For those interested in the rich culture of the lower White River region of Arkansas, the state's Lower White River Museum at Des Arc is a perfect place to start.
Des Arc, one of the oldest towns in Arkansas, owes its existence to the White. Frenchman Francis Francure settled here in the late 1700s, and other white settlers began to move in early in the next century.
James Erwin (my grandparents lived on Erwin Street in Des Arc) and George Claiborne Watkins platted the town in 1848. Des Arc was a thriving steamboat stop by the start of the Civil War. Its leaders had engaged in a heated rivalry with Little Rock during the 1850s regarding the route of a railroad that eventually would connect Memphis to Fort Smith. In November 1858, Des Arc aldermen even passed a meaningless resolution calling for the people of Arkansas to make Des Arc the state capital.
When Union Gen. Samuel Curtis captured Des Arc during the war, he described the city as a "handsome success."
According to the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas: "Des Arc was partially destroyed during the war, and some of the city's buildings were disassembled and transported south to DeValls Bluff for use by the Union Army. However, the townspeople were able to rebuild.
"In 1875, Des Arc became the seat of Prairie County, taking that honor away from DeValls Bluff, which had been designated the county seat in 1868. Ten years later, a second judicial district was created in DeValls Bluff because of regular flooding along the White River."
Steamboat use declined as Rock Island's railroad lines came to town in the early 1900s, but commercial fishing flourished on the river. White River catfish was advertised in restaurants throughout the region in those years before commercial fish farming. Large numbers of people lived on houseboats along the lower White. They supplemented their commercial fishing efforts with trapping and gathering mussel shells.
"America's mother-of-pearl button industry boomed in the late 1800s due to a seemingly inexhaustible supply of freshwater mussels, the bounty of Mississippi River tributaries," writes Lenore Shoults, a former executive director of the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas. "Long made from saltwater marine shells, pearl buttons could now be made from freshwater shells due to new engineering techniques. In addition, the 1890s McKinley tariff on imported goods protected the market for American button makers, allowing mother-of-pearl button manufacturing to explode."
Button-finishing plants in Iowa and New York were supplied with button blanks punched out from freshwater mussel shells. What were known as button factories were located in towns along the lower White. Clarendon, for instance, had the Keithsburg Pearl Button Co. (later the Rockport Pearl Button Co.). A button factory at DeValls Bluff was started by Jim O'Hara of Memphis in 1896 and operated during the first half of the 20th century.
"Supplying the button blank factories with raw materials offered farm families extra income because shell harvesting fit around the ebb and flow of agriculture," Shoults writes. "Families worked together--the men hauling the mussels from the river and the women and children steaming them open, discarding the animal flesh back into the river for fish food, drying and sorting the shells, and keeping an eye out for pearls.
"Some button blank operations consisted of a single man, while other factories employed as many as 60 workers. Factories, which had to be close to a railroad for shipping outbound cargo, had button-cutting machines with variously sized tubular saws that generated small to large button blanks. Coal or propane, and later electricity, powered the machinery. The shells were softened by soaking in water prior to drilling, and this necessitated water towers in certain locations. A few factories had grinding capability, pulverizing spent shells into agricultural lime or meal."
After World War II, plastic buttons began to be used, and the Arkansas button factories closed. If you look closely in those old river towns along the lower White, you can still find piles of mussel shells. One of my grandmother's most treasured possessions was a necklace made from pearls that had been found in White River mussels.
The Lower White River Museum has displays on the button-making and pearl-gathering eras along the river. There are also displays that relate to timber, agriculture, boat traffic on the river, hunting, fishing and the Civil War.
It began in 1970 as the Bethell Pioneer Museum, named for John P. Bethell, who served from 1949-73 in the Arkansas House of Representatives. Bethell, who died in 1981, was House speaker from 1961-63. He sponsored a legislative act in 1969 that provided $35,000 during the next two fiscal years for Arkansas State University-Beebe to operate the museum. In 1975, it was turned over to what's now the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.
Those exploring the lower White should continue south to check out DeValls Bluff on the west side of the river and Clarendon on the east side. When visiting my grandparents at Des Arc as a boy, we often would go to DeValls Bluff to eat pork barbecue at Craig's or fried catfish at Murry's. Both of the Black-owned restaurants have since been inducted into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame.
Craig's continues to operate at its original location. Murry's has since moved west on U.S. 70 to a spot between Hazen and Carlisle. I'm biased since I grew up on their offerings, but I still say Craig's has my favorite barbecue in the state and Murry's fries my favorite catfish.
DeValls Bluff is also a required stop for those interested in Arkansas history since it has numerous historic markers. Delta historian Bill Sayger once wrote: "Excluding Helena, no other town in eastern Arkansas held such strategic importance to the Union Army during the Civil War as did DeValls Bluff."
Jacob DeVall and his son Chappel were among the first white settlers in the area. The town is named for Jacob. Chappel DeVall had a mercantile operation with a warehouse and home on the river by 1849. DeValls Bluff was occupied by Union forces in 1863. When water was low on the Arkansas River, boats couldn't reach Little Rock. They instead went up the White River to DeValls Bluff, where goods were transferred to the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad.
"For that reason, DeValls Bluff's port area was heavily fortified for the remainder of the war and was home to many soldiers--Black and white--and refugees," Sayger writes. "Federal troops took down the courthouse at Clarendon and shipped the brick upriver to DeValls Bluff, where it was used to erect fireplaces and chimneys. ... The troops stationed at DeValls Bluff patronized stores and saloons that rapidly sprang up, many operated by Northern men such as Daniel Upham of New York, who came to town in the closing days of the war to open a saloon."
Clarendon, just south of where the Cache River flows into the White, was settled in the late 1700s by French trappers and hunters. What was known as the Military Road from Memphis crossed the White River at Clarendon, increasing its importance. There was a ferry crossing and a post office there by 1828.
The town has been the Monroe County seat since the county was established in November 1829 by the Arkansas Territorial Legislature. Due to its importance to the agricultural and timber operations in the area, Clarendon's population soared from 400 in the 1880 census to 2,638 in the 1920 census. It was back down to 1,664 by 2010.
DeValls Bluff went from a high of 924 in the 1910 census to 619 in 2010. Des Arc dropped from 2,001 in the 1980 census to 1,717 in 2010. Population losses continue in all three towns.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.