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From Earle into Cross County

Updated: Jan 10


Josiah Francis Earle was born in North Carolina in September 1828, the son of a man who owned trade ships that operated in the Atlantic Ocean between the United States and the West Indies.

“He moved to Arkansas as a young man, settling in Crittenden County,” writes historian David Sesser of Henderson State University. “He appeared on an 1850 listing of residents in Proctor Township in Crittenden County as a laborer. His mother also appeared on the list. In 1860, Earle appeared in the federal census as a court clerk with real estate valued at $5,000. Enlisting into Arkansas service at Marion on June 3, 1861, soon after the Civil War began, Earle was elected captain of his company, the Crittenden Rangers.

“The company enlisted into Confederate service on July 29, 1861, in Pocahontas. Originally Company C of the Sixth Arkansas Cavalry Battalion, the unit served in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi, seeing action at a number of battles. After the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, the battalion was disbanded, and part of the company was transferred to the Helena Artillery. The remainder became Company A of the Second Arkansas Cavalry.”

Earle continued to serve until resigning due to health reasons in 1863. He returned to Arkansas and later organized a company of Confederate cavalry in northeast Arkansas.

“Much of his time spent in the area focused on finding deserters and avoiding Union patrols and steamboats along the Mississippi,” Sesser writes. “At the conclusion of the war, Earle surrendered with his company at Wittsburg in Cross County. … Returning home, Earle married Louisa Burrus Richards on Nov. 15, 1865. The couple had four sons and two daughters with both daughters and one son surviving into adulthood.

“After the war, Earle became a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan in eastern Arkansas and western Tennessee. According to lore, Earle was captured in Tennessee and ordered to be hanged. After he was transported across the Mississippi River to Hopefield in Crittenden County, a group of fellow Klansmen rescued him. Earle became a significant landowner in western Crittenden County.”

Earle died in March 1884. I’m in Earle, the town named for him, on my trip across Arkansas on U.S. Highway 64.

The town named for this former Confederate officer and KKK member is now 72 percent black. Its population has declined from 3,517 in the 1980 census to 2,129 in the 2020 census.

“The history of Earle is really that of two towns — Earle and Norvell — which grew alongside each other for decades and were separated only by a boundary line running down present-day Ruth Street in Earle,” Adam Miller writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Both towns arose as a result of the timber industry boom following the Civil War and shared most of the same civic and business leaders.

“In 1888, a railroad line through the southern part of Earle was established, which benefited Earle more than its smaller neighbor, as the route of the railroad bypassed Norvell entirely. Talks of merging the two towns lingered for more than 60 years until Norvell was formally annexed by Earle in 1978. Prior to annexation, Earle shared municipal services and improvements with its smaller neighbor.”

When the railroad came through Earle in 1888, Josiah Francis Earle’s widow built a depot to encourage trains to stop. The most recent depot, which was built in 1922 and abandoned in the 1960s, is now a museum.

“Dr. James Throgmorton was a Norvell physician who once documented the sheer abundance of timber in the area and described the then sparsely populated land around Earle as a dense forest that was inhabited by bears, panthers and wolves until the late 1880s,” Miller writes. “This supply of timber brought rapid growth and prosperity to Earle and Norvell. Access to the railroad and the Tyronza River west of town provided reliable modes of transportation.

“Timber-related firms that once operated in Earle and Norvell included the Tyronza Lumber Co., the W.G. English sawmill, the C.T. Whitman Lumber Co., the Crittenden Lumber Co., the Boston Lumber Co. and the Earle Cooperage Co. Wynne businessman Luther Wallin moved to Earle in about 1900 and had extensive lumber interests through the area and three lumber mills in Crittenden County. His Earle sawmill closed in 1957 shortly after his death and was the last to operate in Earle.”

The Tyronza Lumber Co. mill had a daily capacity of 40,000 board feet. That mill closed in 1913.

The Lasater & Bailor stave mill, meanwhile, was on the banks of the river. Though it’s now little more than a drainage ditch, the Tyronza River once served as an important corridor into this area. The river often was used to float logs to sawmills.

“It no longer resembles the stream that it was up until the early 20th century as it has been channelized, ditched and had its meander loops cut off,” Cindy Grisham writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Before the formation of levee and drainage districts in the late 19th century that rerouted and channelized existing streams, the Tyronza rose out of a body of water called Carson Lake southwest of Osceola. From there, it flowed across low, swampy land, a region that locals referred to as the ‘scatters of Tyronza,’ into Tyronza Lake before narrowing down into the regular path it followed to the St. Francis River.

“Tyronza Lake was simply a widening of the river channel, probably as a result of the land falling during the series of earthquakes that occurred along the New Madrid fault line in 1811-12. Both Carson Lake and Tyronza Lake have since been drained and are used for agricultural land.”

Miller writes: “Population was sparse until the 1880s when the eyes of timber interests turned to eastern Arkansas and the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad built its line just south of Earle. A community that went by the names of Brown (named for Tom Brown, an early settler) and New Earle finally bore the name of Dr. Ben Norvell Sr., a town leader. Norvell was formally incorporated in 1904. Earle was incorporated in 1905 and remained the largest town in Crittenden County until it was surpassed by West Memphis in 1940.

“Norvell had a peak population of 522 in 1920, but its population growth was always overshadowed by Earle. Norvell lacked access to the railroad, and in an age when railroads determined the flow of commerce, the town’s best hope was to share in Earle’s prosperity.”

For a time, the Earle post office was in Norvell at a general store owned by brothers John and Jacob Watt.

“W.M. ‘Grat’ Brown, who owned property in Earle, wanted the post office moved, presumably to his property,” Miller writes. “Brown was fatally shot by John Watt on July 21, 1904. Watt claimed he shot Brown in self-defense and was acquitted at his trial even though Brown’s gun was never located. Many years later, Ben Norvell III found a fully loaded and cocked pistol inside a stump near the site of the shooting. That allegedly was Brown’s pistol, hidden there by a lady friend of Brown after he was killed.”

Miller says Norvell had “a handful of stores, saloons, a small mattress factory and a two-story hotel. Due to the terrain and perennial flooding problems, an elevated boardwalk was built along Norvell’s business district. It extended across a marsh into Earle, providing the only passable connection between the towns during inclement weather.”

Because Earle was the largest town in Crittenden County, Earle civic leaders dubbed it the “Pearl of the St. Francis.” As the hardwood timber was cleared and the forests were replaced by fields of cotton, gins and a compress facility were built at Earle.

“In 1908, Earle had a semiprofessional baseball team that played twice weekly,” Miller writes. “Starting in the 1920s, the Earle Cardinals professional basketball team played and brought national acclaim for its exceptional five-year record of 204 wins in 221 games. Earle High School began playing football in 1920 and was the first school system in Crittenden County to field a team.”

The Earle School District was established in 1919.

“The three-story brick structure that would later become Earle High School was built during this time and served as a junior-senior high school,” Miller writes. “During the next several decades, Works Progress Administration projects and other construction expanded the school until the district occupied three city blocks. During this time, the district operated numerous wing schools that served black students.

“The primary black school for the district was Dunbar High School, which was just north of the Earle School District facilities attended by whites. Integration commenced in the 1960s. Earle High School moved to a new facility on the east side of town in 1999. President Bill Clinton spoke at the dedication ceremony for the school.”

Like many Delta towns, Earle has a troubled history of race relations. In 1918, a black farm worker named Elton Mitchell was hanged by a mob for allegedly shooting and wounding the wife of a cotton planter.

“Mitchell’s personal history is a bit confusing with public records placing him in several adjacent counties in northeast Arkansas and northwest Mississippi,” Nancy Snell Griffith writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The Pine Bluff Daily Graphic reported that on June 12, 1918, Mitchell shot and wounded the wife of W.M. Langston. This is probably Earle resident William Monroe Langston, a farmer. His wife was listed as Peachie Maude Langston.

“According to the Graphic, Mitchell approached the Langstons in their garden to discuss a dispute over plowing. He was armed with a revolver, and when Mrs. Langston tried to run into the house, he shot her in the hip. W.M. Langton then got a shotgun, and the two exchanged fire. Mitchell’s shots missed, but Langston managed to wound him. Mitchell then ran to the farm of a black planter near Grassy Lake, three miles from Earle.”

Mitchell was advised by the planter to hide in the woods. The planter then went into Earle and told authorities where Mitchell was.

“On June 13, a posse approached Mitchell’s hiding place, and he fired on them,” Griffith writes. “They returned fire, killing him. Mrs. Langston was expected to live, which she apparently did. By 1920, she was living in Earle with her husband.”

In 1936, Earle town marshal Paul D. Peacher used the occasion of a strike by the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union to begin making arrests for vagrancy.

“Townsend S. Mitchell, Earle’s mayor and acting justice of the peace, then put 13 of the men Peacher arrested on trial, which was really no more than a sentencing,” Miller writes. “The men were found guilty of vagrancy and were sentenced to a fine and 30 days of labor on land worked by Peacher. This practice of debt repayment through peonage was common and had persisted in some places throughout the South since the end of the Civil War.”

The incident came to the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice. Peacher was found guilty in 1936 of violating an 1866 slave-kidnapping statute.

In 1970, Earle erupted again over school conditions.

“A group of unarmed black protestors was marching toward city hall to complain about inequality in segregated schools when a group of armed whites attacked them,” Miller writes. “This followed a student protest just a few days prior during which black children had been arrested.”

Probably the most famous person to have grown up in the Earle area was Carroll Cloar, a painter whose landscapes were based on memories of his childhood in the area. Cloar was born in January 1913 on a farm about 10 miles north of Earle. He had three brothers and one sister, and spent his childhood on his parents’ cotton farm. He moved to Memphis at age 17 and earned a bachelor’s degree in English from what’s now Rhodes College.

“After graduating in 1934, he traveled to Europe for a carefree vacation, then returned to Memphis and enrolled at the Memphis Academy of Art,” Erin Branham writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He studied there with painter George Oberteuffer.

“In 1936, Cloar moved to New York and attended the Art Students League, studying under Arnold Blanch, William McNulty and Harry Sternberg. Cloar focused on drawing with an ambition to be a comic strip artist. Teacher Ernest Fiene gave him his first experience with oil painting. It was at this time that Cloar also became interested in lithography, a printing method that allows the artist to draw on a flat stone.”

Cloar used family photos to create a series of lithographic prints from 1938-40. While in Mexico City in 1941, Cloar began to use his Arkansas heritage as a basis for his work.

Cloar joined the U.S. Army Air Corps at the start of World War II and served in the Pacific, often painting pin-up girls on the noses of bombers.

In 1948, Life magazine did a spread on Cloar headlined “Backwoods Boyhood.” He returned to Memphis in 1953.

“Cloar continued to produce paintings for the rest of his life, working in casein tempera — and later acrylic — on large canvases, depicting images drawn from photographs and his own memories,” Branham writes. “Cloar’s work almost always contains a strong narrative strain, and even if the story being told is not straightforward, its power can be sensed in the mysteriousness of the circumstances, whether that be a tree full of panthers or a football team lining up against an unseen opponent. His style has been described as both primitive and progressively modern.”

Cloar committed suicide in April 1993 after a long battle with cancer. His ashes were scattered across the former family farm near Earle.

Leaving Earle, I cross into Cross County as I head west on U.S. 64. It won’t be long until I’m climbing Crowley’s Ridge.

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