Mag­no­lia blos­soms

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Rex Nel­son Se­nior Edi­tor Rex Nel­son’s col­umn ap­pears reg­u­larly in the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette. He’s also the au­thor of the South­ern Fried blog at rexnel­son­south­ern­fried.com.

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.

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