Ashley County is one of those Arkansas counties that include two of the state’s geographic regions. The eastern part of the county is in the Delta, with its row-crop agriculture. To the west is the Gulf Coastal Plain, with its pine forests. I’m driving through Ashley County from east to west as part of a trip that will take me from Mississippi to Texas on U.S. 82.
“Although western Ashley County is noted for the timber industry, which is centered in Crossett, the eastern part of the county belongs to the Mississippi River Delta region, which was home to numerous cotton plantations before and after the Civil War,” Steven Teske wrote for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Dugald McMillan was the first landowner who registered a patent for the land where Montrose now stands. His plantation, like others in the region, employed a large number of slaves, many of whom remained after the war, working as tenant farmers for the same landowners. Consequently, African Americans have outnumbered whites in the area from the time slavery ended until now.”
This part of Ashley County enjoyed prosperity from the end of Reconstruction until the Great Flood of 1927 and the Great Depression, which began two years later.
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “The railroads that had developed in the late 1890s helped support the economy but were later supplanted by the growth in highway transportation. Communities in the eastern part of the county were supported by farming, while Crossett continued its growth as a manufacturing center. Ashley County was within the flood zone in 1927. The greatest effect of the flood was felt in the low-lying Delta region of the county, while the upland wood product manufacturing area experienced only minor disruptions of activity.
“Ashley County was home to an important federal experiment in the public health sector during this era. In 1916, a mosquito-eradication project was funded, which reduced the incidence of malaria by almost 80 percent using a system of drainage and poisoning. This system became known as the Crossett Project and was used as an example in other parts of the country. The county’s population began to decline after World War II as agricultural workers were replaced by machines and others left for better-paying jobs.”
By the early 20th century, timber demand began shifting prosperity in the county from the Delta to the Gulf Coastal Plain.
“Demand for wood fiber for a growing country led lumbermen, investors and speculators into the vast forest that stretches from east Texas across the lower Mississippi River Valley to the Florida Panhandle,” wrote the late Bill Norman of Crossett. “Demand having outstripped the forest resources of the Great Lakes region, new sources for timber were sought. One result of the interest in the forestland of the South was the founding of Crossett. The land in western Ashley County was of the upland forest variety and was largely undeveloped and sparsely settled in this era as the terrain was unsuitable for farming. Towns that were formed, such as Fountain Hill, had populations of less than 500.
“As an established community with rail service, Hamburg would seem to have been the logical site for a sawmill. However, company officials decided that the better course would be to establish a new town, and Crossett was born. The site chosen was about 15 miles west of Hamburg.”
Crossett Lumber Co. was incorporated in 1899 and established ties with Yale University’s School of Forestry, a relationship that brought some of the nation’s top foresters to this once-isolated part of south Arkansas.
“Yale’s initial research was later augmented by the studies at the 1,680-acre Crossett Experimental Forest, headquartered about seven miles south of town,” Norman wrote. “Established in 1934, the U.S. Forest Service’s research program at Crossett focuses on the silviculture of naturally regenerated loblolly and shortleaf pine forests. Several of the buildings on the Crossett Experimental Forest are on the National Register of Historic Places.”
Crossett grew into a model company town. There was a first-class public school system. In the 1940s, the Crossett School District became one of the smallest districts in the country to be accredited by the North Central Association.
“Crossett was a diversified forest products manufacturing center following the construction of a paper mill in the mid-1930s,” Norman wrote. “A division producing and marketing specialty chemicals and charcoal followed. … Following a divisive labor strike in 1940, workers in Crossett’s manufacturing plants were granted the right to establish trade unions.”
Crossett Lumber Co. was purchased in 1962 by Georgia-Pacific Corp. The son of company founder Edward S. Crossett had died in 1955, and family heirs began to consider the option of selling their stock. The announcement of a sale to Union Bag & Paper was made in 1960, but by the fall that plan had fallen through. Business went on as usual for Crossett Lumber Co. the next two years. It was revealed on April 18, 1962, that Georgia-Pacific had purchased the company.
There have been major strikes through the years. The 58-day strike in 1940 brought the city’s economy to a standstill before a compromise was reached with the help of a young pastor named Aubrey Halsell. A second strike occurred in 1985, and Georgia-Pacific ordered that permanent replacements be sent in. The strike divided the town, and the effects still linger.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He’s also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.+