Down the road

Little known corner of Arkansas has interesting history

It was 50 years ago when I first visited Little River County. Along with several hundred other supporters, I took a special train from Little Rock to the small Little River County town of Winthrop -- where Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller kicked off his 1968 re-election campaign. During the past half century I have had the opportunity to visit the area on several occasions, but the county is off the beaten path and not familiar to many Arkansans.

Little River County, located just to the north of Texarkana and adjacent to Oklahoma, is situated in the Gulf Coastal Plain, and its geology reflects the fact that it was covered by the sea for much longer than the remainder of the state. Large formations of limestone provided the name for the community of White Cliffs -- where the Western Portland Cement Co. established a plant in 1893. The Ideal Cement Co. had a plant in the community of Okay for decades. Foreman Cement Co., which was owned for years by Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. and which provided much of the concrete for the paving of Interstate 30, still operates, though it is now owned by a Kansas company.

Another geologic feature which has been of great benefit to the area is the presence of waterways, especially the Little River. Alluvial soils deposited by that river gave the county some of the richest farmlands in the area. That soil also supported extensive pine forests, which have been harvested for more than a century -- one of the largest timber companies being Dierks Lumber and Coal Co. The Little River also served as a transportation artery since it was navigable by steamboats as far as Millwood Landing. Finally, the construction of a dam on the river in the 1960s created Lake Millwood, an important recreational facility for the larger region.

According to Martha Trusley, author of the entry on the county in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, the first actual town in what would become Little River County, was Laynesport, established by 1836. In the western part of the county a community named Willow Springs developed by 1845, though it was later renamed Rocky Comfort, which in turn, became known as Foreman by the time it became the county seat in 1902.

Originally, Little River County was a part of Hempstead County and later Sevier County, but in 1867 the General Assembly designated the area as a separate county. Several local communities sought to be the county seat, but eventually it landed in the town of Ashdown. First known as Turkey Flats and then Keller, Ashdown was incorporated in 1892.

The present county courthouse, which was designed by architect Sidney Stewart, was built in 1907-08. Of Neo-Georgian design and crowned by an imposing octagonal dome, the courthouse is considered one of the most impressive in Arkansas. The state Historic Preservation Program has awarded grants totaling $341,000 to preserve the building.

Railroads arrived in Little River County in 1889. The Kansas City Southern Railroad, which was partly financed by Dutch interests and which still survives, traversed the county from north to south and allowed for the exploitation of natural resources while providing passenger services until 1969.

Little River County had a population of about 3,000 when it was created. The county grew dramatically, reaching a population of 13,731 people in 1900 -- which is more than the present population of 13,171. The county is 75 percent white today, although the black population was much larger in the past.

One reason the black population declined was a deadly racial confrontation in 1898 which has become known as the Little River County Race War. Organized violence against black citizens was disturbingly common throughout Arkansas history. Violence was the underpinning which made slavery possible, and after the Civil War, violence was employed to sustain an economic, political and social system which differed little from slavery. Lynchings of individual black men and women was common before the 1930s, but sometimes the scale of the conflicts was so large that newspapers referred to them as "wars."

The Little River County Race War began March 18, 1899, when a black man named General Duckett murdered a white plantation owner. Duckett was soon caught and lynched, but that did not satisfy the white mobs. One black resident, Moses Jones, was murdered because his wife had prepared food for Duckett while in hiding. At least eight men were killed by the mobs. An account of the killings, by Nancy Snell Griffith of Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., can be found in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (

Little River County has never produced a governor, but in 1968 State Representative Marion Crank of Foreman was the Democratic nominee. Described by retired journalist Ernest Dumas as "serious, unsmiling, a careful speaker and a student of government," Crank became a close ally of Gov. Orval Faubus. He was also a linchpin in the political network supporting Witt and Jack Stephens, proprietors of ArkaLa Gas Co. Indeed, Crank was employed by the Stephens-owned Foreman Cement Co.

Crank's defeat at the hands of incumbent Winthrop Rockefeller, in Dumas' words, "ended conservative dominance of the Democratic Party in Arkansas." Crank died on Dec. 19, 1994, less than a week after Orval Faubus died.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at

NAN Profiles on 06/10/2018

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