The Missouri Pacific Railroad, State Highway 64 and Interstate 40 run in triplicate through the River Valley region of Arkansas with a gentle northern angle from east to west in parallel with the Arkansas River. For centuries after the first explorers ventured west of the Mississippi River, the Arkansas River was the fastest and most reliable means of travel through wild and rugged territory that would become Arkansas. The first settlements in the River Valley were born alongside the river. As succeeding generations ushered in new technology, and civilization emerged from the wilderness, the communities began to change. One of the more dramatic changes was the introduction of a new culture that came to the River Valley from across the Atlantic. It was an introduction made possible by the railroad.
Highway 64, as it runs pin-straight through Atkins, passes alongside an iconic symbol of that culture. You can see it long before you reach downtown, but if you don’t notice from a distance keep driving until you reach the railroad crossing east of the depot with its rusty Lake Atkins sign. Just across the highway and east sits Church of the Assumption with a steeple stretching 121 feet to the top of the cross and towering above the downtown Atkins skyline. The rich heritage of the church can be traced back to construction of the railroad — an event that forever changed the River Valley.
“The 1870s was the big migration into this area, and that is directly related to the railroad,” said Charles Ehemann. Charles is a historian and retired journalist born and bred in the River Valley. A member of Church of the Assumption for his entire life, the church is part of his heritage. Charles can trace that heritage back through many generations. “My parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents and back to the Bartsons,” said Charles.
Today, Union Pacific Railroad trains thunder through the River Valley on a path first traveled by the Little Rock – Fort Smith Railroad. By 1873, 100 miles of railroad track was on the ground, reaching from Little Rock to Clarksville. The railroad brought transportation of goods to and from the River Valley, and was an integral part of the big migration mentioned by Charles.
At about the same time as this railroad construction, The United States experienced an influx of European immigrants. German, Swiss, Pole, French Bohemian, Belgian and Dutch immigrants found work and the promise of better days here in the new world. And while the immigrants came from a number of different countries, the majority of these people shared a common religion – Catholicism.
Post-Civil War River Valley residents were a mostly protestant bunch, but the railroad brought some of those German Catholic immigrants the region. “What the railroad tried to do was get people that lived in areas like this. Not mountainous, but rolling hills,” said Charles. The growing group of Catholics in the area built their first church very near the current Church of the Assumption, but the wooden structure that sat where a majestic pecan tree now grows went by another name. The Church of the Assumption 100 year anniversary booklet (published in 1979 and compiled by Mrs. William Harvill and former owner and editor of the Atkins Chronicle, the late Tom Gillespie) offers a glimpse of those early immigrants and their first church:
In the year 1878, Father Brem, born in Switzerland, arrived here from Ohio and what is now known as Nottenkamper farm was the place where Holy Mass was said in this community for the first time… The first church was built in 1878 at a cost of $5000 and was known as St Fidelis Church. The Iron Mountain Railroad donated several acres of land and a sum of money to help in the erection of the frame church. It faced south and it’s size was about 42 X 24 feet. It was constructed of pine lumber and it was painted white. The parishioners donated money and labor in constructing the church. At this time, also, a combination rectory (parish) and school was erected on the site of the present rectory. Lay teachers had charge of the school in this building. Living conditions were extremely poor in those days. Many families had log cabins and the winters were very severe. There were no roads to speak of and the families found the church by the markings on trees. (Church of the Assumption Centennial Celebration booklet 1979)
With more immigrants arriving regularly, the small wooden building was outgrown by a burgeoning German Catholic population.
“It started with 16 families,” said Charles. ”But then it mushroomed quickly as the railroad brought in more German immigrants. It jumped to 60 something families and just kept growing.”
Reading again from the COA Centennial booklet:
Fr. Aton Jaworski, C. S. Sp., came to take over the flock in 1879… Then in rapid succession there came to these people a number of priests, until the year 1881. Inn this year the parish grew to about 60 families when several Catholic families moved in on a section of land on Crow Mountain and in the following year to about 90 families… The parish continued to grow during the next five years (COACCB 1979).
The present brick church building was constructed in 1897 and then became known as the Church of the Assumption. That first brick building also featured a towering steeple recorded in the COA Centennial booklet that “reached 107 feet high” and according to a period writer “can be seen for miles.” The church also featured “three huge bells that can be heard throughout the surrounding area.”
The German immigrants hired by the railroad filtered through a church in central Arkansas. “They came through Little Rock, and St. Edwards Catholic Church was kind of the separating point,” said Charles. “They (St Edwards) would find places along the line that people could settle. Atkins was one. Of course, Sacred Heart in Morrilton and St. Joseph’s in Conway, and across the river in Bigelow is St. Boniface. All of those churches were started in 1878 or 79.”
As a steady stream of new railroad workers poured into the valley, German Catholic settlements sprang up along the railroad tracks. For those of you wondering about the diminished influence of Catholicism for points north and south of the River Valley, ties to the railroad are why. River Valley railroad communities were mostly German Catholic, and new immigrants looking for work along with the comfort of their culture stayed close to those settlements. It was a pattern that quickly populated the eastern River Valley.
The mission field from more than a century ago was on a much smaller scale than today’s. Russellville and Dardanelle were the result of Catholic missionary outreach from Atkins. “You have to go to the fifties before the Catholic church was actually built there in Russellville,” said Charles. “Now they had, over in Dardanelle, St. Augustine. Russellville, well it was a church, but it was more like a big hall and it was built at what they call Sandy Point. The building is still there. But Russellville and Dardanelle was a mission of Atkins.”
While the message of Catholicism branched out through the River Valley, the pattern for construction of the Church of Assumption building was used beyond the region. “This style of building was used by the Holy Ghost Fathers,” said Charles. “They built nine churches between here and Alabama that were this style of architecture. What they did was like in Morrilton, which is a bigger parish, they widened it out and made it longer. This building (Atkins) was set up to hold about 200 people.”
The interior of the building is gorgeous. Diffused light filters through a spectrum of color in the stained glass windows, and gothic angles in tandem with symbols of the Catholic faith stand in contrast to a small town Americana vibe just outside the heavy wooden church doors. The acoustics are unbelievable. “These churches were built, of course before any sound systems were around,” said Charles. “You can actually go up to the tabernacle wall (located behind the pulpit) and you can whisper, and you can hear it back here,” said Charles, sitting on the back pew underneath the choir balcony. A slight echo somehow clarifies our conversation as I stand near the tabernacle wall just to verify Charles’ claim. He’s right about the acoustics.
Those stained glass windows deserve another mention. Besides the interesting shapes and beautiful colors, the windows each feature names of church members from years ago. “When they started building the church they asked people to sponsor different things,” said Charles. “And even some of the families from back in Germany donated money.” Almost every name is German: Maus, Bartzen, Vegner (Wagner), Jungblud (Youngblood), Schmidt, Muller (Miller), Berkemeyer and others. Holding on to heritage is important for the church. Another example of this is the patterned wood floor dividing the sanctuary.
“That was covered with carpet, and when they pulled the carpet up the architect just had a fit,” said Charles. “In the 1930s they had put down a heavy linoleum, and that was the pattern on it. So the architect said why don’t you get somebody to make that pattern out of wood.”
Another unique aspect of the Church of the Assumption has had only three major priests over the course of 135 years. Attitude reflects leadership, and the longevity of the church is doubtless a reflection of long-term dedication from its leaders.
For most River Valley residents, the church has always been here. Built by German immigrants flushed from their homeland by Prussian persecution into a road-less wilderness, working toward a new beginning in a strange new land, and led by men with a deep compassion for their fellow humans. The steeple was destroyed by fire, most likely from a lightning strike, in 1989 yet today the steeple stands tall. It’s a church that has withstood the test of time and is growing to this day. With members of the youngest generation already filling the pews, Charles believes the future is bright. “This last year, our parish has really started to grow,” said Charles. “You know how when you’re sitting in church and the kids just scream bloody murder? Boy that’s a good sound down here.”
That’s the sound of a promising future for a church and people that have endured for more than 135 years.