We're driving down a gravel road in western Scott County on a sunny Friday. I'm not sure where we're headed. In fact, I'm not sure my driver (federal Judge Billy Roy Wilson, a Scott County native) is sure. Few places in Arkansas are more rural than Scott County, established in 1833 when Arkansas was still a territory.
The county had a population of 9,836 people in the 2020 census. More than half the county's 893 square miles are part of the Ouachita National Forest. Trees far outnumber people in these parts.
We finally find our way back to Arkansas 28. If we take a left and head west, we'll cross the state line and be in Heavener, Okla. Since I don't write about Oklahoma, we take a right and head back toward the county seat of Waldron, which had a population of 3,386 residents in the 2020 census.
I find in my travels across Arkansas that the least populated counties sometimes have the richest histories. Scott County, where the population peaked at 14,302 in the 1910 census, is certainly no exception. The county is named for Andrew Scott, a justice on the territorial Supreme Court.
"The act that created the county provided that the residence of Walter Cauthron, located near what's now Booneville in Logan County, would serve as the 'temporary seat of justice,'" writes Scott County native Wes Goodner.
"In 1836, faced with choosing a county seat of a more permanent nature, commissioners chose the community of Cauthron and proceeded to establish a courthouse. Because of numerous redefinitions of Scott County's boundaries, the original site of Cauthron is now within present-day Logan County and isn't the present-day Scott County community known as Cauthron.
"In 1840, popular opinion demanded that the county seat be in a more central location. The community of Winfield, located a mile and a half to two miles northeast of present-day Waldron, was selected. This Winfield shouldn't be confused with the present-day community with the same name."
By the 1830s, William Featherston had settled near what's now Waldron and become a business owner and postmaster. The post office was established under the name Poteau Valley in June 1838. In 1845, Featherston offered 10 acres for a county seat.
"His offer was accepted, and owing in no small part to the poor road system to and from Winfield, the county seat was moved to what's now Waldron," Goodner writes. "The land was later surveyed and a plat was designed by John P. Waldron, for whom Waldron is named. Following the establishment of Waldron as county seat, several years of relative prosperity, progress and calm followed.
"As with other counties situated in mountainous regions, slavery, while it did exist, wasn't widespread in Scott County. Consequently, people were initially divided on the issue of secession. After hostilities began, however, county residents were overwhelmingly supportive of the Confederacy. . . . Although no major Civil War battles were fought in Scott County, several hostile encounters did take place. Rations were in short supply, and resources were depleted during the Union occupation of Waldron."
The Reconstruction era proved more violent than the war itself. A series of events known as the Waldron War took place throughout the county.
"These events, from 1874 until 1879, usually involved personal, political or Civil War-related animus," Goodner writes. "The result was about 30 violent deaths and the militia being dispatched by the governor to the county on at least three occasions. . . . The turn of the century brought railroads, a coal mining industry, cotton crops and a successful merchant district in downtown Waldron."
On our way back to Waldron, Wilson and I pass through Cauthron and Hon. Cauthron was established along the Poteau River and incorporated in the 1870s. Bushwhacking was prevalent in this remote area during the Civil War. The town was named after Judge Joe Cauthron, who lived in nearby Sebastian County.
"Asbury Tyler built a sawmill and gristmill soon after settling the area," Ty Richardson writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "In addition to the two mills, Cauthron had stores, a blacksmith shop and a woodworking shop when it was incorporated. Cauthron also was the first town in the county to have a high school."
In 1904, the Arkansas Western Railroad, a subsidiary of the Kansas City Southern, built a 31.7-mile line from Heavener to Waldron to serve the timber industry. A small depot was built at Cauthron. Most of the virgin forests in the area had been cut by the late 1920s, and mills closed. Residents moved away, and Cauthron's school was consolidated with Waldron in 1940.
Hon was named for John Hon, whose father settled here before the Civil War. It's near Bull Creek, a tributary of the Poteau River. It's said that the creek was named when settlers saw two bulls fighting on the bank. A school was established at Hon in the late 1880s, and a depot was built when the Arkansas Western Railroad came along.
"The community changed its name from Poteau to Hon in 1904," Richardson writes. "John Hon was postmaster at the time. By 1907, the community of Hon had established a telephone connection with Waldron Telephone Co. The community had as many as four stores, two churches, a cotton gin, a sawmill and a school. By the 1920s, Pleasant Grove Baptist Church was renamed as Hon Baptist Church.
"The school district consolidated with Waldron in 1929, but the brick school building continued to serve as an elementary school until the 1950s. After the decline of the timber industry, the town began losing businesses. Ilene Syler became acting postmaster in 1943. The next year, she became postmaster and continued in that role until retiring in 1973. The post office at Hon closed when she retired."
A Scott County community on the Arkansas-Oklahoma border known as Coaldale speaks to the former importance of the mining industry in this part of the county.
"After veins of coal were discovered at the base of Poteau Mountain north of Coaldale, mining became an important industry in the late 1800s," Richardson writes. "Coaldale was established in 1903. . . . The first depot to be built along the Arkansas Western Railroad was 10 miles east of Heavener near what's now Coaldale. It was called Godman Depot after C.C. Godman, who was president of the railroad and Godman Coal Co. In 1906, Godman Coal was acquired by Black Diamond Coal Co. The company employed about 50 men in the Coaldale mines.
"Mining operations in Coaldale continued after World War II. Large strip pits eventually were mined. After they were abandoned, they filled with water and were used as fishing and swimming areas. Ferrell-Cooper Mining Co. mined near the strip pits in the early 2010s."
The timber and poultry industries now dominate the Scott County economy. Arkansas Valley Poultry established a plant in Waldron in the 1960s that was later purchased by Tyson Foods.
"With the coming of larger chain establishments, the commercial district of Waldron has seen much shift from Main Street to areas along the nearby U.S. 71 bypass," Goodner writes. "With the installation of street lamps, a conservation easement and renovations to the former courthouse, efforts have been made to revitalize the downtown area."
The judge and I have lunch at Rock Cafe in downtown Waldron, which has been around since 1936.
Noted Arkansas food writer Kat Robinson wrote after a visit to what locals know simply as the Rock: "You go in and sit below yellowed photographs of stars, from Elvis Presley to John Wayne, and order a meal that's served under wood-paneled walls that have changed little with time. Each day, the buffet is different. The fried chicken is excellent, and the chicken and dumplings are some of the best you'll ever find. Thursday is Mexican fare; Friday is catfish. And little changes from year to year."
That can be said of Scott County itself. Little changes from year to year.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.