POWHATAN - Perched on a commanding hill above the Black River, the old Lawrence County Courthouse that anchors Powhatan Historic State Park looks large and stately enough to serve a populous county.
When the two-story brick structure was erected in 1888, Powhatan was a bustling place with a population approaching 1,000. Chosen as the county seat in 1869, the town had bounced back from the depredations of the Civil War to become a transport and commerce center in the last years of river traffic dominance. Area industries included pearl buttons, zinc mines, timber and farming.
Then, in a fate suffered by many communities in the late 19th century, Powhatan was bypassed by the railroads. A slow decline led to the moving of the county seat to Walnut Ridge in 1963. The 2010 census counted Powhatan’s population at 37.
The quiet setting gives an idyllic tinge to the state park, where four other 19th-century buildings can be visited on the river plain below the courthouse, with guided tours by park interpreters available.
The sturdy jail of native limestone, built in 1873, is described as “a rare example of a stone military blockhouse.” It later had a varied existence as a silent-movie theater, a canning kitchen, a honey processing plant and an auto repair garage. Like Powhatan’s other historic structures, it was restored by local efforts in the early 1970s before the state park was established in 1974.
Offering a look at how people lived in Powhatan’s heyday is the Ficklin-Imboden House, dating to the 1840s. A blend of Tidewater South and Midland building styles, the log cabin is furnished with period pieces.
The panel brick Commercial Building, put up in 1887, first housed the Telephone Exchange, a pioneering telephone system that served much of the county. Then it became a drugstore, a wagon factory, a lawyer’s office, a general store, a home and the post office.
The Powhatan Male & Female Academy, a two-room schoolhouse built in 1889, is equipped with some original furnishings. “A School Day of 1900” program is staged occasionally in the former academy.
The onetime courthouse, housing the park’s visitor center, was built at a cost of $16,723.38 to replace an earlier county building that had burned.
Graffiti seems to have been a problem back then as it is today, judging from a posted injunction that was uncovered during recent restoration work on a wall in the foyer: “Warning - defacing the walls is forbidden under penalty of fine $5.”
One first-floor room contains a snake-like device explained by a sign: “During the second half of the 19th century, speaking tubes were commonly installed in the walls of mansions, public buildings, ships and other structures to enable people in different rooms to speak to each other.” Electric intercoms lay in the future.
A highlight for visitors is the restored courtroom on the second floor, which gives a palpable sense of that period’s justice system. The 12 jurors’ chairs look comfortable enough to bring on a nap during tedious testimony. Handsome chandeliers hang from the embossed tin ceiling.
In a courtroom alcove, a tableau of life-size figures portrays a scene in the judge’s chamber of a local pleading guilty to having fished illegally with dynamite on Hardin’s Creek.
The judge lets the miscreant off with probation and a stern warning after hearing the excuse that he was only trying to feed his hungry family. Justice, in this instance at least, was kinder than it often is - back then and today.
Powhatan Historic State Park, near the intersection of Arkansas 25 and Arkansas 117, is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. The park lies 125 miles northeast of Little Rock. For details, call (870) 878-0032 or visit HistoryStateParks.com.
Weekend, Pages 40 on 04/10/2014
Print Headline: Park in Powhatan holds town frozen in time