I'm eating breakfast at Jones Family Restaurant in Perryville. Eavesdropping on the conversations here gives one a sense of life in rural Arkansas.
"Do you have all of your hay in yet?" one man asks.
"I've still got 200 acres to cut," his friend across the table answers. "I hope it stays dry."
Though it borders Pulaski County, Perry County has always had a different vibe. There were only 10,445 residents in the 2010 census (that's still more than double the 4,927 recorded in 1960). This is a place where the Ouachita Mountains meet the Arkansas River Valley. The Fourche La Fave River flows from west to east across the county.
The first recorded white settler was Aaron Price, who built a home along the Fourche La Fave in 1808 several miles downstream from what's now Perryville. The Arkansas Legislature created Perry County in December 1840 and named it for Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, a hero during the War of 1812.
The first courthouse was a log cabin built in 1841. That courthouse burned in 1850 during a feud between the McCool and Lively families. Such feuds were common in these hills well into the 20th century.
I'm here to meet Arkansas educator and author Jim Yeager for a trip up Arkansas 9 to Mountain View. Yeager's book Backroads and Ballplayers is a masterful collection of stories about men who played professional baseball after having learned the game in rural Arkansas.
Yeager has a house on Harris Brake, the third-largest lake built by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. The 1,300-acre impoundment was constructed in 1955 in an attempt to bring life to what at the time was a desperately poor part of the state. It's one of the largest lakes ever built by a state wildlife agency. The lake is filled with sunken timber and cypress trees, a place designed for fishing rather than recreational boating. It adjoins the Harris Brake Wildlife Management Agency, which offers hunting for ducks, squirrels, rabbits and other game.
Yeager and I, accompanied by baseball historian Mike Dugan of Hot Springs, make our way north through Perryville and Perry. The shallows of the Fourche La Fave drew settlers in the 1830s, and Fourche La Fave Township was established. After the first courthouse at Perryville burned, a second log courthouse was constructed. Land was donated with the stipulation that Perryville be the permanent county seat.
The county supplied both Confederate and Union troops during the Civil War.
"There was no major fighting, just a few skirmishes at Cypress Creek and on the Fourche La Fave River," Lynda Suffridge writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "More destruction and fear were generated by the bushwhackers. ... Passage across the mountains and river presented challenges. Most travel was by horseback and pirogues, which were also used to move merchandise. The Fourche wasn't easily navigated, and steamboats were ineffective. William H. Rankin began rafting logs to Little Rock in 1872 and built the Perryville Saw/Grist Mill & Cotton Gin in 1877."
Meanwhile, courthouses continued to burn. A third courthouse, built in 1871, was replaced in 1878. That fourth courthouse burned in 1881 during what was known as the Perry County War, a period when violence erupted across the county. The roots of that violence dated back before the Civil War.
"Perry County was divided by conflicting loyalties," writes historian Tim Nutt. "The mountainous western sections aligned with the Union, while whites in the eastern half, where most of the enslaved peopled lived, held Confederate sympathies. These philosophical differences continued after the Civil War, often erupting into political violence, as was the case in the summer of 1881."
John L. Mathews, who edited the newspaper at Perryville, angered people with his editorials and columns. Nutt notes that Perry County residents accused Mathews of "being an opportunist and using his newspaper to further his ambition, switching parties and his support of local politicians to benefit himself while offending people on both ends of the political spectrum. It's apparent from newspaper accounts that Mathews was despised and distrusted."
On the night of July 21, 1878, Mathews was assassinated in his office. Even The New York Times reported on the incident.
"More violence was threatened, and Gov. Thomas James Churchill responded by sending the Arkansas civil militia, known as the Quapaw Guards, to march into Perryville and secure the courthouse," Suffridge writes. "The guards were there for three weeks, doing little more than lounging in the halls of the courthouse and congregating on the courthouse lawn."
A fifth courthouse was built in 1888. In 1901, the first bridge was constructed across the Fourche La Fave at Perryville. The bridge was replaced in 1939, and almost 1,500 people turned out for the dedication. When a railroad connecting Little Rock and Fort Smith bypassed Perryville due to more suitable terrain to the north, a town developed along the tracks. That town is Perry, which had 272 residents in the 2010 census.
At an Arkansas Travelers baseball game one night, I sat by an employee of the Perry County sheriff's office. He warned me: "Be careful in Perry. It has a marshal who loves to write speeding tickets."
Sure enough, the police car is there with its radar out as we pass through Perry. Fortunately, the days of feuds, assassinations and burned courthouses are in the past. Speeding tickets are about as bad as it gets these days.
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 10/09/2019