By Jeff Olson
The next three or four days will be busy ones for most of us, as we celebrate Thanksgiving and invest time in other activities with family and friends and perhaps even do some hunting, take in some football, and I hope participate in worshiping God. In addition to these, this Saturday we can also recognize the 175th birthday of our beautiful home nestled in the Ouachitas. On November 30, 1844, Polk County became Arkansas’s 48th county.
The area of what is today Polk County has a long and interesting history. The first human inhabitants are believed to have been Peleo-Indians as early as 8000 B.C. In the following centuries, numerous Indian cultures evolved. Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto and his band of Conquistadors were the first white men into this area, having wintered on the banks of the Ouachita River near the present site of Hot Springs during the winter of 1541-42. The French followed the Spanish into this area in the late 17th century.
The United States acquired the area now known as Polk County as a part of the Louisiana Territory when it was purchased from France in 1803. This area was a part of a vast uncharted wilderness when, in 1812, it became a part of the Missouri Territory. In 1813, Arkansas County was created as a part of the Missouri Territory and two hundred years ago this year, on July 4, 1819, Arkansas began its separate existence under the name of Arkansas Territory. Arkansas Territory became the state of Arkansas in 1836, and in 1837 the first survey of the area was made, authorized by a congressional act which granted veterans of the War of 1812 a patent to lands once in the old Louisiana Purchase. Some of these veterans were among the first settlers of Polk County.
During the 1830’s, settlers traveling west to Texas were turned back by soldiers at the Red River due to an Indian uprising. Having heard of the great hunting grounds in west-central Arkansas, many decided to stay and build shelters. Most of these settlers came from Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and other nearby states. At this time, the area that is now Polk County was still a part of Sevier County, but the distance to the county seat in Sevier County posed a hardship on the settlers who had to travel that distance to conduct necessary business.
Subsequently, an area much larger than the Polk County we know today was taken from Sevier County and and established as Polk County. In 1873, six townships of Polk County were ceded to the newly formed Howard County. While Polk County was named for then President James K. Polk, the new county seat, Dallas, was named for Vice President George M. Dallas. The Dallas community was the first part of the county to be settled.
During the Civil War, Polk County was partially overrun by scouting parties and guerrilla bands, but the pioneers felt little direct effects of the war. Polk County escaped any major battles and was left mostly unscathed by the war.
In the early 1890’s Arthur E. Stilwell, an insurance salesman, and Jan De Goeijen, a Dutch investor, teamed up and initiated and financed the construction of a railroad between Siloam Springs, Arkansas, and Shreveport, Louisiana. This would help to connect Kansas City, Missouri with Port Arthur, Texas by rail. The railroad, the Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Gulf (later named Kansas City Southern) went through Polk County and resulted in an economic boost to the county. Several new towns were established along the line, including Mena in 1896. Mena was named after the Dutch investor’s wife, Mena Janssen De Goeijen, and became the county seat in 1898.
Over the past 120 years, Polk County has seen many changes and certainly more than I can possibly cover here. However, what hasn’t changed is the wealth of her natural resources and the grandeur of God’s handiwork as seen through her clear mountain streams, winding rivers, solitary pine and oak forests, rocky upland meadows, and rugged and picturesque mountains and stately peaks – all home to a wealth of flora and fauna. These features of our county are known not only by those native here but have also been discovered by so many from beyond our county line, state line and national boundaries.
Some of these folks had traveled around the world and some had lived in beautiful places in our own country and/or overseas. However, it was Polk County, Arkansas where they chose to settle and live. That’s amazing…. but yet it really isn’t. It’s one thing to be attracted to and move to an aesthetically pleasing area, but it’s quite another to stay and make it your home. What my wife and I experienced is what so many others have as well: A town, a county at its core, is about people – about community – and it is there through relationships developed with others over time where quality of life is most often built and sustained. So it has been for us.
During this special season of the year, when we are counting those blessing for which we are most thankful, we need to include our Polk County and her people.