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Camden on the Ouachita


Camden has the feel of an old river town, albeit one that has seen its better days.

When I was a boy, Camden seemed like a far bigger city than my hometown of Arkadelphia. After all, it had two high schools, Camden High School and Camden Fairview High School, against which Arkadelphia High School competed in sports.

It also had the smell of the giant paper mill that International Paper Co. had opened in the city in 1928.

The two school districts consolidated in 1991, and the paper mill closed for good a decade later. Camden has yet to recover. The city’s population peaked in 1960 at almost 16,000 residents. By the 2010 census, it was down to 12,183.

From the 1920s through the 1970s, however, Camden thrived. Oil was discovered in Ouachita County in the 1920s, and the paper mill opened. Money flowed, and beautiful homes were built.

A new Ouachita County Courthouse was constructed in 1933. A county hospital was constructed in 1952. Camden’s population increased from 3,238 in 1920 to 11,372 in 1950.

“The Camden Army Air field was one of three contract primary flying schools located in Arkansas during World War II,” Daniel Milam writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “It operated from 1942-44. Ouachita County secured a major economic boost with the construction of the Shumaker Naval Depot during the war on land adjoining Calhoun County. Although it closed in 1957, it was reopened as Highland Industrial Park in the 1960s for defense and conventional manufacturing. It became one of the largest industrial parks in a five-state area. … Educational opportunities were advanced in 1968 when Southwest Technical Institute opened in the industrial park. This institute evolved into a two-year technical college and became affiliated with Southern Arkansas University as SAU Tech in 1975, offering both technical and general educational programs.”

In 1955, Camden won an award for Outstanding Community Improvement in Arkansas, and a female attorney named Maud Crawford was selected to go to Little Rock and accept the award.

Among the things that would put Camden on the map in the 20th century were Camark Pottery, Grapette and the disappearance of Maud Crawford.

Let’s start with Camark Pottery.

“Founded in 1926, Camden Art Tile & Pottery Co. was the third and last producer of art pottery in Arkansas,” Dixie Covington Howard writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “By the end of its first year, its name had changed to Camark to include both the city of Camden and the state of Arkansas. Camark Pottery eventually became one of Camden’s best-known industries and was known nationwide. Samuel Jacob ‘Jack’ Carnes, a native of Zanesville, Ohio, with knowledge of the pottery business, wished to access the regional pottery market so he created the company with several Ohio associates, including businessmen and artists. They held a competition among 25 cities for its placement. Camden won in 1926.

“At the time, Camden was booming. An oil boom brought economic wealth to the area. Camden benefited from an available workforce and from the ability to ship products and materials along three railroads and on the then-navigable Ouachita River. The area was also home to a hydroelectric dam that supplied electricity for personal and industrial use. The Camden Chamber of Commerce donated a building and acreage to the company, which officially opened in May 1927.

“John B. Lessell, an acclaimed potter in Newark, Ohio, produced the first pieces from Arkansas clays. He shipped these pieces from Newark to Arkansas and provided the beginning stock of the company. The clays came from the clay mines of neighboring towns and were mixed by Carnes before shipping. Later in the history of the pottery, these clays were found to be inconsistent in quality and were mixed with clays from several neighboring states.”

Lessell died in December 1926, but his widow and daughter moved to Camden in February 1927 to continue the work. By the summer of 1927, 15 employees were producing 12 designs while using two gas-fired kilns.

By the fall, there were 25 employees and almost 500 pieces a day were being produced.

When the Lessells left, a German named Alfred Tetzschner took their place and created new lines in the late 1920s. In 1936, a gas-fueled circular continuous tunnel kiln was installed that could produce 2,400 pieces every 20 hours.

“The production began to shift from innovative designs to nondescript flower vases and novelty ware,” Howard writes. “The colors changed to single solid colors and to matte finishes. The height of pottery production occurred during World War II. … A thriving market existed for non-metal gift items. Camark Pottery shipped pieces to New York companies such as Macy’s. During this peak, the company employed more than 100 people.

“In the 1950s, Camark Pottery continued to mass produce pottery in bright pastel colors. Its business continued well into the 1960s with the extremely popular Climbing Cats, salt and pepper shakers and other novelty wares. Camark always operated primarily as a wholesaler, shipping a great majority of its products out of state.”

Carnes had moved to south Arkansas to go into the oil business. In May 1926, he married Gressie Umsted, the daughter of millionaire oilman Sidney Umsted. Carnes was an investment broker, raised the funds needed to build the Camden Hotel and donated the land for Carnes Park and the city’s first public swimming pool. He remained heavily involved in Camark Pottery through the years in addition to his work in the oil, investment banking and real estate sectors. He produced a play titled ‘Hocus Pocus” in Los Angeles in 1951, invented a fish caller, played the piano and organ, composed songs, owned thoroughbred horses and served on the state Racing Commission. This renaissance man died in 1958. His wife continued to operate Camark Pottery until 1963.

“Internal problems and decreasing profits eventually caused production to cease,” Howard writes. “The remaining stock pieces were sold through the retail store at the pottery until it closed its doors in December 1982.”

As for Grapette, the drink was developed in Camden in 1939 by Benjamin Tyndle Fooks.

“Fooks bought a soft-drink bottling plant in Camden in 1926 after leaving the lumber business,” David Rice writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He bought a second plant in Arkadelphia in 1927 and added a third in Hope the following year, which he used as a warehouse. However, the Great Depression forced him to close and sell his operations in Arkadelphia and Hope. Fooks focused on developing unique flavors from his plant in Camden, selling Fooks Flavors to other bottling plants throughout Arkansas, Louisiana and east Texas. Fooks Flavors never attempted to match existing soft drinks, relying instead on unique tastes like blackberry punch.

“Fooks’ beverage sales continued to climb. Initially relying on his father and brother to assist with sales, Fooks added two friends to his sales force in 1932, and sales increased seven-fold. Sales reports showed that grape flavors were the most popular with customers so in 1938 Fooks began experimenting with the distinctive grape flavor that was to become Grapette. By 1939, he had developed the flavor he wanted. Searching for a name for the new soft drink, Fooks found that the owner of the Sunset Liquor Co., Rube Goldstein, had registered trademarks for the names Grapette, Lemonette and Orangette but had never used them. In 1939, Fooks purchased the copyrighted names for $500, and the following year, Grapette entered the market. Grapette was an immediate success.”

Six-ounce clear bottles were sold in 30-bottle cases rather than the conventional 24-bottle cases. Lemonette was added in 1946, and Orangette came along in 1947. Additional lines included Mr. Cola, Lymette, Cherryette and Strawberryette. By the 1980s, following a series of owners, the brand had almost disappeared from the American market. Grapette International is now based at Malvern and produces drinks for Walmart.

And what about Maud Crawford?

She was 65 years old and known across the state when she disappeared from her home on March 2, 1957, at age 65. Crawford was a lawyer with the Gaughan, McClellan & Laney firm in Camden. Since her former law partner was Sen. John L. McClellan, many people assumed that she had been kidnapped by the Mafia to intimidate the senator, who was leading a highly publicized investigation into mob ties with organized labor. Crawford’s disappearance received nationwide media publicity. Her body was never found, and the case was never solved.

Crawford had passed the bar exam in 1927 and specialized in abstract examination and title work for the oil industry. She served from 1940-48 on the Camden City Council and was a founder of Arkansas Girls State. In 1986, the Arkansas Gazette published an 18-part series on the front page about the Crawford disappearance. The series was written by filmmaker Beth Brickell, a Camden native. The stories implicated Henry Myar “Mike” Berg, a millionaire Camden businessman who served on the Arkansas State Police Commission from 1955 until his death in 1975.

Brickell later wrote: “After the first article was published linking Berg to Crawford’s disappearance, Berg’s widow, Helen Berg, threatened the newspaper with a lawsuit if it published subsequent articles. After examination of the reporter’s extensive records by the Gazette’s attorney, Phil Carroll of the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, Gazette publisher Carrick Patterson proceeded to print the complete series over a five-month period. A lawsuit against the newspaper was never brought by the Berg family.”

My father and I were frequent visitors to Camden in the 1960s and the 1970s to watch the Arkadelphia Badgers play the Camden Panthers and the Camden Fairview Cardinals in football and basketball. On the day of our trip up Highway 7, we pass the building that housed our favorite eating place in those days, a restaurant called the Duck Inn. It’s now a Mexican restaurant.

Just past the Duck Inn on Adams Avenue was a row of bars and juke joints that locals once called The Front. Most of them are long gone, replaced by vacant lots.

Near what once was the depot, the White House Cafe still operates. It’s the oldest restaurant in Arkansas, having been opened in 1907 by Greek immigrant Hristos Hodjopulas. It once served those aboard the many trains coming to the city when times were good in Camden. The founder sold the restaurant to a cousin named James Andritsos. Camden was so busy in those days that Andritsos made it a 24-hour diner. It now serves lunch and dinner.

Despite the economic setbacks of recent years, Camden remains filled with historic treasures.

Earlier in the year, I had one of my best meals of 2017 in a historic Camden home. It was 1:30 p.m. on a Tuesday when dinner was served. This was dinner in the old Southern style, early afternoon rather than evening.

We were seated in the grand dining room of the Graham-Gaughan-Betts House, which was constructed in 1858 by Joseph Graham at a time when Camden was a leading cotton port for the region. The home, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974, is known for its elaborate front porch and its interior woodwork.

I was with a group of fellow Arkansas history enthusiasts that day. We were retracing the route of the troops commanded by Union Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele during the Civil War’s Camden Expedition in 1864. Steele used this house as his headquarters during his short occupation of Camden that spring. We had fried chicken, greens, peas, mashed potatoes, creamed corn, biscuits and gravy as the current owner of the home, George Betts, urged us to get seconds.

I’m reminded of the summer midday meals of my youth. My father would come home from work, we would eat a big meal at 1 p.m. and then he would take a short nap on the couch before going back downtown. We called that dinner. Supper on summer evenings consisted mainly of leftovers.

Betts gave us a tour of the home after the meal. The application for the National Register that was filed by his parents in the 1970s notes: “When the Graham-Gaughan-Betts House was built for Maj. Graham in 1858, it was planned to be one of the best and most handsome of the period. Building on a lot acquired from his brother, Dr. Henry Graham, this two-story frame structure was planned as a residence for Maj. Graham’s large family. Maj. Graham and his wife, Mary, were natives of North Carolina, and the house they built in Camden was modeled after a North Carolina home that Mrs. Graham had admired as a girl.

“Camden’s best craftsman was hired to make the interior of the house as handsome as possible. … Mrs. Graham was intensely Southern in her sympathies and did much to alleviate the discomfort and suffering of Confederate soldiers as they retreated from Camden before the Federal troops under Gen. Frederick Steele in April 1864. Mrs. Graham could also adjust to strained situations. When Gen. Steele made his headquarters at her home during the brief Federal occupation of Camden, she managed to discover that they had mutual friends in New York.”

Like so many Southerners, the Grahams experienced serious financial difficulties following the war. They took in boarders in an attempt to make ends meet. Maj. Graham died in 1871, and his widow continued to live in the house until her death in 1888.

The house was purchased by Thomas Gaughan in 1899 and remained in his family for decades. When the Betts family bought the home in the early 1970s, an extensive renovation project began. The house is just down Washington Street from Camden’s most famous structure, the McCollum-Chidester House, built in 1847 by local merchant Peter McCollum. It was the headquarters of the Chidester Stage Line in the late 1850s, was a military headquarters during the Civil War and has been used in the filming of television shows.

Camden was among the state’s leading cities at the time of the Civil War.

Milam writes: “During the 1850s, Camden served as the supply center for several counties and was the mercantile center for a radius of 100 miles. During this time, as many as 40,000 bales of cotton were shipped from its wharfs in a single year. As a steamboat river port, Camden had accommodations and transportation to service the planter provisioning trade to New Orleans. … After the Civil War, cotton production remained important to Camden. Much of it was accomplished by sharecropping. Steamboats continued to navigate the river, but railroads were coming. Trains opened up markets for Ouachita County’s pine and hardwood forests. Though they were challenged by the railroads, the steamboats continued to serve Camden until the 1930s.”

The oil boom and the timber industry kept Camden hopping for years. These are harder times economically, but the city still oozes history and Southern charm.

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