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It doesn't take long to exit the Gulf Coastal Plain and enter the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains once I leave Arkadelphia and head west on Arkansas 8.

I've departed my hometown for a day of exploring the southern Ouachitas. Like many counties in Arkansas, there's a sharp divide in Clark County. If you cross the Ouachita River at Arkadelphia and drive east, you're in the Gulf Coastal Plain--pine forests, row crops in the river bottoms, alligators in some of the streams, sloughs that can be hunted for ducks, a sizable black population. There was still cotton being grown in this part of the county when I was a boy, though most of the small fields where my father and I would hunt quail have long since been planted in pines.

Head west, however, and you'll soon find yourself in the mountain South--mostly white (along with an

increasing number of Hispanic residents in recent decades) and a slightly different dialect that can be picked up by those trained to listen for such differences. Culturally, Dalark and Amity are about as different as two rural communities could be, though they aren't far from each other. Dalark borders Clark County on the east, and Amity is in the far northwest part of the county.

The trip west through the rolling countryside features forests, cattle pastures, chicken houses and aging peach orchards. Travelers who reach a community with a name like Alpine know they've entered the mountains.

"It's most commonly thought that the settlement received its name due to its location on the highest point in Clark County," Jacob Worthan writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "However, several folktales also relay origins of the name. The original settlement was a mile east of the present community and was comprised of little more than a post office, a general store, a saloon and a few houses."

Amity, about six miles to the northwest of Alpine with its own craft beer brewery known as Slate Rock Brewing, had a population of 723 residents (fewer than it had a century before when there were 813 people living here) in the 2010 census. A group of pioneer families led by William F. Browning began settling this area near the Caddo River in 1847.

The Caddo has long defined this part of Arkansas.

"For centuries, this unique waterway has carved its way through sedimentary rock formations, creating a broad, shallow river valley and leaving miles of gravel along its path," Brian Westfall writes for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "In some places, the nearly vertical beds of sandstone and novaculite create rapids.

"The Caddo, known for extremely clear water, originates from cold-water springs southeast of Mena. In this region, the springs flow from the Bigfork Chert Ridge, which sits atop the Ouachita Mountains Aquifer, known for its water quality. Bigfork Chert Ridge is often referred to as the Potato Hills due to uneven weathering that has left it looking like a potato patch.

"The stream flows generally from west to east through the Ouachita National Forest. After leaving the national forest, the Caddo meanders its way through the Athens Plateau, where the Corps of Engineers impounds it at DeGray Lake. From the base of DeGray Dam, the Caddo continues its trek southeasterly for seven miles before joining the Ouachita River."

I'm biased since I grew up in this part of the state, but the Caddo has long been one of my favorite rivers. It's an easy stream to fall in love with.

"Towering sycamore, sweet gum, cottonwood, ash, water oak, willow oak and river birch line the banks," Westfall writes. "During the summer, wildflowers give the river banks a colorful look. The woodlands are interspersed with pastoral settings. An old logging railroad tram parallels the river at times and gives it an added flavor. Deer, beaver, river otter, wild turkey, osprey and bald eagles are present. The Caddo Gap to Glenwood section is the most popular among canoeists. This section can be floated except during the driest weather."

I cross the Caddo at Glenwood. While other towns south of Little Rock were losing population in the early 2000s, Glenwood was doing well. Its population increased from 1,751 in 2000 to 2,228 in 2010. Growth slowed after 2010 with the closing of Curt Bean Lumber Co.'s massive mill. The mill re-opened under new ownership in 2017. Glenwood's current population is about 2,100.

Construction of the Gurdon & Fort Smith Railroad through this area in the early 1900s opened up its pine forests for harvest. Wealthy families from other states purchased large tracts. New communities such as Glenwood, Rosboro, Graysonia, Caddo Gap and Womble were born during the period of Arkansas history known as the Big Cut. That was the era when out-of-state investors would buy land, cut the virgin timber and move on. The Big Cut occurred from about 1880 through the 1920s.

By 1907, there were 250 people living at Glenwood. The town was incorporated in 1908 and there were 891 residents by the 1920 census. In 1914, the Memphis, Dallas & Gulf Railroad opened tracks between Glenwood and Hot Springs, making the town a railroad junction. What's now U.S. 70 between Glenwood and Hot Springs was paved in the 1920s. That's also when the peach industry began to develop in the area.

Caddo River Lumber Co. purchased Clark Lumber Co. in 1922 and expanded its operations. In June 1936, lightning started a fire that destroyed most of the mill. With the forests in the area cut out, the company moved its operations to Oregon.

Glenwood's population fell from 1,310 in 1930 to 854 in 1940. It didn't top 1,000 again until the 1970 census. A thriving poultry industry in this part of the state later brought a large number of Hispanic residents, who now make up more than 10 percent of Glenwood's population.

Throughout Arkansas' history, the Ouachita Mountains have taken a back seat to the better-known Ozark Mountains in the popular culture. It's common to find stories in national publications that describe places that are in the Ouachitas as being in the Ozarks. In Hot Springs, which is in the Ouachita Mountains, there's an Ozark Bathhouse, but no Ouachita Bathhouse.

This outing is taking me through what's known as the Athens Plateau, the southernmost subdivision of the Ouachita Mountains.

"Although its topography is characterized by east-west ridges like most of the Ouachitas, the maximum elevations are under 1,000 feet," writes Tom Foti, who retired last year from his job as senior ecologist for the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. "Despite the name, it isn't a flat-topped plateau like those of the Ozarks. Rather it has been proposed that the entire set of ridges and valleys was lowered and raised as a unit after the ridges had formed.

"According to that scenario, the region was lowered below sea level, and it rose again as a plain with the valleys filled with sediment. Streams such as the Cossatot River and Little Missouri River ran from north to south and crossed the ridges in their paths. At each crossing, they created a steep rapids or waterfall and emptied the valleys of their sediments.

"As a result, these streams have a much different character than those of the Ozarks, making them challenging for those in canoes and kayaks. Because of the waterfalls, this boundary has sometimes been referred to as the fall line. It has proven to be a prime location for dams that impound reservoirs built by the Corps of Engineers.

"Cities of the Athens Plateau--such as Bismarck in Hot Spring County, Wickes in Polk County and Amity in Clark County--are generally small with fewer than 1,000 residents. Larger cities such as Arkadelphia, Murfreesboro, De Queen and Glenwood are located along the boundaries of the subdivision. Some of these cities owe much of their economy to the timber produced within the Athens Plateau. The subdivision is still dominantly forested with much of it owned by the timber industry and managed for timber production."

When President Theodore Roos-evelt created the Arkansas National Forest in 1907 (later renamed the Ouachita National Forest), much of it was cutover land that hadn't been replanted.

"Priorities included curbing timber theft and wildfires and setting up ranger outposts with telephones," Mary Lysobey writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Stands of trees were upgraded by enforcement of rules for selective cutting. Sixty-three percent of Montgomery County ultimately became national forest land as bankrupt farmers and lumber companies sold their land."

At the time Roosevelt created the national forest through an executive order, Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. Forest Service, noted that it was the only major shortleaf pine forest under the protection of the federal government. The 1911 Weeks Law, which authorized the federal purchase of forests in areas other than the American West, was used to add thousands of acres of cutover land to the national forest. Some of the largest increases occurred from 1933-41 as struggling Arkansas farmers left the state.

The Ouachita National Forest now consists of almost 1.8 million acres in 12 Arkansas counties and two Oklahoma counties. It's the oldest and largest national forest in the South.

Leaving Glenwood, I take Arkansas 8 to Caddo Gap and Norman. I cross from Pike County into Montgomery County soon after departing Glenwood. Pike County had only 9,487 residents in the 2010 census, far below the 12,455 people who lived there a century earlier. Still, that's well above the 5,370 residents recorded in the 1960 census. The Caddo, Ouachita and Little Missouri rivers pass through this sparsely populated county.

Lysobey writes: "Modern historians no longer believe that Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto fought the Tula Indians in Caddo Gap, but the inscription on a nine-foot Indian statue erected there in 1936 by the Arkansas History Commission holds to an earlier viewpoint."

I loved traveling with my father when I was a boy as he sold athletic supplies to school districts across the state. If it were a warm spring day, Caddo Gap was a favorite stop. He would let me wade in the Caddo River, and we would visit the Indian statue.

By the 1830s, Caddo Gap had a gristmill, several stores, a Methodist church and a toll bridge. The Civil War and Reconstruction were tough on this area, but Caddo Gap began to thrive again with the coming of the railroad in 1905. The county's population reached an all-time high in 1910 because of the lumber camps in the area.

"In 1918, Caddo River Lumber Co. began a survey for building a railroad out of Womble (now Norman), but it took four years for the 15-mile main line to be completed to the Mauldin logging camp, the county's logging center," Lysobey writes. "In 1936, a commissary and post office served Mauldin's 300 people. In 1937, Mauldin was dismantled and carried off by rail. The lumber company, picking up its tracks as it left, had depleted the virgin timber. This, together with the Great Depression, had a devastating economic impact on the county."

The story was the same throughout the Ouachita Mountains--the virgin timber was gone, the sawmills were closed, the soil didn't lend itself to growing cotton, which was the state's dominant crop in those days. During most of the 20th century, life was tough for rural residents of the Ouachita Mountains.

Photo by John Deering
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette mountains illustration.

Editorial on 04/14/2019

Print Headline: Mountains to the west

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