I moved into the West Fork Valley in 1973. I had no previous experience here except, as a child, one train ride from Fort Smith to Fayetteville circa 1952 and then passing back and forth from Fort Smith to Fayetteville during the 1950s in our 1949 Chevy (and later our 1954 Chevy). Driving Highway 71 in those days provoked high tension whether we had to pull over to wait out a driving rainstorm or creep along due to impenetrable fog or shudder as big trucks zoomed past.
Mount Gayler provoked an outcry from me and my younger sister—could we stop and have pie at Burns Gables? Could we ride the train? Only one time that I remember did the journey involve stopping for a train ride, a thrilling dash along the tracks circling the pond, wind in my hair, grinning as the high-pitched whistle blew. Another time we sat around a table at Burns Gables to savor a slab of delicious pecan pie.
The landscape of high mountains and sheer cliffs made its mark in my memory. For years my amateur drawings portrayed hills of the same height marching off into the distance in ever faded color. I never understood why it seemed mountains should look that way until, as an adult, I took another look at the profile of the Boston Mountains framing the West Fork valley.
Passing through West Fork on our way north marked the last hurdle before finally reaching Fayetteville, but the only thing that lodged in my memory about the place was the rock “tourist court” along the highway. Then the green-and-white rotating light flashed through the sky at the Fayetteville airport, a magical sight in fog or rain. In those days on that two-lane narrow highway, the trip took nearly three hours.
Imagine my surprise when, in middle age, I discovered that I had ancestors buried at Brentwood and Woolsey! After the Civil War, my dad’s grandfather, Charles McDonald Pitts, moved from Johnson County, Arkansas, to the Brentwood area along with his mother Elizabeth and several brothers and their families. Charles’ mother and his first wife Easter (Parker) and newborn daughter Tennessee are buried at Brentwood as well as a young niece Eliza. Two brothers and some of their children are buried at Woolsey. Charles would remarry there, a local girl named Linnie Mae Rose who became my great-grandmother. The Pitts family moved away by 1900 to take up residence in the western part of the county.
Now, after nearly fifty years of living here, I can almost claim to be an old timer. But fifty years is nothing compared to the two hundred years of family heritage a few of the valley’s residents can claim. I wanted to know who came here first, who built these towns, what it was like to carve out a living in this rugged land. So I started digging.
The West Fork Valley, my new release, is what I found, a history of the watershed of the West Fork of White River, its natural wonders, its past, its people through 1900. It’s my great pleasure to announce this book to the world!
Visit the book page on this site for more information and purchase link.
A few days ago I headed out to explore a road I’d never been down before. It’s less than fifteen minutes from where I live and in my current work-in-progress on the history of the West Fork valley, the road is mentioned often. I thought I should see it.
I was not prepared for what I found there.
Winn Creek Road. Named after the creek and Zadock Winn, a man who drowned there back in the early days of settlement. Other Winns established homesteads up that valley, too, and maybe the road took that name before Zadock drowned back in 1852. The road veers off southwest from Woolsey Road south of West Fork amid wide flat pastures framed on either side by steep, thickly-wooded hillsides.
You know you’re getting to the good part when you see the “Pavement Ends” sign. The road narrows. You slow down as tires hit the gravel and a cloud of dust rises behind you. The valley attenuates to its essential elements and tree canopy encloses the roadway in welcome shade.
To the right, the hillside rises sharply, its massive rock outcroppings mostly hidden in dense undergrowth and hardwood forest. I imagine how it must have looked to the first man to blaze this path, hacking his way through brambles and vines. I imagine how he eagerly awaited the next curve of the creek as it curled through the 30-foot deep ravine to the left, perhaps thirsty, perhaps eager to splash water on his sweaty neck.
Creeks were the roads before roads, paths cleared by regular torrents where in times of low water, man or beast could walk without fear of ambush by tick or cougar. Infinite generations of rocks large and small line the creek bottom. Pale brown, gray, occasionally black where the roaring water has undercut shale, limestone and sandstone claim the greater share of the lithic congregation. I pass a few houses, some buried on deeply wooded hillsides with “No Trespassing” signs at the driveway, others laid out alongside barns and white graveled drives.
The valley and its waterway curl under the dominating rise of these northern slopes of the Boston Mountains. Here and there ancient landslides or silted bends form little meadows suitable for a house, a garden, even pasture. I drive along watching the land slowly rise as I pass further south. I think of pioneers who claimed these places as their own, the long process of clearing fields to plant their wheat, corn, oats, cotton, and tobacco. I think of their log cabins, the children they raised, perhaps descendants living here still.
I’m immersed in the past when travel through places that required heavy wagons pulled by mules or a faithful horse to pick its way across the rugged land. I think of the millennia before white men, when Natives crept through the underbrush watching buffalo herds graze. I think of the millions of years it has taken this tiny place on our planet to form, primeval seas that covered the land then receded, the rush of glacial melt carving its way through countless layers of primordial continent with its fossils of all that came before.
Finally the road and creek bed approach the same level. I could stop, walk past a broken down fence line, and wade. I could sit and watch the water sparkle in sunlight as it rushes along its path.
I round a last curve and stop mid-breath. My heart leaps into my throat.
A surreal scene spreads across the narrow valley. My mouth falls open in shock. I’m instantly transported to a science fiction world. It’s almost more than I can take in.
There, straddling the stream and rising so high I must lean forward to see the top, are massive square steel pillars that hold up Interstate 49. The juxtaposition of the interstate and its structural supports against the backdrop of this venerable wild landscape is almost too much to absorb.
I stop, take pictures, try to come to terms with this bizarre reality. I examine the way the highway engineers planned to use the upper canyon wall as a launching pad for the roadway to fly across this valley. I study the exposed layers of earth and stone cut over countless eons by this now-trivial stream, laid bare as if pages of a book waiting to be read.
Not so trivial, even now, it seems. Evidence of raging flood mark the edge of the roadway, grass twisted and brown with silt, knots of weed tangled in fences. I think of Zadock Winn who believed he could cross even though the water foamed and seethed in its torrent. I thought of how, in all things, Nature will always win.
She will win here, too. For now, traffic clatters and roars far above my head, the steady drumming of tires, the regular lub-dub lub-dub as one after another vehicle crosses each section. Some bracing rattles more loudly than others, perhaps already loosening from its original moorings. There is no peace in this valley.
I drive on. Another quarter mile up the road, the creek takes a ninety-degree bend, providing me the fullest view of its intrinsic beauty.
I peer down from the road where it hugs the hillside forty feet above the water. This is the widest point of its course, ornamented in sparkling ridges as layer upon layer of rock gradually step down through the curve. I can almost hear children laughing as they splash and play in the shallow cool water.
Ahead, if I ventured another three miles or so, I’d arrive at Highway 74 where a left turn would take me to Winslow or a right turn would drop me into the wonderland of Devil’s Den State Park. I turn around and go back the way I came.
I drive home slowly, jarred from my normal frame of mind. The experience of that creek and its valley remains an arresting memory I won’t soon forget. It compares with the best stories I’ve seen or read where astonishing realities intersect with the commonplace. The interstate and its undergirding simply do not belong in that landscape.
Yet I’m twenty plus years past any of this being new. Surely the people who lived here during construction grew familiar with the mind-boggling scale of the interstate’s design. Surely the workers laboring day after day through the pouring of concrete and operation of massive cranes to erect these towers saw their labor as being rooted in the ground. It is rooted in the ground. No doubt the foundations for these support towers are driven deep into the strata far below the creek bed.
I wonder how long it will stand, this high-flying roadway built to accommodate a life lived too fast for contemplation of creek bottoms and tumbled rocks. How many decades will these pillars remain? I imagine a future time when only the towers still stand, the path for vehicles long since rusted and crumbled by the forces of weather, traffic, and time. How much of the concrete will fall to this scenic valley? What will it look like here in a hundred years, a mere blink in geologic time?
I’m disappointed in my words and even the photographs to adequately describe my visceral experience of this location. It’s worth the drive to put yourself there, to stand staring up at the work of man while surrounded by the work of Nature. Questions of time, space, and existence arise spontaneously. Of our place in the continuum, of what the future might hold.
High-profile courtroom cases like the 1937 “Cabin Orgy” suit gained public attention for Rex Perkins. His fame as an outstanding trial lawyer spread. His name increasingly appeared in conjunction with front page headlines announcing the most recent sensational case. For example, in June 1943, he successfully defended Tuck Bishop, an admitted murderer of four people. In Bishop’s defense, Rex harped on Bishop’s status as a wounded veteran and filed a nolle prosequi declaration resulting in a precedent-setting life sentence for Mr. Bishop rather than the expected death penalty.
Rex’s success in gaining cases rose not only from his frequent mentions in local media, but also from his enthusiastic and tenacious pursuit of legal options for his clients. In addition to his sharp mind and voracious study of the law, Rex didn’t hesitate to skirt the edges of accepted practice. One anecdote recalls a time when Rex and his client faced a formidable team of well-heeled Little Rock attorneys who traveled to the Madison county courthouse to press their case. In those days, visual aids required to instruct jurors on logistics or scene layout usually depended on the use of a chalkboard. As the Little Rock legal team left the courtroom for a brief recess, Rex strolled past the chalkboard and palmed the chalk. Alas, no further use of the chalkboard could be made.
In 1944, Perkins and his partner Tom Sullins took up the case of Elwin A. Budd, founder of Budd Post and Hardwood Company and a longtime prominent businessman in the region. An Illinois native of impoverished background, Budd had built a fortune buying and selling hardwood fence posts during the peak years of Washington County’s timber boom, becoming known as “the man who fenced the West.” He married Nettie Huey in 1903, settled on a place near Brentwood (south Washington County), and in 1908, the couple gained a son. A young woman named Rose Shackelford came to help with the baby and E. A. fell in love with her.
By this time, Budd had built his fence post fortunes into thriving mercantile operations along the railroad at Winslow and Chester, Arkansas, as the route cut south into virgin forest between Fayetteville to Fort Smith. He divorced Nettie and married Rose in 1909 when he was thirty-two and she was fifteen. His relationship with Rose ended tragically just six years later after the couple took an automobile trip to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Pregnant during the arduous journey, Rose gave birth to a stillborn child in October and died four days later.
It was said that the loss of Rose changed E. A. forever. He threw himself into his business. In the 1920s as the timber trade died down, he along with his brother Arthur invested in expansive commercial enterprises in Fayetteville. Their Royal Movie Theater, Royal Barber Shop, Royal Café, and Budd’s Department Store occupied virtually all of the south side of the Fayetteville Square. Budd’s fence post business continued in Fayetteville with warehouses stretching from South Hill Avenue east to South Government Avenue and filling a half block north of the railroad tracks toward Sixth Street (now Martin Luther King Boulevard). Another warehouse, ‘Budd’s Woodcraft and Spokes,’ fronted 808 South Government, a structure recently housing the ‘The Village Sculptor’ ironworks of the modern-day Fayetteville artist Hank Kaminsky and demolished in 2013.
Budd remarried several times, becoming increasingly more depressed and drinking heavily. Beloved by employees as a “likeable, hard-working, and shrewd man with a knack for making money” and credited with creating jobs during the Depression, his work habit was remembered that he “left home in a three-piece suit to sell posts up and down the river, then later in the day changed to a pair of overalls to do the manual labor.”
Misfortune continued to find him, however. Fire swept through his Fayetteville mercantile, theater, barber shop and café on January 15, 1940, resulting in total loss to the contents, as well as destruction of several rented upstairs offices and apartments.
Four years later, on March 27, 1944, Budd allegedly inflicted fatal wounds to Miss Norma Smith, a Zion schoolteacher of long acquaintance with Budd. The trial opened July 11, 1944. The defense team included Perkins, Tom Sullins, and John Mayes. Prosecuting Attorney Jeff Duty was joined by Assistant Prosecutor Glen Wing and Van Buren attorney Dave Partain in Judge J. W. Trimble’s court. Opening testimony for the prosecution came from Pvt. Dale Fields, 26, who recounted his previous Saturday evening at Mitche’s Place with a crowd from Springdale. Upon exiting the building, he said Miss Smith “hollered” at him to come over to the car where she was sitting.
He went over and talked to her for a while, then got in the car and went to Springdale. She drove him home. He made a date with her to see her the next morning. They drove to Noel, Mo., in her car and visited his uncle, Fields said, returning to Fayetteville about 4:30, and that evening she again took him home to Springdale. ‘She asked me to come back and see her any time I wanted to,’ he said.
He didn’t see her any more until March 27, about 8 or 9 o’clock, Fields testified. ‘We were laying on the bed when Mr. Budd came in there…He walked up on the porch, came in the house, turned on the lights, came in the bedroom and told me “‘Time to leave.’”
When questioned by the defense, Fields said Budd did not say that in an angry tone. Fields got up and began to dress, but Miss Smith said that he wasn’t leaving. She went into the living room and argued with Budd. As Fields got the living room, he saw Budd slap her. She fell into a chair and Budd left.
Fields asked her who Budd was but she wouldn’t tell him…she just said he was a business man up town. Budd returned, threw eggs at the house and Norma ran out and stared hollering at him. One egg came through the door was she went out, and splattered on the wall…Fields said he next heard fighting in the yard. He said he had been sitting near the door and could hear the blows, and ‘it sounded like he was hitting her hard.’ Then she yelled for help. Fields went out and when he first saw them they were fighting in the corner of the yard near a tree. He saw Budd hit her in the face one lick with his fist, and…she hit the ground. “Then the law came down there…Budd started to his car.”
After about an hour at the police station, Fields returned to Miss Smith’s house where he found her lying on the bed. “There was a place on her chin and blood was running down the back of her neck coming from under her hair,” he said. He washed her and convinced her to go to a doctor, but when they got to the car, it wouldn’t start. The wires had been cut. Fields tried to find a doctor who would go to the house, but no one came. He stayed with her all night during which time Budd drove up and down the street blowing his horn…
From Chapter 4 of Rex Perkins: A Biography. Available in Fayetteville and West Fork local bookstores. Or at Amazon.
 Bassett, Marynm. Interview with author May 23, 2014. Author’s notes.
 Brotherton, Velda. “Rose Budd the one true love of legendary businessman,” “Wandering the Ozarks with Velda Brotherton.” White River Valley News, June 23, 2005. Page 9