Home » American Culture » 19th Century History of West Fork, Arkansas

19th Century History of West Fork, Arkansas

 

Two hundred years ago, in 1819, the first white man known to explore this area, Frank Pierce, traveled up the White River from the Mississippi and across the northern part of the state before arriving at the west fork of the river and stumbling into this valley. Frank had long since run through his supplies and on this day had worked up a powerful hunger. Thinking of fresh meat over an open fire, he had a buffalo in his gun sights when he noticed a band of Natives also stalking the herd. Although the Osage and Quapaw had historically occupied these lands, right after the Louisiana Purchase, the U. S. government had begun moving Cherokee and other eastern tribes into the region. The Natives ole Frank saw that day were probably Cherokee. He gently released the hammer of his gun and slipped back into the dense undergrowth to spend the night hungry in the shelter of a large tree.

But he lived to tell the tale.

Nine years later in 1828, Frank was among the first settlers to arrive with the official opening of Arkansas Territory. Whether receiving bounty land for service in the Indians Wars or the War of 1812, settlers rushing to stake their claim on a forty acre parcel found springs and lush vegetation in these flat hilltops and river valleys. Wildlife including buffalo, cougar, elk, bear and wolf all roamed this valley. Alongside the forest with trees as big as four feet in diameter, there were wide stretches of tall prairie grass in a thriving ecosystem.

Throughout the first fifty years of county history, ‘West Fork’ wasn’t West Fork the town as we know it. The term ‘west fork’ referred to the west fork of White River and West Fork Township. Persons living along this long river valley from Winslow to Greenland were said to be from ‘West Fork,’ so this confuses some of the history. Any records before 1885 that refer to West Fork are not about the current town of West Fork.

As early as 1831, settlers organized a church in the valley, considered to be the oldest organization of a Christian church in Washington County. Church records from 1837 describe meeting under and elm tree with charter members Stephen Strickland and wife, Richard “Dick” Dye, Eli Bloyed and wife, C. G. Gilbreath and wife, Greene W. Sherry and wife, and fifteen more couples. By 1855, followers of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church were meeting at Dye School House on land owned by Richard Dye. Local residents are probably familiar with his name because of the creek named after him—it crosses Highway 71 beside Dye Creek Road.[1]

Mills served a critical function for early residents who needed their corn and wheat ground into meal and flour and their logs sawn for lumber. Census records suggest a mill serving the south county was first located just north of Brentwood on the properties of William “Billie” Knott and Eleazer Pelphrey, the two men occupied as of the 1850 census as millwright and miller, respectively. Their properties at the SE ¼ of the SW ¼ of Section 23, Township 14, Range 30 West (Knott) and the West ½ of the SE ¼ of the same section (Pelphrey) span a small creek where it feeds into the west fork of White River. This location is four miles south of present-day West Fork, fitting a historical description of the township’s first mill.

Flour mill at West Fork, circa 1885. Looking south.

Another operation known as Gilstrap’s Mill is named in historical records as located at the place later known as Woolsey. One account states this was established in 1838 run by a large water wheel.

In the dry season when the water was too low to turn the wheel, a tramp wheel was put into operation to furnish power. Oxen were unhitched from the wagon bringing the corn or timber and placed on a slat-bottomed structure which moved under them continuously, making it necessary for the oxen to walk in order to stay on their feet. Thus they furnished the power for grinding corn or sawing logs.[2]

 

The first ‘West Fork’ post office operated from the home of William “Billie” Knott in 1838, a logical location since their mill served as one of the only public places in the area. The post office changed location in 1848 to Gilstrap’s Mill at the place later known as Woolsey, named after William Woolsey who bought the property from Gilstrap in the late 1850s. After 1848, this was known as the West Fork post office. By 1860, Woolsey operated a general store alongside the mill.

The 1840 census for West Fork Township counted 68 households with 394 residents and two slaves. Ten years later, the 1850 census counted 96 households with 605 whites and no slaves. Trades listed in 1850 included blacksmith, teacher, clergy, miller, tanner, and wagon maker. By 1860, population had grown to 262 households with 707 whites and fifteen slaves. Tradesmen included a shoemaker, five blacksmiths, two wagon makers, a saddler, a trader, and a carpenter. William Woolsey named his occupation as merchant.

With tensions mounting prior to the Civil War, a convention assembled at West Fork on April 25, 1861. The men in attendance agreed that they were opposed to secession. They called for a statewide vote of the people to decide, stating their wish to cooperate with other border states. The choice was made within weeks by the Arkansas state convention who voted to secede once the attack on Fort Sumter occurred.

Northwest Arkansas saw military action early in the war with the conflict at Pea Ridge and then Prairie Grove. Musket and cannon fire from the battle at Prairie Grove could be heard down here—someone remarked that it sounded like corn popping. Military forces moved along the Old Wire Road which ran down Cato Springs Road to Strickler before the nightmare of crossing the Boston Mountains.

With the success of Union forces in overtaking Northwest Arkansas, the rough terrain of south county became a perfect setting for guerilla warfare. Troops skirmished throughout this area during those years and commandeered livestock, grain, and anything else they could find. People had to hide their food and valuables in caves or holes in the ground. Salt became impossible to find and folks had to boil the soil from their smokehouses to gather what salt could be retrieved.

The flavor of those days is captured in this excerpt of the Karnes history:

A number of Union soldiers stationed at Fayetteville came out to West Fork one night to attend a dance at the Dick Dye home. All were having a gay time swinging their partners right and left and calling “Balance All” when a Southern captain, Jim Ferguson, thrust his head in at the door and yelled “Surrender All!”

The Union officer gave the command “Fight ‘em, boys!” but soon changed to “Everybody on his own!” when he saw the number of Southern soldiers. Mr. Rutherford said he was sitting on a plank across from the fireplace when suddenly he began to choke with soot, but not until all was over did he know that Lieutenant Huttenour had gone up the chimney.

Some sought shelter in the kitchen, others in the cellar and under the floor. The Southern regiment had been informed of the dance as they were passing through Woolsey and had sent thirty men ahead to investigate. The Union men had been warned to put out a picket but they felt secure without it.[3]

Whether men died or were taken prisoner during this dance-gone-wrong is never stated in Ms. Karnes’ account. But both military and civilian killings occurred frequently during those years. With the normal systems of government shut down and county courthouse records hidden in a cave, few of such cases appear fully documented in official records.

Crossing the river meant riding horseback or wading through the water, but for the hardier sort, there was the swinging bridge. No handrail, folks. This is the site of the modern day two-lane bridge between Highway 71 and ‘downtown’ West Fork.

The first murder involving a West Fork area resident occurred nine years after the end of the war in 1874. This is a complicated story that involved two families, the Jones who lived near Carter’s Store (approximately at Hicks, south of Sulphur City on State Highway 74) and the Gilliland family who lived near Owl Hollow Road at the north end of modern day West Fork.

A feud developed between two members of these families, William Newton Jones and Bud Gilliland. Things came to a violent point on Christmas Day 1874. At a popular horse racing track near Carter’s Store, 23-year-old Jones rode up, pulled a Spencer rifle from his saddle scabbard and before any of the surrounding crowd could stop him, he shot 28-year-old Bud Gilliland through the chest, killing him instantly.

It was later said that most everyone present knew Jones would try to kill Gilliland but no one could move fast enough to stop him. Jones didn’t wait around to be arrested. With his target dead on the ground, he took wheeled his horse around and took off at a gallop. He then became the subject of a manhunt that lasted until the next murder in this feud nearly two years later.

Speculation suggest the conflict may have had something to do with Bud’s dad’s marriage in 1863 to the much younger Mary Amanda Jones, first cousin to Newton. Or it may have had something to do with the rough nature of the Gilliland boys.

For example, Bud’s older brother, Jeff Gilliland, served as a county deputy and court clerk. He owned several lots on the Fayetteville square and operated a dram shop there—otherwise known as a bar. Evidently Jeff wasn’t exactly careful about his official county duties. An 1871 newspaper report stated that he was required to turn over the county tax books “to which the late difficulties in that county are attributable.”

Along the same lines, an 1872 newspaper account about Bud stated that:

On memorial day, ‘Bud’ Gilliland who has at times acted as deputy marshal, procured the keys of the jail from the jailor and deliberately locked himself in the jail, where he remained until 9 o’clock when he came out, ordered the guard who had been placed there to arrest him when he came out to stand aside, which he did, and Bud walked off. While he was locked in the jail with the doors securely locked, two prisoners who were out on bail for a few hours returned at the expiration of their time and failing to be admitted, made their escape. Gilliland was at the time under charge of the constable in default of bail for shooting at a man. He left town but will probably return soon as he is one of those men who are permitted to do pretty much as they please, whether it be shooting within the town limits for the sake of noise, or shooting at a man with intent to kill.

Did this “shooting at a man with intent to kill” involve Newton Jones? We don’t know, but that would certainly explain the hell-bent manner of Jones as he arrived at the horse races.

Later records state that the reason Newton Jones fled after shooting Bud wasn’t that he meant to escape justice but rather that he knew Bud’s older brother Jeff Gilliland would try to kill him.

As it turned out, he was exactly right.

Newton had a lovely young wife and an extended family that needed him. He dodged in and out of the area for nearly two years before his whereabouts could be anticipated and a posse went out to find him. Bud’s big brother Jeff Gilliland wrangled his way into the posse in his role as deputy despite concerns he would carry out his personal vendetta.

The posse waited in ambush for the Jones boys for several hours. Finally, the party approached. Newton’s nephew David Jones had been the wagon driver and gave his testimony in court about what happened:

We started from Lewis & Johnson’s Mill … and we got about a half mile from Johnson’s mill on the road toward Carter’s Store. I was driving the wagon and Matilda was riding in the wagon. The others were riding behind. Newton and [David’s brother] William were riding side by side. [Newton’s brother] Enoch was riding behind them.

The first thing I heard was the report of a gun or pistol. Immediately after several guns were fired, my mules ran off, ran about seventy-five yards. After my mules stopped, I raised up in the wagon and heard someone say “Halt! Halt! Shoot them boys, the last damned son of a bitch of them.” I could see a glimpse of men running up the hill in the woods. I heard horses running on the other side of the road.

I unhitched my mules and went back and found my brother [William] dead, lying close by the side of the road, rather under his horse which was down. Two shots in the head, and in the temple, several in [his] side and leg. Deceased was armed, had his revolver under him, not drawn…

Enoch was wounded in the side of the head and a shot glanced his neck. The voice I heard I thought was Jeff Gilliland’s. Heard but one voice; ‘Halt,’ was given but one time that I heard. If it had been given before, I would have heard it.

Then the shoe was on the other foot. The entire posse was indicted for murder of the innocent young William Jones, and things got even more complicated after that.

James Gilliland headstone, one of thirteen graves in the Gilliland family cemetery. James was the father of Cal and Jeff.

Three years later, in 1880, Jeff Gilliland remained at large at his home near West Fork. In 1882, a U. S. marshal out of Fort Smith brought a posse to arrest him. He fired on them, wounding two. Over the next two years, Gilliland evidently carried out a war of revenge against the posse members, who reported being shot at on random occasions. He never served time for the William Jones killing, nor did Newton Jones stand trial for killing Bud Gilliland.[4]

This has been one of the more fascinating stories I’ve uncovered in my research for a book I’ve been working on, Murder in the County. It contains 50 murder stories from the 1800s in Washington County. I won’t tell you what happens next to Newton Jones or Jeff Gilliland except to say the story takes a couple more intriguing twists and turns.

During these early years, as I mentioned earlier, West Fork the town did not exist where it’s now located. But the area was known as a peaceful and fruitful location. Local farms produced everything from apples to wheat. A main road south passed through the valley and stagecoaches traveled through Campbell Community north of West Fork and stopped at the home of John Karnes and later his son Daniel Karnes where travelers could have a meal, stay in overnight lodging, and fresh horses or mules teams could be hitched.

However, for particular travelers, another stop a few miles down at the Woolsey store offered a jot of whiskey. As noted by local historian Robert Winn,

It was not unusual for the stage to stop long enough [at Woolsey] that travelers imbibed enough to become tipsy and occasional excitement resulted in the form of fisticuffs or gun play.[5]

Fifty years after the first white people arrived in the west fork valley, the modern day location of West Fork began to formalize. In 1875 or ’76, the old water-mill plant at the head of the creek at Woolsey was moved north to what would become the town of West Fork. The new steam mill at West Fork provided reliable power for grinding grain, sawing lumber, and even operating a carding-machine which straightened and cleaned fibers for weaving into cloth. A spoke factory opened and the place attracted other industries including blacksmith shops.

Looking southeast. The Hardin Hotel was built upon the arrival of the railroad at West Fork. The three-story structure included a large dining room where lodgers were fed family style on a huge round table. William Dunbar, who lived at the hotel as a child in the 1920s and 30s remembers an enormous cookstove in the adjacent kitchen. There was a carriage house and the carriage was dispatched to the train depot with each arrival, bringing visitors to the hotel. Robert Winn, in his book “Railroads of Northwest Arkansas,” said that “When drummers arrived at the West Fork station, they registered for lodging–50¢ to $1 per night, meals 25¢ …” There was no indoor plumbing, but according to Dunbar, the outhouse was somewhat luxurious with nice gabled roof, finished interior, and three ‘holes’ for mixed gender usage. But no heat. “You could freeze your bottom off in winter.” Dunbar stated the hotel was taken down in the 30s and the lumber used to build the house currently located on that corner (southeast corner of Main and Maple). The aged oak beams were so hard that when they were repurposed for the house, the carpenters had to use blocks of paraffin to ease the nails through the wood. The existing sidewalk along the property’s north side may date to hotel days.

In 1882, the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad punched through this area headed south. A flood of newcomers followed, eager to make money off the harvest of virgin forest. This hard work involved teams of mules, men on either end of big crosscut saws, and plenty of hacking by ax to clear limbs off the main trunk. Then there was the matter of getting the logs down to the train depot. Many of those logging roads became the roads we drive today.

Things in the south county changed a lot then. Entrepreneurs of all stripes rushed into the area to make money. One example was a man named Erastus Pitkin. He bought out much of Woolsey’s land and with the formalizing of West Fork at its current location in 1885, the place at Woolsey became known as Pitkin. Pitkin partnered with another man to open a hardwood lumber operation at West Fork. They ordered ‘log wagons’ from the Springfield Wagon Company. These wagons were essential for moving cut logs down to the railroad and featured a specialized heavy-duty construction with independent axles.

From 1906 Plat Book for Washington County. A few businesses have been identified and labeled.

In May 1885, another early settler named Thomas McKnight finalized plans to  incorporate the modern day town of West Fork. Since before the railroad’s completion, McKnight had been buying up land in the area that would become the town of West Fork. He platted town lots and sold to men eager to open for business. Within four years, the town included not only the thriving mill, but two general stores, a drug store, a grocery, a meat market, a hardware store, furniture store, the Hardin Hotel, and a food production company that employed 37 workers in canning tomatoes and drying local apples produced on farms up and down the valley.

Karnes Store

An amusing note – Robert Winn reported that the West Fork canning factory had an interesting side effect on the local population.

“Juice from the apples ran in shallow trenches from the building out into the warm sunshine. Peelings were also dumped near the factory; these also fermented. All livestock ran on open range and wandered about the factory. Cows, pigs, poultry, and any other livestock drank the juice and ate the peelings. Soon after the factory opened each fall, every cow, pig, and chicken that was permitted on the open range staggered home at night in a drunken condition.”[6]

During this boom period another local feud came to a boil. A man named Jim Graham brought up on charges of arson. Among those testifying against him at trial was Calvin Rutherford. Once Graham had served his two year sentence, he came back to West Fork with a serious grudge against Rutherford. In February 1892, the lid blew off.

Here’s the account published in the Fayetteville paper:

On Friday evening last, [Rutherford and Graham] got into a fight in Yoes’ store and when the smoke cleared away, Graham was found to be mortally wounded by a pistol ball that entered his body near the hip and ranged upward coming out on the opposite side near the collar bone.

Cal Rutherford and his brother Bob were both cut in several places, the latter not seriously. It is hard to get the exact facts in the case but we learn that the Rutherford boys were drinking and that Cal was taking in the town. Before the fight occurred, he rode into a store and smashed the store window and was pretty badly cut by the glass. He then rode his mule into Yoes’ store and as he was coming out, Jim Graham and a stranger whose name we did not learn went into the store.

When Rutherford saw Graham, he is said to have made some remark about whipping him and went back into the store when the fight commenced. Graham cut Cal four times and while he was doing so, Bob Rutherford came in. Graham then started to run upstairs and was shot by Bob. The latter was also cut but whether by Graham or someone else we have not learned.

Graham died Saturday afternoon and a warrant was sworn out before Squire Lusk of this city for the arrest of the Rutherfords charging them with murder. Constable Burkitt took charge of and was guarding them but on Sunday while he was at dinner, Bob Rutherford escaped and has not yet been apprehended.

Jacob Yoes Hardware store, scene of the Graham murder. Presently, this century-old building houses the West Fork Oprey.

A bit more info is found in the Little Rock paper’s article on the matter:

News has reached here of a bloody affray between the Rutherfords and Grahams, of West Fork, two families who have made themselves notorious as desperadoes … Cal Rutherford, Deputy United States Marshal of this District, was drunk and was running the town, and after riding his horse through two or three stores, and shooting at everything in sight, rode in the store owned by Jacob Yoes, United States Marshal Western District of Arkansas, and there found Jim Graham. He began cursing and abusing him and threatened to kill him. He then jumped from his horse and rushed at Graham, who drew his knife and stabbed Rutherford five times in the breast and bowels when Bob Rutherford intervened and Graham stabbed him twice. Bob Rutherford rushed for a pistol, securing one in the store, with which he did lively work, shooting Graham several times, only one shot taking effect which will prove fatal. A bystander, Mack Matthews, made an effort to quell the row and Bob Rutherford crushed his skull with a pistol. Cal Rutherford will probably die from the wounds and Bob may recover. The Sheriff and Constable took charge of the parties and have them under heavy guard.

Yee haw, boys!

So what happened to West Fork? Obviously, times changed. The big tree harvest and easy money from the crowds of timbermen came to an end. Once the tree is cut, it’s gone. Fruit crops and local canneries suffered from growing competition and new food purity laws. Farmers discovered that the soil was easily depleted and crops didn’t flourish. Also, south county water supplies couldn’t meet the growing demand.

West Fork prospered fairly well until 1919 when an entire block of downtown burned to the ground. The bank lasted until 1929 and closed with the stock market crash. As roads improved and more people made use of motor vehicles, travel became much easier and people began commuting to Fayetteville for jobs, taking even more money away from local businesses. It’s the story of thousands of small rural communities in our country.

(Adapted from a talk I gave May 6, 2017, sponsored by the Friends of West Fork Library and the Washington County Historical Society. Additional photographs will uploaded soon.)

Earliest known photograph of West Fork school, circa 1894. Far left is teacher and his assistant.

~~~

[1] After notice of my talk came out, I was contacted by a man who descended from Richard Dye. We chatted about the location of the school and church. He thought it was on the east side of the highway and a little south, roughly in the area where McKnight’s wrecker service is at this time, perhaps upslope south of the creek bottom. Another source confirms that “Dye’s Shed” was located just south of the business location. (We Call It Home by Harold G. Hutcheson and Bernice Karnes. Observer Press circa 1985.)

[2] “Early Days at West Fork,” Bernice Karnes. Flashback November 1956. 13-18. Fayetteville: Washington County Historical Society.

[3] Karnes p 17

[4] As far as court records show, there was no further followup on the warrant against Newton Jones.

[5] “Origins of the community of Woolsey,” by Robert G. Winn. Observer, no date. Fayetteville Library. Genealogy section.

[6] History of Washington County. Springdale: Shiloh Museum 1989.

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