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From Cotter to Ash Flat


In late 1902, an attorney named Walker Powell leased land along the White River to the White River Railway.

The company built a depot, an engine maintenance facility and a terminal yard. The city of Cotter was incorporated there on July 13, 1904, and the railroad’s division headquarters was officially established there in 1905.

“Early businesses included hotels, drugstores, a lumber company and a button factory that used mussel shells harvested from the White River,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, a division of the Central Arkansas Library System. “As the local economy grew, so did antipathy toward African-Americans, many of whom were attracted to the area due to railroad work. As an Aug. 25, 1905, article in the Cotter Courier noted: ‘There’s a strong feeling against the Negro in Cotter and the county, and the feeling is growing. It is quite likely there will not be a colored person in Baxter County within a year. They are not wanted.’

“On Aug. 24, 1906, after a fight broke out between two black residents, public notice was served that all African-Americans were to leave town immediately. At the time, the African-American population numbered 10, though the Arkansas Gazette reported that seven African-Americans had been driven off in previous weeks.”

The Great Flood of 1927 did significant damage at Cotter. Another landmark event occurred three years later when the Cotter Bridge was completed across the river. The bridge is still there and is one of the most photographed bridges in this part of the country.

“It was the first in Arkansas to become a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and is one of only a small number of bridges designated as such,” Rebecca Nighswonger writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “East-west travelers through northern Arkansas often encountered problems crossing the White River. Although ferries operated at several places along the river, the river had a tendency to flood rapidly, grounding the ferries and hindering traffic, sometimes for several days. The fastest detour was to cross 100 miles north in Branson, Mo.”

Two companies, Henderson Bridge Co. and Denton Bridge Co., were granted franchises to build privately owned toll bridges over the river. Nothing, however, was built.

The Cotter Bridge is now officially the R.M. Ruthven Bridge, named after a former Baxter County judge. Legend has it that a study was done for the state in 1928 that concluded that a bridge at Cotter couldn’t be justified. Ruthven is said to have stolen the report.

“In the absence of a report, the Arkansas Highway Commission approved the site,” Nighswonger writes. “The Marsh Engineering Co. in Des Moines, Iowa, designed the bridge with its patented rainbow arches. Frank Marsh came to Cotter in May 1929 to survey the area where the bridge would be constructed. Bids were made for construction, and one was accepted. All were later rejected when plans changed, starting the process again. The final contract went to Bateman Construction Co. of Nashville, Tenn.”

Construction began in November 1929 and ended in November 1930. A ferry continued to operate until July 1931 when the state paid Joe McCracken $250 to destroy the ferry.

The name was changed to the Ruthven Bridge in 1976, and the landmark status was granted in 1986.

In 1990, the bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. A new bridge to the north was meant to replace the old bridge, but public outcry saved it. The Cotter Bridge was renovated in 2004.

Cotter also has a water tower that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. The tower was constructed in 1935 with assistance from the federal Public Works Administration.

“As the United States struggled with the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration enacted the National Industrial Recovery Act to ease the effects of businesses closing,” writes Arkansas historian Mark Christ of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “The act included an organization called the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works (the Public Works Administration), which was created on June 16, 1933, to help finance federal construction projects and create jobs. The city of Cotter decided to seek funding for a badly needed public water system, and on Oct. 27, 1933, the Cotter Record reported success, writing that “the approval of the application for a loan from the Federal Administration of Public Works will make it possible for Cotter to have a public water system and will give employment to many of the unemployed in this vicinity for several months.”

On our trip across northern Arkansas on U.S. Highway 412, we have breakfast at the White Sands in Cotter, which is like stepping back in time. We then make our way through Gassville, which had a population of 2,158 in the 2010 census. The town was founded by P.A. Cox, a talkative sort who often was referred to as “a real gasser.” Thus Gassville.

We continue east on Highway 412 into Mountain Home, which we wrote about extensively in an earlier series on the Southern Fried blog.

Mountain Home changed dramatically with the construction of Norfork and Bull Shoals dams. The city’s population soared from 927 in the 1940 census to 12,448 in the 2010 census.

Clement Mulloy writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects on the White and North Fork rivers were intended to “provide flood control and hydroelectric power. The project was also intended to stimulate commerce and industry throughout the region. Norfork Dam was completed in 1944, and Bull Shoals, one of the largest dams in the nation, was completed in 1951. Both were dedicated on July 2, 1952, with President Harry Truman as the keynote speaker of the event.

“The construction of the dams was the most important event in the history of Mountain Home. The town was ideally situated about midway between the two projects. Formerly an isolated rural community with few businesses or paved streets and fewer employment opportunities, Mountain Home suddenly became a boomtown with workers attracted by high-paying government jobs moving into the area. New businesses were established and houses built, while farms that had been abandoned during the Great Depression were reoccupied, safe from the threat of future flooding.”

Soon after leaving Mountain Home and continuing east, we cross the bridge over Norfork Lake. Until 1983, those traveling the highway had to use a ferry to cross the lake. Funds were finally released in the early 1980s to construct the bridge and replace the ferry, which was operated by what then was known as the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department.

We soon find ourselves in Fulton County. The rural county had just 12,245 residents in the 2010 census, but that’s still almost double the 6,657 people who lived there at the time of the 1960 census.

The first known white resident of the county was William P. Morris, who used a land grant to acquire 160 acres near what’s now Salem in the 1830s. The Arkansas Legislature created Fulton County in December 1842. Morris donated the land for the county seat. The town first was known as Pilot Hill because of a large hill that overlooked flatlands in the South Fork River bottoms. The first courthouse was a one-room log cabin.

Loyalties in the county were sharply divided during the Civil War with settlers from the rocky uplands favoring the Union (those settlers rarely owned slaves) and slave-owning farmers in the river and creek valleys favoring the Confederacy.

“Fulton County residents lived in a guerrilla warfare state for three years,” Sarah Simers writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Bands of thieves known as bushwhackers and jayhawkers roamed the area, raiding local farms and terrorizing the citizens. They also burned the county courthouse, destroying land and census records. In 1868, Confederate veterans met at Bennett’s Bayou (now in Baxter County) in the western part of the county and formed a local Ku Klux Klan.”

Simers writes that farmers in the county “grew cotton and corn as cash crops, raised hogs and cattle for market and personal consumption, and relied heavily upon gardens to supplement their diets. When the Great Depression hit, many struggling farmers lost their farms. The Rural Electrification Act, a New Deal program, allowed local residents to form an electric cooperative, North Arkansas Electric Cooperative, in 1939. This organization not only provided electricity but also much-needed jobs to the county. Industrialization in other parts of the country attracted Fulton County youth as they left home in search of economic opportunities.

“Despite the arrival of the Tri-County Shirt Factory in the 1960s, the county population reached an all-time low in the middle of the 20th century. Desegregation wasn’t an issue in Fulton County. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were fewer than five African-Americans living there, all of them above the age of 21. … Fulton County remains a small, rural area in the Ozark foothills. Many of the residents are retirees who have returned to their childhood home. Other retirees are attracted by the scenic beauty and reasonable cost of living.”

We pass through the community of Gepp and then find ourselves at Viola.

Joe and James Wiseman opened a store at what’s now Viola soon after the Civil War. By the early 1870s, there was a log schoolhouse and a Methodist church. By 1890, there were two general stores, two cotton gins, a Masonic lodge, blacksmith shops and a flour mill.

“By 1905, the public school had outgrown its building and was meeting in the Methodist church,” Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Around 1909, a new schoolhouse was built and was also used as a teacher training academy. Viola’s first bank opened in 1913. … Five newspapers were published in Viola between 1884 and 1920, but none of them lasted more than two years.”

The Viola School District remains the heart of the town, which had a population of 337 in the 2010 census.

We make our way into Salem, the Fulton County seat. We park at the courthouse downtown and visit with the country treasurer. Salem is small, but its population has more than doubled from 713 in the 1960 census to 1,635 in the 2010 census.

The first telephone lines connected Salem with Mammoth Spring in 1890. Electricity, however, didn’t arrive until 1928. The power company was owned by brothers Ed and Wyatt Wolf, who turned off the power at 11 p.m. each evening and restored it at 6 a.m. the next day.

Highway 412 veers to the southeast as we leave Salem. We pass through the communities of Glencoe and Agnos and cross into Sharp County.

Like other counties in the state, Sharp County suffered from 1940-60 as Arkansans left home in search of work. Sharp County saw its population fall from 11,497 in the 1940 census to 6,319 in the 1960 census. The advent of the retirement industry industry changed all of that. By the 2010 census, Sharp County was at an all-time high of 17,264 residents.

Sharp County was established in 1868.

“The date when the first white settlers inhabited what’s now Sharp County remains disputed, though the earliest families were known to have been living in the Ash Flat area in the middle to late 1820s,” Nancy Orr writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Other towns such as Calamine were soon settled. The Williford area was settled in 1841. Evening Shade established the first school in 1847. In 1856, zinc was discovered in and around Calamine and was mined until the advent of the Civil War. … Some of the early settlers brought slaves with them.”

There were a few skirmishes but no major battles in the area during the Civil War.

“Sharp County was carved from Lawrence County in 1868 with parts of Independence County annexed in 1873,” Orr writes. “The newly formed county was named in honor of Ephraim Sharp of Evening Shade, who served as a state representative for Lawrence County. Sharp County was described at the time in a letter from H.L. Roberts to James M. Lewis, Arkansas’ first appointed commissioner of immigration and state lands, as being in a part of the state known for its bountiful fruit trees, abundance of timber, plentiful game, scenic grasslands and rivers.

“At first, the county had two courthouses. The first was built in 1870 in Evening Shade, while the second in Hardy was completed in 1894. It was necessary to have two because the county was divided by two rivers, the Strawberry River at the south end of the county and the Spring River at the north end.”

By 1890, there were 79 one-room schoolhouses scattered across the county.

Sharp County had just 93 black residents in the 2010 census. A Dec. 28, 1906, article in the Sharp County Record noted that blacks were fleeing Evening Shade following the posting of a notice “to the effect that these Negroes must leave the county at once.” Most communities in the county became known as sundown towns, places where blacks weren’t allowed after dark.

“The Great Depression hit Sharp County hard, but its residents were more fortunate than many living in the cities,” Orr writes. “Sharp County residents raised animals for meat and milk and had large gardens. Often cars were parked and put up on blacks so that the tires wouldn’t rot. Few had money to buy gasoline. World War II took many of the young men from the area, and families moved away to seek work. A number of people left for the state of Washington to pick fruit.”

The first town we reach in Sharp County is the current county seat of Ash Flat, which had a population of 980 in the 2010 census.

In 1967, the Arkansas Legislature passed a bill abolishing the dual county seats at Hardy and Evening Shade. Ash Flat was designated as the lone county seat.

“The relocation of the county seat improved overall business conditions,” writes historian Wayne Dowdy of Memphis. “Ash Flat also benefited economically from tourism to the Spring River area, though it doesn’t have any resort amenities like nearby Cherokee Village and Hardy. … The town remains a vital retail center with several stores that meet the consumer needs of area residents.”

The town dates back to 1856 when a post office was established here. Postmaster James McCord and a group of area residents based the name of the town on a grove of ash trees in the area.

“Isolated from Arkansas’ major commercial centers, Ash Flat evolved into an important trading destination for the surrounding farm communities,” Dowdy writes. “Ash Flat had a blacksmith shop, three stores, two saloons and a cotton gin in 1871. Thomas V. Stephens and R.J. Wilson put the cotton gin near Big Creek so the oxen that turned the wheel could have access to fresh water. By 1889, Ash Flat’s business interests had expanded to include a saddle-making operation, a grist and flour mill, a drugstore, a hotel and a sawmill. The town also had two churches and a physician.”

Ash Flat’s first high school opened in 1905.

David Mullins, who was the president of the University of Arkansas from 1960-74, was born at Ash Flat in 1906. Baseball pitcher Charles Elwin “Preacher” Roe was born at Ash Flat in 1915. He won 127 games from 1938-53 for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Brooklyn Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals.

We next pass through Highland, Cherokee Village and Hardy, towns that became dependent on tourists and retirees beginning in the 1960s.

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