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Crossing the Saline


Because parking was so difficult, I usually would walk with my grandparents to the Saline County Fair & Rodeo from their house at 111 Olive St. in Benton. It’s one of the oldest fairs in the state and was an event I always looked forward to when I was a boy. The fair’s roots go back to 1908.

“Since its inception, the Saline County Fair has grown to include a parade, a full rodeo, livestock sales, games, carnival rides, contests, live music and exhibits showing off locally made products,” Cody Lynn Berry writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The Saline County Fair has always been managed and funded by the Saline County Fair Association. The association was formed in the summer of 1908, and the first fair was held Sept. 29-30, 1908. The parade lined up at the corner of Narroway and Market streets in downtown Benton and proceeded to the fairgrounds, which were on East Street. There were 49 units in the parade, including 24 floats. George Zinn was parade marshal, and a reported 3,000 people attended.”

The fair was long known for its unusual exhibits. In 1931, for instance, 40 babies were examined at a clinic, and 11 of them were given blue ribbons. The only time the fair was held outside Benton was in 1932 when it took place on the grounds of the Harmony Grove school at Haskell.

“During World War II, the Saline County Fair blossomed,” Berry writes. “On Oct. 24, 1941, a reported 3,000 people attended the parade. … By 1942, the Arkansas Gazette reported that several counties would probably not have fairs for economic reasons. But on July 10, 1942, the Saline County Fair Association said ‘the show might be held if the people want it.’ In 1945, it was reported that 23 home demonstration clubs in Saline County had pledged to continue their programs at the fair despite the war.

“As the fair expanded, larger grounds were needed. In 1950, the fair was held in rented tents at Tyndall Park in Benton. On May 5, 1951, J.G. Gerard, chairman of the Saline County Fair Association, announced that the quorum court had appropriated $50,000 to purchase land and put up new buildings. On Aug. 29, 1951, the Arkansas Democrat announced that the Saline County Fair Association had purchased 30 acres of the Louis Thomas property on U.S. Highway 67 and 2.5 acres of Gerard’s property on which a livestock barn was located.”

In 1953, the Aluminum Company of America donated an aluminum-sided exhibits building. A new entrance for the fair was also constructed that year. The following year, a National Guard armory was built with those facilities available for the annual fair.

“Gov. Orval Faubus took part in the opening parade in 1955, and a concrete structure was added to house a rodeo,” Berry writes. “In 1958, Interstate 30 bisected Highway 67 in Benton. The Saline County Fairgrounds ended up alongside the new interstate. Every year, the opening of the fair is still marked with a parade through downtown Benton. Floats represent Saline County schools, clubs, churches and political candidates.”

My grandmother would enter items from her garden — flowers, vegetables, etc. She sometimes would enter them in my name, and I still have some of the ribbons. While attending the fair was the thing to do in early fall, our summer outings were to Peeler Bend on the Saline River in order to wade and gather mussel shells.

The river’s four forks begin in the Ouachita Mountains north of Benton and then converge near the city. The Saline enters the Ouachita River near Felsenthal in far south Arkansas.

“The river derived its name from a salty marsh located near its mouth, called by the French the Marais Saline, though some historians claim that a salt works started near Benton as early as 1827 gave the river its name,” Jann Woodard writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “At one time, these salt works supplied the bulk of salt used in the Arkansas Territory as well as surrounding states. Although the northern section of the river was popular for its salt works, the southern section was known for its large fields of lignite. Exposures of lignite were found in many areas of the river. The largest area was in Bradley County.”

The South Fork flows for 38 miles; the Middle Fork flows for 37 miles; the Alum Fork flows for 61 miles; and the North Fork flows for 29 miles. Once the four forks converge, the Saline River flows south through Saline, Grant, Dallas, Cleveland, Bradley, Drew and Ashley counties.

“The 204-mile stream has been called Merry Saline, Saline Bayou, Marie Saline, Marais Saline and Marais de Saline,” Woodard writes. “The watershed consists of about 3,350 square miles. Its bottom is gravel with an abundance of aquatic insects and other organisms. It includes a series of pools and fast-running shoals that contain many species of fish. When Native Americans gave up their land along the river, they left reminders of their sojourn. Although historical tradition states that the upper region of the Saline is closely associated with the Quapaw, excavated relics and pottery are of Caddoan origin. The Hughes mound near Benton is one of the largest Indian mounds along the river.

“The southern part of the river is rich with French history. In the late 1700s, many French families settled along the banks of the lower Saline. Among the early French settlers were the Fogle, LaBeouff, DuBose, Charron, Pevetoe, Ramsauer, De Ambleton, Carcuff and Bullet families. Several of the place names along the river derived from the French.”

In the Flood Control Act of 1937, Congress proposed that every major stream in the Ouachita River basin be dammed for flood control and hydroelectric power.

“Numerous studies were made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the initial plan included an earthen dam capable of generating hydroelectric power and offering water recreation. … Elected officials in several counties eventually opposed the structure while only minimal support surfaced for the project,” Woodard writes. “The only support for the dam seemed to be a few Benton residents. In 1973, Gov. Dale Bumpers asked the Corps to again study the feasibility of the dam because of the long-range need for water in central Arkansas.

“When what’s now the Central Arkansas Water System stated that Little Rock didn’t need any water from a new reservoir, the demise of the proposed project was assured. The enduring fight for the Saline’s survival as a free-flowing stream wasn’t easy, and the outcome wasn’t fully realized until February 1975 when Gov. David Pryor spoke out against the project.”

In August 1999, Charles Green found an Indian dugout canoe at Peeler Bend. The 24-foot canoe dated to the 1100s. I probably stepped on that canoe without realizing it when wading and swimming as a child.

I would beg my grandfather to drive us across what we called the Old Wagon Bridge, which is today called the Old River Bridge and is one of the oldest bridges in the state.

“The Old River Bridge spans 260 feet and is composed of iron beams, two large trusses and a wooden platform supported by iron columns,” Berry writes. “The bridge dates back to an act of the Saline County Quorum Court, which appropriated $5,000 ‘for the construction of an iron bridge over the Saline River at the Military Road crossing’ in 1889. Construction was completed in 1891 by Youngstown Bridge Co. of Youngstown, Ohio.

“The land around it is important, having been the site of William Lockhart’s settlement at what he called Saline Crossing in 1815. Lockhart was the first white man to build a permanent settlement in what’s now Saline County. The bridge was on the Military Road, which had been built along what was then called the Old Missouri Trail, or more commonly these days is called the Southwest Trail.”

The Old River Bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“In 1974, a truck carrying concrete blocks damaged the bridge’s wooden platform, and local officials decommissioned the bridge,” Berry writes. “Access to the area around the bridge was restricted by the city of Benton. Concrete barriers blocked cars from entering, but it remained a common fishing spot.”

The Old River Bridge was featured in the 1996 Billy Bob Thornton movie “Sling Blade.” A silhouette of the bridge was used on posters promoting the film. The Old River Bridge soon will see new life as part of a hiking and biking trail from Little Rock to Hot Springs.

“Benton residents wanted to restore the bridge and its grounds, but no one had succeeded in doing so until a grassroots organization was formed in 2008 by local business owners and politicians,” Berry writes. “Bill White, the owner of White’s Furniture in Benton, donated five acres of land he owned around the bridge. Five more acres were purchased for a new regional park to be built at the end of River Street. The Saline Crossing Regional Park & Recreational Area Inc., led by Benton resident Lynn Moore, was formed with the goal of restoring the Old River Bridge and turning its grounds into a park.”

A $500,000 federal grant administered by the Arkansas Department of Transportation will allow the bridge to be disassembled, evaluated, restored and then reassembled for use by hikers and bikers.

The community known as Saline Crossing once vied for the position of county seat. In 1831, Lockhart was given permission to build a toll bridge over the Saline River at that point on the Southwest Trail. Lockhart had left North Carolina with his family to head west in 1815. He followed the Southwest Trail to where it crossed the Saline River.

“Lockhart built a cabin on the Saline’s banks,” Berry writes. “He stayed there for the remaining 32 years of his life. In 1817, Abner Herold and his stepsons, Isham and John Pelton, settled near Lockhart’s home at Saline Crossing. In 1819, Arkansas Territory was created by Congress, causing more white settlers to spill into the area. By 1820, the families of Robert and Valentine Brazil had settled there, along with those of James Buchan and Samuel Williams.

“The Rev. William Stephenson, a Methodist circuit rider, gave the first recorded sermon in Saline County at Lockhart’s cabin in 1817. Thomas Nuttall wrote that there were ‘nine or 10 families living at Saline Crossing’ and that the land was ‘fertile enough and healthy enough’ to attract new settlers, which it did. The Southwest Trail that crossed the Saline River at that point was regarded as little more than an obscure trail. By 1831, the road was widened and improved after the Indian Removal Act was passed by Congress a year before.”

A post office opened at Saline Crossing in 1831 with Lockhart as the postmaster

“During Indian removal, the area was on the route between Little Rock and Fort Towson in Indian Territory,” Berry writes. “On Jan. 4, 1832, the Arkansas Gazette reported that a party of Choctaws that had left Camp Pope in Little Rock ‘left the Saline, 30 miles south of this, on Saturday morning last, and were proceeding on very finely when last heard from.’ On Nov. 23, 1832, removal agent S.T. Cross recorded crossing the Saline River in his Journal of Occurrences with this line: ‘Left camp and traveled 12 miles, crossing Saline creek — but few cases of sickness.’

“In fact, that winter was one of the coldest on record, and a cholera epidemic quickly spread through the remaining groups. Many died from exposure and more from disease while crossing the Arkansas swamps to Indian Territory. British geologist George William Featherstonhaugh visited Saline Crossing on Nov. 27, 1834, where he reported being ’27 miles from Little Rock’ at a place ‘kept by a sort of she Caliban.’ The house was a tenement consisting of a single room with a mud floor. This is widely believed to have been an inn kept by Lockhart’s wife. Saline Crossing was considered for the county seat but ultimately lost to nearby Benton, which absorbed Saline Crossing’s post office.”

When Benton became the Saline County seat, many of the settlers at Saline Crossing moved there. The Saline Crossing post office was abolished in January 1836. In 1837, the Chickasaws began to leave their homelands in Alabama and Mississippi. They camped along the Saline River in August of that year

The Southwest Trail was a network of routes connecting the St. Louis-St. Genevieve area of Missouri with northeast Texas. In Arkansas, the trail crossed the Current River in Randolph County and moved from northwest to southwest, exiting along the Red River southwest of Washington.

“It followed the edge of the eastern terminus of the Ozark Plateau in northeast Arkansas and of the Ouachita Mountains in southwest Arkansas,” Scott Akridge writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The trail avoided the swamps, which covered much of eastern Arkansas, while skirting the foothills of the Ozarks and the Ouachitas. From Pitman’s Ferry on the Current River to the Fulton crossing on the Red, the trail traversed 300 miles. Since most streams in Arkansas arise in the northern and western highlands and flow in a south and east direction, the Southwest Trail crossed the state perpendicular to these streams and their river traffic. Thus travelers who chose not to move on the state’s many waterways found the Southwest Trail especially appealing.

“It isn’t known when the term Southwest Trail was first used. The phrase appears to be largely a 20th-century term. Travelers in the 19th century referred to the trail by different names, including Arkansas Road, National Road, U.S. Road, Military Road, Natchitoches Trace and Red River Road. Native Americans likely used the trail long before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The Hernando de Soto expedition may have traveled parts of the route as early as 1541. … The route was no more than a foot or horse path until 1819 when Arkansas became a territory. That year, the St. Louis Republican reported that 100 people a day passed through St. Charles, Mo., a third of whom passed south into Arkansas, distributing themselves along the trail all the way to the Red River in southwest Arkansas.”

The waves of immigration to Texas grew during the 1820s. Wagon trains were common.

“In the 1830s, during President Andrew Jackson’s administration, Congress attached funding to military appropriations bills that provided for improvements to the road,” Akridge writes. “Army Lt. Richard Collins surveyed the route and oversaw construction contracts. Improvements included cutting and pulling stumps, building bridges and, in some cases, leveling the road and digging ditches. The Military Road was a single roadbed, whereas the Southwest Trail was a network of routes. … The route that paralleled the Southwest Trail was prominently labeled by early surveyors as Military Road. Benton and Rockport were on the Military Road.”

Akridge notes that travelers on the trail usually spent nights in the homes of settlers and that those homes ranged “from dirt-floor log cabins to Jacob Barkman’s brick house near Arkadelphia. Because there were no restaurants or hotels in the modern sense, frontier settlers who lived along the trail often provided travelers a room, a meal and livestock feed for a fee. Accommodations and meal quality varied widely. Businessman and farmer William Wyatt noted in his 1836 travel diary that fees for room and board for one night generally ranged from 75 cents to $1.25 per traveler.

“Because there were few towns along the early trail, most travelers noted distances from stream to stream because streams were easy reference points and because they were hazardous to cross, especially in the spring. Drownings and lost property were common. … In a sense, there’s still a Southwest Trail. Interstate 30 and U.S. 67 parallel the route for automobile traffic, as does the Union Pacific Railroad.”

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