Walking in Judsonia's past: Historic Program tours small town's past glories

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Jane Hardin, 89, was a child when Judsonia was a bustle of activity for kids who loved to ride the Judsonia Bridge over Little Red River that swung to allow riverboats passage.

"Oh, this was quite a popular town in its time," she said Saturday while joining about 20 people for a tour of Judsonia's historic area sponsored by the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.

Zac Cothern, the historic preservation coordinator for the program, described for the group how people had to either ford the river or take a ferry to get back and forth from Kensett, only four miles away, before the bridge was built in 1924.

The bridge had to accommodate the river traffic, most often the loaded barge from nearby Bee Rock Quarry. So it was designed with a cantilevered swing truss activated by one man with a key. The mechanism turned on eight wheels operating a steel track atop the center pier to open two 125-foot-wide shipping lanes.

"A local man was hired to operate the bridge and he would come running when he heard the steamboat whistle," said Cothern. "Youngsters would hurry, too, and it was considered an honor to ride the turning bridge."

But in the late 1920s the barge business decreased, and with it the need to turn the bridge. The turning mechanism has been soldered and the days of riding the swinging bridge are long over, said Cothern.

The city's era of prosperity peaked in the time of the swinging bridge.

Judsonia was founded by Erastus Gregory in 1840 as Prospect Bluff, said Cothern, because some early settlers paddling upriver mistakenly saw a bluff there. In 1835, Gregory bought the area for $1.50 an acre and four years later he hired a surveyor to lay off the site in town lots, the first in White County.

When steamboats came soon after, Prospect Bluff had its advantage over neighboring settlements.

Then, in 1869, a professor from Chicago University relocated to the area with about 40 northern Baptists to open Judsonia University in 1971. The group took control of the town they renamed Judsonia for the first Baptist missionary to leave America, and enacted a ban on alcohol.

The university lasted only from 1871-1883, closed and reopened for one term, only to close again.

But the northerners brought Judsonia the seeds of success in the form of strawberries - the first grown in the county and quickly a major economic force that grew with the help of steamboat and railroad operators.

Judsonia became an industrial town producing packaging for fruit, so much so that the city became known as "the box factory," said Cothern.

But production peaked around 1928 and declined through the next decade, Cothern said.

TORNADO BREAKOUTS

Then on March 21, 1952 between 5:30 and 6 p.m., the deadliest tornado outbreak in Arkansas history tore through Judsonia and several other towns, killing 111. Judsonia lost more than 30 people, 385 homes and many of its historical landmarks.

The roof was blown off the town's community center, built in 1937-1938 by the Work Projects Administration and designed in the Colonial Revival style by Little Rock architect Guy W. Swaim. The solid brick building stood, however, with its keystoned vents, multi-light windows, light posts, stone benches and the heart-shaped stone that's the centerpiece of the chimney.

It and the park next to it are still centers of Judsonia community life. As the touring group examined it Saturday, a family reunion was taking place there under the rebuilt roof.

It is the only surviving New Deal community center in White County, Cothern said, and perhaps the only one in the state.

The group also visited the Kelly House, a Craftsman Bungalow built around 1925 of solid brick, and the Alfred Henson House, "the finest example of neoclassical style in the area," said Cothern, and one of the oldest surviving homes in Judsonia.

It was built as a two-story woodframe house in 1884 and remodeled into a stately, ornate home with double ionic columns, gables, an iron fence, carriage house and lily pond when owned by Alfred Henson around 1920.

Henson is among the great names of Judsonia's past. He moved to the area at age three in 1857, lost his father when he was only nine, wanted to graduate Judsonia University and become a lawyer but had to drop out due to lack of money.

HENSON'S SUCCESS

But he opened Henson's Mercantile in Judsonia and expanded it twice by making his fortune through the railroad. He bought goods by the freightload to sell to local cotton and strawberry farmers.

The final stop of Saturday's tour was the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial, one of the rare Union monuments in the South.

White County provided seven companies of troops to the Confederacy, but not everyone supported that cause. Soldiers from as far away as Vermont and Ohio are buried in the cemetery plot and the monument's unveiling in 1894 was attended by both Union and Confederate veterans.

Judsonia days of prosperity peaked with the riverboat runs and the strawberry industry, but the city has not recovered from their loss, and the devastation of the 1952 tornado was another blow.

BRIDGE IN DISREPAIR

The bridge over Little Red River is now in serious disrepair, said Mayor Ricky Veach, who would like to prevent the State Highway Department from condemning it.

"We got a $300,000 grant from the Historic Preservation Program for it a couple years ago, and part of the work was done in 2003," Veach said. "I don't know what happened to the rest of it. There's still quite a bit of money left for work on it."

Closure of the bridge would isolate several farms, Veach said. The city also has sewer ponds on the other side of the river, and runs a mail route there.

While the tour group visited for about half an hour, they scattered four times to avoid trucks and cars coming across the bridge.

Many people still love the area and hope for its revival.

Paul Miller was born in 1916 six miles outside Judsonia city limits, traveled for much of his life and returned in 1988 for good.

"I was born in a farm house where the Bethlehem Cemetery is today," he said. "I love it here."

He celebrated his 88th birthday last week.

Frank Sanford was born just north of Bradford in 1924. He and wife Violet also love rural White County and will never leave. They and Miller were along for the tour.

"I say, it gets to feel like home around here," Sanford said