Benton Commercial Historic District
BENTON COMMERCIAL HISTORIC DISTRICT,
The Benton Commercial Historic District in Benton, Saline County, has served as the nucleus of the county’s business and government since it was formed in 1836. The district consists of fifty-three buildings situated in the original plat of the city. Three of the buildings in the district were previously listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Saline County Courthouse at 200 W. Sevier (NR 11-22-76), the Odd Fellows Building at 123 N. Market (NR 05-26-04), and the Royal Theater at 111 S. Market (NR 09-27-03). The majority of the buildings in the district are simple, vernacular commercial structures built between 1902 and 1958. The Benton Commercial Historic District is being nominated to the National Register with local significance under Criterion A for its representation of the growth and development of the city and Criterion C for the buildings’ representation of early to mid-twentieth century commercial architecture.
Benton, Arkansas, is situated near the center of Saline County which was established in 1835 with land taken from Pulaski County on the north and Hempstead County on the south. The area is rich in natural resources. Hardwood timberland spreads from the foothills of the Ouachita National Forest to the Saline River bottoms, and a variety of minerals including bauxite, granite and nickel are found in the county. The soil of Saline County varies from stoney loam to fertile river bottom with a clay bed used to produce goods ranging from common brick to fine pottery clay.
The Benton area was traveled through and occupied for hundreds of years before the first Eastern settlers arrived. The ancient Native American trail from Missouri to the Red River, known as the Southwest Trail, crossed the Saline River close to what is now downtown Benton. The most noted remaining signs of prehistoric occupation are preserved in two large earthen mounds. The largest, three miles southwest of Benton, is known as the John Hughes Mound. Another mound, almost as large, is five miles to the northwest.
The many Native American tribes that once occupied Arkansas had been driven from the region by European diseases and intertribal wars long before the Louisiana Purchase was signed in 1803. Shortly after the agreement was signed, the United States Congress authorized improvements on the Southwest Trail. With the improvements came a new name, the Congress or National Road. The improved road brought a new flow of settlers from the St. Louis junction down into the Arkansas Territory. After the War of 1812 it was most often referred to as the Military Road and by the mid-nineteenth century, the old route became known as Stagecoach Road. Most of Arkansas’s early settlers and their needed supplies traveled from points east to St. Louis and down this ancient trail.
One of these sojourners was William S. Lockhart and his family who came from North Carolina. They settled at the Saline River crossing of the Military Road in 1815. Soon other travelers settled nearby and by 1820 it is reported that the community around the Saline Crossing had grown to 83 homesteaders. Salt was always an important resource of the area and in 1827 the first salt works plant was built. Around the same time, the first water-driven gristmill in the area was established further up the Saline River.
The Military Road continued to serve as an important route in the expansion of the United States and in 1831 Congress appropriated $15,000.00 for needed improvements. The Arkansas Territorial legislature followed suit by issuing several contracts along the route. William Lockhart was given the right to build a toll bridge over the Saline River and operate it for twenty years. Later that same year a post office was opened at Lockhart’s crossing and he was made postmaster.
Within two years a settlement formed on the road to Little Rock but it was four miles northeast of Lockhart’s toll bridge. The settlement grew quickly with the first business opening in 1834. The next year Saline County was established and the small hamlet, because of its central location, was selected as the county seat. In 1836 after the Arkansas Territory became a state, the town was chartered and formally named Benton after the Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton. The original plat, drawn on silk, shows the streets and blocks of the downtown district as still seen today.
Later in 1836, five commissioners, David Dodd, Jesse Bland, Abijah Davis, Rezin Davis, and Jarrette McCarty were elected to choose a location for the county seat for the new county of Saline. The communities in the running were Collegeville, Caldwellton (named after the State Representative for Saline County), and Benton. Benton, the town with the largest population, near the center of the county, and most importantly, located on the main road to Little Rock, was selected for the seat of government of Saline County.
Soon after Benton became the county seat, the post office at Lockhart’s Saline River crossing was moved to Benton. Green B. Hughes, a respected gristmill owner, was appointed the postmaster. Green Hughes was later elected representative from Saline County to the State Legislature. The first Saline Country Courthouse along with a jail was constructed in 1838. The 60x60 foot structure was made of brick, but so poorly constructed that it had to be condemned in 1855. The existing Saline County Courthouse was completed in 1902.
Attesting to the diversity of the new town is the establishment within the first years of Mrs. Jeffries’s Female School and the construction of a horse track and a Jockey Club. Benton was a leader in providing free education not available in most of the southern states in the mid 1800s. Saline County boasted twenty tuition-supported schools with over 500 students. A county-wide free public school system with fifteen schools was initiated in 1872. The Benton School District was formed in 1885 with the support of a public referendum. In 1900 surrounding school districts were consolidated into the Benton district and by 1928 rural students without access to high school courses were allowed to attend Benton High at no charge.
From its earliest days Benton thrived due to its location on the Military/Stagecoach road but in 1863 it brought four regiments of Union soldiers. The first brick house built in Benton (c.1850) by James Henry Shoppach, a highly educated German immigrant, was confiscated by the Union occupying forces to serve as a headquarters. The home of William Ayers Crawford was also taken over in 1863. Confederate forces mounted several offenses against the Federal regiments around Benton and Saline County. The most noted of these was the battle fought at Hurricane Creek. Later, David O. Dodd the son of one of Benton’s prominent families, was hanged by the Union soldiers for being a Confederate spy.
Like most of the South, Benton and Saline County struggled after the war but had the advantage of possessing two important natural resources that were needed for the post-war reconstruction, salt and lumber. Saline Country had supplied salt for Arkansas, parts of Louisiana, Tennessee, and Texas since the 1830s. The lumber industry that began in the region in 1836 recovered after the Civil War and flourished. Furniture production in the Benton area accounted for a sizable part of commerce by 1900. Owosso Manufacturing began building windows and screen doors in Benton in 1906.
Another business begun after the Civil War was pottery. John Hyten opened a new business utilizing another regional natural resource, clay. By the turn of the twentieth century, there were thirteen pottery manufacturers in the Benton area. Hyten Pottery later named Eagle Pottery produced pottery until the 1930s from the fine local clay called kaolin. In 1911 John Hyten’s son Charles, started Niloak Pottery (kaolin spelled backward). Niloak Pottery with its multicolor “mission” swirl became highly valued by collectors nationwide. The company was reorganized in the late 1940s to Winburn Tile Company and continues to produce pottery from the local clay. The coarser clay in the region was and still is used to manufacture quality bricks.
Saline County’s most defining natural resource, bauxite, was not discovered until 1887 just northeast of Benton. Bauxite, the crucial component in the manufacturing of aluminum, was surface mined with a large labor force using picks and shovels. In 1893, the laborers used blocks they cut from the bauxite mines to construct the only known bauxite building in the world for the office of Dr. Dewell Gann, Sr., in downtown Benton. In exchange Dr. Gann provided free medical service for the low paid miners. The Gann building was donated to the city in 1946. It was used as a library until 1980 when it became a museum featuring local history.
A mill for crushing the ore was built in 1897 at Bauxite, the company town established four years earlier by Pittsburg Reduction Company (later named the Aluminum Company of America, or ALCOA). The hard working people of Benton and the region provided the majority of the bauxite used in the United States. The proud people of Saline County were responsible for the thousands of pounds of aluminum that built the airplanes that became the decisive factor in winning both the first and second World Wars. During World War II, the economy of Saline County was significantly helped by the Bauxite mines. The peak output of bauxite was reached in 1943. Bauxite mining declined after WW II but continued until 1990 when all of the ore had been exhausted.
Benton, the town that was begun because of its strategic location on the Southwest Trail, continued to flourish when the Cairo and Fulton Railroad, generally following the old trail, passed though Benton in 1873. The rail line, later changed to the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad, became part of the Missouri Pacific Railroad system in 1917. The Federal Government brought new opportunities in 1929 when it paved the new highway US 67 from Little Rock to Benton and on across the Saline River with a concrete bridge. Benton became a hub for other highways and roads to surrounding towns.
At the beginning of the twentieth century Benton had a population of just over 1,000. There were no paved roads in the town, but there were paved sidewalks, paid for by the property owners. Downtown at all of the intersecting streets, there were concrete sidewalk crossings going from corner to corner. Streets were first paved in 1927. Electric lights were introduced in 1904, but electricity was supplied only from sundown to midnight. Public water service and a sewer system were in place by 1915. Benton hosted concerts, Chautauquas, circuses and thrived.
Business in the town flourished in the 1920s. There were taxi services that brought passengers to the downtown from the two railroad depots. Several hotels were located in Benton’s downtown along with all types of retail goods and services. Restaurants were plentiful as were furniture stores, and wagon yards. An automobile sales showroom was located in the building at 122 East Sevier.
The Arkansas State Legislature established the State Hospital for Nervous Diseases in 1929 on a 3,000-acre site southwest of Benton. The hospital became a major source of employment for Saline County and Benton and provided employment in the service and medical fields.
By the 1940s, U.S. Highway 67/70 bypassed downtown Benton. That highway became a frontage road when Interstate 30 was opened between Benton and North Little Rock in 1961. I-30 included frontage roads on both sides that attracted commercial development away from the core of the city. Through all the change in travel patterns and decline in local industries, downtown Benton continues to be the governmental and commercial center of the county.
The Benton Commercial Historic District is being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A and Criterion C. The Benton Commercial Historic District is a part of the original land plat submitted when the town was formed and established as the county seat in 1836. The early growth and development of the town began around the courthouse square and radiated outward in the ensuing years. The buildings located in the district are significant examples of Benton’s political, commercial and social history. They are also significant representations of vernacular versions of architectural styles from 1902 to 1958. The year 1902 is the construction date of the oldest extant building, the Saline County Courthouse, and 1958 being the cutoff date for resources deemed historic based on their fifty-year age. The buildings located in the district are architecturally significant for the restrained version of twentieth century commercial styles that they portray, including Italianate, Romanesque Revival, and Art Deco. The Benton Commercial Historic District is being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places with local significance.
Arkansas Historical Records Survey Work Projects Administration. “Historical Sketch of Saline County” The Saline, Vol.10, No.3, September, 1995.
Benton (Saline County). Found at: http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net.
Benton, City Directories. 1916, 1922, 1924, 1961, 1965, 1981.
Bush, Marlo. “Benton Like It Was In Our Youth: The 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s” The Saline, Vol. 14, No.2, September, 1999.
Goodspeed Publishing Co. Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Pulaski, Jefferson, Lonoke, Faulkner, Grant, Saline, Perry, Garland, and Hot Springs Counties. Chicago: Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1887.
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Nance, Patricia Bass. “A Report on Benton’s Prosperous Beginning” The Saline, Vol.5, No.2, June, 1990.
“Our Town Part 2” The Saline, Vol.10, No.2, June, 1995.
“Saline County History.” Found at: http://www.rootsweb.com/-arschhs/history.html.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Benton, Arkansas, 1916, 1921, 1930, 1948.