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From Washington to Fulton

Updated: Jan 10


My mother, who died five years ago this week at age 90, loved attending the annual Jonquil Festival at Washington in Hempstead County.

And I enjoyed taking her.

While she liked the arts and crafts, I was fascinated by the history of this place.

The festival, which normally (at least when there’s not a worldwide pandemic) takes place the third weekend of March, attracts people from across Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma. It began in 1966 with a small tour around town that coincided with the blooming of thousands of jonquils.

By the late 1960s, the weekend event was known as the Jonquil Trail. What was then Old Washington Historic State Park was created in 1973 and took over management of the event.

“It has continued to grow and expand into a festival that offers arts and crafts, food, music and carriage rides to visitors,” Jade Fitch writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “There are also activities such as games, tours and candle making. The Jonquil Festival relies on the state park staff, staff members from other state parks and volunteers. The Jonquil Festival is committed to teaching Arkansas history through the events at the festival.

“The setting itself is educational because it’s part of Historic Washington State Park. Exhibit tours are available for visitors to learn more about the history of the area, and historical interpreters are available to display the 19th-century clothing relative to the sites where they’re stationed. The flowers are the highlight of the festival. As visitors make their way into the event, they’re able to see yellow, white and orange jonquils. In the early years of the festival, park staff would order jonquils to increase the number of flowers on the grounds. Now there is an adequate number of flowers. Larger groups are divided, and the bulbs are relocated to various areas of the park.”

Historic Washington State Park includes more than 50 buildings on 101 acres. Thirty of those buildings are considered historically significant. Several of them are open for tours. The story of how most of this once important town became a state park is an interesting one.

“In the late 1870s, Hope began to promote the idea that the county seat should be relocated from Washington,” Bryan McDade writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “For 60 years, and several elections, Hope tried to gain the county seat. Unethical behavior abounded on both sides, consisting of lies, cheating, mudslinging and election fraud. Finally, the Arkansas Supreme Court intervened and in a May 1939 ruling declared that Hope was the Hempstead County seat. The historic preservation movement centering on Washington had begun a decade earlier. Members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy were able to secure money from the Legislature in 1929 to fund restoration of the 1836 Hempstead County courthouse.

“In 1958, a group of Washington residents formed the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation to preserve the town’s structures and interpret its history. They operated tours of some historic homes for 15 years and were able to get the Washington Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places in June 1972. In 1973, they invited officials from what’s now the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism to help preserve and interpret the town. The foundation donated buildings and antiques. Old Washington Historic State Park became the 34th state park when it opened July 1, 1973.”

There are now 52 state parks. In September 2006, the state Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission voted to change the name of the park to Historic Washington State Park.

McDade writes: “Among the many notable structures are the 1836 Hempstead County Courthouse; the Works Progress Administration gymnasium; Pioneer and Presbyterian cemeteries, where many notable early Arkansans are buried; the Washington post office; the James Black School of Bladesmithing and Historic Trades, a project of the University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana; and the Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives. The Royston Magnolia on the park grounds, which was planted in about 1839, is part of the Arkansas Famous and Historic Tree Program. The American Bladesmith Society’s Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing, the world’s first college dedicated to teaching the art of making knives and swords by hand, operated at the park from 1988-2019 when it relocated to Texarkana.”

We leave Washington, make our way back to U.S. 67 and head to Fulton, which had 201 residents in the 2010 census, down from 647 a century earlier.

Steve Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies notes that some people claim that Fulton is “the oldest continually settled community in the state. Located at a convenient crossing of the Red River, Fulton has long been a transportation hub of southern Arkansas. Due to floods and river erosion, none of the early historic structures have survived into the 21st century. The Caddo tribe inhabited the Red River valley of Arkansas long before European explorers reached the area. A party of French explorers passed through the region in 1687 and noted several Caddo villages, one of which may have been at the site of contemporary Fulton.

“The network of footpaths used by Native Americans and early American settlers known as the Southwest Trail ran through the area. A boat landing and ferry across the river were established early in the 19th century. According to a 1938 Arkansas Gazette article, records as early as 1807 referred to ‘the little town of Fulton on the Red River.’ White settlements on both sides of the river relied on Fulton for food, merchandise and other necessities of life.”

Robert Stone received a land deed from Juan Dulac of the township of Little Prairie in 1808 for the land where Fulton is now located. Another early investor in the town was Amos Wheeler of St. Louis.

“On Dec. 11, 1819, notices appeared in Arkansas and Missouri newspapers that James Bryan (an agent of Stephen F. Austin) was selling lots in Fulton at an auction scheduled for April 29, 1820,” Teske writes. “The Treaty of Doaks Stand, made between the federal government and the Choctaw in 1820, recognized Fulton as a landmark on the line that separated Choctaw land from land open to American settlers. Many American pioneers already had established themselves west of Fulton on land the treaty granted to the Choctaw.

“The military highway that improved the Southwest Trail made Fulton the gateway to Mexico and later the American Southwest. Most of the pioneers from the United States who settled in the northern part of Mexico known as Texas crossed the Red River at Fulton on the way to their new homes. In 1834, a group of investors that included Roswell Beebe and Edward Cross surveyed and platted a larger settlement for Fulton with streets, homes, a hotel and warehouses. George Featherstonhaugh visited the town on Dec. 10, 1834, and wrote about it in his travel diary.”

A post office was established in 1838 and was first called Red River. That was changed to Fulton in 1840. A school and church were operating at Fulton by then.

“During the Mexican War, American soldiers entered Mexico from several directions, but at the conclusion of the war, many of the returning soldiers came home by way of the crossing at Fulton,” Teske writes. “Meanwhile, steamboats regularly landed, unloading passengers and supplies and then receiving cargoes of cotton. One of the first rails planned for Arkansas was to have its southern terminus at Fulton. Beebe, Grandison Royston and Cross incorporated the Cairo & Fulton Railroad on April 1, 1852, planning to link southern Illinois with the Red River crossing by way of Missouri and Arkansas.

“Surveyors had  already planned a route across Hempstead County before the incorporation of the railroad. A second railroad, planned to cross southern Arkansas from the Mississippi River to the Red River, was planned. The Mississippi, Ouachita & Red River Railroad was surveyed from Gaines Landing on the Mississippi River to Fulton. In December 1852, the federal government approved legislation proposed by U.S. Sen. Solon Borland to fund both railroads as well as a third line connecting Memphis to Little Rock. Some rails were laid during the 1850s, but the Civil War delayed construction of these planned railroads for several years.”

There was a Confederate supply depot at Fulton during the Civil War. Both Confederate and Union troops on their way to Texas passed through the town.

“In 1868, Elijah Smith laid out an addition to Fulton, seeing that much of the original town was in danger of being washed away by the Red River,” Teske writes. “The railroad finally arrived in 1874. The Cairo & Fulton had by this time become the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad. A railroad bridge across the Red River opened March 20, 1874. The railroad affected many parts of Arkansas, creating new cities like Hope while older cities faded. Fulton neither prospered nor disappeared. For a time, it thrived as a lumber town while remaining a center for shipping cotton.

“According to a 1936 Hope Star article, Fulton had African Americans during its days as a timber center serving as postmaster, school board member, city council member and constable. There were also two black justices of the peace. As Smith had foreseen, the older section of Fulton was removed by the Red River. The current town now encompasses his addition. In the 20th century, railroads began to give way to automobile and truck traffic. A 22-mile road was completed in 1922, linking Fulton with Emmet. U.S. 67 was completed in 1934, and construction began on Interstate 30 in the 1960s, each with its own bridge over the Red River. The interstate bridge was opened in 1966, but the full interstate highway wasn’t finished in the area until 1972.”

We cross the river into Miller County and continue to Texarkana, which we wrote about extensively in our previous series on U.S. 82.

This concludes our series on the stretch of U.S. 67 from Benton to Texarkana.

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