The Rev. John T. Barr of Norman, Ark., has been dead for 57 years, but the many people whose lives he touched still refer to him with deep respect and admiration.
Barr established the first high school in Montgomery County, one of the poorest areas in the Ouachita Mountains of western Arkansas. Caddo Valley Academy was an example of the Mountain Mission Schools, a national movement sponsored by various Protestant denominations in the latter years of the 19th century.
When Dr. Barr arrived in Norman in 1911, he found an area littered with tiny one-room schools, not a single one of which went beyond the eighth grade, not even in the county seat of Mount Ida. Before long, his students were studying a wide variety of topics ranging from Latin to algebra.
John Tilman Barr Jr. was born March 10, 1886, to Augusta Betts Barr and John T. Barr Sr. in Hope, Hempstead County. He was a fragile child, reportedly having been born jaundiced due to his mother's malaria. Carefully watched over by his mother, Barr was educated at the Hope Institute of Learning, where all his teachers were women from Virginia. And they were all Presbyterians.
Shirley Shewmake Manning, a Montgomery County historian and a graduate of Caddo Valley Academy, has written about the role Barr's mother played in pushing her son toward good health: "At one point the doctor told his mother there could be no more school, that he would never again be able to attend [school]. Augusta refused to accept such a statement, and by the time he was 15, John was enrolled in college at Batesville."
In 1905, he and five other students received degrees from Arkansas College. His youthful ambition had been to become a lawyer and successful politician. But, once again, his health intervened.
In 1908, Barr was facing surgery when he had a religious vision in which God urged him to enter the ministry. In the autumn of that year, Barr traveled to Richmond, Va., where he enrolled at the venerable Union Theological Seminary, graduating in 1911.
Barr, who had planned on becoming a foreign missionary, was surprised when he was asked by the Ouachita Presbytery (which sponsored Barr at seminary) to accept a one-year pastorate of the eight-member Presbyterian church at the new railroad town of Womble near the Caddo River in southern Montgomery County. Barr arrived at Womble in July 1911 and settled in for his 12-month stay. As it turned out, he spent the remainder of his long life in Womble, which was later renamed Norman.
Barr jumped into his work, and before long he was pastoring 12 small Presbyterian churches in Montgomery and Pike counties. However, it was education which claimed Barr's deepest attention and effort. The educational scene in Womble was not encouraging.
Womble was something of a boomtown when Barr first saw the place. It was also something of an accident. Originally, the Gurdon and Fort Smith Railroad intended to extend its tracks from Glenwood in Pike County to Black Springs in southern Montgomery County where a large sawmill was planned, but a dispute over rights of way halted the railroad near the Caddo River and two miles short of Black Springs.
Archivist and historian Russell P. Baker, author of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas entry on Norman, wrote that in 1907 Walter E. Womble, a land speculator, "acquired land and staked out a new town, named Womble, in a cornfield just north of the railhead." Not surprisingly, Womble was named the first postmaster. The town was incorporated in 1910.
Womble flourished from the start as a sawmill town. A November 1916 newspaper account described the "mountain metropolis" as having "a score of business houses, four churches ... a strong [and] popular banking house ... a good, live, all home-print newspaper, four excellent hotels, and several good boarding houses, three physicians, and a like number of lawyers." Although the newspaper claimed a population of 800 souls, the 1910 U.S. census counted 552 residents--the largest town in the county.
Barr found the new town to be practically without a school system. Two local grade schools had been torn down and a new, larger public school was built, though it burned twice within the first few years. An inadequate budget did not allow the school to flourish.
Barr approached the Presbyterian Synod of Arkansas and secured official church support for opening a secondary school in Womble, and in 1921 Caddo Valley Academy was born. As historian Brooks Blevins has noted, CVA was a part of the mountain mission school movement which hoped to provide schools to the poor upland areas in the South.
An early example of these schools was the Helen Dunlap School for Mountain Girls, created in 1903 at Winslow in Washington County and sponsored by the Episcopal Church Diocese of Arkansas.
While Brooks Blevins recognizes Barr's religious motivations, he has written: "By all accounts, there was nothing particularly 'mountain mission-like' about Caddo Valley Academy. Instead, the academy operated on the model of the 19th-century preparatory schools, with heavy emphasis on Latin, English, mathematics, and Bible."
Unlike some mission schools which emphasized teaching manual and trade skills, CVA had no school farm, nor were students taught handicrafts. Barr wrote on one occasion "thoroughness in all branches of school work will be required of students, and the graduate of this Academy will be prepared to enter the freshman class at college."
Barr was constantly raising money to underwrite the costly academy. Tuition, a mere $9 per year for junior students and $18 for those in the high school, never amounted to much. The situation grew worse during the Great Depression. In an arrangement which today would be considered a major breach of the wall separating church and state, Dr. Barr convinced the city of Norman for CVA to serve as the town's school system.
During the 1930s the city re-asserted control of the school, but Barr remained an influential member of the public school board. In 1961 the Arkansas Synod sold the remaining portions of the Academy to the Norman School District.
Dr. Barr's wife, Gretta Cunningham Barr--a teacher at the Academy when they married in 1922--died in 1959. Barr died four years later. Soon after his death, Norman Presbyterian changed its name to Barr Memorial Presbyterian Church.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.firstname.lastname@example.org.