Archive for the ‘Traveling Arkansas’ Category

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.

Entering White County

Friday, February 18th, 2022


We leave Woodruff County and enter White County on our trip west across Arkansas on U.S. Highway 64. As far as land area, this is the second-largest county in the state, behind only Union County in south Arkansas.

“Geographically, it’s a microcosm of the state as a whole,” Scott Akridge writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The southeastern part of the county is alluvial land that today is used for farming and timber production. The north part of the county is rocky higher ground where much of the land is used for cattle ranching. The Little Red River flows northwest to southeast across the county and connects with the White River, which forms the eastern boundary.”

This is where the Ozarks meet the Delta.

“The first Europeans to reach what’s now White County were likely with Hernando de Soto’s expedition, which ventured into the area in 1541 but stayed only a few days,” Akridge writes. “The next Europeans were likely French. Two Spanish land grants given to Frenchmen in the late 1780s are in the county. The first in central White County was to John Fayac. Documentary evidence of his actual occupation is sketchy. The second in southeast White County was to Francois Francoeur, likely the son of fur trader Joseph Francoeur, who came to the area in the 1740s.

“The first American settlers are believed to have been John and Nancy Magness, who traveled down the Southwest Trail from Wilson County in Tennessee in about 1815. The couple lived near what’s today the community of Letona. The Southwest Trail entered the north-central part of White County from Independence County, proceeded through the western half of the county and exited near El Paso. Later known as the Military Road, this road was the first major avenue for overland settlement in Arkansas and likely had been a trail used by Native Americans for centuries. The first post office in what became White County was established in 1831 along the Military Road west of Searcy.”

The Arkansas Territorial Legislature established White County in October 1835, carving it out of parts of Independence, Jackson and Pulaski counties. It’s not known if White County was named for the White River or for Sen. Hugh White of Tennessee, the Whig Party candidate for president in 1836.

“Near the center of the county, a community had developed around the White Sulphur Springs,” Akridge writes. “On Nov. 23, 1837, the Legislature designated this community the county seat and named it Searcy in honor of frontier lawyer and judge Richard Searcy of Batesville, who had died in 1832 at age 38. The first courthouse was a log structure built in 1839, but various legal challenges resulted in years of wrangling over the ownership of the Searcy site. The issue was finally decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1851, and Searcy was officially the county seat.

“Searcy wasn’t on the Military Road. By the 1840s, north-south traffic had begun to shift from the western part of the county to a more central route through Searcy. The Military Road gradually fell out of favor. By the time of the Civil War, military officers referred to it as the Old Military Road. The county’s first cash crop was likely cotton, and the earliest known cotton gin was along Gin Creek between Searcy and the Little Red River in the 1850s. Most settlers chose to live in the hilly northwest part of the county rather than the swampy southeast part.”

We drive through some of that swampy land and make our first White County stop at Bald Knob.

“Bald Knob was named for a large outcropping of layered stone that was a natural landmark, especially if approached from the White River and Little Red River floodplains east and south of town,” William Leach writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The completion of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad in 1872 triggered economic development in the region.

“Liberty Valley, south of Bald Knob, is the site of prehistoric salt extraction. Some scholars hypothesize that this was the site of Palisima, a Native American village mentioned in documents from the de Soto expedition. During the Civil War, workers extracted about two bushels of salt a day by boiling the water in large kettles. In the area’s only notable Civil War incident, Union troops broke most of the kettles on Aug. 10, 1864. Some of the old kettles still remain in private possession in the county.”

When Arkansas seceded, White County sent eight companies to fight for the Confederacy.

“In May 1862, Union Gen. Samuel R. Curtis arrived in the county from Batesville with his 12,000-man Army of the Southwest, intending to take Little Rock,” Akridge writes. “Curtis’ troops scoured the north half of the county, while the locals south of the river hid or destroyed food and forage in an effort to starve Curtis’ army. The most significant action occurred when a detachment of the 12th Texas Cavalry and local troops attacked a Union foraging party a few miles east of Searcy on May 19, 1862.

“Locally known as the Action at Whitney’s Lane, the conflict involved about 100 Union troops and 150 Confederate cavalry. Union losses were 23 killed and several dozen wounded. Southern losses were four killed and only a handful of wounded. Whitney’s Lane wasn’t a large battle, but it did have an impact. Curtis had found his supply lines from Missouri constantly under attack, and adequate provisions weren’t reaching his troops. Supply boats that were to come up the White River never reached him. Almost daily guerrilla warfare, the removal of food and forage from his path, the timely arrival of Texas troops in the area and incessant rains forced Curtis to abandon his goal of taking Little Rock and march to Helena instead. It would be more than a year before Little Rock would be captured by Union forces.”

The Union gunboat Cricket captured the Confederate steamboats Kaskaskia and Tom Sugg on the Little Red River in 1863. As the Cricket returned down the river, it was fired on from the bank near the community of West Point.

“The Cricket returned fire, as did the Lexington, another Union gunboat that had made its way up the river to near West Point,” Akridge writes. “The Confederates scattered, but the cannon fire damaged several homes in West Point. In August 1864, a Union force of 3,000 under the command of Brig. Gen. Joseph West came from Little Rock into White County but engaged in only small skirmishes. West’s forces destroyed the 11 kettles and 60 evaporating vats the Confederates were using to procure two bushels of salt per day at Liberty Valley.”

The railroad came to White County in 1872, bypassing Searcy by several miles.

“The railroad ushered in a new era of commerce in the county,” Akridge writes. “The towns of Bradford, Russell, Bald Knob, Kensett, Garner, McRae and Beebe formed along the tracks. The timber industry became the largest employer.”

The area around Bald Knob was sparsely settled before the Civil War and known as Shady Grove.

“With the railroad’s arrival in 1872, officials became interested in quarrying the bald knob for railroad bed ballast,” Leach writes. “Work in the quarry began in 1877. By 1880, 56 of the town’s 221 people worked there. More than half of the quarry workers were foreign born, most from Ireland. The importance of rock quarrying continued as the knob furnished ballast for Jay Gould’s Bald Knob & Memphis Railroad, which was built in 1886-88 to provide an east-west connection for the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern. By 1900, the quarry had wound down. It reopened briefly in the 1920s to furnish rock for buildings at what’s now Rhodes College in Memphis.

“Benjamin Franklin Brown, one of Bald Knob’s founding fathers, posted a sign beside the railroad tracks in about 1873 labeling the area Bald Knob. In February 1878, Lunsford Worthington applied for a post office, and 150 families were soon receiving mail at the new station. Merrival Dumas was elected the first mayor in 1881.”

Bald Knob grew as people came to work in sawmills or in the surrounding bottomlands as the virgin hardwoods were harvested.

“The number and size of the mills reached a high in the 1930s when Fisher Body Co. of Memphis required 80 railcars of logs daily to be used for body supports of General Motors automobiles,” Leach writes. “The strawberry industry triggered another economic surge for Bald Knob. The sandy, upland soil was ideal for the fruit, which was introduced in neighboring Judsonia in the 1870s. The first strawberry association was organized in 1910.

“In 1921, Brown, June ‘Jim’ Collison and Ernest Wynn organized The Strawberry Co. They built the longest strawberry shed in the world, a three-quarter-mile structure parallel to the railroad tracks. In the peak year of 1951, Bald Knob growers sold $3.5 million worth of strawberries. Bald Knob became known as the Strawberry Capital of the World. Berries ceased to be a major crop in the 1960s because of changing market and labor conditions.”

Akridge notes: “From the 1920s into the 1980s, there was a gradual shift from cotton and strawberries to soybeans and rice as primary cash crops. Most of the remaining farmland in the eastern part of the county today is planted in soybeans or rice. Sod farms occupy some of the land formerly planted in other crops.”

Daniel Wheaton planted the first successful strawberry crop in White County.

“Other area farmers tried to match his success,” Deborah Moore writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Jacob Bauer started Bauer Plant Co., which grew and sold strawberry plants. Louis Hubach developed new varieties of stronger plants with better fruit. The industry enjoyed a peak year in 1921, suffered setbacks due to plant disease in 1922-23, then continued to grow and prosper, even during the Great Depression. Lack of farm labor and the inability to mechanize berry picking led to a lessening of the strawberry’s importance later in the 20th century.

“In the early 1990s, a McRae box factory’s entire output was used for shipping strawberries. Strawberry production constituted the largest industry, even when compared to cotton and timber operations. The McRae Strawberry Association was created in 1912. Judsonia, Bald Knob, Searcy and Beebe were also major sites of production, complete with warehouses and canneries. The growth of the industry led to an increase in tenant farming in White County, and the emergence of cooperatives provided for the cheaper export of berries across the country, with shipping by truck becoming common in the 1930s.

“The railroad led to the emergence of Arkansas’ strawberry industry, but other innovations in transportation — such as the shipping of berries via refrigerated truck — led to its decline, especially as it became possible to ship berries from areas of the country more suitable to their cultivation. For berries to be their sweetest, the weather has to be warm and sunny. Cold and rainy weather produces inferior berries. California, which ranks first in the nation in strawberry production, possesses an environment that allows production to go on throughout the year. Florida growers can raise and pick their berries for six months of the year. By contrast, the strawberry season in Arkansas consists of only about six weeks.

“By the 1950s, the local industry declined in the face of competition from other states, combined with the post-World War II migration of young people to cities. A few growers continued to cultivate strawberries, especially for the local market and farmers’ markets.”

Numerous public works projects took place in Bald Knob during the Great Depression.

“The National Youth Administration built a gymnasium for the high school,” Leach writes. “The Works Progress Administration improved rural roads. The WPA also constructed a building for School District No. 45 northwest of town. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places because of its representation of Prairie-style architecture. It was later occupied by Hopewell Community Church. Bald Knob’s citizens later pitched in to aid in the World War II effort by buying war bonds, rounding up scrap metal and rationing sugar, butter, gasoline and tires.”

The Bald Knob School District can trace its roots back to a two-teacher school that was formed in 1897 from the old Shady Grove School. By 1927, students in all 12 grades were attending school at Bald Knob. Much of the school was destroyed by a March 1952 tornado.

“The development of wildlife refuges in the eastern half of the county served not only to protect the environment but also to bring in duck, deer and squirrel hunters,” Akridge writes. “The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission’s Henry Gray Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area and its Steve Wilson Raft Creek Bottoms Wildlife Management Area — along with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge — attract many sportsmen.”

Crossing Woodruff County

Thursday, February 17th, 2022


We enter McCrory, the next stop on our trip across Arkansas on U.S. Highway 64.

“There are several versions of how an early settlement in this area was named,” Paula Harmon Barnett writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “As one story goes, a traveler riding through what’s now Woodruff County in about 1840 stopped at a cabin in the woods to ask for directions. A woman named Jennie came to the door, surrounded by children. Later, the traveler jokingly said he had stopped at Jennie’s Colony, referring to the multitude of children. The name stuck, and for many years the area was known as Jennie’s Colony.

“Another story claims the area was named for the wife of early settler James Barnes. Others say it was named for Jennie Edmonds, an early inhabitant of the area. Whatever the truth, part of the colony became McCrory. … The population of the area showed no significant growth until after the railroads arrived in 1886. Much of the region was swampland. Cotton was the main crop, and a few cotton farmers had large holdings and owned a number of slaves.

“Tax records show that Cyrus McCrory owned six slaves in 1861 when he moved from Tennessee to Tuckerman. In 1862, McCrory paid $3,500 in Confederate money for 400 acres and moved his family to what’s now McCrory. The town was named for him.”

Cyrus McCrory died in 1869. A year later, his son, Wade McCrory, moved the family to Batesville. In 1890, the year McCrory was incorporated, the family moved back. Several years earlier, a railroad agent had begun visiting with Wade McCrory about obtaining right of way and building a depot.

“Wade McCrory, recognizing the importance of the railroad to the community, signed deeds giving the depot site and 15 acres on the south end of his farm for the right of way,” Barnett writes. “As word spread, plans were made for laying out the town, a post office opened and industry began to flourish. The first train steamed into town in 1887. When the county court granted the incorporation petition for McCrory on Jan. 20, 1890, its population was about 300.

“When the railroad began running, one resident said, ‘It was like a storm.’ Soon, the town gained a hotel, school, churches, a stave mill, a furniture store, drugstores and lumber mills. Wade McCrory donated the land for churches and half the land for a school. In 1903, he helped organize the Bank of McCrory. It was the county’s only bank to remain in operation during the Great Depression.”

McCrory became a regional hub. People throughout the area read a succession of newspapers owned by Walter Raney and came to McCrory to shop.

“Raney also owned and operated a funeral business and organized the first burial association in Woodruff County, the Raney Burial Association,” Barnett writes. “He served as mayor, county judge, state representative and state senator. His efforts procured a pension for Confederate veterans and their widows.”

These days, the town revolves around farming and the McCrory School District.

“The first school of record was a family school in a log cabin on the Bronte farm in the early 1880s,” Barnett writes. “The first school building was constructed in 1888 in a rural area described only as near the ‘old pine tree.’ In 1900, the school moved into a former hotel in downtown McCrory. In 1930, the DeView, Beards, Grays and Fakes Chapel schools consolidated with McCrory, and the first buses were used.”

McCrory’s population has dropped from 1,942 in the 1980 census to 1,383 in the 2020 census. The 770,000-square-foot American Greetings manufacturing plant closed in 2003 after 27 years in operation.

We leave McCrory, cross the Cache River at Patterson and make our way west on U.S. 64 to Augusta on the banks of the White River. Augusta is the Woodruff County seat and became a city long before McCrory due to its location on the river.

These days, Augusta is losing population even more rapidly than McCrory. It has fallen from 3,496 residents in the 1980 census to 1,851 in the 2020 census.

“Most families that settled in Augusta came from Eastern states and brought culture with them,” Barnett writes. “Visitors often remarked on the beauty of the homes in what was otherwise a wilderness. Some stayed to join in building the town. By the start of the Civil War, Augusta’s population had grown to about 600 people. … The town was almost destroyed during the war. The river landing made Augusta a target for the Union.

“In 1864, citizens fled from Union troops, who tore down houses and used the boards to build shelters in their camps. The finer houses were spared as headquarters for officers. A skirmish took place at Augusta on Aug. 10, 1864, and expeditions through the area occurred the following December and January. Almost as much tragedy followed the war. Unrest in Woodruff County caused Republican Gov. Powell Clayton to declare martial law and send a company of militia to root out Ku Klux Klan members in 1868. The commander immediately arrested 12 of the leading citizens of Augusta to ensure the cooperation of residents. Several people were killed, and the town was looted.”

When railroads began crossing the county, Augusta’s leaders decided to concentrate instead on river trade. It was a big mistake. Finally, a short-line railroad was built in 1887 to connect with the main line between Bald Knob and Memphis. What was known as the Little Dummy Line continued operations until 1958.

“A big event for Augusta occurred in 1930 when a $614,734 bridge was completed across the White River, closing the last gap in U.S. 64,” Barnett writes. “A celebration was held with a parade across the bridge and many dignitaries present. The original bridge, which was on the National Register of Historic Places, was replaced in 2001 with a four-lane bridge at a cost of $17.6 million.

“During the Great Depression, crop prices dropped, and the Bank of Augusta closed. Augusta businessman Ed Bonner loaned the school $10,000 so it could stay open, and teachers agreed to work one month out of every eight months without pay.”

The Augusta School District annexed the Cotton Plant School District in 2004.

The Woodruff County Courthouse at Augusta, which opened in 1902, has been on the National Register of Historic Places since December 1982.

According to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program: “Augusta has hosted four courthouses through the years. There have also been court sessions in Cotton Plant and McCrory out of convenience for those residents. Augusta’s first courthouse was a modest wood-frame building. The county offices soon moved into a larger two-room wooden structure. In April 1870, Augusta founder Thomas Hough sold his residence to the county for $28,000, and it became the third courthouse. It stood on the site of the current Woodruff County Courthouse. The two-story brick residence featured a wide lawn and served as Union Gen. Frederick Steele’s headquarters in July 1862 before a march to Helena.

“By 1901, county offices had outgrown the Hough house, leading to its demolition. County officials appointed T.H. Connor as building commissioner for a new courthouse in Augusta along with one in Cotton Plant to serve southern Woodruff County. The county appropriated $44,000, including $30,000 for the Augusta building. Charles Thompson, a prolific Arkansas architect, drew the plans for both projects.

“Thompson planned the Augusta courthouse in the Richardson Romanesque style, an eclectic design named after the work of architect Henry Hobson Richardson. Connor awarded the contract to build the structure to C.W. Clark of Little Rock. The most distinctive outside feature is a clock tower that crowns the pressed-brick building, along with the pyramidal and high-hipped roofing. Inside, a multicolored tile mural covers the main level. Pine wainscoting adorns the second-floor courtroom.

“The building opened in December 1902 with much fanfare. The Arkansas Democrat reported: ‘To say it’s a beauty is putting it very mildly.’ Judge E. D. Robinson started the building’s first court session with 68 cases on the docket, including 38 filings for divorce.”

Headed toward the west, I cross the White River, the river that once gave Augusta its reason for being.

“Keelboats were an early mode of transportation for Arkansas’ early settlers,” Aaron Rogers writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Above Newport, sharp bends, rapids and low water levels along the river during the summer months — as well as the additional manpower required to move keelboats upriver against the current — generally allowed travel only downriver. The lower White River was navigable in both directors from the Mississippi River to Newport.

“The river served as a highway carrying supplies and crops back and forth from the frontier settlements to river cities such as Memphis and New Orleans. … After the Civil War, steamboats were gradually replaced by railroads.”

We’re in the lowlands of the White River now, and ducks can be seen flying, a reminder that this is one of Arkansas’ prime areas for hunting and fishing. In this part of the state, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge, the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge and the Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge.

Meanwhile, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission operates the Henry Gray Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area, the Steve N. Wilson Raft Creek Bottoms Wildlife Management Area and the Rex Hancock Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area.

The White River National Wildlife Refuge covers more than 160,000 acres in parts of Monroe, Arkansas, Phillips and Desha counties. It borders the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge to the north. The refuge was created in 1935 and has expanded through the decades to serve as a home for migrating waterfowl, black bears and eagles.

There are 356 natural and manmade lakes in the refuge covering almost 4,000 acres. The refuge is classified as a Wetland of International Importance.

Meanwhile, the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge covers almost 70,000 acres. It has land in parts of Woodruff, Jackson, Prairie and Monroe counties. The Cache and White River refuges combine to preserve the largest tract of contiguous bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the country.

The youngest of the three national wildlife refuges in the area is Bald Knob, which covers about 14,800 acres in White County.

“The Bald Knob refuge was acquired as part of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan in 1993,” Candice McGee writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Most of the land consists of a rice farm that had been owned by John Hancock Insurance Co. Unlike many wildlife refuges, Bald Knob includes cropland that continues to be farmed. Much of the crop is left unharvested to feed and shelter migratory birds and wildlife. The irrigation system on the farm is still in use, maintaining mudflats that support migrating waterfowl while also providing a home for shorebirds.

“Other sections of the refuge are being reforested or have been returned to wetland conditions. The terrain includes bald cypress, tupelo, swamp brakes, small oxbow lakes, Southern bottomland hardwood forests and the waters of Overflow Creek. Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge is also home to bald eagles and peregrine falcons. Both of these species have recovered significantly after being at perilously low populations.

“Through cooperative efforts with local farmers, the refuge is able to provide an excellent food source and habitat for wintering waterfowl. Farmers plant rice, milo, millet and other crops. As part of the refuge’s cooperative farming agreement, they leave part of the crops unharvested. About 20,000 people visit the refuge annually.”

Henry Gray Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area covers parts of White and Woodruff counties. The area consists of 17,000 acres of prime bottomland hardwoods with numerous sloughs cutting through the woods. The White River is on the east, and the Little Red River separates about 4,000 acres from the main body of the WMA. Glaise Creek is another major tributary in the area. Oxbow lakes have names such as Big Hurricane, Little Hurricane, Big Bell, Little Bell, Whirl Lake, Honey Lake, Big Brushy and Mallard Pond.

The WMA was established in 1958. The owner of most of the land was once the company that made Singer sewing machines. In the 1930s, the land was sold to Fisher Body Co.

According to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission: “Each year about 500 to 600 acres of timber are cruised, marked and cut to improve the composition and diversity of the forest and increase the quality of the habitat for forest wildlife. WMA personnel plant about 30 acres of food plots each year. Future plans are to establish food plots in clover and other perennials. One 60-acre field will be reforested in hardwoods.”

The Steve Wilson Raft Creek Bottoms WMA in White County covers almost 4,000 acres. Raft Creek was an overflow hardwood bottomland and backwater area until the late 1960s and early 1970s when it was cleared for soybean farming.

According to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission: “The AGFC and Natural Resources Conservation Service are in the process of restoring the area’s hydrology and native vegetation. This includes creating about 1,400 acres of shallow-water areas and about 11 miles of restored channels of Raft Creek and its tributaries that can be used as boat lanes. Restored channels, sloughs and brakes are fringed with cypress and overcup oak plantings. The remainder of the site is planted in Nuttall oak, cherrybark oak, willow oak, water oak, sweet pecan and green ash.”

The Rex Hancock Black Swamp WMA in Woodruff County began in 1971 when 3,888 acres were purchased from three owners. In 1983, 1,694 acres were purchased by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission from the timber giant Potlatch. That land was later deeded to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission.

Another 377 acres known as the LeBlanc Unit were purchased in cooperation with Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy in 1990. In 1995, a 427-acre tract was deeded to the commission to bring the total acreage to almost 6,400 acres.

According to the commission: “The WMA is mostly low bottomlands and swamps. The Cache River splits the area in the middle. Major hardwood species are cypress, tupelo, oak and hickory. About 30 acres of permanent food plots are in the process of being established in perennials such as clovers and rye grass. About 120 acres have been reforested in hardwood seedlings. Two wetland complexes are being developed to provide about 50 acres of habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds.

“The WMA has several stands of virgin cypress and tupelo. Most stretches of the Cache River within this area are lined with these species, providing an environment that is aesthetically attractive and increasingly unusual. The WMA provides one of the best opportunities available anywhere to experience this type of river swamp environment.”

The WMA was named for the Stuttgart man who led the long fight to protect the lower Cache River and the surrounding Big Woods.

“Conservation needs more than lip service, more than professionals,” Rex Hancock once said. “It needs ordinary people with extraordinary desire.”

The Nature Conservancy has described this battle in east Arkansas as “one of ecological setbacks, protection victories and painstaking restoration. Yet the final chapter has yet to be written. In 1970, at the request of local landowners, the state slated 232 miles of the meandering Cache River and Bayou DeView for channelization to control flooding on upstream fields. A group of concerned sportsmen led by Hancock joined conservation agencies and organizations to launch a campaign that eventually brought a halt to ditching of nearly all of the lower Cache. During the battle, seven miles of the river were channelized.

“Soon afterward, a partnership of agencies, conservation groups, businesses and landowners began working to conserve the remaining forests in the lower Cache basin. Major victories included securing federal funding that created the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge and later working to add 41,000 acres of Potlatch lands to the White River National Wildlife Refuge. Through the Wetlands Reserve Program, tens of thousands of bottomland acres were reforested. All told, the partnership has reforested more than 50,000 acres and safeguarded more than 130,000 acres in the Big Woods.

“While the conservation strides were significant, the work on the channelized stretch of the Cache remained incomplete. When the restoration is finished, this stretch of the Cache will once again enjoy thriving fish populations and flourishing habitat that supports waterfowl and hundreds of resident and migratory bird species. With channelization, the Cache basin’s productive aquatic habitats and richly diverse bottomland forests declined. This harmed millions of wintering waterfowl that flocked to the area, black bears that roamed freely in surrounding woods and prized sport fish that defined the Cache’s waters.

“Restoring the Cache pays homage to and helps sustain the deeply rooted Delta river culture so cherished throughout Arkansas. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the city of Clarendon, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, Arkansas Audubon, Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy worked together to restore a four-mile portion of the channelized river upstream from Clarendon.

“Restoring the river to its more natural state involved removing plugs at the start of old meanders and constructing weirs, which are rock structures that redirect water to flow into the river’s historic meanders. Using these methods, a significant stretch of river was restored with fairly limited construction work. Work to remove the earthen plug at the most upstream meander was completed in June 2013.”

From Wynne to Woodruff County

Thursday, January 27th, 2022


We’re staying on U.S. Highway 64 from Marion to Fort Smith on this journey.

A portion of the road in Crittenden County follows the historic Military Road of the 1800s, one of the first designated travel routes in the state.

“The creation of the state’s highway commission in 1913 meant a more systematic oversight of roads than had been possible under local control,” Steve Teske writes for the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “In 1925, a joint committee of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads and the American Association of State Highway Officials created a plan of national highways that included U.S. 64. The designation linked individual roads already built to connect cities and towns and also prompted new highway construction to accomplish that linkage.

“The commission reported that 9 percent of the roads in Arkansas were paved at the end of 1926. Through the 1920s and 1930s, U.S. 64 and its partner highways were improved. Much of the work was done in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. The emergence of the interstate system in the 1950s removed much of the traffic from U.S. 64, though it has continued to be used for more local travel and as an option to the interstates.”

U.S. 64 runs 2,326 miles from Arizona to North Carolina. It passes through six states and traverses 246 miles in Arkansas.

We’re now in Wynne, which was born in the early 1880s when the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad tracks were completed through the area.

“A train derailed and left behind a boxcar, which was turned upright and named Wynne Station,” Kimberly Seabaugh writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The town was named for Capt. Jesse Wynne of Forrest City. He was influential in starting Forrest City’s first bank. Wynne became the headquarters for construction of the railroad that was being built from Memphis to Bald Knob. With five saloons in Wynne, men working for the railroad drank and gambled there.

“By 1887, Wynne had six general stores, two drugstores, two hotels, three doctors, a jeweler, a blacksmith, a lawyer, two barbers and two meat markets. Development slowed after Sept. 2, 1887, when a fire destroyed more than two-thirds of the business district. Damage was estimated at $200,000.”

The east-west line of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad was finished by 1888. What had been known as Wynne Junction was incorporated as Wynne in May 1888. In 1903, the Cross County seat was moved from Vanndale to Wynne.

“Wynne had grown larger than Vanndale,” Seabaugh writes. “With its railroad connections, it was easier to access for many people. The courthouse was built in 1905. In 1897, the first telephone system came to Wynne. By 1955, more than 1,500 people had telephone lines. From 1918-26, water and light companies were built and major streets were paved. In 1929, Cherokee Public Service Co. became the first to supply natural gas.

“Wynne had schools as early as 1886. In 1902, a two-story brick building was constructed to serve all grades. When a high school was built in 1950, the original building was used for elementary grades. From 1896-1902, a Catholic school called St. Anselm’s was located in Wynne. From 1901-24, Wynne Normal & Industrial Institute served the African-American community for primary and secondary school.”

More than anything in those early years, Wynne was a railroad town. Thousands of people were brought to Wynne from the Delta lowlands during the Great Flood of 1927. Tent cities were established near the railroad tracks as people packed boxcars on inbound trains from both sides of Crowley’s Ridge.

“As part of the New Deal programs during the Great Depression, artists were paid to travel and place murals in local post offices,” Seabaugh writes. “In 1928, a Colorado artist, Ethel Magafan, and her twin sister Jenne placed the mural ‘Cottonpickers’ in the Wynne post office. This was one of 21 murals placed in Arkansas post offices and is one of 19 that still exist. The WPA also completed several projects in Wynne during that period.

“During World War II, the railroads in Wynne were busy as troop trains came through town. Members of the Missouri Pacific Women’s Booster Club served sandwiches, doughnuts and coffee to the troops. They also collected letters to be mailed. … World War II led to a shortage of farm workers. In 1944, local residents met to discuss the problem and agreed to receive German prisoners of war. By June 1944, 300 prisoners had arrived and were available to work on farms. A camp was established to house 600 prisoners.”

The prisoners also worked at the Gibbs-Harris rice dryer in Cross County and built another rice dryer at Wheatley. After the war, school consolidation picked up speed in Cross County as people moved into town. The Rolfe, McElroy, Hamlin and New Hope districts were consolidated with the Wynne School District. Wynne’s population grew from 3,633 in 1940 to 4,922 in 1960. School desegregation was completed in 1971.

“The last passenger trains came through Wynne on Aug. 28, 1965, signaling the decline of the railroad era and the rise of improved highways for transportation,” Seabaugh writes. “During the 2005-06 school year, the Parkin School District was consolidated into the Wynne School District. Wynne schools received more than 100 students from Parkin.”

We come off Crowley’s Ridge and find ourselves back in the Delta as soon as we head west out of Wynne. We soon cross the L’Anguille River, which begins just west of Harrisburg and flows south on the west side of Crowley’s Ridge until reaching Marianna. It then cuts east across the ridge and empties into the St. Francis River.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “In the 18th century, French trappers operated along the river, naming it after the French word for eel. Friedrich Gerstacker described the river basin as consisting of ‘swamps and thorns, creepers, wild vines, fallen trees, half or entirely rotted, deep and muddy water courses, bushes so thick that you could hardly stick a knife into them and, to complete the enjoyment, clouds of mosquitoes and gnats, not to mention snakes lying about on the edge of the water courses.’

“The L’Anguille River, like the Cache River to the west, proved to be a major obstacle for the construction of the railroad connecting Memphis and Little Rock. The gap in the line between the Cache and L’Anguille wasn’t completed until 1871. Like many other rivers in east Arkansas, which tend to be slow-moving streams, the L’Anguille is prone to flood. During both the Great Flood of 1927 and the Great Flood of 1937, the river spilled from its banks, inundating surrounding farmland.

“As with much of northeast Arkansas, the L’Anguille River basin was the site of enormous timber harvests in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After the land was cleared, the area became home to large-scale agricultural enterprises, especially the rice farming that was emerging west of Crowley’s Ridge. The L’Anguille watershed, which covers 938 square miles, has seen many of the channels that feed into the river straightened for agricultural use. That has increased soil erosion.”

Just before leaving Cross County, we pass through the community of Fair Oaks. It’s the home of one of the best dairy bars in the state, Kennon’s

In her book “Arkansas Dairy Bars,” Kat Robinson writes: “Kennon’s is one of those amazing secret spots that locals love and treasure. Hazel Kennon opened this dairy bar in 1971. Her son Doug and his wife Judy have kept it going strong. Not much has changed. The restaurant prides itself on a selection of Arkansas Delta dairy bar classics, including a barbecue sandwich, pizza burger, burrito deluxe, fried bologna sandwich and, of course, burgers,”

We cross into Woodruff County, which was established in November 1862 during the Civil War.

“Augusta, which had been the Jackson County seat in 1852-53, was named Woodruff County seat and remained so, even though court sessions sometimes were held in Cotton Plant and McCrory for convenience,” Paula Harmon Barnett writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The county was named for William Woodruff, founder of the Arkansas Gazette in 1819. Thomas Hough, an Augusta founder, played an important part in the organization of Woodruff County. In 1870, Hough sold his residence in Augusta to the county to be used for a courthouse and public square.

“During the Civil War, most of the citizens of Woodruff County opposed secession but lent their support to the Confederacy. Several battles were fought in the county. The most notable were the Action at Fitzhugh’s Woods and the Action at Hill’s Plantation, both Union victories. A small force of Union troops occupied Augusta for a short time in the winter of 1864-65. There was much unrest in the county after the war. In December 1868, Republican Gov. Powell Clayton declared martial law and sent a company of militia to search for members of the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK was strong in the county during Reconstruction. The commander of the militia, Gen. Daniel Phillips Upham, arrested 12 of the leading citizens of Augusta and held them to prevent resistance. Several people who protested were killed, and the town was looted by the militia.”

Woodruff County is one of the smallest counties in the state from a population standpoint. It has seen its population tumble from 22,682 in the 1930 census to just 6,269 in the 2020 census.

“Woodruff County, thick with trees and swampy areas, received little attention from Spanish or French explorers, though the French named the Cache River,” Barnett writes. “When the United States made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the area was sparsely settled. When Arkansas became a territory in 1819, what’s now Woodruff County was part of Lawrence and Arkansas counties.

“In 1820, part of present-day Woodruff County was included in Independence and Phillips counties when the counties were formed. In 1827, St. Francis County was formed from part of present-day Phillips and Woodruff counties. In 1829, Jackson County was formed and included the rest of present-day Woodruff County.”

Timber companies moved in during the 1880s to harvest the abundant bottomland hardwood timber in the area.

“Sawmills thrived,” Barnett writes. “In the late 1800s and early 1900s, railroads began to move into the county, and towns sprang up around them, increasing the county’s population each year and greatly improving the economy. Cotton, corn, oats and hay were grown in the fertile, well-watered soil.”

Woodruff County’s population soared from 6,891 in 1870 to 16,304 in 1900.

“In 1901, a court district was created to serve southern Woodruff County with money set aside for a courthouse and jail at Cotton Plant,” Barnett writes. “The old courthouse in Augusta was torn down for a new courthouse and jail. Both courthouses were designed by Charles Thompson. For a time, McCrory also had a courthouse. Functions of all three later were consolidated in Augusta.

“With high prices for rice prevailing during World War I and World War II, many acres in the county were cleared for rice production. Drainage districts were organized, and drainage channels were cut through the lowlands. From 1950-55, Woodruff County had about 3,000 acres cleared for rice. However, soybeans were becoming Woodruff’s County’s main crop by then.”

In 1880, there were about 40,000 acres being farmed in Woodruff County. With the clearing of the virgin forests, that number is now almost 285,000 acres.

Those farmers make extra money leasing their land to hunters. The popularity of hunting in Woodruff County has skyrocketed in recent decades.

“Much of this is because of the Rex Hancock Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area, established along the Cache River by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission,” Barnett writes. “Land was reforested and wetland complexes were developed to provide habitat for migrating waterfowl. The management area is bottomland and swamp, providing some of the best duck hunting in the state. Many hunters come from outside Arkansas, some flying into area airports to take up temporary residence in the county during duck and deer season. … Hunting clubs, bed and breakfast inns and specialty hunting enterprises sprang up due to the growing interest in hunting.”

The two remaining school districts in this rural county are the McCrory School District and Augusta School District. The Cotton Plant School District was consolidated into Augusta in 2004.

Like so many towns in this part of the state, McCrory is a product of the railroad. It was incorporated in 1890.

Situated on the banks of the White River, Augusta is much older than McCrory. It was a steamboat stop and was the county seat of Jackson County before Woodruff County was even created.

“The town’s placement at a natural river landing brought prosperity,” Barnett writes. “Boats from Memphis, hauling a variety of goods, land weekly at Augusta. Boats from New Orleans also made regular stops. Local tradition holds that long before white men set foot in what’s now Arkansas, members of the Chickasaw tribe built a settlement on a high bluff overlooking the White River. The site has long been called Chickasaw Crossing.

“In 1820, a man known only as Hamilton landed there and took up residence. About two years later, he sold his holdings to Rolla Gray, who settled there with his family. Other settlers followed. In 1847, John R. Elliott of Philadelphia and business partner William Polite opened the settlement’s first store at the west end of what’s now Main Street. Elliott soon retired, and Polite built a new store on an adjacent plot. Thomas Hough then moved into the Elliott-Polite building, and the settlement was on its way to becoming a town. In 1848, Hough had the settlement surveyed and laid out. He named the town in honor of his niece, Augusta Cald of Virginia. Incorporation followed in July 1860. At the time, Augusta was in Jackson County. It became part of Woodruff County when the county was formed in the 1860s.”

We’ll explore McCrory and Augusta further as we continue west on U.S. 64.

Reaching Wynne

Tuesday, January 25th, 2022


We cross the St. Francis River as we head west out of Parkin on U.S. Highway 64.

The river begins in Missouri and is a mountain stream for its first 25 miles before reaching the Mississippi Alluvial Plain (commonly called the Delta) just north of Poplar Bluff. The St. Francis turns south and travels more than 200 miles. It forms the boundary between the Missouri Bootheel and Arkansas before moving slowly along the east side of Crowley’s Ridge through east Arkansas.

The river empties into the Mighty Mississippi in the St. Francis National Forest north of Helena.

“Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet explored part of the lower St. Francis River and likely gave the river its name, though it’s uncertain which saint served as the namesake — perhaps either St. Francis of Assisi or St. Francois Xavier,” Jodi Morris writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “From the 1780s to the 1820s, the St. Francis River basin was again the site of Native American settlement as members of the Cherokee tribe moved to the area and established homes.

“Part of the river between Lake City in Craighead County and Marked Tree in Poinsett County is known as the Sunken Lands. Here, the river dropped six to eight feet during the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, causing the river to form a large, swampy overflow area. The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission now conserves more than 27,000 acres of this overflow area as the St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management Area.”

The St. Francis wasn’t one of Arkansas’ early navigable streams since it was filled with log rafts and snags.

“In 1836-37, W. Bowling Buion surveyed the river under the auspices of the federal government with an eye toward improving navigation, but nothing came of it,” Morris writes. “Only after the Civil War did Congress begin funding the clearing of the river. Numerous cleaning and dredging operations made the St. Francis navigable from its mouth up to Wappapello, Mo. Because the swampy Sunken Lands impeded progress on railroad construction until land began to be drained in the late 1890s and early 1900s, steamboats continued to operate on the river.”

The St. Francis Levee District was created in 1893. Congressional passage of the Flood Control Act of 1928 provided new funds for flood-control measures along the river.

“These measures have greatly affected the natural course of the river and have included a number of diversion ditches that run somewhat parallel to the river along its course from southeastern Craighead County down through Lee County,” Morris writes. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed the world’s largest siphons on the St. Francis at Marked Tree in 1939 to help with flood control. The Marked Tree Siphons are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The Corps built the W.G. Huxtable Pumping Plant southeast of Marianna in 1977 to prevent Mississippi River floodwater from moving into the St. Francis. It also removes water held back by the St. Francis River levee system. It’s considered the world’s largest pumping plant of its kind.”

As the virgin hardwood forests were cleared and the swamps were drained after the Civil War, the cotton plantations became larger and larger.

“David C. Cross, a planter and slave owner, owned thousands of acres in the area of Poinsett and St. Francis counties in 1860,” Richard Hartness writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “When the Civil War began, he organized a company of soldiers, paid for their uniforms and was elected their colonel. This was the Fifth Arkansas Infantry Regiment, part of the Confederate Army. Cross purportedly became ill with pneumonia, left the regiment and returned in February 1862 to his home in what’s now northern Cross County.

“On Nov. 15, 1862, the Legislature created Cross County as the state’s 53rd county with a temporary county seat at Wittsburg. Because of Union activity in the Wittsburg area, county business was conducted secretly in Pineville. After the war ended, the county seat was officially moved to Cleburne, named for Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne. The county seat remained there until 1868. In 1903, Wynne became the county seat.”

Because Wittsburg was on the river, large cotton warehouses were built there. It served as county seat from 1862-65 and 1868-84.

“Rebounding after the Civil War and surviving a major fire in 1874, Wittsburg grew due to the trade in cotton and dry goods,” writes Arkansas historian Derek Clements. “Wittsburg began to fade after being bypassed by railroad lines in 1882 and 1887. That drew trade to the west side of Crowley’s Ridge and Wynne.”

Wittsburg had developed near the intersection of Crowley’s Ridge, the Military Road and the St. Francis River.

“The geographic location of Wittsburg made it thrive,” Clements writes. “Due to population growth, a second incorporation was required in 1859 to increase the amount of land in the town. By 1860, Wittsburg had grown to 100 people. There was a dock, cotton warehouses, a post office, a newspaper called the Wittsburg Messenger, a gristmill and a school. … At the end of the Civil War, Wittsburg was one of two major sites for Confederate surrender in northeast Arkansas. The other was Jacksonport. About 2,100 men were paroled in Wittsburg.

“For Wittsburg, the Reconstruction era was a mixture of confusion, lawlessness and economic renewal. Politically, Wittsburg lost the position of county seat to Cleburne from July 3, 1865, to Aug. 2, 1868. Due to an April 1869 requirement passed by the Legislature, all municipalities in Arkansas had to reincorporate. Wittsburg reincorporated for the third time on May 13, 1869. The town seemed to weather Reconstruction fairly well. By 1866, there were more than 10 taxable businesses in Wittsburg as well as a post office and church. Efforts to improve the road to Memphis were coupled with a return to steamboat contact, thus improving trade. By 1874, the town had a population of 300.”

A huge fire occurred Nov. 6, 1874, but Wittsburg bounced back for a time.

“The trade in timber and furs, as well as the movement of some 30,000 bales of cotton annually, provided the economic stimulus to rebuild damaged parts of town,” Clements writes. “The 1880s began a period of decline for Wittsburg. The census revealed that the town had slipped to 209 people by 1880. The north-south route of the Helena & Iron Mountain Railroad (later the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern), completed in 1882, passed to the west side of Crowley’s Ridge.

“In 1885, the town’s last newspaper, the Wittsburg Chronicle, which had begun in 1878, moved to Vanndale as the Cross County Chronicle. The east-west line of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern from Memphis to Bald Knob ran north of Wittsburg, drawing trade to the other side of Crowley’s Ridge where both tracks crossed at Wynne. As Wynne grew, Wittsburg dissolved. By 1900, the Wittsburg post office had closed.”

The railroad went north of Wittsburg to take advantage of a natural gap in Crowley’s Ridge.

“The growth of Vanndale and Wynne along the railroad balanced the decline of river cities such as Wittsburg,” Hartness writes. “This transfer of population was increased by flooding when the St. Francis River broke through levees in 1912 and 1913, and especially during the Great Flood of 1927. The American Red Cross tended to many refugees on the higher ground of Wynne during that flood, and railroads were used to evacuate flood victims from the county.”

Following World War II, hundreds of workers left Cross County for industrial jobs. That mirrored what was happening in other Arkansas counties. Arkansas lost a larger percentage of its population than any other state from 1940-60.

“Soybeans and rice began to displace cotton as the chief crops in Cross County, but farms became mechanized, reducing jobs in the county,” Hartness writes. “A men’s clothing factory, Rainfair, opened in 1954, followed by Addison Shoe Co. in 1960 and Halstead Industries (a manufacturer of copper tubing and fabricator of air cooling units) in 1963.

“Desegregation of Cross County schools began in 1967. At the same time, many smaller school districts were being consolidated. Parkin schools were consolidated into the Wynne School District in 2005. Most other schools became part of the Cross County system.”

Continuing west on U.S. 64, we climb out of the Delta and up Crowley’s Ridge, which runs from southern Missouri to Helena. It’s from one to 12 miles in width with Delta farmland on either side.

“It’s made up of a continuous series of rolling hills except for a slight break at Marianna,” Hurbert Stroud writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “This break or gap was created by the L’Anguille as it flowed across the ridge. The ridge received its name from Benjamin Crowley, the first white settler to reach the area near present-day Paragould, sometime around 1820. Crowley’s Ridge is an unusual geological formation that rises above the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. The ridge contrasts sharply with the surrounding flat land of the Delta.

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

It’s easy to spot the ridge from miles away as one drives across the Delta.

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

“One of the unique features of the ridge is its natural vegetation. Many of the trees that make up the forest on Crowley’s Ridge are similar to those found in the west Appalachian Mountains. The ridge is covered with a lush mixed forest that includes oak, hickory and uncommon hardwood trees such as American beech, sugar maple and yellow poplar. Crowley’s Ridge also has extensive areas of pasture. Although the soil is relatively fertile, row crops such as soybeans and wheat are limited almost entirely to small floodplains along and near streams that flow out of the region. This is due to the highly erosive nature of the wind-blown soil. These soils need a protective vegetative cover of some type (such as pasture grasses or forests) to combat severe erosion.”

This area of Crowley’s Ridge received a huge boost when Village Creek State Park was created. In 1967, the Legislature authorized a study to determine the need for a major state park in east Arkansas. Thomas Seay of Forrest City was the driving force in the park being located about six miles south of Wynne.

Land acquisition took place from 1972-78, resulting in the purchase of more than 6,900 acres by the state. Dedication ceremonies for the park were held in June 1976 with Charlie Rich, a native of nearby Colt, performing. An estimated 20,000 people attended the event.

Two lakes were created in the park. Lake Dunn is named after Poindexter Dunn, who served this area in Congress from 1879-89. Lake Austell is named for Samuel Austell, the first county judge of Cross County.

According to the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism: “While Village Creek State Park is named for a stream that flows through the area, it also preserves part of the rich history of the region. Early settlers named the area Old Cherokee Village, though there’s little evidence of Cherokee occupation outside scattered camp remnants. A section of the Military Road that once linked Memphis to Little Rock is still visible. It became a major route of Indian removal for Creek, Chickasaw and Cherokee tribe members from 1832-39.

“The park also contains part of William Strong’s Spanish land grants. He built his 20-room mansion within view of Crowley’s Ridge, near the Military Road on land just east of the park boundary. Strong became one of the largest landowners and leading politicians in the region between 1820 and 1840. He was the first postmaster along the Military Road and served as county sheriff. He also was a delegate to the Arkansas Constitutional Convention of 1836. Strong was instrumental in bringing the Military Road to the area, thus ensuring its population would grow.”

We enter Wynne, which started off as a railroad town and has grown from a population of 4,142 in the 1950 census to 8,314 in the 2020 census. At a time when most other towns in this part of the state are losing population, Wynne has been a shining star.

Across Cross County

Monday, January 24th, 2022


We cross into Cross County as the trip west across Arkansas continues on U.S. Highway 64.

“Created during the Civil War, the county was largely shaped by railroad development during the Gilded Age, with small industry and tourism becoming more of a focus in the late 20th and early 21st centuries,” Richard Hartness writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Geologically, the county is divided roughly into thirds. Crowley’s Ridge, a glacial age erosional remnant covered with a unique topsoil, traverses the county north to south, rising 75 to 100 feet above ancient alluvial floodplains on either side.

“The eastern third of the county is drained primarily by the St. Francis River, while the western portion drains into the L’Anguille River. … The county’s lowlands are devoted to rice, soybeans and cotton while the ridge accommodates apple, peach and pecan orchards as well as herds of goats and cattle. Over time, the area has been home to black bear, bison and deer. … Around the time of the Louisiana Purchase, the sparse population of the area consisted of French hunters, Cherokee and a few English frontiersmen, some claiming ownership of Spanish land grants.”

The Native Americans were removed on the Trail of Tears in the 1830s.

“Settlers from Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Missouri moved in, making their homes in the area,” Hartness writes. “The new landowners brought slaves with them to work on the plantations and farms established in the county. Early settlements in the region included Vanndale, named for its first postmaster J.M. Vann, and Wittsburg, an important landing on the St. Francis River.”

I make my way into Parkin and stop at Parkin Archeological State Park, which interprets a Mississippian-era village that existed from about 1000 to 1550.

According to the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism: “European-made trade items from the era of Hernando de Soto’s expedition recovered at the park and written descriptions of the village support theories that the Spanish visited the Parkin site in 1541. Many archaeologists believe the site may be Casqui, mentioned prominently in the de Soto journals. Remnants of Indian villages similar to the Parkin site were once numerous in eastern Arkansas, but soil erosion, careless digging and farming destroyed virtually all of them during the 19th century.

“The prehistoric village on the eastern bank of the St. Francis River covered 17 acres and was enclosed by the river on the west and a soggy moat on three sides. Archaeological studies have determined a wooden palisade also surrounded the village. A large platform earthen mound, built by the natives, still overlooks the river today. It’s believed to be the most intact (that is, undisturbed by looters) native village of its time period remaining in northeast Arkansas.”

After the town of Parkin was established in the late 1800s, cotton farmers discovered it was difficult to cultivate across the wide ditch that had served as the village’s protective moat. A sawmill and homes were constructed instead. The lack of row-crop agriculture on the site actually helped protect it.

Charles R. McGinsey III conducted a field school for the University of Arkansas at the site in 1965. In 1966, the Arkansas Archaeological Society held its annual training program here.

According to the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism: “The reason for both was to determine if there were enough intact deposits to warrant turning the site into a state park. The idea for a park came about in the early 1960s when local residents and elected officials worked to get the idea off the ground. The Coldren family donated the mound within the larger village site to the city of Parkin in 1964. The Legislature authorized land acquisition for the larger site in 1965, but the village site land wasn’t acquired until 1975.

“Several homes and a church occupied the village site. Individual land parcels were purchased in phases over a period of years. Initial park development started in 1991, and the new visitors’ center was dedicated in October 1994. Since its beginning, the park has operated under a partnership with the Arkansas Archeological Survey. A research station is located in the visitors’ center. Visitors can watch research in progress and see firsthand the results of excavations and laboratory analysis.

“While finding conclusive evidence that de Soto visited Parkin would be an important discovery, the archaeologists are more focused on learning about the residents of the ancient village, including how they lived and why they ceased occupation of the area sometime after the Spaniards departed. Along with the initial survey work done in the 1960s, additional investigation were carried out by Phyllis Morse in the 1970s and Jeffrey Mitchem in the 1990s.”

The state park also features the restored Northern Ohio School, which was used in the early 1900s by the children of employees of the sawmill located there.

So just who was Casqui?

Mitchem writes in the book “Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives”: “Casqui was a Native American chief who ruled over a province in northeast Arkansas in the 1500s. He was the first Indian leader in Arkansas whose 1541 dealings with de Soto are recorded in detail in accounts of the expedition. Casqui was thus the earliest Arkansan about whom we have written historical information. In the Spanish writings, his name was variously recorded as Casqui, Casquin or Icasqui. The explorers used his name to refer to him, the town in which we resided and the area over which he ruled.

“Knowledge of Casqui is limited, but the narratives provide interesting details about his people and the territory under his control, as well as some of the events that occurred when the expedition traveled through the region. Archaeological, geographical and historical evidence indicate that the town where Casqui lived was the Parkin site. The Spanish accounts describe Casqui’s town as fortified and next to a river, with the chief’s house upon a manmade mound next to the river.”

De Soto’s expedition crossed the Mississippi River into what’s now Arkansas in the summer of 1541.

“The explorers soon heard of two powerful chiefs in what’s now northeast Arkansas, Casqui and Pacaha,” Mitchem writes. “As the expedition headed north, it entered land under Casqui’s control. Word was sent to Casqui from residents of his outlying towns that strangers were approaching. Along with a large number of his people, Casqui walked some distance from his town, bearing gifts of food, clothing and animal hides to welcome de Soto and members of his expedition. This was in marked contrast to most initial encounters between Indians and the de Soto expedition, which were violent.

“The Spanish accounts indicate that there were probably two reasons for the peaceful reception. First, a prolonged drought had afflicted the region for several years, causing a failure of the crops upon which Casqui’s people depended. Second, Casqui was at war with the neighboring chief Pacaha. According to de Soto expedition chronicles, Casqui believed that the de Soto entourage had come from heaven. He asked de Soto to intervene with heaven to end the drought and brought two blind men to be healed. De Soto had 12 Catholic priests accompanying the expedition, and he tried to explain his Christian beliefs to Casqui through interpreters.”

The priests celebrated mass. De Soto had a large cross made from a tree and erected it atop the mound where Casqui’s house was located. There’s no evidence that any of the Native Americans converted to Christianity.

“Casqui’s war with Pacaha had probably been going on for years, maybe even for generations,” Mitchem writes. “All of Casqui’s settlements were fortified by defensive moat-like ditches and palisade walls. Pacaha’s towns were similarly fortified, suggesting that warfare had been a fact of life in northeast Arkansas for a long time. By the 1540s, the conflict probably consisted of small skirmishes and ambushes in which a few enemy people were either captured and made slaves or killed. Casqui hoped that de Soto and his soldiers, with their formidable weapons and horses, would help defeat Pacaha. To Casqui’s disappointment, de Soto made a tenuous peace between the two chiefs before moving on to other parts of Arkansas.

“The accounts of the de Soto expedition offer some details of events that occurred during their stay in northeast Arkansas, including the sacking of Pacaha’s main town by Casqui’s people and subsequent efforts by de Soto to make peace between the two. Unfortunately, they tell us little about Casqui himself. One of the accounts indicates he was about 50 years old in 1541. The narratives suggest that he was the aggressor in the ongoing warfare. When the de Soto expedition moved farther west after about a month in the area, Casqui’s name disappeared from the written record. There exists no other information about him or his ultimate fate.”

The Parkin site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1966.

The site is about a mile below where the Tyronza River empties into the St. Francis. The soil here is well suited to growing crops.

“The Indians planted their fields along the river,” Mitchem writes. “Excavations have revealed that corn was the main crop, supplemented by beans, squash, sunflowers and tobacco. The Indians also stored many wild plants from the area, including pecans, persimmons and various seeds and fruits. Their primary source of meat was deer, which were abundant in the forests that covered the region. In addition to many smaller mammals, fish and turtles from the rivers provided food.

“Their success at farming and the area’s natural abundance supported population growth over hundreds of years. Other Indian groups in the region were also prospering and expanding, and competition for prime farmland and the desire of chiefs to expand their domains eventually led to warfare. By the time Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500s, chiefs were ruling over provinces consisting of 10 to 20 small villages. … The Parkin site is a prime example of one of these fortified Mississippian villages. A defensive ditch surrounded the settlement on three sides with the St. Francis on the fourth. Archaeologists excavated remains of a stockade wall of upright wood posts on the inside of the ditch.”

Parkin was a capital with about 20 villages around it.

“Similarity of pottery styles and other archaeological remains support the conclusion that the residents were part of a single culture,” Mitchem writes. “Archaeologists have found what may be part of de Soto’s cross at the Parkin site, though it’s impossible to prove beyond doubt. Spanish artifacts — including a glass bead, a brass bell, bell fragments and two lead shot — provide strong evidence for contacts between the residents of Parkin and the de Soto expedition.”

The current town of Parkin has seen its population fall from 2,035 in the 1980 census to 962 in the 2020 census.

Settlers Reuben and Smash Rodgers moved to a community known as Smithdale in 1852. It was about two miles from present-day Parkin.

Dr. John Stoner moved to the area in 1871 and built a large plantation. Further development came after the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad laid its tracks in 1887. William Parkin of Memphis was in charge of railroad construction in the area, and the town was named for him.

Soon, because of access provided by the railroad, people were coming to clear the vast tracts of virgin hardwood timber. The Fee brothers from Pennsylvania established a lumber mill in 1890. George and Jake Mattox started a sawmill the same year. The Fee operation became Lansing Wheelbarrow Co., and the Mattox company eventually became Northern Ohio Cooperage & Lumber Co.

“Another major sawmill was established in 1902 by Henry Clay Coldren as the Parkin Cooperage Co.,” Kimberly Seabaugh writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Coldren’s company and Northern Ohio Lumber Co. merged in 1906 to form Northern Ohio Cooperage & Lumber Co. Lansing Wheelbarrow and Northern Ohio established the Northern Ohio School in 1910. This was a school for African-American children of the two companies’ workers. This school served children up to the eighth grade. In 1911, the main Parkin Elementary School for white children was built. Additional units were added in 1924.

“Parkin was incorporated as a town in 1912. That same year, a woman came to town to run one of its main industries. Agnes Hamill Park moved to Parkin from Michigan to manage Lansing Wheelbarrow, becoming the town’s first woman to hold such a position. Park was active in supporting local schools as well as assisting others in buying stock to organize First State Bank in 1925.”

Parkin sustained damage from major floods in 1912, 1913, 1927 and 1937. Residents often had to travel to government tent camps on Crowley’s Ridge. A tornado did considerable damage in 1928. The Great Depression began in 1929, and the Great Drought of 1930-31 followed.

“In 1938, Falls Equipment Co. was established, changing the area by introducing International Harvester farm machinery,” Seabaugh writes. “This would cause a change from the lumber industry to row-crop agriculture. By 1946, Northern Ohio had closed. Lansing Wheelbarrow also closed in the 1940s.”

A new high school for white students was constructed in 1951. In 2005, the Parkin School District was consolidated with the Wynne School District as the population losses increased.

“Parkin was once a hotspot for musicians from Memphis to perform,” Seabaugh writes. “Every weekend, residents were entertained. B.B. King frequently played in Parkin before his rise to fame. Chester Arthur ‘Howlin’ Wolf’ Burnett learned to play the harmonica while living in Parkin. Carl Perkins said it was after a show in Parkin that he overheard someone on the dance floor warning his date to stay away from his new blue suede shoes. He wrote down those words and recorded ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ in December 1955.”

Continuing west on U.S. 64, I cross the St. Francis River and head toward Wynne.

From Earle into Cross County

Friday, January 21st, 2022


Josiah Francis Earle was born in North Carolina in September 1828, the son of a man who owned trade ships that operated in the Atlantic Ocean between the United States and the West Indies.

“He moved to Arkansas as a young man, settling in Crittenden County,” writes historian David Sesser of Henderson State University. “He appeared on an 1850 listing of residents in Proctor Township in Crittenden County as a laborer. His mother also appeared on the list. In 1860, Earle appeared in the federal census as a court clerk with real estate valued at $5,000. Enlisting into Arkansas service at Marion on June 3, 1861, soon after the Civil War began, Earle was elected captain of his company, the Crittenden Rangers.

“The company enlisted into Confederate service on July 29, 1861, in Pocahontas. Originally Company C of the Sixth Arkansas Cavalry Battalion, the unit served in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi, seeing action at a number of battles. After the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, the battalion was disbanded, and part of the company was transferred to the Helena Artillery. The remainder became Company A of the Second Arkansas Cavalry.”

Earle continued to serve until resigning due to health reasons in 1863. He returned to Arkansas and later organized a company of Confederate cavalry in northeast Arkansas.

“Much of his time spent in the area focused on finding deserters and avoiding Union patrols and steamboats along the Mississippi,” Sesser writes. “At the conclusion of the war, Earle surrendered with his company at Wittsburg in Cross County. … Returning home, Earle married Louisa Burrus Richards on Nov. 15, 1865. The couple had four sons and two daughters with both daughters and one son surviving into adulthood.

“After the war, Earle became a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan in eastern Arkansas and western Tennessee. According to lore, Earle was captured in Tennessee and ordered to be hanged. After he was transported across the Mississippi River to Hopefield in Crittenden County, a group of fellow Klansmen rescued him. Earle became a significant landowner in western Crittenden County.”

Earle died in March 1884. I’m in Earle, the town named for him, on my trip across Arkansas on U.S. Highway 64.

The town named for this former Confederate officer and KKK member is now 72 percent black. Its population has declined from 3,517 in the 1980 census to 2,129 in the 2020 census.

“The history of Earle is really that of two towns — Earle and Norvell — which grew alongside each other for decades and were separated only by a boundary line running down present-day Ruth Street in Earle,” Adam Miller writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Both towns arose as a result of the timber industry boom following the Civil War and shared most of the same civic and business leaders.

“In 1888, a railroad line through the southern part of Earle was established, which benefited Earle more than its smaller neighbor, as the route of the railroad bypassed Norvell entirely. Talks of merging the two towns lingered for more than 60 years until Norvell was formally annexed by Earle in 1978. Prior to annexation, Earle shared municipal services and improvements with its smaller neighbor.”

When the railroad came through Earle in 1888, Josiah Francis Earle’s widow built a depot to encourage trains to stop. The most recent depot, which was built in 1922 and abandoned in the 1960s, is now a museum.

“Dr. James Throgmorton was a Norvell physician who once documented the sheer abundance of timber in the area and described the then sparsely populated land around Earle as a dense forest that was inhabited by bears, panthers and wolves until the late 1880s,” Miller writes. “This supply of timber brought rapid growth and prosperity to Earle and Norvell. Access to the railroad and the Tyronza River west of town provided reliable modes of transportation.

“Timber-related firms that once operated in Earle and Norvell included the Tyronza Lumber Co., the W.G. English sawmill, the C.T. Whitman Lumber Co., the Crittenden Lumber Co., the Boston Lumber Co. and the Earle Cooperage Co. Wynne businessman Luther Wallin moved to Earle in about 1900 and had extensive lumber interests through the area and three lumber mills in Crittenden County. His Earle sawmill closed in 1957 shortly after his death and was the last to operate in Earle.”

The Tyronza Lumber Co. mill had a daily capacity of 40,000 board feet. That mill closed in 1913.

The Lasater & Bailor stave mill, meanwhile, was on the banks of the river. Though it’s now little more than a drainage ditch, the Tyronza River once served as an important corridor into this area. The river often was used to float logs to sawmills.

“It no longer resembles the stream that it was up until the early 20th century as it has been channelized, ditched and had its meander loops cut off,” Cindy Grisham writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Before the formation of levee and drainage districts in the late 19th century that rerouted and channelized existing streams, the Tyronza rose out of a body of water called Carson Lake southwest of Osceola. From there, it flowed across low, swampy land, a region that locals referred to as the ‘scatters of Tyronza,’ into Tyronza Lake before narrowing down into the regular path it followed to the St. Francis River.

“Tyronza Lake was simply a widening of the river channel, probably as a result of the land falling during the series of earthquakes that occurred along the New Madrid fault line in 1811-12. Both Carson Lake and Tyronza Lake have since been drained and are used for agricultural land.”

Miller writes: “Population was sparse until the 1880s when the eyes of timber interests turned to eastern Arkansas and the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad built its line just south of Earle. A community that went by the names of Brown (named for Tom Brown, an early settler) and New Earle finally bore the name of Dr. Ben Norvell Sr., a town leader. Norvell was formally incorporated in 1904. Earle was incorporated in 1905 and remained the largest town in Crittenden County until it was surpassed by West Memphis in 1940.

“Norvell had a peak population of 522 in 1920, but its population growth was always overshadowed by Earle. Norvell lacked access to the railroad, and in an age when railroads determined the flow of commerce, the town’s best hope was to share in Earle’s prosperity.”

For a time, the Earle post office was in Norvell at a general store owned by brothers John and Jacob Watt.

“W.M. ‘Grat’ Brown, who owned property in Earle, wanted the post office moved, presumably to his property,” Miller writes. “Brown was fatally shot by John Watt on July 21, 1904. Watt claimed he shot Brown in self-defense and was acquitted at his trial even though Brown’s gun was never located. Many years later, Ben Norvell III found a fully loaded and cocked pistol inside a stump near the site of the shooting. That allegedly was Brown’s pistol, hidden there by a lady friend of Brown after he was killed.”

Miller says Norvell had “a handful of stores, saloons, a small mattress factory and a two-story hotel. Due to the terrain and perennial flooding problems, an elevated boardwalk was built along Norvell’s business district. It extended across a marsh into Earle, providing the only passable connection between the towns during inclement weather.”

Because Earle was the largest town in Crittenden County, Earle civic leaders dubbed it the “Pearl of the St. Francis.” As the hardwood timber was cleared and the forests were replaced by fields of cotton, gins and a compress facility were built at Earle.

“In 1908, Earle had a semiprofessional baseball team that played twice weekly,” Miller writes. “Starting in the 1920s, the Earle Cardinals professional basketball team played and brought national acclaim for its exceptional five-year record of 204 wins in 221 games. Earle High School began playing football in 1920 and was the first school system in Crittenden County to field a team.”

The Earle School District was established in 1919.

“The three-story brick structure that would later become Earle High School was built during this time and served as a junior-senior high school,” Miller writes. “During the next several decades, Works Progress Administration projects and other construction expanded the school until the district occupied three city blocks. During this time, the district operated numerous wing schools that served black students.

“The primary black school for the district was Dunbar High School, which was just north of the Earle School District facilities attended by whites. Integration commenced in the 1960s. Earle High School moved to a new facility on the east side of town in 1999. President Bill Clinton spoke at the dedication ceremony for the school.”

Like many Delta towns, Earle has a troubled history of race relations. In 1918, a black farm worker named Elton Mitchell was hanged by a mob for allegedly shooting and wounding the wife of a cotton planter.

“Mitchell’s personal history is a bit confusing with public records placing him in several adjacent counties in northeast Arkansas and northwest Mississippi,” Nancy Snell Griffith writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The Pine Bluff Daily Graphic reported that on June 12, 1918, Mitchell shot and wounded the wife of W.M. Langston. This is probably Earle resident William Monroe Langston, a farmer. His wife was listed as Peachie Maude Langston.

“According to the Graphic, Mitchell approached the Langstons in their garden to discuss a dispute over plowing. He was armed with a revolver, and when Mrs. Langston tried to run into the house, he shot her in the hip. W.M. Langton then got a shotgun, and the two exchanged fire. Mitchell’s shots missed, but Langston managed to wound him. Mitchell then ran to the farm of a black planter near Grassy Lake, three miles from Earle.”

Mitchell was advised by the planter to hide in the woods. The planter then went into Earle and told authorities where Mitchell was.

“On June 13, a posse approached Mitchell’s hiding place, and he fired on them,” Griffith writes. “They returned fire, killing him. Mrs. Langston was expected to live, which she apparently did. By 1920, she was living in Earle with her husband.”

In 1936, Earle town marshal Paul D. Peacher used the occasion of a strike by the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union to begin making arrests for vagrancy.

“Townsend S. Mitchell, Earle’s mayor and acting justice of the peace, then put 13 of the men Peacher arrested on trial, which was really no more than a sentencing,” Miller writes. “The men were found guilty of vagrancy and were sentenced to a fine and 30 days of labor on land worked by Peacher. This practice of debt repayment through peonage was common and had persisted in some places throughout the South since the end of the Civil War.”

The incident came to the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice. Peacher was found guilty in 1936 of violating an 1866 slave-kidnapping statute.

In 1970, Earle erupted again over school conditions.

“A group of unarmed black protestors was marching toward city hall to complain about inequality in segregated schools when a group of armed whites attacked them,” Miller writes. “This followed a student protest just a few days prior during which black children had been arrested.”

Probably the most famous person to have grown up in the Earle area was Carroll Cloar, a painter whose landscapes were based on memories of his childhood in the area. Cloar was born in January 1913 on a farm about 10 miles north of Earle. He had three brothers and one sister, and spent his childhood on his parents’ cotton farm. He moved to Memphis at age 17 and earned a bachelor’s degree in English from what’s now Rhodes College.

“After graduating in 1934, he traveled to Europe for a carefree vacation, then returned to Memphis and enrolled at the Memphis Academy of Art,” Erin Branham writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He studied there with painter George Oberteuffer.

“In 1936, Cloar moved to New York and attended the Art Students League, studying under Arnold Blanch, William McNulty and Harry Sternberg. Cloar focused on drawing with an ambition to be a comic strip artist. Teacher Ernest Fiene gave him his first experience with oil painting. It was at this time that Cloar also became interested in lithography, a printing method that allows the artist to draw on a flat stone.”

Cloar used family photos to create a series of lithographic prints from 1938-40. While in Mexico City in 1941, Cloar began to use his Arkansas heritage as a basis for his work.

Cloar joined the U.S. Army Air Corps at the start of World War II and served in the Pacific, often painting pin-up girls on the noses of bombers.

In 1948, Life magazine did a spread on Cloar headlined “Backwoods Boyhood.” He returned to Memphis in 1953.

“Cloar continued to produce paintings for the rest of his life, working in casein tempera — and later acrylic — on large canvases, depicting images drawn from photographs and his own memories,” Branham writes. “Cloar’s work almost always contains a strong narrative strain, and even if the story being told is not straightforward, its power can be sensed in the mysteriousness of the circumstances, whether that be a tree full of panthers or a football team lining up against an unseen opponent. His style has been described as both primitive and progressively modern.”

Cloar committed suicide in April 1993 after a long battle with cancer. His ashes were scattered across the former family farm near Earle.

Leaving Earle, I cross into Cross County as I head west on U.S. 64. It won’t be long until I’m climbing Crowley’s Ridge.

Heading toward Earle

Thursday, January 20th, 2022


Levees and drainage districts have played a major role in the development of Crittenden County, where we’re beginning our trip across the state on U.S. Highway 64.

“An act of Congress in 1850 created the first organized efforts toward levee construction as well as the donation of about 8.6 million acres of swampland to Arkansas to be sold to make levee and drainage systems possible,” says well-known Arkansas writer Grif Stockley. “By 1852, a three-foot levee had been developed along the Mississippi River for most of the county’s border. It wasn’t until 1893, however, that major flood-control efforts resulted in the Arkansas Legislature’s creation of the St. Francis Levee District. Bonds were issued, and a levee had been constructed almost from the Missouri state line to Crittenden County in 1897 when spring floods turned the county into what one writer called ‘a perfect Venice.’

“Though there have been no Mississippi River levee breaks since 1927, the floods of 1927 and 1937 rendered hundreds of families in Crittenden County homeless because of backwaters from the St. Francis River. Because natural drains were blocked by the levee, Crittenden County landowners have been forced to rely on the creation of drainage districts. … Completion of the ditches eliminating swamps and brakes have allowed thousands of acres to be used for agricultural purposes.”

Before heading west on U.S. Highway 64, I visit the 1911 Crittenden County Courthouse at Marion.

According to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program: “The present-day courthouse is one of three structures that have been built in Marion to serve as the county’s seat of government. The original courthouse at Marion was a frame building, which was destroyed by a tornado several years after it was built. For many years afterward, court was held in various places, including churches and vacant storehouses. In 1873, a two-story brick courthouse was erected in the same location as the frame building at a cost of more than $100,000. The brick courthouse was destroyed by fire in 1909.

“The current courthouse at 85 Jackson St. is on the site of the previous two buildings. The structure was designed by Chamberlain & Co. of Fort Worth and was built by Falls City Construction Co. of Louisville. The cost to build the courthouse and jail was more than $100,000. … The interior of the courthouse was extensively remodeled in 1945 and 1955, resulting in lowered ceilings, paneled walls, carpeted floors and a remodeled courtroom. The original tile floor in the front entrance hall and the exterior of the building remained unaltered.”

Like most of the Arkansas Delta, Crittenden County has a troubled history of race relations.

“With a county electorate after the Civil War that was 67 percent African-American — because many supporters of the Confederacy had been declared ineligible to vote in 1867 as a result of the Reconstruction Acts — racial difficulties … became the rule rather than the exception,” Stockley writes. “As a terrorist organization that refused to accept the new Republican order, the Ku Klux Klan was extremely active in Crittenden County.

“Throughout parts of Arkansas, the Klan intimidated, threatened and murdered African-Americans as well as whites who supported the Republican Party. The response of the Republican governor, Powell Clayton, was to declare martial law in 14 counties, including Crittenden County. To implement his decision, Clayton prevailed upon the Arkansas Legislature to create a state militia that included African-Americans. A number of fierce skirmishes ensued. Only the intervention of William Monks, who commanded 600 troops from Missouri, saved a detachment of black militiamen from being slaughtered at the county courthouse in Marion.”

Reconstruction in Arkansas had ended by 1874, and Democrats were back in power.

“With its heavily black population now empowered with the right to vote for adult males, the eastern part of the state presented a major problem for powerful whites trying to keep black workers satisfied enough to stay in Arkansas and provide the essential labor force that kept the plantation system going,” Stockley writes. “The political solution in most of these counties, including Crittenden, was known as fusion. White and black residents agreed in advance each election cycle upon a division of county offices and representation in the Legislature. Though whites invariably retained most of the important offices, fusion worked for a while.

“By 1888, African-Americans occupied the following major offices in Crittenden County: county judge, county clerk, county assessor and a representative in the Legislature. Margaret Woolfolk (the author of the 1993 book “A History of Crittenden County”) writes that a group ‘of about 80 whites assembled at Marion about 10 a.m. July 13, 1888, and marched to the courthouse where county clerk David Ferguson was forced to resign at the muzzle of a Winchester rifle. … Other blacks were taken by wagon to the Mississippi River, then by boat to Memphis and released.’ Despite the fact that Crittenden County was overwhelmingly black in 1888, no African-Americans were elected to county office for the next 100 years.”

It’s documented that six black men were lynched in Crittenden County from 1900-36.

“It may well have been more,” Stockley writes. “With the Great Depression, Crittenden County exhibited some of the worst abuses perpetrated in the name of white supremacy. In 1936, a gang of white riding bosses and planters entered the Providence Methodist Church outside Earle, where 450 black sharecroppers were gathered for a meeting of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union. They began beating the sharecroppers with ax handles and pistol butts. That same year, Paul D. Peacher, a deputy sheriff who had a farming operation on the side, was revealed to be engaging in peonage. ‘Slavery in Arkansas’ was the headline in Time magazine on Dec. 7, 1936.

“Historian Michael Dougan of Jonesboro has written that Crawfordsville spent $57 on white education for every dollar spent on education for African-Americans. According to Woolfolk, Marion ‘never had a school building for the sole purpose of Negroes’ education.’ It wasn’t until 1925 that an elementary school for black children was built outside Marion in the all-black community of Sunset. Though some high school courses were available after 1935, people wanting higher education were forced to go to schools in Memphis, Little Rock, St. Louis and elsewhere. Even the high school courses available at Phelix High School in Sunset weren’t free to black students. Though buses were provided for white students, buses for black students weren’t used until the fall of 1946.”

A school building at Sunset, which is still a largely black community, is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Former slaves continued to live in the area as sharecroppers and tenant farmers after the Civil War.

“Friendship Lodge No. 39, a Masonic association for African-Americans, was organized in 1873,” writes Steve Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “A school for African-American children was built in 1924 with money provided by the Julius Rosenwald Fund. The school served children from Marion and the surrounding area through the eighth grade. High school classes were added in 1937 with families required to pay $8 a year until 1943.

“The original Rosenwald building became the high school when a new elementary school for African-Americans was built next door in 1955. Streets and homes were built around the school, and the community became known as the Sunset subdivision. Only a few businesses developed in Sunset — two cotton gins, a funeral home and some stores and cafes. There was also a lamp-manufacturing firm founded in 1963 by M.L. Pike Jr. The plant burned in 1973. It was rebuilt, but as the company grew, it built a larger plant south of Marion.”

The Rosenwald school building was no longer needed once Crittenden County schools were desegregated in 1970.

“The elementary school continued to be used for classes, serving both white and black children,” Teske writes. “Occasionally, the elementary school used the high school building for special events. The Rosenwald building was designated the Marion Colored High School, but locally it was known as Phelix High School. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on March 23, 1995.

“The subdivision received city services from Marion, but Sunset incorporated as a town in 1970 and began to seek federal funding to provide water and sewer services. Sewer service became available in 1978. When it incorporated, Sunset had about 450 residents, most of whom were African-American.”

The population was down to 182 by the 2020 census.

Two other communities with interesting histories that are located just north of Sunset are Jericho and Clarkedale.

Like Sunset, most of the residents of Jericho are black these days. The community was settled in the 1840s by a riverboat captain named Stephen Stonewall James and brother John James. They built a cotton gin and sawmill. They then named the community after a city in the Bible.

Railroad construction picked up in Crittenden County in the 1880s.

“The Frisco line ran through Jericho, where another line connected with the Frisco to carry logs from the diminishing forests,” Teske writes. “A post office was established at Jericho in 1886. A boardwalk east of the Frisco tracks led to Jericho’s main business establishment, a saloon with a gaming hall. Other stores were also built near the railroad.”

Jericho’s white population began to decline in the early 1900s.

“In 1910, a black man, Steve Green, fled the state after killing his white employer near Jericho,” Teske writes. “He claimed self-defense. Green was later arrested in Chicago, but activists and lawyers successfully prevented his return to Arkansas due to fears of mob violence.

“A Church of God in Christ was formed in 1916. It disbanded after a few years and then was reorganized in 1924. In the 1920s, Jericho was home to the East Arkansas Baptist Association Academy, one of the largest African-American schools in the area. In some years, more than 100 students were enrolled at the academy, many of whom boarded with local families.”

Jericho was incorporated as a town in 1986, and a renovated cotton gin was converted into the city hall. Clarkedale, meanwhile, wasn’t incorporated until 2001 even though it’s one of the oldest settlements in the county. Crittenden County’s first county seat of Greenock was within the current boundaries of Clarkedale.

After the railroad came through in the early 1880s, Cleveland B. Clarke opened a store and was named postmaster.

“At first, the post office and settlement were called Clarkton,” Teske writes. “Clarke had come to Arkansas from Peoria, Ill., where he had become wealthy manufacturing and selling rye whiskey. He established a plantation in a largely wooded area near the railroad and maintained a summer home there. A Missionary Baptist church was established in 1884.

“The name of the post office was changed from Clarkton to Clarkedale in 1910. A second plantation was established nearby by Henry Banks and William Danner, residents of Mississippi. They had a large number of tenant farmers, mostly African-Americans, who used more than 200 mules to cultivate the land.”

Clarke’s store was destroyed by a tornado in 1921 but rebuilt.

I finally head west out of Marion on U.S. 64 and soon find myself in Crawfordsville. The community has fewer than 500 residents, but a number of new homes have been built in recent years by people who work in downtown Memphis.

“Crawfordsville benefits from a slightly higher elevation in comparison to its immediate neighbors, and its history is largely unblemished by the devastation that floods have exacted on nearby communities,” Adam Miller writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The establishment of Crawfordsville began as an outgrowth of the timber industry in east Arkansas during the post-Civil War era. The opening of a railroad line through the community sustained city growth as its economy transitioned from timber to farming during the early 20th century.

“Unlike other communities in Crittenden County that diminished or disappeared once the timber-rich acreage had been cleared, Crawfordsville continued to prosper as an agricultural community after its formal incorporation in 1912. Crawfordsville was named for Adolphus Fountain Crawford, who fought for the Confederacy as a young man and settled in the area to work at the R.C. Wallace & Co. store, which was in Vincent (about two miles southeast of present-day Crawfordsville). Crawford is credited with opening the first store in what’s now Crawfordsville and also served briefly as the city’s first postmaster in 1870.”

The Swepston family was also prominent in the area. John Swepston originally was from Ohio and operated the Ware & Swepston mill on Cypress Bayou. He also operated a gristmill and sawmill on Alligator Bayou. His brother Smiley was a state representative.

“Wilsie Wise Swepston, one of John Swepston’s six children, became a leading area merchant and gin owner, establishing a store in Marion,” Miller writes. “He moved back to Crawfordsville in 1882, where he built a gin and opened another general mercantile business. He was a member of the district school board and served as Crawfordsville postmaster, county assessor, county sheriff and state representative. Beside the Swepstons, other families who migrated to the area are commemorated since almost every street is named for an early resident.

“Timber clearing and sawmill operations dominated local trade following the Civil War. The opening of a rail line through the city in 1888 encouraged timber interests near Crawfordsville to expand. Businesses that once thrived in Crawfordsville included St. John Rod & Pump Sucker Co., who daily loaded out two or three railroad cars of hickory, and the Gilt Edge Cooperage Co., which employed 70 people and produced 50,000 hoops each year. This railroad access facilitated commerce and also brought traveling salesmen.”

There once were four hotels within walking distance of Crawfordsville’s depot. In 1944, a camp for German prisoners of war was established just outside Crawfordsville. Local farmers used the prisoners for labor. The Crawfordsville camp closed in May 1946.

The first school district here was formed in 1869. Crawfordsville High School was built in 1911. It was enlarged in 1935 and burned in 1966. Incremental desegregation began in 1966, and the district was integrated by 1969.

“Following legal action from the U.S. Department of Justice, the district completely integrated, causing outlying wing schools to be closed,” Miller writes. “Students in the area now go to school in Marion or West Memphis.”

Crawfordsville was once the home of one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Arkansas, Uncle John’s. The restaurant on Main Street burned in June 2018 and wasn’t rebuilt.

Uncle John’s was opened in 1984 by John and Lucille Marconi. The couple had seven children. The youngest, Michael, ran the restaurant after his father died.

I get hungry just thinking about it as I leave Crawfordsville and enter Earle, named for Confederate officer and KKK member Josiah Francis Earle.