The Seed and the Story is a bi-weekly column exploring folklife, sustainability, oral history, human rights,and community in Yell County, Arkansas. The column is published in the Post Dispatch and is syndicated in the Courier. Please remember to support your local paper and independent media!
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Most Arkansans are familiar with the historic healing waters of Hot Springs in Garland County and the former resorts of Eureka Springs in the Carroll County Ozarks. In the mid to late 1800s Yell County, Arkansas was once home to its own resort community. Located about ten miles southwest of Dardanelle near the rural communities of Chickalah and Harkey’s Valley, Sulphur Springs was the site of a two-story hotel and free flowing medicinal springs that attracted folks from as far away as Boston and California.
According to the 1997 book Yell County Heritage published by the Yell County Historical and Genealogical Association, the first hotel was burned by “bushwhackers” during the Civil War. A new hotel was built in 1867 and completed in 1872. At one point the building was owned by a New York-based company, and in 1878 the thirty-six room structure was filled to capacity, populated by victims of the yellow fever epidemic from Memphis. By that time the town had grown considerably and boasted multiple streets and several houses. The hotel itself encompassed an entire block. Photos of the large wood structure show several white women, and at least one young girl, sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch.
By 1901 the structure and the springs were owned by Judge John F. Choate, a Yell County Clerk who raised a family in the area. According to reports, he gave the springs over to the public, an effort to spread the wealth of the healing waters, which before were reserved only for visitors with great wealth. By 1926 fire claimed the hotel once again and the structure was never rebuilt. According to written reports, both members of the Harkey and Tucker families worked at the hotel in the early 1900s, but very few oral histories of the town have been recorded. Chickalah native Bud Rector, born in 1914, remembers the hotel, but says that as a young boy he never had occasion to venture down into the town itself, which was a considerable distance from Harkey’s Valley when your only mode of transpiration was walking. He does, however, remember the strong smell of sulphur, as do many others who were raised in the area long after the hotel burned.
As I learn more about the community, several questions come to mind that I suspect many of you could answer. How and when were the springs discovered and how many locals were able to access their supposed healing powers? What information is out there to help flesh out our understanding of what drew people to the location? Is there anyone still living who worked at, or visited, the hotel and the spring? Perhaps you were a child when the hotel was around and remember growing up in the vicinity.
And what about those outside the community? Surely in an attic somewhere in Boston, Chicago, or New Orleans there must be a dusty shoebox and inside a postcard from a deceased relative who attempted to find healing in a rural Arkansas community so far from home. I’d love to hear your stories. I look forward to learning more.