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Friday, March 24, 2023

Arbuckle Island

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There’s a place northeast of Lavaca that has an interesting history, stories of hearth and home, disaster and heartache.  That place is Arbuckle Island.

In the early 1800s, Fort Smith was just a military post and most, if not all of the area towns had not yet been founded, General Matthew Arbuckle was given 20,000 acres of land in Arkansas by the United States Congress.  Arbuckle was an Indian fighter, hero of the War of 1812, the Battle of New Orleans, founder of forts in Indian Territory and a peace-keeper between warring tribes.  He was awarded the land holdings in what is now northeast Sebastian County. If you look at a Sebastian County map, you can see what is called the Island.

A large, two-story log home was built on Arbuckle’s land along with other buildings which served as slave quarters and a cook house.  This plantation was located on what is now Highway 96 (which wasn’t built until 1935), just east of the Arbuckle Cemetery. The Crawford County Courthouse was nearby.  Built in 1822, the two-story, clapboard roof building with no hanging doors or windows.  Albert Pike, the major developer of Arkansas’ court system, and nineteen others spent the night there and all slept on the floor in one room upstairs during night sessions. The courthouse moved in 1838 to Van Buren as county lines changed.

Some of the first island residents were named Carrol, Self, Underwood, Posey, Hobbs, Burrows, Bryant, Thurman and others. In 1921, six young married couples move to the island at the same time.  There were houses all over the Island then, all laid out with a house and a garden spot and a house and a garden spot and so on.  A bridge crossed the Courthouse Slough and if you lived on the east side of the bridge, you could still reach your house.  If you lived elsewhere on the Island, you had to use a boat around the rim of the island to reach your home.

In 1925 there were 75 homes on the island and a school.  The teacher, Mr. Woodward, lived in a tent behind the school.  The Arbuckle Store was across the bridge and provided everything needed. This area was known as Bridge City.  Warren Martin recalled that there were two grocery stores, a doctor’s office (Dr. Davis), a barber shop and a beer joint behind the Island Cemetery.  Dances and picnics were held on the island and people came from miles around to attend.

The Clem Hoover provided transportation across the Arkansas River between the island and Mulberry where some islanders did their grocery shopping.  It followed a rope that pulled the ferry across the river. He could carry only one wagon at a time and averaged four or five wagons a day. The Dick LeLeakey ferry crossed between Dyer and the island where they took their cotton crops to the gin.  Years later, George Martin bought a gas-powered motor and sold it to Clem Hoover to modernize his business.  

Arbuckle Island flooded just about every year.  When the floods came the people would watch nearby Big Creek.  If it overflowed into the Courthouse Slough, they knew it was time to get off of the island. In 1916 the river flooded and dumped tons of sand on the fertile rich bottom soil and ruined a lot of farms.  Another flood in 1923 and then another in 1926 which cut the river through the middle of the island leaving gaping cliffs and cliffs on the river side of the island.  Finally, in 1943, the island was completely flooded by rushing water and, when the flood waters receded, everything on the island was gone.  All that remained for years was a cellar and the steps of the school house.

Albert Underwood recalled in a 1997 interview that occasionally the islanders would find old Spanish coins on the island and around.  Jack Luckenbaugh, he said, found a jar of 1308 Spanish coins.  Spaniards were here in the early years and did some silver mining supposedly. 

Former Arbuckle residents and their survivors met almost every year around Decoration Day of the Island Cemetery.  The memories of the adventures of living on or near Arbuckle Island draw them home again and again.

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  1. I think there is a story that should follow this one. What happen to the people following the 1943 flood that destroyed all the homes on the Island and what became of the land that was under water. My mother, Emma Jean Hobbs was a teenager in those day and lived on the Island. She is 91 now but is still sharp. She might provide some good information concerning the years immediately following the flood. I didn’t come around until 1948 so much of the hard work and rebuilding had already occured before I was old enough to remember much. But I grew up hoeing the soybean crops on the Island.

  2. My Grandpa Douglas and my Mama were both born on the Island, along with other family members. Daddy told me stories of thing him and his buddies did as teenagers and young men. Feel like I’ve walked a million miles on it hoeing soy beans. We’d start when it was light enough to see and usually stopped around noon. One way a lot of us that grew up within walking distance of the Island made our summer spending money. Hard work but we had good times. Maybe the best part was when work was over was stopping at Doc Reed’s store for a bologna sandwich and pop before we went on home. I agree there is more to the story and should be told while we still have some of those that were there.

  3. I know all these people, my granny and grandoa Hobbs and all the Hobbs brothers, granny Thurman and her 5 girls and 1 brother Joe Thurman.. these people were pioneers.

  4. My folks, Gene & Janis DeCoster, have lived since 1976 in what is likely one of the remaining homes from that early Arbuckle era. The property abstract reads like a history novel. Their home is about a mile from where the Island Store use to be. It was built on or before 1865, originally a dog-trout style log home that’s been added on over the years. In the attic and under the home you can see the original hand-hewn wood beams. An adjacent rock building has an original hand dug well, lined with rocks. On the mountain behind their home are several old homesites and a rock lined road. We had been told there were slave graves on this farm but never found anything resembling such. My father-in-law’s, (Dale Gordon) father, who was from the Greenwood area, was hired to use his team of horses to help construct the island bridge in the 1930s, a tall metal structure that I remember as a kid but has long been replaced.

  5. My great-grandfather used to deliver mail to Arbuckle Island I’m the horse and buggy days and then by early automobile. He described in his book, “R.F.D. In Hillbilly Country,” having to have his car transported to and from the island by ferry each day, which was quite dangerous because when unloading onto the sandy ground, his vehicle would often start to sink.

  6. My mother, Josephine Douglas was born on the island in 1929. She married my dad, Paul Flippen, in 1943 when she was 14. Her Dad was Walker Douglas, Grandpa was Wilie Douglas. I am working on genealogy and if anyone has any information about Douglas’ or Hopsin (my Grandma’s maiden name) please send me info.
    Wouldn’t it be nice to have a gathering on the island of the sharecroppers who worked and lived there? [email protected]

  7. Thank you for this, my mother and her family was one of the family’s that got flooded and had to move, the ferry moved what they could get on the Ferry. Lots of family was flooded.

  8. I’m a direct decent of the Arbuckle and Carrol family. My GG Grandmother was Mary David Arbuckle Pettigrew. I’ve never visited the area but very much enjoyed reading about the history of the island.