FIFTH IN A SERIES
Like most of the other places along this route, Mena was founded as a railroad town.
The city takes its name from the nickname of Folmina Margaretha Janssen de Geoijen, the wife of the man who helped finance Arthur Stilwell’s railroad from Kansas City to the Gulf Coast of Texas.
“The first train pulled into Mena on Aug. 19, 1896, the same day the New Era published its first edition,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Mena was incorporated the following month. The Bank of Mena opened its doors on May 5, 1897, and the county seat was moved from Dallas to Mena in 1898. By 1900, the city’s population was 3,423. The new city readily advertised itself both as a spa city situated in a healthy environment and as a center for agriculture and extractive industries such as timber and mineral resources.”
The rapid growth slowed after 1900.
Mena didn’t surpass 4,000 residents until the 1950 census when the population was 4,445. Mena had 5,737 residents in the 2010 census.
Stilwell — whose Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad later became the Kansas City Southern — played an important role in the early development of the city.
“In 1906, Stilwell donated four city blocks of land, containing a log cabin reportedly built in 1851, for a park named Janssen Park,” Lancaster writes. “He also donated land for a campground called Stilwell Park, though this was later built over. In 1910, the railroad moved its division shops from Mena to Heavener, Okla. More than 800 jobs were lost in the transfer.”
Mena had 152 black residents in 1900 but only 16 by 1910. By 1920, there were just nine black residents in all of Polk County.
“The March 18, 1920, edition of the Mena Star proudly advertised the small city as 100 percent white,” Lancaster writes. “In 1922, a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was organized in Mena with between 2,500 and 4,000 citizens turning out to hear state kleagle D.E. Rhodes speak at the local ballpark on the principles of the Klan.”
A high-profile lynching in 1901 and other instances of racial harassment added to Mena’s reputation as a sundown town.
Meanwhile, an institution known as Commonwealth College brought leftists to the area in the 1920s.
The late historian William H. Cobb described Commonwealth as “the accidental by-product of natural beauty, cheap land and desperation.”
The college was established in 1923 near Leesville, La., at the New Llano Cooperative Colony.
“Its founders were Kate Richards O’Hare, her husband Frank and William E. Zeuch, all socialists and lifelong adherents of the principles established by Eugene V. Debs,” Cobb wrote. “Drawing on their mutual experience at Ruskin College in Florida, where they had been impressed with the possibility of higher education combined with cooperative community, the O’Hares and Zeuch decided to create a college specifically aimed at the leadership of what they designated as a new social class, the industrial worker.”
Due to conflicts between the colony and the college, the founders decided to move the school. They first found a site near Ink in Polk County. More disagreements led to the school renting property in Mena in December 1924.
“On April 19, 1925, Commonwealth moved to its permanent home 13 miles west of Mena,” Cobb wrote. “Like pioneers, the Commoners carved a campus out of this virtual wilderness while carrying on with schooling and tending crops. Its college building was made possible by critical financial help from Roger Baldwin’s American Fund for Public Service. The serenity of these exhausting early years was shattered in 1926, however, when the American Legion charged Commonwealth with Bolshevism, Sovietism, communism and free love. It moved to investigate and close the little school.
“The resulting uproar and unwanted publicity lasted several months and ended only when FBI director J. Edgar Hoover denied that the college had any record of such ideas and activities. Though exonerated and at this point innocent, Commonwealth became permanently identified in the popular mind as ‘Red'”
In 1931, a student-staff revolt seized control of the college and ousted Zeuch, who had sought to maintain cordial relations through the years with the college’s neighbors.
“The Great Depression had radicalized both students and faculty, and Zeuch’s vision of the cooperative commonwealth was deemed inadequate,” Cobb wrote. “Delegations of Commoners were sent to Harlan, Ky., and Franklin County, Ill., to support coal miners in their strikes for union recognition. Other Commoners involved themselves in farm-labor organizations, participating in strike activities in Corinth, Miss., and Paris in Logan County. College faculty and staff were prominent in the formation of a new Socialist Party in Arkansas in 1932, and Clay Fulks, an instructor at the school, was the party’s nominee for governor in 1932. All this activity generated a high profile for the tiny school with charges of atheism, free love and, more frequently, communism being heard throughout the South.”
The school demanded four hours of labor per day from staff and students. Faculty members weren’t paid. They simply had a place to live and plenty of food to eat.
“Women worked primarily in the kitchen, the library, the laundry and the school office while men toiled on the wood crew, carpentry crew, farm crew, masonry crew or hauling crew,” Cobb wrote. “Self-maintenance was never achieved. The Commoners could, at best, produce 70 percent of their subsistence. The continuing deficit had to be gleaned from constant fundraising and grants from radical sources such as the American Fund for Public Service. Classes began at 7:30 each morning and were usually held in the instructor’s cottage.”
There were no grades, no degrees and no required class attendance. There were never more than 55 students at the school.
“The only entrance requirements were intelligence, a sense of humor and dedication to the labor movement,” Cobb wrote. “Commonwealth’s most famous student, Orval Faubus, in an interview just before his death, said he had ‘never been with a group of equal numbers that had as many highly intelligent and smart people as there were at Commonwealth College.'”
Commonwealth became heavily involved with the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, which was headquartered in the Delta of east Arkansas at Tyronza.
“It was, for the college, a fatal attraction,” Cobb wrote.
A document surfaced in August 1938 that critics of the college and the union claimed was a detailed plan by communists at Commonwealth to take over the union. Union leaders moved quickly to disassociate themselves from Commonwealth.
“By the end of the year, it was done, and Commonwealth had lost its reason for being and all of its moderate leftist support,” Cobb wrote. “The estrangement from organized labor, shattered finances, a dilapidated physical plant and poisoned relations with its local neighbors dictated drastic action. Rejecting proposals to close or merge with Highlander Folk School at Monteagle, Tenn., the Commonwealth College Association decided to soldier on and to make the school a drama center under the auspices of the radical New Theatre League of New York City. This was too much for local residents, and charges of anarchy, failure to fly the American flag during school hours and displaying the hammer and sickle emblem of the Soviet Union were filed against the school in a Polk County court. The college was found guilty and fined a total of $5,000, which it could not pay. Appeals were fruitless, and all of Commonwealth’s property, real and otherwise, was sold to pay the fine. By the end of 1940, Commonwealth College had ceased to exist.”
National attention in recent decades regarding Mena has centered on its airport.
The first rough airstrip at Mena was south of town. A hangar and flying school opened in 1942. There was a grass runway that a farmer would mow and bale for hay on a regular basis.
After World War II, the Civil Aeronautics Commission determined that Mena needed a better airport so it could serve as an emergency landing site between Texarkana and Fort Smith. What’s now known as Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport has two runways. There are several aircraft repair facilities at the airport.
Rich Mountain and the foggy weather that’s common atop the mountain have meant that the area has been the scene of a number of plane crashes through the years. The worst occurred on Oct. 31, 1945, when a Douglas R4D-7 crashed and killed all 14 people aboard.
Mena later was alleged to have been a key location for illegal drug shipments and weapons transfers.
“In the 1980s, the airport was the alleged base of a massive drug smuggling, money laundering and arms smuggling ring run by American Adler Berriman ‘Barry’ Seal,” Robert Sherwood writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “There were also allegations that the Central Intelligence Agency used the airport as a base of operations to help train pilots and troops for intervention in the Nicaraguan uprising by the Contras during the 1980s.
“According to some reports, the airport was a major transit point for the entrance of cocaine and heroin into the United States from 1981-85. The estimated value of the narcotics smuggled through the facility is between $3 billion and $5 billion. For a portion of this time, the alleged ringleader of the drug smuggling, Seal, appeared to have been working with the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The goal was to expose the involvement of the Nicaraguan Sandinista regime as a major supplier of cocaine from Columbia.
“One mission in particular used a C-123K cargo plane outfitted at the facility. The aircraft flew with various cameras used to obtain photographic evidence of the Sandinistas in the act of smuggling narcotics. Allegations later surfaced that many of the gun shipments sent to Nicaragua as part of the Iran-Contra affair were sent from the Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport. In essence, not only was the airport used to smuggle illegal drugs into the United States, it was also a departure point for weapons used to arm the Contras in Nicaragua.
“Three former presidents of the United States — Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton — have faced criticism over the alleged illegal actions at the airport. According to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, all charges and cases dealing with Barry Seal and others with connections to the airport were dropped due to potential national security risks. In other words, the charges of drug smuggling and money laundering weren’t enough to warrant the release of information about the use of the airport in the Iran-Contra affair.
“During his term as president, Bush didn’t attempt to prosecute any people involved in either the drug smuggling or the arms dealing. Clinton was governor of Arkansas during the time period when these actions allegedly occurred. No public figures with a connection to the airport acted to investigate or prosecute those involved, at least not publicly. This has caused a small cottage industry to arise among those who adhere to various conspiracy theories.”
We turn onto Arkansas Highway 88 and begin to climb Rich Mountain along the Talimena Scenic Drive. It’s amazing to watch the temperature drop as we drive. It was 39 degrees when we left downtown Mena. By the time we reach the top of the mountain, it’s 25.
We’re headed west, and the sun is beginning to set. All of a sudden, we’re almost blinded as the sun shines on ice-covered trees. It turns out that what was merely a rain at the bottom of the mountain the night before was a freezing rain that later turned to snow atop Rich Mountain.
It’s a winter wonderland with ice on the trees and snow on the grass. And it’s the best type of winter wonderland — there’s no ice or snow on the road to delay our drive.
The stunted, wind-whipped oaks atop the mountain (Arkansas’ second-highest peak at 2,681 feet above sea level) attest to the fact that the climate is different up here than down below. I’ve stayed at the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge in the month of March. Down below, trees, bushes and flowers were blooming. On top of the mountain, it might as well have been the middle of January. Spring was still several weeks away.
Once the Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad was completed, railroad officials determined they could turn Rich Mountain into an attraction for visitors who would use the railroad. They opened a 35-room lodge in June 1898. Its dining room could seat up to 300 people, and orchestras were hired during the summer to entertain guests. The lodge was named Wilhelmina Inn after Queen Wilhelmina of Holland (don’t forget that there were Dutch investors backing the railroad).
The lodge wasn’t a success. Ownership changed hands on a regular basis after 1900. The lodge was even raffled off as the prize in a $35-dollar-a-ticket raffle in 1905. It closed permanently in 1910 and was soon being used to house livestock.
In the 1950s, a group of investors from Mena purchased the site. That group included state Sen. Roy Riales and state Rep. Landers Morrow.
Riales sponsored a Senate concurrent resolution during the 1957 legislative session that designated the site as Queen Wilhelmina State Park. A dedication ceremony to celebrate passage of the legislation was held at Mena on March 21, 1957. The state began acquiring land for the park in June of that year.
According to the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism’s history of the park: “In 1959, using the ruins of the 1898 lodge as a base, a second lodge was constructed as funds became available. A porch was roofed to create a pavilion, and a kitchen and serving room were constructed, leading to the opening of a cafe in 1961. As funds became available, the lodge was constructed in stages and had 17 guest rooms upon completion. Though some rooms had been rented previously, the new lodge was dedicated and officially opened on June 22, 1963, the 65th anniversary of the Wilhelmina Inn opening.
“On Nov. 10, 1973, the second lodge was destroyed by fire. Modeled after the 1898 lodge, a third, modern inn was constructed in 1974-75. On Nov. 23, 1975, the present building was dedicated. Park facilities now include the lodge with 38 guest rooms, a restaurant, hiking trails, a native plant and wildlife center and a campground that accommodates recreational vehicles and tents. Also located on park property are a 1.5-mile miniature railroad brought to the park by Morrow in 1960; a full-size steam locomotive, hauled to the mountaintop by the Arkansas National Guard in 1963; and the Wonder House, built in 1931 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The unusually designed house, built in two sections, occupies nine levels.”
The lodge closed in early 2012 for renovations. Those renovations were delayed with the state having to change contractors in the middle of the project. The renovated lodge reopened in the summer of 2015, and it’s wonderful. We sat in front of a large fire after dinner that evening and again the next morning.
It was 23 degrees when we left the mountain. We headed back to Mena, took a left and continued our trip north on Highway 71.