Powhatan Courthouse State Park Preserves 'Small-Town' Heritage

Article follows the photos:
Powhatan Historic State Park's 1888 Courthouse
Powhatan Historic State Park's 1888 Courthouse
Powhatan Historic State Park's 1888 Courthouse
Powhatan Historic State Park's 1888 Courthouse
Powhatan Jail
Powhatan Jail
Pre civil war cabin
Pre civil war cabin
Powhatan's Telephone Exchange Building
Powhatan's Telephone Exchange Building
September 24, 2002


Powhatan Courthouse State Park
Preserves 'Small-Town' Heritage

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By Craig Ogilvie, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Arkansas's 37th state park, Powhatan Courthouse, preserves a restored 1888 Victorian courthouse, once the center of a busy riverport on the Black River during the 1800s. The courthouse is the park's main feature and serves as a regional archive that contains some of the oldest records in Arkansas. Exhibits interpret the commerce, politics and lifestyles that shaped north Arkansas. Visitors can also tour the Powhatan jail, a unique two-room schoolhouse and other structures built in the 1800s. Powhatan is located on Ark. 25, three miles south of Black Rock. For more information, call (870) 878-6794 or visit www.ArkansasStateParks.com.

POWHATAN -- Visitors entering this little riverside hamlet may feel transported back to the 19th century as they travel past a pre-Civil War log house, a stately Victorian brick courthouse, a two-room schoolhouse, a primitive jail, a classic pioneer church and Lawrence County's first telephone exchange building. Except for the church, all of the restored structures are part of Powhatan Courthouse State Park.

"Historic preservation in small communities is just as important as in larger towns," said Bill Carroll, the park's superintendent. "Sometimes it's the only visible reminder of local heritage."

Powhatan, which during its heyday was a booming riverport on the Black River, now has 50 residents. Due to forethought, cooperation and hard work some 30 years ago, the little town has saved several important structures from its colorful past.

Since its construction in 1888, the majestic two-story courthouse has been the focal point of the community. Complete with delicate woodwork, locally made brick, and crowning cupola, the building served as the Lawrence County seat of justice until 1963. It was finally abandoned in 1968 in favor of new and centrally located courthouse at Walnut Ridge, 12 miles away.

When the county offices departed Powhatan, some of the state's oldest county records were left behind. In desperate need of preservation, the records and building were rescued at the eleventh hour by volunteers from the reactivated Lawrence County Historical Society.

The Lawrence County Development Council and its finance committee played other key roles in saving the courthouse. Jay and Elizabeth Myers headed the drive that netted more than $30,000 in donations toward the restoration. The couple visited every community in the region to explain the project and enlist public support.

By chance, then-Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller became one of the first persons to recognize the potential of the old courthouse when he passed through Powhatan in 1968. From his automobile, the governor caught a glimpse of the building and stopped for an impromptu tour. His offer to bring in specialists from Williamsburg, Virginia, to evaluate the courthouse site was accepted and came to fruition. And, with their report in hand, the local development council's finance team went to work.

One of the volunteers, Evelyn Flippo, has observed the transformation of all the historic buildings and assisted with the task of preserving the records. Flippo, a native of the area, has volunteered and worked in the museum for more than 30 years. Since 1984, she has served as museum curator at the park.

"We knew the restoration would require more money than the community could raise," Flippo recalled. "The first step was to get the courthouse on the National Register of Historic Places, making it eligible for grant funds." It was approved in 1970, and the nearby 1873 stone jailhouse was added to the Register in 1976.

A major grant and numerous donations enabled work to begin in early 1971 and the first phase was completed in 1973. "In order to obtain restoration grants, we had to secure a solid future for the buildings," Flippo added. "That's when we asked State Parks to assume ownership." The records library, designated a regional archive by the Arkansas History Commission, is still operated by the local historical society in partnership with the Department of Parks and Tourism.

Another major renovation of the courthouse was completed in 1984. Later this year, the interior of the 114-year-old structure will be restored to its original design. Rooms and wide hallways in the courthouse have served as exhibit space over the years with displays on the once-booming pearl and shell industry, steamboating, homestead exhibits and town history.

One of the biggest draws at the park are the courthouse records, which are regularly combed by genealogists and historians. "Hundreds of hours were spent sorting and classifying the volumes of papers," Flippo said. "We knew if we didn't pitch in to save our own past, no one would do it for us."

Some of the records available to researchers date to 1815, when Lawrence County was established as part of the Missouri Territory. When created, the county covered most of northern Arkansas and part of present-day southern Missouri. The first county seat was Davidsonville, now in Randolph County. In 1829, the courthouse was moved to Jackson, along the Old Southwest Trail, then on to Smithville in 1837.

By this point, Lawrence County had been partitioned numerous times to make way for additional counties in the new state of Arkansas. Smithville retained the court seat until 1868, when voters approved a new site at Clover Bend. One year later, the voters decided in favor of Powhatan and a new courthouse was completed in 1873. As an afterthought, two small brick vaults were added to the building plans. This action saved the records when the courthouse burned in 1885.

Contractors built the present brick building around the old vaults and added another larger fireproof storage vault. The first floor has four large rooms, and the second floor serves as a courtroom with small office chambers. The courthouse fire and a controversy over ferryboat fees reportedly prompted the establishment of dual county seats in 1887. Powhatan served the western part of the county and Walnut Ridge served the eastern district. This arrangement continued until voters approved a single seat of justice at Walnut Ridge.

Other park structures include:

* The Ficklin-Imboden Log House is the oldest structure in Powhatan. Built prior to the Civil War, it is located between the courthouse and Black River. The house was occupied until 1970 and was restored in the mid-1990s. Furnishings from the frontier era complete the rustic structure.

* The Telephone Exchange building, built in 1887 of the same type of brick used in the courthouse, is adjacent to the log house. It provided countywide local and long distance service only five years after the telephone was invented. During its long history, the Exchange building also served as a drug store, wagon factory, attorney's office, general store, post office and private home.

* Powhatan Male and Female Academy, a classic two-room schoolhouse, was constructed about 1889 and served the community until 1956. Restoration on the structure was completed in the fall of 2001, but work continues on interior exhibits. Inside, there is a display area with memorabilia donated by former teachers and students.

* 1873 County Jailhouse, constructed of large, hand-cut limestone blocks, provides a rare look at prison life during the 19th century. In addition to the thick walls and tiny windows, the prisoners were placed in steel cages inside the building.

"The park also offers visitors a charming picnic spot," Carroll said. "Tables are situated on a tree-shaded lawn on the bluff overlooking the old townsite and Black River. The picnic area is available whenever the park is open."

Powhatan is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Fees are charged for museum and townsite tours. For more information, call (870) 878-6794 or visit www.ArkansasStateParks.com.

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Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
E-mail: info@arkansas.com

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"