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Brick City USA


There were dozens of brick plants in Arkansas during the early 1900s. Little Rock, Fort Smith, Clarksville, El Dorado, Hope, Jonesboro, Malvern, Pine Bluff, Mansfield, Pocahontas and Wynne were among the cities with brick-making operations.

By the 1980s, there were only plants in the Malvern area, Jonesboro, Hope, Fort Smith and Clarksville.

By 2009, there were just four plants in the state, and they were all owned by Acme Brick Co.

“Malvern is by far the leading city in brick production in Arkansas and at one time claimed to be the Brick Capital of the World,” Randall Wheeler writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “It has been the home of Acme, Arkansas Brick & Tile, Atchison Brick, Clark Pressed Brick Co. (sold to Arkansas Brick & Tile in 1916) and Malvern Brick & Tile. Acme first purchased property in 1919 and began negotiations to purchase Arkansas Brick & Tile.

“Malvern Brick & Tile was started in 1925 and, at one time, had a line of bricks in colors such as blue, green, pink and yellow. Other companies sprayed the color onto the face of the brick, but Malvern Brick used stains that colored the whole body of the bricks. It’s not likely that any other company produced bricks with the through-the-body colors. Malvern Brick was purchased by Acme in the late 1970s.”

Acme began in Texas in 1891. Illinois native George Bennett had arrived in Dallas in 1876 and later purchased 480 acres in Parker County for the first Acme plant. The Acme headquarters was moved to Fort Worth in 1911, four years after Bennett died. By the 1970s, Acme was the largest American brick manufacturer.

Land for a brick plant was purchased at Perla in 1919, and the first bricks were being made two years later. The fully automated Perla East Gate Plant opened in 1967. Meanwhile, the original Malvern plant was replaced by what’s known as the Ouachita Plant in 1980.

We pass through Perla (which had a population of just 241 residents in the 2010 census) before entering Malvern during our trip on U.S. 67.

Though it has long been known for bricks, it was the timber industry that led to the establishment of Perla.

“Malvern Lumber Co. was established in 1880 by Adalbert Strauss, who had been born in Berlin in 1848,” Ronna Pennington writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He graduated from the College of Preceptors and moved to St. Louis in 1864. He worked in the lumber industry there as well as in Little Rock and Shreveport. On a train headed to the spas in Hot Springs, Strauss noticed the abundance of timber. He bought 45,000 acres of timberland along the railroad tracks, paying 50 cents an acre. Strauss started a sawmill and planer mill and then built houses to accommodate his employees. He named the community after his oldest daughter, Perla Marie Strauss.

“The lumber company also constructed a small private railroad to Lonsdale called Perla Northern. At one time, the lumber company employed 150 laborers. Industries in Perla later included a factory that made ammunition boxes used in World War I, the Owasso screen door factory and Atchison Brick. The biggest development for Perla in the 20th century was the opening of Acme’s Perla East Gate plant in 1919. Acme bought the Atchison plant in 1926, making it Perla Plant No. 2.”

A Rosenwald school for black students opened at Perla for the 1925-26 school year. The school for whites was torn down in 1939 when those students became part of the Malvern School District.

“The Great Depression was hard for Perla,” Pennington writes. “In many cases, workers exchanged their labor for housing and groceries with no paychecks being given. Strauss’ sawmill burned in the early 1930s, and he didn’t rebuild it. The planer mill closed in 1938 due to a lack of timber.”

An annual festival known as the Malvern Brickfest is held to celebrate the importance of bricks to the area. The festival began in 1981.

“In 1980, three companies were manufacturing bricks in Malvern and Perla with Acme having just upgraded its operation by opening a new plant in Malvern,” Marvin Schultz writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “At that time, the Malvern/Hot Spring County Chamber of Commerce declared the city to be the Brick Capital of the World. The following year, members decided to sponsor a festival that commemorated the importance of the product to the region. Roy Renfro, the chamber director at the time, was considered the guiding force behind the celebration. Throughout its existence, Brickfest has benefited from the service of many volunteers.

“The festival was initially held early in July, but the chamber rescheduled the event to avoid conflicting with the Fourth of July holiday. Since then, Brickfest has occurred on the last full weekend of June with activities beginning on Thursday evening and running through Saturday night. The event is free and attracts from 8,000 to 10,000 people every summer. The chamber depends on shirt sales, corporate sponsors and donations to fund the festival. When it began, Brickfest offered a variety of activities downtown at the county courthouse. In 2010, Brickfest moved to Malvern City Park to accommodate more people. Concerts featuring local talent take place daily with regional acts headlining evening shows.”

Malvern was established in 1873 as a stop on the Cairo & Fulton Railroad line.

“Tradition holds that the hilly terrain reminded one railway official of his native Virginia near Malvern Hill,” Schultz writes. “At his urging, the company gave the name to the new town. Residents of the young community attempted to incorporate in January 1875. That effort failed, as did a second one in October of that year. The following year, however, the county court issued a decree of incorporation. The city of Malvern came into existence in July 1876. Samuel Henry Emerson, a former resident of Rockport and owner of the first dry goods store in Malvern, was elected mayor.

“Rockport, located at the head of navigation for the Ouachita River and at the river crossing for the Military Road, had long been the economic center of the region. At the time of Malvern’s incorporation, it served as the Hot Spring County seat. The railroad spurred rapid growth in Malvern, and the city soon moved to become the seat of government. The initial vote in February 1877 proved unsuccessful, but another election took place in July 1878. At that time, a majority of 176 voters cast their ballots in favor of the change.”

On Oct. 15 of that year, the county judge ordered the county seat removed from Rockport. The first courthouse at Malvern was constructed in 1888.

“Malvern gained political and financial prominence in the area,” Schultz writes. “With railroad access to national markets, Malvern benefited as the region developed. From early on, agricultural and forest products provided the foundation for economic activity. In 1889, the Bank of Malvern was chartered. Malvern’s premier product proved to be brick. Abundant clay deposits in the area, especially in Perla, made the location ideal for production. Among the earliest plants was Atchison, which began operation in the 1890s. The company quickly found a strong market for its product. When fires in 1896-97 destroyed virtually all of downtown Malvern, the city took advantage of the opportunity to rebuild the business district with brick structures.”

The Clem Bottling Works began at Malvern in 1907. Clem soft drinks became a well-known product in this part of Arkansas. Clem drinks continued to be produced until 1972.

“Clem Bottling Works was started by J.M. Clem and his son Dock,” Darrell Brown writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The Clem family produced and bottled soft drinks in a small building behind their home. In May 1914, the Clem family built a bottling plant and warehouse at 937 S. Main St. in Malvern. The first bottles the company used were embossed with ‘J.M. Clem Bottling Works’ and were sealed with a wire and an inner seal. In the early 1920s, the company converted to bottles sealed with metal caps. The bottles at this time were also covered with paper labels. Starting in the 1950s, the bottles were labeled with applied coloring labels.

“J.M. Clem died on Sept. 22, 1931. Dock Clem’s son Harold joined the business in 1933. After Dock Clem’s death on May 21, 1942, his widow Jewell Clem and her son continued to operate the business until 1972, when the family sold the company to Dr Pepper. The purchase included the rights to the soft drink formulas and the trademarks but not the bottling equipment. Harold Clem joined Dr Pepper and worked there until he died on April 23, 2004.”

Clem Bottling Works produced about a dozen kinds of soft drinks. They were distributed in Arkansas, northern Louisiana, eastern Texas and western Mississippi.

“For years after Clem Bottling Works closed, the bottling machinery remained in the building,” Brown writes. “The machinery was purchased in the early 1990s by the Mountain Valley Spring Water bottler in Hot Springs. Cases of glass bottles used by Clem were purchased in May 2011 by the Excel Bottling Co. of Breese, Ill., which also trademarked the name R-Pep and is producing the original beverage formula for the first time since Clem closed in 1972. The Clem plant stood vacant for years. In 2018, it was announced that Teale Dentistry was moving into the historic structure.”

Malvern saw its population double from 5,290 in the 1940 census to 10,318 in the 2010 census.

“Malvern witnessed significant activity during the 1940s because of production associated with the war effort,” Schultz writes. “Barium, which is used in drilling for petroleum, was mined extensively in Magnet Cove. Demand for aluminum led the federal government to construct a massive reduction factory at Jones Mill in Hot Spring County. The Lake Catherine Steam Generating Plant was built to meet the resulting need for electrical power. Those projects marked the largest federal expenditure in Arkansas during the war.

“Reynolds Metals Co. purchased the Jones Mill facility in 1946 and operated it until the 1970s. Reynolds also built a continuous rolling plant in Hot Spring County that was later purchased by Alcoa. The war industries, Reynolds’ presence and the early years of the post-war baby boom stimulated growth in Malvern.”

Malvern is also home to a member of the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame, the iconic Keeney’s Grocery. Charles and Maureen Keeney opened a grocery store 64 years ago at the same location where the store still sits, hidden from most traffic in a residential area. Charles Keeney is 84 but is young at heart. He even drives a Corvette.

In 2000, with competition from Walmart and other big retailers hurting the business, Charles Keeney thought about retiring. With only $45,000 in the bank, though, he decided he needed to keep working.

Here’s how Wayne Bryan told the story in a 2011 feature for the Tri-Lakes edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “Rather than just carry on business as usual in a small grocery store that seems to fit more in the 1950s than the new millennium, Charles decided to latch onto what’s still the fastest-growing segment of the supermarket industry, cooking for customers (or, as it is called in the grocery business, home meal replacement). Starting in the late 1990s, many supermarket operators discovered that preparing and serving food in their stores was a good way to bring in new customers, gain greater loyalty from existing customers and increase checkout sales and profits.

“Today, in-store restaurants aren’t unusual. Charles had the same idea for his small store on Mill Street in Malvern. The couple, along with several employees, prepare and serve breakfast and lunch six days a week at the back of their store.”

The man employees refer to simply as CK says: “I just pushed some of the groceries back and put in a kitchen and some tables. I did it because I had to make a living. We stumbled through the menu for a while. But I was raised country so we fix things in the old home-style way.”

On certain days, he sells so much sausage at breakfast that he doesn’t have time to make it to sell by the pound in the grocery section of the store. On Thursdays, he sells dozens of rib-eye steaks. People eat them in the restaurant for lunch while others come in during the afternoon to get steaks to take home for supper. Charles arrives at the store at 4:30 a.m. and begins serving breakfast at 6 am.

Charles was 20 and Maureen was 17 when they bought the store in 1956.

I spent a day last fall with Hot Spring County Judge Dennis Thornton to talk about issues that affect rural America. We traversed the county from the Ouachita Mountains in the west to the Gulf Coastal Plain in the east. The day had started with an event in Malvern at which dozens of business, government and civic leaders gathered for the unveiling of a 10-year action plan for the county. Gov. Asa Hutchinson was the keynote speaker and spent his time at the podium praising the quality of life in this part of the state, its natural resources and the advantages of having Interstate 30 slice through the middle of the county.

Thornton, who became county judge after a long career with the grocery store giant Kroger, saw the need for a countywide strategic plan.

“I came into this office with the idea of forming an intergovernmental council that would bring county and state officials together,” he told me. “In the process, it became clear that we really had no consensus on what the needs of the county are. We had to find a way to reach out to all of our residents and get their input.”

Thornton contacted the Center for Community and Economic Development at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, and a meeting was held in Malvern in November 2017 to kick off the process.

“What we heard from people across the county is that they’re tired of losing their children to jobs in other counties and states,” Thornton said. “We have five school districts in this county, and we had community meetings at each of them. We averaged from 75 to 100 people per meeting. We had almost 200 show up at Bismarck.”

“The decline in manufacturing has created tremendous challenges,” said well-known Arkansas historian Tom Dillard, who lives near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. “But the county still offers lots of opportunities if people will set their priorities and then begin a formal process of achieving their goals.”

Despite the decline in manufacturing noted by Dillard, the county’s population grew from 21,963 in the 1970 census to 32,923 in the 2010 census. Dillard praised Thornton for taking a systematic approach to addressing the county’s problems while bringing new people into the decision-making process.

“People have been wanting something positive to happen here for years,” Dillard said. “This action plan gives them a way to address those issues that are holding us back.”

Jon Chadwell of the Newport Economic Development Commission addressed those in attendance that day in Malvern. Thornton has relied on Chadwell for advice on how to get a county moving economically following Chadwell’s success in Jackson County.

“You have trained for the marathon,” Chadwell said that day. “Now, you are at the starting line and ready to begin the race.”

At the first meeting in November 2017, online surveys were used to collect information. Hot Spring County residents then gathered in February 2018 to discuss survey results. That meeting was followed by sessions in each of the five school districts.

The five primary areas that will be addressed during the next decade are education and workforce development, job creation, family recreation and youth activities, health and public safety, and housing and real estate (including downtown development).

“If we can create the proper opportunities for them, our young people will stay here,” Thornton said. “I come from a background in which you have to sell yourself every day. So I’m going to be out there selling Hot Spring County as long as it takes.”

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