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After the flood

Pocahontas was in the news in early May for all the wrong reasons.

Water from drenching rains that occurred in southern Missouri during the final weekend of April flowed south down the Current, Eleven Point, Spring, Little Black and Fourche rivers.

The Little Black joins the Current near Datto in Clay County. The Current then flows into the Black River east of Pocahontas.

The Fourche also flows into the Black.

The Eleven Point joins the Spring, which in turn flows into the Black near Black Rock.

Once all of this water came together, it was too much for aging Black River levees to handle. Thousands of acres were flooded in Randolph and Lawrence counties along with dozens of homes and businesses.

Just a week prior to the worst of the rainstorms, dozens of history buffs — academics and amateur historians alike — gathered in Pocahontas for the 76th annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association. The AHA has a grand tradition of moving its annual meetings across the state, thus allowing county historical societies to show off local attractions.

Almost 100 leading Arkansas scholars and other prominent citizens gathered on Feb. 22, 1941, at the Marion Hotel in downtown Little Rock to form the AHA. Unlike scholarly organizations in other fields, the AHA has had strong representation from the start from those board member Maylon T. Rice of Fayetteville likes to call “civilians.” Rice is a civilian board member, by the way.

I’m also an amateur Arkansas history aficionado. I’ve been attending AHA spring meetings for two decades. My wife likes to refer to it as my annual “history nerd weekend.”

Pocahontas just might have the most charming, vibrant downtown of any of the places the organization has met through the years. And it’s one of our most historic Arkansas communities to boot.

“The earliest documented settler was Ransom S. Bettis, who arrived from Greenville, Mo., and built a house overlooking the Black River,” Gary Buxton writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “From 1815-35, the settlement was known as Bettis Bluff. … In 1826, Thomas S. Drew immigrated to what was then Lawrence County (Randolph County was established in 1835), married Bettis’ daughter Cinderella and later became instrumental in the founding of Pocahontas. Drew served as Lawrency County judge from 1832-35 and was the third governor of Arkansas. He died in Lipan, Texas, but was reinterred in the Masonic Cemetery in Pocahontas on May 30, 1923. More than 5,000 people assembled for his second interment.

“Residents at the Columbia settlement, eight miles north of Pocahontas, tried to locate the county seat there, but Drew and Bettis craftily won favor for Bettis Bluff. On the date set to vote for the county seat, the pair provided free barbecue and alcoholic beverages on their property, the present site of Pocahontas. A majority of residents, who could vote at either site, attended and voted for Bettis Bluff, the name of which was later changed to Pocahontas for reasons that still remain unknown, though a number of theories and legends have emerged.”

Two luncheons and the annual awards dinner during the AHA meeting were held at the 1872 Randolph County Courthouse, which was replaced in 1940 by a courthouse constructed by the Works Progress Administration. The 1872 facility, which is in the center of the town square, has since been renovated and now serves as the home of the Randolph County Chamber of Commerce.

The first Randolph County Courthouse was a frame structure that was built for $2,400 by Thomas O. Marr from 1837-39.

Writing for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Cindy Robinett says of the courthouses: “The first courthouse was built on land donated in July 1837 by Drew and his wife, Cinderella Bettis. The land was then transferred to James S. Conway, the governor of Arkansas at the time. The first courthouse was built between 1837 and 1839 but collapsed due to structural weakness. A second courthouse was built on the same plot. The contract for what’s now the old courthouse was given to John A. McKay of Helena. During the construction of the second courthouse, the offices of clerks and courts were moved first to the lower floor of the county jail, then to the store building of J.P. Black & Co. and then to the St. Charles Hotel. … The architecture of the courthouse is of early Victorian style. With intricate details adorning its woodwork, high stories and stilted windows, the courthouse is an imposing structure. … A cupola adorns the roof. The building once had a vault, but it was removed sometime in the 1930s. Although the old courthouse is no longer home to the court system, it’s still an important landmark for the city of Pocahontas.”

After county offices moved out, the building served during World War II as an entertainment center for those stationed at the nearby Walnut Ridge Army Flying School. It was later used as a library.

The courthouse constructed in 1940 is one block to the west. Voters approved construction of the building that year, and Randolph County Judge Joe Decker appointed an advisory board to oversee construction. The architect was Eugene John Stern and the general contractor was the E.V. Bird Construction Co.

Zachary Elledge writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Randolph County dedicated its new courthouse on Dec. 28, 1940. The courthouse cost about $130,000, which was financed in part by money from a $78,000 bond issue and a $49,250 grant from the WPA. In the northeastern corner of the courthouse grounds stands a war memorial honoring Randolph County veterans, while in the northwest corner sits a memorial to Sgt. James Ray Hand of the Pocahontas Police Department, who was shot in the line of duty.”

An opening reception for this year’s AHA meeting was held across the street at the Randolph County Heritage Museum, one of the best county museums in the state. The museum contains part of a button factory that once was on the banks of the Black River. Visitors can learn how mussel shells were gathered from the river so mother-of-pearl blanks could be drilled from the shells and then turned into buttons. The museum opened in 2006 during the Pocahontas sesquicentennial celebration.

“A collection of pearls found in the Black River is on display,” Robinett writes. “The walls are lined with photographs of steamboats, bridges, barges and other testaments to the river era. The centerpiece of the room is a seven-foot alligator gar caught in the Black River in the early 1950s.”

Sessions at which various papers were presented during the AHA meeting were held at Marilyn’s Clogging Co. on the square along with the nearby Downtown Playhouse, which occupies a building constructed in 1941 to house the Imperial Theatre. The Imperial showed its first movie — “Blues in the Night” — soon before the United States entered World War II in 1941. It was the first public building in Pocahontas to have air conditioning, the first to use glazed brick and the first with neon lights. There sometimes were live performances by well-known northeast Arkansas musicians such as Gary Gazaway and Robert Bowlin. The last movie was shown in the 1970s, and the building was utilized for a time as an indoor archery range.

Marilyn’s has helped spur the revitalization of downtown Pocahontas by bringing regular crowds of children, their parents and other relatives to the square for dance classes and performances.

The Downtown Playhouse brings in additional crowds for stage productions.

In 1994, a nonprofit organization known as Studio for the Arts purchased the building that had housed the Imperial Theatre. The group, which was founded in 1987 by Andee Evers, renovated the structure and opened the Imperial Dinner Theatre in 1995. The live shows there proved so popular that a larger facility was built east of town in 2004 on Arkansas Highway 304. Unfortunately, that area flooded badly in the spring of 2011 and again this month.

During the first week of May, almost four feet of water flooded the building, which cost more than $2 million to build.

Shane Cummings, the Imperial Dinner Theatre marketing director, told KAIT-TV in Jonesboro: “It could be next spring before everything is back to the way it was before. We were depressed for about two hours and then we said, ‘That’s enough of that. We’ve got to go find out what we have to do next.'”

KAIT reported on its website: “Thick brown silt covered the stage, and the water inside the theater was a foot higher than in 2011. Cummings said he has found a few snakes and even a turtle during the time he and others have been trying to get the building back in order. The force of the floodwaters pushed in the doors and front windows of the facility. Had the flood not happened, the Imperial was set for a performance of ‘Annie.’ Cummings says the show will have to go on the road now. … He says venues in Cherokee Village and Jonesboro have reached out to see if performances could be held in their communities.”

Back downtown in the original movie theater, another group formed the Downtown Playhouse in 2014. Less than a year later, a live production of “A Time to Kill” sold out 13 shows. Other shows have sold out the theater since then.

In addition to having two dinner theaters, Pocahontas boasts the state’s oldest barbershop, the Sanitary Barbershop, which has been at the same location on North Marr Street on the town square since 1893.

Meanwhile, there has been a drugstore at the corner of Bettis Street and Broadway on the square since 1852. The Futrell family has operated the pharmacy there since 1962, and it still has a soda fountain. It’s where the locals gather to discuss sports and politics every weekday morning between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.

Just down Bettis Street, a visit to Futrell’s Hardware is like stepping back into the 1940s.

An important addition to the downtown historic district is the Lesmeister Guesthouse, which opened in 2013 and provides upscale suites and vacation rental apartments. The business is named for Henry Lesmeister, a German immigrant who constructed the building in 1902. Lesmeister first lived in Lexington, Ky., after coming to the United States. He moved to Pocahontas in 1880 and his son became an architect who designed notable buildings in Pocahontas, Jonesboro and Memphis. Local dentist and Pocahontas native Patrick Carroll purchased the building, which had been vacant for several years, in 2011 and began restoration efforts.

Across the street from the guesthouse, an Italian restaurant known as Bella Piazza also brings people downtown at night.

A Randolph County Tourism Association publication describes downtown Pocahontas this way: “Downtown Pocahontas contains a 17-block National Commercial Historic District, one of the best examples of Victorian-era architecture in the state. Buildings dating back to 1860 grace the historic district. Many structures on the square have bronze markers giving the date of construction and history of the buildings. The historic district contains art galleries, flea markets and a variety store featuring Arkansas products and souvenirs. Other features include a dance studio, an online radio station and a day spa. Several structures in the historic district have recently undergone restoration, including the 1920 Frisco Railroad depot, the Lesmeister Guest House and Carroll’s Variety Store.”

Buxton writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “The late 19th century through the mid-1920s marked a golden age for Pocahontas. Seven hotels graced Pocahontas from antebellum days until the mid-1920s. Forty-three steamboats navigated the Black River at the turn of the century, making Pocahontas a strategic port of commerce. The Hoxie, Pocahontas & Northern Railroad came to Pocahontas from the south in 1896. The Hauk Railroading Co. started track construction southward to connect Poplar Bluff, Mo., to Pocahontas in 1902. The Frico constructed a new railroad bridge across the Black River in 1911.

“Early industries included four button factories, a brick company, Hanauer’s cotton gin, Grafton Stave & Heading Co. and Pocahontas Bending Works, which made wooden parts for wagon wheels. … By 1942, an egg dehydrating plant, which made powdered eggs for Army rations, employed about 500 people. In 1944, Brown Shoe Co. became the largest employer in Pocahontas and doubled in size in 1955. It ceased production in November 1995.”

In 2014, Peco Foods Inc. announced that it would build a $165 million poultry processing plant and hatchery in Pocahontas and a $35 million feed mill in Corning. More than 400 chicken houses were contracted by the company in Randolph County. More than 1,000 people eventually could be working at the 272,000-square-foot plant, which was built on 200 acres in the city’s industrial park south of town.

Tim Scott, the executive director of the Randolph County Chamber of Commerce, said last year: “This is probably the biggest economic development project of our lifetimes.”

Recent years also have been marked by a concerted effort to keep downtown viable and make it an attraction for people from throughout northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri.

Luckily for those who operate businesses there, downtown sits high above the Black River and wasn’t adversely affected by this month’s flood.

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