Since culture is directly derived from the physical features of a place, the culture of Russellville might be exactly what you’d expect from a city founded smack in the center of the most geographically and topographically diverse region in the state.
Russellville isn’t really in northwest Arkansas and it’s not really in central Arkansas. It’s not part of the Ozark Plateau, but it is bordered by bluff-lined mountains. Russellville is a river town where the highlands meet the bottomlands. Two early names for the area now known as Russellville — Chactas Prairie and Cactus Flats — only add to the ambiguity.
This diversity of the land has constructed a unique heritage that’s not quite Southern, not quite Ozarkian, and not quite Midwestern. In short, it eludes any labels. But who needs a label?
For 150 years now, the City of Russellville has grown in population, wealth, and influence while nestled into its own little corner of the state (physically and culturally) as one of Arkansas’ larger towns. It shares a niche with no other municipality. A river town, a railroad town, an interstate town — Russellville sits at the crossroads that lead to everywhere else in the state. If you want to get there, you’ll likely pass through Russellville.
Adding to the mix is a growing university, educating minds from across the nation and even the globe. Though the means of their transport has evolved over the last century and a half, new ideas, new people, and customs are still arriving daily in Russellville. And, though, the people of this community have held on to so much of who they once were — sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse — perhaps within this constant of change is where their true identity lies.
Or maybe the city is best understood as a curious amalgam, like the land that surrounds it and upon which it is built. It’s an odd combination of old timey charm and progressively progressive thinking.
Russellville has come a long way in 150 years— from a small river port to county seat to home of one the state’s premier institutions of higher learning to the home of Arkansas’ only nuclear power plant. Who knows what the next 150 will hold. But my bet is on that same steady growth in population, wealth, influence, and diversity all while still tethered to the best of those old values.