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This week we continue to commemorate the bicentennial of Clark County, one of the original five counties comprising territorial Arkansas. Created by the Missouri legislature on Dec. 15, 1818, Clark County benefited from its proximity to the Southwest Trail, the main overland road stretching diagonally from the Missouri boot heel along the upland fall line to modern Texarkana.

Last Sunday I wrote about some of the colorful settlers of early Clark County, the early salt extraction industry, and the birth of the county seat, Arkadelphia. This week we will take a look at some of the smaller towns of Clark County, peek into the area's economic history, and not overlook the two colleges which add so much to the story.

Nothing has been more central to the economy of Clark County than the timber industry. Pine and mixed hardwood forests covered much of Clark County when the Europeans arrived -- just as they do today. The arrival of the railroad in the years following the Civil War made possible the systematic cutting of those extensive timberlands.

The first sawmill built in Clark County was constructed in 1861 by A.A. Key. That small steam-powered sawmill would be followed by many more. The arrival of the Cairo and Fulton Railroad in 1874 resulted in the birth of the new sawmill town of Gurdon, located several miles south of Arkadelphia.

Like many sawmill towns, early Gurdon was a rough and tumble place. When Methodist minister Joseph Nicholson arrived in Gurdon in 1881, he discovered "a lawless but thriving town of about 500 people. There were three large saloons and gambling dens and 10 large lumber mills in the area but no church..." Later a resident of the new town reported that from Gurdon he could hear nine sawmill whistles.

In 1891 a group of five men returning home from a convention of the Arkansas Yellow Pine Manufacturer's Association in Camden used a layover at the Gurdon train depot to establish the Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoo, an eccentric name for a fraternal society intended to "foster ... health, happiness and long life" among lumber men.

While the Hoo-Hoo had serious intentions, the organizers created a most unconventional organization. Officers were given eccentric titles, such as "Snark of the Universe" for president and "Bojum" for chaplain. As a mascot, the leaders chose a black cat with its tail curved into the number nine -- a number with special meaning. The order originally was limited to 9,999 members, and annual dues were $9.99. Though not as robust as in the past, the Order of Hoo-Hoo still exists, and visitors to Gurdon can see a granite memorial to the group.

Visitors to Gurdon can also spend an evening or two searching for the "Gurdon Lights," a mysterious light which has been reported since the 1930s as floating above railroad tracks near town. While many locals attribute the lights to natural causes, some believe the lights resulted from a 1931 unsolved murder of a Missouri-Pacific Railroad foreman near the railroad tracks.

While Gurdon was the center of the lumber trade in Clark County, another large sawmill town was Graysonia. Though the town no longer exists, at its height during World War I, Graysonia was one of the largest lumber mills in the South -- and was surrounded by a thriving company-owned town.

Graysonia got its start when Arkadelphia Lumber Co. was bought by new owners in 1902 and a few years later removed the mill to the western edge of Clark County, where a new town was constructed. The outbreak of World War I resulted in a huge demand for wood products, and the Graysonia mill grew to 500 employees, who milled 150,000 board feet of lumber each day.

While the company owned the town of Graysonia, the residents were allowed to form their own government. At its height, Graysonia might have had 1,000 residents. In addition to the huge sawmill and kilns, the town had a fire station, a water reservoir, restaurants and cafes, three hotels and several rows of small wooden houses for workers. The town ice plant was capable of producing 25 tons of ice daily. Graysonia was an unusually livable company town, especially for white employees. The segregated facilities serving black workers were more limited.

Graysonia declined as company-owned forests were gradually cut-over and the land sold. The situation worsened with the onset of the Great Depression, and the sawmill closed in 1931. Almost nothing remains of the town of Graysonia today.

No discussion of Clark County would be complete without mentioning the important roles played by two colleges, Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University. OBU was founded in 1886, and through the years it has educated a huge percentage of the Southern Baptist preachers in Arkansas -- including former governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. But the school has always been focused on liberal arts education, and it offers a wide variety of degree programs from a respected and diverse faculty. The faculty-to-student ratio is 12 to one. Enrollment is 1,545 students.

Henderson State University began in 1890 as a Methodist school, and it has since borne a succession of names: Arkadelphia Methodist College, Henderson-Brown College, and, finally in 1929, Henderson State Teachers College. Henderson was granted university status in 1975. Legions of Arkansas public school teachers were educated at Henderson. HSU has a current enrollment of 3,334 students, with the largest percentage majoring in business.

Many people know of the traditional football rivalry between Henderson and Ouachita. Since 1907 the yearly football game between these hometown rivals has come to be known as the "battle of the ravine."

I spent my first two years of college at Henderson, and it was a rewarding and invigorating experience. In addition to my study at Henderson, I took a course on modern politics from the highly regarded OBU political scientist Jim Ranchino. I owe much of my interest in Arkansas political history to Ranchino, who died too young at age 42. Ironically, Prof Ranchino died from a heart attack on the night of the 1978 general election while at KATV television studio in Little Rock, where he was to give commentary on the election results.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at

NAN Profiles on 12/02/2018

Print Headline: Memories continue

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