History of State's Navigable Rivers Focus of Museum Undergoing Change

Article follows the photos:
Prairie County Courthouse
Prairie County Courthouse
Steamboat on the White River
Steamboat on the White River
Lumber being shipped on the White River.
Lumber being shipped on the White River.
November 19, 2002


History of State's Navigable Rivers
Focus of Museum Undergoing Change

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By Kerry Kraus, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Prairie County Museum, Arkansas's 45th state park, is currently closed for renovations and is expected to open in spring of 2003. When re-opened, the museum, which interprets the history of the state's navigable rivers, will feature a completely redesigned interior and new exhibits. The museum is located in Des Arc, about 55 miles east of Little Rock. For more information, call (870) 256-3511 or visit www.ArkansasStateParks.com.

DES ARC -- Not surprisingly, Prairie County Museum is often confused with the Prairie County Log Cabin Museum located next door. That's one of the reasons Neva Boatright, the Prairie County Museum director, would like to change the museum's name. And she also hopes to narrow it's focus to one river -- the lower White.

"Des Arc owes its very existence to the White River," she said. "If it weren't for the river, the town wouldn't be here. I'd like for the museum to delve more into the history of the river and its importance to the community."

The museum was called the Des Arc Archeological Center Bethell Pioneer Museum when it first opened in the late 1960s. It was named for John Bethell, its benefactor and a prominent local citizen whose personal collection started the museum. The museum's first exhibits interpreted the area's 19th century, rural lifestyle.

In 1969, the state legislature passed Act 561, which provided $25,000 in 1970 and $10,000 the following year to the Arkansas State University at Beebe for "constructing, equipping and operating the museum." The name was changed to the Des Arc Archeological Museum until 1975, when it was turned over to the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. It then became the Prairie County Museum and was administered by the Arkansas History Commission from 1975 to 1979.

In 1979, Prairie County was transferred to the department's newly created Museum Services Division, which changed the facility's focus to "interpret and preserve the history of Arkansas's navigable rivers from 1831 to 1931." This time span was chosen because in 1831 European travelers began to settle along the White River, and in 1931 the area became Prairie County.

The exact year Des Arc was founded is unknown, though the town is one of the oldest river ports in Arkansas. The earliest settler of record is Frenchman Francie Francure, who received a Spanish grant for land near the mouth of the Little Red River. In establishing the land's title, he declared he had lived on it since 1789. According to "Goodspeed's History of Central Arkansas," the first U.S. citizens settled in the Des Arc Bayou area around 1810. James Erwin and George C. Watkins, who plotted Des Arc in 1848, are considered the founders of the town, which was incorporated in 1854.

Initially, the community was slow to grow. The town's 1850 census listed 98 white people. While no figures were provided for non-white residents in Des Arc, the same census listed 2,097 white people and 257 slaves in Prairie County. By 1861 the population of Des Arc had grown to 1,500 people.

The population growth occurred in large part because Des Arc became an important stop for steamboats transporting lumber as well as cotton grown in the fertile area. During the town's heyday, eight sawmills operated along the river. Fishing, boat-building and mussel harvesting were also vital to Des Arc's economy. Mussels provided not only food, but shells for making buttons, which was a major industry in the region during the late 1800s.

During the Civil War, several skirmishes took place in the area and in Des Arc, which was under Union control by January of 1863. The overall effects of the war caused many Des Arc businesses not destroyed to close. By war's end, the town was home to only 400 people.

After the war, the effects of new railroads on the town were mixed. The White River's importance as a transportation route diminished as many goods that had once been shipped by boat were transferred to trains. But, the area's timber industry fared well as the demand for cross ties increased. The river remained popular for fishing, and several commercial operations -- that harvested buffalo, catfish, carp and drum -- flourished.

Today, one sawmill operates in Des Arc, and both commercial and recreational fishing continues on the river while barges move grain down the still-vital channel.

Since the founding of Des Arc, farming has remained a staple in the area's economy. Rice, soybeans, cotton and winter wheat are still major crops grown by farmers around Des Arc, which is home to about 2,000 people.

The museum is not the only way in which the community remembers its past. During the first week in June, Des Arc holds an annual Steamboat Days Festival.

"The museum is a work in progress," Boatright said, "but we invite everyone to visit when it reopens. We are excited about sharing the rich history of the lower White River and the town of Des Arc."

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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"