I’m intrigued by Arkansas counties that incorporate different geographic regions. I grew up in one. In Clark County, where I was raised, Joan in the Gulf Coastal Plain is a different place than Amity in the Ouachita Mountains.
The counties where the difference is most dramatic, though, are the ones where the foothills of the Ozarks suddenly give way to the flatlands of the Delta. Lawrence County, sometimes known as the Mother of Counties because it once covered most of north Arkansas, is just such a place.
What’s now Lawrence County is divided by the Black River. On the west side, one finds the Ozarks. On the east side, it’s the flat row-crop country of the Arkansas Delta. Lawrence County is where we spent much of our second day during the trip that’s chronicled in a story that begins on the front page of this section.
The county was named for James Lawrence, a naval hero in the War of 1812. It was created in 1815 as part of the Missouri Territory and was the second (after Arkansas County) of the five counties that would become the Arkansas Territory in 1819. The area that was Lawrence County eventually would be divided into 31 counties.
“White settlers first inhabited the county’s western regions, traveling on the Black River or, after 1811, over the Military Road,” John Jacobsen writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “This route, along with the swampy conditions in the east, explains the early settlement concentration in the county’s hilly western half. The earliest important settlement was at Davidsonville along the Black River. Named for territorial legislator John Davidson, the town served as the first county seat in 1816. Exaggerated tradition claims 3,000 Davidsonville residents before yellow fever ended the settlement. In 1829, the county seat moved to Jackson on the Military Road.”
The first Lawrence County community on our trip across north Arkansas on U.S. 412 was Ravenden, which was established alongside a new railroad in the 1880s. Mike Polston of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies writes: “With the development of the town along the tracks, it soon became a trade center. The business sector is no longer located on the original site. In 1947, the business sector slowly began to move to the newly completed U.S. highway, where it remains today.”
The first white settler in this area was a former British soldier named William J. Ball, who had fought at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. He settled along the Spring River in 1858. Polston notes that he named his settlement Opposition, “saying it was in opposition to the nearest town of Smithville. It never grew very large and died when it was bypassed by the railroad. With the completion of the main line of the Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis Railroad in 1883, it was decided to build a trunk line to the resort town of Ravenden Springs in Randolph County, seven miles to the north.
“The new town at the intersection was to be called Ravenden Junction. Though the trunk line was never constructed, a settlement that had begun to develop along the main line thrived especially with the completion of a depot and section house. Two passenger trains a day serviced the town. The last passenger coach passed through on Dec. 8, 1967.”
The sons of William Ball–Sam and Trick–were leading merchants. The name Ravenden became official when a post office was established in 1891. A brick schoolhouse was built in 1918 and was used until consolidation with Sloan-Hendrix at Imboden in the 1940s. In the 1930s, the town suffered a major fire that destroyed many of its businesses. Its best-known feature these days is a 12-foot figure that looks like a giant raven. It was first constructed in 1991.
The next town we entered on the way east was Imboden. Paul Austin, the former head of the Arkansas Humanities Council who was along for the trip through north Arkansas, hails from there. We took a break on the back deck of his mother’s home, which overlooks the Spring River.
“Though a number of settlers lived in the area by the 1820s, the town, which became a local trade center, didn’t exist until the construction of the railroad in 1883,” Polston writes about Imboden. “By the 1820s, the Military Road crossed the Spring River near the present town, attracting settlers. There’s evidence that a few houses and a store existed prior to the coming of the railroad. One of those early settlers was Benjamin Imboden, who moved his family in 1828. Imboden acquired considerable property, eventually owning the largest amount of land in the area. The town was named in his honor.
“In 1882, just prior to the coming of the railroad, Imboden sold the land where much of the town would be built to wealthy local developer W.C. Sloan. The first business, Sloan Mercantile Co., opened in late 1883 and remained in business until 1930.”
At the time Imboden was incorporated in April 1889, there were three general stores, two grocery stores, two saloons, a hotel, a livery stable and a school. There was a ferry across the Spring River until the first bridge was constructed in 1898. A new bridge was built in 1938 by the federal Public Works Administration. In 1891, the board of Hendrix College decided to establish five academies across the state. Sloan-Hendrix Academy was at Imboden. It remained in operation until 1931 when the campus was sold to the Imboden School District. The Sloan-Hendrix name is still used.
Ravenden had 470 residents in the 2010 census; Imboden had 677. Black Rock is the next town as one travels east on U.S. 412. It marks the end of the Ozarks. The city, which is on the banks of the Black River, was incorporated with a population of 277 in 1884. Arkansas historian Guy Lancaster notes that it had “about 10 sawmills. The decade of the 1890s saw the creation of numerous industries, many linked to timber businesses–shingle mills, planing mills, a furniture factory, a handle factory and a wagon factory. In addition, Black Rock featured a stone quarry and the Southern Queensware Co., which was established in 1896 to produce porcelain, earthenware, tiles and enamel brick. Between 1890 and 1900, the city grew from 761 to 1,400.”
When J.H. Myers found a large pink pearl inside a mussel in 1897, a pearl rush ensued. Myers and two business partners established Black Rock Pearl Button Co. It was later purchased by investors from Davenport, Iowa, and expanded. After World War II, with the increased availability of plastic buttons, the industry declined in east Arkansas.
We crossed the Black River at Black Rock on a bridge that opened in May 2015 to replace one that had been built in 1949. Batesville lawyer Fent Noland had written back in 1839: “The country up White River and the Black is destined to be the finest in Arkansas. Nature has done all she could. Man will do the rest.”
By the late 1800s, more than 40 steamboats were operating on the Black River. After crossing the bridge, we found ourselves in the Delta portion of the county, which has always had more population, power and money than the hill country. Three rivers join in southeast Missouri to form the Black. It crosses into Arkansas northeast of Corning in Clay County. Its route then takes it through the Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area, through Randolph County to the county seat of Pocahontas and then past Davidsonville, Black Rock and Powhatan.
“From there, it flows south through the Shirey Bay-Rainey Brake Wildlife Management Area, crosses the southern border of Lawrence County and forms the east-west border between Independence and Jackson counties,” Jerry Cavaneau writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “It finally turns southeast and enters the White River at Jacksonport, just north of Newport. Its Arkansas tributaries are the Current, Spring and Strawberry rivers. The Black has numerous sharp bends, many with colorful names such as Deadman and Hole in the Wall in the Davidsonville area along with the Box Factory, Battle Axe and Dead Mule bends along the lower course of the river.”
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.