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Newport on the river

In my column in last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I wrote about Newport and its musical heritage.

I noted the colorful history of this city on the White River. But I also noted that Newport has not kept up during the past 50 years with the next town of any size upstream on the White River, that being Batesville.

It comes down to the fact that Newport is on the edge of the Delta, meaning it must face all of the struggles that characterize Delta towns in this era. Batesville, meanwhile, is on the edge of the Ozarks. And that makes a difference. Both are delightful towns. Both are filled with good people who love where they live. For decades, though, they were headed in opposite directions.

Yet I can’t help but think of my friends in Delta towns who are working so hard to maintain viability and spur growth. I think of the good people of Wynne, with whom I worked in recent months. I think of the good people down the road in Forrest City. I think of those working so hard in Helena-West Helena, where I head tomorrow.

Newport also has people who are working hard. The information handed out by Newport economic development officials contains the slogan “Proud Past. Bright Future.”

No doubt there’s a proud past. Gov. Mike Beebe, a Newport High School product, will attest to that.

But a bright future? If people such as Jon Chadwell, the executive director of the Newport Economic Development Commission have their way, I think so.

On a lengthy driving tour of the area, Jon pointed out the many positive things that are now happening in Newport. There’s the expansion of the four-lane portion of U.S. Highway 67 this fall to north of Tuckerman. There’s the continued growth of Arkansas State University-Newport, a two-year institution that has done much to train workers for the jobs that now are available in Jackson County. There’s the continued success of industries such as Arkansas Steel Associates and Medallion Foods. Those companies employ almost 300 people each at Newport. There’s a new elementary school. And with the expansion of the golf course at the Newport Country Club from nine to 18 holes, it’s probably the only golf course in the state where there’s a cart crossing on a state highway.

Jackson County’s population dropped from 27,943 in the 1930 census to 18,418 in the 2000 census. Crops that once took hundreds of sharecroppers to grow can now be grown by three or four people. That change has led to similar population losses across the Delta.

Jackson County was created on Nov. 5, 1929, with land taken from Independence County. It was named for Andrew Jackson.

For many years, it was Jacksonport, just south of where the Black River flows into the White River, that flourished. Jacksonport State Park captures the history of that town and is one of the most delightful parts of our state parks system. On the afternoon I visited the park, the grounds were manicured as well as someone’s front yard.

Newport did not begin to flourish until the Cairo and Fulton Railroad’s north and south lines met there in 1873. With the completion of the railroad, Jacksonport and the steamboat traffic it had enjoyed began to decline. The county seat was moved from Jacksonport to Newport in 1891.

In the early 1900s, Newport was a center of freshwater pearl production and the creation of pearl buttons from mussel shells. Almost 1,000 commercial fishermen on the White and Black rivers supplied the Muscatine Pearl Works, which had 200 button cutters in the 1930s. Pearl buttons, of course, had been replaced by plastic buttons by the middle of the last century.

Hundreds of new people came to Newport during World War II with the construction of an air base at a cost of $13 million. The Newport Air Field, which operated from 1942-46,  was deeded to the city in 1947 and is now an industrial park. In 1951, the Newport Daily Independent reported that Jackson County ranked 10th in the nation in cotton production, eighth in rice production and 11th in soybean production. A Federal Reserve report in 1954 singled out Newport as a town that was doing things right in the area of economic development. A fellow named Sam Walton operated the Ben Franklin Store there from 1945-50.

As I noted in the newspaper column, Newport was the first place my parents called home after they finished college. I hope it does well. With the efforts I saw on my recent visit there, I think it will be just fine.

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