Beautifully crafted antique buildings of faded paint and cracked brick stand, built to last, in the once prosperous town square of Atkins, Arkansas, a city aged with 144 years’ worth of history and character. The wide streets lay mostly vacant apart from a collection of cars that line the road outside of Jose’s International Café. The once vibrant community of Atkins is now a quiet, historic home to about 3,000 residents.
Generations ago, Native Americans settled on the banks of the Arkansas River in an area known as Galla Rock in the early 1800s. “It all started out as a Cherokee Indian village and that was probably 1820s to 1830s, and it was still there during the Civil War which was 1861 to 1865,” said Van Tyson, a member of the Pope County Historical Association and former owner of the Atkins Chronicle.
By 1870, the majority of the Cherokee village abandoned their land in Arkansas and moved to Oklahoma, according to John C. Stroud, author of A Heart within a Valley and member of the Pope County Historical Association.
Following the Civil War, construction of the Little Rock and Fort Smith railroad began. The project stalled once it reached the outskirts of Blackwell due to the lack of funds. But in 1872 a businessman from Boston, Massachusetts, by the name of Elisha Atkins offered enough money to continue the railroad. By 1876 Atkins was incorporated, just in time for the United States centennial.
“Most of the people in Atkins moved from Galla rock on the river up to Atkins where the railroad came through. At first it was just a few of them, but then by 1880 it was most of them.” Stroud said. The first home ever built in Atkins was constructed in 1872 by a man named Benjamin Towler Embry. Within the next year, a general store ran by Ephraim Alexander Darr became the first business established in Atkins. In November 1894, George L. Parker published the first issue of the Atkins Chronicle.
Parker continued the paper for four years before moving to Morrilton and selling to W.F. Turner in 1898. By 1917 Van Tyson’s grandfather, Ardis Tyson, became the owner of the paper. The Chronicle became a family business as Tyson’s father and uncle helped edit and maintain the paper, and even Tyson began working at the Chronicle as an11-years-old printer’s apprentice.
“I went to work for my uncle at that time as a printer’s devil doing the dirty stuff back in the back and cleaning off type with gasoline and melting it down for reuse,” Tyson said. “All the dirty work. And as I recall I was paid five dollars a week at first and then I think I got a raise maybe in a year up to 10 dollars.”
Van Tyson became the owner in 1959, but in 1961, the Tyson’s sold the paper to Tommy Gillespie, a former printer for Ardis Tyson, only to repurchase it again in 1992.
A devastating setback for the Chronicle occurred as a result of lost sales in pickle label printing for the Atkins Pickle Company. “We had a printing shop in the back and one of the things we did was print pickle labels for the pickle plant, but then they put in their own print shop and that really hurt the Chronicle,” Tyson said.
The Chronicle continued to survive for many years before publication ceased in June of 2017 due to a lack of advertising. “It was losing money. Ginnie (Van’s wife) and I were having to put our savings into it for the past year and more,” Tyson said. “And some months we did make money, but overall we were losing money.”
In the early 1890s, Atkins became well known for its cotton crop. Cotton was soon considered the most important crop due to its high market value, and the surrounding country began to flourish within the cotton market. “Before 1940, as far as industry is concerned, the main thing were cotton gins,” Stroud said. “I mean, there were eight to ten cotton gins around town at one time.”
According to articles from the Atkins Chronicle, in 1899 Atkins claimed to be one of the best cotton markets between Little Rock and Fort Smith. In his book, Stroud notes the largest single cotton scale in value in the history of Atkins was purchased at $27,000.
“At one time it was really a prospering town. Before the pickle plant there were cotton gins and feed mills and things like that,” Tyson said. “Cotton was a major crop grown down in Atkins river bottom and that’s been replaced with soybeans, wheat and rice.”
In later years, industries and merchants like Cheek Wholesale, Bledsoe Drug Store, Valley Canning Company, The Atkins Chronicle, the Bank of Atkins and the Roller Mill established the business district of the town. “In the 1940s, really the first industry that we got was the cannery and then the pickle plant came in after that. Of course, different land owners donated land to be used for both of them.” Stroud said.
It goes without saying that pickles were the life force of this small town. Formerly nicknamed the “Pickle Capital of the World” by the natives, Atkins residents relish the memories of the town’s pickle industry that lasted more than 50 years.
In 1946, the Goldsmith Pickle Company offered to invest $75,000 in building a plant in Atkins if the citizens raised $15,000 to aid in building and equipping the facility. Funds raised by the local committee totaled at $16,954.97 and was led by Cheek Grocery Company’s donation of $1,000.
In July of 1946 the plant made its first test run of pickle packing and days later it was in full operation with 100 employees. Within two years of service, the company contracted 821 farmers for 1,200 acres of cucumbers, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.
“And at one time at its height, the pickle plant made a special gift pack that had their specialty items…” Tyson said, pointing to an empty jar with a Tomolives label. “One of them is Tomolives. You can still buy Tomolives by the way. They are made by a plant in Van Buren that was operated by a former manager at the pickle plant.”
The specialty items included eight or more jars of pickles, pickled peppers, pickled onions, pickled Tomolives, which are pickled green tomatoes, and pickled okra. “I like them,” Tyson said, referring to Tomolives. “You know, they’re pickle-y. They’re sour.” The gift pack of each specialty item was what the state used to give to favored guests or celebrities visiting Arkansas.
In 1963, Atkins also became known as the home of the fried dill pickle. A man named Bernell “Fatman” Austin, who owned a small drive-in restaurant near Interstate 40 called The Loner, began experimenting with new ways to attract customers. Austin continued to refine his fried pickle recipe even after selling the first batch of crispy dill slices in the summer of 1963, and by the end of the season, he had established what is now known as Fatman’s Original Fried Dill Pickles. Southern restaurants began to mimic Fatman’s secret recipe, but no copycat has been able to compete with the original.
As time went by the pickle market began to decline due to an excess of product, and in 2002 the news of Atkins Pickle Company closing devastated the locals. The town suffered a big blow regarding employment, Tyson said. “What had happened is Dean Foods took it over and automated it.” Tyson said. “When it started out a whole lot of it was hand done. People cutting up the pickles by hand instead.”
The pickle plant was eventually replaced by a chicken processing plant, Atkins Prepared Foods, and it ended up employing more people than the pickle plant did at its end, Tyson said.
However, the citizens of Atkins refuse to forget its pickled past and instead honors the memory of the pickle each year with the annual two-day Picklefest celebration of pickle eating and pickle juice drinking.
Established in 1992, this pickle tribute has become a popular tart tradition of the Pope County area. Rumors of the festival ending had circulated in 2004 and People for a Better Atkins tried to rename the festival, but pickle pride held true, and the festival lives on name intact.
Although the business district has declined and the years of bustling streets have come to pass, it still is the home of many families. “It’s really just become a bedroom city for people who work in Russellville and some even work as far away as Little Rock and even Fort Smith,” Tyson said.
Cars continue to flow in and out of the quaint town center, but the former pickle capital of the world is now more or less a preserved memory of what once was a thriving town with a booming economy and lively store fronts.