By Jeff Olson
In last week’s column, I payed a small but sincere tribute to our Polk County in honor of her 175th birthday. I wrote about her early history and how her intrinsic natural beauty and people attracted other people from around our country to move here and and make Polk County their home. However, I wasn’t able to focus in on some other things I really wanted to. Here I will do so, but again as much as space will allow.
While it is a fact that a county, or any municipality for that matter, is first and foremost about people, this goes way beyond just those people we know, remember, or even heard of or read about. It includes the the full spectrum of folks who did the living, the working, the loving, the sacrificing and the dying in their homes and communities over the course of history. So it is with Polk County, Arkansas.
Polk County, like thousands of rural counties across America, has been and still is mostly an agrarian county. Her vast treasure of natural resources has provided a source of income for loggers, ranchers, farmers and poultry and swine growers. In addition, and perhaps more important, many generations of county residents depended on these resources for their sustenance in order to survive day in and day out, year in and year out. And, many did so with resourcefulness and ingenuity on land which was hilly and rocky and without much topsoil and natural fertility to begin with. On these small farms, families lived and grew in and around communities such as Acorn, Ascites, Big Fork, Board Camp, Bulger, Cherry Hill, Eagleton, Egger, Gann, Hartley, Howard, Ink, Mountainfork, Nichols, Potter (Old and New), Quito, Rich Mountain, and Rocky. Other communities, such as Cove, Grannis, Hatfield, Hatton, Wickes and Vandervoort, were essentially birthed by the railroad which brought employment and a way to transport Polk County timber and other products to new markets. All of these communities were important to the lifeblood of Polk County, even though some of them are no longer as vibrant as they once were and some have all but vanished.
Faith played a major role in the development and growth of Polk County. Churches were central to the strength and social fabric of local communities and many fellowships abounded throughout the county. Several denominations were and still are represented, reflecting mostly various sects of Christianity. Within her scope of progress, Polk County has experienced internal as well as external growth as we now have a greater diversity of people than ever before, people who contribute to our local culture and economy. The national headquarters of the Christian Motorcyclist Association is located in Hatfield. Founded by Heber Shreve in 1975, this organization has two rallies each year in which motorcyclists from around the country and world journey to Polk County to corporately worship God and enjoy the beauty of Polk County and the surrounding area.
Over the past century, tourism has been a factor in Polk County’s notoriety and economy, though it didn’t begin to accelerate and contribute in a substantial way until well into the 20th century. Actually, it was through tourism that some county growth has taken place as people from out-of-state visiting the area chose to return to relocate and/or retire here. Over 200,000 acres of the Ouachita National Forest is located in Polk County. This affords residents and tourists alike a variety of opportunities for recreation, including fishing and hunting. Queen Wilhelmina State Park, established in 1957 and located atop Arkansas’s second highest peak, offers breathtaking scenery and has campsites, picnic areas, and trails. The fauna and flora of Rich Mountain are quite unique and the history of the three inns that have graced this mountaintop site is a fascinating story.
The character of Polk County has been seen not only in the faith and work ethic of her people, but also in their love of country. From the time of the Civil War through today’s military conflicts around the world, the fighting men (and later women) of Polk County have responded to duty’s call, offering their courage and lives for the cause of America’s freedom. Those who payed the ultimate price are recognized and honored in the memorials on our courthouse lawn in Mena.
A friend of mine once described Mena and Polk County as the “Garden Spot” of western Arkansas, and he was correct. This garden is a most beautiful creation, but like all gardens it’s preparation and planting are just the beginning. The garden must be tended to on a regular basis or it will wilt and eventually die. We’ve been very fortunate to have some quality leaders and public servants in Polk County who have worked very hard to keep our “garden” healthy, and in doing so have also kept our home a safer and more vibrant place to live and raise families. These include our local law enforcement and first responders, all to whom we owe much gratitude and respect.
Denise and I chose Mena and Polk County to be our home many years ago, and in this decision we have no regrets. Well, maybe we do have a few. We regret not spending more time with the wonderful friends we’ve made here, many of whom have moved or passed away. Most of them were a part of our church family and their memories, their place in the garden, will remain with us for the remainder of our lives.