We cross the Red River on our trip through south Arkansas on U.S. 82 and enter the community of Garland, often referred to by people in this area as Garland City. I consider this the Fried Catfish Capital of Southwest Arkansas due to the presence of two restaurants–Doc’s and Westshore–that attract catfish eaters from across the region.
William Wynn stopped on the banks of the Red River and established a farm near here in about 1835. According to census records, Wynn owned 96 slaves by 1850. Most Arkansans associate cotton plantations with the Delta. But large parts of east Arkansas consisted of bottomland hardwood forests until being cleared and drained in the early 1900s. Some of the first cotton plantations were in the Red River bottoms in this part of Arkansas.
“Garland was guided through the Great Depression in part by local businesswoman Charline Person, who had managed a nearby 5,000-acre plantation since her husband’s death in 1911,” writes Steven Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “In 1926, she was featured at the Women’s National Exposition in St. Louis. During the economic collapse, she took charge of soliciting and distributing goods as needed, as well as helping to raise funds to build the Garland Community Church.”
Born Charline Woodford Beasley in December 1876 at Lewisville, she was almost 17 years old when she married Levin King Person Jr., who was 14 years older, in 1893. The couple had three children. Levin Person died following a stroke in January 1911.
“By 1914, Charline Person was heavily in debt, the property was run down and her workers were going hungry,” Colin Edward Woodward writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Miss Charline, as she was known, had no business experience. It was said that she had never even signed a check before having to take over the plantation.
“However, with prices rising during World War I, Person began making money in the cotton trade. By the mid-1920s, she had more than 100 families working for her, including white, African American and Mexican laborers. In December 1925, a representative of the Cotton Belt Railroad wrote to her, saying that she was the most successful woman he knew of on the Cotton Belt system.
“In February 1926, Person was featured at the Women’s National Exposition. In honor of Person’s accomplishments, the railway constructed an exhibit showing a miniature field of cotton with several bales in the background. Person attended the exhibit as the Cotton Belt’s representative (the only woman from Arkansas so chosen).
In a circular issued by the Cotton Belt concerning the St. Louis event, it was reported that Person was doing half a million dollars in business every year. She was called a woman of ‘dynamic and wide influence’ and the ‘most prominent woman cotton planter in Arkansas.'”
In addition to running the plantation, Person operated a general store at Garland.
“She also did her own housekeeping, raised chickens and tended a garden,” Woodward writes. “She rode on horseback with the overseers who handled the details of plantation management. By the mid-1920s, she was making her rounds in an automobile. In addition to her cotton land, she had property devoted to timber and pecan trees. …
“Person ran a ferry across the Red River from Garland, was president of the Garland Levee District, served as secretary of Drainage District No. 2, was a majority stockholder of a cotton gin and directed the Bank of Garland. She assisted Henderson-Brown College at Arkadelphia when it almost closed due to lack of funds and was also active in the Red Cross.”
Person died at Texarkana in March 1951. She is buried at Lewisville next to her husband.
When Americans think of the Red River, many of them think about the border between Oklahoma and Texas. The river, though, has had a big influence on southwest Arkansas through the decades. The Red begins in the Texas Panhandle and flows east for almost 1,290 miles.
“Near Fulton in Hempstead County, the Red River takes a decidedly southern turn before entering Louisiana, where it flows southeasterly before emptying into the Atchafalaya River,” writes Arkansas historian Guy Lancaster. “Although only about 180 miles of the river touches upon or passes through Arkansas, it has had a major impact upon the people of southwestern Arkansas. . . .
“Until the late 19th century, the Red River’s utility as a transportation corridor between the Mississippi River and points west of present-day Shreveport was impeded by the Great Raft, an enormous logjam that clogged the lower part of the river, extending to more than 130 miles at one point.
“The raft likely existed for hundreds of years. It was so old that, according to some sources, it became a part of Caddo mythology. In 1828, Congress set aside $25,000 for the raft’s removal, and Capt. Henry Miller Shreve, then serving as the superintendent of Western River Improvements, was assigned the task of clearing the raft.
“In 1838, he completed the task, though it reformed farther up the river soon thereafter and eventually extended to the Arkansas border. Congress hesitated in setting aside more money for the clearance project, with many members feeling it to be a lost cause.”
Shreve, a steamboat captain and inventor, also used his snagboat to clear obstructions on the Arkansas River between Pine Bluff and Little Rock. He was born in New Jersey in October 1785, and spent much of his youth on rivers after his father moved the family to western Pennsylvania. He bought his first keelboat in 1807 and began hauling furs from St. Louis to Pittsburgh.
Janet Brantley writes in Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives: “The first American to pilot a keelboat so far up the Mississippi system, Shreve struck a deal with Indian tribes and carried lead from the mines to New Orleans. Shreve married Mary Blair in 1811, and they had three children. The young husband was also married to the waters, and Mary spent a great deal of time raising their children alone.
“Shreve watched with interest as the Fulton-Livingston group inaugurated steamboat trade on the Mississippi. He soon became convinced that the design of Robert Fulton’s boat would not work well since the Mississippi and other rivers in the area were much shallower than those in the eastern part of the United States. Fulton’s design simply sat too deep in these shallow waters, and his boats frequently ran aground, with sometimes tragic results.”
Shreve invested in a steamboat with a flatter bottom and wider girth. His first boat of this style was the Enterprise, which left for New Orleans in 1814. He was named superintendent of Western River Improvements in January 1827 and remained in that role until 1841, when he was relieved of his appointment by a new Whig administration.
Shreve died in March 1851 and is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, which overlooks the Mississippi River at St. Louis. In 1873, the second Red River raft was removed under the direction of Lt. Eugene Woodruff.
“Dams were placed along bayous emptying into the river to prevent any raft from reforming,” Lancaster writes. “Despite the eventual clearing of the river, however, no major towns in Arkansas were established upon the Red, though Texarkana, Hope and Lewisville all lie at a few miles’ remove.
“Until 1900, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers straightened the channel of the river, with the result that steamboat traffic increased as boats were able to transport goods from the mouth of the Mississippi River through Arkansas and into Texas and Oklahoma and back again.
“For the whole of the year, the river was navigable to Garland, where the Cotton Belt crossed the river. This railroad–as well as the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway, which crossed the Red River at Fulton–provided stiff competition for steamboats, soon replacing them entirely.”
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.