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REX NELSON: Paragould to the Bootheel

by Rex Nelson | July 18, 2020 at 2:51 p.m.

There's only one Paragould. It's where I'm spending my final night of a trip that has taken me on U.S. 412 from Siloam Springs on the Oklahoma border to the Missouri Bootheel. The city's unusual name comes from a combination of the names of two railroad magnates, Jay Gould and James Paramore.

"Gould gained control of the Iron Mountain Railroad in 1880," Mack Hamblen writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "He learned that Paramore's St. Louis-Texas Railroad was licensed to build a cheaper narrow-gauge line through Arkansas to Texas. Gould decided to construct a regular-gauge line to closely parallel Paramore's route. It would branch off the main Iron Mountain line at Knobel in Clay County and run through Greene County toward Helena. The railroads crossed six miles south of Gainesville.

"After the crossing gained a post office, the postmaster named the town Paragould, deriving the name from Paramore and Gould. The new town grew rapidly and became the county seat in 1884, beginning the sharp and sudden decline of Gainesville. ... Postmaster Marcus Meriwether named the town without any official approval. Paragould became a thriving community. Investors knew that the forests covering east Arkansas contained one of the few remaining quality hardwood sources in the nation. The availability of rail transportation brought about a surge of investments. Men abandoned their farms and flocked to work in the timber mills and factories that had been hurriedly constructed around the area. Merchants and professionals followed."

Paragould sits atop Crowley's Ridge, the geographic oddity that runs from southern Missouri to Helena. The lone break in the ridge, which ranges in width from one to 12 miles, is at Marianna where the L'Anguille River runs through it. Many of the trees on the ridge are like those found in the Appalachian Mountains far to the east. It's like no place else in Arkansas.

Benjamin Crowley, for whom Crowley's Ridge is named, moved his family to northeast Arkansas from Kentucky in 1815. He first settled along the Spring River. In December 1821, Crowley crossed the Black and Cache rivers to explore the ridge. He had a War of 1812 land grant and settled beside a freshwater spring on the ridge.

Hamblen notes that the "drained and newly cleared bottomland on both sides of Crowley's Ridge led to the development of large farm operations before the turn of the century. Timber-related businesses continued to spur industrial growth through the 1920s, but as the timber business declined, production of cotton, corn and soybeans increased. Significant rice production didn't come to the county until after World War II."

Paragould became the Greene County seat following a countywide vote in 1884. Construction of a courthouse was completed in 1888. A massive railroad machine shop came to Greene County in 1911 and serviced locomotives into the 1950s, employing up to 300 people at times.

"By 1890, there were 14 lumber mills in Paragould," Hamblen writes. "Products included both slack and tight barrel staves, boxes, wood veneer, spokes, dowel pins, caskets, baskets, handles, shingles and railroad ties. The Wrape Stave & Heading Mill was shipping 5 million barrels a year, more than any factory in the state. In 1894, that firm shipped more whiskey barrels than any other plant in the world. ... Paragould became the principal trading center of northeast Arkansas. The city's infrastructure had been developed to the extent that it could support the demands of industry and increased population. By 1910, the town had three department stores, an opera house, a hospital and six banks."

Paragould also became known as a sundown town; a place where African American citizens weren't welcome after sundown. Violent attempts to expel the city's black population occurred in 1888, 1892, 1899 and 1908. Black children weren't provided public education until 1948.

Through the years, Paragould became one of this state's manufacturing centers and still has a strong manufacturing base. City leaders were able to attract the Ely Walker shirt factory in 1937, the Ed White shoe factory in 1947, Wonder State Manufacturing in 1950, Foremost Foods' dairy division in 1952 and Emerson Electric Co. in 1955. Paragould has seen its population increase from 18,540 in 1990 to an estimated current population of 28,500. Better dining and overnight options have followed that growth.

My trip on U.S. 412 ends with the short drive from Paragould to the state line. I cross the St. Francis River into the Missouri Bootheel, go as far as the depressed Delta town of Cardwell and turn around. The Bootheel is unlike the rest of Missouri, but is much like northeast Arkansas. Cotton became king here in the early 1900s as the bottomland hardwoods were cut, the land was drained and row-crop agriculture began dominating the economy. With the rapid mechanization of agriculture following World War II, African American families left the region for jobs in the upper Midwest. Bootheel counties are now predominantly white.

A pioneer planter named John Hardeman Walker, who lived in what's now Pemiscot County, argued when Missouri was admitted to the Union that the area had more in common with the Mississippi River towns of St. Louis and Cape Girardeau in Missouri than with the neighboring Arkansas Territory. The area once was known as Lapland because it's where Missouri laps over into Arkansas.

I cross back over the St. Francis River into Arkansas and begin the long drive home to Little Rock.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at


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