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OPINION | REX NELSON: DeValls Bluff dreaming

by Rex Nelson | March 24, 2021 at 3:36 a.m.

When I was a boy visiting my grandparents at Des Arc, we often traveled from the northern part of Prairie County south to DeValls Bluff. The purpose of those trips was to pick up barbecue from Craig's or fried catfish from Murry's. Craig's still operates at the same location. Murry's has since moved west to just the other side of Hazen.

My grandfather was once Prairie County judge, and he made the trip often because Des Arc and DeValls Bluff are dual county seats. Decades after those boyhood food runs, I became fascinated with DeValls Bluff because of its rich history. It's filled with interpretive signage. Though the population has never reached 1,000 in any official census, it's among the most historic communities in Arkansas.

"No other town in eastern Arkansas held such strategic importance to the Union Army during the Civil War as did DeValls Bluff," writes Delta historian Bill Sayger. "Jacob DeVall and his son, Chappel S., were apparently the first white settlers in the area. They first appear on Prairie County tax records in 1851. Post office department records indicate the town was named for Jacob.

"Chappel S. DeVall had a mercantile operation with a warehouse and home on the White River (now the White River basin) in 1849. At the beginning of the Civil War, the settlement consisted of only a store, dwelling house and boat landing. The town was occupied by Union forces in January and August of 1863. Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele occupied Little Rock on Sept. 10. When water was low on the Arkansas River, many boats couldn't reach the capital city. But they could navigate up the White River to DeValls Bluff."

Men and goods could be transferred to the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad from the boats and then taken to Little Rock.

"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. "Although there was little interference from Confederates at DeValls Bluff, there were a few incidents of note."

It's estimated that as many as 2,000 people were in DeValls Bluff during the war. It was a wild place with saloons operated by Northern men such as Daniel Upham of New York. After the war, as the importance of river transportation declined, the population shrank. There were just 186 residents in the 1880 census.

The city's population peaked at 924 in the 1910 census as vast stands of virgin hardwood were cleared for timber while buttons were manufactured from the shells of White River mussels. The current population is about 570.

Enter Martin Smith of Wynne. Smith is a noted landscape architect who once practiced his trade in Austin, Texas. He restored a 1901 family home at Birdeye in Cross County and then set out to achieve his vision of using adventure and culinary tourism to bring life to the Arkansas Delta. That vision includes a sustainable regional food system with small specialty farms, cycling routes, regional music venues, restaurants utilizing local cuisine and outfitters for adventure tourism.

Smith's ancestors were among the first to take advantage of the Swamp Land Act of 1850, which gave the state the right to identify and sell millions of acres in the public domain and then use the proceeds to finance improvements such as levees and drainage ditches. Smith has a strong sense of history and place.

"Building a future often starts with connecting to the past," he says. "The historic and cultural assets, combined with natural resources, create the value of place and tell the story of who we are. That story is a magnet for others in search of a story of their own. You can build a fantastic cluster of buildings and businesses in the middle of a field, but it's the storytelling and story making that create a place people are drawn to.

"There are rural communities in Arkansas that have so much to offer. Too often, they lose focus and instead choose to tear down or ignore what makes them special."

Smith and business partner Tanner Weeks are the principals of Ecological Design Group, a design firm that has worked on projects ranging from the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville to the Bill Clark Wetlands in Little Rock. That have now created a nonprofit entity known as StudioDrift (Drift stands for "developing rural infrastructure for tomorrow") to work with partners who otherwise would be unable to afford their services.

The project needed a base of operations. A couple of buildings in what remains of DeValls Bluff's downtown were in danger of being torn down. Smith and members of his team saw an opportunity to use that location to begin building their vision for the Delta.

It has been more difficult than Smith ever imagined. Small-town politics in the Delta can be byzantine, and Smith has met resistance from local leaders who lack vision. They want to tear the historic buildings down.

Smith says: "We hope to bring these buildings back to a point where they can become a center of the community again--a place for gathering, for events, a base for travelers to visit. Whether they're enjoying activities on the river, biking trails or just passing through and sampling local food, we want to help provide a place to do it."

Smith was part of the effort to save the old U.S. 79 bridge over the White River at Clarendon for use by cyclists and hikers. That effort fell short due to stubborn federal bureaucrats, and the bridge was destroyed. Now DeValls Bluff has its chance if local officials don't mess up a good thing.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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