Agriculture, Industry and Transportation

Agricultural and Industrial Contexts

Milling of grains was the first commercial enterprise along the Buffalo. The earliest settlers had to take grain to the older town centers, like Yellville or Carrollton. According to one early settler, corn was the only grain raised during this period as there was no place yet to grind wheat.

Mills were established fairly early in the settlement history of the Buffalo. In most cases, where the mills were established, town centers later grew. One of the earliest mills was Peter Beller's, near present Dogpatch, to which the Parkers of the Parker-Hickman farm probably took their grains. David Williams established a mill at what came to be called Mt. Hersey. Williams Mill appeared on the federal surveyor's map for 1843. Undoubtedly, these mills had been there for several years before the surveyor's visit.

These early mills and others like them ground both corn and wheat, several on into the twentieth century. But by the twentieth century it was cheaper to go to Harrison (Valley Springs actually) to buy wheat flour, and gradually the grinding of wheat was replaced by only the grinding of corn. A family member would hoist sacks of corn on a horse or mule and ride to the mill to have it ground into meal for the family as needed. The visits to the mill became a social occasion in themselves, as neighbors waited their turn.

Mills operated in the Buffalo River area on up until the 1930s; the Boxley Mill was in operation until about 1950. Later, portable gas-powered mills could be set up to grind grain; the water-powered mills became a thing of the past. Sometimes, a sawmill would be set up near the mill site. Later, stores joined the center, and in a few communities, a cotton gin after the 1880s. The history of milling along the Buffalo River has never been adequately explored.

Cotton became "king" in the Buffalo River valley after the Civil War, sometime in the 1870s. Cotton was first recorded on the 1880 agricultural census for the area. From the 1880s to 1920s, cotton became the cash crop for the Buffalo River farmer.

Cotton gins were set up in the community centers. Gilbert had a gin at one time, conveniently located near the railhead. Gins could be found in smaller towns, such as Mt. Hersey. A large barn remaining in Richland Valley was built originally as a cotton gin. Richland Valley was one of the most fertile areas for growing anything; cotton was no exception, and the Richland Valley farmers prospered, as the remains of their residences and barns indicate. Cotton began to lose out in the 1930s. Now grasses and cattle dominate the old fields.


Logging and Sawmills

Sawmills were an early feature along the Buffalo, but were usually associated with a grist mill or a community center. During the later part of the twentieth century more portable sawmills were common, being set up near the wood source or the building source. This makes it difficult to trace all the sawmill locations. For example, the Rush Valley had at least eight to ten sawmill locations during its heyday. In the twentieth century the gasoline-powered sawmill equipment made it even easier to tote the mill to the source, utilized the available timber and then move on.

Many an area young man made his first wages helping with the timbering or sawmill operation. Beginning in the 1880s, timber contracts were purchased along the overlooked ridgetop lands of the Buffalo. Threes were cut and slid down to the river for floating to the sawmill or railhead. Other loads went out by wagon. Stave mills were another timber use. At the stave mill the timber was sliced into staves for barrels and then transported to manufacturers.

Logging became a big commercial venture along the Buffalo from the 1880s to the 1930s and continues to today in some areas. It is appropriate that historic sites relative to this industry be recognized in the Buffalo National River.


Zinc Mining

The mining days along the Buffalo began in the early 1880s and eventually attracted national attention to the area. Rush was the site of the initial discovery of zinc ore and from development at Rush, mining ventures stretched out across the northwest Arkansas area. The White River steamboats, the stage lines, and later the new railroad lines shared in bringing the outside world to the mineral "belt."

Rush was the oldest and most stable mining area of the Buffalo, indeed, of the greater mineral district, and survived economic fortunes up to World War II when mining effectively ceased. A permanent community was clustered at Rush which reached a population of several thousand during World War I.

Wherever the terrain seemed possible for ore, mining ventures were started, and thus mines and diggings can be found up and down the Buffalo. Outside of Rush, the more successful were at Cow Creek, Cedar Creek, Maumee, Panther Creek, Mt. Hersey, and the Ponca and Boxley area. The mines in the lower river contained only zinc ore, while the upper river mines had galena associated with the zinc. The Ponca mines were particularly known for lead.

During the mining period (1880 to 1940) Buffalo River residents experienced some economic improvement through providing supplies necessary for the mining enterprise, in wages paid to local workers who participated in the mining, and in the construction and transportation facilities necessary for the mining process. Mining revivals were attempted in the 1950 at Ponca and at Rush, but had little success.



Transportation at Buffalo River came in several phases and certainly played a significant part in linking the river with the outside world. The original mode was team and wagon. Even as late as the 1930s "freighters" were using team and wagon to haul lumber, ore, and cotton to railheads. Stories abound in oral history about a man's teams and his prowess with them.

The river became a significant transportation mode in the later part of the nineteenth century before the advent of the railroad. Bales of cotton, even ore, were floated downriver on log barges to reach other transportation terminals. For the men accompanying the rafts the river became a road map of the families living along it. Spring rises and other high water events primed the river for successful floating. Later, the river was used to reach the railheads at Gilbert and Buffalo City.

The river also became an obstacle to be crossed by land traffic. Natural low water fords were known along its length and were utilized as necessary. Several road routes were significant enough that established ferries handled the transport of wagons, and later, mechanized vehicles, while shorter-lived ferries were established at several river communities. The established ferries lasted on into the twentieth century as Arkansas slowly developed its state highway system and constructed bridges across the Buffalo.

The railroad was the most long-awaited coming of any transportation mode in the Ozarks. The Missouri and North Arkansas reached Harrison in 1901. The railroad had been enticed for a number of years: the mining fields tried many schemes to convince railroad companies to build. The M&NA railroad reached Gilbert in 1902 and the Iron Mountain reached Buffalo City in 1903. Both Gilbert and Buffalo City became hubs of commerce as Buffalo River products were shipped out of those depots to the rest of the nation. Gilbert probably is more well-known in oral tradition as its central river location affected a greater number of Buffalo River residents.


Last updated: November 11, 2020

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