HIWASSE -- The quarterly meeting of the Benton County Historical Society was held Sunday afternoon, March 12, at the Hiwasse Mercantile. Leah Whitehead, of Bella Vista, president of the society, welcomed members and guests and introduced Chris and Amanda (Fletcher) Flynt, owners of the recently renovated mercantile building.
The Flynts opened the Hiwasse Mercantile store in the fall of 2022 but Sunday was the opening day of the adjacent meeting room.
Whitehead praised the Flynts for the excellent job they did in restoring the historical building and said it was a "perfect example" of restoring a building and reusing it for a useful purpose. Amanda Flynt spoke briefly and noted that it was sad seeing the building falling down and she is thankful that she and her husband have been able to preserve "a lot of rich Hiwasse history" there.
Flynt gave a brief biography of Virgil Banks, who owned and operated Hiwasse Produce and Grocery in the building and was also the depot agent at Hiwasse. She said she and Chris have plans for further improvements to the property, including landscaping and installation of additional parking on the north side of the building.
Benton County native Larry Horton was the speaker for the society meeting and related an interesting history of Hiwasse. Horton, an author, realtor and EMT, said he had deep roots in Hiwasse but left the area at an early age when his parents divorced. He gave a brief geological description of the area and read a short early history of the town. He said the hills were surrounded by beautiful prairies and noted that some early settlers were not always the most desirable, as many criminals from neighboring states came to the area to take advantage of the more tolerant residents.
Many area buildings were burned during the Civil War, Horton said, and roads everywhere were terrible. Only after Reconstruction, between 1865 and 1890, were many small towns in the area developed. Land grants were awarded and many came to the area, including Horton's ancestors who homesteaded on what is now Highway 279. Tobacco was an early cash crop in the area. Many people came because there was an abundance of good timber in the area for building.
A railroad was first proposed about 1853, but not until the Frisco railroad developed from Rogers in 1881 did the area finally open up. The town was first called Dickson, after Joseph Daniel Dickson, and was first located east of the present town. Dickson, three miles north of Spavinaw, was established on August 7, 1871, and the name was changed to Hiwasse in 1899. Some residents wanted to call the town Big Spring but there was already a Big Spring in the state so they were unable to use that name.
The railroad finally came to Hiwasse in 1898. Horton said there was a fight between Kansas City and Saint Louis as to which would put in the first rail line in the area. The area was known for its abundant fruit crops and by 1906 Benton County was shipping the largest numbers of apples in the country. It was also the headquarters for excellent Elberta peaches. Horton told about the Keith family, who grew many apple trees. The Keith farm consisted of 300 acres, 270 of which were planted in fruit trees. The apple business "went bust" by 1930 after aging orchards were damaged by insects, blight and other diseases.
Horton gave an early description of the area, when Hiwasse consisted of four stores, including the Hiwasse Mercantile, and had a doctor, Dr. Horton, whose brother was also a doctor in nearby Pineville, Missouri. He told about an attempted bank robbery on Dec. 1, 1911, when robbers blew up the entire bank building without being able to get into the vault. The business district burned down in 1913.
He noted that the area produced some of the finest baseball players, including Bob Holloway and Gene Stephens, a Red Sox star player who long held the major league record for making three hits in one inning. Horton related how Holloway was involved in some area robberies and in moonshining and was arrested, although family members insisted he was innocent and was only covering for someone else. He was imprisoned for about a year until he was pardoned by the governor.
"He was a better baseball player than he was a criminal," Horton said.
Life in Hiwasse has always been laid back, Horton said, and he read a recent article he had written about his early memories attending the Hiwasse Christian Church, which is still much the same today. At that early date there were more churches than businesses in the area, Horton said, and the church was a favorite meeting place for neighbors and friends. There was no baptismal at the church, Horton added, and baptisms were held in Spavinaw Creek, so he suggested getting baptized in the summertime "or a person was going to have a pretty cold road to salvation."
Hiwasse was filled with people we knew, Horton added, and times were good and bad. "People did whatever they had to do to survive," he said. As the area continues to grow, residents don't know people like they used to and times are rapidly changing.
"We'll probably never again see the days of a railroad coming through town carrying loads of fruit for the national market, but sometimes lifetimes of memories are enough to keep a town alive," he concluded.
Refreshments were served after the meeting.