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I was a young sportswriter covering the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference, and Mike Marsh was a graduate assistant basketball coach at the University of Central Arkansas. We got to know each other in those days, though I never realized that Marsh hailed from Pangburn in the northwest corner of White County.

Earlier this year, I received an email from Marsh. He had come home about six years ago after a career as a coach and teacher in the public schools. He ran for mayor last year and won. Now, in a community that had a population of 601 in the most recent census, he's dealing with the kinds of problems small-town mayors across the state must tackle.

"We're extending sidewalks and making improvements at the fire station," he says while sitting at his desk in the former church building that now serves as the city hall. "We are also using state aid to repave several miles of streets this summer. We have to get our town built back up."

Marsh answers his own phone. There's no assistant sitting outside. Between calls, he laments the fact that the town's medical clinic has closed and recounts his efforts to find another organization to operate it. On one wall of his office is a checklist of projects he hopes to complete.

"We're going to get all of those done the next four years," he says with confidence.

Using the knowledge gained during my four years with the Delta Regional Authority, I tell him about federal and state grants that might be available. I think about how those of us at the statewide newspaper forget about the little places across our state such as Pangburn. They're places with dedicated natives such as Marsh who are struggling in the face of urbanization to keep their communities vital. Like Pangburn, these places have their own fascinating histories.

Pangburn is just south of the Little Red River. The forks that form the river begin in the Ozark Mountains. A dam on the Little Red created Greers Ferry Lake, one of the state's premier tourist attractions.

Pangburn is below the dam, near the end of a stretch of cold water that has become famous for its trout fishing. Below Pangburn, the river exits the hills and finally enters the White River in the flatlands at Georgetown.

"Though the river provided water and food to early American settlers, living along the river could be troublesome as it tended to flood after rains," writes Arkansas historian Guy Lancaster. "This meant that there were few fords where one could cross. The first ferry on the river was operated by John Standlee in 1818. Greers Ferry--from which the Cleburne County community, dam and lake all take their name--was operated by William V. 'Bud' Greer in the 1880s, just above the area then known as Tumbling Shoals."

When the water was right, boats carrying supplies could navigate the river as far north as Pangburn.

"The King family, the first recorded white settlers, traveled by flatboat up the Little Red River via the White River and arrived in the area around 1817," Adam Miller writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, a division of the Central Arkansas Library System. "The story goes that, along the river, the King family saw a beautiful apple tree in full bloom and a field of wild maize and decided to settle there. Another family named Judson later came from Tennessee, lending its name to the community for a time. The settlement then named Judson established its first post office in 1856."

In 1859, Dr. William David Pangburn moved to the area from Schenectady, N.Y. Pangburn practiced medicine and purchased land where the town is now located. The area began to grow with the arrival of the Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad in 1909. A Missouri company known as Western Tie & Timber Co. moved to Pangburn during this period to begin cutting the virgin timber.

The Pangburn Telephone Co. was established in 1908, and a suspension bridge over the Little Red was built in 1909. The town was incorporated in 1911, and brick buildings began going up the following year. Pangburn started advertising itself as the Little Cotton Kingdom and as the Potato Capital of Arkansas. It was second to Bald Knob in the size of the strawberry crop.

"As timber clearing commenced in earnest, newly cleared lands enabled the growth and ginning of cotton on a commercial scale," Miller writes. "Extant records and the recollections of locals regarding the volume of cotton transported are wildly inconsistent, but it's clear that cotton farming expanded significantly once the M&NA line had been built. Saw logs, crossties and thousands of bales of cotton were transported via the railroad, and three cotton gins were in operation locally. Commercial prosperity later stagnated as the M&NA experienced a worker strike starting in 1921."

The railroad ceased operations in 1946. Pangburn reached its peak population at 706 residents in the 1920 census, bottomed out at 489 residents in the 1960 census and then slowly began adding residents.

"We have people who grew up here coming back to retire," Marsh says. "There are also young families moving in to take advantage of our schools."

We take a walking tour of downtown (including the local museum), have lunch at Southern Girls BBQ, and then drive to the high school so the mayor can show off its modern arena and performing arts center. As is the case with other small-town mayors I've come to know, Marsh is an optimist. In the face of Arkansas' urbanization, he still believes that Pangburn's best days are ahead.

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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 06/26/2019

Print Headline: Optimism at Pangburn

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