History of Searcy – Its Growth and Its Leaders


(Thednel Garner spoke frequently about the history of Searcy to civic clubs and professional organizations in the early 1990s. He also had a highly popular live radio program, “Sawdust and Sandpaper,” for some 20 years and has published a book by that title. He presented the following remarks to Retired Federal Employees May 5, 1991. Mr. Garner, now retired, is an active member of the White County Historical Society. )

I was sorta startled the first time I was called and asked to speak on the history of Searcy. I always enjoyed Dick Deener’s, Oran Vaughan’s and Miss Ellen Key’s history talks. They had lived the history they talked about. So when asked to speak, my first reaction was “Am I that old?” “Am I the last one, the storyteller, the keeper of the history? After all, searcy was already 102 years old when I came here. Once I got over the shock I started looking forward to it with pleasure. Although I’m not a native I love Searcy. I came here in the summer of 1939 from Calico Rock in Izard County to attend Harding, finished in ’43, spent a little over two years in the Navy during World War 2 until the war ended, married Doris, spent a year at Georgia Tech, then came back to Searcy and lived happily ever after.

For much of the history before 1939, as well as later, I depend on Ray Muncy’s book Searcy, Arkansas: A Frontier Town Grows Up With America, published during the Bicentennial year of 1976, plus the Daily Citizen and other sources. Much of what I say, especially during the first part, will be direct quotes from Dr. Muncy’s history of Searcy. Let me give credit at the beginning so that it will not be necessary to keep saying “Quote,” and “Unquote.” If you haven’t read it, I hope you will because it will help you become aware of how much we owe to those who came before us to make Searcy what it is today. We are truly indebted to Dr. Muncy for his book.

Dr. Muncy mentions that bear hunting may well have been the reason for the site of Searcy, quoting from an article in the White County Record: “Searcy is comparatively a new place; it is true it was settled and visited for its healthful waters, since about the year 1820. Sometime in that year … our magnificent Sulphur and Shalybeate Springs were discovered, by a bear hunter who wounded and killed a bear which fell between the two springs… Some time after this the hunters and several other parties settled near the springs to which many people resorted and visited for health, and found great relief from the use of the waters.”

Another quote: “On November 23, 1837, the State Legislature of Arkansas, upon designating the seat of White County, officially named it Searcy.” You’ll find a cast iron plaque commemorating that on the southwest corner of the Courthouse lawn in downtown Searcy. Incidentally, I think ever since then folks have been saying that downtown Searcy is dying. It’s 153 years old and so far as I can see it’s still very much alive and kicking and looking better than ever.

“The first steamboat pulled in where Gin and Deener creeks empty into the Little Red River at a spot quickly named Searcy Landing in 1849.” That location is just a little way downriver from the Highway 67 bridge near the VFW clubhouse.

During the western migration in the 1840s wagon trains crossed through Arkansas. “John Howerton was the captain of a wagon train that terminated its journey in Searcy as early as 1836. He opened Searcy’s first store the following year and his wife operated the local inn.”

“Uncle Billy” Jones came and opened a grocery store just north of the Springs. A shrewd Tennessee-bred retailer, he sensed the importance of being located in the line of traffic to the springs. M.M. Morris, from the Appalachian Mountains, settled at a location across the street from Uncle Billy’s and opened the town’s second blacksmith shop. Morris was diversified in his interests, as he saw opportunities sticking out like jug handles, and opened the first steam mill in the county on Gin Creek near the present Foothills Vo-Tech School. We also invested in farmland and came to be a landholder of considerable stature. W.B. Carter came to Searcy in 1851 from Virginia … and opened a boot shop. He broadened his business to include dry goods when he built Searcy’s second brick building, located on the north side of the square. After the Civil War he returned … and became one of Searcy’s leading druggists. Stephen Perry also located his general store on the north side of the square in the 1850s on the corner now occupied by the Rialto Theater. His daughter married Wyatt Sanford, a name that would leave an indelible mark on Searcy’s mercantile operations for more than a century.”

Stephen Brundidge Sr. came from Alabama to near Searcy Landing and started contracting to build brick houses. He had a portable brickmaking machine and oven and made his bricks right on the job site using clay from along the river bank. The Quattlebaum Music building across the corner from KWCK radio station is made with his bricks. Recently in a conversation with Mr. R.R. Blansett, who used to have a shoe store downtown, he commented that the building he formerly occupied was built of Brundidge bricks. Incidentally, that building was the first city hall and jail, back around the turn of the century. It and the buildings next to it were removed to make room for expansion of the First Security Bank and more parking.

Mr. Blansett also told me a story told him by the late Ed Lightle. Ed said he got a ticket from the mayor for riding his bicycle on the sidewalk in front of that city hall in the early 1900s. He said his parents would not come to his aid and let him go to court himself. Evidently it made quite an impression on him as he went on to become one of our most respected attorneys as well as a state senator.

Today Searcy is recognized as one of Arkansas’ medical centers with two modern hospitals, a nursing department at Harding, and approximately 45 doctors. The first doctor in Searcy was Dr. James C. Holland, who came from Henderson County, Texas, in 1853. His son was the first Searcy School graduate to enter the medical profession. Dr. James Snipes opened his office a year after Dr. Holland came. Dr. P.A. Robertson, a young druggist, built the two-story building now occupied by Quattlebaum Music. At the time Robertson’s ceased business it was the oldest drugstore in Arkansas. I remember going there often as a college student because when you ordered an ice cream soda or milkshake they also gave you a couple of cookies.

Searcy has also been an educational center for over a century. Dr. Muncy mentions in his book that the first school formed in Searcy in 1849 carried the awesome title “Polytechnic Institute, Incorporated” of Searcy and the curriculum included such mind-boggling courses as “civil engineering, analytical and agricultural chemistry and their kindred branches, and a liberal study of the classics.”

In 1852 the Searcy Male Academy opened and was operated by a commission appointed by the town fathers. That same year Israel Moore donated the property where the Junior High School is located presently, for the purpose of erecting a building to house the Male Academy. William Andrew Harrison Yarnell was one of the early teachers in that Academy.

By the time of the Civil War Searcy had a population of 700, which was a sizeable town on the frontier in those days. Searcy had “grown from a few scattered log cabins to a center of commercial and political activity.” The war stopped progress, not only in Searcy, but throughout much of the country. Plans were already moving toward a new two-story courthouse and Brundidge already had his brick-making equipment set up ready to go, but the war stopped the work.

“Not only did Searcians go to war, but the war came to Searcy. Federal troops some 20,000 strong camped on the north side of Little Red River from Prospect Bluff (Judsonia) to Searcy Landing and sent out companies of men to scout the countryside around Searcy.”

In his account of the Battle of Whitney Lane, which happened just east of Searcy in May of 1862, Dr. Muncy tells of the Federal troops marching back into Missouri following the Battle of Pea Ridge and then “marched south again in anticipation of taking Little Rock. Batesville was occupied and an advance guard was dispatched to Searcy. Little Rock panicked as Governor Rector ordered the removal of the seat of state government to an unannounced location, which later turned out to be Hot Springs. The carpets on the floor of the State Capitol had been confiscated already to be used as blankets for the Confederate Army. The Federal forces of Curtis were moved into Harrison Township in White County to a spot they named ‘Camp Mosquito.’ About half of his army was ordered east of the Mississippi River. Owing to the reduction in the size of his army and the lack of supplies, which had not reached him because of the spring rains, Curtis was not able to proceed forthwith to Little Rock. The Federal troops began to plunder the Searcy area, taking whatever foodstuffs they could lay their hands on, as well as Negroes, horses and mules. Major E.W. Rogers ascertained they were ‘in a starving condition’ and would stop at nothing. Colonel P.J. Osterhaus commanded several companies of Germans who had joined the Union Army, and sent them with wagons to Georgetown, West Point and Kensett to fill them with the farmers’ produce and cellar holdings. The news of this raid spread rapidly, and the Home Guards took down their shotguns and rifles and prepared to take vengeance…” His account of the battle then followed.

Several other skirmishes in the vicinity of Searcy occurred in 1864, and he mentions that ‘Major James F. Dwight reported that the town of Searcy was ‘pretty much deserted: no buildings destroyed.’

“Three years after the Civil War, Searcy was yet experiencing the doldrums. Vacant lots were sightless on account of dense undergrowth and the streets were practically impassable. The lack of energy on the part of the city Do-nothings was blamed. Only a rickety old shed graced Spring Park, once regarded as the health mecca of Arkansas.”

In 1874, about four years later, the Memphis, Tennessee, Baptist reported “The Springs at Searcy are worthy of mention. In a small enclosure three kinds of water run out of the ground: white sulphur, chalybeate and alum. The sulphur water is reported to be very good. In the evenings late the citizens and visitors flock to these springs, and there is quite an appearance of life … when the (rail)road is finished through to St. Louis which will be sometime this fall, Searcy expects to have a good many pleasure and health seekers from that direction. It is a pleasant, healthy place and deserves to become a watering place of note.”

In 1868 several hundred longhorn cattle were driven through town on a drive to Illinois where they were to be fed a few bushels of corn and then sold on the New York markets as “corn-fed Illinois cattle.”

The Western Union telegraph lines were strung …the main railroad line between St. Louis and Little Rock was completed … steamboat traffic increased (cotton could be shipped to Memphis for $2 per bale) … stagecoach travel was still popular … schools were reopened … and Wyatt Sanford submitted the low bid of nearly $25,000 to build the two-story courthouse in 1869. Searcy was incorporated as a Second Class City in September 1891 and divided into four wards. There were no paved streets and the horse and wagon traffic kept the streets in a mess. Wooden crosswalks were built at busy intersections. Every able-bodied man was expected to serve street duty in grading, filling and general repairing of the streets. Coal oil or kerosene street lamps had been installed in several places. In 1899 the city council published an ordinance prohibiting horses, mules, mares, colts, jacks, jennys, swine, sheep or goats to run at large within the city limits. Milk cows were exempt during the daylight hours but had to be kept off the streets and vacant lots at night.

In 1889 the corner stone was laid for Galloway Female College, one of the South’s most prestigious women’s colleges. But during the Depression years attendance had declined from 269 in 1926 to only 75 in 1933 and the school was closed. In August of 1933 the school property was sold at public auction to the Booth Brothers of Searcy.

“W.A. and A.W. Yarnell, brothers, opened a merchandising establishment in Searcy in 1867 and sold everything from pins to steam engines. They were later joined by J.H. and Aaron Yarnell and began what became Searcy’s most diversified business, which included among other things a railroad and a real estate office…”

“A mercantile firm which was etched deeply upon the Searcy image for many years was the Robbins-Sanford Company. The enterprise belonged first to Stephen Perry. Perry retired in 1887 and his grandson, John Sanford, became a partner in the business with E.A. (‘Bony’) Robbins. The two had more business acumen than most merchants in the South and they began almost immediately to buy out other businesses … Altogether, the Robbins-Sanford Mercantile Company bought 44 other stores or stocks of goods including hardware, implements, harnesses, grocery, seeds, plants, dry goods, and furniture. Stores were owned and operated by the company elsewhere, as well as the one here in Searcy … the largest such store and warehouse between Little Rock and St. Louis.”

I don’t remember just when Robbins-Sanford went out of business but it must have been in the 1950s because I remember buying some of their store fixtures from “Bony” Robbins after we started our business in 1956. Their store was located where Ozark Arms and Van Atkins are now. They had a large freight elevator which is still in place and which Rick Van Hook tells me still works.

During my last two years in Harding I kept books for J.T. Cone at the Wood-Freeman Lumber Company. Jim told of the time when he and Al Freeman were just getting started in the business and neither knew very much about it. A customer came in wanting some baseshoe moulding. Neither Jim nor Al knew what it was so one of them talked to the customer while the other one ran up to Robbins-Sanford to find out what baseshoe was, then came back and filled the customer’s order.

The Woods, Cones and Freemans were all from Izard County and Jim was like a second father to me. When I came back to Searcy after the war he sold me a sixth interest in the lumberyard and let me work it out. After he sold his remaining interest I sold my part in 1955 and set up a building design business in my home, then a few months late Frank McKenney and I started the Garner-McKenney Supply Company which later became our two separate businesses.

Back to Robbins-Sanford for a moment: I don’t believe Dr. Muncy mentions it in his book but I understand that Robbins-Sanford had a young man working for them, who slept upstairs in the store as a security measure. His name was Ray Yarnell. Dr. Muncy does record that The Grisham Ice Cream Company, later to be the Yarnell Ice Cream Company, was headquartered in Searcy in 1923 and that they had a fireball salesman and assistant manager working for them … Ray Yarnell. They began their first truck route in 1929, from Searcy to Tuckerman. Yarnell Ice Cream is Searcy’s oldest industry, and definitely one of our best-tasting. [Today, it’s the only ice cream company left in Arkansas.]

Searcy’s population grew during the war years. In 1940 there were 3,670 residents in Searcy with a 41% increase from 1940 to 1950 with over 5,000. Even so, Searcy has never been a boomtown, but has usually had a slow, steady growth. In the decade of the 1940s White County was the only county in the Second Congressional District that did not lose population. Between ’54 and ’57 Searcy gained nearly 1,300 new residents, a tremendous increase considering that in the previous four years the gain had been less than 300. By 1973 the population had grown to 10,867 and now, 17 years later, it is close to 15,000 or 16,000 ... we'’ll know for sure when they get through checking the census. [The 1990 census showed 15,180 people living in Searcy; there are an estimated 20,000 here today.]

Searcy did not have a Chamber of Commerce in 1925, but the Searcy Kiwanis Club formed that year, with 39 of the town’s leaders as charter members. The Kiwanians served as a Chamber of Commerce until one could be organized. Someone asked Harry Neelly to give his opinion about a Chamber of Commerce. He contrasted a town of people pulling together with a town where each man was out to get all he could for himself alone. About two years after the Kiwanis Club was organized a meeting was held at the Courthouse for the purpose of forming a Chamber of Commerce. A membership fee of one dollar was assessed and everyone was authorized to accept as many memberships as he could get. S.W. Sanford was elected president. Other officers were M.H. Greer, J. Hicks Deener, J. Ed Lightle, T.A. Watkins and W.E. Hager. I had the privilege of knowing several of those men and have been impressed over the years with the community spirit of Searcy. When it comes to business, we compete. When it comes to community affairs we work side by side.

In October of 1927 a dinner meeting was held with more than 100 guests. Judge Stephen Brundidge was the main speaker and divided Searcians into two groups: the construction crew and the wrecking crew. Naturally no one wanted to be thought of as being on the wrecking crew.

The following January another dinner meeting was held at the Mayfair [Hotel], this time with 150 present. The Chamber idea was growing, and at this meeting Ed Yingling and Sam Davis were appointed captains of their respective teams to see who could get the greater number of memberships for 1928.

The first major industry to come to Searcy after World War II was the International Shoe Company, after several townspeople had gone to St. Louis to talk with corporation officials about locating a factory in Searcy. Searcy was to raise $100,000 to erect a building for the factory, and the shoe company would lease the building for five years with a 30-year renewal option. Raising money for industry had never been attempted in Searcy, and some were reluctant. All contributors were asked to meet at the high school auditorium for a progress report. Dick Deener reported that 374 persons had signed pledge cards amounting to $99,000. H.M. Thompson reported that a site had been secured on South Main Street, and Ewing Pyeatt, president of the Chamber, reported that the International Shoe Company was proceeding to finalize all plans.

Back then Highway 67, the main highway between St. Louis and Little Rock, same through Searcy, coming in from the north across the old bridge by the VFW club, then on into town by the Fairgrounds on Davis Drive coming onto what was the eastern end of Race Street to the intersection with Main Street and Truman Baker's, then south to Woodruff, turning west by B.C. Huddleston’s Ice Plant and on west to South Elm, then south about a mile and a half to what is now the intersection of Pioneer and Booth Road, or highway 367, then back east to south Main where Searcy Building Supply is now located, then back south and on to Little Rock. The east edge of town was about where Bolding’s Esso is now and there was a large metal arch over the street. The south edge was about Mulberry Street and there was a motel there, facing what is now South Elm Street, called the Rock Lodge, consisting of a central office building and, I believe, a café plus several rock cottages. Only the main building and the shell of one of the cottages is still standing, across from Lee Stevenson’s oil plant and the Soil Conservation offices.

Many business people panicked when the Highway Department announced that the highway would bypass Searcy. If you think East Race is busy now, can you imagine what it would be like if all that St. Louis to Little Rock through-traffic had to come through town? Someway or other we managed to survive the bypass.

Retailers panicked again when we heard a discount store was coming to town, sure that it would put a lot of retailers out of business. Howard’s Discount did come … and go. Then Gibson’s came … and went. Them Magic Mart … then Alco. Some way or other WalMart has managed to survive. Our business has thrived because we faced up to the competition and made some changes, and Searcy businesses as a whole are stronger. So discounters are really not any worse than bypasses.

I’ve watched other small towns stagnate because of lack of leadership, lack of community spirit, and quarreling factions. As far back as I can remember we’ve had a sense of teamwork in Searcy. Oh, there are a few who ride the coattails of those who do the work, but you’ll find them in practically any organization, including the church.

I mentioned those that through the years have said downtown is dying. They confuse dying with change. I’ve watched it change for 50 years. Take our building for example, where Ace Hardware is. When I first came to Searcy there was a drugstore in the west side and Claude Watson’s Men’s Store in the east side and a barbershop in back on Market Street. I’m not sure what came next, but the Anthony Department Store was in the building for many years with Roy Richmond as the manager, then I bought the building in 1979 when Anthony’s decided to leave Arkansas. And it was our third location in downtown … we kept outgrowing our buildings. Similar stories could be told about every building downtown.

Back to our leaders. I have mentioned several so far in this talk. Three other men that I believe affected the future of Searcy more than most others in recent history were Ewing Pyeatt of First National Bank, Elmer Yancey of First Security, and Deener Dobbins, Jr. of Searcy Federal. It was a pleasure to know and work with Ewing and Deener and still is with Elmer. Harding and its leaders of course have had a profound effect on Searcy through the Chamber as well as through our civic clubs and other organizations. Can you imagine what Searcy would be like without a university? We are the envy of towns like Newport, Augusta and others.

When you have an opportunity, go down to the Chamber of Commerce building and into the boardroom. On all four walls are pictures of past presidents of the Chamber … more of the leaders who have helped make Searcy the town you enjoy today. If you are a member of a civic club, the next time you have a banquet you’ll probably find a list of past presidents on the back of the program. More leaders who have helped Searcy develop in the right direction.

Searcy has been blessed with leaders with vision, who have worked unselfishly to make Searcy an ideal community for business and professional progress and family living.

I’ve seen plant managers and store managers relocated to Searcy, some probably unwillingly, but after living in Searcy awhile they have realized what we have here and some have refused to be relocated elsewhere because they wanted to stay in Searcy. They have become important leaders.

It would take hours to tell of all the leaders. I’ve mentioned only a few. Please read Dr. Muncy’s book, again if you already have read it. It will give you a deeper appreciation for Searcy.

Thank you for this opportunity to share some memories with you.

[To order the book Searcy, Arkansas: A Frontier Town Grows Up With America send a check for $18 to Searcy Arts Council, 300 East Race, Searcy, AR 72143.]