THIRD IN A SERIES
We drive around Millwood State Park on this cold, windy day. Except for employees, the park is deserted.
At the southwestern end of the 3.3-mile-long Millwood Dam, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers established the Cypress Slough recreational area soon after the lake opened in 1966. On April 1, 1976, the Corps of Engineers signed a lease agreement with the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism to transform Cypress Slough into Millwood State Park.
The name Millwood comes from a nearby river landing that was used to bring goods into the area from as far away as New Orleans from 1845-75.
We next drive to Yarborough Landing, where several hundred people live in homes near the banks of Millwood Lake. There’s just one pickup truck parked at the boat ramp, and a man who appears to be in his 80s is getting ready to fish for crappie despite the heavy winds and frigid temperatures.
“Are they biting today?” one of my passengers asks.
“They’re always biting,” he says. “You just have to know where they are. And I know where they are.”
As we drive back toward Ashdown, several men are cleaning a deer outside a small meat processing facility.
A old man fishing for crappie. A deer being processed. These things says rural Arkansas to me.
We get back on U.S. Highway 71 and head north toward De Queen. We drive through Wilton, which had 374 residents in the 2010 census.
“Although the city was at one time a candidate for the county seat of Little River County, Wilton’s current condition is exemplified by its four properties on the National Register of Historic Places — a strip of highway, an abandoned store, a railroad depot and a cemetery,” Steven Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.
When the residents of Richmond in Little River County told officials from the Texarkana & Northern Railroad that they couldn’t build tracks through the city, a farmer named Sergent Smith Prentiss Mills sold the right of way through his property. A community called Millkin was named in honor of Mills and Paschal Kinsworthy, who also owned land in the area. By the late 1800s, there were three lawyers, two doctors and a pharmacist in Millkin.
In 1892, the name of the depot there was changed from Millkin to Wilton since a major railroad stockholder was from the town of Wilton in England. Wilton was incorporated in 1894. By the turn of the century, there were four blacksmith shops, three livery stables and several stores at Wilton.
“The construction of U.S. Highway 71 brought automobile traffic passing between Texarkana and Fort Smith,” Teske writes. “A celebration marking the opening of a highway bridge near Wilton brought state officials to the city. The celebration featured music, a barbecue and motor boat races on the Little River. … The Wilton School District was consolidated into the Ashdown School District in 1941. Six businesses in the city remained open in 1950, but all of them had closed by 1975.”
We continue north on Highway 71 and cross the Little River just as it enters Millwood Lake. The river begins in the Ouachita Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma and enters Arkansas for the final 92 of its 220 miles. The Little River empties into the Red River near Fulton. Steamboats once made up the river as far as Millwood Landing when the river was high.
“During the territorial period, several saline springs along the Little River were important for the area’s salt industry,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “An 1832 congressional act authorizing Arkansas’ territorial governor to lease salt springs in the territory specifically mentioned a Little River Lick. … Many farmers along the river bottoms grew cotton. The river often overflowed onto lower areas, providing rich farmland. What later became the Kansas City Southern Railroad crossed the Little River in 1895 and opened up the area to large-scale timber harvesting and processing operations. One of the largest of these companies was Dierks Lumber & Coal, which for a while was the largest producer of pine lumber in the South. In 1913, a bridge was built over the Little River at a place called Mills Ferry. This was replaced in April 1935 by a new bridge north of Wilton.”
As soon as we cross the river, we’re in a long stretch of bottoms that are now a part of the Pond Creek National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge, which covers almost 28,000 acres, was established in 1994 in the Pond Creek Bottoms. Local residents requested in 1997 that the refuge’s name be changed from its original name of Cossatot National Wildlife Refuge in order to preserve the Pond Creek name. The Cossatot flows into the Little River at this point.
“The bottoms — with an intricate system of drains, natural oxbow lakes, streams and cypress breaks — provide an extremely valuable yet rapidly disappearing wetland hardwood forest community that’s a haven for myriad native wildlife and migratory birds,” a National Wildlife Refuge System history of Pond Creek states. “Migrating and wintering waterfowl use the forested wetlands of the refuge during the fall, winter and spring. The wood duck, the only year-round resident waterfowl species, uses the area heavily for breeding and nesting.
“About 20 species of waterfowl traditionally use the seasonally flooded wetland habitats of the refuge any given year. Neotropical migratory birds use the area as a rest stop during fall and spring migration to replenish energy reserves for the long journey to and from wintering areas in Central America and South America. At least 20 of these species are known to nest on the refuge during the spring and summer months.
“Most of the area is a contiguous forest of bottomland hardwoods, pine mixed with hardwoods and pine plantations. Weyerhaeuser converted about 6,000 acres of hardwoods to pine plantations that were planted from 1970-87. A result of this conversion was a loss of high-quality wildlife habitat that supported important wildlife species indigenous to bottomland hardwoods. A priority management objective is to convert these plantations to native hardwoods.”
The exit from the bottoms is rather dramatic as we begin to climb into the hills that will mark the rest of this journey. We pass by the turn to Ben Lomond and go through the community of Falls Chapel.
“The site of Ben Lomond remained unclaimed until the middle of the 19th century when settlers from Scotland — including Wiley and Mary McElroy and James Willson — arrived and named the hill location for a famous Scottish mountain,” Teske writes. “In the years following the Civil War, more settlers came to southern Sevier County. Ben Lomond grew into one of the more important towns in the county, rivaling Paraclifta and Lockesburg in significance. In 1868, the oldest continuous post office in the county — known as Pine Woods from 1833-46 and then renamed Brownstown — was moved to Ben Lomond. The town became an agricultural center, especially for cotton farmers. In some years, Choctaw would come from the west to work in the cotton fields during the harvest season. … A Masonic lodge was built, and a two-story schoolhouse served as many as 50 students.
“The timber industry developed in the area during the 1880s. Lumber workers harvested pine, oak, cypress, hickory, ash and cedar trees. Trapping animals for their fur was also profitable. Some farmers invested in cattle and hogs as well as cotton.”
We’ve been in Sevier County since crossing the Little River. The county was created by the Arkansas Territorial Legislature in October 1828. It included parts of what are now Little River, Miller, Howard and Polk counties.
“Joseph McKean and his wife Lucy arrived in 1833 on a steamboat that traveled up the Red River,” writes Billy Ray McKelvy, a longtime Arkansas newspaperman and the current De Queen mayor. “McKean was elected as Sevier County’s representative to the first state constitutional convention in 1836 and served two terms in the Arkansas Senate. He was the first postmaster of Ultima Thule, a settlement on the east side of the present Arkansas-Oklahoma border. As a government agent, he provided supplies for the Indians during removal. Other early settlements around the county included Brownstown, Dilworth, Red Colony, Norwoodville, Falls Chapel, Ben Lomond and Walnut Springs.
“On Oct. 22, 1828, the Arkansas Territorial Legislature designated the county seat in the home of Joseph English. Five appointed commissioners located the seat of justice at a spot about one mile east of the Cossatot River. The site was called Paraclifta, reputedly in honor of a Choctaw Indian chief who intervened to resolve a dispute between some Indians and white men over a horse. The first courthouse was a log building on a public square. The Territorial Legislature made Paraclifta the permanent seat of justice in 1831. Maintenance of the courthouse and jail occupied much of the early county government’s attention.”
The poultry industry began to grow in the area by the 1920s. Giant companies such as Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride later moved in. Sevier County was producing almost 50 million broilers annually by 2005.
The poultry plants brought Hispanic immigration. By the 2010 census, almost 30 percent of the county’s population was Hispanic. The timber industry also remains important with about 70 percent of the land area covered in timber.
We pass through Lockesburg. Though it had a population of just 739 people in the 2010 census, it served as the Sevier County seat for almost 36 years.
“The city lost much of its importance when it was bypassed by the railroad in the late 19th century and also when it lost its status as the county seat in the early 20th century,” Mike Polston writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “When Sevier County was created in 1828, the centrally located settlement of Paraclifta was designated as the county seat. In 1867, when an area of Sevier County was carved away to become part of newly created Little River County, Paraclifta was no longer centrally located. Discussions began about the possibility of relocating the county seat. The Locke brothers — James, William and Matthew — offered 120 acres of land, and Royal Appleton offered 60 acres for the site of a new county seat. On Jan. 18, 1869, a petition to relocate the seat of government to Lockesburg was accepted by the county court.
“In October 1869, the county board of commissioners contracted with A.M. Hawkins & Brothers to construct a two-story brick courthouse and jail at a cost of $12,400. The contract ultimately cost twice that amount. The first session of the county court was held in the new building in March 1871. Poor construction resulted in a new jail being built in 1884. It burned in 1887, and a third structure was built. Though the city wasn’t incorporated until Nov. 7, 1878, it saw significant growth in the early 1870s. William Locke, as the first elected mayor, led that early development. Many people moved from Paraclifta, with some of its buildings dismantled and moved to Lockesburg. A post office was established on May 3, 1870, with Matthew Locke as postmaster.”
By the 1890 census, there were three general stores, three blacksmith shops, a shoe shop, a drugstore, three doctors and a hotel at Lockesburg.
“A major blow to the city’s importance occurred in 1905 when the county quorum court voted to build a new courthouse,” Polston writes. “Almost immediately, De Queen residents began a campaign to relocate the seat of government to their city by offering $10,000 for the new courthouse. Later that year, a special election was held, and Lockesburg suffered the same fate as Paraclifta had years before.”
The Lockesburg School District was consolidated into the De Queen School District in 2005, and the high school campus there closed in 2010.
Much of the fate of modern Sevier County was determined by the aforementioned railroads, the poultry industry and what became Dierks Forests Inc.
Dierks Forests had holdings of 1.75 million acres by the time it was sold to Weyerhaeuser in 1969.
German immigrant Peter Henry Dierks became a successful businessmen in eastern Iowa. His sons Hans and John joined another partner to develop a retail business with seven western Iowa locations. In 1895, four Dierks brothers incorporated Dierks Lumber & Coal and moved the headquarters from Iowa to Lincoln, Neb.
“In 1896, the company moved its headquarters to Kansas City due to that city’s position as a new railway hub that brought lumber from Arkansas and Texas,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In February 1900, the Dierks company purchased the Williamson Brothers mill in De Queen. Moving to De Queen to manage that operation, Herman Dierks became closely associated with Arkansas, going on to purchase large tracts of timberland in the southwestern part of the state. … Other Dierks family members joined the business, which included managing company ventures in Arkansas and Oklahoma. When the Dierks family established a logging camp along the De Queen & Eastern Railroad in the early 1900s, the name of Hardscrabble was changed to Dierks. The mill at De Queen burned in 1909 and was replaced in 1918 by operations in the company town of Dierks in Howard County.”
In 1925, the company bought an additional 88,000 acres of timberland in the Ouachita Mountains. A large mill opened at Mountain Pine in Garland County in 1928.
“By 1930, most of the company retail lumber yards in Nebraska were closed, but in Arkansas and Oklahoma the company was operating five lumber mills and two rail systems,” Hendricks writes. “The company had purchased more than 1.25 million acres of land and in the 1920s implemented some of the first forestry conservation policies in the South. In 1954, Dierks Lumber & Coal changed its name to Dierks Forests Inc. The company diversified, opening box factories and a paper mill, and producing pressure-treated wood products, fiberboard, grocery bags, window frames and gypsum wallboard.”
The company’s headquarters moved from Kansas City to Hot Springs in 1956.
It’s past noon by the time we enter De Queen as part of our trip north on Highway 71. We head downtown for lunch at Stilwell’s.