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Arkadelphia: Athens of Arkansas


We cross the Ouachita River at Arkadelphia as our trip north on Arkansas Highway 7 continues.

To our left, a larger bridge is being built to handle the log trucks that one day might head to the giant $1.3 billion pulp mill that a Chinese company hopes to build just south of Arkadelphia at Gum Springs.

We detour a couple of blocks off the highway so we can read the historic markers on the grounds of the 1899 Clark County Courthouse, which was designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles Thompson.

The courthouse was damaged in the March 1, 1997, tornado that destroyed all or parts of 60 city blocks in Arkadelphia. It was repaired over the objections of some county officials who wanted to build a new courthouse. Fortunately, the historic preservationists won this battle.

Clark County was one of five counties in existence when the Arkansas Territory began in 1819. Arkadelphia became the county seat in 1842, and a courthouse was built two years later. It would serve the county for the next 55 years.

“The 1844 building was torn down in 1899 in advance of construction of a new structure at the same location,” writes Ouachita Baptist University archivist Wendy Richter. “In May of that year, Arkadelphia’s Southern Standard newspaper noted that the old courthouse was ‘the best known landmark of this section, dear to the memory of all old citizens. There is now but a hole in the ground.’ But the construction process moved quickly, and by July, the cornerstone was laid for the ‘new, magnificent $40,000 courthouse.’ Officials began operating from the building before the end of 1899. The two-and-a-half-story structure at Fourth and Clay streets was built by R.S. O’Neal from a Charles Thompson design. At the time of its construction, the Clark County Courthouse was arguably the county’s most impressive structure. The large, brick, Romanesque-style building dominated the area surrounding it. A six-story conical clock tower gave the courthouse a distinctive appearance.”

Like Camden, Arkadelphia is an old river town oozing with history. There’s a key difference, however. Since 1960, Camden has lost about 3,600 residents. Arkadelphia has gained almost 2,600 residents during that same period. The difference is that Arkadelphia is a college town.

Arkadelphia has long promoted itself as a center of education, and college towns are poised to do better in the modern economy. For many years, in fact, the city billed itself as the Athens of Arkansas.

“With a newspaper, several churches and a saloon, Arkadelphia was one of the larger settlements along the Ouachita River in 1850,” writes David Sesser of Henderson State University. “Early efforts to open a school in the town began in 1843. That year, an election was held in Arkadelphia to select three trustees to create a school and sell part of the 16th section on the west side of the Ouachita River. Three trustees were elected, but one died before taking office, and little progress was made toward opening a school.

“A Baptist minister, Samuel Stevenson, arrived in Arkadelphia as a representative of the American Bible Society. Stevenson was a native of Philadelphia and a graduate of Georgetown College in Kentucky. Arriving in Clark County around 1848, he first operated a school at Oakland, eight miles from Arkadelphia. He constructed a two-story frame building with a cupola and opened the Arkadelphia Institute in 1850 with help from his nephew, James Gilkey. Gilkey served as the principal for male students, and Elizabeth Ann Webb took a similar role over the female students. By 1852, the school had an enrollment of 97. The school was known by a variety of names during its operations, including Arkadelphia Institute, Arkadelphia Male and Female Institute and Arkadelphia Female Seminary.”

The school closed during the Civil War. Stevenson reopened it after the war and sold it to Mary Connelly in 1869. She renamed the school Arkadelphia Female College.

“Classical language courses and art courses were popular offerings,” Sesser writes. “The students also held concerts at the local Baptist church to raise money to establish a library at the school. Enrollment numbers for the institution do not survive, but numerous girls from the local community attended the school. The organization of Arkadelphia High School by local Republicans as a free institution open to members of the community signaled the end of the private, tuition-driven school. Connelly closed what by then was known Arkadelphia Female Academy in June 1874. The building was later used to house Arkadelphia Female High School, which was organized along with Arkadelphia Male High School in 1875.”

During Reconstruction, Arkadelphia became a popular spot for freed slaves from surrounding plantations to live. A school for black children that had begun in 1882 was taken over in 1889 by the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen, an arm of the Northern Presbyterian Church. What became known as Arkadelphia Presbyterian Academy had 127 students by 1908. In 1910, a new building was constructed at a cost of $5,000, and attendance was nearing 300 students by 1913. In 1920, C.W. Black of Iowa gave the academy $25,000 to build another building that became known as Black Memorial Hall. Both Black Memorial Hall and the main building were destroyed by a fire in 1931.

“The Board of Missions felt it had only two choices — to close the school or move it,” Nancy Snell Griffith writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1933, they decided to merge it with another Presbyterian school, Cotton Plant Academy. The new, stronger institution in Cotton Plant was named the Arkadelphia-Cotton Plant Academy.”

Meanwhile, what was known as Arkansas Industrial College at 18th and Caddo streets in Arkadelphia was organized in August 1890. The school for black students changed its name to Arkadelphia Baptist Academy in 1892 and became associated with Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock. In 1893, there were 27 male and 60 female students. Fifteen of them were boarders. The American Baptist Home Mission Society, which was based in New York, helped support the school. The academy’s main building was destroyed by a fire in 1930, but the school continued to exist for several more years.

Arkadelphia also was the original home for what’s now the Arkansas School for the Blind at Little Rock.

“In 1859, the Arkansas General Assembly incorporated the Arkansas Institute for the Blind, which remained in Arkadelphia until 1868,” writes Ouachita Baptist University historian Ray Granade. “After the Legislature created the first statewide common school system in 1866, Arkadelphians designed a citywide segregated system, which became operational in 1871 and coexisted with private schools. Arkadelphia became an educational center between 1886 and 1896 with the opening of two colleges for white people (Ouachita Baptist College in 1886 and Arkadelphia Methodist College in 1890), two schools for African-Americans (Bethel AME College in 1891 and Colored Presbyterian Industrial School in 1896) and the first of a series of business colleges (Draughon’s in 1891).”

Bethel College was renamed in 1892 in honor of AME Bishop James A. Shorter and moved all operations to Argenta (now North Little Rock) in 1898. Draughon’s Business College moved to Little Rock.

Granade says that “Arkadelphia’s greatest asset” has been “an enduring commitment to education that began with general private and denominational efforts, as well as what’s now the Arkansas School for the Blind prior to the Civil War, and blossomed with public education, a business college and denominational colleges for black and white Arkansans in the 1880s and 1890s.”

The citizens of Arkadelphia put up 13 acres of land overlooking the Ouachita River, offered the building that had once housed the Arkansas Institute for the Blind and threw in $10,000 to land the state’s Baptist college in April 1886.

“Founding president John William Conger and his wife made up a third of the initial faculty,” Granade writes. “OBC began with instruction at all levels — primary, preparatory and collegiate — though primary disappeared by about 1900. Enrollment grew from the original 166 to averaging in the 300s under Conger, and the school maintained a low student-teacher ratio, 18-1 in 1907. Initially, women lived on campus while men boarded in town. Student life centered on literary clubs (two for females and two for males) while sports stirred deep passions. The hotly contested Battle of the Ravine with cross-street rival Henderson began in 1895, making it one of the nation’s oldest college football rivalries. The curriculum, standard for colleges of its day, contained a few surprises (like bookkeeping) and featured compulsory military training consistently until 1991.

“Continuing financial difficulties led Arkadelphia citizens to pay the institution’s debt in 1914 and again in 1936 in return for the promise to keep OBC in Arkadelphia permanently. Presidents and supporters began endowment drives several times, but the institution accumulated little until World War I. Since 1925, the institution has been a regular part of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention annual budget, which has helped stabilize its finances.”

Granade says the founding of the school “capped longstanding Arkansas Baptist interest in making higher learning more readily available to more people, in providing an educated ministry and educated lay leadership, in strengthening denominational loyalty and in extending denominational influence. It gained university status in 1965 and has been rated by U.S. News and World Report as the No. 1 Baccalaureate College in the South and included in its list of Great Schools, Great Prices.”

Four years after the founding of Ouachita, Arkansas Methodist College opened in Arkadelphia. It became the third Methodist college in the state along with Hendrix College in Conway and Galloway Female College in Searcy.

“Methodist citizens in Arkadelphia originally tried to secure Hendrix College for Arkadelphia when its location was moved in 1889 from Altus to Conway but were unsuccessful in their efforts,” Sesser writes. “With $30,000 and a location already pledged to the school, the citizens of Arkadelphia set out to create their own school. After receiving the blessing of the board of education of the Little Rock Conference of the Methodist Church, a 15-member board of trustees was selected and immediately set out to create a school. On April 19, 1890, a nine-acre campus, located north of Arkadelphia, was purchased from Harriet Barkman. The new campus was separated from Ouachita Baptist College by two ravines and several blocks. Architect Thomas Harding was contracted to build a structure to house the college. The first term was scheduled to begin the first Wednesday of September 1890.”

About 110 students showed up on that first day.

“By 1909, the school was debt free, largely due to the work of prominent Arkadelphia citizens and, to a lesser extent, the Little Rock Conference of the Methodist Church,” Sesser writes. “In 1904, the name of the institution was changed for the first time. In honor of Captain Charles Christopher Henderson’s service on the board of trustees and his continued financial support of the college, the name of Arkadelphia Methodist College was changed to Henderson College at the annual commencement. In 1911, the name of Henderson College was expanded to Henderson-Brown College in honor of Walter William Brown, business partner of Henderson and a member of the board of trustees.”

A huge fire early on the morning of Feb. 3, 1914, destroyed the college’s main building. There were almost 300 students in school at the time, and all but seven decided to stay following a meeting in a nearby pine grove. Classes were held in tents and at Ouachita.

“By 1929, enrollment stood at 153, a drop of 50 from just the year before,” Sesser writes. “The Little Rock Conference decided after much debate to consolidate Henderson-Brown College and Hendrix College and create one co-educational institution of higher learning. … The student body of Henderson-Brown strongly opposed the merger, as did most of the administration and the public. After negotiations with state lawmakers, it was decided to turn control of Henderson-Brown over to the state rather than close its doors. Thus in 1929 the institution became known as Henderson State Teachers College.”

There was rapid growth once Henderson became a state school. Six major buildings were constructed during the Great Depression. By the end of World War II, enrollment had doubled from what it had been before the war with more than 500 students. The name was changed to Henderson State College in 1967 and Henderson State University in 1975.

It’s Battle of the Ravine week in Arkadelphia, so signs are covered at both schools to prevent vandalism by students in advance of Saturday’s big football game. My travel companions enjoy seeing that.

The football stadiums of the two schools are just across Highway 7 from each other. It’s the only college rivalry in the country for which the visiting team walks rather than flies or takes a bus to a road contest.

The first game in the series was played in 1895 with Ouachita winning 8-0 on Thanksgiving Day. The two schools began playing on an annual basis in 1907. Henderson controlled the series in the early years, winning six consecutive games from 1907-12. The 1914 Ouachita team, which earlier had defeated Arkansas at Fayetteville and Ole Miss in a game played at Memphis, could manage only a tie against the Reddies.

The series was interrupted by World War II and later was suspended from 1951-63 because of excessive vandalism by students at the neighboring schools. School officials began leaving the lights on at both stadiums the week of the game to discourage pranks.

As we drive between the campuses, we pass two of the most beautiful old homes in the state.

On one side of the highway, the Charles Christopher Henderson House is now home to a bed-and-breakfast inn operated by Henderson State University. Captain Henderson, a native of Scott County, made his fortune in banking, timber and railroads.

“On July 16, 1892, Henderson bought a lot at the corner of president-day 10th and Henderson streets, directly opposite the campus of Arkadelphia Methodist College,” Sesser writes. “Two small cottages built in 1876 on the property faced the campus. Henderson and his family lived in one of these homes before the family moved to Ruston, La., for several years. Returning to Arkadelphia in 1903, Henderson moved one cottage to a new location and began an extensive expansion project on the second cottage.”

On the other side of the highway is the home that James Barkman built in 1860. He was the son of early Clark County planter Jacob Barkman, who owned almost 22,000 acres by the time of his death in 1852, operated salt works on the Ouachita River and owned a steamboat known as the Dime. Henderson State purchased the home in 1968, and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

I point out the famous ravine, which is covered in kudzu.

The time has come to depart the Athens of Arkansas and head north to Hot Springs.

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