Hartford still hustling with the end in sight

Posted: February 4, 2018 at 1 a.m.

I was covering a game more than 20 years ago when I just stood for several seconds and absorbed the scenery around me.

I don’t remember the players, coaches or the visiting team on that beautiful fall evening. But I do remember vividly the trees, the hills, the moon and trucks parked with their tailgates down a few feet from the football field.

The scene was reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell illustration on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in the 1940s or ’50s. But this was Hartford, Ark., home of the Hustlers.

Hartford hasn’t had a football team since 2014 and won’t have a high school much longer. The decision to close the school after the spring semester was announced on Jan. 9 by the Hackett School District, which annexed the Hartford School District in 2015.

Boys from Hartford who wanted to continue football travelled 15 miles up the road to play for the Hackett Hornets. But the schools kept separate boys and girls basketball teams.

The irony of the announcement is that Hartford is enjoying an upswing with its basketball program. The high school boys are 15-12 and the junior high boys are 20-6.

Hartford has seven seniors on its roster, but only one starts, and its top scorers are a junior and sophomore. Returning players will be wearing different uniforms next year, most likely for Hackett, after the Hustlers beat the Hornets twice this season.

“The kids were very upset at first when they heard about the decision to close the school,” said Hartford boys coach Joe Hays, who’s not even sure about his job status for next season. “But we were able to help them focus on what they can and can not control. I told them that being a Hustler is about an attitude and for them to be a Hustler until the very end.”

Hackett Superintendent Eddie Ray, a former coach, cited decreased enrollment and financial concerns for the decision to no longer keep the Hartford campus open.

“The primary condition to Hackett accepting Hartford into the district was that it remain financially sustainable,” Ray said. “Hartford’s enrollment has been in sharp decline in 12 of the previous 13 years.”

Located 33 miles south of Fort Smith, Hartford was once a thriving coal mining town that peaked with a population of about 4,000 in the early 1900s. Not much remains except for the scenic beauty of this town tucked in a valley near the Oklahoma border and a population of just more than 600.

Some Hartford residents remain optimistic about their town, but the next chapter is so predictable following a school closing.

I saw it in my hometown of Caraway when its high school was forced by the state to consolidate with Lake City in the late 1980s. The move sucked the lifeblood out of the community and a tornado mostly destroyed years later what little was left on Main Street.

Before the town recedes into the pages of history, please know that Hartford was the first school in Arkansas with a lighted football field. And for anyone who’s ever sang off-key to “I’ll Fly Away,” please know the popular gospel song was published by Hartford Music Company in 1932.

Soon, the Hartford Hustlers will be added to the list of small schools in Arkansas that no longer exist, like the Lake City Catfish, the Winslow Squirrels and the Parkdale Dragons, who proved that bigger is not always better when they won the boys Overall State championship as a Class B team in 1979.

So, what now?

Hartford has a tough game to play at County Line on Tuesday before moving on to the district tournament at St. Paul. They’ll play hard and fast with discipline and an emphasis on basketball fundamentals.

They’ll be Hustlers to the end, like their coach demands, and a source of pride for a town soon without its school.

Rick Fires can be reached at rfires@ nwadg.com or on Twitter @NWARick.