Sylvania was once known for its dairy farming and abundance of wild animals
Written by: Tracy Crain
Sunday, December 10, 2000

Shelba Dixson was a girl from the 1950s and the granddaughter of one of the first three dairy farmers in Sylvania, located in Lonoke County off of Arkansas 321.

Her grandfather, Ernie Spence, came here as a young boy from Illinois. With his novice skills, he made an honest living in the dairy industry, as did many of his neighbors.

It’s a way of life that Dixson and her husband, Dearl, adopted. They were soon followed by their son, Steve and their daughter and son-in-law, Anita and Gary Abshure. Her other daughter, Renee Calhoun, works at the nearby Cabot Middle School North as the principal. “This is the first year for the new school,” Dixson said.

According to a historical piece written by Vara Seaton, Sylvania Presbyterian Church Member and former resident, most of the area industry was initiated thanks in part to the work of Rev. James Wilson Moore.

He first visited as a missionary in 1828. In 1842, he brought his bride to live in the town, which was considered then to be a “wild section” of Lonoke County.

It’s said that he bought large tracks of land for 12 cents an acre and was able to give 20 acres to build a church.

He named the area surrounding the church Sylvania and organized a congregation in 1843. The town’s name originated from both Rev. Moore and William Penn because of their donations of land.
The name is believed to mean “woodland,” which was fitting considering that Sylvania had an abundance of trees.

Since there were so many trees, animals such as panthers and wolves were a real concern for residents.

Building a community from nothing is difficult, but residents were determined to overcome the dangers.

“In those days, men armed with rifles took turns safekeeping the children to and from school, which was housed in the church because the country was so infested with animals that could hurt them and would if given the opportunity,” Dixson said. “Sylvania Academy was one of the first schools in Arkansas.”

That is just one reason why Sylvania Presbyterian Church is a historical marker today.
The church was only a small, one-room log building when it was originally built. According to Seaton, there were rows of seats inside that were made of logs and split in two.

She notes that there were slates congregation members and students could place their knees on while the minister instructed them on reading, writing, ciphering and citizenship.

Throughout the years, the church was torn down and rebuilt several times. An overview of the church’s architectural progression shows that the first church was made of logs. The second was made of pine timber.

The third, built in 1860, was made of brick and was used by federal troops during the civil war. The fourth church, built sometime around 1900, is located next to a natural spring and nestled in a grove of Oak trees. It has red bricks from the third church building.

A commemorating plaque hangs in the church today in memory of its founder, Rev. Moore, who is buried in the Sylvania cemetery.

The church, with the help of Moore, played an important role throughout the years in the lives of its residents, who were mainly row crop farmers.

According to Dixson, they made their living by growing cotton, corn and other foods. Strawberry fields and truck farming also helped to supplement local income. Then, the emphasis turned to dairy farming.

“There are some dairy farms that still exist, but many of the residents are now employed at public works and drive from Little Rock to Lonoke to Jacksonville,” Dixson said. “It’s like everything else. The farmland has been sold and it’s being developed. We have a lot of unfinished business to take care of in this community because very few farmers are left today.”

When asked how many people live in the area, she said, “I couldn’t estimate how many live here. It was never a town, just a community--a very nice one.”

Reba Cummings, a newcomer to the area, said her first impressions were good ones. “It’s an unusually small community. If you are ever in need, the residents are there for you,. You can’t find neighbors like the ones who live out here.”

It may mean walking that extra mile, but residents seem to love and appreciate this place they have built.

“The community is very settled,” Dixson said. “Instead of dairy farmers, we’re now gaining a lot more commuters.”

(This article has been recently revised for historical archiving and is an excerpt from Road Trips; a weekly feature of small towns in Arkansas, which was written by Tracy Crain and published by the Arkansas Democrat Gazette in 2000.)