There's not much traffic on this Tuesday afternoon as we pull into Lono, a small community hidden in the pine woods of southeast Hot Spring County near the Dallas County and Grant County lines. I'm riding through the area with County Judge Dennis Thornton, who lives on the other side of Hot Spring County at Bismarck.
We've been talking about broadband Internet service, workforce education and other issues that affect rural America. We're spending the afternoon traversing the county from the Ouachita Mountains in the west to the Gulf Coastal Plain in the east.
The day started on the campus of College of the Ouachitas at Malvern. Dozens of business, government and civic leaders gathered for the unveiling of a 10-year action plan for the county. Gov. Asa Hutchinson was the keynote speaker, and spent his time at the podium praising the quality of life in this part of the state, its natural resources, and the advantages of having Interstate 30 slice through the middle of the county.
In an era of rapid urbanization and rural decline, there are few growth areas south of the Little Rock metropolitan area. The best chance for regional growth in the south half of the state just might be in a triangle connecting Malvern, Hot Springs and Arkadelphia.
That area has a number of advantages that most other parts of south Arkansas don't have: the aforementioned interstate highway, a national park, a national forest, three state parks, four popular lakes and four institutions of higher education (COTO at Malvern and National Park College at Hot Springs are two-year institutions, while Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University at Arkadelphia are four-year schools).
Thornton, who is in his second term as county judge after a long career with grocery giant Kroger, saw the need for a countywide strategic plan.
"I came into this office with the idea of forming an intergovernmental council that would bring county and city officials together," he says. "In the process, it became clear that we really had no consensus on what the needs of the county are. We had to find a way to reach out to all of our residents and get their input."
Thornton reached out to the Center for Community and Economic Development at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, and a meeting was held on the COTO campus in November 2017 to kick off the process.
"What we heard from people across the county is that they're tired of losing their children to jobs in other counties and states," Thornton says. "We have five school districts in this county, and we had community meetings at each of them. We averaged from 75 to 100 people per meeting. We had almost 200 show up at Bismarck."
Thornton has a long list of things he wants to show me during our driving tour.
There's the 1936 courthouse, the new gymnasium and middle school, a whitewater park along the Ouachita River, and the Tuggle-Rosenwald school building in the county seat of Malvern.
There's a modern school campus and the baseball and softball fields at Bismarck.
There's the old lead mine at Point Cedar.
There's the industrial park and Lake Catherine in the Jones Mill-Magnet Cove area.
At Lono, Thornton pulls out a key to a gym that was built in 1938 by the federal Works Progress Administration. Basketball was played in this building for the first time in 1939.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the Lono School District had an average enrollment of 135 students from the first through 12 grades. Following the 1948-49 school year, Lono was consolidated with Malvern, though classes through the eighth grade continued to be held here through the 1960-61 school year.
The main Lono school building was sold and torn down in 1974. A group was organized to save the gym for use by area residents. The gym was sold by the Malvern School District to the Lono-Rolla Community Center.
By 1998, the condition of the gym had deteriorated to the point that demolition was being considered. A fundraising drive preserved the WPA facility, and it's still being used. There are family reunions, birthday parties, weddings and baby showers held here. The Lono-Rolla Volunteer Fire Department hosts its annual chili supper in the building.
As I walk around, I think back to the WPA gyms that I visited with my father in the 1960s and 1970s when he was selling athletic supplies across the state. Most of them are gone. Thornton talks of his desire to preserve the county's past while building for the future.
"The decline in manufacturing has created tremendous challenges," says noted Arkansas historian and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Tom Dillard, who lives near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. "But the county still offers lots of opportunities if people will set their priorities and then begin a formal process of achieving their goals."
The Arkansas Territorial Legislature carved Hot Spring County out of Clark County in 1829.
"The county's mineral resources include iron, novaculite, titanium, barite, clay and lignite," Jennifer Atkins-Gordeeva writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas, which was founded by Dillard. "Magnet Cove got its name from the magnetic iron ore deposits that sent compasses spinning in the 1880s. There are 42 distinct minerals and mineral combinations in Magnet Cove, some of which are found only at Magnet Cove, the Ural Mountains and the Tyrolean Alps.
"The spring at Magnet Cove is set on the eastern edge of a series of outcroppings of novaculite that act like a sponge, soaking rainwater deep into the earth. Along the path of slow percolation, the water is enriched--and heated--by dissolved minerals in the rocks. After the water encounters the faults deep within the earth, it emerges quickly to the surface, maintaining much of its stored heat.
"The novaculite in the area has provided a major source for knife-sharpening whetstones and was mined from the 1880s until the 1970s. ... Deposits of novaculite were a source of material for weapons and tools for the Caddo tribe, who lived in this area until around 1700. Trade distributed such items as far away as northern Louisiana and western Mississippi."
In April 1873, Hot Spring County was divided into Montgomery, Garland and Hot Spring counties. The original county retained only the southern portion of its previous area. Rockport served as the county seat from 1846-79.
"Large novaculite boulders in the bed of the Ouachita River made the location of Rockport ideal as both a river crossing and a resting place for weary travelers," writes Steven Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. "These boulders gave the community its name. French hunters and trappers forded the river at this location. The Hunter-Dunbar expedition struggled to navigate the rapids here on Dec. 3, 1804, recording their experience in a travel diary.
"During the 1830s, the development of the Military Road (also called the Southwest Trail) used the boulders as a ford to cross the river. Around 1847, a bridge was completed across the Ouachita River at Rockport, which is said to be the first toll bridge in Arkansas. It repeatedly washed away and was rebuilt through the decades."
After the Civil War, the Cairo & Fulton Railroad offered to build tracks and a depot at Rockport. City leaders declined. The tracks were located to the south, and Malvern was born.
Malvern, which was incorporated in July 1876, grew rapidly from 1,520 in the 1890 census to 3,864 in the 1920 census. Hot Spring County voters decided in July 1878 to move the county seat from Rockport to Malvern. The first courthouse there was built in 1888. The Bank of Malvern was chartered in 1889.
The brick industry flourished due to clay deposits in the adjacent community of Perla. The Atchison Brick Co. began operations in the 1890s. Acme Brick Co., which started in Texas, opened a Hot Spring County plant in 1921.
"In 1919, Acme purchased property in Perla, and the first bricks shipped from the Perla plant two years later," Marvin Schultz writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Acme continued to acquire assets in Arkansas during the next several years, merging with Fort Smith Brick & Tile in 1923 and purchasing Arkansas Brick & Tile, which became Perla Plant No. 2 in 1926."
The county received an economic boost in December 1914 when Harvey Couch's Arkansas Power & Light Co. built the state's first electric transmission line between Arkadelphia and Malvern. AP&L later built Remmel and Carpenter dams on the Ouachita River to create hydroelectric power.
The timber industry prospered until most of the county's trees had been harvested by the 1920s. Mining activity in the Magnet Cove area was starting to flourish by then, however. Jones Mill near the Garland County line once had three major Reynolds Metals Co. plants: a reduction plant, a cable plant, and a rolling mill. It was announced in September 1985 that the reduction plant would close. The cable plant was sold.
Other industries that set up operations in Hot Spring County after World War II were Baroid Drilling Fluids in 1950, Mid-State Construction & Materials in 1962 and United Minerals Corp. in 1994.
Despite the decline in manufacturing noted by Dillard, the county's population grew from 21,963 in the 1970 census to 32,923 in the 2010 census.
Dillard praises Thornton for taking a systematic approach to addressing the county's problems while bringing new people into the decision-making process.
"People have been wanting something positive to happen here for years," Dillard says. "This action plan gives them a way to address those issues that are holding us back."
Thornton, who grew up singing bluegrass and gospel music with his family, was part of a trio that sang "God Bless America" at the start of the event on the COTO campus.
"This action plan has been a labor of love for me, and it has been a long time coming," he told those gathered on the campus. "These goals have been set by the citizens of Hot Spring County, not by me. This is a monumental day for our county."
In addition to speeches by Thornton and Hutchinson, Jon Chadwell of the Newport Economic Development Commission addressed those in attendance. Thornton has relied on Chadwell for advice on how to get a county moving economically following Chadwell's success in Jackson County.
"You have trained for the marathon," Chadwell says. "Now, you are at the starting line and ready to begin the race."
After that first meeting in November 2017, online surveys were used to collect information. Hot Spring County residents returned to the COTO campus in February 2018 to discuss survey results. That meeting was followed by the sessions in each of the five school districts.
The five primary areas that will be addressed during the next decade are education and workforce development, job creation, family recreation and youth activities, health and public safety, and housing and real estate (including downtown development).
"If we can create the proper opportunities for them, our young people will stay here," Thornton tells me as we exit the Lono gym. "I come from a background in which you have to sell yourself every day. So I'm going to be out there selling Hot Spring County as long as it takes."
Editorial on 10/27/2019