TENTH IN A SERIES
We leave Magnolia, continuing our trip west on U.S. Highway 82 across south Arkansas.
Before departing Columbia County, we pass just south of Waldo. Like many of the small towns in this part of the state, it came to life during the period of railroad construction in the 1880s.
“Waldo owes its founding and development to the construction of the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railroad into the surrounding timberlands in 1883,” writes Arkansas historian Mike Polston. “At that time, Lamartine in Columbia County was a thriving town in the area. But when the tracks were put down almost three miles to the south, citizens began to move there, with businesses soon to follow. Once the Lamartine post office was relocated along the tracks, it became a regular stop. The railroad company purchased 26 acres of land south of the tracks, organizing a subsidiary known as the Southwestern Improvement Association. Local landowner and businessman Dave Dixon donated additional tracts on the north side of the tracks. The area was surveyed into 96 business lots with equal numbers on each side of the tracks. The survey also included 120 residential lots.
“The city, which was named after a railway officer in 1884, was incorporated on Aug. 13, 1888. While the business sector initially developed on the south side of the tracks, by 1890 it had also spread to the north. Caspar Pace opened the first general store and also served as the first postmaster. This enterprise was soon followed by others opened by W. Starling and W.O. Benton. Much of the city’s early growth was prompted by the opening of the Neimeyer Lumber Co. in 1887, soon to be followed by other operations. At its peak in the 1890s, the area timberlands supported seven timber-based companies.”
The Bank of Waldo opened in 1899. Eleven years later, the Peoples Bank opened. The first newspaper began publishing in 1891.
“The town prospered in the early 20th century, and by the 1920s had a population of more than 700,” Polston writes. “The city was home to a number of mercantile businesses, a fertilizer works and a flour mill. … Large quantities of lumber and shingles were shipped from the local depot.”
Another wave of prosperity occurred when oil and gas exploration began in Columbia County in the late 1930s. The industry remained strong through the 1950s. In 1974, what was then Deltic Timber Co. opened a large mill at Waldo.
As is the case with many towns in rural south Arkansas, Waldo has experienced population declines in recent decades. The population fell from 1,722 in the 1960 census to 1,372 in the 2010 census. The Waldo School District was consolidated into the Magnolia School District in 2005.
We cross into Lafayette County, which is one of the smallest counties in the state from a population standpoint. The county peaked in population at 16,934 in the 1940 census and was down to just 7,645 residents by the 2010 census.
Lafayette County was carved out of part of Hempstead County in 1827. This area was the home of James Sevier Conway, the state’s first governor.
“The displacement of thousands of farmers by the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12 contributed to the settlement of Louisiana Purchase lands,” Glynn McCalman writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The quakes and war prompted President James Monroe in 1815 to survey and offer lands from the purchase to veterans and displaced farmers. He chose surveyor William Rector to direct the office at St. Louis, with responsibility for all U.S. lands west of the Mississippi River. Rector’s nephews, Henry Conway and James Sevier Conway, participated in the surveys. One result was that James Conway acquired hundreds of acres of fertile land along the Red River as part of what was called Long Prairie.
“Before James Conway settled on the prairie, however, a small caravan of post-War of 1812 pioneers on flatboats had arrived in 1819. In addition to their origin in Wilson County, Tennessee, a few miles east of Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, and their recent service in the War of 1812, they were bonded by intermarriage. East Tennessean James Conway would also marry one of them. One leader of the group was Col. James Bradley, who in 1813 had been ordered by Jackson to lead his troops to Natchez, Miss, for the defense of the ‘southern country.’ Thomas Dooley also served at New Orleans, and his name appears several times in Jackson’s documents at the Hermitage. George Duty served in the War of 1812 and lived a few miles from the Hermitage. William Crabtree Sr. was a resident of middle Tennessee and also served in the war.”
Life was tough on Long Prairie in those early years due to unhappy Caddo Indians, inadequate medical care and often harsh weather. James Conway married Polly Bradley in 1826. By then, much of the original group had moved east to what’s now Bradley County.
“The remnant on Long Prairie persevered, however,” McCalman writes. “In 1827, Lafayette County was formed out of Hempstead. Its original borders were the Ouachita River on the east, Louisiana on the south, Hempstead County to the north and Texas on the west. It was named for the Marquis de Lafayette, a French ally of the United States in the Revolutionary War. Although the initial settlers were from Tennessee, most of the county’s later settlers had more Southern roots. The extreme southeastern part of the county is even now sometimes referred to as the Alabama settlement. Many of Lafayette County’s pioneers owned slaves. Old deeds in the courthouse at Lewisville mostly record only the first names of the transferees and ignore the reality that among the ‘property’ were enslaved human beings.”
Though there wasn’t significant fighting in the county during the Civil War, residents suffered economically. Many were broke when the war ended.
“The post-slavery era resulted in the dissolution of several huge plantations into smaller acreage tracts owned and farmed by families,” McCalman writes. “A few former slaves were included among the new landowners, though their share of the land was relatively small, never attaining a proportionate share of the total. Land title abstracts of the era demonstrate the efforts of the large planters to retain their holdings with diminishing success. Families eagerly purchased, often with mortgages, small portions of the former plantations and sustained themselves with diversified production. Though cotton was the main cash crop, they also produced edible grains, hay for livestock, cane for sweetening and vegetable gardens.”
The advent of the railroads in the late 1800s allowed crops and timber to be shipped more easily from the county.
“During much of the 19th century, residents tried to rely on the Red River for heavy hauling, but they were hampered by the extensive and persistent logjam called the Great Raft,” McCalman writes. “From time to time during the second half of the century, the Great Raft was periodically declared cleared, especially after the work of snagboat engineer Henry Shreve. But it continued to be a nemesis until the river was mostly replaced as a means of transportation by the railroad.
“Although the Cotton Belt rail system reduced the need for some big-ticket retail stores in the county’s towns, better transportation increased the profitability of farming and timber harvest. It also dramatically reduced travel time to Shreveport, Texarkana and elsewhere. Cotton was brought from the gins to the rails, and impressive sawmills rose by the tracks at Stamps, Frostville, Canfield, Arkana and other communities. Residents of the county’s neighboring communities also recognized the railroad’s enhancement of the area. Several families came from Columbia County. Others came from Bossier Parish in Louisiana. Farmers from southern Miller County poured onto Long Prairie, especially into the Canal and Pleasant Valley communities.”
The county started to lose population due to the Great Depression, World War II and the mechanization of agriculture after the war.
“Young people, especially non-whites, began to imagine careers other than as cotton pickers or timber workers, so they migrated to Chicago, Detroit, California and elsewhere,” McCalman writes. “The population began to decline to a 19th-century level. Recent decades have seen a reduction of family farms and a return to large plantations, and more acreage devoted to pine timber. Contracted poultry production has also grown, especially in the northern part of the county.”
Our route on U.S. 82 takes us through the two largest towns in the county, Stamps and Lewisville.
Stamps, the childhood home of legendary writer Maya Angelou, got its start as a lumber town on the railroad. It has bled population in recent years, falling from 2,859 residents in the 1980 census to 1,693 residents in the 2010 census.
“Hardy James Stamps came to Lafayette County from Georgia in 1880 to operate the Bodcaw Lumber Co. mill,” writes Steven Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “When a post office was established at the settlement surrounding the mill in 1888, it was named for Stamps. The first postmistress at that location was Ella Crowell, Stamps’ daughter. The Louisiana & Arkansas Railroad was incorporated in Arkansas in March 1898 by William Buchanan of the Bodcaw Lumber Co. at Stamps. The town was initially home to the principal shops of the railway.”
The railroad eventually extended from Hope in the north to Louisiana. Stamps was incorporated in 1898.
“The Bodcaw sawmill expanded until it was reputedly the largest sawmill for yellow pine in the world,” Teske writes. “The mill pond, Lake June, covered almost 100 acres. The company store offered groceries, men’s and women’s clothing and hardware. The hardware division even sold coffins. A church, built at the end of the 19th century, was shared by several congregations until the Presbyterians erected their own building in the early 1900s.”
Stamps was hurt when the offices of the Louisiana & Arkansas moved to Minden, La., in 1923. The railroad eventually was acquired by the Kansas City Southern Railroad. Arkansas Power & Light Co. (now Entergy Arkansas) built a natural gas-fueled power plant at Stamps that provided some jobs in the 1940s. The plant was expanded in 1952, the same year the McAlester Fuel Co. drilled an oil well near Stamps.
Angelou was born in St. Louis in 1928 but spent much of her childhood in Stamps, where she was raised by a grandmother and uncle. Her novel “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is partially set in Stamps. The city renamed its park in her honor in 2014.
Lewisville, which is only about five miles to the west, is the county seat.
Lewis Barnes Fort bought land in the area in July 1836 after moving from Virginia. The resulting settlement was named Lewisville in his honor.
In 1828, the first Lafayette County courthouse had been built 10 miles southwest of Lewisville on the Red River. The second courthouse was built at Lewisville in 1841. Many of the landowners owned slaves at that time. Slaves outnumbered free whites in 1850.
“In 1882, the Cotton Belt Railroad built a line between Pine Bluff and Texarkana that passed two miles south of Lewisville,” Teske writes. “In 1888, the railroad added a line that began near Lewisville and ran south to Shreveport. A second line from Lewisville ran into Louisiana, built by the Louisiana & Arkansas Railroad. This line also chose the site south of downtown for its station. As a result, new homes and businesses were constructed closer to the station, until the entire town had moved. Since that time, residents speak of Old Lewisville and New Lewisville to distinguish the earlier settlement from the one prompted by the railroads.
“A new courthouse was built in New Lewisville in 1890. It was replaced by a newer courthouse in 1904, which in turn was replaced in 1940. The first bank in the county, Citizens Bank, was established at Lewisville in 1893 but lasted only a few years.”
The Works Progress Administration was responsible for the 1940 courthouse. Lewisville is now about 55 percent black, 42 percent white and 3 percent Hispanic. The population fell from 1,653 in the 1970 census to 1,280 in the 2010 census.
Arkansans often would read about Lewisville back when Ernie Deane was writing the “Arkansas Traveler” column for the Arkansas Gazette. Deane was born at Lewisville in October 1911 to railroad engineer Ernest Deane and Mabel Drew Deane. He attended public schools at Lewisville and Texarkana before receiving his bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1934 from the University of Arkansas, where he served as editor of the school newspaper. Deane received his master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University in Illinois in 1935. He joined the Gazette in 1956 and stayed at the Little Rock newspaper until the late 1960s, when he moved to Fayetteville. Deane taught journalism at his alma mater from 1968-76 and died in May 1991.
The Ernie Deane Award is presented annually by the University of Arkansas to the journalist or writer whose work “best exemplifies the spirit, style and courage of Ernie Deane.”
We don’t leave Lewisville without the obligatory stop at the original location of Burge’s. Alden Burge, who originally was from Louisiana, came to the area to work in the oil and gas industry. In 1953, he began smoking turkeys in a backyard smokehouse and supplying them to friends. He soon was also smoking chickens and selling meals on Friday nights before high school football games.
In 1962, the Burge family opened their restaurant in a former dairy bar. The smoked meats are shipped across the country. Burge’s, which also has a location at Little Rock, was inducted into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame in 2018.
According to the Burge’s website, “Along with his wife Margaret and their three children, Alden sold barbecue, burgers and ice cream. It was a family affair. They enjoyed providing a special level of service, like serving barbecued goat and homemade peppermint ice cream, as well as fireworks, on the Fourth of July. Alden continued to smoke his turkeys for the holidays. And while always delicious, some of them fell apart because they were so tender. By word of mouth, business grew, and he started shipping turkeys and hams through the mail to customers outside of the area.”
With the turkey sandwich and cherry limeade finished, it’s time to continue the trip west and cross the Red River.