After we had eaten far too much steak and far too many tamales on a Friday night at The Tamale Factory in Gregory, attorney Winston Collier invited our group to make the short drive north on Arkansas Highway 33 to Augusta.
He wanted to conduct an evening historic tour of the city.
Given my love of Arkansas history and especially my love of the lower White River region, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Fortunately, our companions were also Arkansas history buffs.
My mother grew up in nearby Des Arc, and I would spend a lot of time with my grandparents in Des Arc each summer as a child. That began my love affair with the lower White River and its many traditions — the houseboat people, the commercial fishermen, the mussel gatherers, the towboat pilots and cooks.
It’s a magical — almost haunted — part of the South, as anyone who has spent time there can attest. I’m glad the movie “Mud,” which currently is attracting strong reviews, pays homage to that lifestyle.
Augusta is the oldest town in Woodruff County. In fact, it was part of Jackson County before Woodruff County was created. Augusta was an important steamboat stop, and you can still sense the history there. Boats from Memphis and New Orleans would make regular stops, making Augusta a thriving town in the late 1800s and early 1900s. By 1930, Augusta had a population of 2,243 people. That’s more people than the town had in the 2010 census.
“The site has long been called Chickasaw Crossing,” Paula Harmon Barnett wrote in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1820, a man known only as Hamilton landed there and took up residence, but about two years later, he sold his holdings to Rolla Gray, who settled there with his family. Other settlers quickly followed.
“In 1847, John R. Elliott of Philadelphia and his partner, William Polite, opened the settlement’s first store at the west end of what’s now Main Street. Elliott soon retired, and Polite built a new store on an adjacent plot. Thomas Hough then moved into the Elliott-Polite building, and the settlement was on its way to becoming a town.
“In 1848, Hough had the town surveyed and laid out, and he named it in honor of his niece, Augusta Cald of Virginia. Incorporation followed on July 9, 1860. At that time, Augusta was in Jackson County. It became part of Woodruff County when the county was formed in the 1860s.
“Most of the families that settled in Augusta came from Eastern states and brought culture with them. Visitors remarked on the beauty of the homes in this wilderness and often stayed to join in the building of the town. By 1861, its population had grown to about 600.
“Hough built present-day Woodruff County’s first church in Augusta in the early 1850s at a cost of $6,000. The Methodists and Presbyterians shared it. Later, he built the Presbyterian church, which now belongs to and has been preserved by the city. The church, visited by Woodrow Wilson as a young boy (his brother-in-law was pastor from 1878-79), is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Hough sold his residence in Augusta to the county to be used as a courthouse. The current courthouse is on the original property.”
During the Civil War, Union troops tore down some of the city’s homes and used the lumber to build shelters. A few of the finer homes were spared so they could be used to house officers. Reconstruction Gov. Powell Clayton declared martial law in Woodruff County in 1868 and sent in the state militia to root out the KKK.
By the 1870s, though, steamboat traffic had increased, cotton was being shipped out and Augusta again was one of the most important places in the Arkansas Delta. The city, thinking the White River was all it needed, was bypassed by the main line of the railroad.
Though Augusta — like most other east Arkansas towns — has struggled to stem population loss the past several decades, one extremely positive thing has happened in recent years. ArCare, a nonprofit corporation that operates primary care clinics, dental clinics and wellness centers in 10 east Arkansas counties — is headquartered at Augusta and has renovated several historic downtown buildings for its growing staff.
Let’s be frank: The downtowns of a lot of communities in the Arkansas Delta are dead and aren’t coming back. There’s life, however, in downtown Augusta.
After showing us the buildings being preserved by ARcare, Winston drove us by the Ferguson house. The massive house was completed in 1861 as the Civil War was about to begin. It was the home of James P. and Maria Alcorn Ferguson and was built from local pine and cypress. The house was in the Ferguson family for more than a century. The couple’s oldest son, W.E. Ferguson, was a prominent politician who served in the Arkansas Legislature and a number of county offices.
The Ferguson home is now vacant and in dire need of repair. I mentioned to Winston that we should try to get it listed on the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas’ 2013 list of endangered places in order to draw attention to its plight.
Winston, with the help of House chief of staff Gabe Holmstrom and Little Rock public relations executives Denver Peacock and Jordan Johnson, worked with Vanessa McKuin of the HPAA to get the house on the list.
The HPAA calls its 2013 list the “Seven to Save.”
“The 2013 list of endangered places highlights distinctive sites throughout Arkansas that represent important aspects of Arkansas’ culture and history,” McKuin said. “Though each circumstance is different, each of these places is important to the community where it is located, and each is worth saving. By calling attention to these sites now, we want to encourage local action.”
Speaking of the lower White River, the Frith-Plunkett house at Des Arc is also on the list.
The HPAA wrote: “As Des Arc’s oldest residence, the vernacular Greek Revival-style Frith-Plunkett house reflects the prosperity of the most successful economic era in the rural river town’s history. The Frith-Plunkett house presents a unique representation of the architecture that formed the backdrop for Des Arc’s pre-Civil War development. During the Civil War, many buildings in Des Arc were burned and others were moved to nearby DeValls Bluff. Because of the Frith-Plunkett house’s function as a hospital during the war, it remained intact.
“The house is vacant and in disrepair. In 2002, the current owner purchased the building to save it from demolition, but it has since remained vacant. Though the owner has made small steps through the years, the condition of the building has caused the city to again consider a resolution to demolish the Frith-Plunkett house. The owner and other concerned citizens are working to raise awareness about the importance of saving the house.”
The other five properties on this year’s list are:
— The Hantz house and the adjacent Durst house at Fayetteville: The Hantz house was Fay Jones’ first house to design. He completed the project while he was a student. The Durst house was designed by John Williams, the founder of the University of Arkansas architecture program. As the UA campus continues to expand, the future of these houses is uncertain.
— Park Hill Elementary School at North Little Rock: The building was constructed in 1924. People in the neighborhood fear that the facility will be demolished once it’s closed rather than being used for something else.
— The Round Top filling station at Sherwood: Pierce Oil contracted with the Justin Matthews Co. in 1936 to construct a gas station along U.S. Highway 67. W.D. Happy” Williford operated the round station from then until his retirement in 1981. The building, which was later abandoned, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. Preservationists in Sherwood hope the station can become a police substation or a small museum.
— The St. Joseph orphanage at North Little Rock. Famed Arkansas architect Charles Thompson designed the 56,000-square-foot facility in 1908. The orphanage operated until 1978. The building later housed a day care center and a retreat center. The final two nuns at St. Joseph moved to St. Scholastica at Fort Smith in 2007. The Diocese of Little Rock considered selling the property. A nonprofit group known as St. Josph Center of Arkansas Inc. was formed to save the building and protect the adjoining 63 acres from development.
— The Wynne Opera House: The building was constructed in 1900 with a grocery store on the first floor and an opera house on the second floor. The building later served as a temporary courthouse and as a hardware store. The property is privately owned and in bad shape. The Wynne Downtown Revitalization Committee and the Cross County Historical Society are working to save it.