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Arkansas Ties ... A Little Bit of This, a Little Bit of That, and a Whole Lot of Arkansas

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The Town That Disappeared
By Charles T. Davis

   On the Pope county bank of the Arkansas, a little north of and diagonally across the river from Dardanelle Rock on the Yell county side, stands a little, weather-warped, time-shaken log house but of a single room and a native stone chimney out of all proportion to its size. This little cabin is all that remains of Norristown, one time the most important town between Fort Smith and Little Rock on the north side of the river, and a town which, if tradition maybe believed, at one time lacked but two votes of becoming the capital of the state of Arkansas. Now the town is gone; utterly abandoned, existing only in the memory of the older residents of the vicinity. Part of its site has long since caved into the river, part has been cultivated over for these many years, and of its system of streets and roads, nothing remains but a shadow of the old post road along which the splendid relay teams once plunged with the mails from the East to the West - now but a little, weed grown country lane maintained simply to give a few
farmers entrance to their fields. Old Norristown is dead, a lost town, and it is perhaps fitting that the log cabin itself has a history of greatness. One time it was a commodious two-story tavern known widely throughout the state. It was there that the creaking stage coaches drew up from the South and East, and the long wagon trains bringing in and taking out the merchandise of a principality made their halts.

   Norristown was never incorporated, and it is now impossible to fix definitely its date of origin. Probably the first settler was Samuel Norris, who came from New Jersey in the early 30's, and whose name the town bears. in 1834 it was the county seat of Pope county when the county's domain included all of the present Yell county and far back toward the East. In 1842 Yell county was formed across the river and the county seat of Pope moved to Dover. The wane of the town began with the removal of the county administration site, and when the Little Rock and Fort Smith road came through Russellville in 1873, to the great aggrandizement of Russellville, the present county seat, the future of Norristown ended and its past began.

   Yet in its day it was a fine old town; never a large town by present standards, but some 300 or 400 people lived in the community in its heyday and this constituted no inconsiderable population for the period. The old town's great strength was in its geographical location with reference to trade. There was Lewisburg south and east of it on the Arkansas River in Conway county, Spadra north and west in Johnson county, and Dardanelle across the river. The
river checked considerable traffic to the east, and Dardanelle was the market place of the transriver country.  But the whole, wide fan-shaped area between Spadra and Lewisburg, clear back to the Boston range in Searcy county paid tribute to the merchants of Norristown. Now of the four, Dardanelle alone remains as a town whose present can compare with its past.

   The town seems to have been laid out in the form of a capital T. Its streets were unnamed, but are rather loosely referred to by the older residents of the community round about as "River street", and "Main street." River street, naturally, lay along the river. At about the center of the town it was joined at right angles by Main street, which was the thoroughfare to the whole back country, and a part of the post road from Little Rock to Fort Smith. It is this street whose ghost still is unlaid on the forgotten town site, now the little rutted country lane which gives easement to the county road leading into Russellville. There may have been other streets, but
they have been forgotten long since. The Arkansas river long ago claimed the street which bore its name, and any others, which may have existed have been plowed over for years. At the head of the pontoon bridge which crosses the river at Dardanelle, and at the terminal of the Dardanelle and Russellville short line railroad, until only a few years ago there existed several of the commodious "saddle-bag" type of log dwelling houses - two rooms, or maybe more counting the lean-tos, with an open hallway or "gallery" between them. This group usually was referred to as "Old Noristown" by the younger generations, but as a matter of fact it was about a mile southwest of the real town site. One of the buildings, however, the largest one, which was destroyed by fire less than 10 years ago, was contemporary with the town and had been the home of one John Truitt, who had a store in Norristown. Nothing now remains of the older buildings, but the railroad sheds and warehouse and the bridge building are now called North
Dardanelle.

   Who would search through the traditions and word-of-mouth history of old Norristown for wild and adventurous passages of the Southwest of the early day, would meet with disappointment. Norristown was not wild nor adventurous, nor were its inhabitants. As a rule they were the best of the pioneers, stalwart and self-reliant - men who brought the law with them from the older civilization of the East. The Rev. Cephas Washburn, who was the
first station missionary at old Dwight Indian Mission on the Illinois bayou near old Norristown, was a man of great intellectual attainment and his son, Edward Payson Washburn, was not only an artist but a classic scholar. Then there were the Wilsons and the Howells and Fergusons and Truitts; Dr. David Brearley, the Indian agent; Dr. Thomas Russell and the Perrys and Tobeys. Most of these family names still exist among the leading citizens of the vicinity. Dr. Russell did not live at Norristown proper. He came to the West with an immigration train of restless young adventurers, all well found in equipment and supplies, and settled and established a community which grew into what is now Russellville, the county seat of Pope county. That was in 1835, and Norristown was then an established settlement, according to an old report. Capt. "Jimmie" Russell, a veteran of the Confederacy and a son of the founder of the town where he now lives, says that the school master in the vicinity - there seems to have been only one school master and he served Norristown as well - was a cultured young English-man who left a classic
imprint on the minds of the youth of the period.

   There was drinking in the old town - much of it, since not only tavern but store, or any other trading place, as a general rule, had a keg or so on tap - but there was little violence or bloodletting. The early settlers were not explorers but home-builders. They brought their families with them, and guarded as jealously as they might their environment. But there is some historic case, perhaps, in every town, and any of the older ones who can remember
that far back will tell of the death of Nixon Curry, alias John Hill, in 1841. This Curry, according to W.F. Pope in his "Early Days in Arkansas," was a notorious and notable character. He was a refugee from justice from North Carolina, where a price of $5,000 had been put on his head. Pope says that he was charged with the crime of negro stealing and sentenced to a term in the penitentiary. He escaped before he could be jailed, however, and the pursuit resulted in the death of some of the sheriff's posse. He reached Arkansas in 1822 or 1823, and was married in Pope county. Some time afterward he moved to St. Francis county, and in the sessions of 1833 and 1835 he represented that county in the lower house of the legislature. Some time in 1836 he was recognized by a party of movers emigrating from North Carolina, which resulted in an issue of a warrant for his arrest by Governor Fulton,
and Curry was taken into custody by the sheriff of St. Francis county to be held for North Carolina officials. His popularity was such, however, that his friends staged a jail-delivery, and he escaped, although while fleeing through the Cache river bottoms before the officers, he was severely wounded in the shoulder. He made his way back to Pope county, was again arrested and was again taken from the officers by his friends and freed. His good behavior and the long time that had elapsed since the commission of his crimes in North Carolina resulted in the
indifference on the part of authority in both states, and he was never subsequently molested, living in peace in Pope county until the day of his death. Of this death Pope gives a very meager account.

   "He now became a very hard drinker and quarrelsome," says Pope: page 210, "Early Days in Arkansas." In 1841, in the spring I think, he was killed with his own knife, at Norristown, by Vincent L. Hutton, with whom he became involved in a quarrel."

   Tradition handed down from the old residents of the community colors this tragedy with a high degree of romantic interest. Dr. Russell's version of it, which has been told and retold through the country, is especially interesting.

   It seems that after Curry's second arrest and second delivery by his friends he established a residence somewhere north and west of Dardanelle, which then was in Pope county. Despite Pope's statement to the effect, that he was not thereafter molested, he seemed to consider himself an outlaw. The price on his head held good. Back of the genial, vigorous personality which twice placed him in office and twice freed him from the clutches of law, was suspicion and watchfulness. He went armed, and he extended no hospitalities to strangers. Young Hutton was in his employ about the farm, himself a young, stalwart, upstanding young man. He was to marry a daughter of Curry's - or of Hill's, for the fugitive maintained his alias to the last. One day, that spring day in 1841, the two left for Norristown to purchase a stock of farm supplies.

   Mrs. Curry, always uneasy for the welfare of her husband, gave young Hutton a final charge.

   "Don't let anybody hurt him," she said.

   "If anybody gets him," Hutton replied, "It will be me. You can be perfectly easy about him."

   There was a crowd in the tavern when they reached Norristown, and the customary good-natured banter was in progress. The two joined in. Curry to demonstrate the weight of his fist and his partner's resisting power, began to pound the young man over the lungs. Hutton swelled out his massive chest and bore the sledge hammer blows right manfully until the sport began to pall on him and he called a halt. Curry responded with a blow which felled
Hutton. From the floor Hutton reached out, grasped Curry by the ankles and overturned him. The two grappled on the floor with Hutton on top. Perhaps Curry had been fired by the raw liquor of the day. Perhaps they both had, for as Hutton held his adversary down he saw him reaching for his bowie knife. Curry wore the knife in a leather sheath on his belt, and the knife had slipped down into the sheath so far that it could not be grasped by the handle. He was trying to work it up from the end of the sheath when Hutton first noticed it. Maintaining his grip
on Curry, Hutton watched the knife until the hilt appeared above the sheath and then he grasped it and stabbed Curry to the heart. And so ended Nixon Curry, alias John Hill.

   There is a sequel, however. Hutton fled to Texas. Curry left a son, a slender, silent stripling who apparently when his ways unchanged until the day he was 16 years old. Then he took down his father's long rifle and kissed his mother good-bye. The mother knew her son, and knew that the blood of his father had been calling for vengeance. She made no remonstrance, knowing its futility.

   A year later the boy came back, gaunt, hard and silent. The mother asked with her eyes the unspoken question. The boy nodded his head and hung the rifle again on the old accustomed pegs. There was a fresh notch on the stock.

   One of the most notable of the early residents of Norristown was Judge Andrew Scott, in 1820 a judge of the Superior Court, and later a judge of the circuit embracing Pope county. Judge Scott's establishment was at old Scotia, a plantation settlement near Dover, but he held court at Norristown. Judge Scott was, according to Pope, "the most chivalrous and the purest-minded man I ever knew." During his tenure as judge of the Superior Court of the territory he challenged, shot and killed on the field of honor, a fellow member of the bench because his
opponent questioned the accuracy of a lady's statement in a game of whist. This was at Arkansas Post, then the territorial seat of government, and occurred soon after Judge Scott went on the bench. With Judge Joseph Selden, a former army officer of Virginia, and also a member of the Superior Court bench, and two ladies, Judge Scott one night engaged in a social game of cards. According to Pope, in the course of the game Judge Scott's partner said,
"Judge Selden, we have the tricks and honors on you."

   "Madam, that is not so," Judge Selden responded brusquely.

   Judge Scott demanded an instant apology, and upon Judge Selden's declination, Judge Scott seized a candle stick from the table and hurled it at him. Although Judge Selden was the injured person, Judge Scott was the challenger. Judge Selden, Pope says, sent an apology a few days later, but the intermeddling of friends prevented the closing of the breach. The meeting was on Mississippi soil, opposite Montgomery's Poine, at the mouth of White river. Judge Selden's second was Robert C. Oden, and Judge Scott's Dr. Nimrod Menifee, who acted also as surgeon. Pistols were used at 10 paces and Judge Selden died at the first fire.

   Old Mrs. Norris, widow of the founder of Norristown, died only about 25 years ago. She lived in the vicinity of the old town long after its glory had departed, and, until almost the day of her death, after rounding out more than a century, she was a strong, forceful character, both mentally and physically. The Dardanelle-Russellville short line was built during the latter years of her life, and was operated with all the primitive adjuncts of the trains of the day. The first locomotives were wood burners, and although the train had no scheduled stops between
Russellville and North Dardanelle, some four miles distant, actually it operated only from wood-pile to wood-pile with several leisurely stops for "coaling."

   Pete Rice, who later became one of the best known locomotive engineers of the Missouri Pacific, was the first engineer of the old "dinky" line. One day as Pete was puffing out of the North Dardanelle station with much pomp and circumstance he saw Mrs. Norris, then past 70 years, a little distance down the right of way. Railroads were run on a neighborly plan in those days before schedules and such, and Pete drew up and brought his train to a stop.

   "Get aboard, Mrs. Norris," he called, "and we'll ride you home."

   Mrs. Norris cast a reflective eye upon the little engine and replied:

   "No, thank you, Pete. It's just two or three miles and I'm in a kind of a hurry."

   While Norristown was one of the most important points on the post road between Little Rock and Fort Smith, Dardanelle, just across the river, was the "change" station. The mail or the "post" was carried overland in stage coaches, drawn by four horses, and as near as can now be gathered there were four relays. Out of Little Rock teams were changed at what is now Gleason in Faulkner county, at Lewisburg in Conway county, at Dardanelle in what is now Yell county, at what is now Paris, or thereabout, in Logan county, and so into Fort Smith. At Norristown the staged crossed the river on Tate's ferry. The stage coach was a cumbersome affair slung without springs on leather straps from arches up-ending from the axles. The bump of the road was relieved only by the forward and back swaying of the body suspended from the straps, and the mail and baggage were carried in the "boot," a small
platform swung at the rear. The horses were magnificent animals, the best obtainable and the drivers were widely known over their "runs." Although there was adequate ferriage across the river at Norristown for lighter traffic, such as the stage coaches and private conveyances, the overland freight traffic, the long ox-teams bringing in their "barter" of cotton and hides and taking out merchandise, usually stopped at the river.

   However, Norristown's great artery of traffic, like that of all other river towns of the period, was the river itself. There are still men who can remember in this day when steamboating has vanished from the Arkansas, the great argosies which made landing at Norristown - sometimes as many as four of them in sight at the same time - upbound from New Orleans to Fort Smith and intervening points with sugar, salt, hardware and dry goods, and downbound with cotton. These older steamboats were floating palaces, many of them, and of tremendous cargo
capacity. The old Importer, out of Fort Smith to New Orleans, loaded, one time, the last bale of cotton of a cargo of 5,000 bales at Dardanelle. She was "loaded to the guards" before the last bale was heaved aboard by the "roustabouts," and the only place they could find to place it was squarely atop the pilot house.

   Norristown was no outpost of river traffic. Well before its founding the steam boats were plying the river beyond its site. The Arkansas Gazette of March 22, 1822, in commenting on the old Eagle, out of New Orleans for Dwight Mission, mentions that "this is the first steamboat that ever ascended to this place." The Eagle on this trip turned back within 12 miles of the Mission on account of low water.

   Capt. Bob Wilson of Russellville is now the only living man who was in business in Norristown, and although the town was then past its prime, the "merchandising" policies were little changed. Like all pioneer settlements of the Southwest, those from which Norristown drew its trade were self sustaining. In a pinch they could both cloth and feed themselves with the elemental necessities. They could have existed without recourse to the stores, but
they needed the market for their surplus products, and they required such refinements and luxuries as they could procure in exchange. So the stores took their cotton and in turn sold them prints and cloths of finer fabrics, sugar and spices, manufactured articles, and above all, salt. Sale was the one essential with no substitute, and salt frequently played a part in the country stores which other foodstuffs have played in the bourses and exchanges
of the world's metropolises. Salt came up the river from New Orleans or Memphis. It was used, of course, as a seasoning for food, and also to cure valuable hides and the winter's supply of meat. It was essentially a matter for steamboat transportation because of its weight and bulk. So when the river fell, and transportation by water stopped because of a lack of water, its importation generally was cut off. It was then that the merchants in the isolated places began "merchandizing," which in the interpretation of the Southwest means being a merchant from all possible angles. Captain Wilson says that when Norristown merchants received advance notice that the river was falling, they immediately began sending out salt buyers. Sometimes an unwary merchant who had not gotten the latest river intelligence sold out his entire stock of salt with no chance of getting more until the river rose. Salt trains even went to the White river towns, De Valls Bluff and Des Arc, among them, and famine and high prices
reigned until transportation resumed on rising water.

   The commercial significance of the old town which now lives but in the history was unquestioned. But for the railroads, which brought ruin so utter and so rapid to many of the river towns, it might be a flourishing city. Its political significance, however, is in doubt. There is no resident of Pope or Yell county who has not been brought up in the faith that at one time Norristown lacked but two votes of becoming the capital of the state. Unfortunately, however, the details were not recorded. The proceedings of the territorial legislature published in the Arkansas Gazette, which served in those days as a legislative journal, contain no account of Norristown's claim. If the town was ever proposed before the formal law-making body, or the proposal ever came to a formal vote, no record of the fact was made. The size of the town cannot be argued against it as a contender for the state capital. If Norristown's population was only some 300 or 400 people, that of Little Rock itself, according to an official census of 1833, was only 537. The matter may have been proposed and tabled, or actually voted upon.
This, however, is speculation. No written history of the matter seems to exist with the single exception of  Shinn's History of the state. Josiah Shinn in a brief reference to the tow states that at one time it came within two votes of being chosen for the capita, but, although a careful and exhaustive historian, he does not quote authority for his statement or give any further details. He, himself, was a longtime resident of Pope county, and it may be that he has published the widespread belief of the community, which although universal in its acceptance, brings no written proof to its establishment as a fact. W.B. Lemoyne of Dardanelle, who has lived many years in Pope and Yell counties and who knew Mrs. Norris well during the later years of her life, says that she is his authority for the matter; that she told him as positive fact many years ago that Little Rock had won the honor from Norristown by only two vote.

   And such is old Norristown, the most utterly lost of Arkansas' lost towns; its sons and daughters lying in widely scattered graves; is prominence long ago forgotten; the very river whose name one time it glorified eating slowly year by year further into its dead heart. And to its memory two things stand - this paper written for the centennial edition of the Arkansas Gazette, and a little battered log-cabin, one time a famous tavern.

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