In 1825, about a mile south of present-day Morrilton, a trading post was established by Major William Lewis and his son Stephen D. Lewis. They called the area Lewisburg. Because of its location on the Arkansas River this new little town thrived and had a population of nearly 2,000 by the time of its incorporation in 1844. At this time the river was the main means of transportation and the primary place for farmers to unload crops, according to former Morrilton mayor, Stewart Nelson. A few years prior, Native Americans migrated through the Point Remove Bottoms just west of Morrilton during the Trail of Tears as they made their way to Indian Territory. The Civil War caused a division between Lewisburg and the rest of Conway County, and though no major battles were fought, guerrilla warfare was common.
The Little Rock and Fort Smith railroad surveyed a railroad route about a mile north of Lewisburg from 1854 to 1860, but construction was stalled because of the Civil War. The railroad finally reached the town in 1871 with the first depot being a boxcar known as “Lewisburg Station,” according to Rachel Patton, executive director of Preserve Arkansas. The first legitimate railroad station was established in 1873 and it was decided that the area needed a new name. The farm land to the west of the new train station was owned by Edwin James Morrill, and the eastern side belonged to James Miles Moose. It is said that the name of the town was decided by the flip of a coin; it would either be Morrilton or Mooseville. Morrilton, it was.
Former Mayor Nelson stated that the town grew and developed around the railroad. “It was a transportation hub,” he shared. He also said that the town was divided by Division Street—the street to the west of Division Street was named Morrill and the street to the east was named Moose.
Through the decades and into the 20th century Morrilton was put on the map, so to speak, with the help of several different developments. Petit Jean State Park, the oldest state park in Arkansas, was established 19 miles west of Morrilton in 1923. Two years prior Dr. T.W. Hardison, the Fort Smith Lumber Company physician, persuaded Representative H.M. Jacoway to introduce a bill in the House of Representatives providing for the acceptance of the area as Petit Jean National Park. Stephen Mather, director of the National Park Service, met with Hardison and let him know he couldn’t recommend Congress accept the offer because the area was too small for a national park. He suggested that it be made into a state park instead. Two years later 80 acres including Cedar Falls, the 95-foot waterfall, was offered to the State of Arkansas. It was accepted, making it one of the first state parks created in the South. Several businessmen of Morrilton were donors of the tract. The park has developed tremendously over the years and now boasts 2,658 acres, miles of trails, scenic overlooks, camping, a lodge and restaurant, swimming pool, cabins, and more.
Also located atop Petit Jean Mountain you can find the Museum of Automobiles, with over 50 vehicles on display, most dating before 1950. The late governor Winthrop Rockefeller founded the museum, and it opened on October 18, 1964. You can even find a few of Rockefeller’s old vehicles in the museum, including a 1951 Cadillac he drove to Arkansas in 1953 when he made the state his home. The museum serves as the headquarters for the Mid-America Old Time Automobile Association and also hosts several car shows and swap meets annually. Petit Jean Mountain is also home to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, established in 2005 when the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust granted the University of Arkansas System a 188-acre campus that was once part of the home and cattle farm of Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller.
Morrilton is also well-known for Petit Jean Meats. Misty Willbanks, with Petit Jean Meats marketing, says the company is named after the town’s most notable landmark, Petit Jean Mountain. “Petit Jean Meats has been located in Morrilton for nearly 90 years,” she shared. In 1922, Felix Schlosser, who was originally from Germany, had been learning the butcher trade and as times were hard in his native land he was looking for a better life. He already had well-established family in Arkansas. Schlosser moved from Little Rock to Conway and finally ended up in Morrilton in 1926 where he made his permanent home near his widowed cousin, Mary Ruff. On July 7, 1928 he and a business partner Ellis Bentley opened a meat market under the name Morrilton Meat Market and Sausage Factory. It was around that time that Mary’s sons Edward and Lonnie, who were just 12 and 10 years old at the time, began working in the business. They made home deliveries after school and on weekends on bicycles. Though the company saw ups and downs through the following decades, it has had much success. It’s still owned by the same family and is the only privately owned processor of red meats left in Arkansas. “Even though we ship our products across the country, most of our customers still come from 75 miles around Morrilton,” Willbanks said.
The University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton has been a major asset to the city for quite some time. Originally established as Petit Jean Vo-Tech in 1961, the school initially awarded diplomas in occupational-specific areas and classes began in 1963.
Petit Jean Vo-Tech was converted to a degree-granting two-year college known as Petit Jean Technical College in 1991, and had yet another name change to Petit Jean College in 1997. Finally, by 2001, Petit Jean College merged with the University of Arkansas System and became known as the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton. Today the campus consists of 92 acres, 15 educational buildings, and various support facilities, serving approximately 4,100 students annually.
The downtown area of Morrilton is full of older buildings with rich histories. Perhaps one of the most well-known buildings in the town, the Rialto, is in use still today. In 1911, Guy O. Vail opened the first motion picture theater in Morrilton in what is today the Rialto. The building faced many changes and a few different ownerships through the years, but in 1952 it was purchased by M.S. McCord for his new company known as United Theatres Corporation. The building was gutted and rebuilt into a 700-seat theater. “It was the talk and showcase of the River Valley,” shared current Rialto president, Lindell Roberts. Following the purchase by the United Artists theater chain the Rialto was once again renovated.
In 1981 the main hall was converted into three separate theaters. The theater maintained in operation until 1987 when United Artists closed the building. After years of decay, the city of Morrilton acquired the building in 1995. Roberts recalls, “The mayor at the time, Stewart Nelson, called me wanting to make the old Rialto into a performing theater.” Roberts said he didn’t have to think twice. He immediately asked Mr. Nelson, “When do you want to start?” The Rialto Community Arts Center was formed in December of 1996 as a subsidiary of The Arts Council of Conway County. The theater was reconverted into one open area with balcony and seating, and by 1997 many renovations began, as the theater returned to its former glory. Today, according to Roberts, the theater puts on plays, concerts, and performances that he feels bring joy, entertainment, and culture to Morrilton, Conway County, and the River Valley.
Downtown is also home to some fairly new local businesses, including a women’s clothing and gift boutique, Clover Alley. Owner Abby Gibby has enjoyed maintaining her business in the small town. “Our boutique has been in business for seven years now and we couldn’t have successfully made it this far without the support of our community.” Gibby also shared how great it is to be able to serve her customers on a more personal level because of the small-town community feel the city of Morrilton has.
The town is continuing to grow and develop according to current mayor, Allen Lipsmeyer. “The city has spent $250 million toward building projects completed or ongoing the last three years.” Lipsmeyer has been in office since 2015 and also stated that since that time he has seen a positive attitude change in the community and the town has begun to flourish. “We’ve seen school improvements, have a new state of the art basketball arena that is almost finished, the college is gaining a workforce training center, we are building a 150-175 lot subdivision; the city is ready for growth and growing at a good pace. I believe within the next year our town will really take off.”