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Friday, May 27, 2022

The History of Branch Arkansas

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Raymond Chastain isn’t with us any longer, but his legacy as a member of a pioneer family is still told through his widow, Billie Jean Phillips Chastain.  Billie still lives in their home in Bloomer, Arkansas. She is surrounded by memories and mementos of their lives together in small boxes, old luggage, and scrapbooks.  She has kept her husband’s recollections alive in those treasured items.

In 1968, Raymond’s great uncle was visiting about how his mother and Raymond’s great-great-grandfather, Richard Turner, was one of the military men who traveled with a detachment of the U. S. Army that relocated the Cherokee Indians to new lands west from Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina.  This was 181 years ago at the time of today’s writing. Turner settled at the frontier army post at Fort Gibson, often traveling from Fort Gipson through Fort Smith and to Dardanelle along the Military Road.

The late Mr. J. B. Turner of Branch recalled that his own great-grandfather moved along the old Military Road, settling in the present-day South Franklin County area. His father, also named Richard Turner, was born about three miles southwest of the present-day Branch community. J. B. Turner remembered the stories that were passed down across the generations.  He himself knew the route between Fort Gibson to Dardanelle just about as much as his ancestor did.

J. B. recalled how his distant grandfather helped with the Indian removal in the 1830s. The old Military Road east of Fort Smith followed the route of present-day Highway 22 as far as Central City, Turner accurately recalled.  The route turned on Highway 255 on the left at Central across a creek (Vache Grass) and on through present Lavaca, which was at one time known as Oak Bower.

Turner continued in the notes, “The old routE went about a half-mile north of the community of Ursula then on through Grand Prairie and past the Hampton Cemetery, then south to the top of the ridge at Old Donald about a half-mile northeast of Branch.”  The Old Donald community is reported as one of the first communities in that section of Franklin County and there is no sign of it today.  It was here where the Dardanelle-Fort Smith Stage Road came across the ridge, but instead of following the Military Road northward, it continued westward, running through the old wagon campground at Spring Hill, now Barling,” Turner noted.

Arkansas state roads sometimes followed the old Military Road that was established long before Arkansas even was a state.  Some portions of the Military Road follow old Indian trails.

In Turner’s noted recollections, he wrote how there was once a big open spring on the hill where the Barling Post Office sits. (Hence the title of Spring Hill.) Weary travelers stopped and camped overnight here, especially those whose journey led from present-day Branch on the way to Fort Smith and beyond.  That distance was about a full day on horseback or wagon.

J. B. Turner’s memories record that there was three main founders of the town of Branch: William Bradbury, Richard Turner, and J. D. Branch.

When the post office came, it was named in honor of John D. Branch, an uncle to the Turners. The community almost was called Turnersville, in honor of Richard Turner, but unfortunately, there was already a Turnersville in Craighead County.  The honor then turned to J. D. Branch. It was Branch who had built one of the first cotton gins and grist mills.  J. B. Turner wrote that more than 900 people lived in Branch (although the census doesn’t confirm that). Strip mining for coal at Grand Prairie was strong and workers walked the five miles northwest to their work or rode horses.

`There used to be an old log cabin on Highway 22/Military Road that still stood between Charleston and Dardanelle that was a major stop for fresh horses and for feeding travelers and providing shelter for the night.

The Arkansas Central Railroad built through Branch, as well as Lavaca, in 1898.  There was two daily passenger runs through Branch and to Fort Smith and back.  A Branch railroad connecting to the mainline was built in 1919.  Headquarters were built near where the old high school sat.  (The building sits abandoned in Turner’s 1968 interview.  This school, built in 1914, was consolidated and students moved to a different district.)

Passenger service slowly stopped soon after Highway 22 was paved in the 1930s. The coal slowed considerably as well and people used those paved roads to move to jobs in other locations.  The population in 2010 was 341 persons.  Few buildings remain from the better days but the population has remained relatively constant.

Every town has a story. How great it is that the family of Raymond Chastain took the time to record this history or it may have been lost to the ages.

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