Many people living in the western part of Poinsett County are mourning the recent demise of their local weekly newspaper, The Modern News. Published in Harrisburg since 1888, The Modern News was the oldest weekly newspaper in the state -- just short of 130 years. Fortunately, another newspaper survives in Poinsett County, the Poinsett County Democrat Tribune in Trumann.
Poinsett County is not well known outside of northeast Arkansas, but it is an interesting place with an unusual geography and a host of small towns, and it has witnessed much history since its creation in 1838.
Poinsett County is named for Joel R. Poinsett, an international traveler and South Carolina native who served as America's first envoy to Mexico and secretary of war in the cabinet of President Martin Van Buren. A self-taught botanist, Poinsett was responsible for bringing a South American plant into popularity in the U.S. -- which in turn was named for him: the poinsettia.
The first county seat of the new county was a village named Bolivar, in honor of Gen. Simon Bolivar, the great South American revolutionary hero and the namesake of the country of Bolivia. As was the case with many newly created counties, numerous county residents were unhappy with the first county seat, and in 1856, the seat was relocated to a new town, Harrisburg. It was named for Benjamin Harris, the son of the first county judge and the donor of land for a new courthouse.
The courthouse burned in 1887, destroying most of the county records. Proposals to move the county seat caused a bitter competition between Harrisburg, Weiner and Marked Tree, but Harrisburg prevailed. The current courthouse was built in 1918. Today Harrisburg is very much in the economic orbit of Jonesboro, which is only 20 miles north.
Harrisburg is located on Crowley's Ridge, an unusual upland formation which stretches north and south across the Delta from southeast Missouri to Helena in Phillips County. Elevation was important to the residents of Poinsett County because much of the county was originally swampy, especially the area known as the "sunk lands."
The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12 caused a large portion of what became eastern Poinsett County along the St. Francis River to sink -- in some places as much as 50 feet. The sunk lands also extended into modern Craighead and Mississippi counties.
Much litigation resulted from the sunk lands being opened for homesteading. The St. Francis Levee District, which was controlled by well-to-do planters, was established in 1893, and it raised taxes to drain the swamps. Small landowners resented having to pay increased taxes which mostly benefited the planters. Both the U.S. Congress and the state legislature sided with the planters, including R.E.L. Wilson of Mississippi County, giving them preferential rights to buy the disputed sunk lands.
Drainage problems persisted in eastern Poinsett County, and in 1926, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed construction of a sluiceway, a lock and a floodway on the St. Francis River. When these developments failed after only a few years, the Corps of Engineers built what became known as the Marked Tree Siphons.
Consisting of three nine-foot-diameter steel tubes which carry excess water 228 feet over a levee and into the main bed of the St. Francis River, the siphons were dedicated in 1939. The siphons, which are still in use, were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
With a population in 2010 of 7,243 residents, Trumann is the largest city in Poinsett County today. The city began in the 1890s as a group of timber camps situated along the newly arrived St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad. The town was named for a railroad executive.
Large stands of timber enticed numerous sawmills and other businesses to the area around Trumann. Singer Sewing Machine Co. built a large plant to manufacture sewing machine cabinets from local lumber. At its height, more than 2,500 people worked for Singer, most living in a company town replete with housing, electricity and a water supply.
Some of the employees of Singer were socialists. When the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union was established in 1934, the second local was in Trumann. The union was headquartered in nearby Tyronza, where it was founded by H.L. Mitchell and Clay East. Visitors to Tyronza today can tour the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum, a project of Arkansas State University. The STFU is recognized by historians for its biracial membership and the role women played in the union.
One of the most successful businesses in Poinsett County is E. Ritter & Co. Headquartered in Marked Tree, E. Ritter is the parent company of Ritter Agribusiness and Ritter Communications. The company goes back to 1889, though it was not incorporated until 1906.
Highly diversified, the Ritter Company engaged in farming, lumbering and even an ice plant. A small company-owned electrical generating plant was later enlarged to serve the whole town of Marked Tree. In recent years, the company began a cellular telephone business. The Ritter Company, which has been consolidated and renamed ERC, was run by family members until 2011.
Agriculture remains the lifeblood of Poinsett County. While cotton and soybeans are important crops, Poinsett, with 114,000 acres planted in 2015, is the largest rice producing county in the state.
Note: The summer heat must be addling my brain. My column last Sunday on watermelons contained two errors, one of which has been the subject of a correction published last Tuesday. I transposed the dates of the watermelon festivals held at Hope and Cave City. The Cave City festival was July 26-28, while the Hope festival is actually Aug. 9-11. Also, in the same column I incorrectly referred to the late C.M. "Pod" Rogers as C.E. Rogers. He was a major promotor of Hope watermelons and the festival.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.firstname.lastname@example.org.
NAN Profiles on 07/29/2018
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