The ruggedness of the Ozark Mountains is reflected in the town that lies in their shadow. Violence, disasters, and disappointments throughout Dover’s history have not dampened the pioneer spirit of its residents as they repeatedly rebuilt, volunteered, and planned for the future.
Dover was established in the 1830s and in 1841 became the Pope county seat. While a two-room log school was being built, a temporary school was established in Masonic Lodge #17, the first one in Pope County and still in operation. The town grew in importance, and in 1853 the first meeting of the Missouri Pacific Railroad was held, as plans were for the railroad to run through Dover. Those plans were put on hold during the Civil War.
At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, there was fear that the courthouse and county records would be destroyed. In 1862, the court authorized the Pope County clerk to do whatever was necessary to preserve the county records. The records were moved to a cave north of Dover, now known as the Records Cave. The records were returned in 1865 and are still intact.
Violence ensued for years after the war. Pope County was divided in loyalty during the Civil War, which caused conflict afterward between the Reconstruction government and the local former Confederates. From 1865-1866 five appointed and elected officials were shot and killed by locals. This violence continued until Governor Hadley stationed Federal soldiers in Dover to bring order. Violence erupted again with the Militia Wars as two more officials were killed in the years 1872 and 1873. No charges were brought against the assassins for fear of setting off more violence. The trouble ended when a new governor, Elisha Baxter, allowed the Democratic Party back into local government, including some of the assassins. The state was not enforcing policies that contradicted local politics, and the violence ended.
The last man legally hung in Dover was Lee Barnes in 1886. Thousands of spectators watched as Barnes made a public confession and asked for the noose to be tightened before being hung. David Vance, Russellville businessman and historian, said, “My grandmother told me that my great grandfather lifted his young son up on his shoulders so he could see.”
The town suffered huge disappointments when in 1872 the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad bypassed Dover and in 1877, Russellville became the new Pope County Seat. Dover fought hard to retain both the railroad and county seat, but eventually lost.
Dover’s history is also marred by fire. In 1865, the entire town of Dover, including the courthouse and school burned. Plans were made to build a new brick courthouse and a new school. The Methodist Church of North Arkansas built a school on the present site of Dover High School in 1868. The church called it a high school, but since there was no high school, it was called a college. The hill where it stood was called College Hill. The Methodist Conference gave up the school after a few years and the new school district #17 used it until it burned in 1906. In 1917, the school board purchased College Hill from Pope County and a new school was built. A four year high school was added to the local school in 1920. The first graduating class from Dover was in 1923.
In 1930 fire destroyed the major portion of the business district and ten homes. The fire burned both sides of the street, and much was lost. Some portions were rebuilt the same year. Volunteers throughout Dover’s history always did what was necessary to restore their town.
A new brick high school was built in 1931 as more rural schools began to consolidate with the Dover school district. It burned in 1942. Classes were held in the agricultural and gymnasium buildings which escaped the fire.
Fire struck the town again in 1948 when the theatre burned. Fundraising efforts by city leaders was begun to establish a local fire department. A one-ton truck was purchased, and the water tank was filled by a bucket brigade as Dover had no municipal water service.
Another high school was built in 1956 which partially burned in 1955. The town pulled together and built a new elementary school in 1963, a middle school and a gymnasium by 1992. A new elementary school building was added in 2009 and a middle school expansion by 2017.
Mayor Pat Johnson stated that “All the schools in Dover are highly rated, according to the state standards. In 2017, Dover Elementary received a $90,000.00 reward for above state average test scores. The Arkansas School Recognition Program rated the schools in the top 5 percent in the state. The choir, band, clubs and organizations excel in competition and have done well nationally.”
Community involvement has always been part of Dover’s character. An early volunteer was W. D. Eakes. He came to Arkansas in 1869 and was an established businessman, teacher, and was appointed postmaster. He was a financial backer for the first newspaper, supported retaining the county seat, and was one of the financial backers who pledged money for the railroad. Joyce Helton, a Dover resident and Dover high school graduate, is a present-day volunteer. She took on the task of replacing the slabs that held the only record of Dover High School graduates back to 1923. She noticed that some of the slabs were damaged. “They looked so bad, and there’s probably no record that these people graduated. I just did it myself,” said Joyce. “I wrote down the names from the slabs and started calling people in each class to be responsible for paying for a slab. The money was gathered and given to the Superintendent of Schools, Lawanda Cockran. She kept up with the money, and I kept up with the information. Once finished, the slabs for 1942-1978 were placed on the College Hill.” Those records are now on disk at the school and library. Joyce said she is not unique as a volunteer because, “everyone volunteers in their own way. Some do it quietly through their churches or schools.” In 1996, Dover was named as the Volunteer Community of the Year by the state.
The Dover area Chamber of Commerce, DACC, was formed in 1978. This all volunteer organization works closely with the city and schools to raise funds through their Ozark Memories Day Festival, OMD. Many of the structures and improvements in Dover today were funded with their help.
The Chamber began planning OMD at their first ever meeting. The festival location and duration have changed over the years, but it has continued as the major fundraiser for the city. OMD was once held over three days, beginning with a beauty pageant on Friday; games, vendors, music, and arts and crafts on Saturday; and ending with a tractor pull on Sunday. An old-timey meal of brown beans, cornbread, and homemade butter and kraut was cooked and served. People dressed in costumes to celebrate their heritage.
Over time, the celebration was scaled down to a one-day event. The festival is held the last Saturday in September at the amphitheater on the high school campus and admission is free. There’s no longer a beauty contest or tractor pull, but the horseshoe tournament is one of the favorite activities at the festival.
In 1989, the Dover Chamber of Commerce Scholarship Fund was begun for graduating seniors. Since 1990, more than 500 students have been awarded in excess of $225,000.00. The DACC no longer runs the fund but continues to contribute.
The Chamber also sponsors an Academic Excellence Banquet for students with a plaque with honoree’s names placed in the school. A yearly banquet is held to honor outstanding citizens in the community and to recognize public officials.
The Dover Public Education Foundation, DPEF, holds an annual Gala event fundraiser. According to their brochure, their focus is to “assist Dover School District with non-funded budget considerations and other related projects for the classrooms, the athletic department, the music department, and various schools’ technology improvements. The organization will consider other education related needs as grants are written, and funds are available.” From 2011-15, the DPEF awarded $59,479.32 through grants to the schools.
The Dover Public Library, DPL, began in the 1950’s simply as a stack of books in a storefront with patrons borrowing and returning from the display. The books came from the Russellville Public Library. In 1974-88, the DPL was shared in a dual purpose building with Dover City Hall. In 1987, the citizens of Dover and the surrounding area raised money to build a new, larger facility. The land and material was donated, and approximately 60 people donated labor. All the bricks for the building were bought by area school children. In 1988, the current 2400 sq. ft. library opened.
The DPL is one of 24 libraries nationwide chosen to participate in the 2018 Future Ready with the Library, a program that is working with small libraries to provide college and career readiness services for middle schoolers. “As Baby Boomers retire, filling their technical careers is essential to our economy. Dover Branch Manager Sherry Simpson states. “When it comes to getting a job, knowledge is power whether it comes from a traditional college degree or vocational/technical training. We’re designing a program to help our students build a better future regardless of the path they choose after graduation. We want students and their families here to realize that no matter what their present economic circumstances are, there are so many opportunities.”
The pioneering spirit and hardworking volunteers have made Dover an example of endurance through difficulties. A reprinted article in The Dover Times on September 27, 2000, stated that after the first Ozark Memories Days, Dr. Piney Page, a local historian and former Dean of the School of Education at Western Kentucky University said, “Dover is a town too tough to die. It has been plagued with fires and bushwhackers and almost every natural disaster except a flood. Even losing the railroad and the county seat has not stopped this strong little town.”
To learn more about Dover’s history, visit the Pope County Library’s Arkansas Heritage Room.