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OPINION | REX NELSON: A place called Hope

by Rex Nelson | January 10, 2021 at 8:50 a.m.

The Harry Thomason film that introduced nominee Bill Clinton to the Democratic National Convention in 1992 helped make Hope famous.

For those my age who grew up in Arkansas, Clinton was always thought to be from Hot Springs. That's where he came of age and graduated from high school. But he was born at Hope and lived there through kindergarten.

You have to admit that "I still believe in a place called Hope" has a better ring to it than "I hail from the loose buckle on the Bible Belt, that Sodom of the South known as Hot Springs."

What's now Hope was part of a blackland prairie known as the Prairie De Roan. The town sprang up along the Cairo & Fulton Railroad tracks in the early 1870s.

"Walter Shiver built the first house near the depot in 1873," the late Mary Nell Turner, a beloved Hope educator and local historian, once wrote. "The town was incorporated April 8, 1875, and the first officials were elected May 14 of that year. The Barlow Hotel opened in 1886, seeking to fill the need for lodging and dining.

"Three more railways had arrived in Hope by 1902, and passenger service continued until 1971. By 1900, the town had begun to produce electricity, an idea promoted by retired steamboat captain Judson T. West, who had moved to Hope in 1875."

The Barlow Hotel became well known throughout the region. Noted Little Rock financier Witt Stephens was a friend of the Barlow family. Stephens' younger brother Jack worked several summers at the Barlow Hotel as a busboy. The Barlow family sold the hotel in 1943, but it remained in operation until a September 1964 electrical fire destroyed the building.

An 1888 article stated that the growing railroad town of Hope included lumber mills, a wagon factory, a cotton compress, two banks, a newspaper, a public school and an opera house in addition to the hotel. By the 1930s, U.S. 67 was sometimes known as the Broadway of America, and its route through Hope brought additional businesses.

"The Arkansas Supreme Court declared Hope the county seat on May 11, 1939, after five bitterly fought elections to move the courthouse from Washington to Hope," Turner wrote. "An act of Congress in May 1824 had named Washington the county seat, but Hope citizens believed their town had become the commercial center of the county. The federal Public Works Administration built Hope's courthouse in 1939. On July 1, 1941, the government announced a land condemnation order and work began on the Southwestern Proving Ground.

"The government built the Army ordnance plant on 50,000 acres of farmland just north of Hope. Four dozen Army officers directed the activities and were assisted by an Army Air Corps detachment of about 150 men. Civilian employees--more than 750 daily--were transported by bus from Hope and surrounding counties. The first ammunition was tested Jan. 1, 1942. Work continued until the end of the war in 1945. Some employees, both civilian and Army, remained in Hope."

The airport at the proving ground was deeded to the city and dedicated as Hope Municipal Airport in April 1947. In June of that year, the government deeded another 750 acres near the airport to the city. The War Assets Administration turned over 2,500 acres for an industrial park. Much of the rest of the land was sold back to its original owners.

"Hope's economy had long depended on farming," Turner wrote. "Cotton was the chief crop. More than 30,000 bales a year were produced in the mid-1930s. So many buyers had offices on Second Street that it was known as Cotton Row. The United Cotton Seed Oil mill was a successful industry as long as cotton was grown. More diversified farming began to be encouraged when the University of Arkansas established an experiment station near Hope.

"The poultry industry in the area began when Freda R. Greenan moved her business from Illinois in 1951, helping to revive the economy by encouraging farmers to raise chickens. She sold Corn Belt Hatcheries of Arkansas in 1964. Hempstead County's forests provided timber for lumber companies and manufacturers. A handle factory that was incorporated in 1901 produced hardwood handles that were shipped worldwide. It closed in 2004."

Hope's population soared from 1,644 in 1900 to 7,475 in 1940. The city continued to grow, hitting 10,290 residents in the 1980 census. Like most towns in south Arkansas, it has struggled to prevent population losses during the past 40 years. The population is now estimated at 9,700.

One of the last full days I spent on the road before the pandemic hit last year was at Hope. I was scheduled to be the speaker at the annual banquet of the Hope-Hempstead County Chamber of Commerce (an event that was later canceled) and wanted to get a feel for what was going on there. I was impressed by the extensive effort to bring life back to downtown Hope.

Hope became part of the Arkansas Downtown Network in 2018. Since that time, downtown has welcomed nine new businesses with a couple of more expansions, seen four building rehabilitations, seen the placement of a large "Welcome to Historic Downtown Hope" sign, had all its streetlight poles equipped with LED lighting, formed a beautification committee that has transformed flower beds in the historic district, and celebrated the opening of Pavilion Park.

The chamber's offices moved into a new space. The organization oversaw the placement of three statues, red trash receptacles and black benches downtown. There has been an increased interest in upper-level living in downtown buildings along with a growing number of events. The Hempstead County Courthouse is being relocated to a former bank building.

Hope's historic depot, built in 1912, served the railroad for 53 years and then spent more than three decades as the offices of the Stephens Grocer Co. In 1999, the Harold Stephens family donated the building to the city. It now serves as a visitors' center.

Meanwhile, work began in 2019 to transform a 1921 house that had been empty since 2008 into a visitors' center for the company that makes Klipsch speakers. That house is adjacent to the Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site, which is operated by the National Park Service.

With the 1992 election of Clinton as president, Hope had a reason for people to pull off the interstate. Clinton spent the first four years of his life in his grandparents' house at 117 S. Hervey St. The house opened to the public as a museum in June 1997.

The house was built in 1917 for Dr. H.S. Garrett. It was purchased in 1938 by Eldridge Cassidy and Edith Grisham Cassidy, Clinton's grandparents.

"Their daughter, Virginia Cassidy Blythe, made her home with them after the death of her husband, William Jefferson Blythe, while she was still expecting their only child," Bill Norman wrote for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Clinton was born at Julia Chester Hospital in Hope. The building no longer stands, but a plaque marks the spot where it once existed. Clinton's grandparents raised him in their home while their daughter studied nursing in New Orleans."

The house, which passed through other owners, was vacant at the time of the 1992 election. When Clinton became president in 1993, a foundation was formed to acquire the house and restore it. The Clinton Birthplace Foundation had to repair the roof while adding new siding. It later acquired furniture to make the home look like it had in the late 1940s.

The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May 1994. It was designated a historic site by the U.S. Department of the Interior in December 2010. A Christmas Day fire in 2015 damaged the home. It reopened to the public on July 30, 2016, and still operates, allowing people to learn more about Clinton's early years in "a place called Hope."

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

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