As a connoisseur of Arkansas place names, I can’t help but love the name Frog Level, which seemed fitting for a swampy spot in far south Arkansas. I have to admit, though, that Magnolia sounds a bit more stately for a county seat.
“In March 1853, after Columbia County was created, the first county court met at a store in a low, swampy place called Frog Level,” Guy Lancaster writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Three commissioners were appointed to locate the geographical center of the county for purposes of establishing a county seat. However, the geographical center ended up being in the bottoms of Big Creek, even lower than Frog Level, and so the site for the county seat was moved one mile to the east. On June 21, 1853, J.J. Thomas and John L. McCarty deeded the land on which the city was established, and a one-room log cabin was built to serve as a temporary courthouse. The commissioners were at a loss as to what to name the new city until, at a dinner with local planter R.G. Harper, the planter’s daughter suggested the name of Magnolia. According to another source, commissioner Norborn Young asked his fiancée to suggest a name for the city and misunderstood her when she replied Peoria. The absence of any actual magnolia trees did not keep the name from sticking.”
There are majestic magnolia trees on the grounds of the Columbia County Courthouse these days. The courthouse is surrounded by one of Arkansas’ most charming downtown squares. In some college towns, the town-and-gown separation is real. College administrators and faculty members reside in a campus cocoon, rarely involving themselves in local activities. Trey Berry, the president of Southern Arkansas University, is different. Along with overseeing the rapid growth of the four-year university that calls Magnolia home, he’s involved in efforts to improve downtown.
“Do you notice anything familiar as you look around the square?” Berry asks. “It was designed by the same man who laid out downtown Oxford, Miss.”
Berry, an Arkadelphia native who received his bachelor’s degree from Ouachita Baptist University, earned his master’s degree and doctorate from Ole Miss. Berry is a historian by training and an expert on the Red River region of southwest Arkansas, northeast Texas and northwest Louisiana. He and I share a love for Oxford (I can think of few things better than several hours spent at Square Books there, followed by dinner at City Grocery). Berry envisions downtown Magnolia as a smaller version of that college town—a place filled with lively restaurants and upscale boutiques.
He’s right about the similarities of the squares. Col. M.G. Kelso surveyed and laid out Oxford and Magnolia. The south Arkansas city was incorporated in 1855. When the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railroad went through another part of the county in 1882, Magnolia could have gone the way of other Arkansas towns of that era that were bypassed by railroads. McNeil and Waldo sprang up in Columbia County due to the railroad. Magnolia’s business leaders raised money for a spur and connected it the following year to the main line. In 1899, the Louisiana & Northwestern Railroad connected Magnolia to towns in Louisiana and led to it becoming a center for the lumber and cotton industries.
The stately Columbia County Courthouse, designed by W.W. Hall in the Second Renaissance Revival style, was built in 1905-06. Its grounds host the annual Magnolia Blossom Festival and World Championship Steak CookOff, which have been held each May for the past three decades.
The two key events for Magnolia in the 20th century were the state’s decision in 1909 to place one of four district agricultural schools there (the Third District Agricultural School would go on to become SAU) and the discovery of oil in the county in 1922, which led to a boom in the 1920s and 1930s at a time when most other Arkansas cities were suffering economically.
Berry and I are joined downtown by Cammie Hambrice of the Magnolia Economic Development Corp. and Ellie Baker of the Magnolia-Columbia County Chamber of Commerce. They’ve watched as business leaders in nearby El Dorado pour almost $100 million into that city’s downtown. They welcome the addition of El Dorado’s Murphy Arts District to the south Arkansas cultural scene, but they want to ensure that Magnolia’s downtown is also recognized as a regional jewel.
Bobbie Ruth Webb of Magnolia recently donated to SAU a downtown building that had been in her family for more than a century. Her grandfather, K.S. Couch, opened a grocery store on the courthouse square in the early 1900s. We tour the building, which the university is transforming into a retail store and continuing education space in an effort to revitalize the downtown square. Just down the street, the owners of coffee bar and restaurant Java Primo, which has locations in Arkadelphia and Hot Springs, are renovating a building. Josh and Shelley Hughes have had a good experience since opening in downtown Arkadelphia in November 2013 and like the idea of being in another south Arkansas college town. The Magnolia building will include upstairs apartments.
Hambrice and Baker have asked downtown business owners in towns such as Camden and Hope to consider adding locations in Magnolia. Those efforts are now paying off. What always has been one of Arkansas’ most attractive downtown squares is getting even better.