By Dr. Curtis Varnell
History begins at our own back door. As we travel up and down the roads of our region or walk through our forests, we see reminders of our ancestors. Chimneys, foundation stones, old railroad tracks, occasional cans or bottles, and once tame flowers tangled in the meadows mark places where our ancestors struggled to make a living from the earth. All of these have a story as do the pictures we have scattered in old boxes; tales of the lives of people that came before us.
The River Valley is full of such tales; the stories of our forefathers and the lives they lived. Few people realize that Sam Houston, George Catlin, Washington Irving, and probably Wyatt Earp traveled up the Arkansas River, passing by and perhaps stopping at the busy port at Russellville. Benjamin Booneville, an early explorer and as famous in his time as Lewis and Clark, journeyed through and mapped our region and future President Zachary Taylor served in Fort Smith for an extended period of time. Jack Titsworth, an early settler, had a life and adventures that comes with that of Davy Crocket.
Even more than that is the story of the hard-working men and women that go to work every day and complete the thousands of tasks necessary to support and raise their families. Paris, Booneville, Scranton, Charleston, Magazine and the many small communities scattered in the River Valley are full of such people. The results of their efforts are everywhere; the small business that stands on the corner, the beautiful church down the block, the daffodils and hedges marking where homes once stood, and the deserted cemeteries scattered across the region.
Ours is the history of the farmers who once raised cotton and corn in the bottoms and hillsides and of those who later ran dairy farms and then built chicken houses for the poultry industry.
The story of local coal miners, lumberjacks and railroad men. The story of the pants factory, Cloye’s Gear, Ace Combs, Today’s Kids and even further back, the shake mills and gins that formed the economic basis for our area.
Written by Dr. Curtis Varnell, each week the Timepiece will explore the history, geography and culture of the region. It will tell the stories of ordinary people in an ordinary world in the hope of preserving the stories of our world.The more we understand local history, the more we understand about ourselves. We cannot know where we are going if we don’t know from where we came.
Dr. Varnell is the science and social studies coordinator for the Guy Fenter Education Service Cooperative at Branch, a long-time teacher in the area, and the author of several books on local history.