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Where history lives


When I was young, my father and uncle purchased the old post office building at Arkadelphia to house their sporting goods business. That building, constructed downtown in 1916-17, was the place where my friends and I would play. It was quite a structure.

In June 2011, the Arkadelphia Commercial Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The borders of the district are Main Street between Fifth and Seventh streets and Clinton Street between Sixth and Ninth streets.

The old post office is at Sixth and Clinton.

“Arkadelphia grew westward, away from the Ouachita River, which is about a half mile away from the district,” writes historian David Sesser of Henderson State University. “The buildings in the district evolved through the years. The earliest buildings are free standing or in a row and are frame or brick constructed on a brick or concrete foundation. Many have recessed entries and display windows. Neoclassical revival elements are visible in the post office building. The Royal Theater at 625 Main St. is constructed in an Art Deco style and later began serving the Clark County Arts Council. The oldest confirmed building in the district is at 614 Main Street. A former jewelry store, it later became a coffee shop.

“The arrival of automobiles in Arkadelphia prompted a heavy investment in service stations, and it was noted in the 1930s that the town supported more service stations than churches. The Johnson Service Station opened at 716 Clinton St. in 1920. Shepherd Auto Sales at 612 Clinton St. opened in 1948. South Sixth Street, which passes through the district, is also U.S. Highway 67, which helped drive business to the area in the early and mid-20th century.”

J.C. Penney opened a store at 605 Main St. in 1929 and stayed there until 1984. There were four drugstores downtown when I was a boy. Dew Orr Department Store operated downtown from 1946-84. I can still remember how Bill Deaton’s radio ads for Dew Orr sounded on KVRC-AM.

A tornado destroyed part of downtown on March 1, 1997, but thankfully many of the oldest buildings survived. In addition to the old post office that still houses Southwest Sporting Goods Co., I spent time at the nearby Clark County Library, which was constructed at 609 Caddo St. in 1903 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in November 1974.

A group known as the Women’s Library Association was formed in November 1897 to establish a library. A collection of books was stored in various locations around town.

“By 1899, the group was unable to find a rent-free location,” Sesser writes. “The association began working to build a permanent facility to house the library. A number of fundraising events were held, and the group had collected $1,000 by 1903. The association borrowed an additional $3,000 so construction could begin. After the library opened, the group continued to raise funds to retire the debt, meeting this goal in 1913. The building was designed by Little Rock architect Charles Thompson and constructed by James Pullen.

“The building faces north and is fronted by an Ionic portico. The portico is supported by four columns topped with an entablature, with two columns on each side. The portico is reached by climbing three concrete steps, and a set of double wood-and-glass doors is centered on the porch. The doors are flanked by sidelights and are topped with an arched transom. … The interior of the original building includes 15-foot ceilings and heavy molded trim throughout. The original building was square and a single story. Through the years, wings were added to the east and west ends of the building, and a second story was added at the rear.”

The Women’s Library Association was in charge from 1903-39. The library was then donated to the city. The county took over in 1974. The Women’s Library Association still exists and continues to hold its meetings in the historic structure.

I would spend hot summer afternoons in the library’s cool, spacious Arkansas Room, reading stories on local history that had been written by Farrar Newberry, one of the most interesting and successful people to hail from this part of Arkansas.

Newberry was born in July 1887 at Gurdon. His family moved to Arkadelphia in 1894. Newberry graduated in 1906 from Arkadelphia Methodist College (now Henderson State University) and received his master’s degree from Vanderbilt University two years later. He served in the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1915-16 and sponsored what was known as the Newberry Act, a prohibition bill.

In 1915, Newberry began working for the giant fraternal benefit society known as Woodmen of the World. He became the president of that Omaha-based organization in 1943 and served in the role until 1955. He then retired and moved back to Arkadelphia.

“Newberry devoted much of his time to research and writing,” prominent Arkansas historian Wendy Richter writes. “He composed dozens of articles on Arkansas history topics and was responsible for placing markers at many historical sites around Clark County. In particular, Newberry’s newspaper columns brought local history to the attention of area residents. Active in many civic organizations, Newberry also served as president of the Arkansas Historical Association. Newberry Hall on the Henderson campus was named in his honor.

“Newberry donated his colonial-style home at 11th and Henderson streets in Arkadelphia to Henderson, and the university utilizes the structure as the president’s residence. Newberry died July 31, 1968, and is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Arkadelphia.”

Those interested in the area’s history can visit a museum that’s operated by the Clark County Historical Association in the former Missouri Pacific Depot (which still serves as an Amtrak stop). The depot was constructed in the Mediterranean style in 1917 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. Sitting outside that building in my parents’ Oldsmobile and looking at the sign that said “Arkadelphia,” I learned to spell the name of my hometown.

“In 1873, river transportation was replaced by rail when the Cairo & Fulton connected the city with Little Rock,” Sesser writes. “The line was acquired by the Missouri Pacific in 1917, and the company constructed a number of new depots to serve communities along the tracks, including Gurdon. The Arkadelphia depot was constructed south of downtown and sits to the northwest of the rail line. Constructed of red brick and with a red clay tile roof, the single-story structure is rectangular with a telegraph operator’s office jutting out toward the tracks. The southwest end of the building is an open platform.

“The northeast end originally included an open platform but was enclosed to house freight and other large items. The enclosed portion of the structure is clearly visible, as the bricks are a slightly different shade of red. It has an off-center wooden double door at the end that opens onto a small platform that is accessible from the street. This end of the building includes four six-paned windows on each side. The side of the train depot facing the tracks features a door that was added when the freight area was enclosed, as well as two large freight doors.”

The Boy Scout Hut is another historic Arkadelphia structure. When I would play in the woods around it as a boy, I didn’t realize that one of the most historic buildings in town was that log structure. It was constructed in 1938-39 by members of the National Youth Administration, a New Deal agency created to offer job opportunities during the Great Depression to those between the ages of 16 and 25. The Boy Scout Hut was added to the National Register of Historic Places in January 2002.

“Construction of the hut was supervised by Edwin Dean, the district supervisor from Camden, and Edward Wyate, the supervisor from Hope,” Sesser writes. “The local foreman was A.F. Bishop of Arkadelphia, who supervised the 30 local young men who worked on the project. The city, chamber of commerce and school district all provided workers. Local businesses and the Arkadelphia Rotary Club provided equipment and materials. The state’s highway department and the city provided trucks, while the NYA provided cement and use of a truck.

“Work began in September 1938 and continued intermittently until the structure was completed the following June. … The building is constructed of pine logs stripped, stained and treated with creosote. The logs were then chinked with concrete. The hut faces southeast and is fronted by a gabled front porch. The porch roof is supported by a large log post at either end. Two doors are centered on the porch.”

The focal point inside the Boy Scout Hut is a stone fireplace. Two Boy Scout troops began using the building as soon as it was completed. Girl Scout troops started meeting there in the 1950s on land that’s part of Arkadelphia’s Central Park.

One can find a great collection of historic homes and buildings by driving around Arkadelphia and the surrounding countryside. One of my favorite houses, which is about six miles west of town, was built by Georgia native Michael Bozeman in 1847. Bozeman was born in 1808 and moved to Alabama in 1819. He came to the Arkansas Territory in 1835.

“Bozeman farmed a number of crops but focused on cotton,” Sesser writes. “The family lived in a log cabin after arriving in Arkansas. Construction on a new house began around 1847 at a cost of ‘$1,500 and one slave,’ according to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. The building is one and a half stories with double pile and a central hall. The structure has two chimneys and two interior staircases. The staircases lead to separate rooms on the second floor, and access between the rooms wasn’t possible. This allowed males and females to be separated at night.”

By the 1850s, Bozeman owned more than 9,000 acres and served in the state Senate. The Bozeman family helped found nearby Mt. Bethel Baptist Church. Bozeman died in 1883 and is buried in a cemetery behind the house. His wife died three years later. The Ross Foundation renovated the home and owned it (it later reverted to private ownership) at the time it was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

The nomination states: “According to his biographer, Farrar Newberry, Bozeman was worth in excess of a quarter of a million dollars, impressive figures for antebellum Arkansas. A more intimate picture of Bozeman’s plantation is revealed in an 1857 plantation journal, which was discovered in the Bozeman house. The journal lists a variety of crops grown on the plantation, and Newberry says that it ‘reveals the meticulous care he gave to every detail of the management of his growing enterprise.’

“Bozeman’s position of importance both as an early settler and as a land proprietor is revealed in a listing of his civic ventures. He was a charter member of his church in 1836 and in the same year he represented his church in the establishment of the Saline Baptist Association. It was the first such association south of the Arkansas River. In 1847, he helped found Oakland Academy, which was in perhaps the first painted, frame schoolhouse in Clark County.”

The house was constructed of oak timbers cut by a mule-powered, two-tooth saw.

The nomination form notes: “The Bozeman House was known as a center of social and community activity. Croquet was played on the lawn, church and school groups assembled at the house, and in times of dread, such as the Civil War, neighbors would gather for mutual condolences.”

East of Arkadelphia on the other side of the Ouachita River, one can find the Hudson-Jones House in the Manchester community, which was constructed in about 1840 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in September 1982.

“The land around Manchester was purchased by the Somerville Land Co. in 1836, the same year Arkansas became a state,” Sesser writes. “The next year, Thomas Hudson, a member of the company, moved to the area. He built a two-story log cabin and began to operate a farm. In 1840, Hudson began construction on a new home. A carpenter known only as Mr. Pryor was hired to lead the construction project.”

There are several historic outbuildings, including a combination smokehouse and storage facility, a shed, a hay barn, a well and a cellar.

“Hudson lived on the property until 1859, when he sold it to Nat Kimbrough Jones, who was also a member of the Somerville Land Co.,” Sesser writes. “James Kimbrough Jones, the son of Nat, lived in the House from 1859-67 except during his service in the Civil War. Jones later served in the Arkansas Senate and both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. The Hudson and Jones families gave the house its name. The land was sold to the Hunter family in 1909.”

Other historic structures in the area include:

— The W.H. Young House in Arkadelphia, constructed in 1921 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in September 2006. The land on which the house sits was purchased by John S.T. Callaway in 1836 and lost at a sheriff’s auction in 1842. The auction was held to pay a legal judgment in favor of Benjamin Duncan. The neighborhood later became known as Duncan’s Addition. The house was constructed by William Hatley Young, a salesman for Fones Brothers Hardware Co. of Little Rock. It was built in the Craftsman style. The Young family owned the home until 1952. It remains a private residence.

— The Nannie Gresham Biscoe House in Arkadelphia, constructed in 1901 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in January 2004. Nancy “Nannie” Caroline Gresham was born in Georgia in 1847 and married John Basil Biscoe in 1871. She moved to Arkadelphia in 1883 (her husband had died earlier that year) to be near her brother and his family. She began teaching courses in the preparatory department of what’s now Ouachita Baptist University when the school began in 1886. She later bought two adjoining lots a few blocks from the college at 227 Cherry St. and began construction of the house. Biscoe was the first president of the aforementioned Women’s Library Association. She died in 1931, and the house passed to her widowed daughter. The house is still a private residence.

— The C.E. Thompson General Store and House, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in April 2001 and now serves as a barbecue restaurant. Sesser writes: “When constructed, the business was located at the western edge of Arkadelphia. The Thompson family lived in the back of the building, while the front served as the store. Serving a rural part of the county, the business was successful due to its location at the intersection of two state highways. The store sold a number of staple foodstuffs and necessities, as well as gasoline and related automotive items. A set of gravity-fed pumps was installed near the front of the store in 1936. … The Thompson family also operated a sawmill located across Arkansas Highway 8 from the building. The construction of Interstate 30 and the growth of Arkadelphia to the west brought more businesses to the area. The sale of gasoline was discontinued in the 1980s due to new environmental regulations, and the store closed a short time later.”

— The Domestic Science Building on the campus of Arkadelphia’s Central Primary School. It was constructed in 1917 and added  to the National Register of Historic Places in December 1982. Sesser writes: “A public school board was formed in Arkadelphia in 1870 and operated school intermittently for more than a decade. Faced with uncertain finances and several private schools operating as competitors, the public schools had difficulty remaining in operation. A permanent school building was constructed in 1888, and regular sessions began to be offered. The enrollment at Arkadelphia High School grew during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, forcing the local school board to expand the campus. The largest class to graduate in this period was in 1912 when 32 students received diplomas. Early in 1917, the board added three departments to the school: commercial, expression and domestic science. While the other two new subjects could be taught in existing classrooms, the domestic science department required a purpose-built structure. The school board voted to move the home that had been provided to the principal down the block and construct a new building on that location east of the main high school building. The board worked to ensure that the facility would be open by the start of the fall term in 1917 but missed that date by a few weeks. The building opened in October and was filled with $1,000 of equipment designed to help teach domestic science skills.”

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