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Prairie County — A tale of two courthouses For County Lines

Arkansas Historic Preservation Program

courthouse in Des Arc and the 1939 building in DeValls Bluff in service to the people of the county. Since 1994, Prairie County has received 11 courthouse grants – fund-


ed by proceeds of the state Real Estate Transfer Tax awarded through the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council – from the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program totaling $240,139 for the restoration and preservation of the Prairie County Court- house – Northern District. Tis partnership has made the stately building accessible to handicapped citizens, restored such key ele- ments as the clock tower and windows, and ensured that roof leaks will not endanger the people and records within. Te county has received five courthouse

grants from the Arkansas Historic Preser- vation Program totaling $46,790 for the restoration and preservation of the Prairie County Courthouse – Southern District since 1997. Tis courthouse, more utilitar- ian than its sister building in Des Arc, faced a more complex dilemma: One façade was threatening to pull away from the rest of the building. Using AHPP courthouse grant funds, county officials were able to determine the cause of the instability and to protect the structure by using tie rods to knit its historic fabric together.

Tese grants ensure that Prairie County’s two courthouses will continue to serve their constituents in the future. As we commemorate the 150th anniver-

sary of the American Civil War, it is an ap- propriate time to note how the war affected the fortunes of Prairie County’s two county seats. Prairie County was formed in 1846 from what had been parts of Pulaski, Arkansas, Monroe, St. Francis and White counties at the time of statehood and was named for the vast Grand Prairie on which it was located. Te first county seat was located at Brownsville, now in Lonoke County. Des Arc was the earliest settlement in what became Prairie County, and it was a thriving river town of around 2,000 residents when war broke out in 1861. Residents made their livings servicing the steamboats that roamed the White River and was a key location on the Butterfield Overland Mail route in the late 1850s. DeValls Bluff, on the other hand, held only a store, a house and a steamboat landing at the beginning of the war. It was also, however, the terminus of the Memphis to Little Rock Railroad, the only active Arkan- sas railroad during the Civil War. Te railroad ran from DeValls Bluff to the northern shore of the Arkansas River across from Little Rock. DeValls Bluff, then, was a key military prize when Union General

Frederick Steele’s army set up base there in August 1863 as it moved across the Grand Prairie to conquer Little Rock. Te town’s location allowed supplies to be moved up the White River in steamboats, then placed on railroad cars for transport to Little Rock.

32 Prairie Co. Courthouse, Des Arc, Ar.

wo county seats means two county courthouses, which can mean twice as many maintenance issues. In Prairie County, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program has been a steadfast partner with county government to keep the 1913

DeValls Bluff soon became a huge, fortified military installation, while

Des Arc declined rapidly, with many of its buildings burned by raiders and others torn down to provide timber for new structures being erected at the Bluff. When the war ended in 1865, Des Arc was down to some 400 residents. After the war, the Prairie County seat was moved from Brownsville

to DeValls Bluff in 1868, but in 1875 voters moved the county seat to Des Arc. Two years later DeValls Bluff became the seat of justice for the southern part of the county and Des Arc for the northern part, an acknowledgement of White River flooding that made it impossible for southern Prairie Countians to pay their taxes on time.

a new brown brick structure housed the county government until it was destroyed by fire in 1911. Te current courthouse, designed by R.


P. Morrison, was of the same style and on the same foundation as the 1904 structure. County officials moved into the building in 1913. Constructed at a cost of $27,500, Morrison’s design is very ornate in appear- ance, combining elements of Georgian Revival and Romano-Tuscan architecture. Te red brick exterior is detailed with white decorative work. A two-tiered portico with Tuscan columns is situated between project- ing wings, each capped by pedimented gables. A dormer is centered on the hipped roof just behind the portico. Capping the roof is a square tower with brick piers at each corner, and a clock located at the top of the tower with both louvered and round-headed windows.

Te interior decoration of the building is quite plain. Courtroom furnishings are simple and functional. Te building features 20-foot pressed tin ceilings throughout and a balcony toward the main street a half block away. Te courthouse sits on the banks of the White River and, although the area has been flooded on several occasions, the court- house itself has not, probably because of its construction on a high foundation formed by

rubble from the former courthouse. In 1947 a new jail building was added to the rear elevation. Te

rectangular brick building with a stair-step roof is now accessible only through the courthouse, as all the ground-floor openings have been infilled with brick. When DeValls Bluff became county seat in 1868, a wood-frame building erected in 1864-65 as quarters for Union officers served as the courthouse. When DeValls Bluff was named the southern district seat, county government at first used a rented building, but in 1910 a proper courthouse was constructed. However, by the 1930s a new building was needed. Te Works Progress Administration, a Depression-era federal relief program, approved a contract on April 18, 1939, to “construct [a] courthouse in the town of DeVall’s Bluff, Prairie County, including demolishing present building and salvaging materials for use on this project, landscaping, and performing appurtenant and incidental work.” Te resulting two-story, buff-brick courthouse is surrounded by hard-

wood trees and sits atop a mound formed by the nearby White River. Although built in 1939, the building’s official cornerstone is that of its 1910 predecessor.


es Arc has had three courthouses. Te first was built when the county seat was moved to Des Arc in 1875. Beginning in 1904,


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