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State park tells tale of Powhatan's heyday, decline

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Photographs by Special to the Democrat-Gazette/MARCIA SCHNEDLER

The limestone jail built in the 1870s is part of Powhatan Historic State Park.

POWHATAN -- All six dozen of today's Powhatan residents could fit with space to spare in the beautifully restored second-floor courtroom of the former Lawrence County Courthouse overlooking this tiny northeast Arkansas community.

About half of them could also fit -- though likely with a lot less comfort -- inside the sturdy jail of local limestone down the hill. The jail, like the courthouse, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its significance in evoking the past. Along with three other restored 19th-century buildings, they give Powhatan Historic State Park visitors a palpable sense of life along the Black River during the steamboat era before and after the Civil War.

Powhatan's path of slow but steady decline since that heyday is common enough among the Natural State's river towns. The circumstances are summed up in the park's information brochure:

"Key factors leading to Powhatan's transformation from thriving prosperity to quiet existence include changes in transportation, the impact of two world wars and the Great Depression. The last ferry shut down in the 1950s, the suspension bridge closed in 1951, the school consolidated in 1956, and the county seat moved in 1966" [to Walnut Ridge].

In 1888, when the cornerstone was laid for the historic-register courthouse, Powhatan's population was nearly 1,000. Chosen as the Lawrence County seat in 1869, the town had recovered from the depredations of Civil War banditry to become a transport and commerce hub in the waning years of river traffic's dominance. Local industries included farming, lumbering, zinc mining and the making of pearl buttons.

The courthouse, site of the park's visitor center and museum, cost precisely $16,723.38. It replaced a previous courthouse destroyed by fire, with some of the bricks from the lost building salvaged for use in the new one. Enhancing the structure's stately appearance is yellow-cypress exterior trim, along with a hand-carved wooden interior.

First-floor eye catchers include a sign that suggests graffiti was a problem then as now. It reads: "Warning -- defacing the walls is forbidden under penalty of fine: $5."

There's also a snakelike device explained by an information panel: "During the second half of the 19th century, speaking tubes were commonly installed in the walls of mansions, public buildings, ships and other structures to enable people in different rooms to speak to each other."

Upstairs, the 12 jurors' chairs in the restored courtroom look comfortable enough to encourage dozing during tedious testimony. Hanging from the embossed tin ceiling are stylish chandeliers.

The old jail is described in the park brochure as "a rare example of a stone military blockhouse." In the 1920s when, due to unspecified conditions, it "degenerated and security problems climaxed, the jail was abandoned. The structure has since been used as a movie theater, a canning kitchen, a honey processing plant and an auto repair garage."

A guided tour, which requires a small fee, takes in the courthouse and jail plus the park's other three vintage buildings.

One is the Ficklin-Imboden House, dating to the 1840s and described in the brochure as "the earliest example of residential architecture in Lawrence County. The log house blends Tidewater South and Midland building styles. The log cabin and its period furnishings provide a look into an earlier time."

The Commercial Building across Second Street from the house sits at the onetime heart of Powhatan's business district. The only remaining commercial structure on the original town site, it housed at various times a telephone switchboard, a wagon factory, a drug store, a general store, a lawyer's office, a post office and a private residence.

On the other side of town, Powhatan Male and Female Academy is outfitted with some of its original furniture from 1889. Restored in 2001, the building is occasionally the venue for "A School Day of 1900," a portrayal of a typical classroom day as Powhatan's years of prosperity were going into decline.

Powhatan Historic State Park is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free to the exhibits inside the former Lawrence County Courthouse. Guided tours of the park site cost $5 per adult, $3 per child ages 6-12, $15 per family.

For more information, visit historystateparks.com or call (870) 878-6765.

Style on 10/03/2017

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