SEVENTH IN A SERIES
The Spring River is just a few hundred yards to our right as we continue east on U.S. Highway 412 out of Hardy.
A huge spring at Mammoth Spring marks the start of the river, which travels almost 75 miles across north Arkansas before emptying into the Black River near Black Rock. More than 9 million gallons of water an hour comes from that spring.
“The Spring River is joined several miles downstream by the South Fork, which flows eastward from its origin near Salem,” Charles Crawford writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “As it is not fed by the spring, the South Fork of the Spring River carries a less consistent volume of water and sometimes isn’t suitable for canoeing during late summer and early fall. However, its extensive gravel bars provide good sites for camping and picnicking.
“The constant supply of cold, clear water provided by this river and its tributary creeks, along with the rich alluvial soil built by the regular flooding from heavy rainfall, attracted populations to the area. The early inhabitants were the Native Americans, who hunted, fished and maintained camps and villages in the valley between the river and the rocky bluffs and tree-covered hills flanking both sides of the stream. Artifacts and burial sites can still be found after each flood in the fields along the banks.”
Mammoth Spring National Fish Hatchery is adjacent to Mammoth Spring State Park. The hatchery is operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Jim Hinkle Spring River State Fish Hatchery, which is operated by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, is two miles downstream from Mammoth Spring.
“Two small dams are located on the Spring River, both near the origin of the stream at Mammoth Spring,” Crawford writes. “They are too near the headwaters of the river to provide flood control, thus leaving much of the river in a fairly natural state. The upper part contains numerous rocky rapids, several waterfalls and pools containing drifts and underwater snags.”
Before leaving Sharp County and crossing into Lawrence County, we pass the turn to Williford, which had a population of 75 residents in the 2010 census. That was down from a high of 357 residents in the 1920 census.
“During the early 20th century, it was one of the county’s largest and fastest-growing towns, but since then it has experienced a steady decline resulting in an almost nonexistent business district,” writes Arkansas historian Mike Polston, a Williford native.
The first white settler in the area was reportedly Jeremiah Pitt Baird, who established a home on the banks of the Spring River in 1841.
“Shortly after he settled his family on the opposite side of the river from the present-day town, others began to move into the area,” Polston writes. “Among those was Ambrose Williford, who became a prominent landowner after whom the town was named. In the community’s earliest days, homes were established on both sides of the river with the town eventually being established on the north side.”
The coming of the railroad that ran from Memphis to Springfield, Mo., brought growth. Railroad construction began in 1870 and was completed in 1883.
“On Oct. 1, 1883, the first train to pass through Williford attracted spectators from miles around,” Polston writes. “A station was soon built, and the town became a center of local shipping and commerce. The rail line later became part of the Frisco Railroad. The tracks are still in use today.
“A major contributor to local growth was the establishment of a limestone quarry east of town in 1884. Many of the town’s merchants sold goods to the workers. Ownership of the operation changed, and a new quarry was opened west of town where a better grade of stone was found. A work camp of 14 company houses was constructed with each being painted green, resulting in the name Greenville. The local economy prospered with merchants selling goods and many of the townspeople also working at the quarry. Forty to 50 railroad cars of stone were shipped each day.”
Williford had three general stores, a saloon, a cotton gin, a blacksmith shop, a one-room schoolhouse, a doctor’s office and a post office by 1890. A steel-frame bridge across the Spring River was constructed in 1907. The Sharp County Bank was established in 1911. A 10-room hotel opened the following year.
Then came the floods and fires from which Williford never fully recovered.
“Flooding of the town has always been a threat,” Polston writes. “In 1915, the town sustained major damage, and the river bridge was washed out. It was soon rebuilt. By the mid-1920s, the town had more than 25 businesses. A major fire destroyed seven of those in the spring of 1929. Most did not rebuild. … The growth of the town has always been tied to the railroad, whose tracks run not more than 100 yards from the business district. With the decline of passenger service and the development of roads and highways as an alternate means of trade and travel, growth became stagnant.”
Polston says the proposed construction of Bell Foley Dam on the nearby Strawberry River in the late 1960s “brought some hope for renewed growth, and work began on a vacation resort near the town in anticipation of the lake. However, the controversial dam was never built. In the 21st century, most of the old business buildings are vacant and in ruins.”
As we continue east, we leave Sharp County and move into the hill country of Lawrence County.
Lawrence County is divided by the Black River. On the west side, there are the Ozarks. On the east side, it’s the flat, row-crop country of the Arkansas Delta. Lawrence County is known as the Mother of Counties because it once covered most of north Arkansas, an area that eventually would be divided into 31 counties.
The county is named for James Lawrence, a naval hero in the War of 1812. It was created in 1815 as part of the Missouri Territory and was the second (after Arkansas County) of the five counties that would become the Arkansas Territory in 1819.
“White settlers first inhabited the county’s western regions, traveling on the Black River or, after 1811, over the Military Road,” John Jacobsen writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “This route, along with the swampy conditions in the east, explains the early settlement concentration in the county’s hilly western half. The earliest important settlement was at Davidsonville along the Black River. Named for territorial legislator John Davidson, the town served as the first county seat in 1816. Exaggerated tradition claims 3,000 Davidsonville residents before yellow fever ended the settlement. In 1829, the county seat moved to Jackson on the Military Road.”
The first Lawrence County community we pass through on our U.S. 412 route is Ravenden, which came about once the railroad was established in the 1880s.
“With the development of the town along the tracks, it soon became an important trade center in the area,” Polston writes. “The business sector is no longer located on the original site. In 1947, the business sector slowly began to move to the newly completed U.S. highway, where it remains today.”
The first white settler in the area was a former British soldier named William J. Ball, who had fought at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. He settled along the Spring River in 1858.
“He named his developing settlement Opposition, saying it was in opposition to the nearest town of Smithville,” Polston writes. “It never grew very large and died when it was bypassed by the railroad in the 1880s. With the completion of the main line of the Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis Railroad in 1883, it was decided to build a trunk line to the resort town of Ravenden Springs in Randolph County, about seven miles to the north. The new town at the intersection was to be called Ravenden Junction. Though the trunk line was never constructed, a settlement that had begun to develop along the main line before its completion began to thrive, especially with the completion of a depot and section house. Two passenger trains a day serviced the town. The last passenger coach passed through on Dec. 8, 1967.”
The sons of William Ball — Sam and Trick — were leading merchants in the area. The name Ravenden became official when a post office was established in 1891.
“The local economy was driven by the production of cotton and cattle, both of which could be shipped by train,” Polston writes. “The abundance of timber led to a thriving lumber trade, especially railroad ties. The town was incorporated on Nov. 15, 1901. The Bank of Ravenden, established in December 1905, was in continuous operation until closing during the Great Depression in 1930. Around 1905, John Chun founded a short-lived weekly newspaper call The Ravenden Hustler.”
A brick schoolhouse built in 1918 was used until consolidation with Sloan-Hendrix at Imboden in the 1940s.
“Sometime in the 1930s, the town suffered a major fire that destroyed or damaged all but one of the businesses on Main Street,” Polston writes. “Ravenden still maintains a small business district on the highway. Perhaps the most striking feature of the town is a 12-foot-tall raven first constructed in 1991.”
The next town we enter is Imboden. Paul Austin, the former head of the Arkansas Humanities Council who hails from Imboden, is along for this trip. We take a break on the back deck of his mother’s home, which overlooks the Spring River.
“Though a number of settlers lived in the area by the 1820s, the town, which became a local trade center, did not exist until the construction of the railroad in 1883,” Polston writes. “By the 1820s, the Military Road crossed the Spring River near the present town, attracting new settlers. There is evidence that a few houses and a store existed prior to the coming of the railroad. One of those early settlers was Benjamin Imboden, who moved his family to the area in 1828. Imboden acquired considerable property, eventually owning the largest amount of land in the area. The town would be named in his honor.
“In 1882, just prior to the coming of the railroad, Imboden sold the land where much of the town would be built to wealthy local developer W.C. Sloan. … The first business, Sloan Mercantile Co., opened in late 1883 and remained in business until 1930. It was soon followed by others, including the first hotel, known as The Strawn, and an African-American-owned barbershop that opened in 1885. The first brick building, owned by G.W. Hooper, was constructed in 1886.”
Imboden was incorporated in April 1889.
“At the time, it consisted of three general stores, two grocery stores, two saloons, a hotel, a livery stable, a school and a Catholic church,” Polston writes. “The population, which numbered a little more than 150 at the time, increased to more than 400 during the next 10 years.”
There was a ferry across the Spring River until the first bridge was constructed in 1898. A new bridge was built in 1938 by the federal Public Works Administration.
In 1891, the board of Hendrix College decided to establish five academies across the state. Sloan-Hendrix Academy was established at Imboden. It remained in operation until 1931 when the campus was sold to the Imboden School District. The name Sloan-Hendrix is still used for the public schools.
Polston writes about how town leaders bought a radio for the community: “Benches were set up, and people came into town on a nightly basis to listen to the broadcasts. In the 1920s, Otho Crouch opened a movie theater called the Hippodrome. Movies were also screened at the school until the 1930s by the school organization known as the Sloan-Hendrix Helpers.”
Ravenden had 470 residents in the 2010 census; Imboden had 677.
Black Rock marks the end of the Ozarks as you head east. Once the railroad came, timber companies began moving in to cut the virgin timber in the Ozark foothills. Black Rock boomed for a time.
“General stores were quickly established, and a sawmill was built on the Black River,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In 1884, the city incorporated with a recorded population of 277. By 1890, the city had about 10 sawmills. The decade of the 1890s saw the creation of numerous industries, many linked to the timber businesses — shingle mills, planing mills, a furniture factory, a handle factory and a wagon factory. In addition, Black Rock featured a stone quarry and the Southern Queensware Co., which was established in 1896 to produce porcelain, earthenware, encaustic tiles and enamel brick. Between 1890 and 1900, the city grew from 761 to 1,400.”
The population was down to 662 residents by the 2010 census.
When J.H. Myers found a large pink pearl inside a mussel in 1897, a pearl rush ensued.
“Most people simply threw away the mussel shells they opened, but Myers shipped a load of ostensibly worthless shells to Lincoln, Neb., in 1899 to be used in the manufacture of buttons,” Lancaster writes. “Along with partners N.R. and H.W. Townsend, Myers established the Black Rock Pearl Button Co., which was reportedly the first button factory in the South. It was later purchased by a company in Davenport, Iowa, and expanded. The Chalmers Button Factory opened in 1909.
“After World War II, with the increased availability of plastic buttons, the industry foundered. The last button factory in Black Rock closed in 1954, though mussels are still harvested from the Black River and shipped to China, where they are used for cultured pearls.”
We cross the Black River at Black Rock on the bridge that opened in May 2015 to replace a bridge that had been built in 1949.
Three rivers join in southeast Missouri to form the Black River. It crosses into Arkansas northeast of Corning in Clay County. Its route then takes it through the Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area, through Randolph County to the county seat of Pocahontas and then past Davidsonville, Black Rock and Powhatan.
“From there, it flows south through the Shirey Bay-Rainey Brake Wildlife Management Area, crosses the southern border of Lawrence County and forms the east-west border between Independence and Jackson counties,” Jerry Cavaneau writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “It finally turns southeast and enters the White River at Jacksonport, just north of Newport. Its Arkansas tributaries are the Current, Spring and Strawberry rivers. The Black has numerous sharp bends, many with colorful names such as Deadman and Hole in the Wall in the Davidsonville area along with the Box Factory, Battle Axe and Dead Mule bends along the lower course of the river.
“The river and the wildlife management areas through which it flows provide abundant opportunities for hunters, fishermen, hikers and wildlife watchers. The main species of fish are largemouth bass, crappie and catfish. Duck, squirrel, deer, rabbit and turkey hunting are popular along its course. Both the Donaldson and Shirey Bay WMAs offer fine green tree reservoir habitat for ducks. There’s also a population of furbearers such as beaver, muskrat, mink and raccoon.”
Batesville lawyer Fent Noland wrote in 1839: “The country up White River and the Black is destined to be the finest in Arkansas. Nature has done all she could. Man will do the rest.”
By the late 1800s, more than 40 steamboats were operating on the Black River.
“The first train arrived in Pocahontas in 1896, and the railroads gradually replaced river traffic,” Cavaneau writes. “As late as the 1920s, however, steamboats and snag boats (used to clear river debris) were still in operation.”