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Headed toward Conway

Updated: Jan 10


We’ve made it from Marion to Bald Knob on our trip across Arkansas on U.S. Highway 64.

We leave Bald Knob, where those headed west on U.S. 64 connect with U.S. Highway 67. After a short drive south through White County, we pick back up U.S. 64 at Beebe.

Beebe was born when the railroad intersected with what was then known as the Des Arc Road. As white flight from Little Rock has stretched ever farther toward the north, Beebe has seen its population soar from 1,697 in the 1960 census to 8,437 in the 2020 census.

“Roswell Beebe was president of the Cairo & Fulton Railroad, which became part of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad,” Richard White writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In 1872, the first train stopped at Des Arc Road. This intersection was designated Beebe Station in honor of Roswell Beebe. Trains would stop there to take on wood and water to power steam engines. Many of the settlement’s new residents and businesses came from Stoney Point in White County. Beebe got its first post office on April 30, 1872.

“Henry Beverly Strange was a merchant at Stoney Point and one of the first businessmen to move to Beebe Station in 1872. His home was on the west side of town. Another of the area’s earliest settlers was Jim Smith, who settled at Stoney Point in the late 1860s and moved to Beebe a few years later. He bought a five-acre plot and built a house in 1872. Smith, a civil engineer and surveyor, surveyed Beebe’s first street and the town’s boundaries in addition to erecting a post office and cotton gin.”

Smith owned most of the town at one time. His initials J.S.S. were inscribed into the two-story red brick building he constructed in 1891 at the corner of Main and Center streets. Through the years, the building housed a bank, bakery, pool hall, doctor’s offices and dentist’s offices.

“In 1875, 32 people signed a petition for the incorporation of Beebe, and it was presented to Judge A.M. Foster, a county court judge,” White writes. “Beebe was incorporated on May 4, 1875. By 1890, the town had hotels, boarding houses, meat markets, blacksmith and wagon shops, a combined sawmill and gristmill, cotton gins, livery stables, a photo gallery and a fruit evaporator.”

Beebe also had the White County Bank, separate churches for whites and blacks, a public school for white children, five physicians, a dentist and two weekly newspapers.

Electricity came in the early 1900s, and the strawberry industry took off in the area.

“In the first half of the 20th century, the farms between Beebe and Bald Knob produced more strawberries than any county in the country,” White writes. “Beebe had a strawberry festival each spring that lasted a week. At the time, U.S. 64 and 67 came through downtown Beebe. Every person driving through town was given a half pint of strawberry ice cream.”

A major tornado hit Beebe on Jan. 21, 1999. The high school was severely damaged and a new junior high school building was destroyed. Two churches also were destroyed. Hundreds of homes were damaged.

When I was a boy, we often took the longer route through Beebe to visit my grandparents in Des Arc. That was so we could eat seafood at Bruce Anderson’s restaurant, which attracted people from as far away as Little Rock and Memphis. Anderson went on to establish the iconic Cajun’s Wharf in 1975 on the banks of the Arkansas River in Little Rock.

What’s now Arkansas State University-Beebe is the oldest two-year institution of higher learning in the state.

“ASU-Beebe was founded in 1927 as the Junior Agricultural School of Central Arkansas,” James Brent writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “State Rep. William Abington of Beebe was the key sponsor of legislation creating the school; legislation designed specifically to set up such an institution in Beebe, the only town to make a bid that met the act’s criteria. The first president of the independent school was Abington’s brother, Eugene Abington. The school was built on land donated by the Abington family.

“In its early years, the school was joined with Beebe’s public schools, becoming the Junior Agricultural College of Central Arkansas in 1931 with the addition of a junior college program of study. Through the Great Depression, the college and high school shared facilities and faculty. The death of W.H. Abington in 1951 made the college’s future uncertain. President Boyd Johnson worked hard to maintain state financial support.”

In 1955, school president B.W. Whitmore negotiated an association with what at the time was Arkansas State College at Jonesboro.

“Arkansas State College-Beebe Branch operated under the authority of the president and board of trustees of ASC but ran its programs independently,” Brent writes. “J. Ernest Howell served as dean of the college from 1956-64, followed by Walter England from 1964-77. England oversaw peaceful integration in 1965 and the transition to Arkansas State University-Beebe Branch in 1967 with a name change at the flagship Jonesboro campus. William Echols assumed the title of chancellor when he succeeded England. William Owen Jr. held the office from 1981 until his death in 1994, and Eugene McKay held the position until 2015.”

The Legislature removed “branch” from the school’s name in 2001.

“Beginning in 1965, ASU-Beebe offered courses through its center at Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville,” Brent writes. “Through the 1990s, the school also offered courses at a site in Newport, which has since become a standalone part of the ASU System. In 1999, the Legislature created Arkansas State University-Heber Springs, a branch of ASU-Beebe, to serve Cleburne County.

“Foothills Technical Institute formally merged with ASU-Beebe in 2003 to become Arkansas State University-Searcy, offering occupational training in a variety of technical fields. In 2015, at the instigation of the ASU System, ASU-Beebe established its own logo and school colors, choosing blue and gray with red accents.”

We continue west on U.S. 64 and soon find ourselves in the White County community of El Paso.

“Settlers began arriving at the valley created by two parallel ridges, Cadron Ridge and Bull Mountain, in the 1830s,” writes Arkansas historian Mike Polston. “Attracted by area springs and fertile lands, they first established themselves on the southern slope of Bull Mountain at a place called Peach Orchard Gap. The name was chosen due to the peach trees growing there. Over time, settlers passed through the gap to the southern slope of Cadron Ridge, the location of the present community. El Paso, meaning ‘the pass’ in Spanish, was selected as the name for the new community.

“At the time of its settlement, the area was part of Pulaski County. With speculation on the creation of a new county, many area residents hoped their community would be selected as the seat of county government. The Southwest Trail, the first major pathway for Arkansas settlers, passed near the community, adding to its likely selection. A town was planned with construction of a potential courthouse positioned at its center. However, with the creation of White County on Oct. 23, 1835, present-day Searcy was designated the county seat.”

Still, El Paso crew steadily for a time. A Baptist church was established in 1848. By 1880, it was the largest church in the county with more than 200 members. A Methodist church was founded in 1873. Other organizations in El Paso were a Masonic lodge, a Woodmen of the World chapter, Knights of the Maccabees and the Grange.

“During the 1850s, the settlement was home to at least three businesses, one of which was the Peach Orchard Mill owned by James Wright and T.W Wells,” Polston writes. “Late in the decade, the settlement had regular stage service. Just before the outbreak of the Civil War, the Legislature incorporated the Des Arc & Dardanelle Railroad Co. There was much excitement when it was determined that the tracks were to be constructed near El Paso. The route was surveyed and the right of way was being cleared, but then came war. Work ceased and was never renewed.

“A post office named Olive Creek, which had been established in 1850, was renamed El Paso in 1869. Expectations of greater growth came in 1871 with construction of a road just south of town that connected Conway and Des Arc. Another road connecting Batesville and Little Rock intersected with this road. These roads helped contribute to growth. El Paso was devastated by an April 18, 1880, tornado that destroyed nine homes and killed five people.”

The town was officially platted in 1893, and the Bank of El Paso opened in 1894.

“Cotton farmers and cattlemen purchased goods from local stores and were able to market their products thanks to improved roads,” Polston writes. “By 1900, there were more than 800 residents. The town later felt the effects of the Great Depression with cotton farmers hit especially hard. Farms were repossessed, and businesses began to close. People began moving away for job opportunities in Beebe and Conway.

“By the 1950s, little remained of the once prosperous town. There were expectations that the construction of Arkansas Highway 5 would stimulate growth. Instead, it gave locals another avenue to leave the area. The school at El Paso was consolidated with Beebe schools in the 1950s.”

Now, the intersection of U.S. 64 and Arkansas 5 has become busy, attracting numerous businesses as traffic heads toward Greers Ferry Lake. The rapid growth of Conway has also spilled into the area.

We continue west on U.S. 64 and enter Faulkner County, where the population has exploded from 24,303 in the 1960 census to 123,498 in the 2020 census.

“Faulkner County was one of the last counties formed in the state,” Steven Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Sparsely populated in its early years, it’s now the fifth-most populous county. … The first European explorers were the group traveling with Jean-Baptiste Benard de la Harpe, who traveled up the Arkansas River from Arkansas Post in 1722. A fur trader named John McIlmurry lived in the area where Cadron Creek empties into the Arkansas River around 1810. The Standlee family was one of several who moved from the New Madrid area of southeastern Missouri following the 1811-12 earthquakes. Family tradition claims that John Standlee of Kentucky had already explored the area more than 30 years earlier.

“Around 1810, Richard Montgomery established the first store. John Benedict arrived in the spring of 1811 with his family. Soon thereafter, a ferry was established to cross the Arkansas River. The ferry crossing was named Toad Suck, a name that has prompted a variety of explanations. One common story is that the ferry was named for tavern patrons who ‘sucked on a bottle until they swelled like a toad.’ Other researchers note that a ‘suck’ is a river whirlpool that needs to be marked and avoided.”

A post office was established at Cadron in 1820, and the Legislature moved the Pulaski County seat there that year. It was moved back to Little Rock the following year. Cadron later served as the county seat of Conway County from 1825-29.

“The northwest section of Faulkner County was included in a Cherokee reservation between 1818 and 1828,” Teske writes. “The Arkansas River Valley was a major route for the Trail of Tears during the 1830s. For a time, Cadron was a stopping point on the route. Many Native Americans died from cholera and were buried in Cadron in early 1834. Fear of the disease caused settlers to abandon Cadron. No community exists in that location these days.

“Enola was settled as early as 1840. Greenbrier began in 1853 and was first named Mooresville. Vilonia began to be settled in the 1860s. By 1870, it had a cotton gin and a gristmill.”

After the Civil War, railroad construction began in the area. A surveyor from New York named Asa Hosmer Robinson came to the region in 1869 and established Conway Station next to the Little Rock & Fort Smith line. Faulkner County was one of nine counties created by the Legislature during the Reconstruction period after the war. The county’s official birthdate is April 12, 1873.

“Although some opposition existed, votes were encouraged by the promise to name the new county for popular Col. Sanford ‘Sandy’ Faulkner,” Teske writes. “Robinson offered Conway Station as the new county seat. Conway was formally incorporated on Oct. 16, 1875.”

Vilonia is the first community we reach in Faulkner County on our trip west. It first was known as Vilsonia, the “land of two valleys.”

“The name was given to the community by members of Masonic Lodge No. 324, which was established early in the town’s history,” Betty Owen Trimble writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Members of the lodge hailed from North Carolina, Mississippi and Tennessee and came to Vilonia in search of fertile land. When they applied for a post office, the approval came back misspelled Vilonia, but they let it stand.

“After the Civil War, families of English, Irish, German and Scottish descent searched for land to grow cotton, grains, vegetables and fruits. Among the first to arrive was the family of Mary Downs, a Confederate soldier’s widow from Mississippi with five daughters and a son. The son, William James Downs, was the father of Dr. Joseph Henry Downs, who practiced medicine in Vilonia for 54 years and served on the school board for almost 50 years.”

A private school on the ground floor of a log building used by the Masons was established in 1874. It became a public school in 1880. Arkansas Holiness College operated at Vilonia from 1899 until 1931, when it was consolidated with a Nazarene college in Bethany, Okla., and moved there.

“About 1900, a two-story frame school building was built on the north campus of the public school,” Trimble writes. “In 1928, Fred Monroe Bollen became superintendent. A brick school building had been built by then on the main campus. All 12 grades were taught. Vilonia was incorporated on Aug. 23, 1938, with Thomas Henry Hill as mayor.

“The Great Depression, which drastically lowered the price of cotton, combined with several drought seasons to impact Vilonia. On Jan. 8, 1942, the brick school building burned. Classes finished the term in other buildings. A new building was finished by the next school year. By this time, many Vilonia residents had found employment at the Arkansas Ordnance Plant in Jacksonville, which operated three daily shifts. Buses, which were granted extra gasoline during a time of rationing, transported workers to the plant for two of the three shifts.”

These days, Vilonia residents commute to work in Conway and even Little Rock. Vilonia’s population has soared from 423 in the 1970 census to 4,836 in the 2020 census. It grew by 26.76 percent between 2010 and 2020.

“On April 25, 2011, a tornado swept through Vilonia, killing five people and damaging structures,” Trimble writes. “Another tornado on April 27, 2014, killed eight people, wiped out businesses and destroyed the new Vilonia Intermediate School that had been set to open in the fall. President Barack Obama conducted his first official visit to the state to survey the damage and visit with Vilonia residents on May 7, 2014.”

We leave Vilonia and head to Conway, one of Arkansas fastest-growing cities.

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