Yesteryear: When Bauxite was booming

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published August 1, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated July 31, 2013 at 11:35 a.m.
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Nick Hillemann

Jane Wilmoth, left, and Bauxite Museum Curator Melba Shepard stand in front of the museum. The facility houses exhibits that bring to life the heyday past of Bauxite, when the community boasted 15,000 to 20,000 inhabitants and played a huge role in helping the Allies win World War II.

Editor’s note: We thank members of the Bauxite Historical Association for their time, help and access to their records and publications, and thank Joey DuVall, Melba Shepard, Jane Burns Wilmoth and others for their stories and insights about the Bauxite community.

BAUXITE — For most of its history, Bauxite was not really a town. It wasn’t incorporated until 1971, and today, its official population is less than 500.

However, like the legendary mining towns of the Old West, Bauxite has a past as a boomtown. In the 1940s, Bauxite was one of the largest and busiest Arkansas communities outside Little Rock.

It wasn’t gold or silver the miners brought out of the ground, but the colorful rock the men of Bauxite dug up did no less than win a war, and help save the world.

“From about 1942 to 1950, about 7,000 people were employed

by Alcoa in Bauxite,” said Melba Shepard, a lifelong resident of the community and curator of the Bauxite Museum. “Figuring most of the men working at the mines were married and had children, the population must have been between 15,000 and 20,000.”

During World War II, the bauxite mines that gave the community its name produced more than 95 percent of the ore that was made into aluminum, used to craft 305,000 fighters, bombers, cargo, passenger and other types of aircraft used by the armed forces of the United States.

Carroll Williams, who lived in the Pine Haven neighborhood of Bauxite in the 1940s, remembers how it was to live among the nonstop, around-the-clock work.

“White alumina dust filled the air and settled onto every window ledge and surface in our homes,” he wrote for an upcoming issue of Pick and Shovel, the magazine of the Bauxite Historical Association. “The Reynolds plant emitted a constant hum from the machinery, and the lights at night cast a glow over the hanging clouds.”

Even earlier, the dust was always around.

“My mother would sweep up dirt in the house,” said Jane Wilmoth, a Benton resident who was raised in Bauxite. “She called it money. It came from the mines. We were also used to hearing dynamite used in the mines. Tremors were like little earthquakes.”

As early as 1901, the mining company was building not only its operations in what was to become Bauxite, but homes for workers were under construction, along with a store and post office. Later would come all the different buildings and institutions expected in a growing, prosperous community. The company built churches, stores of all kinds, banks, a hospital, a theater and a community center.

The Community House, so named by the company, but referred to as “The Hall” by most Bauxite residents, opened in 1926. It was financed by withholding “dues,” equal to one hour’s pay per month. The upstairs was built according to specifications as a Masonic meeting place. Over the years, the building also served as the scene of many other meetings and events, including opportunities for teens to mingle.

“We would have a band on stage along one wall, and we would have dances here,” Joey DuVall, president of the historic association’s board of directors, said in a earlier interview. “The windows here now used to be doors out to a balcony. The boys would slip out for a smoke, or a couple would come out looking for a little privacy and sneak a kiss or two, away from the chaperons.”

The Hall is now the Bauxite Museum, run by the association, and is the annual meeting place for the Bauxite Reunion, when former residents and those who remain still come together to talk about the old times.

As Alcoa built a town to support the company’s workers and their families, perhaps the most significant construction done by Alcoa was schools. The first schoolhouse was built in 1902, and a high school was constructed in 1911, according to a research report written in 2007 by Laura Harrington at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia.

Wilmoth said the schools were public but were still held close by “The Company,” as Alcoa was called by the residents.

“They decided who would run for the school board,” she said. “They paid the teachers.”

However, DuVall said, the schools set a higher standard.

“The children of the engineers, scientists and managers from up north also went there, and they expected more from the school, and in-turn, the teachers expected more from us,” he said during a long conversation about the community in 2011.

“To teach there, you had to have a college degree,” Wilmoth said. “That was rare in those days. It was not the case in Benton at the time. So when my mother decided to teach, she got a job in Benton until she finished her degree.”

The school system was run by M.T. Terrell all through the boom years of Bauxite and beyond.

“He must have lived to be 200 years old,” Shepard said, laughing.

She looked up the dates and found that Terrell started teaching in Bauxite in 1923 and died in 1961, and was the superintendent at the time.

Wilmoth said Bauxite, being a company town, was closer than even a typical small Arkansas community.

“We not only knew everybody else in town; we knew their dog’s names,” she said, then remembering the names of a few of the dogs on her street.

However close the community, she also said there was a social

system.

The managers’ and engineers’ families — the salaried people — lived on Maple Street, referred to by those who didn’t live there as Silk Stocking Row.

Wilmoth said the name originated in the 1920s and 1930s, when the wives who lived on that street could afford silk hose, while as Wilmoth’s mother, Le Edmonson Burns Tull, wrote in an in formal autobiography, “The rest of us wore either cotton, rayon or lisle hose.”

Even the cemetery was divided into sections, according to the town’s caste system.

“There were the managers, the miners and skilled laborers, and then the service workers, who picked up the trash and did odd jobs around the town,” Wilmoth said. “The teachers had a special category. They lived near the school or in apartments built for them.”

Shepard said she never really noticed the caste system, but as an adult, she did notice the differences.

“My mother always told me, over and over again,” she said, “I was just as good as anybody and so I would go talk to anyone, and they were also friendly to me.”

The community had a jolt when a refining plant was built around 1950.

“A lot of workers came from East St. Louis, Ill.,” Wilmoth said. “They organized the new plant, and we had no idea who they were — they were Yankees.”

She said many of them settled in Benton, also setting them apart from the rest of the community.

Living in company housing, rent was cheap. Wilmoth said she lived in a large home, but her family paid only $20 a month. Meanwhile, the company also looked after the maintenance of the homes.

“If you needed anything, you called the Big Office, we called it, and they said they would put you on the list,” Shepard said. “Soon a crew would come by to fix a screen door, or repaint their house. It didn’t cost anything.”

Wilmoth said the company always listened to the wants of the community.

“They would ask you what color you wanted your house,” she said. ‘We might say blue or pink, and they would come and paint it white, but they always asked.”

“It was a company town; we were always well treated,” Shepard said.

The boom years continued even after the end of the war in 1945, as the Cold War kept the need for airplanes high, and the budding consumer economy turned to aluminum for pots, pans and other home uses. However, the company did begin to downsize.

By 1957, the theater had run its last movie. In 1958, Shepard’s family moved from company housing.

“People were told they had an option,” she said. “They could buy their homes, but the houses had to be moved off company property.”

Wilmoth remembers those days.

“I would look out the window and see A.R. Hall Moving Co. from Little Rock moving houses,” she said. “It felt like the community was dying when the theater closed.”

By 1968, company housing was gone, and mining had all but stopped. Shepard said the community was never the same again.”

For more information about the Bauxite boom years and beyond, visit the Bauxite Historical Association and Museum at 6706 Benton Road in Bauxite. It is open Wednesdays and Sundays; call (501) 577-9858.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 24-4460 or at wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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