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An oasis at Clarendon

It was a prime spot for a settlement.

It’s where the Cache River empties into the White River.

The hunting was good — bear, deer, wild turkey and more.

The trapping was good — mink, muskrat, beaver and more.

The fishing was good as the streams were filled with catfish, buffalo, bass, bream and crappie.

French hunters and trappers built cabins there in the late 1700s. When the Military Road was constructed between Little Rock and Memphis in the 1820s, the ferry crossing over the White River was at the place they called Clarendon. When Monroe County was carved out of parts of Phillips and Arkansas counties in 1829, Clarendon was chosen as the county seat.

“By the last half of the 1850s, Monroe County, along with the rest of the Arkansas Delta region, experienced unparalleled economic growth with slave-based, plantation-style farming,” W.R. Mayo writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Cotton was the focus of the transformation of subsistence farming to large-scale operations. The White River served as an important byway for the Union forces during the Civil War and was heavy with gunboat traffic with Clarendon serving as a skirmish point. Supplies for Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele’s federal army were brought to DeValls Bluff, north of Clarendon, by way of the White River and were shipped from there to Little Rock by rail. Various skirmishes and battles took place in and around Clarendon. … After the war, the town resumed its role as an important industrial port for cotton and other commodities. The Monroe County Sun, the town’s current newspaper, was established in 1877.”

Business further boomed in Clarendon when the Cotton Belt line built a railroad bridge over the White River in 1883. Automobiles continued to use the ferry until the U.S. 79 bridge was constructed in 1931.

“Industries and cultural development began with a stave and barrel factory in 1889, an oar factory in 1892 and an opera house in 1893,” Mayo writes. “Clarendon continued to develop new industries after the turn of the century, including lumber mills and a factory producing buttons made from mussel shells found in the river. Freshwater pearls were sold at the Clarendon Pearl Market. The Moss Brothers Bat Co., which produced baseball bats, was also established. The Monroe County Courthouse was designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles L. Thompson and constructed in 1911. It remains the town’s most significant landmark.”

Problems and hard times loomed, however.

There was the Great Flood of 1927, which devastated the town.

There was the drought of 1930-31.

There was another big flood in 1937.

Then, the rapid mechanization of agriculture after the end of World War II caused tens of thousands of former sharecroppers and tenant farmers to leave the Delta, never to return.

“During the mid-1950s, the town had a box factory and a thriving fish market, along with a bustling downtown with shops, including apparel and dry goods stores and a movie theater,” Mayo writes. “In addition, the town had a thriving public school system. However, along with much of the Arkansas Delta, the town has experienced an economic downturn from that heyday. As of 2010, with the exception of the local public library, a bank and two law offices, the remainder of the old downtown shop buildings are shuttered and closed, including the movie theater, and the town is without an industry presence.”

To get a sense of what has occurred in this part of the state, consider these census figures for Monroe County:

1940 — 21,133

1950 — 19,540

1960 — 17,327

1970 — 15,657

1980 — 14,052

1990 — 11,333

2000 — 10,254

2010 — 8,149

My mother was raised further north along the White River at Des Arc in Prairie County. My grandfather was a Prairie County judge and owned the hardware store and the funeral home at Des Arc. I’ve long been fascinated by the culture of the lower White River region. It’s a part of who I am.

So I was intrigued when I received an email last summer from a John Brown University student named Jeremiah Moore.

He wrote: “Along with my brother, I run a small family park and museum in Clarendon. I’ve read your blog for the past two years and have found your writing on Arkansas’s affairs of past and present to be incredibly enjoyable and insightful. Your forthright love for our state and its history bring a certain kindred feeling that leads me to invite you down to Monroe County for a tour and a catfish lunch on me. I would love the opportunity to meet you and show you our small yet charming park and museum. It’s called the John B. and Margaret Moore Jacobs Park and Museum. … The house is the second oldest in the city, dating back to 1870. I believe you might appreciate this as well as the multiple antebellum fixtures and artifacts from the late 19th century.”

Never having been a man who could resist an invitation to a catfish lunch, Paul Austin of the Arkansas Humanities Council agreed to join me for the trip to Clarendon.

After circling the Monroe County Courthouse, we found the Moore-Jacobs House on a residential section of Main Street in the town of about 1,600 residents.

Here’s how the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program describes the house and its history: “The Moore-Jacobs House represents the strong influence of the Greek Revival style of architecture in the state. The house was built in 1870 by John Wesley Moore, who had come to Clarendon from Sussex County in Virginia. The architectural influences of his Virginia upbringing are evident in the home he constructed for himself. The house was built on a lot that ran down to the river’s edge and gave a spectacular view of the heavy traffic on the White River until the construction of a levee following the 1927 flood.

“Following his death, the house went to his son, John Burton Moore, who had established himself as an attorney as well as the owner of extensive land holdings in Monroe County. He married Bessie Branch of Holly Grove in the early 1900s. Bessie was the daughter of William F. Branch, who established the Bank of Holly Grove, and Ella Walls Branch, whose family held large amounts of acreage in the county.

“Margaret Moore Jacobs, John Burton Moore’s eldest daughter, moved into the house in 1927 following her marriage to John B. ‘Jake’ Jacobs. Her parents by this time occupied a larger home next door. When it burned in 1931, the Moores decided they needed the lot upon which the small Greek Revival house stood. To save the house from destruction, Jacobs had it moved by mules over log rollers to a lot directly across the street. This new location had been the site of an early schoolhouse in Clarendon. Margaret Moore Jacobs was a freelance writer whose articles appeared in many of the top women’s periodicals of the period. As such, she was acutely aware of the preservation and restoration movement that was becoming popular as a result of the activities at Williamsburg, Va.

“Jacobs restored the house following the move, and her restoration was in keeping with the general concepts held at that time. She also landscaped the grounds, utilizing plantings mentioned in the Bible. In the 1940s and 1950s, Jacobs developed a large following based on inspirational writings that she produced. … The Moore-Jacobs House, in its dignified simplicity, reflects the tastes, lifestyle and background of its builder and the continued respect that his family holds for the heritage he provided them.”

Let’s quickly climb the family tree:

— John Burton Moore was the son of John Wesley Moore. John Wesley Moore had built the house in 1870.

— John B. Moore’s son, John B. Moore Jr., was the brother of Margaret Moore Jacobs. When Jacobs died in 1976 (her husband had died a dozen years earlier), the house and surroundings gardens were left in a trust with instructions that the property be turned into a park and museum. A 700-acre farm was also left to the trust to produce the income needed to operate the museum. John B. Moore Jr. was appointed as the trustee, but nothing was done with the house for years.

— John B. Moore III (who goes by Burton) later became the trustee and saw to it that the house and gardens were cleaned up.

— John B. Moore IV, who is Jeremiah’s older brother, moved back to Monroe County from Colorado two years ago with his wife and two children. He now oversees the museum and gardens. John IV is 26. Jeremiah is 20. They’re determined to do what they can to revitalize this part of east Arkansas, which has been bleeding population for years.

On Jan. 19, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published a front-page story by Noel Oman that told of the brothers’ efforts to save the U.S. 79 bridge from demolition once a new bridge is completed.

Oman wrote: “Two young Monroe County brothers say their effort to save an 83-year-old bridge in their hometown from demolition will preserve a link to the impoverished Delta’s past and boost the region’s economic and cultural future. East Arkansas may face long odds in arresting continued economic decline, but John Moore IV and Jeremiah Moore insist they are optimistic in the face of even steeper odds in rescuing the aging bridge over the White River at Clarendon. The Moores have joined forces with city officials and others to stop the planned demolition of the historic bridge on U.S. 79 to provide time to raise money to maintain the bridge as a crossing for cyclists, hikers, bird watchers and other outdoor enthusiasts through one of the largest remaining tracts of contiguous bottomland hardwood forest on the North American continent.”

John IV told the newspaper: “This is one of our great shots at preserving history and rebuilding our future. It won’t be just for Clarendon. It will be for Marianna, Hughes and Roe.”

The brothers already are preserving history at what Margaret Moore Jacobs always described as the “Dear Little House.”

The website for the park and museum states that Margaret was born in 1900, the oldest daughter of John Burton Moore.

“As a teenager, she contracted tuberculosis and was confined to bed in a sanatorium in Denver with a view of the Rocky Mountains,” it notes. “Perhaps this is where she gained the inspiration for contemplation and her resulting writings. Perhaps this is the condition that also left her childless, a circumstance that shaped her life and played a role in her creation of the park and museum trust. When Margaret returned to Clarendon, she married Jake Jacobs, who was a partner in a newly established Ford dealership. They were given the former house of Margaret’s grandfather, John Wesley Moore.”

Margaret wrote for magazines ranging from Furniture World to the Presbyterian Observer. Her subjects ranged from spiritual matters to antiques to gardening. She also wrote books.

Here’s how the website describes the property: “The eyes fall upon what appears to be a scene from the 19th century. First there is the iron fence that originally surrounded a court square in Tennessee. This is one of the most intricate fences you will see outside of the corn fence in New Orleans. Next to the fence is a horsehead hitching post to which you can tie your carriage. Lining the inside of the fence and front brick walk are boxwood hedges. Boxwoods were a favorite in English gardens and were brought to America by the colonists, as can be seen in Colonial Williamsburg.

“Guarding the front walk on either side is a pair of great iron dogs. On the north side of the yard is a large, tiered iron fountain. Closer to the house itself is a magnolia with a round iron bench surrounding its trunk. Under its spreading boughs next to the north-perimeter boxwoods and slightly behind an iron bench stands a life-size doe deer hiding in the shadows. At her feet is an iron rabbit. On the outside corner of the south front yard in an antique lamp from Fifth Avenue in New York City.”

The narrative goes on from there, but you get the point.

Best of luck to the Moore brothers. It inspires me to see two Arkansans in their 20s doing so much to preserve the rich history and culture of a region that too many others have forgotten.

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