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Recently I took a drive through Montgomery County, where I grew up. Established in December 1842 and drawn from the western portion of Hot Spring County, it was named for Revolutionary War martyr Gen. Richard Montgomery.

Situated in the rugged Ouachita Mountains of western Arkansas, Montgomery County is known for its scenic views, beautiful rivers and lakes, rare deposits of quartz crystals and great expanses of forests. However, for the approximately 9,000 people who live in the county, economic opportunities are limited -- which has been the case throughout its history.

Montgomery County demonstrates the direct relationship between geography and history. The same mountains that make the county so attractive to retirees today limited the agricultural potential of the area. Good quality tillable land was limited to the bottomlands along the Ouachita, Caddo and Little Missouri rivers.

American Indians certainly exploited those river bottoms. The site database maintained by the Arkansas Archeological Survey has more entries for Montgomery County than any other county. Caddo Indian sites are especially numerous, and it is appropriate that the Caddo River and the town of Caddo Gap are named for these early inhabitants.

For many years it was believed that the Spanish under De Soto fought the fierce Tula Indians at Caddo Gap, but modern research indicates otherwise. Nevertheless, a 9-foot statue of an Indian erected in Caddo Gap in 1936 to commemorate the battle still stands.

While French hunters and trappers no doubt exploited the plentiful wildlife of the area that would become Montgomery County, the first white settlers came in 1812. Settlement proceeded slowly. The 1850 census, taken when the county was eight years old, showed a population of 1,958. Although no major battles were fought in the county, the Civil War wrecked the area, and the pre-war population of 3,633 dropped to 2,984 in 1870.

When I was growing up there in the late 1950s, Montgomery County was the second-smallest county in the state, with only Perry County being smaller.

Among the early settlers of the area was Granville Whittington, a Massachusetts native who arrived in 1835. He settled on the south fork of the Ouachita River where he farmed and opened the area's first general store. In June 1842, just before the county was organized, Whittington secured a post office for his store, naming it Mount Ida after a mountain near his native Boston.

The small hamlet of Montgomery, located across the river from Whittington's store, became the county seat when the county was organized. The town changed its name to Salem in July 1850, and later adopted Mount Ida. It was incorporated in 1854.

An area of subsistence farmers, Montgomery County did not welcome the Civil War, but it would bring many tragedies to the area. Melinda Jones Cubage, whose father was county treasurer, recalled in old age the departure of a company of Confederate volunteers: "... on foot and on horseback, crowds of men were gathering. The drum was beating and all seemed to be excitement."

While the excitement ran high, Cubage described a chilling scene when the new recruits finally loaded their oxen-pulled wagons and set out for Confederate service. Just as Captain John H. Simpson mounted his horse, "Will, the youngest of Mr. Simpson's two sons, began to scream. It seemed to make the hair stand up on my head. He jumped up on the stirrup and tried to get into the saddle with his father. It took two men to get him down and hold him till his father could get away. Poor Will, that was the last time he ever saw his father."

Many residents avoided the Confederate draft, with one complaining to the governor that local farmers "don't intend to go fite till they are drafted and if they get tuck prisoners they will tell [the] north they would not of fought agante them ... they was compeld to do so."

Montgomery Countians continued their independent streak for years after the war, even electing Republicans and third-party reformers. In 1892 the county voted for the Populist presidential candidate. That independent streak showed up again in 1946 when a reform slate of World War II veterans won most county offices. Eisenhower carried the county for Republicans, and in recent years the growing number of northern retirees settling in Montgomery County has benefited the GOP.

In the early 20th century a rivalry developed between Mount Ida in the center of the county and Womble (later renamed Norman) in the southern part. Womble, which incorporated in 1910, was a sawmill center with railroad access, and it quickly outgrew Mount Ida. The first high school in the county was in Womble, the Presbyterian-sponsored Caddo Valley Academy. An unsuccessful attempt in 1915 by Womble to become the county seat resulted in a fierce and protracted legal war.

The Great Depression was rough on the county. From a high of 12,000 people in 1910, the county shrank to 8,800 in 1940. Many migrated to California. The countryside of my youth was dotted with abandoned farm sites, with only daffodils and sunken cellars testifying to the lost population.

The depression was a boon for the Ouachita National Forest, which was able to buy hundreds of abandoned farms. Eventually the national forest claimed 63 percent of the county. The national forest did provide employment and enhanced tourism, as did the construction of Lake Ouachita in 1953.

Montgomery County has had a larger impact on the state than its tiny population might warrant. The nationally popular Lum and Abner radio program put Pine Ridge, in the western part of Montgomery County, on the map.

At the same time, Lon Warneke of Mount Ida, described as "cold as a banker's heart, calm as 4 o'clock in the morning," was thrilling American baseball fans as a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals. State Representative Ode Maddox, superintendent of the Oden Public Schools when I was growing up, was quiet but powerful during his 42 years' service in the Arkansas House of Representatives, retiring in 1999 due to term limits.

The county had 83 school districts in 1922. Today there are three: Caddo Hills, Mount Ida, and Ouachita River. Agriculture, including cattle, swine and poultry production, is still the backbone of the local economy. With most of the county lying within the Ouachita National Forest, timbering employs many. Visitors can learn about the county at the Heritage House Museum in Mount Ida.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com. An earlier version of this column appeared Dec. 9, 2012.

NAN Profiles on 03/22/2020

Print Headline: Montgomery County memories both happy and sad

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