Vilonia resident has hung up many hats

Linda Hicks Contributing Writer Originally Published August 22, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated August 21, 2013 at 9:59 a.m.
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Linda Hicks / Contributing Photographer

Don Snow of Vilonia admires the city’s first firetruck, which was purchased new in 1969 when he became the city’s first fire chief.

— As a teenager, Don Snow was picking cotton alongside his parents at the family farm in Vilonia when the news came that his brother, Billy Joe, had been killed while serving in the Korean War. Today, some 60 years later, Don remembers the pain just like it was yesterday.

“A taxi drove up,” he said. “It was a taxi driver who brought the telegram. We went to the house. Everyone in town knew [Billy Joe], and it was a pretty shocking thing for us all.”

The younger Snow was 16, and his brother was 23 at the time of his death. Billy Joe had been home on a furlough prior to being shipped overseas. Don Snow said he can still see in his mind’s eye his brother smiling and waving goodbye as the bus departed from the station in Little Rock.

Regarding the history of Vilonia, Snow’s memory is sharp. He has no problem talking about yesteryears. He has been a part of Vilonia’s past for 78 years.

“I just never left here,” he said.

He has been living nearly in the same location, he said, since he was about 4 years old. He was attending first grade when the one school in the town burned. There was snow on the ground, he said. Someone came to the door and told the teacher the school was on fire. In an orderly fashion, he said, students crossed the street and gathered in the front room of a neighbor’s house to wait out the ordeal. The current high school building, he said, stands on the old school’s foundation.

“I can show you some bricks there now that didn’t burn,” Snow said. In high school, he played basketball and was a part of the team the year the first games were held in Barton Coliseum in Little Rock. The team made it to the state

tournament but lost to Watson Chapel. Fast forwarding, he said there were 23 students in his graduating class. A few have since died.

He recalls that when he was a boy, a few residents owned automobiles, but much of the travel around Vilonia was done by bicycle or on horseback. There were one or two stops in town where one could catch a bus to Conway or Little Rock. It was a very trusting community. If you were walking and needed a drink of water, you only needed to stop at a house and ask for it.

“You didn’t have to know the people inside,” he said. “You got your drink of water.”

In the early years, Snow said, the town had a couple of blacksmith shops, a creamery, a feed store, a cotton gin and a stave mill, as well as two doctors. At least one of the doctors, Snow said, made house calls. The other one probably would have also, but he didn’t have any means of transportation, Snow said. There was also a town jail. However, he said, there probably weren’t but two or three people ever locked up in it. There were a few memorable ruckuses through the years, such as the one between two men that ended up with them down an embankment “scratching” their way back up. That incident, he said, led some to refer to Vilonia as “Scratch Town.” There was also a story of the outlaw “Bush Brothers” and a brief account of them being apprehended in Vilonia.

During his lifetime, Snow has worn many hats. He has farmed and has worked in a factory and at the Vilonia Water Works. He also worked for the Vilonia School District for about 17 years. He was elected alderman and served on the City Council.

During the ’70s, Snow served as Vilonia’s only law enforcement officer for about six years. There generally wasn’t much for him to do as city marshal, he said, except ride around, talk to folks and deal with a little mischief. That all changed, however, with the abduction and murder of sixth-grader Dana Mize in 1976. For the most part, he said, he took a backseat while the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI took the lead in the case.

“That was a very sad time in Vilonia,” he said, “probably one of the saddest.”

In the late ’60s, a city tax provided funding for a firetruck, and Snow became the first official fire chief. When the firetruck came rolling into the city, they had to scramble to find a place to keep it out of the bad weather. The truck was housed, for a time, in a resident’s shed that had an opening on both ends. On freezing nights, the volunteers placed heaters under the truck to keep the pump from freezing, Snow said. There were no uniforms or other equipment for firefighters in those days, he said. A group of volunteer firefighters donated their labor and built the first official fire station.

Using the truck, the volunteers were able to save two houses, he said, that caught fire on the same night.

“That’s when the people started believing in us,” he said, referring to the Vilonia Fire Department. Snow continued to volunteer with the department for 25 years.

“Several of us did,” he said.

When asked about his permanent status in Vilonia, Snow said, he has just never had a desire to leave.

“Oh, no, no,” he said. “This is home.”

Regarding the growth of Vilonia, he anticipates a lot more expansion in the near future.

“I never thought I would see a Fred’s, McDonald’s or a bypass,” he said. “Walmart will probably be next.”

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