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The old river town


I’ve always liked river towns.

I’m not talking about those towns with a small stream flowing through the city limits. No, I’m talking about places with rivers large enough so a steamboat could dock; towns that owe their existence to the river; towns with ornate old houses whose original owners had the furnishings shipped up from New Orleans or down from St. Louis.

Helena on the Mississippi River, with its rich history and cultural mix, has always fascinated me despite decades of economic decline.

Like Helena, Arkansas City once was on the banks of the Mississippi, but Old Man River moved, as rivers are wont to do.

Other cities on the eastern edge of the state — places such as Blytheville, Osceola, West Memphis and Lake Village — tend to sit back a bit from its banks to avoid the floods.

My mother hailed from a river town, Des Arc on the White River. I was raised in a river town, Arkadelphia on the Ouachita River. Though railroads replaced rivers as the major transportation corridors beginning in the late 1880s, there remains a certain vibe to a river town that can’t be found elsewhere.

“It’s believed that Clark County pioneer Jacob Barkman was the first to bring a steamboat up the river past what’s now Arkadelphia,” writes noted Arkansas historian Wendy Richter. “Barkman lived near the confluence of the Caddo and Ouachita rivers and used the water for trips to New Orleans. Barkman first traded with merchants to the south by means of pirogues, or large dugout canoes, but when his business began to grow, he needed larger and faster boats. So he built a boat he called The Dime. The Dime was said to be a nice boat, and it made regular trips up and down the river before it eventually sank.”

In later years, much bigger boats could be found on the Ouachita with names such as Arkadelphia City, Susie B. and Jo Jacques.

“The Rock City once met with difficulties a few miles below Arkadelphia,” Richter writes. “The boat was apparently long and large for the river, and it lacked the power to successfully navigate the rapid and winding current of the upper Ouachita. Loaded with cotton and passengers, the boat failed to make a turn and ended up broadside to an island, in danger of being broken to pieces. Several men drowned attempting to free the trapped vessel. It is believed the boat finally made it to safety.

“Steamboats continued to travel the river even after the Civil War. In 1873, a man who lived between Arkadelphia and Rockport built a boat and took it down the river. Because of construction on a railroad bridge at Arkadelphia, he could go no further. So he sued the railroad for obstruction of navigation on the river, claiming damages in the amount of $10,000. Indeed the railroad’s construction in the 1870s marked the beginning of a new era in transportation in Arkansas and the gradual demise of the steamboat.”

In my files is a little book titled “Visit Historic Arkadelphia” that was written by Dave Ozmum, Ray Granade, Laverne Todd and Shirley Graham. They do an excellent job of outlining the city’s colorful history and the river’s key place in that history.

“Some of the earliest people moving up and down the river were trappers,” they write. “By the 1800s, a steamboat landing welcomed The Dime, Will S. Hays, Rob Roy, Lightwood and other boats to dock. Today an Arkansas Game & Fish Commission boat ramp lies just across the Ouachita River from that spot. The first bridge spanning the Ouachita near Arkadelphia was built in 1903. It replaced the ferry that docked just downstream from where the bridge met the bluff, and locals referred to it simply as ‘the free bridge.’ That initial structure was replaced with a new one in 1959. Today, the old ferry dock has been replaced by the Ouachita River Park. Designed by Twin Rivers Architects of Arkadelphia, it has become the site of special public events as well as picnics and family gatherings.

“By the mid-19th century, Arkadelphia had developed into an important river port, connecting the area to the Mississippi River, New Orleans and the world beyond. With the arrival of the Cairo & Fulton Railroad in 1873, Arkadelphia became one of the principal transportation hubs in southwest Arkansas. After the merger of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern lines that ran between Missouri and Texas, the present depot was built in 1917. The depot is of Italianate-Mediterranean design, one used all over the Southwest by the Missouri-Pacific Railroad. After many years of popularity, rail travel declined and the depot closed in 1971. It reopened 32 years later as a museum.”

Near the depot was the Arkadelphia Milling Co, which was begun by three brothers in 1898 and grew into one of the state’s largest industries.

According to the authors of “Visit Historic Arkadelphia”: “The mill operated 24 hours a day producing flour, meal, stock feed and staves. At the peak of production, 300 men were employed, and its products were shipped to 12 countries and 28 states. Its slogan ‘we never sleep’ was known in nearly every part of the world. The mill purchased large quantities of grain that were shipped to Arkadelphia by train. As one of Missouri-Pacific’s biggest customers, it secured a special rate for shipping grain from Kansas City. In the early 1900s, the railroad dramatically increased the tariff, making a hardship on the mill.

“H.W. McMillan, attorney for the mill, began searching for ways to get the tariff reduced. During his investigation, McMillan learned that drawbridges were required on navigable river railroad crossings. Since the Ouachita was navigable only part of each year, a trestle bridge had been constructed across the river. In hopes of getting the tariff reduced, McMillan gave Capt. Flave J. Carpenter $5,000 and told him to go to New Orleans. A few weeks later, Carpenter began his trip from his dock just north of the bridge and proceeded down the river. Carpenter stopped short of the railway trestle and began wildly sounding his horn. When asked why the horn was blowing, his reply was that he was waiting for the drawbridge to be raised.”

The agent at the depot sent a telegraph to his supervisors in Little Rock. Later that day, a train with three engines and only one coach pulled into the station. It was carrying the division superintendent, the division freight agent, the division passenger agent and three lawyers.

The authors write: “It took less than 10 minutes to reduce the tariff, and the train headed back to Little Rock. The horn ceased to blow, and Carpenter continued his trip to New Orleans. Following the compromise between the mill and the railway, the mill continued a flourishing business until it succumbed to the Great Depression in the 1930s. The silos that still stand near the depot bear mute witness to its former existence.”

Arkadelphia remains filled with beautiful old homes. Two of them, the Barkman House and the Henderson House, are just across U.S. Highway 67 from each other. Both houses are owned by Henderson State University.

The Barkman House was built in 1860 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. It was built by James Barkman.

“James Barkman was the son of Jacob Barkman and Rebecca Davis Barkman, who settled along the Caddo River in 1811,” writes Henderson historian David Sesser. “One of the earliest settlers in what became Clark County, Jacob Barkman owned a variety of businesses and worked as a planter. James Barkman was born in 1819 and followed his father into farming. The younger Barkman was successful and quickly accumulated wealth. In the 1860 census, the family of James Barkman included his wife Harriet, four daughters and one son. Barkman also owned 28 slaves. Eventually, James and Harriet had another daughter along with another son, Walter Eugene, who was born in the house and lived in it until his death in 1959.

“James Barkman began construction of the home on what was then the northwestern side of Arkadelphia before the start of the Civil War. The foundation and five chimneys are constructed of stuccoed brick. The house consists of a center hall with rooms on either side, with two wings at the rear. The first floor has four rooms along the central hall with two additional rooms in the south rear wing. The other wing contains modern facilities. With a hip roof and a chimney at each end, the building has a two-story facade across its front. The staircase in the house is rear facing, and both Greek and Gothic details are visible throughout the building.”

The house was sold to what was then Henderson State Teachers College in 1968 for $65,000. Archeological excavations took place on the grounds in 1990 and 1993.

According to “Visit Historic Arkadelphia”: “Local legend reports that piles of lumber were taken from the front yard to build fortifications and that Union troops occupied it for a month. … The mirror in the hallway is original to the house.”

The Henderson House was built by Charles C. Henderson, the man for whom HSU is named.

“Marrying in San Antonio in 1880, Henderson and his wife returned to Arkadelphia, where they began to purchase a number of houses and plots of land,” Sesser writes. “On July 16, 1892, Henderson bought a plot at the corner of present-day 10th and Henderson streets, directly opposite the campus of Arkadelphia Methodist College (now HSU), where he had been named to the board of trustees the previous year. Two small cottages built in 1876 on the property faced the campus. Henderson and his family lived in one of these homes for several years before the family moved to Ruston, La. Returning to Arkadelphia in 1903, Henderson moved one cottage to a new location and began an extensive expansion project on the second cottage.

“During the next several years, Henderson added a wraparound porch with a balustrade on the front of the home. The porch curves around a two-story turret and has a portico with six columns. The interior of the house is lavishly adorned with fretwork. Two parlors are located on the first floor, each with large fireplaces. Numerous other common rooms are located on the first floor, along with a heavily detailed staircase to the second floor. The staircase opens on the second floor into a square hallway that leads to numerous small rooms.”

“Visit Historic Arkadelphia” calls the Henderson House “a fine example of how successive owners can adapt a structure to changing needs and architectural tastes. Henderson, a former cattle broker with the St. Louis Livestock Commission, had bought the property from H.B. Stuart for $2,500 and then remodeled it over eight years at a cost of $5,000 into a 30-room Victorian mansion that he simply called ‘the big house.’ The exterior mixes Queen Anne-style with round turrets and a variety of window styles. The interior is said to have the state’s best fretwork. A later owner added the columns in the 1920s to give it a neoclassical look.”

Just four years after completing the house, Henderson moved to El Paso, Texas. He sold the house in 1911 to T.N. Wilson, who in turn sold it to Claude Phillips in 1918. The university bought the house in 1978 and operated a museum in the home until the 1990s. Following an extensive renovation in 1999, it became a bed-and-breakfast inn. It continues to operate as one of the best B&Bs in the South.

Another of the beautiful old homes in Arkadelphia is Magnolia Manor, which was built by John B. McDaniel from 1854-57. The house was several miles west of Arkadelphia when it was constructed but is now in the city limits. McDaniel journeyed to New Orleans and brought back two seedling magnolia trees to plant in front of the house. One of the trees still stands.

“The name of the home comes from the massive magnolia tree in the yard that was planted by McDaniel shortly after the home was constructed,” Sesser writes. “The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in September 1972. McDaniel was born on May 5, 1811, in Marlboro County, S.C. He married Mary Ann Thomas on June 14, 1836, and the couple eventually had five children. McDaniel owned a plantation in South Carolina but sold it in 1850 to move to Arkansas. Purchasing 80 acres in Clark County, McDaniel began construction on the house in 1854. By 1860, the family owned at least 320 acres.

“Madison Griffin, a mason from South Carolina, supervised construction of the house. A group of slaves owned by McDaniel completed construction. The bricks were made on site, and the lumber was from nearby trees. The foundation of the house is brick, and the walls are wood-frame construction. Wooden siding covers the house, typical of the Greek Revival style. The exterior of the house is white. Other Greek Revival characteristics include the corner boards, the entrance architraves, the flanking pilasters and the window surrounds. The roof of the two-story home has an overhang of two feet and is supported by scrollwork brackets.”

The house has three chimneys. Each chimney is connected to two fireplaces. The parlor, dining room, den and three bedrooms all have fireplaces.

“Mary Ann McDaniel died in 1883, and John B. McDaniel died in 1889,” Sesser writes. “Both are buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Arkadelphia. They sold the house in 1877 to Annie Hoskins, and she lived there with her husband T.C. until they sold it to the son of the original owner in 1906. The daughter of John R. McDaniel and Kate McDaniel — Anne Stark McDaniel — lived in the house with her husband Benjamin Foster, a professor at Henderson. After his wife’s death, John R. McDaniel lived with his daughter and son-in-law until his death in 1918.”

State Sen. Fletcher McElhannon and his wife May purchased Magnolia Manor from the Fosters in 1929 and restored it in 1932-33. A garage with a bedroom above and a new porch were added. Another porch was enclosed, and two bathrooms were added. After May McElhannon’s death, the home was purchased by state Sen. Olen Hendrix, who did additional renovation work.

Another of the fine old homes in Arkadelphia is the Greek Revival-style Habicht-Cohn-Crow House, which was constructed by Anthony Habicht in 1870. Habicht was born in New York, the son of German immigrants. He came to Arkadelphia after the Civil War to work for the Freedmen’s Bureau and had a house built based on one he had seen in Natchez, Miss.

Habicht sold the home to Mark Matthias Cohn, the founder of what would become the M.M. Cohn chain of department stores. The Polish immigrant later moved his store to Little Rock. Some stories say it was because Arkadelphia civic leaders wouldn’t let him sell liquor in the mercantile store. The house was sold to real estate agent A.M. Crow and remained in the Crow family until 1932.

“Habicht resided in Arkadelphia for five years before moving to Texas, where he worked as a notary, in insurance and in banking,” Sesser writes. “He died in Austin in 1891. The east-facing house is located on a corner lot in downtown Arkadelphia and is surrounded by large magnolia and oak trees. The home was constructed by a Mennonite carpenter named Gebhardt. The home is designed in a T shape. It is fronted by a wide wood front porch with four evenly spaced columns. The porch is accessed by a set of wooden steps with banisters. The house is entered through double front doors that are covered with screen doors. The doors are flanked by sidelights and topped with a transom.”

William Gerig bought the house from the Crow family in 1932. It passed to his daughter, Mildred Gerig Newberry, in 1937. Following her death in 1971, the house went to her daughter, Emily Peterson. The house was sold several more times and is now occupied by an insurance company.

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