Lady Elizabeth Luker refused to give up when the odds seemed against her more than half a century ago.
Luker, who was the president of the Jackson County Historical Society, announced during the society's second meeting on Jan. 12, 1962, that the old Jackson County Courthouse at Jacksonport was about to be destroyed. The building had been completed in 1872 to serve what was then a prosperous farming and timber region. The railroad, however, bypassed the port city on the White River in favor of nearby Newport. As Newport's population grew and Jacksonport's population declined, the county seat was moved to Newport in 1892.
The former courthouse at Jacksonport served as a school and then as a cotton gin, the county poorhouse and finally as a facility for storing rice. The abandoned building was for sale for $1,900.
The Jackson County Historical Society had been formed in November 1961 and had held its first meeting at the Billingsley Memorial Library at Newport. Dues and sponsorships ranged from $3 to $50. Luker admitted that $1,900 was "a lot of money for an organization as young as we are to raise. There may be nothing we can do to save the old building."
Still, at Luker's urging, the society began a campaign to raise $7,000 to not only buy the building but also begin restoring it. Luker traveled across Jackson County promoting the effort. In a February 1962 speech to the Newport Kiwanis Club, she said: "This is a now-or-never chance. We cannot preserve what is already torn down."
The society was given 60 days by the building's owners to raise the necessary funds. During the historical society's April meeting, it was reported that $6,186.53 had been raised, with gifts ranging from 8 cents from a child to $500 from a resident of Washington, D.C. The society acquired the deed to the property that May.
Spurred by the preservation effort, the organization had grown from 64 members in January to 232 members in April. Items ranging from Civil War flags to Spanish-American War uniforms were donated.
"The old courthouse has served the county in many ways through the years since its doors first opened," Luker said. "It will appropriately present a visual history of life and development in the county as a museum for the future. It will be the direct accomplishment of the people in Jackson County, including former residents."
Jacksonport residents Lairs and Addie Miller volunteered to be the building's caretakers. They moved into a four-room house on the grounds donated by the Southern Cotton Oil Co. The city of Jacksonport agreed to maintain the grounds.
A history of the structure compiled by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism states: "Renovation of the courthouse was no easy task. The interior was in very poor shape. Windows were missing or broken, floors were rotten and the roof leaked. The society agreed that the first priority after purchasing the building was to close the windows and repair the roof. Later improvements would be made gradually, and any unused areas would be sealed off for future phases of restoration. In time, workers cleared the basement of debris, removed the poorhouse room partitions from the courtroom, repaired the roof and windowsills, repaired the plaster and painted the walls. Donors who wished to provide memorials for their families funded doorways and windows."
In January 1963, state Rep. Lonnie Etheridge introduced legislation to make the building a state park. He was aided by powerful Sen. Robert Harvey of Swifton. The bill was approved, and Harvey also saw to it that the road from Newport to Jacksonport became a state highway. The Jackson County Historical Society began acquiring property near the courthouse. In May 1964, a deed for 15 acres in Jacksonport was given to the state for use as a park. Luker presented the property deed to Gov. Orval Faubus during a ceremony at the state Capitol. The land included 1,500 feet of river frontage.
On June 5, 1965, Jacksonport State Park opened to the public. There were speeches, band performances, historical re-enactments and buggy rides. Faubus and Harvey spoke as an estimated 2,500 people looked on.
I'm thinking about Lady Elizabeth Luker as I tour the new visitors' center at the park. I'm thinking about how one determined person can make so much difference as I look at the restored courthouse several hundred yards away. Luker died in 1995 at age 83.
The visitors' center, which was dedicated in early March, is an architecturally pleasing two-story structure that offers views of the White River. It contains exhibit spaces, offices, a park store, a resource library and a meeting room. The 10,000-square-foot facility was designed by Little Rock architectural firm Polk Stanley Wilcox.
A Polk Stanley Wilcox publication states that the visitors' center was "conceived as a modern dog-trot" that "juxtaposes two perfect glass cubes representing the North and South under one roof connected by a bridge. It's a symbol of reunification. The outdoor classroom that it bridges allows visitors to climb to a height above the levee to an observation platform."
Grady Spann, the state parks director, says the visitors' center "creates an exciting visual component to the park. Seeing the contrast of the 19th century brick courthouse and the 21st century glass-and-metal center gives our guests a wonderful way to tie the past to the present."
Of all the 52 state parks, Jacksonport might now have my favorite old structure and my favorite new structure.
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 06/12/2019
Print Headline: REX NELSON: Lady Luker's mission