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OPINION | REX NELSON: One disaster after another

by Rex Nelson | February 12, 2022 at 2:58 a.m.

The tiny town of Gilbert, the subject of Wednesday's column, owes its existence to the Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad, a line so beset by problems that people once joked that its acronym stood for May Never Arrive.

Gilbert was established in the early 1900s as the railroad made its way through the mountains of Searcy County. The town was named for the railroad's president, Charles Gilbert.

"The M&NA was a regional carrier that at its peak stretched from Joplin, Mo., to Helena," writes Arkansas railroad historian Glenn Mosenthin. "The railroad was plagued with weather-induced disasters, periods of labor unrest, questionable decisions by absentee managers and owners, unforgiving topography, economic conditions, fires and bad luck.

"After completion of the line, it existed for only four decades. The M&NA was the victim of a territory that couldn't produce sufficient revenue to support it. It had tough competition from the Missouri Pacific's two routes through the region. The railroad was also constructed in a less-than-substantial fashion, which led to its many washouts and infrastructure failures."

The railroad began as a connection to Frisco tracks in Seligman, Mo. Former Gov. Powell Clayton had promoted the Eureka Springs Railway, which reached Eureka Springs in February 1883. As interest in traveling to the spas there fell off in the late 1890s, it was decided that a new organization (the St. Louis & North Arkansas Railroad) should take over the line in order to serve lead and zinc mines in north Arkansas.

The original plan was to build a line along what's now the U.S. 65 corridor to Little Rock. The extension reached Harrison in April 1901 and Leslie in September 1903. The railroad was reorganized as the M&NA in 1906. It entered receivership in April 1912.

The M&NA recovered until entering receivership for a second time following the Great Flood of 1927. In April 1935, the Missouri & Arkansas Railway Co. was organized to take over what had been M&NA property. Operations ended in September 1946. Salvage of tracks began in April 1949.

Gilbert prospered in its early years. Barbara Sloan writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas: "As the town grew, it boasted four stores, two hotels, several sawmills and three doctors. ... The Gilbert Saloon, owned by Uriah Still, was the first saloon during the town's heyday. In August 1915, the Buffalo River flooded, and the saloon, which was between the railroad and river, washed away along with the Eagle Pencil Co. mill.

"A man tried to stabilize the saloon by wrapping several coils of cable around the building and attaching the end to the rail tracks. But the cable snapped, and the saloon was lost."

Eagle, which was based in Connecticut, manufactured millions of pencils a year. The company hired Searcy County residents to cut cedar trees and float them down the Buffalo River to the Gilbert mill. One flotilla of 185,000 logs took 22 days to reach Gilbert.

"By the early 1940s, the railroad had moved on, the timber industry slowed and Gilbert began to fade," Sloan writes.

Shortly after the end of World War I, Ohio native John Adams Battenfield arrived at Gilbert. Battenfield, who was ordained as a minister in the Disciples of Christ, taught that the world would soon end in a war between Catholics and Protestants. He called for people to move to self-sufficient communities in the mountains known as Kingdom Units.

"In each community, all property was to be communally owned, government was to be in the hands of church elders and those who refused to work faced eviction," writes Arkansas historian Russell Baker. "All members would also learn Hebrew, the language of the incoming kingdom. Because of its remoteness in the Ozarks, Gilbert was chosen as the location of one of the units."

Gilbert was the first location of a Battenfield colony. There were later colonies established at Elkton, Ore., and Buffalo Ridge, Va.

"His movement attracted followers from urban and rural working classes, many of whom were dissatisfied with established churches," Baker writes. "The Gilbert unit was launched in September 1920 when C.E. Jordan, a wealthy Illinois farmer and firm believer in Battenfield's vision, bought land and divided it into lots for incoming colonists.

"Within a few months, 70 people made their homes in the community. A church, schoolhouse and printing plant were built. The publication Incoming Kingdom Harbinger was printed and mailed nationwide from Gilbert. The new residents began mission outreach efforts in the nearby communities of Bruno, St. Joe and Witts Springs. A cooperative store was opened at Bruno, and a manufacturing cooperative, Water Creek Christian Industries, was organized at Maumee."

By 1925, Battenfield (who died in Ohio in 1952) was gone from Arkansas.

"Battenfield's utopian vision soon ran afoul of the individuality of his colonists, with many followers reluctant to share their possessions freely with others," Baker writes. "Additional problems arose when Battenfield began to abandon traditional Christian teachings on the Trinity and other subjects. The year 1923 passed without the appearance of the Messiah and his kingdom that Battenfield had promised.

"In 1925, after several failed public attempts to bring a deceased parishioner back to life, Battenfield suffered a nervous breakdown. His publication was suspended, and he and his family left Gilbert. Shortly afterward, his remaining Gilbert followers renounced his teachings."

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

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