Phot by Liz Christman for ABOUT the River Valley
This piece was originally published in the April issue of ABOUT the River Valley magazine.
I grew up in Dardanelle through the 1970s and 80s. My parents came of age in the same small town in the 1950s and 60s. Back in the early 1900s, their parents grew up in the logging community of Harkey’s Valley and the cotton farming community of Carden Bottoms, outlying rural communities for which Dardanelle was the commercial center. Later on in life my maternal grandparents left the bottoms so my grandfather could find employment in the newly created chicken plant in town. It was called Janet Davis Kitchens then, and he worked the overnight maintenance shift. My paternal grandparents stayed in Harkey’s Valley, coming to town for whatever couldn’t be grown in the garden.
I’m the first person in my family to earn a history degree, but my respect for research and storytelling is a product of my upbringing. My maternal grandparents frequently told stories about picking cotton; my paternal grandmother recounted my grandfather singing songs at the rural Church of Christ on Sundays. My father always has a story about the logging woods, the water systems of the county, and is an all-around walking encyclopedia of local knowledge. My mother passed away eight years ago, but made sure I knew the town’s historic landmarks: Council Oaks, the WPA mural in the downtown Post Office, the Rock, and the old gin. It would have been easy for me to grow up next to these spaces and see them only as background. But my mother had a way of integrating history into everyday life. When we’d go to the post office she’d point at the large WPA mural hanging on the wall: “You’re grandparents were sharecroppers,” she’d explain as we stood and looked at the 1930s painting of a man picking cotton.
Long before my family ever lived in the area, the region belonged to the Osage, Caddo, and, later, the Quapaw and the Cherokee. Though they repudiated the treaty, by 1820 part of Arkansas was given to the Choctaw in anticipation of their removal from land in Mississippi. By the mid 1800s all the tribes had been forcibly removed to make way for white settlers who wanted the rich bottomland for their farms and settlements. Nearby communities such as Chickalah still bear the linguistic marks of a life before white settlement.
Near the banks of the river, not far from the Dardanelle Rock, sits a large oak tree. There used to be two (maybe more) until lightening killed them. Some of my earliest memories take place at this small city park by the Arkansas River known as Council Oaks. Local oral history claims it was the site of a treaty between the Cherokee and the white settlers. Back in the 1980s, it happened to also be one of the only places a kid could go swing. So my mother would take me down there to play and remind me of what this space held.
It turns out the park we call Council Oaks may not have actually been the site of the treaty, though, records indicate it did take place somewhere in the vicinity of what is now Dardanelle. The treaty wasn’t an official treaty but rather a not-so-diplomatic meeting taking place on June 25, 1823 between then governor Robert Crittenden of the Arkansas Territory and representatives from the Cherokee: John Jolly, Black Fox, Wat Ebber, Waterminnow, Young Glass, Thomas Graves and George Morris.
Both the Cherokee representatives and the Governor wanted an audience with Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, the man who had authority of Indian affairs in the county. The Governor sided with many of the white settlers who were blatantly pushing for the removal of Native Americans, including the Cherokee who were living on what was federally considered Choctaw land. The Cherokee wanted a better treaty deal, and they came to the meeting knowing that Governor Crittenden had no power to remove them from the Choctaw land. The meeting didn’t really address the concerns of any of the parties, but it was seen as a monumental gathering in the region at the time. The park itself was named years later, and whether or not the park was the actual spot of the gathering, it serves to remind countless Dardanelle residents of a time when Native Americans still occupied this land.
By the mid 1800s all of the Native American tribes had been forced out. White settlers came to sell, trade, and work the rich bottomland. No one knows exactly where the name of the town comes from, but local historian Dr. Diane Gleason notes that it could have come from the 300-foot rock face near the edge of the river that reminded travelers of the Dardanelles in Turkey. Or perhaps it derived from the French explorer Jean Baptiste Dardenne who held a 600 acre Spanish land grant that encompassed much of what is now Russellville. According to the 1840 census, the small town boasted 39 heads of household. The town was officially platted in 1847 and incorporated in 1855.
As a port town, Dardanelle became a rich trading post and the economic center for a prosperous cotton farming region. Records show that both rum and gin were big business and the town was home to several mercantile shops, taverns, a weekly newspaper, a doctor, and a Masonic lodge. Most of the settlers came from Tennessee and North Carolina. Slavery was prevalent in the nearby farmlands, especially in the regions growing cotton. According to an 1860 census, 74 slaves lived in Dardanelle. Another 869 slaves lived on cotton farms outside of town.
During the Civil War Dardanelle was home to a great deal of activity with both the Union and Confederate Troops seeking control. About 100 men in the town fought in the Confederate Army, but by 1864 the city was captured by Union troops. Cotton crops continued to bring in money long after the Civil War, and many families depended on cotton as sharecroppers and small scale farmers. At one time, Second Street had at least three cotton gins, maybe more. I remember as a child passing by the old gins, which sat not far from my grandparents home.
The cotton economy died out in the 1970s, says, David Merritt, the current owner of Yell County Gin Incorporated. The gin itself was built in 1947, and his family purchased it in 1966 when Merritt was thirteen years old. “I loved it here as a kid,” he recalls. “I got to drive the tractors and pull the trailers.” When his family first bought the gin he says there was still a lot of what his father called “upland cotton.” This was cotton grown an acre or two at a time by mostly self-sufficient, small-scale farmers near the river bottoms and Fourche Valley. They raised a little cotton as a cash crop to purchase what they couldn’t grow or make at home. “They were probably still hand picking it,” he explains “When they got here you had to break the line of the bigger farmers so you could gin theirs off their truck,” he says.
Within 10 years, Merritt explains, the small scale farms had all but gone. “I think 1976 was the last year we ginned,” he says. Cotton was growing too expensive to produce even for the large farms which dominated the area by that time. “You had mostly your bigger farmers. They had mechanized pickers and tractors and were growing hundreds of acres of cotton.” Rice, soybeans, and chicken farming begin to dominate the region. Merritt says by that time his family had diversified the business, taking on a tractor dealership along with selling feed, fertilizer and farm supplies. These days he says his biggest business comes from “rural lifestyle people.” “They may have five acres or ten acres or twenty acres but they’re not farming. They’re maintaining their piece of property.” He noted that these days farming in the region is dominated by the Walmart model: Huge corporate farms that cover large swaths of the county.
Merritt says he never expected to take over the business, but as the owner he wants to bring business back to the town. He says one of his favorite things about running the space is the connection to the town. He notes the changing demographics, but says immigration is nothing new to the region. “Dardanelle has always been welcoming to immigrants. If you go back to WWI, the eastern Europeans came. We always called them bohemians, but they were Czechs and several different eastern countries. They became a huge part of this community. And now we have a Hispanic population.”
Merritt says he wants to make sure his business showcases the store’s history and becomes a destination for people in the area looking for small tractors and other lifestyle equipment needs. He plans to turn the front area of the store into a historical museum of sorts and help educate people about the history of the area. “We want people to come not just to buy a tractor. We want people to come to see our unique building.”
The cotton gin isn’t the only place where you can see the markers of the popular cash crop. Our local post office boasts an original mural from the WPA Percent for Art funding, which put artists back to work during the Depression. Any time a new federal building was created, one percent of its budget had to go to original art work. A whole of series of murals — 1,400 to be exact — were created around the nation. Many are still hanging in post offices from Dardanelle to California.
Several years ago I had the chance to meet with Dr. Gayle Seymour, an art historian at the University of Central Arkansas, who studies and advocates for the 21 Depression-era murals found around our state. According to Seymour, the mural in Dardanelle was created by Ludwig Mactarian, an Armenian man born in 1908 in Smyrna. His family escaped the Armenian Genocide before coming to New York when he was 13. Like most mural artists who applied for the Federal Art Project, Mactarian was an unknown and out of work. Later in life he worked for the military, documenting battles. The center panel is what makes the Dardanelle mural particularly daring, Seymour told me. Because the murals were federally funded, there was little room for challenging the status quo or calling the government in to question.
Most of the pieces focused on showcasing industry, growth, or well known stories from local history. But the Dardanelle mural features a black man carrying a loaded basket of cotton high on his back. Mactarian, a man intimately familiar with injustice, focused on the economically poor black and white families whose labor fueled the industry. From an art historian’s perspective, Seymour explained, the man is a reference to “Atlas supporting the globe.” The artist’s intent, Seymour argues, “is to show [that] the African American sharecropper carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.” A few years back the Dardanelle Historical Society raised the funds to have the mural restored and it looks beautiful.
I live in Little Rock these days, but my family and I plan to move back to the region in the near future. I know I have only begun to skim the surface of the region’s history, and I can’t wait to dig deeper into the history of tribes in the region, the world of cotton, and the stories of the logging woods outside of town. I want to sit down with my father along with other people of his generation and further document the wealth of stories they posses. I want to learn more about not only the physical structures of the region, but also the stories that have slipped through the cracks with little visual reminders upon the landscape. I want to take the stories of the past and learn what it means to live here in this moment.