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Starting at Siloam Springs


We’re in the parking lot of the Cherokee Casino on the Oklahoma side of the state line, just west of Siloam Springs.

I’ve been joined by noted Arkansas historian Tom DeBlack and Paul Austin, the former head of the Arkansas Humanities Council. Our goal is to drive across north Arkansas from Oklahoma to the Missouri Bootheel on U.S. Highway 412.

Tom and Paul retired recently and have time for such adventures.


I call it work.

Even though it’s a Monday morning, there are plenty of cars in the parking lot. Back in 2008, the Cherokee Nation added an eight-story hotel with 140 rooms to an existing casino. The casino was expanded by almost 200,000 square feet as part of an $83 million project. About 1,600 new electronic games and 30 additional table games were added at that time to a casino that previously had 1,000 electronic games and 20 table games.

After getting a cup of coffee and a doughnut inside, we cross into Arkansas for our adventure. It’s an interesting contrast when you go directly from a casino to the campus of John Brown University, one of the most conservative institutions of higher education in the region. The private school was founded in 1919 by an evangelist named John Elward Brown.

“Brown was a self-educated evangelist, publisher and radio entrepreneur who grew up in rural poverty in late 19th-century Iowa,” Rick Ostrander writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In July 1919, Brown, at that time a prominent evangelist in southern California with a family home in Siloam Springs, decided to establish a college that would offer practical vocational training in a Christian setting for poor, ambitious young people who couldn’t afford a college education. One month later, Brown returned to Siloam Springs and converted his 300-acre farm into a college campus.

“In September 1919, Southwestern Collegiate Institute began its first semester as a nondenominational Christian vocational school with 70 students and a handful of teachers. A few years later, the college changed its name to John E. Brown College and eventually to John Brown University in order to capitalize on the founder’s fame as an evangelist. In its first two decades, JBU functioned primarily as a school for the poor, combining religious and vocational instruction. The college initially sought to offer free education to all of its students. When this proved unfeasible, the college began charging nominal tuition and fees while relying on wealthy donors to cover the rest of the costs. Students attended classes half a day, spending the other half working in college industries such as a machine shop, a dress factory, a cannery and a dairy barn.”

There were mandatory Bible classes and required daily chapel attendance. Students had to be granted special permission to leave the campus.

“In the middle decades of the 20th century, JBU evolved both educationally and religiously,” Ostrander writes. “As academic expectations increased, students spent less time working in the college industries. At the same time, however, new vocational programs were added in engineering, broadcasting, publishing and home economics. In 1935, Brown purchased the rights to radio station KUOA, which formerly had been the radio station of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. The station became the voice of JBU.”

Ostrander notes that the school remained “firmly ensconced in conservative Protestant morality.” Students, for instance, campaigned successfully in 1944 to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages in Benton County.

“In other ways, however, the university’s religious character moderated in the mid-20th century,” Ostrander writes. “JBU gradually moved away from the strict fundamentalism of such institutions as Bob Jones University in South Carolina and joined the more moderate wing of American evangelicalism. This transformation was symbolized when Billy Graham, the leading evangelist of the 20th century, visited JBU in 1959.”

Brown died in 1957 and the school was taken over by his son, John Brown Jr. In 1962, JBU was accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Universities. Enrollment grew from 325 students in 1961 to 768 in 1969.

John Brown III became the school’s president in 1979 and grew enrollment to 1,044 students by 1991.

In 1994, Lee Balzer became the first president from outside the Brown family. Chip Pollard has been the JBU president since 2004.

JBU has benefited from the growth of northwest Arkansas and the school’s ties to the conservative business leaders in the region.

“In the 1980s, Walmart founder Sam Walton became acquainted with JBU through his company’s chief operating officer, Donald Soderquist,” Ostrander writes. “In 1985, Walton established a scholarship fund to enable students from Central America to attend the university. With other international students from Africa, South America and Asia, the university enjoys an international student population of about 15 percent. … Walton’s association with JBU led to a close relationship between the university and Soderquist. He served as chairman of the board of trustees and in 1997 he made a contribution that enabled the university to establish the Donald G. Soderquist Center for Business Leadership and Ethics.”

At the time John Elward Brown established the school in 1919, Siloam Springs was known as a health resort. “Siloam” refers to the healing waters of the Pool of Siloam in the New Testament.

The first white settlers in the area were believed to have been Simon Sager and members of his family in the late 1830s. A settlement known as Hico was established along spring-fed Sager Creek, and a post office opened there in 1855.

“In 1880, Hico merchant and former Union scout John Valentine Hargrove established Siloam City on land he owned in the valley along Sager Creek,” Don Warden writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Several factors led him to do this. The St Louis-San Francisco Railway (later known as the Frisco) in eastern Benton County led residents on the west side of the county to think that they too would soon have a railroad. The pure spring water flowing into Sager Creek was said to be medicinal, and testimonials about cures attracted health seekers even before Hargrove platted his land into a town. Trade with the Cherokee Nation and farming continued to be important parts of the local economy.

“Promotion of the new town was so successful that it was incorporated the next year as Siloam Springs. In 1882, the Hico post office closed and the Siloam Springs post office opened. The Hico post office reopened from 1885-94. Owners of land surrounding Siloam Springs platted their property to form commercial and residential additions to the town in 1880, 1881 and 1882. While there was still no prospect of a rail line in Siloam Springs by the mid-1880s, many of those who made up the town’s initial population boom began to leave. By 1890, the population was 821.”

In 1892, the Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad began building south from Sulphur Springs, which is near the Missouri border. The railroad line reached Siloam Springs the next year. The railroad was reorganized as the Kansas City Southern in 1900.

“To ensure that the line would pass through town, local businessmen led by Robert S. Morris of the Bank of Siloam pledged $20,000 to the railroad, half when the first passenger train arrived and the rest six months later. They also secured land for the depot and 10 miles of right of way for the track. On Dec. 20, 1893, the railroad reached Siloam Springs. Most of the buildings in the downtown historic district were built between this date and the beginning of the Great Depression.”

Siloam Springs annexed Hico in 1904.

In addition to bringing in those wanting to take the waters, the railroad allowed area farmers to ship out apples, peaches and strawberries. In 1908, the Arkansas, Oklahoma & Western Railroad was completed from Rogers to Siloam Springs. This made the area even more accessible.

In 1901, Benton County led the nation in apple production, producing 2.5 million bushels and becoming known as the Land of the Big Red Apple. Production hit 5 million bushels by 1919 before diseases in the early 1920s began devastating the apple orchards.

Farmers started switching over to cattle and poultry. By 1924, Benton County led the state in egg production. By 1938, Benton County was the largest broiler-producing county in the nation.

My mother would tell stories about going to what was known as the Arkansas Baptist Assembly near Siloam Springs when she was a girl growing up in east Arkansas during the 1930s. The assembly, now a retreat center known as Camp Siloam, was established by the Arkansas Baptist State Convention in 1923 and was operated by the ABSC until 2006 when it was given its own nonprofit status.

Other camps were established in the area.

Gypsy Camp, a private summer camp for girls, opened in 1921 along the Illinois River. Camp was held there until 1978.

In 1926, Earl Allen established Allen Canning Co. to produce canned tomatoes. The Siloam Springs company was a major employer for decades before going bankrupt.

Poultry processor Simmons Foods established its headquarters at Siloam Springs in 1952. It now has more than 1,000 employees in the area.

We head to downtown Siloam Springs, which is transforming itself into one of the best downtowns in the state.

We witness the construction of what’s known as Memorial Park. What was formerly Medical Springs Park is being transformed with the addition of a splash pad, an amphitheater and a new farmers’ market. In 2016, the city received a grant of $300,000 from the Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program of the Walton Family Foundation to pay for design of the project. It’s on the former site of Siloam Springs Memorial Hospital.

Construction of the $3.23 million park began last May. The project is being funded by a local sales tax.

There’s also a project to make Broadway Street more pedestrian friendly. The initiative is adding angled parking, rain gardens and landscaping. According to Main Street Siloam Springs, there were 73 downtown events in 2018 and eight downtown building improvement projects.

Downtown Siloam Springs now has its own craft brewery (Ivory Bill Brewing Co.) and what I consider one of the best restaurants in the state in 28 Springs.

Visitors to downtown can also enjoy the Creekside Taproom, Fratelli’s Wood-Fired Pizzeria, Pour Jon’s Coffee & Vinyl, Pure Joy Ice Cream, Ziggywurst and the Cafe on Broadway.

A former newspaper office downtown has been renovated as the home of the Siloam Springs Chamber of Commerce. Downtown now has a building occupancy rate of more than 90 percent.

By the end of 2018, downtown Siloam Springs was the home of 12 restaurants or taprooms, 24 retail shops, seven salons/barbershops/spas and two dance studios.

Main Street Siloam Springs describes it this way: “Most of present-day downtown was built between the 1890s and early 1930s. In 1995, downtown Siloam Springs became a nationally registered historic district. With three parks, walking trails, notable architecture and graceful Sager Creek meandering throughout the downtown area, Siloam Springs is a beautiful destination for visitors, businesses and residents alike. The historic district is filled with retail shops, restaurants, professional services, residences, a bountiful farmers’ market and engaging community events.”

The springs that gave the city its name are also still there.

According to the Siloam Springs Museum: “Belief in the medicinal value of mineral water dates to ancient times. Spas devoted to bathing in or drinking mineral waters enjoyed their greatest popularity in the 19th century. Of the thousands of mineral springs in North America, about 800 at one time had resorts where people came to take the waters. One of these resorts was Siloam Springs. Of the dozen or more springs that emerged from the earth in the vicinity of the Hico settlement, eight came to be considered medicinal.

“The springs were usually described as pure water that would flush the disease-causing impurities out of a person’s body. On a list from 1898, one of the Twin Springs was said to have contained a small amount of arsenic, but on other lists it’s described as pure water. The only spring consistently listed as a mineral spring is Iron Spring. Signs at both the Two and Siloam springs threatened a $5 fine for washing in the springs. Today both the Siloam and Twin Springs are in basins, but these basins were built to keep Sager Creek out of the spring, not to hold spring waters for bathing. Though these springs were once considered medicinal, they have now been declared  unsafe for drinking due to high levels of bacteria in the water.”

On the nearby Illinois River, Siloam Springs has its own kayak park. The park opened in the spring of 2014 after the city of Siloam Springs received a grant from the Walton Family Foundation to purchase riverfront property adjacent to Fisher Ford Road and construct a city park. The flow of the river was engineered to create a series of whitewater rapids and standing waves. Other park amenities include a swimming area, a climbing boulder, walking trails, picnic tables, a changing station and rain gardens.

It’s time to head east on U.S. 412 to Tontitown, Springdale and on to Huntsville.

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