Columbia County, located in south Arkansas adjoining Louisiana, is known as the home of Southern Arkansas University. But it has a larger history which is diverse and a bit surprising.
One of eight counties in the nation named for Christopher Columbus, it was established in 1852 from parts of Union, Ouachita, Hempstead and Lafayette counties. Mike McNeill, author of the entry on Columbia County in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, notes that it is the only county in the state without a river, the area being drained by Dorcheat Bayou on the west and Cornie Creek to the east.
Located in the Gulf Coastal Plain, Columbia County has a pleasant landscape of low rolling hills, most of them covered by pine forests. Average elevation is 322 feet above sea level. Like many counties in the Coastal Plain, it has substantial mineral deposits.
Cotton production was its agricultural mainstay from the beginning, with enslaved people making up a large percentage of the population. Early tax records indicate that by 1854, Columbia County had reached almost 6,000 residents, with 1,675 being enslaved. That number rose dramatically over the next few years, with the 1860 U.S. Census showing 3,599 enslaved persons in a total population of 12,449.
No time was wasted in setting up a new county government. Elections were held in February 1853, and the next month a meeting was held in a small store on a large plantation later named Frog More.
County officials appointed to select a county seat decided to lay out a new town named Magnolia. The first courthouse, a small wooden building, was completed in 1855, the same year the new town was incorporated. Magnolia grew slowly, having 259 residents in 1870.
No Civil War actions were fought in Columbia County, but an estimated 1,000 county residents fought in the Confederate Army. Union Army participation is unknown.
The county's first newspaper, The Courier in Magnolia, began publication in 1858, but lasted only a few months. It was followed by The Weekly Southern Clarion, The Vindicator, and numerous others. Today The Banner-News is the only newspaper left.
The town of Waldo, which dates to 1888, was home to numerous newspapers over the years, one being Everybody's Gazette. As newspaper historian Fred W. Allsopp humorously wrote, Everybody's Gazette lasted only three years, "which would indicate that it was misnamed."
Waldo owes its existence to the coming of the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railroad in 1883. Rail access to the heavily forested reaches of Columbia County allowed for a burgeoning sawmill industry, Waldo and vicinity having seven sawmills at one time.
A group of Magnolia businessmen established the Magnolia Cotton Mill in 1928, the first of its kind in southwest Arkansas. The mill, a major employer for several years, was the first structure to be air-conditioned in Arkansas. (As was done elsewhere, the mill was air-conditioned to cool the manufacturing equipment, not the employees.)
The county benefited greatly from the discovery of oil on March 5, 1938, when a gushing well "topped the derrick," becoming the first in the Magnolia Oil Field. While oil production declined with time, it was replaced by the production of bromine. Extracted from vast deposits of brine in both Columbia and Union counties, bromine is widely used in chemical and manufacturing processes.
Mike McNeill writes that the Albemarle Corporation "owns dozens of brine wells and pipelines that crisscross Columbia and Union counties." Albemarle also operates three chemical plants in the two counties, the largest of which is south of Magnolia.
Greatly augmenting the economic base of Columbia County is the presence in Magnolia of Southern Arkansas University. Originally known as the Third District Agricultural School, it began classes in 1911 with 75 students. It was converted along with three other regional schools to junior college status in the mid-1920s and renamed State Agricultural & Mechanical College.
The name was again changed in 1951 to Southern State College. In 1975, when Arkansas was going through a fit of elevating colleges to university status, Southern State was rechristened Southern Arkansas University.
I am always amazed at the remarkable people I come across when searching through local history, and this is certainly the case with Columbia County. Perhaps its most prominent son is Sidney S. McMath, born on June 14, 1912, near Magnolia, who would become a reformist governor of Arkansas in 1948.
Harvey Couch, the founder of what is today known as the Entergy Corp., was born to a farm family at the Columbia County settlement of Calhoun in August 1877. Before his death in 1940, he would do more than any other individual to modernize Arkansas by bringing electricity to the state.
Fans of baseball history will recognize the name Travis Calvin Jackson, a native of Waldo and one of six native Arkansans selected for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He was considered among the best shortstops in the National League during the 1920s.
Not many people know of Travis Earl Watkins, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War and the recipient of a posthumous Medal of Honor for gallantry during a battle with North Korean soldiers in August 1950. Master Sgt. Watkins rallied his troops to hold off waves of attacking enemies and was severely wounded. His last act of gallantry was to stay behind and provide cover for his escaping comrades.
As I wrote in a recent column, efforts are under way to preserve the historic Pike-Fletcher-Terry Mansion in Little Rock. The 1840 building was the home of Adolphine Fletcher Terry, whose long life included leadership ranging from supporting women's suffrage to battling Gov. Orval Faubus during the 1957 integration crisis.
The mansion is under the control of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts and has been closed for several years. Deterioration has set in, and the museum has not been very forthcoming, possibly wanting to unload the mansion.
Preservationists have hired an attorney, and a Freedom of Information request has been made to the museum. My hope is that the museum board will do the right thing and work with preservationists to devise a means for stabilizing the building and grounds, devising a plan that will keep the site in the public domain, and finally, restoring this grand old building.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist. Email him at [email protected]