Clarksville is located on Spadra Creek, north of the Arkansas River. When stagecoach and train transportation became more common, land routes from Little Rock to Fort Smith were directed through Clarksville, which evolved as an important stop. Development of important educational opportunities began with the organization of the town and continue to the present day. A broad mix of agriculture, mining, and manufacturing has supported the town’s growth.
through Early Statehood
A Native American presence is evidenced by the “Rock House,” a red limestone cave in which many early drawings were found, and other sites. As early as 1820, an Indian factory, headed by Colonel Matthew Lyon, existed near Spadra. The Spadra area today hosts a state recreation area on the Arkansas River. The Cherokee moved into this area after the Osage tribe was relocated by treaty. Other tribes moved in around 1828, when treaties gave land in present-day Oklahoma to the Cherokee. Early settlers arrived with land grants issued for service in the War of 1812.
Clarksville was established in November 1836 after Johnson County was formed from part of Pope County. The three commissioners involved—Abraham Laster, Elijah B. Alston, and Lorenzo N. Clark—did not agree immediately on a site. Eventually, the town was established on land donated by Josiah Cravens and named after Clark in an effort to get his support. The first court session was held in 1837 in a private building. Clarksville was incorporated on December 21, 1848.
Settlements around Clarksville’s center had been created by immigrants from Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Steamboat traffic as early as 1835 was provided by the Tom Bowlin and the William Parsons, while early stagecoach service was provided by the Little Rock–Springfield line of the Hunter, Hanger and Howell Stage Line. By July 1853, county commissioners authorized the investment of $16,000 in stock of the Little Rock and Fort Smith line of the Cairo and Fulton Railroad, but the area had no rail service until after the Civil War.
One of the first significant businesses was John Hill’s grocery store, which operated from the 1850s until the 1880s. A Federal Land Office was located in Clarksville in the 1830s and was active until 1859.
Early settlers started tobacco production, but most efforts later turned to Cotton. By 1840, Coal had been discovered in the Spadra area. Coal mining did not grow to be a viable industry until after the Civil War.
Augustus M. Ward established a school for the blind in 1849. A school for the deaf was founded in 1851 at the current site of the University of the Ozarks.
Early churches were of the Cumberland Presbyterian and Methodist faiths.
Civil War through Reconstruction
Captain John F. Hill organized a volunteer company that was mustered into service as part of Colonel MacRae's Sixteenth Regiment. Thomas King and Lymas Armstrong also organized groups of volunteers. Many local men also served in the Union army, most in the Second Regiment Arkansas Infantry.
Because of the town’s proximity to the river, troops of both armies passed through frequently. Colonel Churchhill's Confederate troops camped south of Clarksville during the winter of 1861, where many soldiers died of illness and were buried in unmarked graves in Oakland Cemetery. The Cumberland Presbyterian church was used as a hospital and then burned by departing Union troops, who also burned the Methodist church and the jail, and damaged the court house.
An important step in the town’s recovery after the war was the 1871 survey work for the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad. Right-of-way acquisitions had started as early as 1867. After a change in ownership, the line was completed from Little Rock to Clarksville in 1873. By 1874, it had been completed to Fort Smith. The influx of Reconstruction officials, mine workers, and railway construction workers created a rowdy environment, which left Clarksville with an unsavory reputation. Better law enforcement later brought rapid improvement.
Post Reconstruction through the Gilded Age
Immigration after the Civil War was encouraged by a group of local citizens who advertised in newspapers in the Northeast. As coal mining began, many German and Austrian families came to the county both from their home countries and from Pennsylvania mining areas. Another source of immigrants was Union soldiers who had traveled through the state during service in the war.
In 1891, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church moved the school to Clarksville, and the school opened on September 8, 1891, as Arkansas Cumberland College. The school was renamed the College of the Ozarks in 1920 and became the University of the Ozarks in 1987.
Early Twentieth Century
The town initiated efforts to develop a flood control project in 1948 to control Spadra Creek, which flooded in 1914, 1927, and 1943. Once completed, this, together with the urban renewal projects of 1966–67, resulted in improved conditions.
The Citizens Band of Clarksville won a state music championship in 1915 and represented Arkansas at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.
The primary businesses of the area remained coal, gas, and agriculture through the Depression. In 1929, Clarksville’s gas field was the largest producing field in the state. Coal production was declining by 1933, but poultry later became, and remains today, a significant business.
The Johnson County Municipal Airport was dedicated in 1934, with a visit from the aviation unit of the National Guard. It is today known as the Clarksville Municipal Airport.
World War II through the Faubus Era
The College of the Ozarks housed a Civilian Pilot Training Program course beginning in 1942, as well as a naval training facility from 1944 to 1945. In December 1943, the navy began using the college for a course in the new radar technology. The first pharmacy school in the state was established at the college in 1946.
The 1950 Federal Census reported significant population growth in Clarksville, while other towns and Johnson County overall suffered declines. The establishment of the School of Pharmacy and general expansion at the College of the Ozarks added staff and students, while the rural population of the county began to move into town as jobs shifted to manufacturing and young men returned from military service.
A tornado substantially damaged the Clarksville area in February 1954. Significant gas exploration in the early 1950s in the area resulted in new producing wells by 1957. The poultry industry continued to grow as Priebe and Sons of Chicago built and opened a processing plant in 1952. The lumber and brick industries expanded, with the Eureka Brick & Tile Co. increasing to a production of 1.5 million bricks per month in 1955. A creosoting plant opened in 1954.
The College of the Ozarks was one of the first state private colleges to open to African American applicants. In 1957, the college accepted five black applicants, all residents of Arkansas. The first of those to graduate was Lawrence Webb in 1959.
The public schools remained segregated until 1965 when, together with most counties in the state, Johnson County’s plan was accepted by federal courts. In the next year’s public school reports, the black Grace James School was no longer reported as operating.
Clarksville today represents a mix of agricultural and college town environments. Tyson's poultry facilities are the largest single employer. The University of the Ozarks is now home to the Walton Fine Arts Center. The peach industry is celebrated by the annual Johnson County Peach Festival.
Along with the schools for the blind and deaf, private schools were opened early in Clarksville’s development. Ewing Seminary was established in 1858 by the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and continued operation until it burned soon after the Civil War. The same group founded a female seminary in 1859. It was taken by Federal troops as a hospital, and it also burned a few years after the war. The College of the Ozarks also provided an academy for elementary and junior students until the consolidation of rural school districts in the pre–World War II period gave Clarksville a complete public school system.
For additional information, visit www.ArkansasPreservation.com
Langford, Ella Molloy. History of Johnson County, Arkansas: The First Hundred Years. Clarksville, AR: Johnson County Historical Society, 1981.