History and outdoor fun flow freely in Pocahontas.
By Joan Elliott
Like a desert oasis, the quaint Victorian town of Pocahontas, Ark., springs to life just off a lonely stretch of U.S. Highway 67, about 20 miles south of the Missouri border. The Randolph County seat, Pocahontas is located on a bluff above the Black River. This historical town gives visitors year-round opportunities to experience its heritage, and in summer, provides countless options for recreation on the county’s five rivers.
Above: The 1872 courthouse is the centerpiece of the National Historic Commercial District in Pocahontas.
Below: Michele Thielemier treats her son Caden, 5, to an ice cream float after school. The soda fountain is located in Futrell’s Pharmacy, a site that has housed a pharmacy since 1852. Joan Elliott photo
Turn off Highway 67 and onto Broadway with its charming 17-block National Historic Commercial District. The centerpiece is the Old Randolph County Courthouse that dates to 1872. Considered “Victorian Italianate,” it boasts cupolas, tall windows, and high ceilings. The style is repeated in many of the town’s other 19th- and 20th-century buildings that are within an easy walk of one another.
Stroll down the street and see how the architecture dramatically changes with the Art Deco-style Randolph County Courthouse, built in 1940, that dominates Veteran’s Square.
Cross the highway and you’re at Black River Overlook Park where a statue of Pocahontas greets visitors. Historical markers relay the story of Randolph County’s involvement in the Civil War, while farther down the River Walk Memorial Trail, the Century Wall features images of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century.
This Mississippi delta area, circa 1800, was named Bettis Bluff after Ransom Bettis, who discovered this spot while seeking a crossing on the Black River for his ferry business. At that time, Quapaw and Osage Indians traded furs and other goods with settlers at Bettis’ trading post, while steamboats carried cotton and agricultural products down river.
When Randolph County was created in 1835, the little port town became the county seat and was renamed Pocahontas. Local historians say the Indian maiden was never in Arkansas, but her name attracted settlers.
The Civil War took a huge toll on Pocahontas; 40,000 Confederates were headquartered here. In 1863, Union soldiers burned most of the downtown area. Unwilling to admit defeat, determined townspeople rebuilt the square with many of the buildings that remain today.
Check out the Randolph County Heritage Museum on the square at 106 E. Everett St. Exhibits display Native American artifacts, a doctor’s office, and–most incredibly–the entire Crosby Button Factory that was transported from the riverfront. Factory workers cut small circles called “blanks” from mussel shells that were sent to New York City to be made into mother-of-pearl buttons and earrings.
African American history and culture are interpreted at the Eddie Mae Herron Center at 1708 Archer St. Formerly St. Mary’s AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church and school for the town’s black children in the early 1900s, the one-room frame building features displays, books, and other memorabilia. Visitors learn about Herron, who taught the children from 1948–65 when school integration began. Watch weekly hand-quilting demonstrations. View a “freedom quilt” that hangs proudly on one wall. The quilt is a composite of 16 patterns that were known to slaves. Although some historians dispute the story, others believe the quilts were hung on clotheslines to direct slaves to safe houses and freedom. The quilt trail also is commemorated in 62 images of heritage quilts displayed on the sides of downtown buildings.
The musical heritage in Pocahontas is remembered along a stretch of Highway 67. This section from Newport to Pocahontas in 2009 was designated the Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway. Several markers commemorate the sites where early rock legends, such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison performed after recording in Memphis.
The fourth annual Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway 67 Music Festival will be Sept. 7 and 8 in downtown Pocahontas. Bands will perform music from the 1950s and 1960s, while games, crafts, contests, and food round out the fun.
Other traces of Pocahontas history can be found in the Futrell Pharmacy, dating back to 1852, with an old-fashioned soda fountain; the Sanitary Barbershop, which has been open since 1894; the Rice-Upshaw House (1828); and the Looney Tavern (1833).
A collection of shops, restaurants, and accommodations are worthy of note. James Tinker and his wife, Mandi–who had studied jewelry making in Florence, Italy–operate Black River Beads and Pottery at 213 E. Broadway. They also sell gift items made by other local artisans.
Sue Rey and her sister, Linda Bellemare, manage Small Farm Fibers woolen mill and yarn shop. The family raises sheep, goats, and llamas. The natural fibers are processed in the facility on West Everett Street into luxurious yarns and hand-made wool fashions.
To accommodate more visitors in 19th-century ambiance, Bill and Patrick Carroll, whose family dates to 1803 in Pocahontas, are currently renovating buildings in Old Court Square. Lesmeister Guest House (1895) is scheduled to open this fall, while the St. Charles Bed & Breakfast (1860) will open in 2013.
Upcoming events in the county include the 88th annual Randolph County Fair and Livestock Show, Aug. 28–Sept. 1; and the annual Maynard Pioneer Days, located at Pioneer Park, Sept. 12–15.
Cool off this summer in one of the county’s five rivers. Outfitters such as Shady River Resort, Buck Hollow Ranch, and Current River Beach Resort can get you on the water and provide camping or cabin accommodations. The Days Inn and Suites on Highway 67 South (AAA Two Diamonds) also is available for overnight accommodations. Several fast food chain restaurants, as well as barbecue and buffet spots, are in town.
Gaze skyward, especially near the rivers, and you’ll discover that Pocahontas offers excellent birding opportunities, given that it is located where the great Mississippi Flyway bird migration route narrows.
But whether you’re looking up, down, forward or back, you’ll find something to enjoy at the foothills of the Ozarks in Pocahontas.
Joan Elliott is a contributor from Lake Sherwood, Mo.