back to just Hendrix. Galloway in Searcy was merged into Hendrix in 1933, leaving Hendrix as the only Methodist college for white students in Arkansas.

While Hendrix remained small and exclusive, the state school at Conway grew. On Feb. 7, 1925, the name was changed from Arkansas State Normal School to Arkansas State Teachers College. By 1930, the campus consisted of five brick and two frame buildings. By the start of U.S. involvement in World War II in late 1941, there were 15 major buildings thanks to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.

“The program that most impacted the college was the Public Works Administration, which funded projects by a combination of grants and low-interest loans,” Bryant writes. “The first PWA project completed in Arkansas was Wingo Hall at ASTC in October 1934. … During the war, ASTC became a temporary home to various branches of the armed forces. The Naval Cadets, Army Air Corps, Army National Guard and Women’s Army Corps turned the quiet college campus into a veritable military base.

“The WAC had the largest contingent of personnel with 1,800 women being trained from March 1943 until March 1944. So many military personnel were on campus that Gov. Homer Adkins wanted to change the name of the institution to MacArthur Military College. After the war ended, the size of the student body increased by 1,400 by 1947.”

Silas Snow became president in July 1953 and served for 22 years. Under his watch, ASTC became SCA and then UCA.

Across town, the Central College campus was empty for several years until it was purchased by what’s now the Baptist Missionary Association of Arkansas to house Central College for Christian Workers. The college had started as an extension of Jacksonville College of Texas, holding classes at Temple Baptist Church in Little Rock.

The 11-acre Conway campus was purchased for $85,000, and the name was changed to Conway Baptist College to avoid confusion with the old Central College for Women. Classes in Conway began in 1952. A decade later, the name was changed to Central Baptist College.

“Central Baptist struggled through its first three decades,” Dusty Bender writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The school competed with local and international missionary efforts for support from the small, struggling denomination. Some felt money should be spent on missions and not a luxury like a college. As a result of persistently low funding, survival seemed precarious.”

During the presidency of Charles Attebery from 1990-2004, the financial situation finally stabilized.

There were other key developments during the second half of the 20th century that spurred Conway’s growth.

In 1951, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission finished work on Lake Conway. The 6,700-acre reservoir is the largest lake in the country constructed by a state fish and wildlife agency. In 1957, the state’s Civil Defense Agency relocated to Conway. It built an underground facility there in 1965.

In October 1959, what was then known as the Arkansas Children’s Colony at Conway became the state’s first center for developmentally disabled people. The name was changed to the Conway Human Development Center in 1981.

In the 1960s, the Arkansas Educational Television Network selected Conway as its home.

“R. Lee Reaves, a former state senator, was selected to serve as the first director of the educational station,” Tiffany Verkler writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Several communities vied for the station, but Conway was selected after land was made available by Arkansas State Teachers College and a significant contribution came from Conway Corp. Network headquarters was built, and the first broadcast aired Dec. 4, 1966. During the next 15 years, four additional transmitters were added to expand coverage to virtually the entire state.”

Nabholz Construction Corp., which began at Conway in 1949, grew into one of the largest construction companies in this part of the country.

Demographics Inc., which started in 1969 under the ownership of Charles Ward of Ward Bus Co., became the nationally known information management company Acxiom.

Now Conway — with its strong leadership and focus on quality of life — is positioned to be an Arkansas success story for years to come. It’s all about people wanting to live there.

During the Christmas holidays, when our two sons are home from law school, we usually go to Conway at least once to eat out. We live in far west Little Rock. Our oldest son, who’s now at the University of Texas, received his bachelor’s degree from Hendrix and has always enjoyed the city.

You typically think of people in Conway getting into their cars and coming to Little Rock for a Saturday night on the town. The fact that we find ourselves going in just the opposite direction tells you all you need to know. Conway has arrived.

The city’s business and civic leaders understood that economic development in this century is nothing like the development efforts of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that focused on industrial recruiting along with the roads, water and sewer lines needed to attract manufacturers. In this era, economic development is also about creating a place that will attract and keep young, talented entrepreneurs.

Conway is attracting more of these people with each passing year. Many are graduates of Hendrix, UCA and Central Baptist who see no need to leave town once they graduate. I’m often asked if there’s another place in the state where I feel the kind of entrepreneurial energy that characterizes northwest Arkansas. My answer: Conway.

The city’s continued growth is proof that Conway’s quality-of-place efforts are working.

Back in 2016, to commemorate the 125th anniversary of what’s now the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, chamber leaders announced a series of projects. Some have been completed, and work has started on others. They included:

— A partnership between the chamber, Conway Corp. (the city’s public utility company) and Conway Development Corp. to create the Arnold Innovation Center with co-working spaces, leasable office suites and meeting facilities to help fuel small business job growth.

— More trails across the city for runners, walkers and cyclists. The plan includes pedestrian overpasses on Dave Ward Drive, Oak Street and Harkrider Street. The Razorback Greenway in northwest Arkansas has been a major amenity for those living in that booming part of the state. Conway’s leaders noticed and vowed to expand their trail system.

— Public art in the roundabouts that have been built as Conway’s population has soared. According to a chamber publication: “By raising private funds and partnering with the city of Conway on long-term maintenance, Conway’s roundabouts can become a unique setting for large-scale works of public art of all kinds. Arts organizations, museums, artists and donors can team up to turn Conway’s roundabouts into a regional destination.”

— A better system of so-called wayfinding signs so visitors can find their way around town more easily.

— Beautification projects along Interstate 40: The chamber notes: “Millions of people drive through Conway on the interstate. For many, that’s the only impression they have of our city. A well-designed, properly maintained landscaping plan along our interstate corridor and exits — coupled with new, decorative bridges — will help Conway stand out on our nation’s third-longest interstate.”

Back when Baptist Health opened a hospital along Interstate 40 in 2016, CEO Troy Wells said people now see Conway as “not just a suburb of Little Rock or a bedroom community. It wants to be a destination community.”

Fast-growing Conway

Tuesday, March 15th, 2022


We reach Conway, one of the fastest-growing cities in the state, on our trip west. This is a place that seems to have its act together.

Back in 2010, the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce developed a strategic plan for the city. That plan, along with a lot of hard work by both the public and private sectors, led to roundabouts, additional parks, more efficiency in city government and other improvements.

Chamber officials hoped to begin developing a new strategic plan in March 2020. Then the pandemic came along.

“In July 2020, we convened our steering committee and asked them if they thought we should move forward,” says Jamie Gates, the chamber’s executive vice president. “They emphatically agreed that it was more important than ever to have an updated plan. So we went out in August and September of that year and surveyed the community. We received more than 1,800 responses, a 30 percent increase from the 2010 effort. We offered 39 possible priorities and said ‘mark all of these that should be included in a strategic plan.'”

The results surprised economic development officials.

In 2010, the priorities were streets, job creation, education and public safety. This time the top category was overwhelmingly arts, culture and entertainment. It was followed by parks and recreation, bike paths and trails, and job creation.

“I was really conflicted,” Gates says of the decision to move forward with the strategic plan during a pandemic. “I didn’t know if it was appropriate. I was worried about participation. And I didn’t want the result to be a plan that focused on the trauma and uncertainty that surrounded us. Thankfully we already had an incredible steering committee in place for big decisions like this.

“It was an important moment when we heard committee members say that people needed an opportunity to imagine a better future and that the plan would bring the community together during a time of isolation.”

The steering committee consisted of seven women and six men. Two of the members had lived in Conway for less than three years. Only one went to high school in Conway. Six had lived there from 20 to 25 years.

The committee hired the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean Mountain to move the plan forward. The folks from WRI facilitated 57 Zoom meetings with almost 200 residents.

“We had more than 1,000 hours of professionally facilitated, intentional, goal-setting conversations about our community,” Gates says.

These are the things that surprised him:

— The strong belief on the part of steering committee members that it was important to develop a strategic plan during a pandemic.

— The shift in priorities toward quality of place.

— The fact that Zoom meetings were more engaging than town hall-style meetings since they allowed glimpses into people’s real lives.

“It has been inspiring to see people so committed to participating in the process,” Gates says. “Folks were Zooming while feeding their kids or just doing the best they could. There was a different — but just as authentic — sense of community when you get those glimpses into people’s real lives.”

In some ways, Conway represents the future of Arkansas. This is a state that’s becoming more urban with 53 of the state’s 75 counties losing population from 2010 to 2020. For years to come, most growth in the state will be in the Little Rock metropolitan area (of which Conway is a part), northwest Arkansas and the Jonesboro region. These areas are positioned to thrive while rural Arkansas struggles.

Conway is also a college town, the home of three four-year institutions of higher education — the University of Central Arkansas, Hendrix College and Central Baptist College.  In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, college towns will naturally do better than communities without four-year institutions.

This will be true even in places outside the northwest Arkansas, Little Rock and Jonesboro metro areas. Think of Russellville, Clarksville, Batesville, Arkadelphia, Magnolia, Pine Bluff and Monticello as examples of towns where the presence of colleges and universities will serve as the kind of catalyst that communities in surrounding counties don’t have.

Due to its central location and because it’s a college town, Conway has thrived in recent decades. In the 1960 census, the city’s population was 9,791. That grew to 15,510 in 1970; 20,375 in 1980; 26,481 in 1990; 43,167 in 2000; 58,908 in 2010; and 64,134 in 2020.

A study by business-to-business service platform Upwork revealed that the shift to remote work in this country has prompted a record number of American workers to relocate. Among the study’s findings:

— Remote work will increase internal migration. From 14 to 23 million Americans will move as a result of remote work. Combined with those who are moving for other reasons, near-term migration rates may be three to four times what they normally are.

— Major cities will see the biggest loss of population. The study showed that 20.6 percent of those planning to move are based in a large city.

—  People are seeking less expensive housing. More than half (52.5 percent) are planning to move to a house that’s significantly more affordable than a current home.

— Americans are moving beyond regular commuting distances with 54.7 percent of them moving more than two hours away from their current locations.

In an editorial that appeared in an in-house publication, the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce noted: “Our community has always been optimistic and ambitious. It’s easy to view this migration as a huge opportunity. And it is. Compared to big cities, we have affordable housing. Thanks to Conway Corp., we have tech infrastructure that allows businesses to operate seamlessly from home. Finally, we have a great community and quality of life.

“But we have to be honest with ourselves. The willingness to pick up, move and take your job with you is also a threat. We have thousands of technology workers in our community. Are we a town that’s determined to keep each of them here? Because of our three colleges, we get first crack at thousands of the state’s brightest young minds. Will we educate them only to see them move — diploma in hand — to northwest Arkansas; Franklin, Tenn.; or Frisco, Texas?”

Chamber officials pointed out that community development these days is as much about “build it and they will stay” as it is “build it and they will come.”

“Cities without a sense of urgency are cities that will be left behind,” the editorial said. “Not only left behind by their peers, but literally left behind by people choosing to live elsewhere. As a community, we need to make a promise and keep it. That promise is to never stop working to reach our potential; to never stop putting the best ideas from around the country to work here; to never accept a watered-down quality of place because we wouldn’t try.”

The strategic planning effort made clear that residents of this college town understand that economic development in the 21st century is much more about quality-of-life initiatives than it is about industrial parks and smokestack chasing.

“There’s no reason Conway can’t have northwest Arkansas’ wayfinding signage and bicycle amenities,” the editorial stated. “There’s nothing stopping us from having the live music venues and development standards of Franklin, Tenn. If we want the public art and aquatic amenities of Frisco, Texas, we can have them. It will just take all of us — government, residents and organizations — working together.”

I’m eating breakfast at Stoby’s Restaurant at 805 Donaghey Ave. Stoby’s represents a blend of the old and new Conway — the old Conway because the restaurant has been around since July 1980, and many Conway natives can be found here on a regular basis; the new Conway because a fire burned the original building to the ground in March 2016 and the modern facility that replaced it began attracting a younger crowd. The old building was declared a total loss after a defective motor on a roof vent caught fire. The replacement has 148 seats, more than double the previous 64 seats.

Conway is a far different city than it was when David and Patti Stobaugh opened their restaurant near the UCA campus. When I was growing up at Arkadelphia, I spent a lot of time in Conway. Both towns had two colleges in the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference, and my family attended AIC football games, basketball games and track meets on a regular basis. I thought of Conway as being much like Arkadelphia. For decades, they were similar in size. Now Conway has 65,000 folks, and Arkadelphia has less than 11,000.

UCA President Houston Davis represents the new Conway. Tom Courtway, a lawyer and former state legislator from Conway, provided steady leadership at the university after becoming president in late 2011. His two predecessors had left the school under a cloud. The popular, affable Courtway retired as president at the end of 2016, and Davis was hired away from Kennesaw State University in Georgia to take his place. Davis previously served as executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer for the University of Georgia System.

Davis says the dynamism of Conway was part of the draw. While Conway has benefited through the years from white flight out of Little Rock, it’s not a white-flight city in the sense of Cabot or Bryant. Much of its growth has been propelled by the presence of the three institutions of higher education and a group of visionary business and civic leaders.

“In the knowledge-based economy, you’re usually going to have growth where you have universities,” Davis says. “Where you live is important. When we lived in Oklahoma (where Davis served for a time as vice chancellor for academic affairs for the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education), Conway was the halfway point on the way to visit my parents in Tennessee. We would stop here on trips, and it was clear that this city was growing and doing things the right way.”

Davis was impressed that Conway didn’t seem to have the town-and-gown separation that’s sometimes found in college towns.

“UCA has a beautiful campus, but we’re not an island,” he says. “We’re an integral part of the community. I’ve never wanted to be in an ivory tower. I’m a big believer in what I call the stewardship of place. We’re not going to shy away from applying the knowledge and services that we have on our campus to make Conway a better place to live. Place matters. Tom did a great job during his years as president in making sure the foundation was strong. On the day I arrived, it was clear that UCA was poised to take off again.”

When talking about Conway’s three colleges being a vital part of the community, it’s important to note the Village at Hendrix. That development adjacent to Hendrix College — which combines residential and retail components with office space — is among the best of the so-called New Urbanism projects in the country. It has played a role in Conway being able to build an environment that attracts young, talented people who want to call the city home after college. The Village helps give Conway a big-city feel.

During a conference I attended in Hot Springs several years ago, Brad Lacy, the chief executive officer of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, explained that city leaders were “very deliberate in recruiting more white-collar employees to town. You have to get the coolness factor right. Young professionals want things that are different from what Conway traditionally offered.”

Lacy said Conway experienced a crisis of confidence when high-tech Acxiom Corp. decided to move its headquarters to Little Rock. Though Acxiom continued to employ far more people in Conway than in Little Rock (it later sold the large building it constructed in Little Rock’s River Market District to Simmons Bank and moved the corporate headquarters back to Conway), the fact that Acxiom executives were working in the capital city caused Conway’s leaders to examine their priorities.

Lacy went to work in 2000 and immediately discovered what he considered to be a major problem — downtown Conway was dead at night. There was no place for company executives to entertain clients.

“You could shoot a gun down the street at 6 p.m. and not hit anyone,” Lacy said. “We were standing in downtown one night and a car filled with people from out of state came by. One of the people in the car rolled down his window and screamed out, ‘Hey, nice downtown.’ He was being sarcastic. We got the message. It was another wake-up call for us.”

The Conway Downtown Partnership was formed in 2001, and the trajectory has been straight up since that time.

“We want to extend that downtown feeling farther toward Interstate 40,” Lacy said.

Three colleges, determined city leaders and a revived downtown are all pieces of the puzzle. Another key to Conway’s explosive growth has been the work of Conway Corp., the city-owned utility system that provides electric, water, wastewater, cable, Internet, telephone and security services for Conway residents.

On May 6, 1929, city leaders signed a charter to create Conway Corp. Seven weeks later, the new corporation signed a lease to operate Conway’s electric light plant. In February 1930, the Conway City Council turned over operations of the city’s waterworks to Conway Corp.

In November 1957, Conway Corp. assumed responsibility for the city’s sewage system. In 1966, corporation executives recommended to the city council that Conway Corp. also receive the cable television contract for the city. In 1997, Conway Corp. became one of the first companies in the country to offer high-speed, broadband cable Internet service to customers. It began offering digital cable in 2002 and added high-definition cable service the following year. Digital telephone service came along in 2008, and free wireless hotspots were added downtown that same year.

In February 2017, Conway Corp. moved into a new three-story, 30,000-square-foot headquarters and announced plans for the Arnold Innovation Center, a hub for start-up companies that was named in honor of retiring CEO Richard Arnold. The one-stop shopping for utility services and the reasonable rates offered by Conway Corp. have helped lure businesses and residents through the years. There’s no corporate headquarters in another city that Conway Corp. must answer to.

“The company had a commitment to education when it was formed in 1929, and that has continued to this day,” says Bret Carroll, who replaced Arnold as CEO in 2017 after having served as the company’s chief financial officer since 1998. “We make regular donations to all three colleges. I’ve yet to hear of another utility that operates quite like we do.”

He describes Conway as that rare place where “leaders all pull in one direction.”

Gates says: “We’ve been able to keep people focused and move things forward.”

Headed toward Conway

Tuesday, March 1st, 2022


We’ve made it from Marion to Bald Knob on our trip across Arkansas on U.S. Highway 64.

We leave Bald Knob, where those headed west on U.S. 64 connect with U.S. Highway 67. After a short drive south through White County, we pick back up U.S. 64 at Beebe.

Beebe was born when the railroad intersected with what was then known as the Des Arc Road. As white flight from Little Rock has stretched ever farther toward the north, Beebe has seen its population soar from 1,697 in the 1960 census to 8,437 in the 2020 census.

“Roswell Beebe was president of the Cairo & Fulton Railroad, which became part of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad,” Richard White writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In 1872, the first train stopped at Des Arc Road. This intersection was designated Beebe Station in honor of Roswell Beebe. Trains would stop there to take on wood and water to power steam engines. Many of the settlement’s new residents and businesses came from Stoney Point in White County. Beebe got its first post office on April 30, 1872.

“Henry Beverly Strange was a merchant at Stoney Point and one of the first businessmen to move to Beebe Station in 1872. His home was on the west side of town. Another of the area’s earliest settlers was Jim Smith, who settled at Stoney Point in the late 1860s and moved to Beebe a few years later. He bought a five-acre plot and built a house in 1872. Smith, a civil engineer and surveyor, surveyed Beebe’s first street and the town’s boundaries in addition to erecting a post office and cotton gin.”

Smith owned most of the town at one time. His initials J.S.S. were inscribed into the two-story red brick building he constructed in 1891 at the corner of Main and Center streets. Through the years, the building housed a bank, bakery, pool hall, doctor’s offices and dentist’s offices.

“In 1875, 32 people signed a petition for the incorporation of Beebe, and it was presented to Judge A.M. Foster, a county court judge,” White writes. “Beebe was incorporated on May 4, 1875. By 1890, the town had hotels, boarding houses, meat markets, blacksmith and wagon shops, a combined sawmill and gristmill, cotton gins, livery stables, a photo gallery and a fruit evaporator.”

Beebe also had the White County Bank, separate churches for whites and blacks, a public school for white children, five physicians, a dentist and two weekly newspapers.

Electricity came in the early 1900s, and the strawberry industry took off in the area.

“In the first half of the 20th century, the farms between Beebe and Bald Knob produced more strawberries than any county in the country,” White writes. “Beebe had a strawberry festival each spring that lasted a week. At the time, U.S. 64 and 67 came through downtown Beebe. Every person driving through town was given a half pint of strawberry ice cream.”

A major tornado hit Beebe on Jan. 21, 1999. The high school was severely damaged and a new junior high school building was destroyed. Two churches also were destroyed. Hundreds of homes were damaged.

When I was a boy, we often took the longer route through Beebe to visit my grandparents in Des Arc. That was so we could eat seafood at Bruce Anderson’s restaurant, which attracted people from as far away as Little Rock and Memphis. Anderson went on to establish the iconic Cajun’s Wharf in 1975 on the banks of the Arkansas River in Little Rock.

What’s now Arkansas State University-Beebe is the oldest two-year institution of higher learning in the state.

“ASU-Beebe was founded in 1927 as the Junior Agricultural School of Central Arkansas,” James Brent writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “State Rep. William Abington of Beebe was the key sponsor of legislation creating the school; legislation designed specifically to set up such an institution in Beebe, the only town to make a bid that met the act’s criteria. The first president of the independent school was Abington’s brother, Eugene Abington. The school was built on land donated by the Abington family.

“In its early years, the school was joined with Beebe’s public schools, becoming the Junior Agricultural College of Central Arkansas in 1931 with the addition of a junior college program of study. Through the Great Depression, the college and high school shared facilities and faculty. The death of W.H. Abington in 1951 made the college’s future uncertain. President Boyd Johnson worked hard to maintain state financial support.”

In 1955, school president B.W. Whitmore negotiated an association with what at the time was Arkansas State College at Jonesboro.

“Arkansas State College-Beebe Branch operated under the authority of the president and board of trustees of ASC but ran its programs independently,” Brent writes. “J. Ernest Howell served as dean of the college from 1956-64, followed by Walter England from 1964-77. England oversaw peaceful integration in 1965 and the transition to Arkansas State University-Beebe Branch in 1967 with a name change at the flagship Jonesboro campus. William Echols assumed the title of chancellor when he succeeded England. William Owen Jr. held the office from 1981 until his death in 1994, and Eugene McKay held the position until 2015.”

The Legislature removed “branch” from the school’s name in 2001.

“Beginning in 1965, ASU-Beebe offered courses through its center at Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville,” Brent writes. “Through the 1990s, the school also offered courses at a site in Newport, which has since become a standalone part of the ASU System. In 1999, the Legislature created Arkansas State University-Heber Springs, a branch of ASU-Beebe, to serve Cleburne County.

“Foothills Technical Institute formally merged with ASU-Beebe in 2003 to become Arkansas State University-Searcy, offering occupational training in a variety of technical fields. In 2015, at the instigation of the ASU System, ASU-Beebe established its own logo and school colors, choosing blue and gray with red accents.”

We continue west on U.S. 64 and soon find ourselves in the White County community of El Paso.

“Settlers began arriving at the valley created by two parallel ridges, Cadron Ridge and Bull Mountain, in the 1830s,” writes Arkansas historian Mike Polston. “Attracted by area springs and fertile lands, they first established themselves on the southern slope of Bull Mountain at a place called Peach Orchard Gap. The name was chosen due to the peach trees growing there. Over time, settlers passed through the gap to the southern slope of Cadron Ridge, the location of the present community. El Paso, meaning ‘the pass’ in Spanish, was selected as the name for the new community.

“At the time of its settlement, the area was part of Pulaski County. With speculation on the creation of a new county, many area residents hoped their community would be selected as the seat of county government. The Southwest Trail, the first major pathway for Arkansas settlers, passed near the community, adding to its likely selection. A town was planned with construction of a potential courthouse positioned at its center. However, with the creation of White County on Oct. 23, 1835, present-day Searcy was designated the county seat.”

Still, El Paso crew steadily for a time. A Baptist church was established in 1848. By 1880, it was the largest church in the county with more than 200 members. A Methodist church was founded in 1873. Other organizations in El Paso were a Masonic lodge, a Woodmen of the World chapter, Knights of the Maccabees and the Grange.

“During the 1850s, the settlement was home to at least three businesses, one of which was the Peach Orchard Mill owned by James Wright and T.W Wells,” Polston writes. “Late in the decade, the settlement had regular stage service. Just before the outbreak of the Civil War, the Legislature incorporated the Des Arc & Dardanelle Railroad Co. There was much excitement when it was determined that the tracks were to be constructed near El Paso. The route was surveyed and the right of way was being cleared, but then came war. Work ceased and was never renewed.

“A post office named Olive Creek, which had been established in 1850, was renamed El Paso in 1869. Expectations of greater growth came in 1871 with construction of a road just south of town that connected Conway and Des Arc. Another road connecting Batesville and Little Rock intersected with this road. These roads helped contribute to growth. El Paso was devastated by an April 18, 1880, tornado that destroyed nine homes and killed five people.”

The town was officially platted in 1893, and the Bank of El Paso opened in 1894.

“Cotton farmers and cattlemen purchased goods from local stores and were able to market their products thanks to improved roads,” Polston writes. “By 1900, there were more than 800 residents. The town later felt the effects of the Great Depression with cotton farmers hit especially hard. Farms were repossessed, and businesses began to close. People began moving away for job opportunities in Beebe and Conway.

“By the 1950s, little remained of the once prosperous town. There were expectations that the construction of Arkansas Highway 5 would stimulate growth. Instead, it gave locals another avenue to leave the area. The school at El Paso was consolidated with Beebe schools in the 1950s.”

Now, the intersection of U.S. 64 and Arkansas 5 has become busy, attracting numerous businesses as traffic heads toward Greers Ferry Lake. The rapid growth of Conway has also spilled into the area.

We continue west on U.S. 64 and enter Faulkner County, where the population has exploded from 24,303 in the 1960 census to 123,498 in the 2020 census.

“Faulkner County was one of the last counties formed in the state,” Steven Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Sparsely populated in its early years, it’s now the fifth-most populous county. … The first European explorers were the group traveling with Jean-Baptiste Benard de la Harpe, who traveled up the Arkansas River from Arkansas Post in 1722. A fur trader named John McIlmurry lived in the area where Cadron Creek empties into the Arkansas River around 1810. The Standlee family was one of several who moved from the New Madrid area of southeastern Missouri following the 1811-12 earthquakes. Family tradition claims that John Standlee of Kentucky had already explored the area more than 30 years earlier.

“Around 1810, Richard Montgomery established the first store. John Benedict arrived in the spring of 1811 with his family. Soon thereafter, a ferry was established to cross the Arkansas River. The ferry crossing was named Toad Suck, a name that has prompted a variety of explanations. One common story is that the ferry was named for tavern patrons who ‘sucked on a bottle until they swelled like a toad.’ Other researchers note that a ‘suck’ is a river whirlpool that needs to be marked and avoided.”

A post office was established at Cadron in 1820, and the Legislature moved the Pulaski County seat there that year. It was moved back to Little Rock the following year. Cadron later served as the county seat of Conway County from 1825-29.

“The northwest section of Faulkner County was included in a Cherokee reservation between 1818 and 1828,” Teske writes. “The Arkansas River Valley was a major route for the Trail of Tears during the 1830s. For a time, Cadron was a stopping point on the route. Many Native Americans died from cholera and were buried in Cadron in early 1834. Fear of the disease caused settlers to abandon Cadron. No community exists in that location these days.

“Enola was settled as early as 1840. Greenbrier began in 1853 and was first named Mooresville. Vilonia began to be settled in the 1860s. By 1870, it had a cotton gin and a gristmill.”

After the Civil War, railroad construction began in the area. A surveyor from New York named Asa Hosmer Robinson came to the region in 1869 and established Conway Station next to the Little Rock & Fort Smith line. Faulkner County was one of nine counties created by the Legislature during the Reconstruction period after the war. The county’s official birthdate is April 12, 1873.

“Although some opposition existed, votes were encouraged by the promise to name the new county for popular Col. Sanford ‘Sandy’ Faulkner,” Teske writes. “Robinson offered Conway Station as the new county seat. Conway was formally incorporated on Oct. 16, 1875.”

Vilonia is the first community we reach in Faulkner County on our trip west. It first was known as Vilsonia, the “land of two valleys.”

“The name was given to the community by members of Masonic Lodge No. 324, which was established early in the town’s history,” Betty Owen Trimble writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Members of the lodge hailed from North Carolina, Mississippi and Tennessee and came to Vilonia in search of fertile land. When they applied for a post office, the approval came back misspelled Vilonia, but they let it stand.

“After the Civil War, families of English, Irish, German and Scottish descent searched for land to grow cotton, grains, vegetables and fruits. Among the first to arrive was the family of Mary Downs, a Confederate soldier’s widow from Mississippi with five daughters and a son. The son, William James Downs, was the father of Dr. Joseph Henry Downs, who practiced medicine in Vilonia for 54 years and served on the school board for almost 50 years.”

A private school on the ground floor of a log building used by the Masons was established in 1874. It became a public school in 1880. Arkansas Holiness College operated at Vilonia from 1899 until 1931, when it was consolidated with a Nazarene college in Bethany, Okla., and moved there.

“About 1900, a two-story frame school building was built on the north campus of the public school,” Trimble writes. “In 1928, Fred Monroe Bollen became superintendent. A brick school building had been built by then on the main campus. All 12 grades were taught. Vilonia was incorporated on Aug. 23, 1938, with Thomas Henry Hill as mayor.

“The Great Depression, which drastically lowered the price of cotton, combined with several drought seasons to impact Vilonia. On Jan. 8, 1942, the brick school building burned. Classes finished the term in other buildings. A new building was finished by the next school year. By this time, many Vilonia residents had found employment at the Arkansas Ordnance Plant in Jacksonville, which operated three daily shifts. Buses, which were granted extra gasoline during a time of rationing, transported workers to the plant for two of the three shifts.”

These days, Vilonia residents commute to work in Conway and even Little Rock. Vilonia’s population has soared from 423 in the 1970 census to 4,836 in the 2020 census. It grew by 26.76 percent between 2010 and 2020.

“On April 25, 2011, a tornado swept through Vilonia, killing five people and damaging structures,” Trimble writes. “Another tornado on April 27, 2014, killed eight people, wiped out businesses and destroyed the new Vilonia Intermediate School that had been set to open in the fall. President Barack Obama conducted his first official visit to the state to survey the damage and visit with Vilonia residents on May 7, 2014.”

We leave Vilonia and head to Conway, one of Arkansas fastest-growing cities.