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On to Magnolia


We head west out of El Dorado on U.S. Highway 82 and soon find ourselves in Columbia County.

“Natural resources have been the mainstay of the Columbia County economy, from cotton in the 19th century; timber, oil and gas in the mid-20th century; and later bromine,” writes Mike McNeill of the online news site Magnolia Reporter. “The county’s fortunes have also been closely tied to the evolution of Southern Arkansas University. Columbia County, named after the female personification of America, wielded significant political influence in Arkansas during the first half of the 20th century with family and business ties to governors Thomas McRae, Sidney McMath and Ben T. Laney; Lt. Gov Lawrence E. Wilson; state Auditor T.C. Monroe; U.S. Reps. Robert Minor Wallace and Wade Kitchens; and businessman Harvey Couch. Columbia County is typified geographically by low, rolling hills and is heavily forested.”

White settlers began arriving in significant numbers after Arkansas became a state in 1836. In 1852, Columbia County was carved out of parts of Lafayette, Hempstead, Ouachita and Union counties. The county seat of Magnolia was incorporated in 1855.

“The early residents depended on an agricultural economy with cotton, and to a lesser extent corn, as a cash crop,” McNeill writes. “Some settlers brought slaves. Early tax records indicate that Columbia County had 1,675 slaves in a population of almost 6,000 in 1854. The first formal federal census of the county in 1860 showed a population of 12,449, of whom 3,599 were slaves. About 1,000 farms were in operation at that time. Columbia County played no significant role in the Civil War, although about 1,000 men did serve in the Confederate ranks. It’s estimated that about a third of the men never returned.”

Columbia County is the only county in the state not to have a river. It has never been an easy place to reach.

“The county’s creeks and bayous were more of an impediment than an aid to early travelers because they were too narrow and shallow to support water traffic,” McNeill writes. “The swampy conditions of the upper Dorcheat Bayou in Columbia County didn’t allow for practical use by boats. Rain made travel conditions worse. Only the arrival of railroads made it possible for Columbia County residents to enjoy a dependable, year-round transportation option.

“Plans made prior to the Civil War for the construction of a rail line fell through, and it wasn’t until the construction of the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railroad in the fall of 1882 that the first cotton was shipped from the county by railcar. The railroad led to the creation of the communities of McNeill (later McNeil) and later Waldo, which were incorporated in 1884 and 1888 respectively. Cut off from the planned railroad, civic leaders in Magnolia resolved to have a spur line built to the city. They pledged $6,000 in cash and property during a single meeting in 1881 and eventually raised more than $20,000 toward this goal. The branch was completed in 1883.”

Emerson and Taylor came to life in Columbia County as rail towns. The Louisiana & Northwest Railroad was a branch line from McNeil to Magnolia. It eventually was extended to Louisiana in 1899. Emerson was incorporated along the line in 1905. Meanwhile, the Louisiana & Arkansas Railroad was founded by William Buchanan, the owner of Bodcaw Lumber Co. It ran south from Stamps through Taylor. Harvey Couch was one of Buchanan’s partners and eventually gained control of the railroad. There was a post office at Taylor before the railroad was built, but the town wasn’t incorporated until 1913.

“Columbia County experienced a decline in farming and population during the Great Depression,” McNeill writes. “Its citizens suffered the same privations that the economic crisis presented for the rest of the nation. The discovery of producing oil and gas fields in the late 1930s led to positive changes almost overnight that continued into the 1950s. … The county’s population peaked at 29,822 in the 1940 census, almost 10 percent above the previous decade, a rate of growth not equaled since. The first blow of World War II struck Columbia County directly. Marine Private Carl Webb, a Waldo native, was killed aboard the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. Sixty Columbia County residents died in World War II.

“The war aided the development of industry in Columbia County beginning in 1942. A natural gas processing plant was built near the Macedonia community. A 130-mile pipeline linked sour gas fields in Columbia and Lafayette counties to an aluminum plant at Jones Mill in Hot Spring County. U.S. 79 in Columbia County received its first hard surface in the 1940s. The employment situation had changed so drastically by 1942 that County Judge J.B. McClurkin issued a proclamation saying that all able-bodied men who did not have jobs would be arrested for vagrancy.”

As in the rest of Arkansas, there was a move from rural areas to the county seat that intensified following World War II. Magnolia’s population more than doubled between 1940 and 1960.

“Housing construction filled in the two miles between downtown Magnolia and the SAU campus to the north,” McNeill writes. “This period also witnessed the construction of Magnolia’s two tallest buildings, the five-story McAlester Building and the five-story Magnolia Inn. Magnolia Airport was built with a hard-surface runway in 1953. Nine years of airline passenger service to Magnolia Airport ended in 1962 with the withdrawal of Trans-Texas Airways. The improvement of highways in the 1950s and 1960s led to the decline of Columbia County’s smaller communities as business centers as more retailers concentrated in Magnolia.

“The Peace and Columbia shopping centers were both in operation by the late 1960s. University Plaza shopping center arrived in 1979. Walmart, a presence in Magnolia since the 1960s, opened a Supercenter in 2003 on the U.S. 79-82 bypass. The Supercenter spurred a considerable amount of new business activity along the bypass, which had seen little retail business since its construction in the 1970s. … In November 2014, voters approved the sale of alcohol in the formerly dry county.”

Cotton was the chief crop in the county until well into the 20th century. There are now very few row crops grown in Columbia County.

“Offshoots from the cotton industry provided the area with its earliest trade and manufacturing base,” McNeill writes. “Chief among early manufacturing efforts was the organization by a consortium of local businessmen of the Magnolia Cotton Mill in 1928. It was the first textile mill in southwestern Arkansas and the largest manufacturer of any kind in Columbia County for many years. Functions and ownership of the mill changed through the decades, with the facility eventually becoming American Fuel Cells & Coated Fabric Co., or Amfuel. It employed about 300 people who chiefly manufactured fuel cells, mostly for military aircraft, before the company announced the closure of the plant in 2016.”

The Magnolia Oil Field was discovered on March 5, 1938.

“Gushing oil topped the Barnett No. 1 derrick,” McNeill writes. “This led almost overnight to the development of an oil and gas exploration industry within Columbia County that continues today. While the importance of oil and gas drilling declined steadily, a new natural resources industry arrived in the mid-1960s as chemical companies discovered the high bromine content of brine located thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface. Bromine is an element used in numerous chemical and manufacturing processes.

“On Jan. 18, 1966, Dow Chemical Co. broke ground for a bromine plant four miles west of Magnolia. A second plant soon followed (a joint venture of Ethyl Chemical Corp. and Great Lakes Chemical). Both plants eventually were consolidated under the ownership of Albemarle Corp., which owns dozens of brine wells and pipelines that crisscross Columbia and Union counties. Albemarle also operates three chemical plants in the two counties, the largest of which is located south of Magnolia. The company employs more than 700 regular and contract workers in southern Arkansas.”

Though the oil and gas industry has declined, the timber industry remains important in the area. But the real driver of the economy continues to be the presence of Southern Arkansas University.

“Higher education in Columbia County became a reality with an act of the 1909 Arkansas General Assembly, which authorized four agricultural high schools in the state, combining training in agriculture with high school-level courses,” McNeill writes. “County residents offered the state an inducement of $50,000 plus 390 acres just north of Magnolia for what became known as the Third District Agricultural School. The first classes were held on Jan. 11, 1911. The General Assembly authorized the Third District Agricultural School to become a junior college, and in 1925, the school was renamed Third District Agricultural & Mechanical College. High school courses were dropped in 1937, and in 1949, the school became a four-year institution.

“The named was changed to Southern State College in 1951. SSC was renamed Southern Arkansas University in 1976. SAU now has more than 3,000 graduate and undergraduate students. It’s best known for its degree programs in business administration, agricultural education, elementary and secondary education and nursing.”

Magnolia had 11,588 residents in the 2010 census, down slightly from the 11,909 recorded in 1980. When Columbia County was created, the first court met at a store in a swampy place called Frog Level. Three commissioners were appointed to find the geographical center of the county to establish a county seat.

“The geographical center ended up being in the bottoms of Big Creek, even lower than Frog Level, and so the site for the county seat was moved one mile to the east,” according to the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “On June 21, 1853, J.J. Thomas and John L. McCarty deeded the land on which the city was established, and a one-room log cabin was built to serve as a temporary courthouse. The commissioners were at a loss as to what to name the new city until, at a dinner with local planter R.G. Harper, the planter’s daughter suggested the name of Magnolia. According to another source, commissioner Norborn Young asked his fiancee to suggest a name for the  city and misunderstood her when she replied ‘Peoria.’ The absence of any actual magnolia trees didn’t keep the name from sticking.”

Col. M.G. Kelso, who surveyed and laid out the city, modeled it after Oxford, Miss., which he had also surveyed. In 1856, one year after the city was incorporated, a log courthouse was replaced by a larger frame structure. Before the railroad arrived, cotton was hauled from Magnolia to Camden to be shipped down the Ouachita River or to Shreveport to be shipped down the Red River. When what eventually would become the Cotton Belt bypassed Magnolia, the city leaders raised the money for the previously mentioned railroad spur.

The city’s phone system was established in 1899. Construction of a new courthouse was completed in 1906, three years prior to the establishment of the Third District Agricultural School. In 1939, a hospital was built as part of a Works Progress Administration project. The Civilian Conservation Corps was also active in the area. The camp later was used by the National Youth Administration. During World War II, it was used to house conscientious objectors under the name Camp Magnolia. It remained in use until a tornado destroyed it on April 10, 1945.

Magnolia had a history of being an education center long before the Third District Agricultural School was created. A school known as the Magnolia Female Institute operated in the 1870s. The Southwestern Academy, a private preparatory school, was established in 1894 and closed in the early 1900s. Its building was used by the Magnolia Grammar School until it burned. Magnolia High School was constructed in 1917.

When the Third District Agricultural School was established, there were three sister institutions that also were born. Those institutions would go on to become Arkansas State University at Jonesboro, the University of Arkansas at Monticello and Arkansas Tech University at Russellville.

“The Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union had campaigned vigorously in Arkansas and other states for these vocational high schools, an educational reform of the Progressive Era,” writes James Willis, a former history professor at SAU who wrote a book about the school. “Communities bid money and land in efforts to become sites for the Arkansas schools. Small farmers’ contributions won the Third District Agricultural School for Columbia County, where the cornerstone was laid on Aug. 24, 1910. The school’s first term began Jan. 11, 1911, with 75 students and five teachers.

“Five principals led the school: David H. Burleson (1911), Harper K. Sanders (1911-13), Dr. William S. Johnson (1913-14), Elbert E. Austin (1914-21) and Charles A. Overstreet (1921-45). Courses in agriculture and home economics dominated the curriculum. English, history, science and math provided the minimal requirement for a high school diploma. The legacy of the Farmers Union is evident today. SAU operates one of the state’s largest collegiate farms, and the school’s colors — blue and gold — are those of the union. The school’s agricultural roots are also evident in its unique symbol — Muleriders — adopted in 1912 when its football players rode mules, then ubiquitous and essential to Southern agriculture, to practice and games. The name Aggies competed with Muleriders, but the latter became the yearbook’s title in 1922.”

The student newspaper was named The Bray in 1923 with a mascot featuring a bucking mule ridden by a cowboy. Home football games still include a mule with a student riding it.

“To increase the supply of rural schoolteachers in the mid-1920s, Arkansas elevated the Third District Agricultural School and the other agricultural schools to junior college status with Act 229 of 1923 and Act 45 of 1925,” Willis writes. “Officially named State Agricultural & Mechanical College, Third District, the school was known everywhere as Magnolia A&M. The North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools accredited Magnolia A&M in 1929. Its agricultural and home economics emphasis remained. Animal industry instructor Ves Godley built a prize-winning dairy herd that included a 1937 national champion, Sultane’s Magnolia Belle. The school increasingly stressed its two-year associate of arts degree for students planning to go on to a four-year college.

“Despite economic hardship in the 1930s, the school enrolled several hundred students each semester and provided work for many. Costs were kept low in a deliberate effort to become the state’s least expensive college. Effective management created a rich extracurricular program for students. The U.S. government’s New Deal funding expanded the school’s physical plant, and graduating classes donated memorial constructions. The 1936 class contribution was a Greek amphitheater, largely built by students who were inspired by a young teacher named Samuel D. Dickinson. His ancient history course ended dramatically in the new amphitheater with a student performance of the Greek tragedy Antigone. The play became a central feature of graduation festivities that year.”

Magnolia A&M became a four-year college under the leadership of President Charles Wilkins. A 1951 legislative act renamed the school Southern State College.

“During its 25-year history, SSC grew enormously,” Willis writes. “Dr. Dolph Camp, a 1920 Third District Agricultural School graduate, served as president from 1950-59. He led the school to North Central accreditation in March 1955; hired new faculty; constructed a new library, music building and president’s home; and completed two new dormitories. New courses of study were added, leading to a variety of bachelor’s degrees. President Imon E. Bruce (1959-76) guided the school during enrollment expansion fueled by the baby boom. A 1930 Magnolia A&M graduate, Bruce’s ambitious construction program did much to erase the earlier campus he had attended.

“Over 16 years, 14 major buildings were erected, including an athletic facility and a nursing building for a new field of study. By 1975, student activities boasted more than 50 student clubs, 10 varsity sports for men and women, and newly established Greek fraternities and sororities. The largely uneventful racial integration at SSC in the mid-1960s was marred by administration conflict on a variety of issues with a student civil rights organization, Students United for Rights and Equality. The firing of its sponsor, Donald C. Baldridge, a tenured professor, led to censure by the American Association of University Professors for more than 20 years.”

SSC became Southern Arkansas University on July 9, 1976.

“SAU established master’s degree programs in several education specialties and in counseling, computer science, agriculture and public administration,” Willis writes. “At the Magnolia campus, student enrollment grew to more than 3,000. There was substantial diversity in minority presence among both faculty and student body. More than 150 international students attended each year. Student organizations grew to more than 80 clubs. An endowment fund begun in 1963 with a few thousand dollars grew to more than $30 million, annually funding more than 900 scholarships and other academic enrichment programs.”

SAU presidents were Harold T. Brinson from 1976-92, Steven G. Gamble from 1992-2002, David F. Rankin from 2002-15 and Trey Berry since February 2015. The school now offers the only engineering program in southern Arkansas along with the only computer game and animation design program in the state.

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