What is Russellville to you?

Story by Johnny Sain

Photo by Liz Chrisman

“It’s Near Russellville.”

That’s one of the descriptors I’ve always used when telling people where my tiny hometown of Atkins is located on the map. As the largest city between Little Rock and Fort Smith, Russellville is well-known within Arkansas and sometimes even outside of the state.

Actually, though, I’ve enjoyed a Russellville address twice in my life. The first time was from ages 2-4 when my parents rented an apartment off of 7T, now known as South Knoxville Avenue. Some of my memories there involve walking to Fourth Street with Mom and little sister Lori for a frozen treat at the Dairy Queen.

The second time I was a Russellville resident was just after Christine and I were married. Our first home was a cheap apartment near Tech. We lived there until I could not take the “city life” anymore and we fled to a dirt-road address in Yell County. Curiously, we again live on a dirt road in Yell County, but that’s another story.

Growing up, Russellville was where we went when we went to “town.” It was where Dad worked and Mom bought our school clothes. It was where my parents banked and where we could get a pizza on Friday night before rollerskating. It was where we went on dates and just to hang with friends. Heck, back in my high-school garage-band days, we even wrote a song called “Highway 64” about heading west on the two-lane road that led to everything we couldn’t find in Atkins.

I’ve worked here. I’ve played here. I went to college here. And there are so many other people across the River Valley who share my experience of Russellville as the center for so many facets of our life yet never (or rarely) actually lived in Russellville. So while my time as a citizen of the city hasn’t amounted to much, Russellville has been, and continues to be, a large component of who I am.

Though, I know the town pretty well as a barely-sometimes Russellvillian and full-time River Valley resident, my knowledge is lacking in comparison to its citizens. There’s no way for me understand what it’s like to really be a part of the community of Russellville. And it’s tough to have a true grasp of the past and a vision for the future of a city you know only as a visitor.

So we’ve asked a few of those real Russellville folks — some lifers, some relatively newcomers, and some in-between — to tell us in their own words about the town they call home. You can find those essays spaced throughout this special issue of ABOUT the River Valley magazine. Each experience is both unique and similar, showcasing a personal perspective on the shared experience of life in Russellville.

Photo by Liz Chrisman

Omar Clemmons

As Russellville celebrates its 150-year history, I can only reflect upon my nearly 30-year history with the city. My earliest memories are from moving here in grade school.

The talk of the town back then was Corliss Williamson — could we win a state championship with him leading our team, and would he play his college ball on the “Hill”? Too young for water-cooler talk, Russellville High school basketball games were the place to be on a Friday night in the early 90s. Williamson helped change the perception that Russellville did not welcome or accept blacks in its community. This was an unfortunate misperception. From my perspective, although there were and still are elements of racism from some, the Russellville community had grown from the era before my time, during the civil rights movement.

Russellville has continued to grow and offer opportunity. From great schools and teachers to great industrial opportunities, small business, banking, and our church communities. Russellville High School’s new basketball facility can rival many small college arenas. The addition of the Center for the Arts building and changes to the classrooms not only promote an integrated and progressive learning environment but also safe classroom settings. Not to mention the building of a new middle school and a new junior high school, both comparable to tops in the state. This is all conducive to our kids getting the best education, the most opportunities. In conjunction with the career center (in which I took part of the medical professionals program) and Arkansas Tech, one of the premier universities in the state, Russellville’s combined educational systems have set a standard of opportunity and will add to the rich history of our town.

Small businesses like Feltner’s Whattaburger, Brown’s catfish, the former Ellen’s and Helen’s, Taco Villa, Old South restaurant, and many others of past and present have thrived in Russellville. They’ve all added to the tasteful history of our hometown. Places like Maxx Nutrition gym, Parkway Cleaners, Parkway Dental, and Joshua’s Fine Jewelry are current indications that local-owned small businesses have a place to thrive in the heart of the River Valley. Large mainstays like Entergy’s nuclear plant, ConAgra Brands, Tyson Foods, and Firestone, among many others, have provided good paying jobs for the 30 years I’ve been here.

All of these things we have in common make us more than a collection of people. It makes us a community. All differences set aside.

Photo by Liz Chrisman

Danielle Housenick

I have a confession – I am not a Russellville native. My Pittsburgh accent betrays me every time I speak. My husband, two daughters, and I have lived in Russellville for over 10 years. About two years ago, I accepted the position of executive director for Main Street Russellville. The job has only increased my love for Russellville.

It’s easy to learn about the history of Russellville – the railroad, the fire of 1906. These events shaped the stories that make Russellville what it is today. It is more difficult to look around and take stock of present-day Russellville. The trains still run through town and many of our historic buildings still stand. So what has changed in the last 150 years?

In 1927, Russellville recorded a population of 6,612 people according to the city directory. Today Russellville is home to almost 30,000 people. Even as the trains continue to run and the buildings stand, the people grow and change, which isn’t always easy but is vital to the future of our city.

Russellville Downtown is a perfect example of the passion that lives in Russellville. In the past few years, downtown has undergone a wave of preservation. Today we see buildings that were in danger of collapse under restoration, public art is beginning to appear, and new businesses continue to spring up. The story of Russellville continues to evolve every day, and all because the people who live here and love this place overcome the challenges we face.

150 years from now, Russellville will probably look very different. Who knows what the architecture or transportation of tomorrow will look like? I definitely don’t know, but I can say with confidence the future of Russellville depends on the people of our city. It is not enough for us to simply dream or even plan for the future. Sure, dreams and plans are a good place to start, but that is all they are – a beginning. We need to continue writing our story, to invest in our future, get our hands dirty and do the actual work to grow our city.

In December of 1895, the Courier-Democrat described Russellville as, “a great and growing town.” Gone are the days of dirt roads and horses parked on Main Street, but Russellville is still “great and growing” and so are the people of Russellville. We may not know what the future of Russellville looks like, but I am confident that 150 years from now Russellville will continue to be “a great and growing town.”

Photo by Liz Chrisman

Hope Adair

It’s not just the work/life balance. It’s not just the scenery or the manageable cost of living. I live in Russellville because Russellville embodies evolution.

I moved to Russellville in the summer of 2011, an aspiring music education student at Arkansas Tech already designing the blueprints for my escape upon graduation. During my tenure at ATU, I changed majors (multiple times), developed a substance addiction (overcame it), moved to all ends of town, held down several local jobs (lost a few), and found my tribe.

During my personal tumult, Russellville embraced and loved me, supported me, encouraged me, crafted me into the community enthusiast I am today. Russellville made me exchange my escape plans for business plans. This city, this sanctuary, made me OK with staying put, geographically, while evolving personally. It is a haven for misfits, for those in flux, for those who need a family. During my nine years in Russellville, I’ve seen businesses blossom, restaurants resurrect, and legislation legalized. In other words, I’ve seen evolution. Our community is developing into something more complex. “Complex” doesn’t necessarily equate to “beautiful,” or even “desired.” It just means we share many different and connected parts.

If you’re reading this right now, chances are that you’re a passionate local. Feel that passion right now. Why are you excited for this new ABOUT issue? Why did you make your favorite coffee to enjoy reading the thoughts of your peers?

Recently, it’s been easy to give in to our human nature, to focus on the divide. We tend to roll our eyes but, instead, this should be celebrated. These chasms in our community exist from passion. How beautiful it is to live in a place peppered with the voices of those who care so intimately for their home and their neighbors. This kind of diversity forces us to question, to grow, and to evolve.

Our city offers itself as a blank canvas for us to individually and collectively explore ourselves. Don’t you think we owe it to ourselves to truly grow? I came to Russellville a confused and broken child and this city provided the environment I needed to nurture myself into an energetic and fervent individual. Out of gratitude for letting us alter and modify it to our changing will, don’t we owe it to the City of Russellville to continue our personal growth? Shouldn’t we build a city that embraces that very evolution?

Photo by Liz Chrisman

Breanne Davis

I remember the day I moved to Russellville. I was a third grader who had just left all my friends behind in Atlanta, Georgia. I walked into Oakland Heights Elementary School where, “every heart beats true for the gold and the blue, the best school in every way.” It was a simpler time in 1991. Kids had more recess, Oregon Trail was the major technological learning tool in schools, and social media didn’t exist.

Now, three of my children are in the Russellville School District. Oakland Heights is their elementary school. They are in the same third grade classroom in which I was taught, only a lot has changed. Social media runs through every facet of our lives and students are learning to program robots in kindergarten. There are now 25 different languages spoken within RSD. We talk about living in a global economy, and you can see that so clearly within the walls of our schools. What an honor to educate students from all parts of the globe.

Growing up, I am sure I was not the only one who was told by my parents to leave a place better than I found it. It was instilled in me to respect other people’s property. I recently heard a twist on that principle. Last year, I was chosen as the Arkansas Mother of the Year and attended the American Mothers, Inc. Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. It was a wonderful time to learn from unbelievable women. One mother gave a speech about leaving people better than you found them. When people have an interaction with us, they should walk away better than when they came to us.

Russellville has left me better than it found me on that October day in 1991. It has taught me good things about the world along with many tough lessons. One thing I’ve learned repeatedly is that just because my circumstances are hard, it does not mean they’re bad. It’s like Fredrick Douglass said, “without struggle, there is no progress.” It makes room for growth.

My hope is that we continue to encourage, support, and cheer on our local people, entrepreneurs, and students. Russellville, we’ve had a strong 150 years. And as we look forward to the next 150 years, I’m convinced of one thing: that we will continue to look for ways to leave people better than we found them.

Photo by Liz Chrisman

Jeannie Rodriguez

If the exit ramps on Interstate 40 are essentially our welcome mats and front porches, a liminal space that is constantly in flux yet imbued with a sense of who we are, then who are we? Certainly, we are parts of who we used to be, but because community is an evolving concept we are becoming more than we once were. Appropriately, our linguistic landscape is not just welcoming travelers who happen to stop for awhile, but we are mirroring who we are to passersby and reminding ourselves of who we want to be.

Linguistic landscape is a term to describe the language embedded in the signs and visual imagery in a particular space. I admit that in my past I have been totally oblivious of these sometimes obscure messages, but things have changed as I enter my 26th year as a Pope County resident and my 60th trip around the sun. I seem to be acutely aware of the ghost signs in our shared place: what used to be where, how we preserve those memories, and how we choose to reuse those sites. We refer to these transformed places in our daily conversation, as in, “My favorite restaurant is Linh’s Vietnamese Cuisine. You know, where the old CJ’s Butcher Boy Burgers used to be on Knoxville across from the fair grounds.”

I’ve witnessed our tools for public discourse grow beyond monophonic signs and messages to include a more accurate reflection of the rich diversity that is the River Valley community. In addition to iconic points of interest — Whatta-Burger, Russellville Depot, and Old South — we now have professional welcome signs on the interstate, and an increase of mixed-lingual operative signs in Atkins, Russellville, Dardanelle, Danville, and Clarksville informing us of a booming Latinx population and a colorful Karen community.

Like our ancestors, we place our signature on the surrounding canvas – even on the temporal highway signs that dot our freeway landscape. The murals and creative expressions bear witness to what we say we value.

We heart Russellville. Our conceptual front porches are abuzz with conversation and neighborliness, even if much of the conversation exists in a virtual realm as the case of a recent mural painted in the primitive tradition on a concrete wall in London. Because we are a living community and not stuck wholly in our past, we are continually tweaking our identity, and that is a beautiful thing to be alive.

Photo by Liz Chrisman

Christie Graham

Being born and raised in Russellville for all but a few years after moving off after college, I realized real quick how special this town was and how much I loved it.

I always thought I would go off to college, but then I stayed at ATU. I always thought I would move out of my parents’ home at 18, but I ended up staying until I graduated college and then bought my own place. I always thought I would live somewhere else, but I am still here after all these years, raising my kids in the town that I loved growing up in.

I rode my bike in the neighborhood I grew up in, and some of my best memories and days were in that neighborhood. My husband, kids and I also lived 10 years in that same neighborhood and they experienced some of those same memories. From what I can tell, as I have been researching Russellville for the Sesquicentennial, is that Russellville has always been a special place for many reasons and still is to this day. From the state parks, rivers, lake, mountains, the good families that have had roots here for generations, to the Tech students that make this a temporary home, Russellville is a gem hidden in The Natural State of Arkansas. It’s simple in so many ways but rich in history and character.

Happy 150-year Birthday, Russellville. I am happy to call you home.