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It has been almost half a century, but I still have fond memories of those walks to downtown Benton from my grandparents' house at 111 Olive St. My grandmother didn't drive.

Benton and Saline County are far different places these days. In the 1960 census, taken the year after I was born, Benton had a population of 10,399. That was up from 3,502 two decades earlier when my father was in high school there. The city now has an estimated population of 37,000, more than 10 times what it was in 1940.

The county as a whole, fueled during the past 60 years by white flight out of Pulaski County, has grown from 19,163 in 1940 to 36,107 in 1970 to an estimated 125,000 today.

My father was raised at Benton during the Great Depression, the youngest of three children. Stores downtown stayed open late on Saturday nights. My dad, who died in 2011 at age 86, had vivid memories of his father getting all three kids out of bed before daylight each Sunday so they could help pick up trash downtown before people began arriving for church. It was one of Ernest Ezra Nelson's duties as city street commissioner. The family had a small city-owned house on Gunn Street in which to live.

Days in the 1960s and 1970s that were spent with my grandparents, both of whom lived into their 90s, were magical. My grandmother would take me downtown so she could shop, pay bills and maybe attend a movie at the Royal Theatre.

Even more special were the early fall days when we would walk to the Saline County Fair, and the summer days when we would load into my grandfather's Chevrolet in order to wade and pick up mussel shells in the Saline River at Peeler Bend.

Dad graduated from Benton High School in the spring of 1942 and was hired by Chicago Bridge & Iron Co., which was working around the clock to build an aluminum plant at Bauxite that could aid in the war effort. He was paid union wages, making more at age 18 than his father was making from the city.

Due to those generous wages and the promise that the next stop would be Brazil to build a bridge, my father decided he would stay with the company. Having been a football star for the Benton Panthers, he was being wooed by a well-known coach named Bill Walton at what's now Ouachita Baptist University.

Neither of my grandparents, both of whom were Saline County natives, had attended college. My grandmother insisted that her youngest child go to Ouachita that fall rather than staying on with Chicago Bridge & Iron, even going as far as calling Walton and telling him not to let the boy known as Red leave once he arrived on campus.

Dad played football as a freshman in the fall of 1942, served two years as a bombardier on a B-17, and then returned to play three more years of football, meet my mother and finally graduate in 1948. He never lived in Benton as an adult.

Named after U.S. Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of the Missouri Territory, the town started near the east bank of the Saline River in 1833.

"Rezin Davis deeded 80 acres to Benton and became its first mayor," Patricia Laster writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "The first business, opened in 1834, was an in-house store owned by Joshua Smith. The next year, this neighborhood became Saline Township, and Green B. Hughes was appointed postmaster. He owned one of several area gristmills."

Saline County was formed in November 1835 from part of Pulaski County. At the time, it included parts of what would become Grant, Perry and Garland counties. It was named for the Saline River, whose forks begin in the Ouachita Mountains of northwestern Saline County.

"After Arkansas became a state in 1836, local commissioners from the newly formed townships were elected to set a permanent county seat," Laster writes. "There were three choices. Benton, which was situated on the road to Little Rock, had the advantage of being more populous, near the center of the county and more prestigious because of the long existence of Saline Crossing.

"Ezra Owen campaigned for Collegeville, which was also on the main road but lay a few miles east. Charles Caldwell, a state representative for Saline County, wanted the seat to be in Caldwellton, where he had settled. It was five miles northwest of Benton near the Kentucky community."

In a November 1836 election, the five commissioners were selected. They decided on Benton. The first courthouse and jail were constructed there in 1838. By the 1880 census, Benton had 452 residents. Ashby Funeral Home, which is still around, was established in 1882. What's now Benton Utilities was created in 1916.

In addition to nearby bauxite mining, the Benton area became known for its pottery. John Hyten established Hyten Pottery Works. His son Charles "Bullet" Hyten renamed the company Eagle Pottery. By the early 1900s, the younger Hyten was experimenting with a new method that mixed colors of clay randomly. This pottery became known as Niloak, which is "kaolin" spelled backward. Kaolin was the kind of clay that was used. Niloak pottery continued to be produced until 1946 and remains in demand among collectors worldwide.

A group of Little Rock businessmen led by Hardy Winburn III purchased the company in 1934. Winburn streamlined production and improved marketing. During World War II, the company produced items such as porcelain electrical conductors for the government. It also produced more than a million clay pigeons for target practice. When military contracts ended, the company restructured. Niloak was dissolved, and Winburn Tile Co. was born.

I get lost driving in the residential areas of Benton these days, but many of the buildings downtown still look the same as they did when I would take those walks with my grandmother. Fortunately, there has been a renewed emphasis in recent years on restoring what's known as the Benton Commercial Historic District. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.

The oldest building in the district is the courthouse, designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles Thompson and built in 1902. It was constructed in the Romanesque Revival style and was featured in the 1973 Burt Reynolds movie "White Lightning."

The courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. A $24,000 renovation took place in 1939. More jail space was added in 1983 before a new jail southeast of downtown was built in 2007.

According to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program: "A New Deal-era mural by artist Julius Woeltz hangs inside the courthouse. It depicts bauxite miners drilling holes and filling train cars with the mineral. Benton's post office, at the corner of Main and Sevier streets, originally housed the mural. It was commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Section of Fine Arts in 1941 and completed the following year.

"On Dec. 7, 1941, the date of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, a Texas newspaper published a photo of Woeltz standing in front of the canvas as he sketched the miners in charcoal. Bauxite is a material necessary for the production of aluminum and would be needed to make planes, much of it provided by Saline County mines."

Because capital was hard to come by during the Great Depression, only three buildings in the historic district were built during the 1930s. The post office at 129 N. Main St. was constructed in 1939.

The Royal Theater is still there. The Independent Motion Pictures Theater (known by locals as the IMP) opened Jan. 14, 1922. In 1949, United Artists began to handle bookings. The IMP became known as the Royal at that time.

The theater, which was sold to actor and comedian Jerry Van Dyke in the late 1990s, was turned over to a group of actors known as the Royal Players in 2000. The space was then repurposed for live theater.

--ā€“ā€“ā€“ā€“ā€“vā€“ā€“ā€“ā€“ā€“--

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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