By: Joy Russell
It's hard to look at the present little community of Aurora, Arkansas, and picture that it could have been a large, bustling town at one time. I have always lived at Witter, which is about four miles south of Aurora, and for years I had heard bits and pieces about the old town of Aurora. Several years ago, I began to talk with older people and to research what the town of Aurora had been like. In the Winter 1993 issue of "The Madison County Musings", the complete article was published which contained all of the information that I was able to discover. Presented here will be excerpts from the original story that was published in the Musings.
Madison County, as we know it today, was a part of a Spanish Land Grant that was given to a comandante of the Post of Arkansas named Don Joseph Valliere by the Spanish government on 22 day of December 1793. Evidently this land grant to Joseph Valliere was quite large since the deeds that are recorded in the Madison County Courthouse merely describe the land as "lands being situate, lying and being upon the waters of what is now called White River and its tributaries and now being in the State of Arkansas and the State of Missouri and the State of Louisiana". Madison County later became a part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803,and remained a part of it until 1812 when it was declared to be a part of the Missouri Territory. Then in 1819 Congress created the Arkansas Territory and in 1817 established a fort at Fort Smith to try to contain the discord among the Indians of the area. In 1828 a treaty was signed with the Indians moving them out of this area, and white settlers were free to claim the fertile lands of Madison County.
As these first settlers made their way into the wilderness, I believe they had no idea as to the impact that they would have on this area, and of the legacy they would leave behind them. Today it is easy to find landmarks that still bear the names of the early pioneers: Jackson Creek, Bowen Township, Ferrels Creek, Whorton Creek, Seals Creek, McConnell Chapel, Henderson Creek, and Bowen Cemetery which is now called Aurora Cemetery. It was amazing to me as I studied the early land patents, to see how many people presently living at Aurora, still live on part of the old homesteads of their ancestors. I am convinced that these pioneers were upstanding people with the highest of characters and morals. They were brave souls to leave their established homes and enter into the wilderness to carve out a place for themselves and to establish themselves a name in history. As they entered into this area, there were no established roads and no settlements.
I have not been able to find out where the name "Aurora" originally came from. The World Book Encyclopedia defines it as: "Aurora, the goddess of dawn in Roman mythology. She opened the gates of heaven for the sun god every morning. She is said to be the mother of the winds. The word 'Aurora' refers to the first light of dawn". This is the only definition of Aurora that I could find. When you examine the origin of most of the names of towns in Madison County, you will find that most of them were named after a person, either living in the area or a famous person. Often the town was given the name of the person on whose land the town was located or the name of the first Postmaster who established the postoffice in the area. Bowen Township, in which Aurora is located, is said to have been named in honor of William Bowen, who settled in the area before 1837. Bowen Cemetery, which is now called the Aurora Cemetery, was named for John Bowen, who supposedly donated the first piece of land from his farm for the cemetery.
The Jackson family history book states that it is believed that members of the Jackson and Bowen families from Tennessee may have come into the area as early as 1818 with a party of explorers. These people returned to Tennessee, but about 1831-32 they returned here with their families. Thomas Jackson built a house in 1832 which stood until 1874 when it burned. The Jackson history states, "The house was already built when the survey was made before Arkansas became a State". It is believed that the Jacksons, Bowens, and McElhaneys came together from White County, Tennessee. Many of these families still have descendants in Aurora today.
The 1837 Madison County Tax List, includes these residents of Bowen Township: John and William Bowen; John Cluck; Nathan Driver; William Henderson; David, Thomas, and William Jackson; Robert and Daniel Lee; William and Henry McElhaney; Simon and Russell Smith; and Joshua and John Whorton. Most of these settlers arrived in Aurora between 1829-1836.
In 1833 the "Big Fork Freewill Baptist Church" was constituted in Bowen Township by Isaac and Samuel Whiteley. Early preachers included F. M. Blackburn; Robert Lee; and Jesse Guinn. It is believed that a Church building was built but no sign of it remained after 1900. Church services were held in the School with visiting preachers after this time.
The first Post Office at Aurora was established in August 1873 by John Upton and was located in Section 2, Township 15, Range 26. Up until this time, the closest Post Offices had been at Huntsville, which was established in January 1837, and at St. Peters, which operated from 1840 until 1841 and was located one mile north of Witter. There was no official post office building in Aurora, but as was the case in most areas, the post office was merely a corner in someone's house or store that had shelves where the mail could be sorted.
There are four cemeteries in and around Aurora: Aurora Cemetery; Jackson Creek Cemetery; Henderson Creek Cemetery and Lee Cemetery. Numerous graves can be found in these cemeteries bearing the names of the families of the original settlers. Even though the land around Aurora was settled as early as the 1830's, it was not until after the Civil War that the town of Aurora began to flourish.
The old town of Aurora was located approximately one-fourth mile West of the current town, on the West bank of War Eagle River. Main Street of Aurora followed the major road which connected Huntsville and St. Paul. Over this road traveled the stagecoach, with stops along the way. This road mainly followed the river and at times traveled on gravel bars that were actually in the riverbed. In 1850 the population of Bowen Township was 650 but by 1880 it had grown to 997.
The first store at Aurora was opened by John W. Upton in 1874, followed shortly by the Johnson Brothers' store in 1875. Most of the stores located at Aurora were general stores and mercantiles. Following is a list of general store and mercantiles owners: M. D. Sisemore; George Sisemore; J. D. Jackson; William Robinson; Joel Roberts; Mr. Robins with G. L. Shepard as clerk; W. J. Seals with Lee McElhaney as clerk; Walter M. "Sport" Boatright (he had a slot machine in his store); Clint Seals and Wiley Cluck; Clint Seals and Charles L. McElhaney; Bill Markham; P. Marcus Cluck; George Shepard; Brown Herriman; John Wolf; J. C. Hacker and Bert Jackson; and James Everett Spurlock and Clint Seals. While this lists contains names of a lot of store owners, there was probably not more than six stores in business at any one time, but they did change owners frequently. In addition to the general stores, there were two drug stores , one of which was owned by Ed Price who kept a pet alligator in his cellar. At some point the alligator escaped and took up residence in the "Bluff Hole" in War Eagle River just north of Aurora. For several years swimmers feared to go into the water for fear of finding the alligator. Another drug store was owned by Walter Ledbetter, while Dr. John M. Williams sold over the counter drugs. Several doctors practiced at Aurora, including: Dr. John M. Williams; Dr. Hedrick; Dr. James M. Scott; young Dr. Massey; Dr. J. H. Spurgeon; and Dr. Harrison.
Street scene of Old
Aurora, between 1915-1918. The hotel is on the left.
On the right is a store owned by Everett Spurlock and Clint Seals.
Men standing in front of
store owned by Everett Spurlock and Clint Seals at "Old Aurora", about
1915-1918. The people in the photo are: Mary Het
Ledbetter (she is on porch behind men); Everett Spurlock; Vol
Haney; Jim Hopper; Jess Haney; Dr. Scott;
Clint Seals; Jas Hopper (he ran the hotel).
For the convenience of travelers, Aurora boasted a Hotel which also served hot meals. It appears that the first hotel burned and a second one was built to replace it. Hotel operators were George "Bon" Harriman; Joe Whorton; Jas and Mary Hopper; and George and Ella McElhaney. If a traveler's horse needed fed or shoes replaced, the blacksmith shop of J. R. Robinson, which opened in about 1875, could help. After 1900, Hugh Boatright operated a blacksmith shop.
In 1884, Charles Dennis organized the "Independent Order of Knights of the Horse" with G. B. Scott as Grand President. On 23 November 1886, Infanta Lodge #437 was organized having these charter members: J. B. Morris; W. C. Cluck; H. A. Reynolds; J. B. Scott; R. M. Wood; J. B. Guinn; J. W. Rawlins; S. B. Smith; H. C. Ledbeter and Williams Easterling. I have been told that meetings were held in a lodge hall, but I don't know if these two organizations were connected. The lodge continued until the 1920's and members had a lodge pin that they wore with pride. I would like to hear from anyone having any information on these Lodges.
Also, in the October 15, 1953 issue of the "Madison County Record", a photo was published which was taken in 1886 in front of the Old Town Hall at Aurora, showing early settlers and members of Company G of the First Arkansas Infantry, which was formed from this area. This photo belonged to Ethel Kilpatrick who lived at Aurora in 1953. I would very much like to find a copy of this photo so that a print could be made from it. If anyone has a copy of this photo please contact me at HC 63 Box 2, Witter, AR 72776.
The only entertainment in Aurora, was singing schools, community picnics, entertainment at the school building, or perhaps a traveling magic show. Each July 4th was a special time at Aurora with a big gathering held at town. Everyone got new clothes and went to town for a big picnic. Also Christmas and other holidays were special events. In the 1920's and 1930's, Aurora is said to have had its own town Constable. Stories of fighting in the streets, with people rolling around on the ground have been told. Most people think this was playful fighting, as in a contest to see who was best, but occasionally the fighting got violent. I have heard that the only place that the Constable had to lock people up until they settled down, was Ed Price's cellar---I only hope that the alligator wasn't in residence there at the same time. There was also a barber shop in Aurora, along with a grist mill that was operated by Mr. King on the John Haney farm about 1/2 mile North of the town. Also Earl Souls operated a stave mill at some point near the grist mill.
Aurora has had four school buildings and the fourth one is still standing today. Aurora school district was created on November 11, 1868 and encompassed about seven square miles. The first school building was a log building and burned sometime about 1928-30. The fire was started by lanterns hanging on the walls during a revival that was being held by a traveling Pentecostal minister. The building was full of people and it was toward the end of the service, with lots of people at the front of the building praying and shouting. One of the lanterns had caught the wall near the back on fire and the door was close to being blocked by the fire. Clarence Whelchel hollered "The building is on fire" and everyone was able to escape, but the building was totally destroyed.
The Aurora School was built back after this fire but was destroyed in 1942 by the first tornado that hit Aurora. Another school building was built and again in April 1945, a second tornado destroyed the school, along with what other buildings were left of the town of Aurora.
After April 1945, school was held in the Church buildings until the present school building was completed . Aurora School District #14 was consolidated with Huntsville District #1 on 2 June 1949. The new building was completed and school began in it in 1950 and continued in this building until 1967 or 1968 as a "wing school" of Huntsville.
Aurora Pentecostal Church [school was held here until 1950]
Aurora Community Building today [formerly Aurora School, built 1950]
By the time that the 1945 tornado hit the town of Aurora, most of the businesses had ceased operation. The main road, Highway 23, had been moved to the east side of War Eagle River. George and Ella McElhaney were still living in the old hotel when the tornado hit. George was in Oklahoma but Ella was at home and was bruised by the storm. Their dog and cat were killed. The big house of Walter Boatright, which was still standing but was vacant, was totally destroyed. More detailed information about this tornado which traveled all across Madison County, destroying homes and killing people, can be found in "Fading Memories II" on pages 156-58 or in the Spring 1993 issue of "The Madison County Musings".
AURORA SCHOOL REUNION TO BE HELD
It is hard to comprehend how many children attended school at Aurora from the school's beginning until its end in 1967. I attended Aurora School from 1960 until 1966, and some of my fondest childhood memories are rooted there. The friendships that I developed in the early years at Aurora are still some of the closest ones in my life today. Several years ago, several people began to entertain the idea of having a school reunion at the Aurora School. It was hard to imagine how to go about organizing such an event. However, a group of people have been meeting the last few months and the reunion is now set for Saturday, October 19, 1996. All people who attended school at Aurora, all parents of children attending school there, as well as all Aurora residents, both past and present are invited to attend. We are expecting a great time of visiting and getting re-acquainted. We have gathered together lots of old school photos and plan on having them displayed. It's really fun to look at the photos and reminiscence about the "good old days" at Aurora School. We are relying on word of mouth to let people know about this reunion, so please tell everyone you know that might be interested.
The reunion will begin at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, October 19, 1996, at the Aurora School building. There will be a pot-luck meal at noon with plates, cups, and silverware furnished. Please bring a covered dish, drinks, and your lawn chairs and be prepared to see a lot of old friends. Mark this date on your calendar now and plan to attend !!
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