We've left the Ozarks and entered the Delta. The goal is to travel across north Arkansas from Oklahoma to the Missouri Bootheel on only one highway, U.S. 412. The first Delta town we come to is Portia, long known for its Fourth of July picnic, which would attract politicians from across the state. Due to population losses in the Delta, the event was discontinued several years ago.
The railroad came here in the early 1880s. Like so many small Arkansas towns, Portia was a product of a railroad. Portia, which was incorporated in May 1886, had a population of 437 people in the 2010 census. That's even less than the 571 people who resided here in 1890 when the virgin hardwood forests were being cleared and cotton was becoming king in this part of Arkansas.
"Due to its convenient location to both river travel and the railroad, the town was considered for relocation of the Lawrence County seat," writes Arkansas historian Mike Polston. "After much debate, the seat remained in Powhatan. Many believed the move had been vetoed because of reporting by local populist newspaper editors W.S. and S.W. Morgan and their criticism of the Democratic Party. The paper, the Portia Free Press, was published from 1886-88."
The Portia Lumber Co. was a major employer by 1890 as the forests of the Delta were cleared during the period of Arkansas history known as the Big Cut. A schoolhouse constructed in 1914 still stands at Portia. The Fourth of July event was on the grounds of that school, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The annual picnic began in 1905. The event attracted almost 10,000 visitors at its height.
The trip east brings us to the adjoining Lawrence County towns of Hoxie and Walnut Ridge. Hoxie received nationwide publicity in 1955 for becoming one of the earliest Southern cities to desegregate its public schools. Superintendent Kunkel Edward Vance led the charge.
"Vance gave three reasons for integration," Danyelle McNeill writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "It was 'right in the sight of God,' it complied with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling the previous year in Brown v. Board of Education and it saved money. Hoxie's desegregation was not an uneventful one, though it had been uneventful at first. But when Life magazine ran a three-page article about the desegregation, segregationist groups traveled to the area and began a campaign to stop integration. The segregationists circulated petitions and protested at the school.
"Parents opposed to the integration boycotted the school by pulling their children out of classes. Consequently, Hoxie's summer term ended two weeks early. A tense standoff between the Hoxie School Board and segregationists began. Gov. Orval Faubus refused to become involved. Meetings were held in an effort to determine if integration should go forward. ... Hoxie continued to experience difficulties due to segregationists' attempts to challenge the decision. Their attempts failed, and a permanent injunction stating that the school had the right to integrate without outside interference was issued by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Hoxie schools officially integrated."
Hoxie owes its existence to the fact that leaders next door in Walnut Ridge couldn't come to an agreement with the Kansas City, Springfield & Memphis Railroad in the late 1870s. Mary Boas suggested that the railroad use her land instead. Boas' husband, Henry, received a construction contract for part of the railroad. The Boas family built a hotel near the tracks in 1879. Hoxie was incorporated in 1888 and named for railroad executive H.M. Hoxie.
"Jobs remained plentiful, and the town flourished until the 1920s," McNeill writes. "During this time, famous people traveled through town by train. William Jennings Bryan and Jack Dempsey made short stops in Hoxie."
A strike by railroad workers in 1923 caused a number of families to leave. A tornado did damage in 1927, and railroad facilities later were moved to Poplar Bluff, Mo. The population of Hoxie dropped from 1,711 in the 1920 census to 1,448 in 1930. Growth was slow until the 1960s. Hoxie had 2,780 residents in 2020.
The county seat of Walnut Ridge had 4,890 residents in that 2010 census. Willis Miles Ponder, who came from Missouri, founded Walnut Ridge in 1875 and served as its first mayor. He first called the place Pawpaw due to the large number of pawpaw trees in the region. When he applied for a post office, Ponder was told there already was an Arkansas community with the name Pawpaw. He changed it to Walnut Ridge since there also were a lot of walnut trees.
A big boost for the city came when the federal government created an Army Air Forces flying school near Walnut Ridge during World War II. The school was among seven established across Arkansas. Contract flying schools were at Camden, Helena and Pine Bluff. Newport and Walnut Ridge had basic flying schools. Blytheville and Stuttgart had advanced twin-engine flying schools.
The Walnut Ridge Army Flying School enrolled 5,310 students during its existence, with 4,641 of them graduating. Construction on the airfield began June 20, 1942, after the government paid $305,075 for 3,096 acres. Auxiliary airfields were built at Biggers, Pocahontas, Walcott, Beech Grove and Bono. The government had to purchase 2,624 acres of farmland for those airfields.
The airfield was activated on Aug. 15, 1942. It was decommissioned on March 15, 1945.
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.