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Prairie County is officially 150 years old. Official, first residents were, of course, our Native Americans. The Osage Indians officially ceded their lands to the United States in a treaty signed at Fort Clark, Missouri, on November 10, 1808. Their lands were located within the territory of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Prairie County was part of this. The Indians gave the name "Niska" to the White River. One of the Chiefs locally was Calotche; hence the naming of Calotche Bay in eastern Prairie County.
Next, came the hunters and gatherers. Eventually the white man westarded into the Arkansas territory. The urge to migrate, new land, and/or the hope of a better way of life brought many pioneer families to Arkansas.
At the end of the War of 1812, there were soldiers to be paid. Our government issued Bounty Land Warrants to these men as payment for their military service during the years of 1820-1840's. The territories of Missouri, Arkansas, and Iowa were just opening up. Some grant recipients just sold their land deeds but many of our pioneer families westwarded into Arkansas at this time hoping to settle on their new property.
Creoles Watts and East are credited as being Des Arc's first residents in 1810. There were French traders up and down the White River in the early 1700's trapping but none have been identified as residents. Bear oil and skins, abundant in this area at this time, were sought after commodities on the New Orleans markets. The rivers were the transportation hiways of this early era. Early maps identify the White River as "Eau Blanche" and "Riv. Blance". Blanche being the French word for white.
Des Arc's history cannot be told without identifying this settlement in connection with the White River. The name Des Arc itself is a French term translated to mean, the bow or the bend or the curve.
The ARKANSAS GAZETTE newspaper for July 6, 1831, states Des Ark was a Territorial Post Office. It was located forty miles north of Little Rock and Lewis Kirkpatrick was it's postmaster. In 1848 the local Post Office is documented as "Francisville". Two weeks after this announcement, the official name was changed to Des Arc.
Other names for the town of Des Arc are noted to be Des Arcs, the plural for the above translation, des Argues, Desarc, des Arques, Desare, McNulty's Bluff, Des Arcs Bluff, and Dezark Bluff, on various documents. It was not until after the Civil War that the name Des Arc was accepted universally.
Arkansas officially becomes our twenty-fifth state on June 15, 1836. The area of Prairie County today was first a part of Arkansas County, and then Pulaski County. On November 25, 1846, Arkansas Governor Thomas S. Drew, approves the legislative act creating Prairie County. Prairie County was carved from Pulaski County and eventually Lonoke County would be carved from Prairie County. There were several adjustments to the Prairie County boundaries prior 1880. The final boundaries were set with creation of Lonoke County from Prairie County in 1873.
Des Arc was a flourishing river town prior to the Civil War. Timber for homes was plentiful. Fish and game were abundant and the population grew rapidly. Selling wood to power the steamboats and rafting timber along the river were viable occupations.
Brownsville was designated as Prairie County's first county seat. A wood frame courthouse was erected. It lasted until a fire destroyed this facility on September 16, 1854. Today, Brownsville is located two and a half miles northeast of the city of Lonoke, in Lonoke County. According to the Goodspeeds Publishing Company, Brownsville continued to be the county seat until 1868. The next county seat was located in DeValls Bluff from 1868 through 1875. In 1875, the county seat was moved to Des Arc. Then, in 1885, the county was divided into Northern and Southern Districts with courthouses in both Des Arc and DeValls Bluff. This division is supposedly due to the frequent flooding along the White River. Citizens in the lower end of the county complained that the river flooding in the spring prevented them from getting to the Des Arc Courthouse to pay their taxes before they were penalized for missing the deadline.
The city of Des Arc was officially incorporated on December 28, 1854. The census of 1850 for Prairie County shows a population of slightly more than 2,300 people, including 273 slaves. In 1860 there were over 2,800 slaves and a total population of over 8,000. Cotton is one of the major factors that can be attributed to this significant increase in population. No machines had been invented yet. Manual labor had to be imported in large quantities to produce the cotton crop.
The Butterfield Overland Mail route in the late 1850's was a key event in the development of Des Arc. Then there was the furror about Des Arc becoming the capital of the state of Arkansas and missing out by only one vote in the fall of 1858. The actual series of events detailed in Worley's, EARLY HISTORY OF DES ARC AND ITS PEOPLE says it came close. The advent of the railroad era in the 1860's is probably the next building block for Des Arc.
Every citizen of Prairie County from 1860-1865 was aware of the American Civil War. There were at least 125 slave owners in Prairie County during this time period. The largest slave owner recorded 89 slaves. The average number of slaves was five for this county's slave owners. Discussing the South and their stance within the Civil War is such a touchy subject in our society today, that I hesitate to put much in print, here. I will add though, that our society on occasion seems to learn it's lessons very slowly. It would be another hundred years after the great Civil War before the local integration of schools.
After many years of researching Prairie County families, I will put forward my personal thoughts on the role of Prairie County and its citizens, at this time. As cotton was becoming "King" in this area, I BELIEVE: the handful of slave owners in Prairie County saw their livlihood being threatened. Being some of the most moneyed individuals in this county allowed them the privilege of "making the most noise" regarding "The South", "Prairie County", and the current standards of living. Of Prairie County's total population of 8,000 at the beginning of the war, thirty-two per cent of this population was listed as slaves. This was the only way of life these large land holders knew and they felt that they must continue to uphold it. It would be twenty years before Prairie County regained this population total.
I BELIEVE the average citizen of Prairie County was NOT a die-hard "slave issue supporter". These were hard-working average American citizens determined to protect their homes and families and whatever material possessions that they had managed to accumulate to this point. They were against allowing any man to come into their area and take what they had worked so hard all their lives to achieve.
I BELIEVE the slave issue was secondary and less significant in relation to the above. Please note here that as I said previously, these are my personal thoughts and observations from many years of local research.
Prairie County supported the South wholeheartedly during the War. Abraham Lincoln did not receive a single vote from this county; nor from this state in the election of 1860. The city of Des Arc enumerated a population of about 2,000 at the beginning of the War. At War's end, they numbered around 400. The South was devastated and Prairie County was largely destroyed, in the material sense. The Des Arc Citizen (newspaper) describes the situation eloquently in 1866:
"In tears, blood and grief the past has been laid in the common sepulcher of time; and whatever part it was our fortune to act in the dreadful drama, though mortified in our failure in what we conceived to be our duty...still we yield to the inexorable decree of fate with the consoling assurance that we aimed to do our duty. We have no apologies to offer for ourselves or others, as to mishaps so common to us all of the South. We bargained for it in good faith, met it in good faith, and we endured it in good faith to the bitter end - and we cheerfully abide the result in good faith.
We feel that in the late struggle we were outnumbered and overpowered, even vanquished and whipped, but not conquered..."
Prairie County now began rebuilding. The telegraph and railroad had made their entrances into the lives of the local citizens. Industries in this county, after the war, could be listed as: Fishing, Timber, Steamboat Trade, Railroading & Farming. Regretably, there are only a handful of issues of local newspapers still extant from the years 1854 through 1906 that would make this story easier to tell.
Eventually, industries setting up shop in this county included: Musselling and Button Factories, a Boat Oar Factory, Cannery, Stave Mills, Haying on the Prairie, Cotton Gins, Flour Mill, Nursery, Ice Factory, & Dairies.
In 1882 the Wattensas Farmer's Club was organized, hoping for the betterment of local farmers. This organization was the nucleus of a national farming movement known as the Agricultural Wheel.
In 1903 Mr. Fuller brought the rice industry to the Prairie. Slowly, rice has become one of the major grains grown in this county. The silty-loam soil proved itself to be excellent rice growing ground. An interesting fact to include here is that there are no rocks native to this Delta/Prairie area. Rocks had to have been brought into this county at one time or another.
The Great Depression hit this county just as hard as it did the rest of the nation. Rural families were blessed with rivers and woods that could provide food for their tables. Most Prairie County families appeared to have the same status in life at this point. Everyone was going through "hard times". Bartering became a way of life for local residents.
Prairie County has experienced some devastating floods. After the flood of 1927, dams were established along the White River in northern Arkansas to help control the flood waters along the lower section of the river. Ferrys were in use locally until about 1927 when a massive suspension bridge was built. The private firm out of Memphis that constructed the bridge initially built it as a toll bridge. Eventually the state of Arkansas purchased the bridge and discontinued the toll. One individual described the bridge as being supported by two cables containing 1,100 wires each. This suspension bridge was operational until the early 1970's when the state of Arkansas built an entirely new structure.
This county has done it's part in the support of our nation. When a call to arms was sounded, local men responded. Known patriots from all the major wars of our country rest within the cemeteries of Prairie County with the exception of the Revolutionary War.
The South is known across America as "The Bible Belt". Religion played a major part in the lives of our pioneer families, as it does even today. Early records indicate Circuit Riders brought the Gospel to local "brush arbor meetings", initially. Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist Episcopal and eventually Catholic churches followed. The Presbyterians established the first church in Prairie County in the String Town community. The Wattensas Presbyterian Church records date October 1853 through November 12, 1886. Early records indicate both whites and blacks were accepted into their faith. Only the church cemetery remains today. It is known locally as the "White Church Cemetery".
Prairie County cemeteries have no known grave sites prior to it's official county designation (1846). There are many grave sites pre-Civil War era. It is estimated by this author that for every marked gravesite in Prairie County, there is a duplicate number of unmarked gravesites. Early pioneer families simply did not have the funds to spare for official grave markers. Thick planks with roughly carved initials and dates were more the norm for that period. The oldest cemetery within the county boundaries today would be located in the Hickory Plains community. This cemetery has almost been obliterated, today. Unknowing or uncaring individuals purchased land and cleared it for farming purposes without regard for the early pioneers resting there.
The Northern District Courthouse in Des Arc once again burned in 1911. Thankfully, an underground vault had been constructed and records were saved. The current courthouse was constructed in 1914.
Eventually local residents yearned for modern technology to enter their lives. The radio, motored vehicles, and television quickly brought the rest of the world to them. Health departments were established and hospitals with qualified doctors were able to control many of the diseases and afflictions from which earlier generations succumbed.
The land where Biscoe is located (or Surrounded Hill, as it was first known) was first surveyed by the Federal government in 1849. Before Biscoe became the official city name, it was also known as Buck's Horn.
Abraham Boyd eventually gained title to the land, subdivided part of it, and was selling lots in "Fredonia" during the 1880's. Evidently the first plat recorded showing the town lots was the one filed at DeValls Bluff in 1897. A. L. Aydelott also subdivided some of the land at Biscoe and recorded his plat shortly after the turn of the century.
In 1886 the ARKANSAS GAZETTE reported that Freedonia had a population of 250 and in 1890 the Goodspeed's Publishing Company in their BIOGRAPHICAL AND HISTORICAL MEMOIRS OF EASTERN ARKANSAS lists the population at 200, "largely colored".
The Memphis and Little Rock Railroad was completed through the Surrounded Hill area in 1871. According to the ARKANSAS GAZETTE a post office was established in June of 1872.
Biscoe's first major industry would be "timber". A spoke plant and stave mill would eventually emerge here. After the land was cleared of timber, the rich soil was excellent for producing cotton. Steam cotton gins then appeared to process the cotton crop. Eventually more modern facilities were erected but today there are no cotton gins existant in Prairie County. Following the Civil War years, the system of "sharecropping" would emerge and would last for the next hundred years.
In July of 1909 local residents petitioned to have the community of Fredonia incorporated and on July 26, 1909, the order was issued by the county judge.
Biscoe's major industry today is row crop farming. Rice, soybeans, cotton and wheat are the major crops.
Today, Brasfield is a community of about 100 people, located on the eastern edge of Prairie County.
The rail line was laid through Brasfield in 1871. It was at first only a point where the early trains would stop for firewood and was known over the years as Cache River station and Cache Flagstop before officially receiving the name Brasfield in 1907.
There had evidently been a sawmill at Brasfield at least since the turn of the century but the community's economy really started growing with the arrival of the Brown & Sons Lumber Company in 1914. This company, with headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, had mills in several southern states. The prosperous "company town" days were brought to a halt by the Depression of 1929. The mill reopened later with reduced wages, but closed for good in 1936, by which time the virgin stands of hardwood timber were practically gone.
De Valls Bluff was named for C. S. Duvall, who came to Prairie County from Georgia before the Civil War. In 1936-37 a local interview reveals, "Before the Civil War, there was a warehouse, a store and a cabin at De Valls Bluff. The man De Vall (Duvall) built and kept the warehouse. Thread and groceries could be bought there. Mail was not delivered there. There was a stagecoach that ran from De Valls Bluff to Little Rock.
According to Goodspeeds Publishing Company's, BIOGRAPHICAL AND HISTORICAL MEMOIRS OF EASTERN ARKANSAS at the beginning of the Civil War the town contained a store and dwelling house and a boat landing. In the fall of 1863 General Steele moved from Clarendon and occupied De Valls Bluff and from then until the close of the war it was a supply base for the Federal Army. War material was brought from the North down the Mississippi and up the White River and stored in warehouses near the river. At De Valls Bluff supplies could be shipped to Little Rock and other points west on the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad.
Large numbers of soldiers were stationed at De Valls Bluff and many of them fell victim to the "Clarendon shakes' (malaria) which was prevelant in the area. The population of the town grew rapidly. With the completion of the railroad between Memphis and Little Rock in 1871, the town lost its importance as a shipping center and the population dropped drastically. According to an article written in the ARKANSAS GAZETTE in 1886, there remained after the completion of the railroad, "only business enough for three stores, two of greater and one of less importance, one druggist, one sawmill, and a population of 1,500 to 2,000 inhabitants say only 250". The 1880 census listed the town's population at 184.
The situation improved dramatically in 1884 or 1885 when F. P. and A. J. Wells established a boat oar factory there. In 1886 the annual output was 800,000 running feet of finished oars. Maxwell & Company, formerly of Lansing, Michigan, also put in a handle factory, which consumed waste material from the oar factory. According to the above newspaper article, the town also had a steam sawmill which was "an enterprise belonging to the great commercial firm of this place, F. Gates & Company. Their output is from three to five million feet of ash, gum and cypress lumber, and is principally for local demand".
The Wells factory supplied oars to many of the world's navies. The ARKANSAS GAZETTE correspondent added that "Under this head of timber resources and industries it should be added that the Boat Oar company is engaged in filling an order for eight (train)car loads of hickory 'picker sticks' and shuttles. The order comes from Liverpool, and is evidently designed for use in the English cotton mills. The picker sticks and shuttles are not finished here, but the stuff reduced to dimensions required by the turners and finishers".
Around the turn of the century a button factory was established at De Valls Bluff. The buttons were made from mussel shells taken from the adjacent White River. A 1930's interview with a local resident reveals, "A man from Memphis, Tennessee, came to De Valls Bluff to buy pearls. He established the first button factory. Mr. Tidball from New York bought out the man from Memphis. The Erie Pearl Button Company bought it and they went out of business. Then Mr. Chalmers bought it and reopened it. The last people who owned it was Rockport Pearl Button Company of Indiana. They couldn't buy coal or get hands to work in 1917. Most of the hands were drafted to serve in the World War".
Dr. William Cogswell Hazen came to Arkansas in 1854. He was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, 1808. Eventually he joined the mass migration to Kentucky and Tennessee, settling in the latter state. He studied medicine, acquired a plantation, a wife, and all the slaves he could afford. When he moved to Arkansas he brought everything but the land.
In 1863 Dr. Hazen moved his family to Texas to avoid the depredations caused by the Civil War. At the close of the war he returned to Prairie County, borrowed some money and started a business in Des Arc. He refused credit to no one and eventually his business was in bankruptcy. Too old to start over, W. C. Hazen divided his land between his sons and retired to the three room house he had built on the site where Hazen now stands. It was the first house there and in it he died in 1872. The next year the town site was laid out and named in honor of the man who originally had owned all the land for miles around. The city of Hazen officially incorporated July 8, 1884. Today, Hazen is a small town of almost 2,000 inhabitants. There are two major industries, Farris Fashions, and Inland Sintered Metals which employ large numbers of employees. Interstate 40 runs parallel to the town of Hazen at a distance of three miles. This fact has removed the major daily traffic from the town which has Hiway 70 running through it's center. And therefore much business from local merchants.
Mr. J. D. Morrow was born in 1804. He married Miss Elizabeth Henderson. She was five years younger than her husband. They lived at Tishomingo County, Mississippi. They had nine children before coming to Arkansas but one was dead. Two more children were born after they came to Prairie County. They came down the Mississippi River and up the White River to Buck's Landing, near De Valls Bluff. Before Mr. Morrow came to this state, he had bought probably a hundred acres upon which he settled and started a nursery. He owned considerable land as time went on out there. His nursery was four miles due west of Buck's Landing. The community was known as String Town because it grew up along a road. It stretched roughly from the present Iron Bridge to two miles eastward. At the east end, the very end of the community, there stood a fine old church. It was painted white with a balcony for the negroes. The church was plastered and calcimined white on the inside. This Presbyterian Church was the nucleus from which both the Des Arc and De Valls Bluff Presbyterian churches sprang. The old church stood at String Town until 1903. Mr. J. C. Morrow bought it, tore it down and used the lumber. He said he could not stand to see the old building fall in ruin and decay. There remains the old graveyard. Across from this old church was a school house. The graveyard, with it's elegant black wrought-iron fence, is all that is left of this community, today.
County Surveyor, L. P. Hardeman laid out Slovak, which settlers hoped would recreate European communities they remembered. Many settlers spent life's savings to buy land at $5.00 per acre. The town was created in November 1894 when Peter V. Rovminiak, F. J. Pucher and members of 40 others families formed the Slovak Colonization Company and bought 3,600 acres of land from P. R. Peterson.
The famililes, unable to speak English, acquired farms of 40 to 60 acres, then scratched out a 160-acre town amid head-high prairie grasses.
In those first years, some farms were lost for failure to pay taxes, and many residents returned to Pennsylvania and the coal mines that had successfully employed their forefathers. The former miners, unaccustomed to land ownership, had failed to budget for taxes.
Farmers began raising rice in Slovak town about 1916. The same year on June 5, a tornado showed Slovak how unrelenting nature could be. The following winter was bitter. Hardy farmers and their families subsisted the first few years on pigs, chickens, rabbits and the waterfowl they hunted. With rice's economic boon came bane as well - swarms of mosquitoes hatched in the standing water of the rice fields. Czech families pooled recources to buy farm equipment that they all shared.
There is still a little grocery store in this rural prairie community, today. The local general store is now gone along with the sign of greetings it offered to all. "Pratelski Lude ve Slovakton" - "Friendly people of Slovak welcome you". This thought is ever present in the thoughts and minds of today's Slovakian community residents who this past summer celebrated their centennial.
Fairmount was a promising town about 1890. A trio of Jews had come to Fairmount and were having three houses of similar structure erected. The houses were substantially built and of virgin timber. The three Jews were Big Ben, Little Ben and Sol Toolhammers. They put up the first store and Mr. Frank Francioli the second store. They were general stores. J. A. and S. L. Harr came to Fairmount in 1882. He was a real estate man. He built a beautiful large six-room two-story home, along on the same street and the structures built by the Jews. Two more stores were built and a drug store. A railroad was built through the much admired town. It was so very level and could be seen at a long distance. A railroad was used for freight principally for years. Much hay and cattle was shipped. Most of the people raised cattle in those days. Cotton was raised at the edge of the prairie. In 1910 Mr. Harr finally built a huge house about two miles from the town on a new county road. This home was said to be the finest home in Prairie County. It could be seen five miles away. It stands today as a true type of Maryland Colonial style with beautiful carvings at the cornices. Heirs live in this home today.
The town grew but scattered to be a vicinity of twenty-five or thirty beautiful up-to-date homes. Mr. Harr gave the land for the school house, a two-story wooden building which burned in 1911. It was replaced by a two room building which carried ten grades. A Union Church was used for years. The chief amusements were baseball and skating at a "skating rink".
The town was one of unusual culture. Education was encouraged. Many of the girls and boys attended Stuttgart, Arkansas, Training School in the early days. Much cattle and hay made the town prosperous in the horse-and-buggy days.
There was a school house every three miles dotted over the prairies. Paint was used on the buildings from the very first one in Fairmount.
The Tollville community got its name from one of the pioneer families that settled the area, the Toll family. Lord Thomas Marsh Horsfall, a local Englishman and entrepreneur, owned much of this prairie ground in the late 1880s. He was acceptable to the thought of the immigrant English families of Toll, Clayton, and Foot erecting an Episcopal Church on the prairie for their worship services.
The local train track site was chosen to build the church. Today, these tracks have been removed. The community had several school houses scattered about and a small grocery store, at one time.
Today, the Church is still active and the descendents of the above pioneer families are still residents. "Tollville, as former Governor Frank White once stated, is a frame of mind, not a town". Tollville has, in the last few years, built a fire department building. Local residents are volunteer firefighters.
There are many individual family stories that make up each community's history. There are many stories told to this historian that can not be put into print. I consider myself fortunate to have been able to converse with some of Prairie County's very knowledgeable citizens.
I am a mere forty years old. I am probably not the right person to be documenting this county history. I am aware that there are probably many other significant events that occurred in the molding and shaping of this county that I have failed to include here. It is with great pride for my heritage that I submit this effort in honor of Prairie County's Sesquicentennial year. I further challenge others, more qualified than myself, to continue to research and detail this worthwile subject for our posterity.
Respectfully submitted by
Marilyn Hambrick Sickel
Valentine's Day 1995
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