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From Waldron to Fort Smith


We head north out of Waldron on U.S. Highway 71 on this cold morning and soon find ourselves in Sebastian County, which saw its population double from 62,809 in the 1950 census to 125,744 in the 2010 census.

It’s one of those counties with two county seats — Fort Smith and Greenwood — and we’ll be in both cities later in the day.

The Arkansas Legislature created Sebastian County in January 1851 and named it after U.S. Sen. William King Sebastian. Greenwood was created to serve as the county seat. The county seat was moved to Fort Smith three years later. In 1861, the Legislature divided the county into two judicial districts with both cities as county seats.

For a time, Sebastian County was home to some of the state’s largest coal-mining operations.

“Coal had been mined on a limited scale in Arkansas starting in the late 1840s in Johnson County, but coal was discovered in the Greenwood area in the 1870s and swiftly became the county’s chief industry, attracting not only investors but also immigrants of all varieties, especially eastern Europeans,” writes Guy Lancaster for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “That same decade, railroads arrived in Fort Smith with the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad being completed in 1876, thus providing a convenient means of transporting coal out of the county.

“In 1889, the Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad constructed a line between Greenwood and Fort Smith. The St. Louis-San Francisco Railway reached Fort Smith in 1883, and the Kansas City Southern gave Fort Smith even greater national connections, just as it did the small town of Bonanza, which grew up around a mine established in 1896. In the late 1880s, the Little Rock & Texas Railway laid down track between the two communities of Coop Prairie and Chocoville on the border with Scott County, resulting in the merger of the two into the city of Mansfield.”

Mansfield became a hub for the shipment of coal. Natural gas was discovered in 1887, and commercial development of the gas fields began near Mansfield in 1902.

As was the case in other parts of the country with coal mining, there were sometimes violent strikes in the county.

“The United Mine Workers organized strikes in 1888 and 1894,” Lancaster writes. “By 1903, the UAW had finally succeeded in obtaining a closed-shop contract from local operators. This agreement lasted until 1914 when mine owner Franklin Bache tried to open a non-union mine. On April 6, 1914, miners and their sympathizers succeeded in shutting down the mine temporarily and driving off the non-union workers, but tensions continued to rise. In July, union miners battled with company guards at the site of one of Bache’s mines while other mines in the area were dynamited during what has come to be called the Sebastian County Union War.”

A steep drop in prices led to a decline of the coal industry following 1925.

The county received a boost in 1941, however, when Camp Chaffee was established. It was renamed Fort Chaffee in 1956.

“Though the creation of Camp Chaffee provided something of an economic stimulus to the county during the war, rural parts of the county faced a crisis as returning soldiers found few jobs in their hometowns,” Lancaster writes. “Residents of Lavaca found a way out of this crisis by growing what was called the Lavacaberry, a boysenberry-raspberry hybrid that proved popular not just with local consumers but also wholesalers. However, competition from out-of-state growers resulted in most farmers turning to other crops by the late 1950s.

“Postwar economic troubles weren’t limited to rural areas. Camp Chaffee’s occasional deactivation and reactivation led Fort Smith’s leaders to attract a diverse array of industry so that the city’s economy would not be so dependent upon the military installation. In the 1950s and 1960s, they were successful in luring numerous manufacturers to the city.”

We roll into Mansfield, which is just 10 miles east of the Oklahoma state line.

Coop Prairie was established in 1849. A trading post, the Coop Prairie Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Coop Prairie Cemetery were there.

Chocoville was established in 1851 about four miles to the west when a post office opened there.

The Little Rock & Texas Railway’s decision to run its tracks between the two communities led to the August 1888 merger into Mansfield.

“Many believe that the town’s name was coined by a line surveyor who, at the end of the day, reported he had gotten as far as some ‘man’s field,'” Jack James writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “According to local legend, references continued to be made to the ‘man’s field’ until the name stuck. A more likely story gives the name in honor of William W. Mansfield, who served on the Arkansas Supreme Court.”

Mansfield boomed as a center of the coal-mining industry.

“At one point, it adopted the slogan ’50 Buildings in 50 Days’ to spur construction,” James writes. “The depots swarmed with passenger traffic while hotels and restaurants were established to serve the growing area’s needs. J.W. Harper is credited with the first building in Mansfield — Bowman Hall, a two-story building, the ground floor of which was occupied by the Methodist Episcopal Church and the second floor by the Masons.

“Cotton fields prospered, as did the lumber business. Arkansas’ first commercial gas fields were discovered south of Mansfield in 1902, drilled by the Choctaw Oil & Gas Co. This brought the first industry to the area. The Mansfield Brick Co. was founded and provided bricks to local buildings for many years. Signs of that industry still remain. By 1905, the town had four dry goods stores, three groceries, four hotels, two blacksmiths, one drugstore, a bank and a livery stable.

“Prosperity came to a close around 1925 due to a decline in coal prices and an increase in the cost of production. The coal industry began cutting jobs. The Great Depression compounded the hard times, and many families were forced to leave the area in search of work. Not all left, though. In 1930, because of its superior educational facilities, Mansfield became the parent school for the entire area. Young men went to work on National Youth Administration and Works Progress Administration projects that built local bridges and schools. The building of a road to the top of nearby Poteau Mountain provided employment for many.”

Highway 71 forced the Coop Prairie Church to move. “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” later would note that its cemetery was the only one in the country with a U.S. highway running through it.

Many area men were involved in building Camp Chaffee.

“Trucks carrying supplies and increased traffic along Highway 71 resulted in the building of small diners and motels,” James writes. “When the coal mining in nearby Huntington and Hartford began to wane, Mansfield persisted as a town due to local natural gas reserves. … With an abundance of lumber from the Ouachita National Forest, Mansfield remains a major player in the lumber production business.”

In 2004, an expanded high school was built near the old Chocoville site.

We continue north on Highway 71, taking a right onto Arkansas Highway 10 for the short trip into Greenwood, a place many of us know now as one of the high school football capitals of Arkansas. The population of Greenwood has exploded from just 3,317 in the 1980 census to a current estimated population of 9,500.

Sebastian County commissioners held a meeting in January 1851 to discuss building a county seat on the banks of Vache Grasse Creek. In March, the commissioners decided to name the town in honor of Judge Burton Greenwood. It was a fertile area for farming, which attracted black residents to Greenwood at the end of the Civil War. Greenwood, however, later gained the reputation as a sundown town, and blacks left the area. They were replaced by German, Italian, Irish, Scottish and Russian immigrants who came to work in the coal mines between 1880 and 1920. The railroad came to town in 1887 and was used to ship out coal, peaches and cotton.

The Greenwood business district was destroyed by an August 1922 fire. New buildings were constructed of native stone in the years that followed, but the business district was destroyed again by a 1968 tornado that left 13 dead.

Nearby Fort Chaffee has played many roles through the years — Army training facility, prisoner of war camp, refugee center. The more than 60,000 acres that remain part of the fort are used these days by the National Guard as a training facility.

“Groundbreaking for what was then Camp Chaffee was held on Sept. 20, 1941, as part of the Department of War’s preparations to double the size of the U.S. Army in the face of imminent war,” Maranda Radcliff writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “That month, the U.S. government paid $1.35 million to acquire 15,163 acres from 712 property owners, including families, farms, businesses, churches, schools and other government agencies.

“The camp was named after Maj. Gen. Adna R. Chaffee Jr., an artillery officer who determined in Europe during World War I that the cavalry was outmoded. Unlike other cavalry officers, Chaffee advocated for the use of tanks. It took only 16 months to build the base. The first soldiers arrived on Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The installation was activated on March 27, 1942. From 1942-46, the 6th, 14th and 16th Armored Divisions trained there. During World War II, it served as both a training camp and a prisoner of war camp.”

Almost 3,000 German prisoners were housed at Camp Chaffee at one point.

The re-designation as Fort Chaffee came on March 21, 1956.

“In 1958, Chaffee was home to it most famous occupant, Elvis Presley,” Radcliff writes. “Presley received his first military haircut in Building 803. In 1959, the ‘Home of the U.S. Army Training Center, Field Artillery’ moved from Fort Chaffee to Fort Sill, Okla., where it remains. From 1960-61, the fort was the home of the 100th Infantry Division. In 1961, Fort Chaffee was declared inactive and place on caretaker status, though it was reactivated again later that year and on several other occasions through 1974. During the Vietnam War, the fort was used as a test site for tactical defoliants like Agent Orange.”

Chaffee was busy again in 1975-76. It was used to process 50,809 refugees from the war in Vietnam. A number of those refugees ended up living in the Fort Smith area.

In May 1980, Chaffee became a resettlement center for Cubans picked up from the port of Mariel. Rioting erupted three weeks later. Dozens of state troopers were brought in, tear gas was used, two buildings were burned and the story received national media attention. Republican Frank White attacked Gov. Bill Clinton for not standing up to the federal government in an attempt to keep the Cubans out of Arkansas. Many political analysts later said the issue played a role in White’s upset victory over Clinton that November.

Chaffee wound up processing 25,390 Cubans.

“In 1987, the Joint Readiness Training Center began training soldiers at Chaffee,” Radcliff writes. “The center was transferred to Fort Polk, La., in 1993. In 1995, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended the closure of Fort Chaffee. The recommendation was approved with the condition that minimum essential ranges, facilities and training areas were maintained as a training enclave. On Sept. 28, 1995, Fort Chaffee became a sub-installation of Fort Sill. In late 1995, the federal government declared 7,192 of Fort Chaffee’s 76,075 acres to be surplus and turned the land over to the state. The remaining acres were turned over to the Arkansas National Guard for use as a training facility.”

The change-of-command ceremony took place on Sept. 27, 1997, as command was transferred from the U.S. Army to the Arkansas Army National Guard.

The Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority was established to redevelop the land turned over to the state. Chaffee Crossing is now a successful area of commercial and industrial projects along with residential neighborhoods.

In 2005, empty barracks at the site were used to house evacuees from Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. More than 10,000 people from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas came through the facility.

“Fort Chaffee has a rich military history, but it also has a bit of Hollywood history,” Radcliff writes. “In 1984, the movie ‘A Soldiers Story’ starring Howard Rollins Jr. was shot at Fort Chaffee. Four years later, the Neil Simon movie ‘Biloxi Blues’ starring Matthew Broderick was filmed there. The most recent visit from Hollywood was in 1995 for ‘The Tuskegee Airmen’ with Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding Jr.”

We make our way into Fort Smith, the state’s second-largest city and one of the most historic cities in the region.

“The Arkansas River Valley provided fertile bottomland to early settlers,” writes historian Ben Boulden. “Belle Point, a river bluff along the Arkansas River just north of its juncture with the Poteau River, afforded an excellent vantage point looking west and a defensible position for the first Fort Smith military post. In November 1817, the first American troops arrived at Belle Point and began building the first structures. The principal purpose of the fort was to keep the peace between the Osage and Cherokee tribes that had entered the area, as was the Fort Smith Council, a meeting held between Indian and territorial leaders in 1822. Around the fort, a small settlement began forming, taking its name from the fort that, in turn, was named for Gen. Thomas A. Smith, the military district’s commander.

“In 1822, John Rogers arrived and established himself as a supplier to the fort and as a trader with Native Americans, trappers and other settlers. The Army abandoned the fort and moved west to establish Fort Gibson in the Indian Territory (later Oklahoma). In the 1830s, Congress funded several military roads, including the Fort Smith to Jackson Road, to improve transportation in territorial Arkansas. By 1836, the Army returned and began building the second Fort Smith military post. Rogers lobbied successfully for the military’s return. Because of his strong association with both forts and his early effort to promote the town, many consider him to be the founder of the city of Fort Smith.”

Fort Smith was later a center for outfitting those heading to California in 1848-49 and for those fighting in the Mexican War from 1846-48.

“Fort Smith became increasingly central to communications on the frontier and beyond as stage, steamboat and mail transportation networks matured,” Boulden writes.

Federal troops abandoned the garrison at Fort Smith shortly before Arkansas seceded at the start of the Civil War, but they returned in September 1863.

“After the war, forces out of Fort Smith worked to restore order to the countryside and rural areas of western Arkansas,” Boulden writes. “Military farm colonies were established in an effort to help refugees become self-sufficient. The city also was the site of the Fort Smith Conference of 1865, a gathering of federal and tribal representatives for the the purpose of negotiating the terms under which the former Confederate Indian nations could resume their relationship with the United States.”

In the 1870s, the federal courts for the Western District of Arkansas moved from Van Buren to Fort Smith.

“Judge William Story presided over the court but was replaced in May 1875 by Judge Isaac C. Parker, a former congressman from Missouri,” Boulden writes. “Parker’s judgeship lasted until just before his death in 1896 and marks one of the most celebrated periods in Fort Smith history. U.S. marshals and deputy marshals headquartered in Fort Smith not only enforced the law in western Arkansas but also in the frequently lawless neighboring Indian Territory.

“In the city of Fort Smith, the late 19th century marked a period of booming growth in which the population nearly tripled, commercial trading expanded and Garrison Avenue became the wholesale and retail center of the region. Railroad transportation arrived in the 1870s, giving the city an important alternative to the Arkansas River. Much of the city’s history until the onset of the Great Depression is a story of the growth (albeit in fits and starts) of its economy and culture. An electric streetcar network within the city grew as the city did. Between 1907 and 1924, the city became one of the few in U.S. history to not only legalize but also regulate prostitution in a restricted district (known as the Row).”

The discovery of natural gas in the area, the growth of the furniture industry and the 1922 completion of a bridge over the Arkansas River at the west end of Garrison Avenue led to further growth. Fort Smith’s population grew from 11,587 in the 1900 census to 71,626 in the 1980 census.

Through the years, Fort Smith became the state’s manufacturing center. Whirlpool employed almost 4,600 people there as recently as 2004. American manufacturing slowed, and those Whirlpool jobs are now all gone.

The most recent Census Bureau estimates show Fort Smith with a population of about 88,000. Rather than worrying about how to keep up with the growth in Washington and Benton counties, a new generation of Fort Smith leaders is forging an identity for the city. That will be the subject of the next post.

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