The Polk County Courthouse hosted the 175th birthday celebration of Polk County on Friday, Oct. 11 inside the Polk County Courtroom. County Judge Brandon Ellison welcomed guests and provided a brief introduction to local officials present as well as a few comments in regard to the establishment of Polk County.
Guests were able to enjoy a performance by the Ouachita Strings Ensemble.
Michael Cate provided an overview of the county as follows:
Polk County was established on November 30, 1844 only weeks after James K Polk, was elected the 11th President of the United States. Polk is recognized for significantly extending US territory with the annexation of the Republic of Texas and established the Oregon Territory which extended the United States to the Pacific. Ten states including Arkansas, have counties honoring Polk.
As we celebrate our 175th anniversary, two other historic milestones deserve mention: The Territory of Arkansas, observed its bicentennial this year and all Americans should applaud the centennial of Women’s Right to Vote!
Geographically, Polk County lay midway in the original Arkansas Territory which included what is now the State of Oklahoma. Polk County also straddles the westward continuance of LaSalle’s baseline from which the entire Louisiana Purchase was surveyed.
Prior to the Arkansas Territory, the land on which we stand was once part of Canada as well as Michigan, and Missouri Territories. To create Polk County, the Arkansas Legislature severed a large part of the original Sevier County.
Polk County’s current population of approximately 21,000 was likely equaled by Native Americans prior to DeSoto’s arrival in the 1540s.
By 1800, indigenous populations had been decimated by Smallpox, influenza and measles because they had no immunity.
The first county seat of Polk County was in the home of James Pirtle who also hosted a post office at Panther, located about a half mile north of what would become the first permanent county seat at Dallas. Dallas was named after newly elected Vice President George M. Dallas who served with Polk.
Soon, communities arose in Potter, Acorn, Rocky and Cove. W.A. Goodspeed in his book, “History of Arkansas” recorded the first White Settler in Polk County was Thomas Griffith from Illinois. Other early families included: Miller, Wiles, Scott, Jones and Stewart. Many arrived in Wagon trains from Tennessee and Kentucky.
What kind of environment did early settlers find? The land was covered with mature virgin timber. The towering pines and hardwoods subdued the forest floor with dense shade. This made travel by horse or wagon much easier than one might imagine today. Typically, these massive trees were naturally spaced 30-50 feet apart. Underbrush was smothered by eons of pine and leaf mulch .
Wherever a family wanted to settle, building materials and abundant wildlife fort food were nearby.
The first Polk County Courthouse was destroyed by fire during the US Civil War. The second courthouse was build in 1869 but also burned a few years later. Most records were lost for the county’s original 17 townships. Therefore, much of Polk County’s early history depends on stories handed down through generations. This, our third courthouse, was built in 1939. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1992.
Conflict has never served our county well...
By 1860, at the start of the Civil War, Polk County is said to have had a population of 4,199 whites and 175 slaves. Loyalties to the conflict were mixed in Polk County. Local volunteers carried whatever armament their owned which included shotguns, squirrel rifles, or flintlocks. A historical preservation marker near the Mena Depot lists ten hostile events that occurred in Polk County during the Civil War. Polk County ultimately supplied men for three Confederate Units and provided at least 73 Union Soldiers. Most Polk County families were left destitute as Southern Bushwhackers and Northern Jayhawkers pillaged farms left vulnerable by death, injury and disease. Many Polk Countians became refugees displaced to Texas. Others fled to Fort Smith for protection from starvation and guerrilla warfare.
Decades after the war, Polk County had very little good news until 1896 when Arthur Stilwell brought his Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad through the area. As the rail bypassed the town of Dallas, a majority of residents relocated to Mena which was promoted as a modern haven of progress. Amenities included streets 80 feet wide and alleys 20 feet wide as well as a 10 acre park. Land was set aside for churches, schools and a business district. The heart of Mena was plotted at a 45 degree angle to maximize passive heating and cooling of structures according to Jeffersonian principals for modern cities.
The county seat was officially moved to Mena in June 1898. Hotels and business sprang up. Stilwell planted orchards along the rail right away and offered passenger tours between Kansas City and Port Arthur allowing potential residents to reserve their lots with generous payment plans.
Early issues of The Mena Star are filled with optimistic testimonials by men touting the rich farming and mining opportunities in Polk County. Mena was officially incorporated September 18, 1896.
The railroad connected Polk County with the outside world for the first time. Previously, narrow, rut-filled trails were the only means of passage by horseback or cart. Communities like Potter, Hatfield, Hatton, Wickes, Vandervoort and Grannis had new opportunity trade and travel.
By 1910, the railroad relocated its shop and switching facilities to Heavener, Oklahoma. Mena and Polk County began to decline. Many veterans or their descendants sold their timberland homesteads for as little as 50 cents per acre to giant timber company representative. Two sawmill giants emerged in the area with the advent of railroads. The Dierks family began building railroads into the mountains where they could harvest 5,000 board feet or more off of every acre. Soon, the Rosborough family was giving the Dierks competition.
When company representatives approached Polk County about establishing sawmills here, they were rejected because they used blacks among their crews. Although few local families had slaves prior to the Civil War, the disruption caused by the war had soured a majority against blacks as the cause of their woes. Polk County would be sidestepped as the two rival companies built their own saw towns in Roseboro, Forester, Muse, Mountain Pine and Mauldin. Spur lines were built into Polk County but the financial benefit of having a mega sawmill in Polk County never occurred during the great virgin timber harvest which largely ended by 1920.
Two World Wars and other conflicts drained Polk County of manpower and prosperity again and again. Historically, Polk County has provided its sons while many families moved away in search of well paying jobs at shipyards and armament plants. There, women were welcomed into the workforce.
In the 1940s, Polk County began to realize a renaissance in the timber industry. Timber created local jobs which sustain hundreds of families even today.
Cliff and Dorothy Lane established a poultry processing plant in Grannis in the 1940s and sold their interest to Tyson Foods in the 1980s. The impact of poultry on the local economy can not be overstated.
Passenger service by rail ceased in the 1960s as autos eclipsed trains as the preferred mode of transportation in Polk County.
Education has always been a critical part of every community. Prior to WWII, there were as many as 70 schools in Polk County. Today there are three consolidated districts plus a two year college via University of Arkansas Rich Mountain.
olk County currently encompasses 862 square miles with an average of 24 residents per square mile. It is served by portions of 9 state highways and shares land with The Ouachita National Forest which was formed from forests purchased from the Rosborough Timber Company.
Whereas this land was sold by France to the US for less than three cents per acre in 1803, today, the value of unimproved land in Polk County will typically range from as little as $1200 to $12,000 or more per acre depending on location.
Currently, the top employer category in the county is government. This includes social services and education. Second is healthcare followed by automotive specialties and aviation industries. Poultry, timber, cattle, retail, tourism, and banking round out other major income producers.
In 2019, the median household income across the US is approx $53,500 compared to Polk County at $33,500. Although 40% lower, most Polk County residents say they enjoy a quality of life that gives them satisfaction and a sense of community that money can not buy.
Polk County’s Future….
Just as rail transportation spurred growth in the last century, the completion of Interstate Highway 49 connecting Canada with the Panama Canal is seen as important to future prosperity. Roughly 180 miles between Greenwood and Texarkana remains incomplete. A fourth of that distance spans Polk County. First proposed as a major artery in 1941, I-49 has gradually become a reality. Still, there are many who find value in being a hidden jewel.
Polk County has an employment rate slightly lower than the national average. New opportunities are predicted in local healthcare, home services, agriculture and forestry. Cost of living is 23% lower in Polk County than nationally and low property taxes also attract out of state investment and residences. The largest factor in Polk County’s lower cost of living is housing which is 60% below the national average.
As we observe our first 175 years, let us work together to preserve our beautiful landscapes, support local commerce, and share a warm greeting to strangers who one day may sit beside us on a local committee or join us on stage at Ouachita Little Theatre.
As former Post Master Aubrey Tabley would say, “ Let us press on to the greater achievements of the future and let us give so much time to the improvement of ourselves that we have no time to criticize others.”