FOURTH IN A SERIES
We cross the Ouachita River at Camden and continue our trek to the north on Arkansas Highway 7.
There will be no more rural four-lane stretches of Highway 7, as was the case between El Dorado and Camden. The road here is narrow as we enter the heavily forested bottomlands near the river. The hardwoods form a canopy over the highway with railroad tracks to our right and the river to our left.
This section of Highway 7 is sometimes closed due to flooding, though that’s not a problem in this dry autumn of 2017. Huge cypress trees have turned golden, and we comment on the number of cypress knees we can see as we peer through the woods, hoping to spot an alligator.
It’s beautiful here, in a Deep South sort of way.
The Ouachita River originates near the Oklahoma border in the Ouachita Mountains. It passes through the dams that form three lakes (Ouachita, Hamilton and Catherine), transitions from a mountain stream to a lowland stream at Rockport in Hot Spring County, flows into Louisiana and finally joins forces with the Tensas River near Jonesville, La., to form the Black River. The Black, in turn, joins the Red River near Simmesport, La., to form the Atchafalaya River.
I was raised just a few hundred yards from this river at Arkadelphia. I thus consider it my “home river.”
“The Ouachita is a river of diverse beauty,” writes Glenn Gore of the Ouachita River Foundation. “It begins as a small mountain stream at Eagleton in Polk County and flows eastward about 120 miles. It winds through lush mountain valleys, steadily building as its flows between huge boulders beneath mountain bluffs. It flows onward on its 600-mile course amid banks of moss-covered oaks and cypress trees in the swampy bottoms of Louisiana.
“The Ouachita is noted for its great fishing. … Wildlife is abundant along the banks of the river. Whitetail deer, turkeys and even an occasional bear can be seen in secluded areas. Alligators and bald eagles have also recently returned to the area after having been driven out in the early 1900s. The Ouachita is also a major flyway for ducks and geese feeding and resting in the river’s oak-laden backwater flats and cypress swamps as well as in the rice and soybean fields along its banks.”
Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned inventor William Dunbar and scientist George Hunter to lead an expedition up the river by boat in 1804-05. The party covered almost 450 miles from the mouth of the Ouachita River to Hot Springs.
“In 1819, the first steamboat came up the Ouachita, making such a strange sound and presenting such a monstrous sight that it was described as ‘a puffing dragon,'” Gore writes. “After that frightful debut, steamboats began to play an integral part in the colorful history connected with the Ouachita. From 1819-1910, the Ouachita was the great highway of commerce and transportation for the entire river valley. Steamboats came from as far as New Orleans up the Ouachita River, reaching even Camden and Arkadelphia during times of high water.”
On this part of the drive, we’re still in Ouachita County, which was carved out of Union County in 1842.
“The county was already heavily settled by the time of the Louisiana Purchase,” Debbie Fenwick Ponder writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The French had traveled upriver from New Orleans and settled the community of Frenchport. In the late 1820s and early 1830s, the population of the area consisted of about 150 Choctaw along with white settlers and slaves. As more white settlers came to the area, the French left, returning to New Orleans or moving farther west.
“The Tates and Nunns were some of the first American settlers. They built homes and started farming and using the river for trade. By 1844, Camden was a substantial town with planned streets, lawyers and doctors, a courthouse, schools and churches. Records indicate that Dr. James H. Ponder was the first physician in the county. The first newspaper, the Ouachita Herald, was published in 1845 with Joshua Ruth as editor.”
Because this area north of Camden floods so easily, it has always been sparsely populated. Deer seemingly outnumber people along this stretch of Highway 7.
We reach the community of Amy and stop at Smith’s Liquor Store, not because we need to buy beer, wine or spirits; we don’t. We stop because it looks like the kind of place where one might meet a colorful character, and that’s the case. Hartwell Smith Jr. has run this store for more than four decades. He has seen it all.
With a dog to keep him company and no morning customers, Smith has plenty of time to tell us stories — stories such as the beer joint down the road that Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller obtained a liquor license for in the late 1960s once the owner had delivered him the black vote in Ouachita County. Back when Clark County was still dry, college students from Arkadelphia sometimes would make the drive to Amy to hang out in a small place they called the Tulip Country Club. Smith remembers those days fondly.
We finally tell Hartwell Smith goodbye and continue our trip north through the forest.
We enter Dallas County, a place where the timber industry is dominant. The population of Dallas County dropped from a high of 14,671 in the 1930 census to just 8,116 residents in the 2010 census.
“Very little settlement was in the area now known as Dallas County until 1840,” Michael Hodge writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Those settlers were mostly farmers and their slaves. While agriculture has always been the primary concern of the county’s citizens, industry such as sawmills, gristmills, flour mills, cotton gins, tanyards, blacksmith shops and pottery producers was also evident before the Civil War. … The first community to gain prominence in the area that is now Dallas County was Tulip. Previously named Brownville and then Smithville after prominent early settlers, Tulip was on the Chidester Stage route from Camden to Little Rock and boasted three collegiate schools and a literary magazine during its heyday. By the time the county was created in 1845, Tulip was well established, but it was never incorporated and was never the seat of the county’s government.”
Dallas County was carved from Clark and Bradley counties and named for George Mifflin Dallas, the 11th vice president of the United States.
“The town of Princeton was platted as the county seat of the newly formed county and by 1850 rivaled Tulip as the economic and cultural center of the county with its own academy and a prominent inn,” Hodge writes. “The first courthouse was a log structure built in 1846 on the east side of Princeton’s town square. Previous county business had been conducted in the home of a Mr. Watts, presumably Presley Watts, the first county clerk.
“By 1850, the county had 256 slaveholders owning 2,542 slaves, mostly farming cotton and other crops. In 1852, the original log courthouse was replaced and paid for by a member of the Smith family. In 1855, Princeton was incorporated. By 1859, a map of Arkansas marked the communities of Tulip, Princeton, Fairview, Red Bird and Chappell in Dallas County. The communities of Holly Springs and Pine Grove, both settled around 1840, had been mentioned elsewhere. Roughly 500 farmsteads, houses, churches and schools dotted a Civil War map of Dallas County, most disappearing during or shortly after the war. Few structures were actually destroyed because of fighting during the Civil War. They were lost because of neglect. About a third of the population left the area for Texas and Louisiana to avoid the fighting during the war. Many never returned.”
The era of the timber industry and the railroads led to population growth after Reconstruction.
“During the 1920s, many county farms were sold to lumber companies,” Hodge writes. “Farming, aside from the timber industry, is mostly confined to the southwest area of the county in the 21st century. The railroads began to lose their significance in the 1920s as the versatility of gas-powered vehicles changed the way logging was done, eliminating the need to build tracks and maintain infrastructure to support them for logging. … In 1940, the last trainload of logs pulled into the Fordyce station, signaling the end of an era.”
We pass through the community of Ouachita and then come to Sparkman, a once-thriving lumber town whose population fell by more than half from 964 in 1950 to 427 in the 2010 census.
“Present-day Sparkman is about a quarter of a mile southwest of the original settlement, which local residents today refer to as Old Sparkman,” Mike Polston writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Lemil Pete Sparkman, who established a lumber mill near the 17-mile trunk line Ultima Thule, Arkadelphia & Mississippi Railway, founded the settlement in 1892. On Sept. 19, 1893, a post office was opened with Sparkman as the postmaster. By 1899, the town was home to about 150 citizens and had three blacksmiths, a cotton gin, two general stores, a sawmill, a church and a depot.
“Once all of the profitable timber was cut out about 1910, the railroad shut down, and Sparkman moved his operation. The town began a decline. Earlier, a few unsuccessful oil wells were sunk, resulting in some of the surrounding land being polluted by the brine that was brought to the surface. Some used these waters for medicinal purposes, but they were never successfully exploited.”
As for the interesting name of that railroad, it was designed to run west from Arkadelphia all the way to a logging community in Sevier County known as Ultima Thule. However, it only made it west as far as a Clark County logging community known as Daleville, and it only made it east as far as Sparkman.
The Malvern & Camden Railroad came to Sparkman in 1913.
“Anticipating growth, the Dallas Town Co., organized by the Moore & Martin Real Estate Co. in Prescott, began to market lots to promote a new town platted near these tracks on Aug. 1, 1913,” Polston writes. “The new Sparkman began to grow slowly, and by the end of the year had a population of about 30 and a business district that included a general store, mill, gin and blacksmith. The opening of the Rucker Lumber Co. and the Arkadelphia Milling Co. at about the same time sparked the settlement’s transformation into a trade center supported by area lumber operations and farmers.”
The year 1915 saw the opening of the Hotel Sparkman, the addition of an electric power plant and the founding of a newspaper.
“By 1916, the city included five general stores, a barber, a gin, a hotel, a bakery, a restaurant, a hardware store and the Merchant & Planters Bank,” Polston writes. “By 1920, the population was approaching 600. … The 1920s were rocky years for the town. By 1926, both the Arkadelphia Milling Co. and the Hardwood Lumber Co. had closed their operations. Much of that business loss was recouped by the opening of the Garland Gaston Lumber Co. in 1927.”
The Dixie Theater opened in 1933. Sparkman area residents often ate at the Big Elephant Cafe before or after shows at the Dixie. And Sparkman received national publicity from 1927-30 due to the national success of its women’s basketball team, the Sparkman Sparklers. Called the “Wonder Girls of Basketball,” the team was led by the likes of Quinnie Hamm, Irene Hamm, Cozie Fite and Majorie Leonard. Some writers proclaimed Quinnie Hamm to be the best player in the country. She made 53 field goals and three foul shots in one game for 109 points. People came from miles around to see her play.
One article about the team noted: “J.R. North, general manager of a Sparkman lumber company, discovered the girls and launched them on the road to national prominence. Through his own activity in collegiate athletics, North readily recognized ability in the girls as they administered a decisive trimming to another girls’ team on an outdoor court. He sought the coach, Maxie Brown, graduate of Henderson-Brown College, and suggested that the Sparklers be paraded against sterner competition.”
Most members of the team were offered basketball scholarships to Crescent College in Eureka Springs, which held classes in the Crescent Hotel.
Some of the final scores for the Sparklers were 164-9 over Malvern, 124-5 over Tomberlin, 106-5 over Cabot and 105-19 over El Dorado.
When former Sparkler Vyra Mae Mann died in 2007, Pryor Jordan wrote for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “The Sparklers began playing on a dirt court outside the high school, but as the girls’ talent began to show, larger crowds began attending the games. Admission to Sparkman games was $2.50, about double the standard admission price for high school games in that era, but they sold out anyway, helping to finance the construction of an 800-seat gymnasium at Sparkman for the 1927-28 season. By 1929, the Sparklers had become a household name throughout most of the state and had attracted national publicity as the Arkansas Democrat and Arkansas Gazette chronicled the Sparklers’ season.”
Mann said in a 2003 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette interview: “With all the publicity, everyone in Arkansas heard of us. We used to get fan mail and telegrams from all over.”
In the national AAU tournament, the Sparklers were third in 1929 and second in 1930, losing 27-24 to the Sun Oilers of Dallas in the championship game.
In 1960, the boys’ basketball team at Sparkman Training School — the school for black students in the era of segregation — won the state championship for all-black teams, 51-43, over McGehee in a game played on the campus of what then was called Arkansas AM&N in Pine Bluff.
Along with basketball players, other famous residents of Sparkman were country music stars Jim Ed Brown and Bonnie Brown, who were born in the city.
We turn our vehicle toward the west for a couple of miles as we leave Sparkman before heading north again. We cross into Clark County at Dalark. This was our quail hunting zone when I was a boy, and I show my travel companions where the two country stores were at Dalark. My father and I would stop at those stores for bologna sandwiches for lunch when we were hunting. One served mostly whites; the other served mostly blacks. My father actually preferred the store for blacks, which was run by the overall-wearing “Sugar” Jones and later his son, Danny Jones.
A few miles from Dalark, we turn left onto Palmetto Road. This was another area where I once hunted. I want to show the others in our vehicle an area where the forest floor is covered with saw palmetto. It looks more like south Georgia or Florida here than it does Arkansas.
We then cross L’eau Frais Creek and Tupelo Creek east of Arkadelphia. The quail are gone now. The small cotton and soybean fields that once marked this area have been replaced by pine plantations.
We emerge from the pine forest and experience our first and only large row-crop fields of the trip several miles east of Arkadelphia. This land in the Ouachita River bottoms was cleared decades ago for rice and soybean fields. For a short distance, it’s like being in the Delta. We’ve pretty much followed the Ouachita River north from Camden. We cross the river for a second time this day and enter Arkadelphia.