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
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
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
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
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.)