County and Railroad Bridge Across Ola, Arkansas. Image from Arkansas Highway Department.
The Seed and the Story is a weekly column exploring folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. The column is published in the Post Dispatch and is syndicated in the Courier and here on the Boiled Down Juice.
As an ongoing partnership with the online Arkansas Encyclopedia of History and Culture each month we highlight an entry from the region.
This week we continue our ongoing partnership with the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture by highlighting the entry for the town of Ola. Written by Dardanelle native Dr. Mildred Gleason, this is fundamental reading for anyone interested in the history of the Yell County region.
Those familiar with the area will probably recognize the name of one of the town’s earliest entrepreneurs, John Mathias Harkey. According to Gleason, Harkey came to the area from Texas in 1851. He served as a Confederate Army Captain during the Civil War, returning afterward to build a “sawmill, a flour and grist mill, and a cotton gin.” He also opened a mercantile store in 1870 and being such a “prominent citizen,” explains Gleason, “ his proposal to rename the town after his first child, Ola, was readily accepted.” Before Harkey’s 1880 proposal to name the town after his daughter, the town had been referred to as both Red Lick and Petit Jean.
J. M. Harkey was also one of the key figures behind the creation of the railroad stop in the community. He granted the Choctaw Railroad right away on two conditions, explains Gleason: “first, Ola would be the railroad name used; second, the railroad would guarantee for ninety-nine years to stop at Ola.” The opening of the railroad allowed a more steady supply of goods and services as well as increased transportation for residents. Around this same time a dirt road connected Ola to Dardanelle, which was traveled by wagons and carts transporting timber, cotton and other goods to the port at the Arkansas River.
During its heyday Ola was filled with local businesses. The increased activity brought about by the railroad helped to give rise to the three hotels, a blacksmith shop, multiple doctors, numerous retail businesses and a weekly newspaper. In the 1920s Ola was home to the Ola Bottle Works, a plant manufacturing bottles for companies such as NuGrape and Nehi soodas. Gleason’s write-up also mentions the role of the 1930s-era Civilian Works Administration and the construction of a now defunct airport in the area.
To learn more about Ola’s history, including famous residents like country music performer Floyd Cramer, opera star Mary McCormick, and actor Arthur Hunnicutt, visit the Ola entry here. You can share your own stories about Ola by clicking on either the “submit a comment” or “submit a narrative” links at the bottom of the entry. While you’re there you can also read the other entries by Dr. Gleason, including ones for both Dardanelle and Yell County. The Encyclopedia is created by and for Arkansans and the staff actively seeks the input of fellow community members. Teachers may be interested in checking out the related lesson plans, which are often located at the bottom of Encyclopedia entries.