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Arkansas Properties on the National Register of Historic Places: Huntsville Commercial Historic District, Huntsville, Madison County

Arkansas Historic Preservation Program - Friday, January 09, 2015

The Huntsville Commercial Historic District at Huntsville in Madison County was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 24, 2008. You can read this and other Arkansas National Register nominations by clicking here.

Summary

The Huntsville Commercial Historic District contains 49 buildings centered around a town square. The district is being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places with local significance and is eligible for nomination under Criteria A and C. The buildings in the Huntsville Commercial Historic District reflect the growth and development of a small Ozark Mountain community and represent vernacular versions of popular American commercial architecture in the first half of the twentieth century.

Elaboration

Huntsville, Arkansas, is located near the center of Madison Country, named after James Madison, fourth president of the United States. Madison County was established in 1836 with land taken from Washington County that originally contained most of the northwest corner of Arkansas. Over the next 29 years other counties were created and redefined around Madison with the last changes to its boundary made in 1885 bringing its total area to approximately 750 square miles.

Situated north of the Boston Mountains where the worn Ozark Mountains roll in gentle hillside, the Huntsville area boasts many water springs. The availability of pure spring water and abundant game first drew Native Americans to the region. Settlers coming from Tennessee and Alabama in 1827 found that once the timber was cleared, the land in the region supported all manner of farming, fruit orchards, and raising poultry and cattle.

The first transaction between the new white settlers and the Native Americans was said to have taken place under the old Council Tree, a large Burr Oak that was estimated to have been between 350 and 500 years old when it was cut down in 1950. The Indians who had lived around the natural springs for hundreds of years continued to return to camp near Huntsville as it grew.

George Woodward Sanders moved from Alabama with his second wife and children in 1836, the same year Madison County was established. South of what would become the town site he built Huntsville’s first house. He was the first of many local leaders to become state and/or national recognized. In 1838 he was elected to the first session of the Arkansas House of Representatives where he served for 28 years.

According to Goodspeed’s History of Northwest Arkansas in Madison County 1889, Evan Shelby Polk and family moved to the county in 1836. “The first court in the county was held in Evan S. Polk’s house, northwest of Huntsville about one-fourth mile.” Polk was known to have produced most of the bricks used in the early Madison County homes and businesses on his land. Polk donated the land for Huntsville’s public square.

George Sanders and his brother John pushed to have a town site laid-out. Another early settler of northwest Arkansas, Thomas McCuistian who had overseen the survey the original Madison County boundaries, was given the job. In 1837 he platted the town of Huntsville at no charge, stating that his service cost no more than the land donated by Evan Polk.

Main Street and War Eagle Street, both laid out to be forty feet wide, ran east and west on either side of the public square as they do today. Short Street (now College Street) and Harris Street defined the west and east sides of the square. Surveyor McCuistian asked to name one of the streets. Madison was his choice for the street, now more commonly know as Hwy 412. Seventy-six lots were platted around the square ranging in size from 15 square rods to 2 acres. Also designated on the plat map was a rather large Town Commons containing Huntsville’s biggest asset, the town spring.

Northwestern Arkansas, from its earliest days of European-American settlement, drew persons of strong moral and political convictions. Opposing political beliefs played an important roll in the early history of Huntsville. Around 1837 Postmaster John Buchannan changed the name of the only post office in the region from War Eagle to Sevierville in honor of Ambrose Hundley Sevier who was one of Arkansas’s first U.S. Senators. Sevier played an important role in admitting the Arkansas territory to the Union as a slave state in 1836. The leaders of Huntsville petitioned to become the county seat for Madison County in 1839 and forced the move of the post office to Huntsville. Lots in the newly formed town were sold at a public auction in May 1839.

Joel D. Blair opened the first store in Huntsville. Located on the northeast corner of the public square it soon faced the grocery store of George Sanders on the opposite corner. By 1840 John Long had built a hotel on the west side of the square, Thomas Elsey had started a blacksmith business, and H.S. Wilson had opened the second general store on the square. The 1840 census also listed a sawmill, five grist mills and two distillers.

Many of Madison County’s early settlers were well educated and brought with them strong educational values. Huntsville boasted of having one of the first schools in the area, with an enrollment of thirty students and seven teachers by 1840 according to the U.S. Census in that year. The school was located at Lowe’s Spring just northeast of town, and served the community for fifteen years.

The Huntsville Masonic Institute was chartered in December 1854 by the Arkansas General Assembly with the power to confer college degrees in the arts and sciences. Less than three weeks later, the Pleasant View Female Academy was incorporated, offering a five-month tuition of $8.00 or $10.00 for more difficult courses like ancient history, logic, philosophy, and astronomy. Isaac Murphy, who later became the eighth governor of Arkansas, was appointed as head of the Masonic Institute that was housed in a building at the corner of Main and Hughes. He and two of his daughters were asked to assist in running the Female Academy located in a new building one-fourth of a mile from Huntsville on land donated by John Sanders. Both schools were forced to close by the on-going regional conflicts of the Civil War. The Female Academy building was burned by Federal troops toward the end of the war.

After the war, Huntsville School District No.1 was created in 1868. The school struggled due to lack of funds that was fostered by the economic strain of the Civil War. In 1881 Dr. Knight, a noted physician and author of the widely respected Knight’s Medical Advisor, proposed rebuilding the destroyed Female Academy building. He and others soon sold enough subscriptions to finance construction of a two-story education building on the old grounds. This school served the area over fifty years.

Around 1890 Professor Jesse Bird opened Bird College on a hill overlooking Huntsville. It offered a sixteen-week fall term with shorter spring and winter terms for $2.00 to $4.00 per month. Professor Bird a noted educator had taught in Tennessee and Kentucky before coming to Arkansas. Bird College operated less than ten years, but left an important imprint on the families of the Huntsville area.

Huntsville Academy provided common school education from 1900 to 1928 in a two-story building on College Street with grades one through eight. Students who wanted to go on to become teachers could receive additional training. In 1927 the Arkansas General Assembly provided for the creation and maintenance of public schools for vocational education. The act required a $15,000.00 matching fund from any community considering such a school. Huntsville was one of only two towns in Arkansas with enough public commitment to raise the money and provide the land for construction of the school. The Huntsville State Vocational School was located on part of the original Polk Farm with the first building known as “Old Main” completed in 1928. The Vocational School grew, gaining respect through out the 1930s.

The continued development and support of educational institutes is an outward indication of the sense of community service felt so strongly by the founding families of Huntsville. This has produced, over the years, many teachers, educators, publishers and public servants. The most noted public servant from Huntsville is Oval E. Faubus, teacher, editor and a former publisher of the Madison County Record, and the longest serving governor of Arkansas from 1954 to 1967. Orval Faubus was not the only governor from Huntsville.

The eighth governor of Arkansas, Isaac Murphy, was also a teacher, and like Faubus, had to deal with a national polarizing events during his time in office. He was twice elected to the Arkansas General Assembly but ended his legislative career with the distinction of being the only Representative to vote against the secession of Arkansas from the United States. Later he joined the Federal Army in Missouri. During this time Federal forces rounded up ten to twelve prominent citizens of Huntsville and executed them by firing squad the next day in what became know as the Huntsville Massacre.

After the war Isaac Murphy returned to Huntsville. In 1864 he was appointed the first post-war Governor of Arkansas. One of two governors serving Arkansas at the same time. Murphy governed the northern part of the state from Little Rock and Harrison Flannigan governed the south from Old Washington.

The history of the newsprint business in Huntsville is a reflection of the importance of political expression for its residents. The first local paper appeared in the fall of 1852. Although named the Independent and highly anticipated, it garnered little acceptance from either side of the political fence and survived for only a few months.

Four years later the Mountaineer a democratic leaning newspaper, was established by J.P. Owens then moved to Springfield, Missouri the next year. On May 31, 1879 J. H. Daugherty began publishing the Madison County Record. It burned after only six months of operation but resumed publishing in February 1880.

In December 1884, J.W. Elsey took charge of the Madison County Record and changed the name to the Madison County Democrat. After a year and half, Augusta Lowe bought the newspaper and changed the name to the War Eagle Republican then moved the plant to the nearby St. Paul community.

Within three months a new journalistic effort was established in Huntsville. J.W. Baldwin called his newspaper simply the “Democrat”. May of 1886, J. T.Gage became the third publisher of the Democrat. Not to be out done by the other party, Augusta Lowe moved the War Eagle Republican back to Huntsville in1890 and changed the name to the Huntsville Republican. That same year Gage changed the name of the Democrat to the Madison County Democrat.

Both papers continued to compete for local readership until July, 1919 when Alfred Hawn
merged the Huntsville Republican and the Madison County Democrat into one newspaper. He moved the newspaper into the Hawn Building at 112 West Main Street and reclaimed a non-partisan name discarded some twenty-five years before, the Madison County Record. Later, the Madison County Record moved off the square but continued to provide quality newspaper to the citizen of Huntsville.

Although Huntsville’s community commitment was strong, it was difficult to overcome the fact that the railroad did not build near the town in the 1880’s and 1890s as rail lines were laid in the region. Railroad access was crucial to the continued development into the twentieth century. Huntsville remained a largely rural community where county government and local commerce were the largest industry and residents found it necessary to travel to other town and cities for jobs in manufacturing.

A strong sense of commitment and community shaped the town and growth of Huntsville. Above all other factors, one recurring event, fire, played the greatest influence in defining the physical and architectural appearance of Huntsville’s existing commercial and governmental district today. The intent of Huntsville’s public square was to provide land that would be used by all of the citizens. The first four Court Houses were built in the center of it. Unfortunately the arrangement of tightly packed business around a Court House square proved time and again to be devastating for Huntsville.

The first Court House built in the center of the public square in 1838, was rough hand hewed log cabin. In 1845 a two-story brick building Court House was constructed on the same site using brick made at Evan Polk’s farm. This second courthouse building was destroyed by fire during the Civil War and all of the county’s records were burned.

A third Court House was completed in 1871, erected as a frame structure on the same site as the previous two. A chemical used to clean the printing press of the Madison County Record that was located in the basement, is credited with causing the blaze in 1879 that completely destroyed the building and put the newspaper out of business for a year. That same year Huntsville’s second jail was burned by an escaping prisoner.

Again a new courthouse was built on the same site in the town square. The forth version, constructed of brick was one-story, forty feet by fifty feet. It was completed in October 1882 and served Madison County citizens until a December night in 1902. Fire erupted on the north side of the square. It quickly spread east and west destroying the Madison County Bank, two grocery stores, a doctor’s office, two drug stores, a hardware store, telephone company, a hotel, six residences, three other businesses and the fourth Madison County Courthouse.

The overriding consensus among the citizens of Huntsville was that the fifth Court House should be constructed of stone and in a different location. A lot adjoining the square on the north side was selected. The building was completed in 1905. As hoped, it did survive the next major fire in 1925.

The 1925 fire started on the morning of April 10th in the southwest corner of the public square. Fifteen building were destroyed and the Madison County Record and the telephone company were temporarily out of business for some time.

The fifth Court House continued in use until 1939 when it was replaced by the construction of a new building at 201 W. Main Street. This courthouse, the sixth built in Huntsville, is the first to not be constructed on or facing the town square. The Art Deco style building continues to serve as the Madison County Courthouse.

The 1925 fire gave Huntsville a chance to enlarge the town square. Through a series of land swaps the town acquired the lots on the west side of the square. With this addition, the Huntsville Public Square became long rectangular space. A spurt of growth and rebuilding after the 1925 fire was immediate.

In 1940 fire again damaged businesses on the square including the movie theater. The theater was reconstructed and opened less than a year after the fire. The southeast section of the square burned in 1946, again in 1961 and yet again in 1975. The north side of the square burned in 1995 and the most recent fire was on the southwest corner in 1999.

Governor Orval Faubus returned to his hometown in the late 1960’s. He contracted renowned Fayetteville architect Fay Jones to design his retirement home built on the eastern hill (now known as Governor’s Hill) overlooking downtown Huntsville. Fay Jones was then commissioned to design the last major addition to the fabric of downtown Huntsville, the Madison County Record Building.
Significance

The Huntsville Commercial Historic District is being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A and Criterion C with local significance. The Huntsville Commercial Historic District is in the center of the original 1839 plat of the town. Huntsville has served as the county seat of Madison County since 1839. The buildings located in the district are significant because they are the best extant representation of Huntsville’s commercial and political history and architectural heritage. The uniqueness of the buildings in the Huntsville Commercial Historic District lies in their use of local sandstone in varying hues of brown, in natural form or cut.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Currie, Barton W. “There Ain’t No Such Town”, originally published December 14, 1914, reprinted in Madison County Musings, Volume XIII, No.2, Summer, 1994.

Early Huntsville History and Cemetery Enumeration. Published by the Madison County Genealogical and Historical Society, Huntsville, 2000, Revised July 2006.

“Fire Fiend Again Ravages Huntsville Business Section”, Madison County Record, January 11, 1940, Madison County Musings, Fall, 1999.

Goodspeed History. Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Western Arkansas. Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1889.

“Huntsville (Madison County)”, http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net

“Madison County, Arkansas”, http://www.myarkansasgenealogy.com/ar_county

Madison County Record, articles on the following dates: 8 April 1926,

Miscellaneous Records and Photographs, from the files of Madison County, AR Genealogical and Historical Society, Huntsville, Arkansas.

Stotts, James R. “A Sketch of Huntsville and the Huntsvilleites in 1897”, Madison County Musings, Volume IX, No.2, Summer 1989.



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