One often notices only the many closed stores in downtown Pine Bluff without a thought of the thousands of people over the decades who crowded the elaborate stores decorated by proud owners.
History lovers were recently treated with a “Walks through History” tour of the Pine Bluff Commercial Historic District, which has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2008. Rachel Silva, outreach coordinator with Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, thanked the crowd of about 30 for coming.
She also thanked the co-sponsors of the event, the Pine Bluff Historic District Commission and the Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Historical Museum.
The Arkansas temperature was warm as the tour began at the Jefferson County Courthouse.
Silva told of the many remodeling projects since the first structure was started in 1839, just three years after Arkansas attained statehood. She pointed out the often-overlooked architecture gracing the courthouse.
Most counties have a “court square” around their courthouse. Silva explained that on the west parking lot there was originally a “court square” with streets named West Court and East Court on either side of the courthouse. There was a half block of commercial properties on either side of the courthouse. On the site was the three-story Hotel Trulock, which opened in 1887 and was the finest hotel in Pine Bluff until the Hotel Pines was completed in 1913. In 1906, it was renamed the Jefferson Hotel. The hotel was demolished in the mid-1960s by developers who intended to build a new motel on the site. Their plans never materialized, and after the 1976 courthouse fire, the county purchased the property.
Silva said that in late November 1908, high water on the Arkansas River (which later became Lake Saracen) threatened to destroy downtown Pine Bluff. A new levee had been built on the river bank opposite the town in an effort to prevent the river from changing its channel which would disrupt navigation. Unfortunately, the levee resulted in the river flooding the south bank. Local officials appealed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to breech the levee and save the city, but the appeal was denied. So a crew was assembled in secret and ferried across the river to the levee. Two charges of dynamite prevented the courthouse from falling into the river, with only 3 feet to spare. Just downstream from the courthouse, the river claimed a swath of town several blocks long and about two blocks wide.
The vivid descriptions of this event brought to mind the humanity of Pine Bluff people living when flood waters threatened, and how in their desperation they found the only solution. Also, upon learning that there was once a court square, one could imagine the people of day as they looked from the square and saw the many steamboat passengers embarking and landing amid a bustling port of commerce which was Pine Bluff.
After giving information about the Dexter Harding House, Silva suggested the tour walk on the east side of Main Street, which still held a few shady places, while she pointed out interesting features on the west side of Main Street. She began with the Hood Building at the corner of Main and Barraque, which was once the Merchants & Planters Bank, listed on the National Register in 1978. The bank was organized on Dec. 1, 1876, to acquire the assets of the Smart, Hudson & Company. In 1891, the bank constructed a new building on this corner, which on Jan. 24, 1892, was destroyed by a fire. The present-day building features a corner turret, beveled corner entrance with granite arches and arched window openings. When the bank opened on Oct. 31, 1892, it was considered “one of the handsomest bank buildings in the South.” The bank closed in November 1930.
A few interesting facts Silva pointed out was that on the northwest corner of Main Street and Second Avenue was once the Bank of Pine Bluff Building which was three stories tall. The building retains its original Ionic columns at the storefront level. Buildings located between 200-206 Main were built about 1888 and called the “Simmons Block.” In 1900, on the 200 block of Main, there were three large thriving businesses — The Hub Men’s Wear, W. S. Beard & Co., and The Globe. But by 1908, new business replaced the old and H.C. Bluthenthal clothing, Leverenz-Trulock Shoe Co., and Wolf Nichols Dry Goods/Bon Ton Millinery Parlor took their place.
Silva pointed out that in 1927, the Doc’s Pawn Shop building was F.W. Woolworth Company and the vacant lot at the northwest corner of Main and Third Aveneue was Froug (Froog) Department Store. Now a small park occupies this spot. The mural on the building shows Main Street with its horse-drawn trolley owned by Wiley Jones, a very prominent black man who owned several businesses in town.
Much of Silva’s research is from old city directories. She said that about 1901 to 1913 at 304 Main was Jacob Mosby’s liquor store/saloon with Peter Goodloe’s eating house in the rear. Also about 1908 to 1913 located at 308 Main was the John B. Hill, barber; William M. Lovett, clothes cleaner; and Ben Sylvester, shoemaker. At 310 Main around 1908, William Gregory, eating house, and Mack Haney, saloon.
Some on the tour remembered that Newberry’s lunch counter was located at 316-320 Main and in the 1950’s sit-ins were held there during the Civil Rights Movement. Silva mentioned that it was a Great Art Deco commercial building with vertical emphasis provided by brick pilasters.
Many in the tour remembered the Kress Store at 326-328 Main, but in the early 1900’s W.E. Mullikin’s Dry Goods was located there. Kress closed in the 1980’s. Silva pointed out that at some point, the building was damaged by fire and was remodeled in the Art Moderne style with horizontal panels of glass block and an awning that wraps around to the Fourth Avenue elevation.
The tour then went east on Fourth Avenue where Silva pointed out the Senyard Building on the northeast corner of Fourth and Main, which was built around 1910. Over the years, different retail stores were located on the first floor and professional offices/lodge hall on the upper floors. Silva pointed out that one could still see some things painted on the upper story windows like “Lawyer,” “Attorney at Law,” “Photography by Grice,” and “Howard Insurance” Also, facing Fourth Avenue, was Spharler’s Jewelry and Watch Repair, which once had a clock sign out front, which many in the crowd remembered.
One of the most interesting buildings was the Masonic Temple listed on the National Register in 1978 located on the corner of Fourth Avenue and State Street. Silva noted that when it was completed in 1904, it was the tallest building in Pine Bluff. It was built for the Sovereign Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Arkansas, the state’s black Masonic order. The building’s features are very impressive with arched window openings on the top floor and rusticated stone columns at the storefront. Different retail stores operated on the first floor over the years. The second floor was office space for the Grand Lodge, doctors, dentists and other professionals. The third and fourth floors were the lodge rooms/lodge hall.
The tour then went to Union Station where the Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Historical Museum is now located. Silva said Union Station was built in 1906 and listed on the National Register in 1978 also. It served both the Cotton Belt and St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern railroad lines (Iron Mountain became Missouri Pacific in 1917 and is now Union Pacific). Along the track, a long car shed extended from the depot almost to Main Street in order to protect patrons from the sun and rain.
Silva noted that the depot’s construction ended a 26-year argument between the city, the Cotton Belt and the Iron Mountain. She reminded the crowd that the Cotton Belt’s depot was originally located on Third Avenue. The Little Rock, Mississippi River & Texas Railroad was finally extended from Pine Bluff to Little Rock about 1880, but that process was controversial, as several property owners along West Fourth Avenue opposed using that street as a right-of-way for the railroad. Then the LR, Mississippi River & Texas built a wood-frame depot near Fourth and State streets, but it was soon considered an eyesore. The city wanted a new depot. Meanwhile, the LR, Mississippi River & Texas was acquired by the Iron Mountain Railroad. Then it was difficult to get the railroad lines to agree to share a depot. Only after a fire broke out at the old depot, and the city filed a lawsuit against the Iron Mountain Railroad, did the big men with big egos began to consider a compromise.
The tour then walked on the north side of Fourth Avenue where a lady commented that Matthews Hardware was located. When Silva mentioned the newsstand that operated at the corner, many in the crowd suddenly remembered what a busy place it once was, as well as Woolworth’s located across the street at 400 Main.
The Hotel Pines listed on the National Register in 1979 was for many years a magnificent place in downtown Pine Bluff. Silva said it was built in 1910 by investors that believed a luxury hotel south of the railroad tracks would increase the value of their property and spur growth there, as previously all growth would have been around the river. One business located in the Hotel Pines Building was the Cotton Belt Bank located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Main Street. It closed in 1933 and the National Bank of Commerce moved into its spot in 1934. Silva noted that in 1953 they opened its first drive-in window along West Fifth Avenue. It was the first facility of its kind in the state, and the design was unique in that the drive-thru booth rose out of a hole in the sidewalk from the hotel basement every day and was lowered to the basement at the close of business. The roof of the booth served as the sidewalk when the drive-thru was closed and lowered. And the bank paid the city for the parking spaces needed to operate the window.
Silva pointed out the ArkLa Gas Company Building on West Sixth Avenue because it was listed on the National Register in 2001. She called attention to the fact that the building is the best example of the Art Moderne style in downtown Pine Bluff. The building features Carrera glass panels, glass block, large panels of plate glass, and two distinctive acrylic blue flames on top. She also spoke about the First Methodist Church, Bank of America and the Arkansas Power and Light Building before returning to Main Street where she gave information about Simmons Bank.
Silva also called attention to Burt’s Men’s Store located at 209 Main, which closed recently. She reminded that it was run by Clark Woodrow “Pinky” Curry and his son, Tommy Curry. The store was called Burt’s because the Currys bought it from Burt Schlosberg. Next door, at one time Cohen’s Department Store operated.
The tour then walked to the Saenger Theater, which was listed on the National Register in 1995. This truly historic landmark is slowly being restored. Silva spoke of the building’s features.
Silva then took the tour to the Donald W. Reynolds Community Services Center on the southwest corner of Second Avenue and Pine Street, where the National Bank of Arkansas was once located. The six-story building became the “National Building” where the author once worked in 1967 for Carlton Curry, the attorney. This once-grand building, like so many others, is now a part of history forgotten by most. Fortunately, the Arkansas Historic Preservation and the many dedicated citizens strive to rescue these treasures from the past. An example of dedication is the Old Town Theatre Centre Inc., a nonprofit organization, which will restore the Saenger and the Community Theatre, which was listed on the National Register in 2004.
The tour then went to the oldest commercial block left in Pine Bluff, which faces Barraque, West Second Avenue, Pine and Chestnut, dating back to the 1880s.The buildings housed a variety of businesses, including drug stores, dry goods, cotton factors, groceries, furniture stores, cigar shops, confectioneries, undertakers, clothing stores, the F. G. Smart Auto Company, which by the mid-1930s had switched from the Ford dealership to a Chevrolet dealership, U.S. Post Office, Southwestern Telegraph & Telephone Company, High Cotton Event Center, Ralph Robinson Livery and next door the funeral home was once located. This was where the tour of the Downtown Historic District ended.
Silva does a monthly “Walks Through History” tour around the state and information about these tours can be found on the Arkansas Heritage website.