The booming Fayetteville-to-Bentonville corridor provides a wealth of attractions, from Razorback athletic events and the joys of Dickson Street at Fayetteville in the south to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, The Momentary and downtown dining in Bentonville to the north.
But residents and visitors alike should occasionally take U.S. 412 west to the Oklahoma line and experience Siloam Springs. It's a town that doesn't receive the attention of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville, but has become one of my favorite places in the state. The former health resort is rich in history.
Siloam Springs is where my journey across north Arkansas (chronicled in a story that starts on the front page of this section) began. It's a place I learned to appreciate during the five years I spent as president of Arkansas' Independent Colleges & Universities. John Brown University was among our 11 member institutions, and that meant regular trips there.
At the time John Elward Brown established the school in 1919, Siloam Springs was a health resort. "Siloam" refers to the healing waters of the Pool of Siloam in the New Testament.
The first white settlers were believed to have been Simon Sager and members of his family in the late 1830s. A settlement known as Hico was established along spring-fed Sager Creek, and a post office opened in 1855.
"In 1880, Hico merchant and former Union scout John Valentine Hargrove established Siloam City on land he owned in the valley along Sager Creek," Don Warden writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Several factors led him to do this. The St. Louis-San Francisco Railway (later known as the Frisco) in eastern Benton County led residents on the west side of the county to think that they too would soon have a railroad. The pure spring water flowing into Sager Creek was said to be medicinal, and testimonials about cures attracted health seekers even before Hargrove platted his land into a town. Trade with the Cherokee Nation and farming continued to be important parts of the local economy.
"Promotion of the town was so successful that it was incorporated the next year as Siloam Springs. In 1882, the Hico post office closed and the Siloam Springs post office opened. The Hico post office reopened from 1885-94. Owners of land surrounding Siloam Springs platted their property to form commercial and residential additions to the town in 1880, 1881 and 1882. While there was still no prospect of a rail line in Siloam Springs by the mid-1880s, many of those who made up the town's initial population boom began to leave. By 1890, the population was 821."
In 1892, the Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad began building south from Sulphur Springs, which is near the Missouri border. The railroad line reached Siloam Springs the next year. The railroad was reorganized as the Kansas City Southern in 1900.
Warden writes: "To ensure that the line would pass through town, local businessmen led by Robert S. Morris of the Bank of Siloam pledged $20,000 to the railroad, half when the first passenger train arrived and the rest six months later. They also secured land for the depot and 10 miles of right of way for the track. On Dec. 20, 1893, the railroad reached Siloam Springs. Most of the buildings in the downtown historic district were built between this date and the beginning of the Great Depression."
Siloam Springs annexed Hico in 1904. In addition to bringing those wanting to take the waters, the railroad enabled area farmers to ship out apples, peaches and strawberries. In 1908, the Arkansas, Oklahoma & Western Railroad was completed from Rogers to Siloam Springs. This made the area even more accessible. By 1901, Benton County led the nation in apple production, producing 2.5 million bushels and becoming known as the Land of the Big Red Apple. Production hit 5 million bushels by 1919 before diseases in the early 1920s began devastating the apple orchards.
Farmers later started switching over to cattle and poultry. By 1924, Benton County led the state in egg production. By 1938, the county was the largest broiler-producing county in the nation.
My mother often would tell stories about the long trips in the 1930s from her home at Des Arc in east Arkansas to what was known as the Arkansas Baptist Assembly near Siloam Springs. The assembly, which would later transform into a retreat center known as Camp Siloam, was established by the Arkansas Baptist State Convention in 1923 and was operated by the ABSC until 2006 when it was given its own nonprofit status.
Other camps were established in the area. Gypsy Camp, a private summer camp for girls, opened in 1921 along the Illinois River. Camp was held there until 1978.
In 1926, Earl Allen established Allen Canning Co. to produce canned tomatoes. The Siloam Springs company was a major employer for decades before going bankrupt. Poultry processor Simmons Foods established its headquarters at Siloam Springs in 1952. It now has more than 1,000 employees in the area.
Downtown Siloam Springs has transformed itself into a first-class shopping and entertainment district. During trips there in recent years, I enjoyed witnessing the construction of Memorial Park. What was formerly Medical Springs Park has been transformed with the addition of a splash pad, an amphitheater and farmers' market.
In 2016, the city received a $300,000 grant from the Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program of the Walton Family Foundation to pay for design of the project on the former site of Siloam Springs Memorial Hospital. Construction of the $3.23 million park began in May 2018 with work funded by a local sales tax.
I also watched work to make Broadway Street more pedestrian friendly. That initiative added angled parking, rain gardens and landscaping. Everything from craft breweries to fine-dining venues opened downtown, which soon had a building occupancy rate of more than 90 percent. By the end of 2018, downtown Siloam Springs was the home of 12 restaurants or taprooms, 24 retail shops, seven salons/barbershops and two dance studios. And the springs that gave the city its name are still there.
According to the Siloam Springs Museum: "Belief in the medicinal value of mineral water dates to ancient times. Spas devoted to bathing in or drinking mineral waters enjoyed their greatest popularity in the 19th century. Of the thousands of mineral springs in North America, about 800 at one time had resorts where people came to take the waters. One of these resorts was Siloam Springs. Of the dozen or more springs that emerged from the earth in the vicinity of the Hico settlement, eight came to be considered medicinal.
"The springs were usually described as pure water that would flush the disease-causing impurities out of a person's body. On a list from 1898, one of the Twin Springs was said to have contained a small amount of arsenic, but on other lists it's described as pure water.
"The only spring consistently listed as a mineral spring is Iron Spring. Signs at both the Twin and Siloam springs threatened a $5 fine for washing in the springs. Today both the Siloam and Twin Springs are in basins, but these basins were built to keep Sager Creek out of the spring, not to hold spring waters for bathing. Though these springs were once considered medicinal, they now have been declared unsafe for drinking due to high levels of bacteria in the water."
On the nearby Illinois River, Siloam Springs has its own kayak park. The park opened in the spring of 2014 after the city received a grant from the Walton Family Foundation to purchase riverfront property adjacent to Fisher Ford Road and construct a park. The flow of the river was engineered to create a series of whitewater rapids and standing waves.
Other park features include a swimming area, climbing boulder and walking trails. It's yet another amenity that makes Siloam Springs a hidden gem in a corner of the state.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.