NINTH IN A SERIES
We leave Woodruff County and enter White County on our trip west across Arkansas on U.S. Highway 64. As far as land area, this is the second-largest county in the state, behind only Union County in south Arkansas.
“Geographically, it’s a microcosm of the state as a whole,” Scott Akridge writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The southeastern part of the county is alluvial land that today is used for farming and timber production. The north part of the county is rocky higher ground where much of the land is used for cattle ranching. The Little Red River flows northwest to southeast across the county and connects with the White River, which forms the eastern boundary.”
This is where the Ozarks meet the Delta.
“The first Europeans to reach what’s now White County were likely with Hernando de Soto’s expedition, which ventured into the area in 1541 but stayed only a few days,” Akridge writes. “The next Europeans were likely French. Two Spanish land grants given to Frenchmen in the late 1780s are in the county. The first in central White County was to John Fayac. Documentary evidence of his actual occupation is sketchy. The second in southeast White County was to Francois Francoeur, likely the son of fur trader Joseph Francoeur, who came to the area in the 1740s.
“The first American settlers are believed to have been John and Nancy Magness, who traveled down the Southwest Trail from Wilson County in Tennessee in about 1815. The couple lived near what’s today the community of Letona. The Southwest Trail entered the north-central part of White County from Independence County, proceeded through the western half of the county and exited near El Paso. Later known as the Military Road, this road was the first major avenue for overland settlement in Arkansas and likely had been a trail used by Native Americans for centuries. The first post office in what became White County was established in 1831 along the Military Road west of Searcy.”
The Arkansas Territorial Legislature established White County in October 1835, carving it out of parts of Independence, Jackson and Pulaski counties. It’s not known if White County was named for the White River or for Sen. Hugh White of Tennessee, the Whig Party candidate for president in 1836.
“Near the center of the county, a community had developed around the White Sulphur Springs,” Akridge writes. “On Nov. 23, 1837, the Legislature designated this community the county seat and named it Searcy in honor of frontier lawyer and judge Richard Searcy of Batesville, who had died in 1832 at age 38. The first courthouse was a log structure built in 1839, but various legal challenges resulted in years of wrangling over the ownership of the Searcy site. The issue was finally decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1851, and Searcy was officially the county seat.
“Searcy wasn’t on the Military Road. By the 1840s, north-south traffic had begun to shift from the western part of the county to a more central route through Searcy. The Military Road gradually fell out of favor. By the time of the Civil War, military officers referred to it as the Old Military Road. The county’s first cash crop was likely cotton, and the earliest known cotton gin was along Gin Creek between Searcy and the Little Red River in the 1850s. Most settlers chose to live in the hilly northwest part of the county rather than the swampy southeast part.”
We drive through some of that swampy land and make our first White County stop at Bald Knob.
“Bald Knob was named for a large outcropping of layered stone that was a natural landmark, especially if approached from the White River and Little Red River floodplains east and south of town,” William Leach writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The completion of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad in 1872 triggered economic development in the region.
“Liberty Valley, south of Bald Knob, is the site of prehistoric salt extraction. Some scholars hypothesize that this was the site of Palisima, a Native American village mentioned in documents from the de Soto expedition. During the Civil War, workers extracted about two bushels of salt a day by boiling the water in large kettles. In the area’s only notable Civil War incident, Union troops broke most of the kettles on Aug. 10, 1864. Some of the old kettles still remain in private possession in the county.”
When Arkansas seceded, White County sent eight companies to fight for the Confederacy.
“In May 1862, Union Gen. Samuel R. Curtis arrived in the county from Batesville with his 12,000-man Army of the Southwest, intending to take Little Rock,” Akridge writes. “Curtis’ troops scoured the north half of the county, while the locals south of the river hid or destroyed food and forage in an effort to starve Curtis’ army. The most significant action occurred when a detachment of the 12th Texas Cavalry and local troops attacked a Union foraging party a few miles east of Searcy on May 19, 1862.
“Locally known as the Action at Whitney’s Lane, the conflict involved about 100 Union troops and 150 Confederate cavalry. Union losses were 23 killed and several dozen wounded. Southern losses were four killed and only a handful of wounded. Whitney’s Lane wasn’t a large battle, but it did have an impact. Curtis had found his supply lines from Missouri constantly under attack, and adequate provisions weren’t reaching his troops. Supply boats that were to come up the White River never reached him. Almost daily guerrilla warfare, the removal of food and forage from his path, the timely arrival of Texas troops in the area and incessant rains forced Curtis to abandon his goal of taking Little Rock and march to Helena instead. It would be more than a year before Little Rock would be captured by Union forces.”
The Union gunboat Cricket captured the Confederate steamboats Kaskaskia and Tom Sugg on the Little Red River in 1863. As the Cricket returned down the river, it was fired on from the bank near the community of West Point.
“The Cricket returned fire, as did the Lexington, another Union gunboat that had made its way up the river to near West Point,” Akridge writes. “The Confederates scattered, but the cannon fire damaged several homes in West Point. In August 1864, a Union force of 3,000 under the command of Brig. Gen. Joseph West came from Little Rock into White County but engaged in only small skirmishes. West’s forces destroyed the 11 kettles and 60 evaporating vats the Confederates were using to procure two bushels of salt per day at Liberty Valley.”
The railroad came to White County in 1872, bypassing Searcy by several miles.
“The railroad ushered in a new era of commerce in the county,” Akridge writes. “The towns of Bradford, Russell, Bald Knob, Kensett, Garner, McRae and Beebe formed along the tracks. The timber industry became the largest employer.”
The area around Bald Knob was sparsely settled before the Civil War and known as Shady Grove.
“With the railroad’s arrival in 1872, officials became interested in quarrying the bald knob for railroad bed ballast,” Leach writes. “Work in the quarry began in 1877. By 1880, 56 of the town’s 221 people worked there. More than half of the quarry workers were foreign born, most from Ireland. The importance of rock quarrying continued as the knob furnished ballast for Jay Gould’s Bald Knob & Memphis Railroad, which was built in 1886-88 to provide an east-west connection for the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern. By 1900, the quarry had wound down. It reopened briefly in the 1920s to furnish rock for buildings at what’s now Rhodes College in Memphis.
“Benjamin Franklin Brown, one of Bald Knob’s founding fathers, posted a sign beside the railroad tracks in about 1873 labeling the area Bald Knob. In February 1878, Lunsford Worthington applied for a post office, and 150 families were soon receiving mail at the new station. Merrival Dumas was elected the first mayor in 1881.”
Bald Knob grew as people came to work in sawmills or in the surrounding bottomlands as the virgin hardwoods were harvested.
“The number and size of the mills reached a high in the 1930s when Fisher Body Co. of Memphis required 80 railcars of logs daily to be used for body supports of General Motors automobiles,” Leach writes. “The strawberry industry triggered another economic surge for Bald Knob. The sandy, upland soil was ideal for the fruit, which was introduced in neighboring Judsonia in the 1870s. The first strawberry association was organized in 1910.
“In 1921, Brown, June ‘Jim’ Collison and Ernest Wynn organized The Strawberry Co. They built the longest strawberry shed in the world, a three-quarter-mile structure parallel to the railroad tracks. In the peak year of 1951, Bald Knob growers sold $3.5 million worth of strawberries. Bald Knob became known as the Strawberry Capital of the World. Berries ceased to be a major crop in the 1960s because of changing market and labor conditions.”
Akridge notes: “From the 1920s into the 1980s, there was a gradual shift from cotton and strawberries to soybeans and rice as primary cash crops. Most of the remaining farmland in the eastern part of the county today is planted in soybeans or rice. Sod farms occupy some of the land formerly planted in other crops.”
Daniel Wheaton planted the first successful strawberry crop in White County.
“Other area farmers tried to match his success,” Deborah Moore writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Jacob Bauer started Bauer Plant Co., which grew and sold strawberry plants. Louis Hubach developed new varieties of stronger plants with better fruit. The industry enjoyed a peak year in 1921, suffered setbacks due to plant disease in 1922-23, then continued to grow and prosper, even during the Great Depression. Lack of farm labor and the inability to mechanize berry picking led to a lessening of the strawberry’s importance later in the 20th century.
“In the early 1990s, a McRae box factory’s entire output was used for shipping strawberries. Strawberry production constituted the largest industry, even when compared to cotton and timber operations. The McRae Strawberry Association was created in 1912. Judsonia, Bald Knob, Searcy and Beebe were also major sites of production, complete with warehouses and canneries. The growth of the industry led to an increase in tenant farming in White County, and the emergence of cooperatives provided for the cheaper export of berries across the country, with shipping by truck becoming common in the 1930s.
“The railroad led to the emergence of Arkansas’ strawberry industry, but other innovations in transportation — such as the shipping of berries via refrigerated truck — led to its decline, especially as it became possible to ship berries from areas of the country more suitable to their cultivation. For berries to be their sweetest, the weather has to be warm and sunny. Cold and rainy weather produces inferior berries. California, which ranks first in the nation in strawberry production, possesses an environment that allows production to go on throughout the year. Florida growers can raise and pick their berries for six months of the year. By contrast, the strawberry season in Arkansas consists of only about six weeks.
“By the 1950s, the local industry declined in the face of competition from other states, combined with the post-World War II migration of young people to cities. A few growers continued to cultivate strawberries, especially for the local market and farmers’ markets.”
Numerous public works projects took place in Bald Knob during the Great Depression.
“The National Youth Administration built a gymnasium for the high school,” Leach writes. “The Works Progress Administration improved rural roads. The WPA also constructed a building for School District No. 45 northwest of town. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places because of its representation of Prairie-style architecture. It was later occupied by Hopewell Community Church. Bald Knob’s citizens later pitched in to aid in the World War II effort by buying war bonds, rounding up scrap metal and rationing sugar, butter, gasoline and tires.”
The Bald Knob School District can trace its roots back to a two-teacher school that was formed in 1897 from the old Shady Grove School. By 1927, students in all 12 grades were attending school at Bald Knob. Much of the school was destroyed by a March 1952 tornado.
“The development of wildlife refuges in the eastern half of the county served not only to protect the environment but also to bring in duck, deer and squirrel hunters,” Akridge writes. “The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission’s Henry Gray Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area and its Steve Wilson Raft Creek Bottoms Wildlife Management Area — along with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge — attract many sportsmen.”