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The trip ends in the Bootheel


We’ve reached Greene County, the final county in our trip across north Arkansas on U.S. Highway 412.

Greene County was once an isolated place filled with swamps, but it has boomed in recent years alongside Craighead County to the south. Greene County’s population almost doubled from 24,765 in the 1970 census to 42,090 in the 2010 census.

Mark Hamblen writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “For many years, Greene County’s main attraction, Crowley’s Ridge, was isolated because of swamplands on three sides — the St. Francis bottoms to the north and east, and the Cache River and Black River lowlands on the west. But drainage of the swampland led to growth in the area.”

Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac, the French governor of Louisiana, likely was the first European to visit the area.

“In 1715, the French crown ordered him to explore the headwaters of the St. Francis River,” Hamblen writes. “Indians with whom he came into contact reported that the area contained silver, though he found only lead near Fredericktown, Mo. Suffering great discomfort while ascending the river, he wrote in his diary: ‘This colony is a monster. … I have never seen anything so worthless.’ However he felt about the area, he did move European civilization closer to what is now Greene County.”

The first European to actually live in the area appears to have been Pierre Le Mieux, who settled in the 1790s at Peach Orchard. He died in 1817.

Peach Orchard is in what’s now Clay County

“Le Mieux owned a small estate on the south shore of the Black River,” Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In 1816, he deeded that land to Lewis DeMunn. The deed shows that Le Mieux called the estate Petit Baril but that his English-speaking neighbors were already calling it Peach Orchard. Le Mieux (also known by his Americanized name Peter LeMew) relocated to Clover Bend, where he also owned land and where his wife’s family lived. Historians speculate that the English name of his estate was due to a peach orchard planted by Le Mieux, but no evidence of that orchard remains.”

Benjamin Crowley, for whom Crowley’s Ridge is named, moved his family to northeast Arkansas from Kentucky in 1815. He settled along the Spring River.

“In December 1821, Crowley crossed the Black and Cache rivers to explore the ridge area,” Hamblen writes. “Armed with a War of 1812 land grant, the man known as Old Ben selected a vacated Delaware Indian site that had developed around a large spring on a ridge. No one knows when the ridge became known as Crowley.

“Some pioneers had settled on the lower ridge area near Helena several years before Crowley’s home became the community meeting place where county officers discussed and solved civic matters. When the volume of legal and court activities required a seat of law, Isaac Brookfield and Lawrence Thompson wrote a petition seeking permission to organize a county. The Arkansas Territorial Legislature approved the petition in November 1833. … The county seat remained in Crowley’s home until it was moved.”

Some records say the county seat was moved to a community called Paris, but no records of such a town exist. In 1840, Gainesville became the county seat.

“Two documents were found in 1996 indicating that Gainesville was laid out with 86 lots,” Hamblen writes. “A state auditor’s report dated May 18, 1842, noted that ‘nearly all lots were sold and deeded to the purchasers.’ The lowlands of the St. Francis, Cache and Black rivers slowed settlement in Greene County. In 1849, Congress passed an act intended to reclaim the swamplands. It transferred all the Arkansas swamplands to the state and provided funds for locating, evaluating and draining them.”

Craighead County was created in 1859 from parts of Greene, Mississippi and Poinsett counties. Development of the area slowed due to the Civil War and Reconstruction.

“In November 1872, Cairo-Fulton Railroad construction crossed the Missouri border into Randolph County,” Hamblen writes. “Greene County officials watched helplessly as an economic boom followed to the west of them. By 1874, the line had become part of the Iron Mountain system. It operated across the full length of Arkansas. During the 1873 legislative session, state Rep. B.H. Crowley introduced a bill to create Clayton County from the northern part of Greene County. Because they did not like Gov. Powell Clayton, the citizens of the new county voted in 1875 to change the county name to Clay. Greene County then gained a small part of Randolph County, but it gave up a small northeast area to Clay County a decade later.”

Enter Jay Gould, James Paramore and the birth of Paragould, now the Greene County seat.

“Gould gained control of the Iron Mountain Railroad in 1880,” Hamblen writes. “He learned that Paramore’s St. Louis-Texas Railroad was licensed to build a cheaper narrow-gauge line through Arkansas to Texas. Gould decided to construct a regular-gauge line to closely parallel Paramore’s route. It would branch off the main Iron Mountain line at Knobel in Clay County and run through Greene County toward Helena. The railroads crossed six miles south of Gainesville. After the crossing gained a post office, the postmaster named the town Paragould, deriving the name from Paramore and Gould. The new town grew rapidly and became the county seat in 1884, beginning the sharp and sudden decline of Gainesville.”

We pass through the community of Light on our trip east and begin climbing Crowley’s Ridge before entering Paragould.

Crowley’s Ridge runs from southern Missouri to Helena. The only break is a small one at Marianna where the L’Anguille River runs through it. The ridge ranges in width from one to 12 miles.

“The ridge contrasts sharply with the surrounding flat land of the Delta,” Hubert Stroud writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In terms of formation, the ridge is generally thought to have once been an island between the Mississippi River and the Ohio River. It became a long and narrow hilly ridge after the rivers changed course millions of years ago. Prior to the change in course, the Mississippi River flowed along the west side of what’s now Crowley’s Ridge with the Ohio River meandering along the east side. The work of these major rivers and their subsequent shifting in course resulted in the formation of an erosional remnant that’s now Crowley’s Ridge.

“Crowley’s Ridge, completely surrounded by the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, is clearly visible because it rises some 250 feet above a relatively flat landscape. The ridge is capped by a deep layer of wind-deposited soils, a fine-grained soil created millions of years ago as glaciers moved across the continent. Extensive areas, including the Mississippi Alluvial Plain and Crowley’s Ridge, were covered by windblown soil. Rivers and streams that continued to meander across the plain washed away the loessial material. On Crowley’s Ridge, however, the loess continued to collect, up to 50 feet in depth in some locations. Since loess is easily eroded, steep slopes and deep valleys characterize much of Crowley’s Ridge.”

Many of the trees on the ridge are like those found in the Appalachian Mountains far to the east. It’s like no place else in Arkansas.

“The ridge is covered with a lush mixed forest of oak, hickory and uncommon hardwood trees such as American beech, sugar maple and yellow poplar,” Stroud writes. “Crowley’s Ridge also has extensive areas of pasture. Although the soil is relatively fertile, row crops such as soybeans and wheat are limited almost entirely to small floodplains along and near streams that flow out of the area. This is due to the highly erosive nature of the wind-blown soil of Crowley’s Ridge. The soil needs a protective vegetative cover of some type such as pasture grasses or forests to combat severe soil erosion.”

Paragould sits atop the ridge.

“Postmaster Marcus Meriwether named the town Paragould without any official approval,” Hamblen writes. “Paragould became a thriving community. Investors knew that the forests covering east Arkansas contained one of the few remaining quality hardwood sources in the nation. The availability of rail transportation brought about a surge of large investments. Men abandoned their farms and flocked to work in the timber mills and factories that had been hurriedly constructed around the area. Merchants and professionals followed.”

Hamblen notes that the “drained and newly cleared bottomland on both sides of Crowley’s Ridge led to the development of large farm operations before the turn of the century. Timber-related businesses continued to spur industrial growth through the 1920s, but as the timber business declined, production of cotton, corn and soybeans increased. Significant rice production didn’t come to the county until after World War II.”

A large railroad machine shop came to Greene County in 1911 and serviced locomotives into the 1950s, employing up to 300 people at times.

Paragould became the county seat after a countywide vote in 1884. Construction was completed on a courthouse there in 1888.

“Having noted that fire swept rapidly through the wooden buildings in downtown Gainesville in 1890, the Paragould City Council passed an ordinance requiring that all new buildings in the main part of town be constructed of brick,” Hamblen writes. “An electric light plant went into operation in 1891, telephone service appeared in 1896 and a municipally owned water works opened in 1898. By 1896, Paragould had six miles of gravel streets. It was 1912 before the downtown streets were paved.

“By 1890, there were 14 lumber mills in Paragould. Products included both slack and tight barrel staves, boxes, wood veneer, spokes, dowel pins, caskets, baskets, handles, shingles and railroad ties. The Wrape Stave & Heading Mill was shipping five million barrels a year, more than any factory in the state. In 1894, that firm shipped more whiskey barrels than any other plant in the world. … Paragould became the principal trading center of northeast Arkansas. The city’s infrastructure had been developed to the extent that it could support the demands of new industry and increased population. By 1910, the town had three department stores, an opera house, a hospital and six banks.”

Paragould became known as a sundown town — a place where blacks weren’t welcome after sundown.

“Attempts at violently expelling the local black population took place in 1888, 1892, 1899 and 1908,” Hamblen writes. “Black railroad crewmen were told they could stay in town as long as they were working, but their activities were limited to where they were boarding overnight. Black children were not provided any form of public education until 1948.”

One of the more interesting events in the city’s history occurred when a meteorite came crashing down in 1930.

“At 4:08 a.m. on Feb. 17, 1930, Paragould residents were awakened by a prolonged loud noise and a sky filled with a fiery glow made by a meteorite with a long reddish tail that streamed through the sky before striking the earth four miles southwest of Paragould near the small community of Finch,” Hamblen writes. “Two major fragments were found and displayed in Paragould for several weeks. The first one that was discovered was small but weighed about 75 pounds, unusually heavy for its size. The second fragment was found 30 days later. Buried nine feet into hard clay more than two miles from where the first rock was found, the big rock measured 24 inches in height, 28 inches in length and 24 inches in breadth. It weighted 820 pounds, and five men and a team of horses spent three hours dislodging it.”

It was given to the University of Arkansas.

Six years later, Paragould was back in the news thanks to a mastodon skeleton.

Hamblen writes: “While Frank Reynolds and his brother-in-law Lowell Rodgers were fishing in Hurricane Creek just north of Paragould, Reynolds hit something that gave off a metallic sound. Curious, the two men pulled out of the deep sand in the creek bed an enormous thigh bone, 3 1/2 feet in length. They worked almost continuously during the next 20 days removing all bones from the creek. The two men toured the state in a borrowed truck for three weeks, charging 10 cents a look. When the two got to Fayetteville, they were told by members of the University of Arkansas science faculty that they had found the skeleton of a 10,000-year-old mastodon. Reynolds was offered $5,000 for the bones by a man from Kentucky, but he chose to give them to the museum at Arkansas State University.”

Through the years, Paragould became one of the state’s manufacturing centers. City leaders were able to attract the Ely Walker shirt factory in 1937, the Ed White shoe factory in 1947, Wonder State Manufacturing in 1950, Foremost Foods’ dairy division in 1952 and Emerson Electric Co. in 1955.

We spend the final night of this trip at a bed-and-breakfast inn on Court Street known as the White House Inn. It’s in the 1892 Hays-Porter House.

The house was built by Alfred Hays, a Kentucky native who operated a hotel in Paragould and served a term as mayor. Hays died in 1932, but his descendants occupied the house until the 1960s. Marilyn and Bob White later renovated the home.

Dinner downtown that evening is at Chow at 118, a fine-dining establishment that resembles something one would expect in a far larger city.

Paragould has seen its population increase from 18,540 in 1990 to an estimated current population of 28,500. Better dining and overnight options have followed the growth.

We end the trip the next morning with the short drive to the state line. We cross the St. Francis River into the Missouri Bootheel, go as far as Cardwell (a depressed Delta town) and turn around.

The Bootheel is unlike the rest of Missouri but much like northeast Arkansas. Cotton became king here in the early 1900s. Most black families left the region (due to the mechanization of agriculture) for jobs in the upper Midwest. Bootheel counties are now predominantly white.

It was a pioneer planter named John Hardeman Walker in what’s now Pemiscot County who argued when Missouri was admitted to the Union that this area had more in common with the Mississippi River towns of St. Louis, Sainte Genevieve and Cape Girardeau in Missouri than with the Arkansas Territory. The area once was known at Lapland because it’s where Missouri laps over into Arkansas.

We cross back over the St. Francis River into Arkansas.

The river starts in the northeast corner of Iron County in Missouri and is a mountain stream for its first 25 miles. It reaches the Delta north of Poplar Bluff. It turns south and covers 207 miles before emptying into the Mississippi River just north of Helena in the St. Francis National Forest.

The part of the river between Lake City in Craighead County and Marked Tree in Poinsett County is known as the Sunken Lands. The land dropped several feet in this area during the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, forming a swamp. More than 27,000 acres of this region are now part of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission’s St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management Area.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “The St. Francis River was not navigable in its natural state, having numerous snags and rafts. In 1836-37, W. Bowling Buion surveyed the river under the auspices of the federal government with an eye toward improving navigation, but nothing came of it. Only after the Civil War did Congress begin funding the clearing of the river. Numerous clearing and dredging operations made the St. Francis navigable from its mouth up to Wappapello, Mo. Because the swampy Sunken Lands impeded progress on railroad construction until the land began to be drained in the late 1890s and early 1900s, steamboats continued to operate on the river until into the early 20th century.

“The St. Francis Levee District was created in 1893 and began constructing levees and drainage canals to control flooding. These measures were strengthened and increased after the catastrophic Great Flood of 1927 and the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1928. The levees and canals have greatly affected the natural course of the river and have included a number of diversion ditches that run somewhat parallel to the river along its course from southeastern Craighead County down through Lee County, thus providing an outlet for excess water in time of flood.”

The world’s largest siphons were placed on the St. Francis at Marked Tree in 1939 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help control flooding.

In 1977, the Corps built the W.G. Huxtable pumping plant southeast of Marianna to prevent the Mississippi River from backing up into the St. Francis. It’s one of the largest pumping plants of its kind in the world.

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