Clarksville, Arkansas, is a city with rich historical roots. Since its establishment in 1836, the city has come to be known for its scenery, local businesses, and historical downtown area. But before anyone can truly grasp the history of Clarksville, a brief background on the formation of Johnson County is necessary.
“Each county has a family tree,” said Debbie Overbey, member of the Johnson County Historical Society. In 1829 Pope County split off from Crawford County and then Johnson County was split from Pope County in 1833. “Johnson County was the edge of the frontier when Arkansas became a state,” said Overbey. Spadra was the first county seat but Clarksville took this distinction in 1837. The railroad came to Johnson County in 1873 and this new form of moving people and goods economically strangled the river towns of Pittsburg Landing, Morrison Bluff and Spadra Bluff — the main entry points into Johnson County prior to the railroad. A chimney still stands today at Pittsburg Landing. There is controversy over exactly what type structure housed the chimney, though some think it could be from a button or furniture factory.
The railroad would have passed through Johnson County years earlier, but construction was delayed by the Civil War. There is still discussion about the War Between the States in Johnson County. “The Civil War is not over,” said Overbey. Families have different ideas about the loyalty their ancestors had to the Confederacy or the Union during the war. “In reality, it was probably whoever got caught by whichever army,” said Overby. There is one story of a man from Johnson County who drew a union pension but was buried under a Confederate marker. Overbey said this was true of a lot of people in the area. “They served on both sides of the conflict. It was as much a matter of expediency as it was political affiliation or philosophy. There was nothing cut-and-dried about the Civil War.” Clarksville served as headquarters for both Confederate and Union posts depending on who controlled the Arkansas River at that particular time. But sitting on the western edge of the Confederacy left Arkansas as a state largely all alone. “For all practical purposes, the confederacy abandoned Arkansas after Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge so Arkansas was left more or less to just fend for itself,” said Overbey.
An interesting story about this inner county Civil War turmoil is Wire Road in Clarksville. The road was named after stories of people cutting telegraph wires on the road so federal soldiers couldn’t communicate. Though there are stories of who might have been responsible, there is no proof as to who actually cut the wires, “It was proven fact that they could not keep the telegraph lines up,” Overbey said. “They sent troops out everyday to police the lines and try to piece them back together so they could keep communication with Fort Smith and further on.”
Some of Johnson County’s more “fruitful” history would come years later with its association with peaches. But how did that start? Several families in the area brought in peach trees from Georgia and began growing peaches in the late 1800s. At one time there were over 100 peach orchards in Johnson County. With Johnson County as a hot spot for peaches, it didn’t take long for an association with downtown to form Clarksville’s premier family event. Johnson County’s famous Peach Festival started in 1938. Since the Peach Festival was suspended during some years of World War II, this year marks the 75th and makes the Johnson County Peach Festival the oldest festival in Arkansas. And while the festival is known for being held in downtown Clarksville, it didn’t move there until 1939. The first festival was held in Ludwig. In its earlier years the festival hosted several famous entertainers such as country stars Minnie Pearl and Mel Tillis, and bluegrass legend Lester Flatt.
Much of Clarksville’s history lies in the downtown area where the majority of local businesses and events have always been located. Arguably the most prominent building in downtown Clarksville is the courthouse. Today’s courthouse is the third in Johnson County’s history. All three Johnson County courthouses were built in primarily the same location. The first courthouse was a two-story wooden structure built in 1838. The building was destroyed by what was thought to have been an electrical fire on March 2, 1872. The following year a new structure was built, but this time with brick as opposed to wood. In 1937 that building was torn down and replaced with the courthouse still standing today.
Since the newest construction, the exterior of the building has remained unchanged apart from the addition of ramps at the front of the building. The inside has gone through slight changes such as the addition of an elevator and a change in the formation of the offices. Like most southern towns, the courthouse and its square were where everything happened.
Also located in historic downtown Clarksville is the Johnson County Historical Society. Running solely on donations and grants, the society features a large collection of artifacts, documents, and other information pertaining to the city of Clarksville as well as all of Johnson County. The society is open from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and is located at 131 West Main in Clarksville.
The Johnson County Historical Society opened the doors to its museum and research facility in 2010 but has been an organization since 1974. The members of the historical society said they would like to continue to preserve the history of Clarksville in the future. “I think it would be wonderful if we could encourage more businesses to be active in the restoration of the downtown area, to actually use these historic buildings for new businesses,” said Overbey. “We encourage new business owners to consult with the Arkansas Department of Heritage, who helps them make wise choices to help us preserve the historic appearance,” said Donald H. Pennington, member of the historical society. Consultation is free.
Lola Stewart, Johnson County Historical Society curator, recalled a story about a sock hop, a popular dance event for teenagers, that took place in the basement of the courthouse in the 1960s. At the time, the window to the basement was half aboveground and half below. When Stewart and her husband, Bill, were in high school the sock hops were for seniors only. Bill, along with friends, decided to disrupt the dance using Garrett Sweet Snuff, a fine, powder-like snuff that was popular at the time. “There was one fan that blew into the basement and a fan on the other side that pulled the air out. There was no such thing as air conditioning when we were in school,” Stewart said. The group got a can of snuff, went into the basement, and threw the can in front of the fan that was blowing into the crowd. “It caused quite a little commotion. They quit letting us have sock hops not long after that.”
Downtown Clarksville is also home to the University of the Ozarks. The school took shape in 1858 as Cane Hill College located about 20 miles from Fayetteville. In 1891 the school was moved to Clarksville and renamed Arkansas Cumberland College. In 1920 the college was renamed as College of the Ozarks. After starting a graduate program in 1987 the college became University of the Ozarks. This time — even after losing its graduate program — the name stuck as a college in Point Lookout, Missouri, had already taken the name College of the Ozarks.
Today, Clarksville continues to thrive, attracting more business owners and families. So what makes them choose Clarksville? Sue Kinsey, Director of Downtown Development with the Clarksville Chamber of Commerce, worked as a realtor and saw many people choosing to live in Clarksville. “Everybody says it’s our people. There’s something very special about our people,” Kinsey said.
The city of Clarksville continues to grow as a community while still maintaining the history that shaped it. With the help of local businesses and organizations, the past will make it to the future.
For more information on the history of Clarksville, and the Johnson County Historical Society, please visit www.jocohc.com.