now farm country, grew up around timber industry


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 26, 1999

GRIFFITHVILLE – This town of about 200 residents in southeast White county sits in the middle of some of the flattest land in the Three Rivers region. Area farmers use this rich White River bottomland to raise rice and soybeans.

Griffithville didn’t begin as a farming trade center. Longtime resident Ben Collinsworth said it started as a timber town just over a century ago. There were dense hardwood forests nearby with trees so big that "you couldn’t put more than one log on a wagon," he said.

When the Rock Island company put a rail line between Devalls Bluff and Searcy in 1898, transporting lumber to markets became easier. Almost immediately sawmills were installed near the railroad. Jobs and people followed.

Collinsworth said that the new town was named for a man named Griffith who worked for the railroad company. His job was to survey the land and supervise construction of the line.

The railroad bypassed a community just two or three miles to the south. Called Dogwood, it had started when about a dozen families moved in from Tennessee between 1850 and 1855. The late Kathleen Howerton, a teacher and principal at Griffithville, wrote about the settlers: "They came by boat up the White River to the Little Red River and up Little Red River to … West Point. From there, they proceeded overland by oxcart 10 miles south."

When the Civil War broke out, 10 men from the community enlisted in a Confederate company forming in Searcy. All came home safely. The young men who were left at home had to take their corn to West Point to be ground into meal; they spent as much time hiding from foragers from both armies as in getting there and back.

Collinsworth said there’s a military cemetery near the Dogwood Methodist church. "There was a Confederate hospital at Egbert during the war, and soldiers who died there were buried in that cemetery," he said. "My uncle John L. Collinsworth figured out who was buried where and got markers from the government for the graves in the 1930s."

As early as 1867, Joshua Pence started a school at Dogwood. He taught there about 10 years. Howerton wrote that he taught one term – probably two months – at West Point, walking 10 miles each way each school day. According to a story she had heard, he carried his shoes until he was near town. "He then put his shoes on, taught his day, and removed them again for the walk," Howerton wrote. "In those days, teachers were fortunate if they made as much as $7 a month.

As more settlers came into the area, Egbert Williams opened a general store and in about 1880 secured a post office. Its location was named Egbert.

A. J. Smith put in another general store two miles east of Egbert Williams’ store in 1882. Later, Smith moved his store to Griffithville to be near the railroad. He obtained a post office, and his wife became postmistress. Howerton wrote that the mail was so light that Mrs. Smith kept the letters in the store in a shoebox.

With plenty of work, Griffithville grew rapidly. A Baptist church was started in 1989, with the town physician, a Dr. White, serving as its leader. The Methodists organized in 1900, and they shared the Baptists’ building until 1907, when they built their own.

The Griffithville Special School District was created late in 1900. At first, there were eight grades in one room. By 1960, it had 12 grades and about 400 students.

Griffithville had five stores and a barbershop in 1905, when it was incorporated in May. Dr. W.J. Miller was elected mayor. A 10-foot square calaboose was erected, and a few disorderly drunks were jailed the first year. Howerton wrote that the calaboose burned "mysteriously" the next year and was not rebuilt.

In 1916, E. B. Neaville, the postmaster, petitioned for a rural route and for permission to carry the mail by car. (He had just bought a new Ford.) When the U.S. Postal Service in Washington gave a go-ahead, he became the first person in Arkansas to deliver mail by car. Postmasters at Egbert and Belcher were unhappy because Neaville’s rural route put their post office out of business.

Collinsworth said his father, James B. "Doc" Collinsworth, delivered mail for 28 years, starting around World War I. "He used a horse and buggy at first, and he sometimes used a tractor," Collinsworth said. "He had a blacksmith build him a mail hack that was pulled by horses. On the wood floor, he had a piece of tin to hold a heated rock that would keep his feet warm all day in winter. The hack had a glass front and was sharp. Every kid in the county knew him. He would take grocery lists and deliver the next day."

Later, when Doc used a truck, he might look the other way and let someone hitch a ride on the back. "I’ve seen people step off the truck when they got close to town," Ben said.

In the prosperous 1920s, Griffithville added sawmills, stores, a Church of Christ, a Pentecostal church, a new bank, a drugstore, a café, an undertaking business and more.

Melba Cohen, the current postmistress, was a young girl during the Depression. She remembers Griffithville having seven or eight grocery stores, a theater, a barbershop, a cotton gin and two beer joints. Before her time, there was a hotel, she said.

When she was about 8 or 10, one of the daring things she did was hop on a train’s caboose before it pulled out of the station. She would ride until the train began to pick up speed, then jump off.

The Depression put some stores out of business, but Griffithville’s population may have increased in the ‘30s. Some people moved back in when their jobs in other places played out. Cohen thinks the population may have reached 300 or so.

The town baseball team furnished some of the entertainment in those lean days, playing teams from other towns. The star player seems to have been Charlie Coster, a pitcher with pinpoint control. "You could put a stove pipe up at home plate and he would throw a baseball through it," Collinsworth said.

Griffithville eventually lost its schools to consolidation, but they are remembered with pride for the successful people they helped to educate. Floyd Feather, another longtime resident, said that Preston LaFerney, who’s in charge of the University of Arkansas Agriculture Extension Program, and Dr. Alice Ann O’Donnell, the head of family planning at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, graduated from the high school.

Another graduate, Tommy Holloway, is a leader in NASA and the international space program, Feather said. Holloway, who is Ben Collinsworth’s cousin, is also a member of the Engineering Hall of Fame at the University of Arkansas.

Griffithville has lost some population and several stores since World War II. It now has three churches, a bank, a senior citizens center, a post office, a pool hall, a volunteer fire department and one store.

The store is the Big N Little Short Stop. It sells groceries and gas and doubles as a café. It’s a popular gathering place and a communications center for the community.

"If you want to get the latest local news, join the group that eats breakfast there," an unidentified resident said. "If you want to talk Griffifthville history, go at lunch time. Mr. Ben Collingsworth (and friends) will be there."