While working on a recent story about Cave City, I spent time in Sharp County, a place I've long found interesting. Not only does it boast beautiful Ozark Mountains scenery, it has also produced a cast of interesting characters through the years.
In his book Hillbilly Hellraisers, which outlines the history of populist defiance in the Ozarks, historian Blake Perkins describes a July 1899 trip to Sharp County by Arkansas politician Jeff Davis, a man some people would later describe as the Karl Marx for hillbillies.
"On July 4, 1899, more than 3,000 Ozarkers descended on the town of Hardy to take part in the local Independence Day celebration," Perkins writes. "Many folks undoubtedly enjoyed overdue visits with friends and acquaintances, some rare courting opportunities, an array of festivities and food--not to mention, for at least some, a good-sized swig or two, or nine or 10, of white lightning--and all the other activities that were customary of such Fourth of July celebrations throughout America. At the end of the day, rural families gathered around a makeshift grandstand for the celebration's main event, a rousing speech by Arkansas' attorney general, Jeff Davis--the Wild Ass of the Ozarks, as Davis' political detractors frequently called him.
"In firing the opening shots for his candidacy in the next gubernatorial race, Davis lamented the injustice, inequalities and gross imbalance of power that had come to characterize Gilded Age America and Arkansas. The toiling masses were 'wealth producers' whose hands created unimaginable abundance, 'but the wealth consumers are the lawmakers,' he exclaimed, who siphon off the people's riches into the hoards of a greedy few."
Davis asked the crowd: "Under such conditions can we be free to enjoy our right to the pursuit of happiness? Do you suppose our ancestors who planted here in virgin soil the tree of liberty would recognize this country today? Would they ever have thought that the principles of this government would be so warped and distorted as to give us the miserable thing we have today?"
Davis had been born in 1862 in rural Little River County. His parents moved north to Dover when he was 9, and to Russellville four years later. Davis would go on to be elected governor three times and would become a U.S. senator. It was the people in those hill counties north and west of Russellville--in places such as Sharp County--who gave Davis much of his political support.
Famous Arkansas writer John Gould Fletcher would later note that it was "the mountain people who had produced Jeff Davis; from the beginning of his career to its end, he was their spokesman and their champion."
Perkins writes: "Davis' popularity in Arkansas' upland counties, of course, did not alone account for all of his successes at the polls, but tapping hill folks' sentiments about government and its proper role certainly played no small part in ensuring that he would never lose another election."
For much of its history, Sharp County was filled with desperately poor people who shared the populist sentiments of men like Davis.
"The Great Depression hit Sharp County hard, but its residents were more fortunate than many living in the cities," Nancy Orr writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "Sharp County residents raised animals for meat and milk and had large gardens. Often, cars were parked and put up on blocks so that the tires wouldn't rot. Few had money to buy gasoline. World War II took young men from the area, and many families moved away to seek work. A number of people left for the state of Washington to pick fruit."
The first white settlers came to the area in the 1820s, starting farms near what's now Ash Flat. Calamine was established in the 1820s and grew for a time when zinc was discovered in 1856. Sharp County was carved out of Lawrence County in 1868, and parts of Independence County were annexed five years later.
"The newly formed county was named Sharp County in honor of Ephraim Sharp of Evening Shade, who served as a legislative representative for Lawrence County," Orr writes. "Sharp County was described at the time in a letter from H.L. Roberts to James M. Lewis, Arkansas' first appointed commissioner of immigration and state lands, as being in a section of the state known for its bountiful fruit trees, abundance of timber, plentiful game, scenic grasslands and rivers. For many years, the county had two courthouses. The first was built in 1870 in Evening Shade, while the second, completed in 1894, was at Hardy. It was necessary to have two because the county was divided by two rivers, the Strawberry River at the south end of the county and the Spring River at the north end. During that time, there was much controversy over the location of a single courthouse."
In 1967, the Legislature designated Ash Flat as the county seat.
The grinding mountain poverty led to a population decrease in Sharp County from 12,199 in the 1900 census to 6,319 in the 1960 census. A West Memphis businessman named John Cooper Sr. established Cherokee Village in 1955 as one of the first retirement communities of its type. By the 1960s, retirees from across the Midwest were moving there, and the county's population began to soar. Hardy and other areas along the Spring River later caught on as tourist destinations. By the 2010 census, the population of Sharp County had reached 17,264, almost triple the low point of 1960.
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 01/23/2019
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