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Headed toward Hope


The population of Prescott more than tripled from 1,287 in the 1890 census to 3,960 in the 1950 census as the town became the center of timber operations in this part of southwest Arkansas.

Timber companies built small railroad lines across the region to haul out logs. One of the most famous short lines was what became known as the Reader Railroad.

Debbie Fenwick Ponder writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Sayre Narrow Gauge, the railroad’s original name, was constructed in 1889 to move the virgin timber that was being harvested south of Reader, which is on the Nevada County-Ouachita County border, for a sawmill in Gurdon. In 1910, the line was purchased by the McVay Lumber Co. In 1913, it was taken over by the Valley Lumber Co., which extended it to tracts of timber in lower Nevada County. A.S. Johnson purchased the sawmill in 1921. In 1925, he organized Reader Railroad, named after the small community and postal stop of Reader. He also used the railroad to transport freight to and front newly discovered oilfields near Waterloo in Nevada County.

“Reader Railroad continued to work the river bottoms and creek valleys, hauling timber and freight until the 1950s when the parent company was dissolved. Tom Long purchased the railroad and began an upgrade. He promoted it for passenger and freight traffic, but the energy crisis of the early 1970s closed the refinery in Waterloo. Declining tourist traffic couldn’t sustain the little railroad. Long abandoned his plans, and the railroad was sold to a group of businessmen who worked to preserve it. They, in turn, sold it in 1980 to R.A. Grigsby, who emphasized the history of Reader Railroad and the role it played in the development of south Arkansas.”

Parents would bring their children for the trip through the pine woods.

“At the end of the track, the engine was turned by hand on a turntable,” Ponder writes. “The engine then picked up the train while the caboose was placed on the rear for the return trip. In 1985, ABC and Warner Brothers came to south Arkansas and used the railroad cars and stations for the filming of the miniseries ‘North & South.’ Equipment from Reader Railroad was also used in filming the 2007 movies ‘3:10 To Yuma’ and ‘There Will Be Blood.’ The railroad operated until 1992, when it couldn’t meet new federal safety regulations.”

Back in Prescott, visitors can see the old buildings that make up the Prescott Commercial Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in December 2008. Many of the buildings are empty since Prescott has been losing population for the past 40 years.

“Prescott was founded after the railroad passed through the area, and an active line still runs through the historic district in the 21st century,” writes historian David Sesser of Henderson State University at Arkadelphia. “Many of the businesses in town were located near the tracks for easy access receiving and shipping goods. A row of 11 buildings is on West First Street South. Facing the railroad tracks, the single-story structures were constructed between 1900-05. The buildings are good examples of commercial properties constructed in this period. The majority of buildings in the district are single story, though several two-story buildings are present.

“Most of the structures are of simple design, constructed from brick with little or no ornamentation. Notable exceptions to this include the post office at 206 East Elm St. Constructed in 1926-27, the building is designed in a Colonial Revival style. The First United Methodist Church and associated education building include some Gothic Revival details. The two-story church has a corner tower and is connected by a covered walkway. It’s the only church included in the district.”

The Nevada County Bank building at 100 West Main St. was constructed in 1912 in the Classical Revival style. Two stone columns flank the front door. The red-brick Gilbert Lumber Co. building was constructed in 1924. The brick building that once housed Logan Grocery was built in 1912.

Prescott has one of the newer county courthouses in Arkansas. It was built in 1964.

“Three permanent purpose-built courthouses have served the county,” Sesser writes. “The first was constructed in Prescott in 1884. It was razed in 1911 and replaced by a structure the same year with a county investment of about $60,000. The condition of the 1911 courthouse deteriorated through the decades. By the 1950s, the county was considering options to replace it. An effort to pass a bond issue to support construction of a courthouse failed in 1961. During the next two years, Prescott experienced significant growth and investment, leading to another vote in September 1963. This time, the bond issue was approved by voters, and demolition of the 1911 courthouse began in January 1964.

“Construction of the new building on the same site was completed by Oct. 31, and most of the county offices were occupied in early November. The building was dedicated on Dec. 4. 1964. The courthouse was designed by the Weaver & Hiegel firm of Little Rock and constructed by the E.W. Johnson Construction Co. of Texarkana. The flat-roofed building is designed in the New Formalism style and constructed from red brick with cast-stone accent. The courthouse sits on a continuous cast concrete foundation. The structure faces northwest and measures 12,850 square feet.”

We leave Prescott and continue toward the southwest on U.S. 67, crossing Terre Rouge Creek and passing through Emmet, which had 518 residents in the 2010 census.

Emmet was established as a railroad stop along the Cairo & Fulton

“Nevada County wasn’t created until 1871,” writes Steve Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “Before the arrival of European explorers and settlers, the land was home to the Caddo until it was acquired by the United States in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Dominated by pine forests, the land was only gradually cleared for cotton and other crops. Larger plantations were built to the south while northern Nevada County consisted mostly of small farms. In 1837, Martin Edwards acquired the land on which Emmet would be built. A Methodist church was organized in the area around 1855. Until the construction of railroads after the Civil War, the region attracted little attention.

“The Cairo & Fulton was established in 1853 with a plan to create a line that would run from the Arkansas-Missouri line across Arkansas and into Texas. After several name changes, the line eventually became part of Union Pacific. The line that ran through southwest Arkansas bypassed important cities such as Washington while creating new cities such as Prescott and Hope. Edwards’ farm was halfway between Prescott and Hope and became the location of a depot. It reportedly was named for one of the railroad employees. Robert F. Elgin was the first depot agent.”

A post office was established in 1871 with the name Burkville. The name was changed to Emmet in 1874. Alfred Eaves was the first postmaster.

The oldest burial date in Ephesus Cemetery at Emmet is 1876. The city was incorporated in 1883.

“During an election in 1890 when many parts of Arkansas, including areas of Nevada County, voted to prohibit the sale of alcohol, Emmet voters decided to remain wet,” Teske writes. “High prices for cotton during World War I brought brief prosperity. The timber industry and truck farming also provided jobs. Among the crops shipped from Emmet during the 1920s were cantaloupes, peas, beans, radishes, mustard plants, cucumbers, tomatoes, strawberries and watermelons.”

By the 1950s, row-crop farming had almost disappeared from northern Nevada County.

In 1959, Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. opened Arkla Village as a tourist attraction along U.S. 67. It was a pet project for Arkla boss Witt Stephens.

“It featured a saloon and general store, a livery stable and a museum,” Teske writes. “Connected with the village was a factory that built horse-drawn carriages. Employing 34 workers, the factory included Amish farmers and Hollywood movie makers among its customers. Both the village and the factory had closed by 1970.”

The construction of Interstate 30, causing traffic to abandon U.S. 67, spelled doom for attractions such as Arkla Village.

I will always remember where I was in 1980 when the United States defeated the Soviet Union in hockey — the so-called Miracle on Ice — during the Winter Olympics. Okolona High School had a basketball sensation named Ricky Norton, and I was calling Okolona’s postseason games that season for KVRC-AM in Arkadelphia. I was at a district tournament game in the old Emmet gymnasium when L.D. Hoover, working back in the studio, interrupted me and said: “Rex, there has probably never been a hockey score given on KVRC. But you might be interested to know that the U.S. just beat the Russians.”

I’m in Hempstead County after leaving Emmet. I pass through Perrytown, which had 272 residents in the 2010 census. Named for businessman Perry Campbell, Perrytown was incorporated in 1963.

“Robert Carrington, James Cantley, William Easley and David Mouser all received land patents in this area in 1837,” Teske writes. “Carrington owned the largest portion of land. By this time, the Southwest Trail had been established through Arkansas, running through Washington and Fulton. The Cairo & Fulton, intended to connect southern Illinois with towns along the Southwest Trail in Missouri and Arkansas, was first surveyed in the 1850s. When tracks were finally laid in Hempstead County in the 1870s, they swung to the south of Carrington’s land but helped to create the city of Hope. The land continued to produce cotton and other crops into the 20th century.

“U.S. 67 was created, following the route of the Southwest Trail and parallel to the railroad. The highway crossed the area that would become Perrytown. Campbell established a truck stop next to the highway in 1955. During the next eight years, he added a garage, a restaurant and a motel he called Perry’s Congress Motel. By 1963, Campbell had competition from a second motel. The area also supported a cabinet shop, a grocery store, a gift shop, a clothing store, a shoe store, two greenhouses and two watermelon stands.”

Residents voted to incorporate in 1963. They decided to name the community Perrytown, against Campbell’s wishes. An October 1963 story by Wick Temple in the Arkansas Gazette was headlined “New State Municipality Spawned by Thriving Truck Stop and a Dream.”

Campbell served as mayor. He died in 2005 and was honored in a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressman Mike Ross from Prescott.

Hempstead County was established in December 1818 before Arkansas even became a territory.

“The Missouri Territorial Legislature had created additional counties from Arkansas County,” writes southwest Arkansas historian Mary Nell Turner. “The county was named for Edward Hempstead, the first delegate to Congress from Missouri Territory. It has been home to four Arkansas governors — Augustus Garland, Daniel Webster Jones, Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee.”

Settlers came up the Red River and also down the Southwest Trail into to this area, beginning in the early 1800s.

“Mound Prairie, their first settlement, was not far from the Red River on rich black land,” Turner writes. “Some grew wealthy from cotton production, but no town developed. Nearby Columbus became the trading center. Three days after the county was organized, commissioners reviewed, marked and laid out a road for the crossing of the Southwest Trail at the Little Missouri River. … Washington was established as the first county seat in 1824. It was on the Southwest Trail and, because of its proximity to the border, was a stopover for those traveling west. Sam Houston and Davy Crockett were two of those travelers. Washington was on the Trail of Tears for Indian removal from 1832-38. It was also the rendezvous point in 1846 for volunteers to be mustered in for the Mexican War.

“Before Arkansas statehood, wealthy Virginians with plantations on the Red River were building their homes in Spring Hill for educational and social advantages. They established the Spring Hill Female Academy in 1837 and later added a male academy. Also during this time, families with few slaves came from Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and the Carolinas. Some rented small farms until they could purchase land. They started neighborhood schools and churches. Hempstead County ranked fifth in slave-owned counties in Arkansas. The 1850 census showed 296 owners and 2,394 slaves.”

The economy of Hempstead County continued to be based on cotton and timber after the Civil War.

“Steamboats moved up and down the Red River, transporting cotton to be sold in New Orleans and returning with merchandise for stores,” Turner writes. “The first roads had been cut out under the supervision of the county courts, which kept them passable with landowner overseers. Railroads crisscrossed the county beginning with the Cairo & Fulton, for which the laying of tracks was completed by 1873 with the first steam engine arriving at Fulton. The Cairo & Fulton was reorganized as the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern, then became the Missouri Pacific and finally the Union Pacific. A branch later ran from Hope to Nashville in Howard County. The Louisiana & Arkansas also ran from Shreveport to Hope for many years. The Frisco ran from Hope to Oklahoma.

“By 1880, the rich earth near Columbus was producing 1,120 pounds of cotton per acre. Total production of cotton for the county was 13,985 bales, worth an estimated $1,425,000. By 1890, cotton production had increased to 15,985 bales. Cotton continued to be king until after World War I. With the development of the automobile, good roads were in demand. In 1922, the road from Emmet to Fulton was improved as part of the Bankhead Highway. It ran on the north side of the railroad tracks. In 1934, the first cars drove on the south side of the tracks on paved U.S. 67. Interstate 30 was completed in 1972.”

Hope replaced Washington as county seat in 1939. Fulton also declined in importance as river traffic ceased. A ferry there remained in operation until the U.S. 67 bridge was completed in 1930. In 1941, the federal government constructed the Southwestern Proving Ground on more than 50,000 acres in the center of the county. Ammunition was tested there. The facility closed in 1946. Some of the land was then used for industrial sites.

“Army Maj. Paul W. Klipsch was in the ballistics department at the proving ground from 1942-46,” Turner writes. “He stayed in Hope and eventually began to manufacture audio speakers. He became known internationally for his products, making some of the world’s finest concert-quality loudspeakers, speaker systems and electronic audio products. … From the beginning, the county’s timber was a source of income. Capt. Judson Timothy West, who retired to Hope from steamboating in 1876, organized the Hope Lumber Co. in 1890. It was one of the largest in the area, shipping lumber throughout the country. Ivory Handle Co., incorporated in 1901, used hickory. Small sawmills dotted the county. Most of the hardwoods are now gone, and pine is grown for harvest.

“The University of Arkansas Southwest Branch Experiment Station was founded in 1929 as a fruit and vegetable station near Hope. In the 1950s, work changed to beef cattle, forestry and crops other than vegetables. Poultry has become the leading part of the agricultural sector in Hempstead County. The county rates in the top 10 of broiler growers in the state. Many farmers raise poultry and cattle while growing timber part time.”

The Rick Evans Grandview Prairie Conservation Education Center was established by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission in 1997. It includes almost 5,000 acres on the site of Mound Prairie and its former plantations.

“This land represents one of the largest tracts of blackland prairie in public ownership in the nation,” Turner writes. “The land is being allowed to return to its original condition. Recreation is also provided by the Lester Sitzes Bois d’Arc Wildlife Management Area south of Spring Hill. The Grassy Lake and Yellow Creek clubs near Saratoga are privately owned and are known for their virgin cypress trees and alligators. Millwood Dam and Millwood Lake are on the northwest edge of the county and in adjoining Little River County.”

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