Random Recollections -- Monticello and Drew County During the 30 Years From 1872 to 1902

Contributed by Jann Woodard.

by Lance Hemingway
Published Dec. 27, 1934

In the installment captioned "The Beginning of things," I quoted liberally from Dallas Herndon's "Centennial History of Arkansas" in which he located Drew County's first post office at the store of Carney O'Neal "three miles west of where Monticello now stands, at a place called Montongo."

This would be on the Wilmar road somewhere in the neighborhood of the old J.H. Manees, Fountain Stanley, and Capt. Rice homesteads, whereas the Montongo I knew and still know is located about seven or eight miles up the Ridge toward Lincoln County, and northwest by north of Monticello. It was for many years the home and headquarters of the Cavaness family, whose capable head was known over a wide territory for his business ability and personal integrity. There was a Methodist campground nearby, a roomy church in the forks of the road, and a cold spring down in the little valley.

Mr. Cavaness conducted a general store at Montongo and had extensive real estate and business interests elsewhere. The land about Cornish Landing, on the Saline River, belonged to him, and in my boyhood there were still half a dozen cottages standing on each side of the landing past the Cavaness warehouse to the river. Timbers of an old barge that had come to grief in the river years before were still to be seen at low-water stages, and inside the warehouse, near the rear, was an empty barrel in which some one had placed the skeleton head of an alligator gar. It came from a monster fish, and the nose bones of the skeleton protruded well above the upper chines of the barrel.

The last time I remember seeing this old warehouse and the vacant cottages along the Monticello-Warren highway was about 1887. There was to be a fish-fry at Cornish Landing, which was a popular "watering place" in those days, and Jim Williams and I "footed it" from Monticello to the river (13 miles) the night before. We carried our lunches in paper bags, intending to catch a lot of fish when we got to the river, eat breakfast, have a swim and await arrival of the fish-fry party next morning. Arriving at the ruins of the Cap. Strong mill between Barkada and the river about one or two o'clock in the morning, we decided to have a brief nap in the weather-stained pile of sawdust beside the road. We slept until nearly daylight, and awoke to find our breakfast gone. Some hogs had visited us during our nap and dined on the contents of our paper bags. So we were ravenously hungry when the fish-party arrived about ten o'clock in the morning. The fish declined to bite when we got to the river, but we had our swim.

Mr. Cavaness' eldest son, Joe, was in business at Cornerville, Lincoln County, for several years, moving from there, I think, to Texas. The other children were Sallie, Effie, and Virgie, and two boys, Andrew and Garvin. The last time I saw the Cavaness store at Montongo it had been closed and its outside walls were plastered with circus advertisements - Clark's Circus, I believe. Mr. Cavaness was killed by a train at the old union station in Little Rock.

Mr. Herndon relates that the first county court met in the house of Alexander Rawles, but he does not give the location. What a pity! Several subsequent sessions were held in the Rodgers (Rogers?) school house, he says, and again fails to give the location. Perhaps it was the Hugh Rodgers (Rogers?) school of which I heard a great deal in my youth, but never saw even the building in which the school was conducted. I am on familiar ground, however, when Mr. Herndon brings his narrative down to Rough and Ready and on into Monticello.

One of my earliest recollections hovers about a two-story frame building standing weather-worn and forlorn in a grove of magnificent oaks on the top of the hill almost due east across the highway from the old Pete Sain homestead, which stood on ground now occupied by the home of E.H. Dozier. Even at this late date (1877 or 1878) the empty building was known as "the old court house," and it continued to be so known until it was razed years afterwards. I naturally assumed that the old building had been erected by the county as its court house, but I judge from Mr. Herndon's statement that it must have been a residence generously donated by its owner for court purposes.

Nevertheless, I was told many times that Monticello was "moved from Rough and Ready," which would indicate that the town stood originally on the top of Rough and Ready Hill. The fact that there were numbers of homes close by, apparently built along regularly-platted streets, is further proof that Rough and Ready was once the actual county seat. Three of these homes I remember as belonging to Mrs. Barbara Wells, mother of James K.P. and Roll Dan Wells; "Grandpa" Bennett, father of R.C. (Bob), John, and Frank Bennett, and a Mr. Crane.

Down in the valley skirted by the Hamburg (Lone Prairie) road on the east and on the west by the road to the Judge Billy Wells plantation was an old tanyard and distillery, remains of which were still to be seen when I was a boy. The ground all about a tumble-down frame building was thickly carpeted with decayed and decaying tan-bark, and there were many vats - resembling open graves lined with planking - where hides were formerly soaked in the process of tanning. There was also a big copper retort and a copper worm, relics of the distillery. A company of Confederate soldiers camped there one winter during the Civil War, and one of them (F.M. Rosenburg) whom I met years afterwards in Pine Bluff, spoke of both tanyard and distillery.

So Rough and Ready must at one time have been considered seriously as a town site. Across the right-hand road (looking south) from the tanyard was a cemetery, and I imagine it must still be there as silent proof that Rough and Ready was actually at one time the site of Monticello. In the plains and desert country of the Southwest one frequently comes upon an abandoned cemetery (usually referred to by local citizens as "Boot Hill", indicating that those resting there in solitude died with their boots on), and in every such case one can find remnants of adobe buildings that once formed part of a town. West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, all have their "Boot Hills" and their abandoned towns. Some were cattle towns, and some mining towns, but all were considerable communities at one time. To me the most romantic and pathetic of these is the town of Tascosa, once a flourishing metropolis nestling in the breaks of the Canadian river where the old Jones and Plummer trail touched the stream in passing through the Panhandle of Texas. It, too, has its "Boot Hill."

The first court house erected in Monticello of today stood about midway of the block on the west side of the public square. It was still standing when I was a boy, and it divided honors with the first "old court house" on Rough and Ready Hill. But the term was used in my day to distinguish the old court house on the west side of the square (long devoted to other purposes) from the beautiful and never-to-be-forgotten brick building erected in the center of the square in 1870. That was the court house of my generation, and it was temple of justice, town hall, community house, theater, and grand ball room all in one. For months it was used as a skating rink, and some times religious services were held there. The first service of the Protestant Episcopal Church I ever witnessed was held there, conducted, I think, by the Rev. Dr. Walton, whom I afterwards knew very much to my gain. Temperance lectures were delivered there during the days before Monticello drove out its saloons, and many political leaders spoke here during heated campaigns. Often these were prominent in state and national affairs. Of these the two I recall most distinctly were Governor James P. Eagle and Governor William M. Fishback.

Some of us still remember the "Grand Bals Masque" held in the second story of that beloved old court house. Lawlessness was nothing like that of the past few years, but those in charge of these almost annual social functions always deemed it wise to add a line at the bottom of the hundreds of invitations issued on such occasions, advising the "favored" recipients that "Officers of the law will be present to preserve order." It is a most satisfying recollection that there was never any disorder at these social affairs, and I have wondered many times why the "warning" was always printed at the bottom of the neat and proper invitations, also though, as a member of the "Committee on Invitations", I helped to authorize it on several occasions.

I learned to swim in the larger of the six or seven barrow pits from which dirt was taken to make the bricks that went into the walls and beautiful tower of the court house of 1870. These pits were known as "The Jordan Ponds," from which I gather that the bricks were made by Jim Jordan, or some other of the old-time Jordan family from which came Billy and Josephine and the beautiful Ella Jordan. Billy had lost an eye during or just after the Civil War, and when I saw him last he was living at Wilmar. Josephine was the wife of Walter S. Jeter, in my day proprietor of the largest mercantile establishment in town. His store was in the middle of the block on the east side of the public square, and his residence faced Gaines street, opposite the Tom Edwards (afterwards the Shelton & Wells) livery stable. The Jeter store was one of the five brick buildings in Monticello when I first knew it. The others were the McNeely brick on the northeast corner of the square, the court house, jail, and calaboose.

The Jordan ponds were located a mile and a half or two miles north of town some hundreds of yards from the Tyro road and opposite the Curl Trotter farmstead. A private road turned to the left around the small cottage occupied by Henry Matthews, who conducted a Negro barber shop, passed to the south of the ponds and wound roughly northwestward past the Belser (formerly Hemingway) place, and the William Allen farm and "played out" somewhere north of Gaster Hill.

Curl Trotter and Lynn Brooks were the two outstanding Negro politicians of my youth, and had to be reckoned with by every successful politician of the county. There were still some remnants of Carpet-Bag rule in those days, and Negro voters were plentiful until the Australian ballot was adopted, along with the educational qualification, which was actually more theoretical than real, and yet which caused most Negroes to stay home on election day. Thus "black heels on white necks" followed "bayonet rule" into happy oblivion.

All about the Jordan ponds were piles and beds of broken bricks from the kilns burned in 1870, and these accounted for many a stone bruise that caused the boys of my day to "favor" one heel or the other when walking or running. All boys under fifteen regularly went barefoot from early spring to late fall, donning shoes only on Sunday and for social functions, and some times not even then. So stone bruises were common enough. There were also numbers of extremely thorny honey locus trees in the vicinity, and these often gave the boys as much trouble as the broken bricks.

End of article.

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