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It was the railroad that spurred the growth of McGehee. Benjamin McGehee came to this swampy section of southeast Arkansas in 1857 to farm, but there was little growth until the Little Rock, Mississippi River & Texas Railway came along in 1878.

"The railroad provided transportation to markets in four directions," Paula Reaves writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "It went to Memphis, Little Rock, and Tallulah and Alexandria in Louisiana. The railroad became a major mode of transportation and was a boost for area farmers, providing better markets for their crops. ... As farmers began growing larger crops of cotton, cash became available to spend on things other than necessities. Abner McGehee, the son of Benjamin McGehee, owned the land surrounding the railway. He took advantage of the opportunity the railroad presented and opened a commissary. The first post office was established in this commissary, and McGehee was named the first postmaster on March 8, 1879."

McGehee was incorporated as a city on March 5, 1906, and named for Abner McGehee. In 1910, the railroad began moving its shops from Louisiana to McGehee. The population of the city more than doubled from 1,157 in the 1910 census to 2,368 in the 1920 census. By 1930, there were 3,488 residents. The Little Rock, Mississippi River & Texas Railway became the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway, then the Missouri Pacific and finally the Union Pacific. For decades, McGehee was a railroad town. It's fitting that the city's World War II Japanese American Internment Museum is in a railroad depot. That museum will celebrate its sixth anniversary at 1 p.m. April 13.

It's quiet at the museum on this Friday morning as Susan Gallion, the curator, shows me around. Guests from across the country, including actor George Takei, came for the opening of the museum. It provided a permanent home for an exhibit titled "Life Interrupted--Against Their Will." The exhibit was created by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 2004 and later donated to the Delta Cultural Center at Helena. The center, in turn, gave the exhibit to the folks in McGehee.

"When President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the relocation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast in 1942, a 17,000-acre compound was built at Rohwer near McGehee to house more than 8,400 internees," writes Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder, who for many years published the Dumas Clarion. "Desha County citizens were disgruntled. They distrusted the Japanese because of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and also complained that the U.S. government fed the internees a better diet than locals could afford. Rohwer Relocation Center became the county's largest city until it was closed in 1945."

Rohwer operated from Sept. 18, 1942, until Nov. 30, 1945. A second relocation center at nearby Jerome (which was in parts of Drew and Chicot counties) operated from Oct. 6, 1942, until June 30, 1944.

The museum tells the story of both camps.

It's not as quiet an hour later when I show up for lunch at Hoots on U.S. 65. Hoots, which was established by David and Susie Powell in 2012, quickly gained a reputation as one of the best places to eat in southeast Arkansas. It has become a favorite stop of Arkansans heading to and from the Gulf Coast. The Powells spent several years traveling the country in a recreational vehicle. When they decided to get off the road, they purchased a former cattle sale barn and began a big renovation.

"People couldn't wait to see what we were doing in here," Susie Powell tells me during the busy lunch hour. "They were lined up out the door that first day. And we really had no idea what we were doing."

They learned on the job. David Powell died at age 66 in June 2015. Susie has kept plugging, and the restaurant has continued to grow in popularity.

Like other cities in southeast Arkansas, McGehee has struggled with population losses. In 1980, there were 5,671 residents. That number had fallen to 4,219 by the 2010 census. The current population is estimated to be about 3,800. People like Gallion and Powell are working hard to keep McGehee relevant. Another leader is Cindy Smith, who has used her position on the state Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission to spread the word about places such as Hoots and the Internment Museum.

"We had fires in the downtown area in the 1970s and 1980s and lost some historic businesses," Smith says. "So we built parks, a playground, a memorial garden and a veterans memorial where those buildings once stood. We renovated part of the depot to create a meeting place and a museum filled with railroad memorabilia. We later renovated the remainder of the depot to hold the exhibit about the Japanese Americans."

Smith praises the work of the McGehee Men's Club, which was formed in 1994.

"They have no membership fee or requirements except to help at the oyster supper, which attracts more than 1,400 people on the first Friday night of each February," she says. "They bought a building and created a community center that can be used for reunions, meetings and receptions. They don't charge nonprofit organizations. That building also serves as a distribution center for all area food pantries."

In 1999, the Boys and Girls Club of McGehee was established. It serves more than 150 children daily during the summer.

"Even as the McGehee population has decreased by 1,000 people the past 20 years, we still have wonderful public schools and pride in our Owl football and basketball teams," Smith says.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 04/03/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: McGehee holds on

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