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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Arkansas City, AR

Arkansas City is a city in Desha County, Arkansas, United States. The population was 589 at the 2000 census. The city is the county seat of Desha County.

Arkansas City Cemetery

Cemetery is 150 years old. Some of the gravesites are atop an Indian burial mound.

Historic old river town that in its heyday was the most important town on the river between St. Louis and Vicksburg; county seat that is a survior of the steamboat era; visit the Old Opera House, a museum featuring an 1850 log house, 1800s store buildings with balconies and two century-old churches; the impressive Desha County Courthouse is located here

John H. Johnson-founder of an international media and cosmetics empire that includes Ebony (magazine) and Jet (magazine).

John Harold Johnson (January 19, 1918 – August 8, 2005) was the founder of the Johnson Publishing Company, an international media and cosmetics empire headquartered in Chicago, Illinois that includes Ebony, and Jet magazines, Fashion Fair Cosmetics and EBONY Fashion Fair. Johnson was the first black person to appear on the Forbes 400 Rich List, and had a fortune estimated at close to $500 million


John Harold Johnson was born in Arkansas City, Arkansas and in the 1930s moved to Chicago, Illinois with his family, where he attended Chicago's DuSable High School in 1936. He briefly attended both University of Chicago and Northwestern University before beginning a magazine called The Negro Digest in 1942. The Negro Digest was the prototype for Ebony, which is widely read today. Johnson used unconventional marketing techniques to help launch his first magazines. In order to pique storeowner's interest and prompt them to order a shipment of the magazine, he would ask his friends to go to the stores and ask for Ebony Magazine. Johnson's publications soon became successful.

Founded in 1942, Johnson's firm is the largest African American owned publishing company. Johnson Publishing Company also publishes Black Star, Black World and Ebony Jr. magazines.

Johnson served on the Board of Directors of Dillard's Inc., and he has served on the boards of First Commercial Bank, Little Rock; Dial Corporation; Zenith Radio Corporation; and Chrysler Corporation.

Johnson was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African Americans.

Johnson died of heart failure on August 8, 2005 at the age of 87 in Chicago at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. He is survived by his widow, Eunice, and his daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, who now runs the Johnson Publishing empire.

John H. Johnson Home

Arkansas City, Desha County

Web Site:

Hours: Open to the public by appointment and prescheduled tours

Birthplace of the founder and publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines. House ihas been relocated to the historic courhouse square in downtown Arkansas City. Future plans include the creation of an educational learning center, which will be located near the house museum, for the purpose of offering student/community enrichment activities in the areas of journalism, entrepreneurship, family and nutrition, education and the arts. Owned by the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

Street scene in Arkansas City (Desha County); circa late 1950s.
Courtesy of the Arkansas History Commission

Hardwood forests, alluvial soil, and flooding rivers marked the Native American territory that became Desha County. Lying at the confluence of the Arkansas, White, and Mississippi rivers, fertile land with abundant game provided sustenance for the Quapaw. Today, Delta soil and ample water make Desha County a leading agricultural producer.

Cotton picker near Arkansas City (Desha County).
Courtesy of the Arkansas History Commission

European Exploration and Settlement

Explorers Hernando de Soto; Father Jacques Marquette; Louis Joliet; RenĂ©-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle; and Henri de Tonti visited area Indian tribes. Marquette and Joliet stopped in 1673 at the Indian village of Mitchagama, in the vicinity of the Arkansas River mouth. La Salle, visiting Indians in 1682, set up a cross in the same area. Frenchman Francis D’Armond erected a trading post on the Mississippi River banks just north of the White River after he was given a land grant of 500 acres in 1766.

Arkansas City Museum in Arkansas City (Desha County); February 26, 1959.
Photo by Ernie Deane, courtesy of the Arkansas History Commission

Louisiana Purchase through Early Statehood

The site was later acquired by General William Montgomery, who built a hotel/casino, mercantile store, and warehouses called Montgomery’s Point. The trading post, founded in 1810, was a regular docking point for steamboats unloading freight and passengers going up the White and Arkansas rivers. About 1820, Frederick Notrebe built warehouses at the mouth of the Arkansas River and named the area—originally called “Mouth of Arkansas”—Napoleon in 1837. Two sites for Arkansas Post also were located in Desha County: Post No. 2 on Big Island in 1738 and Post No. 4 near the site of Napoleon.

McCallie Access to the Mississippi River, four miles northeast of Arkansas City (Desha County), looking north. The land mass to the right is an island that is part of the State of Mississippi; 2007.
Photo by Mike Keckhaver

Created by legislative act on December 12, 1838, Desha County was detached from Arkansas and Chicot counties. State representative Stephen Ryan led legislative efforts after south Arkansas County citizens filed petitions declaring their area isolated by the Arkansas and White rivers. The county was named for Captain Benjamin Desha, a War of 1812 hero.

Arkansas City Commercial Historic District
DeSoto Avenue & Sprague Street

1900-1910 commercial buildings. Listed on the National Historic Register Feb. 18, 1999. Includes the only surviving examples of the many two-story masonry commercial buildings that served this once-thriving river port: the Cotham Drug Store, the Red Star Grocery, and the Ramus Brothers Market.

Justices of the peace met at William Sexton’s house, Wellington Landing, to form a county court. On March 4, 1839, they elected county officers, including John Morris as judge, George Watson Jr. as circuit and county clerk, A. C. Jamison as sheriff, Sexton as treasurer, and Gardner Cooper as surveyor. J. Smith was state senator. The Sexton house was the temporary county seat until 1841, when commissioners chose Bellville (later Red Fork). Napoleon was designated county seat in 1843. A federal $55,000 U.S. Marine hospital was built there in 1855.

Civil War through Reconstruction

Its location at the confluence of the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers made Napoleon subject to flooding. During the Civil War, a Federal flotilla tied up there, and troops set fire to the town. Later, a Federal naval commander, in an effort to avert Confederate fire, ordered a canal built through narrow land separating the rivers. The doomed Napoleon crumbled into river currents. By 1869, the three-story hospital had disappeared.

Arkansas City High School
Robert S. Moore Avenue & President Street

1910 Renaissance Revival School. Currently serves as annex to the county courthouse. Listed on the National Historic Register Oct. 4, 1984.

During the war, county records were moved by wagon to Richland Township and later to Clarksville, Texas. Some records were never recovered.

Arkansas City Walking Tour
Historic Downtown Area

New sidewalks recently completed to allow visitors to conveniently tour the historic downtown area.

Cotham Drug Store
DeSoto Avenue

Constructed ca. 1900, this building was part of the turn-of-the-century construction that served the then-thriving river port community. Over time it was used as a grocery and meat market, post office, drug store,and restaurant. Part of the Arkansas City Commercial Historic District.

Episcopal Church of Arkansas City

Church is 120 years old and has original furnishings intact.

Following the war, citizens signed the Amnesty Oath (loyalty to the Union and U.S. Constitution), attested to by records remaining in county possession. The western portions of Desha County were detached to form Lincoln County in 1871.

Post Reconstruction through Early Twentieth Century

The courthouse was moved to Watson in 1874 and to Arkansas City in 1881. A permanent courthouse costing $23,269 was completed in 1900.

Elected as the county’s first African-American legislator, R. C. Weddington was a representative in the seventeenth legislative session in 1891. He had moved from Red Lick, Mississippi, to Arkansas City to become principal of the grade school in 1887.

Old Opera House

Used at the turn of the century as an entertainment facility catering to riverboat travelers. Musical events, theatrical performances and boxing matches were all a part of the history of this structure. Jack Dempsey was one of the contestants who fought there. The building, now vacant, is owned by Desha County.

Pindall, Xenophon Overton Law Office
Corner of Capitol & Kate Adams Streets

Hours: Private ownership

1882 Italianate-style law office of acting Governor X. O. Pindall in the early 1900s. Example of an 1880s single-story brick commercial building. Listed on the National Historic Register May 10, 1999.

Steamboats provided major transportation until railroads developed the county interior. Arkansas City was a regular port of call, and excursion boats continued to stop there into the 1930s.

Potlatch Paperboard Mill

Southeast Arkansas’ single largest industry. This offers the visitor the opportunity to observe the process of wood to paper and the ancillary matters related to this important industry.

The first railroad to be chartered in Arkansas was the Mississippi, Ouachita and Red River. A portion ran from Eunice on the Mississippi River to Watson and Halley, but the route was abandoned in 1878. The Little Rock, Mississippi River and Texas Railroad laid the first rail through Dumas and McGehee; was acquired by the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway in the 1870s; and is now the present Union Pacific route.

Ramus Brothers Market
Sprague Street Highway 4)

Part of the Arkansas City Commercial Historic District. Built in 1910 and housed a market on the first floor and an apartment on the second floor. Poured-concrete constuction method. No other structures (existing or remnants) in Arkansas City show a similar style. Part of the Arkansas City Commercial Historic District.

Arkansas City Old Courthouse

The principal cities of Dumas and McGehee were incorporated in 1904 and 1906, respectively. Also incorporated were Arkansas City, Watson, Mitchellville, Pickens, and Reed.

Red Star Grocery
DeSoto Avenue

Constructed by John George Reitzammer in 1900. Occupied by family as a grocery and bakery until 1979. Part of the Arkansas City Commercial Historic District.

State Senator X. O. Pindall, an Arkansas City attorney, became Senate pro tem and ascended to gubernatorial leadership after Governor John Little became disabled. Pindall was acting governor from 1907 to 1909.

Picture from Choctaw Island Bayou Public Water Access

Desha County’s greatest tragedy came in the spring of 1927, when a flood inundated 478,000 acres after levy breaks occurred on the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers. Many of the county’s 26,684 citizens were forced to flee to hill counties or to live on second floors, in tent cities, and in boxcars on the levee. Damage in Desha County from the Flood of 1927 exceeded $2 million, then an enormous sum. Flood waters did not recede for more than a month, and most farmers had to forego planting. The multi-storied Greystone Hotel in McGehee was a haven for refugees, who rode in boats to the stairway landing. Among those who came to Desha County to assess the damage was the national relief administrator, Herbert Hoover, who later became president of the United States.

Thane House

Levee & First Streets

Hours: Private Residence

Architect Charles Thompson. 1919 Craftsman design. Listed on the National Historic Register Dec. 22, 1982.

The Drought of 1930–31 and the Great Depression, with unemployment over thirty percent, added to economic woes. Barter systems, home gardens for subsistence, and men riding rail cars in search of work were common. In 1930, the U.S. government shipped 20,000 head of cattle from Oklahoma and Texas to Desha County to graze along lands near rivers. The cattle, branded ERA for Emergency Relief Association, later were shipped to Fort Smith (Sebastian County) for butchering and canning, destined as relief supplies. A National Youth Administration (NYA) camp to train youth was built on twenty acres one mile north of Dumas in 1935 and later became the site for the town of Mitchellville. With U.S. Highway 65 as the only paved roadway, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded the first concrete streets for Dumas.

World War II through the Faubus Era

World War II started county out-migration, with thousands joining the armed forces and taking defense jobs. War heroes included Lieutenant Roy Rushing of McGehee, a naval air ace. Seventy-eight from Desha County died in action.

When President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the relocation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast in 1942, a 17,000-acre compound was built at Rohwer near McGehee to house more than 8,400 internees. Desha citizens were disgruntled. They distrusted the Japanese because of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and also complained that the U.S. government fed the internees a better diet than locals could afford. Rohwer Relocation Center became the county’s largest city until it was closed in 1945. Rohwer Relocation Center’s cemetery is now a national monument.

Farm mechanization altered the county economy, ending sharecropping. Cotton has reigned as the principal crop, but in the 1940s, rice and soybeans were added. For more than fifty years, Missouri Pacific Railroad was a major employer in McGehee until roundhouse shops were closed in 1954, and employment continued to dwindle. In the early 1970s, Potlatch, Inc., built a $150 million paper mill at Cypress Bend. Dumas attracted light industry beginning in the 1950s. Agriculture remains the primary economic engine for Desha, which is in the top five in cotton production among Arkansas counties.

Modern Era

Replacing small ferries was the 1969 completion of the Arkansas River Bridge connecting Desha and Arkansas counties. The construction of McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System provided another asset to the area. Highway 65 has four lanes, and airports serve Dumas and McGehee. Union Pacific Railroad operates freight service.

Desha County Courthouse in Arkansas City.
Photo by John Gill, courtesy of the photographer

Great Rivers Vocational Technical School, established at McGehee in 1975, is now the University of Arkansas at Monticello (UAM) College of Technology. County schools began with “freedom of choice” and proceeded to full integration without violence. Small schools were consolidated into Dumas and McGehee districts.

Two weekly newspapers serve the county. The Dumas Clarion is the successor to the Desha County Democrat founded by Ed Lucas in 1897. The McGehee-Dermott County Times-News followed the McGehee Times, which had been established in 1925 as successor to the Desha News begun by Jack Bernhardt in 1910. Radio station KVSA began broadcasting in 1940s.

John H. Johnson Cultural & Educational Museum

McGehee-Desha County Hospital was opened in 1966. Delta Memorial Hospital, formerly Desha County Hospital (built in 1948), moved into a $14 million facility in 2006.

Two electoral efforts to move the county seat to McGehee failed, but court districts for Arkansas City and McGehee were formed in 1953, with a court building erected at McGehee in 1955. Completed in 2005 were a $1.8 million restoration of the historic courthouse at Arkansas City and a $2.2 million renovation of a vacant school as a courthouse annex.

Desha County residents are hoping that the proposed Interstate 69 and its Mississippi River crossing from Bolivar County, Mississippi, to a point one mile north of Arkansas City will stem population outflow. The interstate, an international route linking Mexico and Canada, would provide south Arkansas’s first east-west interstate and bring an estimated 24,000 vehicles daily through Desha County.

Chambers of Commerce in McGehee and Dumas now join in prioritizing educational enhancement and technology training to improve the economy. A geo-tourism effort is promoting hunting and fishing opportunities, and a Delta Heritage Initiative is focusing on historical and cultural tourism.

Wallace Trust

2000-acre wildlife farm recognized on the cover of the Delta Farm Press as “Arkansas’ wildlife showplace”. This property, commencing in 1996, became the first farm entered into the federal government’s Wetlands Reserve Program. Since that time trustees have worked diligently to return this land to hardwoods and reservoirs that will serve not only as an attraction to ducks and other game indigenous to the area, but also as a spectacular view to those driving this stretch of highway.


Cotton Fields Line the Highway

Barges Coming up the Mississippi Across the Levee from Arkansas City

"Front Street"
View from the top of the Levee

"Governor Pindall's Law Office"
National Register Property
(Part of investment package)

Historic Desha County Courthouse
National Register Property

The original home of John H. Johnson (Restoration project soon to be completed)

The Mayor's Honey Production Facility on Front Street

"Thane Home"
National Register Property

LEVEEFEST! - Food and music festival 2nd Saturday in September

"Delta Farming" - A view riding the levee north of Arkansas City

"Mound Cemetery"
One of the South's Oldest

Taking the Highway 4 National Scenic By-Way route through the southeast Arkansas town of Arkansas City opens the door to an adventure offering scenery, history, culture, and recreation in the natural, undisturbed setting of a time gone by.

Choctaw WMA Sign

Just outside of Arkansas City is the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's access to one of southeast Arkansas's finest fishing lakes, Lake Kate Adams. The lake serves as a popular site for fishermen, birdwatchers, duck hunters, and those wanting a pristine view of delta sunsets. It also provides the water access to the G&FC'S newly acquired 9000 acre public wildlife management area that surrounds Arkansas City.

A nature trail that begins immediately across the levee from the city’s historic business district is planned for the pedestrian exploration of the WMA. Motor vehicle travel through the property includes access to a new class A boat ramp into the Mississippi River. These amenities will serve the area bringing in both retirees and vacationers. (Undeveloped acreage adjoining the city is available for development).

The city, once a major river town of substantial population and commerce, was ravaged by the 1927 flood that swept away the lumber mills and then departed leaving the river channel, previously a stones throw from "Front Street", a mile to the east. The effect was to create the wildlife refuge area known as Choctaw Island, now the public WMA. Though its economic base was destroyed by the flood, enough of the town's history remains to offer the potential, along with the recreational attractions, to become a major tourist attraction to southeast Arkansas.

Flood of 1927 Marker

In the past five years, four structures in imminent danger of being lost have been restored and all are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (These buildings, the only ones remaining in the business district, along with numerous lots in the district, are a part of this investment offering.) The city now has seven buildings listed on the Register with another seven being deemed eligible.

One of the buildings, the Arkansas City High School, constructed in 1910, now serves as an annex to the historic Desha County Courthouse. The courthouse and annex are currently involved in a 3.5 million dollar restoration/renovation project.

One of the National Register properties currently houses a recording studio operated by local musicians. The other investment properties in the city's historic district could be remodeled to house a restaurant, bed and breakfast, antique store or other retail shops.

Probably the most famous person to have roots in Arkansas City is John H. Johnson, founder and publisher of Ebony and Jett Magazines. Mr. Johnson's boyhood home has been restored and will soon become the centerpiece of the John H. Johnson Learning Center in Arkansas City; a branch of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Though the poverty of the area is reflected in many of the city's dwellings, there remain a number of older homes that were built to withstand the frequently occurring floods of the late 1800's and early 1900's. Recent successful efforts to establish a zoning ordinance throughout the city's historic district, over time, will let these jewels from the past shine again.

Through the recording studio and other local music interests, the city has begun to acquire a reputation for attracting recognized recording artists of both a local and national stature. A fall music and food festival, "LeveeFest", showcases the local music talent. Combined with the various recreational enjoyments and unique history of the area, this adds to the opportunity for development in the area of tourism and retirement.

Perhaps the most significant merit in investing in the future of this town of less than 600 people is the fact that I-69, the nation's newest and most important transportation corridor between Canada and Mexico, will cross the river 2 miles north of Arkansas City. An off ramp at the intersection of Highway 4 North will be located 2 miles from the business district of the city. Riverboat casino gambling, lawful on the Mississippi side of the river, will undoubtedly soon follow the construction of this interstate. Arkansas City will be the closest town to such development on either side of the river.

Hunting Blind

The change in the course of the Mississippi River after the 1927 flood has been viewed, in the past, as having deprived Arkansas City of its destiny to become a great city. Ironically, with the passage of time, that "albatross" of being a "destination only" town, i.e., no through traffic, has now become a major asset in that visitors are able to enjoy the feeling of “stepping back in time” in the tranquil setting of this small town nestled in the bend of the Mississippi River Levee.

Great Fishing

With stocks and bonds showing little attraction to the prudent investor and with security in metropolitan areas becoming an ever increasing concern, relocating and doing business in rural America just seems to make good sense. You can't find a small town in the southeastern part of the USA that has more growth potential than Arkansas City, AR. The opportunity for tourism and recreational development, and a secure tranquil area for residential growth, coupled with being just minutes from the newest interstate to be constructed in the USA, make this the ideal place for the right investor(s).

Moore Farms Access