Today's Paper Newsletters LEARNS Guide Asa Hutchinson 2024 Today's Photos Public Notices Crime Distribution Locations Obits Puzzles Digital FAQ Razorback Sports

OPINION | Randy McCrory: Blackburns helped shape NWA with mill at War Eagle

by RANDY McCRORY Vintage Bentonville | June 1, 2023 at 1:00 a.m.
Van WinkleSylvanus Blackburn and his wife Catherine are pictured here not too long before their passing. They settled in the War Eagle area before Arkansas was a state, built and rebuilt a mill, raised 17 children and were buried together, dying within days of each other. (Courtesy Photo/Vintage Bentonville)

In 1832, Sylvanus Blackburn left his wife Catherine and their home in Tennessee looking for their future. What he found was a lush valley along the War Eagle River in Northwest Arkansas. He selected a 160-acre tract in a curve of War Eagle Creek, spent his first winter at War Eagle clearing the land and chopping wood for their home, then returned to Tennessee to get his wife. After hearing about the wonderful land in Arkansas, his parents and three brothers and three sisters chose to return with them. They camped out in tents until 1833, until they completed a two-story log house, which still stands today. The house was repeatedly added on to as the family grew. Today it is one of the oldest houses in this area, having been built three years before Arkansas became a state. Mr. Blackburn was a man of God and would hold services for his family in his home. He had a large family, including nine children of their own and eight more adopted.

After their home was completed, Blackburn turned his attention to planting corn in the bottom land by the river. He soon realized that the closest mill was 25 miles away -- and built his own in 1835. The first mill was very small and very crude, but it was used by all the settlers in the surrounding area. They only ground the grain when they had enough to work for a full day. The mill became a popular meeting place where people would get together for a picnic while their grain was being milled.

In the spring of 1848, the valley flooded, and the dam and the mill were washed away. But the Blackburns immediately started to rebuild. Sylvanus ordered new milling equipment out of St. Louis, which was shipped by boat to Fort Smith. Then it had to be taken over the Boston Mountains, which would have been a feat back in the day. They built a new dam out of logs and rocks and expanded the mill to a two-story structure. At this time, they started to mill lumber as well as continuing to mill grain. With more people moving into the area, there was a constant need for lumber, and they had separate burring stones for flour and corn meal. At this time the mill ran year around (unless the water was too low), and they would take part of what they milled as payment. The community by this time had its own blacksmith shop and furniture shop.

In 1861, the Civil War broke out. Sylvanus and Catherine's five sons enlisted in the Confederate Army, while he took his wife and the rest of his children to Texas to wait out the war, leaving everything he had worked so hard for behind. Early in the war the Confederate Army used the mill. In 1862 the Union Army started to move into Northwest Arkansas. To prevent the Union Army from using the mill, a Confederate general ordered the mill to be burned to the ground. The only thing that was left were the large burr stones. But the Blackburns' house was spared from being burned because it was headquarters for a Confederate general and later used by Union forces.

During the Civil War, one of the Blackburn sons, James G. Blackburn, had learned that Union forces had taken over the War Eagle area. Fearing for his wife's safety, he returned home to check on her. When he returned, Union soldiers discovered him behind the door of their house and shot him. His wife watched her husband being shot and screamed and moaned. At this time the husband whispered to her that he was only wounded. When the wife's crying subsided, the Union soldier became suspicious and returned and fatally shot James Blackburn. They then tied the wife to a bed alongside her dead husband. His wife remained an invalid the rest of her life. You can find his tombstone in the Blackburn cemetery, and it reads "Murdered by a Union Soldier."

After the war was over, in 1865, the Blackburns returned to War Eagle. Upon returning, Sylvanus and his son J.A.C. (James Austin Cameron) Blackburn opened a general mercantile store, but after six months J.A.C. bought out his father's interest. He continued in this business until 1873, when he rebuilt the mill again and moved his store to the same location. That mill remained there until 1924, when it burned down. The mill that stands there today is only slightly different from the one built in 1873. J.A.C. continued in the saw and grist milling business until 1884 and married one of Peter Van Winkle's daughters, Ellen Van Winkle. Her father was one of the major timbermen in the area. When Mr. Van Winkle passed away, J.A.C. Blackburn became proprietor of the Van Winkle saw and planing mill. Afterward, he was often called the "Lumber King" of Northwest Arkansas. He also served as an Arkansas state senator.

In 1890 the story of Sylvanus and Catherine Blackburn ended. Catherine Blackburn, the love of Sylvanus' life since they were 16 years old, passed away. Sylvanus said his life ended with hers. He gave instructions to dig a large grave, big enough for two people, but to leave it open. He went to his prayer room and meditated for five days, and at the end of that time he also passed away in his sleep. He was buried beside his beloved wife.

  photo  The third War Eagle Mill was built around 1890, and this photo was taken around 1903. This is not the mill we see there today, but the present structure was built to look a lot like this one. (Courtesy Photo/Vintage Bentonville)
  photo  The Blackburns homestead is believed to be one of the oldest remaining structures in this part of the state. (Courtesy Photo/Vintage Bentonville)

Print Headline: Blackburns’ story one of love, loss and legacy at War Eagle homestead


Sponsor Content