Keo Commercial Historic District
KEO COMMERCIAL HISTORIC DISTRICT,
The Keo Commercial Historic District is being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places with local significance under Criterion A for its association with the agricultural-commercial development of the town from 1900-1961, and Criterion C for its collection of Standard 20th Century Commercial buildings and early-to-mid-century Plain-Traditional agricultural-industrial structures.
An overhead view of Keo and the surrounding area reveals a grid of agricultural fields for miles. Oxbow lakes snake through the landscape and pecan trees form cathedral arches in orderly rows. After the installation of the Altheimer-to-Argenta branch of the St. Louis, Arkansas and Texas Railway in the late 1800s, Keo grew around the line. It provided vital links for the community and its agricultural goods. The farm families of the area were served by a small commercial core that offered a variety of services. With the development of the highway system the importance of the railroad as a link for travelers lessened. Changes in the agricultural character and culture of the area contributed to loss of population and commerce began to die out in Keo by the 1960s. Despite this, the town retained its agricultural-industrial complexes and several commercial structures within its historic environment of farm land. A small renaissance of commerce has made Keo a popular stop for tourists and antique shoppers because the community still conveys the feel of an early-to-mid-20th century farming town, and as such tells the story of the Arkansas Delta.
The area of Keo has been known by three historic names until it eventually morphed into one when the railroad began to exert its pull on commerce. The first recorded location of the future Keo was Cobb Settlement, also known as Cobbs, which was approximately one mile north of U.S.165 on Arkansas Highway 15. Nothing is left of that settlement and the area is now farm fields and two late 20th- century houses. The community was also referred to as Lafayette Township. Before the railroad was laid through the area the Dunham family occupied forty acres on the south end of the Keo Commercial Historic District. This was known as Dunham Station. As with the neighboring communities of England and Lonoke, the railroad became the nexus of residential and commercial life. Keo was established when the Altheimer-Argenta branch of the St. Louis, Arkansas and Texas Railway was laid to the west of current U.S. 165 between 1887 and 1888. The rail line name was changed to the St. Louis Southwestern Railway (Cotton Belt route) when Jay Gould purchased it in 1891.
In 1884 the Southwestern Improvement Association offered land and town lots along the line. It was touted as a safe investment free from “blizzards, cyclones, droughts, floods or malaria, no intense heats or bitter cold spells.” Although the area was able to avoid blizzards most of the items on the list of climatic scenarios did eventually come to fruition. It was true though, that the railroad brought business to “farmers, fruit men, mechanics, lumbermen, stock men, and merchants.” The rumors of rail line construction in Lonoke County prompted Arkansan J.W. Brodie to purchase property in Dunham Station.The impact the railroad could have on a town must have been clear to Brodie as it was reported that the year the neighboring community of England was reached by rail a township committee under John C. England began to lay out lots for development. In 1888 the Lonoke Democrat stated that the town possessed “a depot, a cottonseed house, livery, stable, barber shop, two general stores and other buildings.” This was an explosion of development compared to one year earlier. The population of England was recorded in 1889 as twenty but by 1900 it was 368.
Lafayette Cobb was recorded as the first postmaster for the Cobbs Post Office in 1880. Cobb settled in the county in 1873 so it is likely that the settlement would have been named for him at that time. The area was also known as Lafayette Township, another possible attribution to the early settler. The community of Cobbs (recorded in 1884 as the possessive Cobb’s) was a busy agricultural center with six cotton gins. Lafayette Cobb was the justice of the peace and owner of the general store. In 1889 there were eight cotton gins and a school and the population had grown from 45 to 53.
As the rail line stretched north toward Argenta (North Little Rock), Dunham Station celebrated the arrival of the train by re-naming the community Keo after Miss Keo Dooley. The girl’s father was Judge P.C. Dooley, who owned the farmland the new railroad traversed. Another story was that she was the first female who debarked when the train reached Dunham Station, which is a possible, and likely orchestrated, scenario. By 1892 Keo appears in the Arkansas Gazeteer and Business Directory along with Cobbs. A post office was established in Keo by 1889 and both areas had experienced serious growth as 100 people then resided at Cobbs and 200 at Keo. Cobbs was still leading in the number of cotton gins though, with five gins compared to Keo’s one. Lafayette Cobb had branched out and opened a second general store in Keo and the town had begun to reflect a more diverse commercial character than Cobbs.
Keo featured seven general stores, two blacksmiths, a saw mill and shingle factory, two cotton gins, a restaurant, hotel, a real estate office, drug store, butchers, doctors and a feed stable. The last available volume of the Business Directory in 1912-13 recorded a population drop to 75 for Cobbs while Keo’s had risen to 250. The Cobbs
Post Office was closed in 1916 but even though the area is not commonly known by that name anymore, the original location of the community is still noted on mapping website Google Earth. The distance can be measured at approximately a mile north, though the Business Directory of 1888 and 1892 put the mileage to Keo from Cobbs at alternatively 4 or 5 ¾ miles. It is not clear why there would be such disparity. Keo was incorporated in 1916.
The forty-one-mile Altheimer to Argenta railroad line was the catalyst for commercial growth in Keo because it allowed the farmers who raised cotton, corn and oats in Lonoke County (part of Prairie and Pulaski counties until 1873) to get their goods
to market in Little Rock. That commercial growth was fueled entirely by agriculture, primarily cotton. The first recorded cotton gin in Keo was owned by residents Morris and Brodie. In 1898 Moren and Adams were recorded in the Business Directory as being co-owners of a gin. By 1906 Morris and Moren became partners in a gin, which stood in the vicinity of the Cobb Cotton Gin Complex. James David Cobb and Samuel C. Cobb had established a cotton gin in 1906. This, too, was on the south end of Main. The draw of the railroad was obvious in its effect on Cobbs as business and residents funneled south to the rails.
From this movement a diversified economy appeared to serve the agricultural community. The hotel at Keo accommodated travelers on the railroad, residents needing temporary homes and drummers making the rounds of the towns on the line. It
was first listed in the Business Directory in 1892 and was owned by J.Z. Donahue, but in 1913 the hotel was administered by Mrs. E.V. Bryant and was advertised as “the best the market affords.” Bryant had been in Keo for eight years and served food to the customers in “large dishes.” It was reported that the hotel was usually filled to capacity. The west side of Main Street was lined with commercial buildings of frame but no strctures other than the depot building were recorded on the east side of the road. A shingle factory was constructed in 1894 and subsequently moved to England in 1897. By 1913 Samuel Cobb had started his own shingle factory and sawmill along with his general store and cotton gin. The shingle factory provided jobs for his gin laborers, who were out of work during the off-season for cotton.
The Keo Depot was located north of the Cobb Cotton Gin. Arkansas Architectural Resource form photographs on file at the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program exhibit Eastlake/Stick-style architecture. In 1910-11 the Cotton Belt began to introduce some improvements. The St. Louis Southwestern Railway (Cotton Belt Route) Depot in Coy, Lonoke County, (NR listed 01/22/2004) was remodeled by the Railway and is very similar to the Keo Depot. If the depot in Keo was not constructed in that style it is probable that it took on the appearance after the turn of the century under the improvement program. In the 1950s the depot was moved approximately a half block south on Main Street. The depot was still in place in 1976 but residents report that it was moved before 1991 north to the town of Scott where it was destroyed by fire. This has not been confirmed and the 1976 photos show fire damage on the west side of the depot.
Fire was often the reason Main Streets in Arkansas underwent multiple transformations. A 1904 photograph of Keo’s Main Street reveals a row of frame structures. By December 21, 1913, it was reported that a large part of the buildings in that row had been destroyed by an early morning fire. The town marshal saw the flames coming from C.M. Flynn’s general store but the volunteer fire brigade was unable to stop the destruction. Keo lost two stores, a restaurant/store, five storerooms and other small buildings. Being in an important location next to the railroad, Keo was able to rebuild. By 1926 the town suffered another fire that began in the post office. This was thought to be the work of an arsonist and again the town sustained extensive damage. The brick buildings seen on Main Street today were built to replace those that were destroyed. The Hotel Keo, which was situated near the current site of the Keo City Hall and the Post Office, survived the 1913 fire only to fall victim to the 1926 blaze. The Baptist church next door to the hotel was also destroyed, necessitating a move to the school until the 1940s when a new church was constructed.
In the spring of 1927, the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers overflowed their banks as early snowmelt in Canada and record rains in Arkansas destroyed levees. The floodwaters inundated crops and homes in thirty-six counties, killing over 100 people. Keo was spared catastrophic damage because it was located in a dry pocket extending
south from Scott toward Tucker. The water did rise to the west of town, lapped at the commercial area, and embraced it on all sides. The school grounds where refugees were being housed a few short blocks west of Main Street were almost entirely covered by
water that took two months to subside. The state suffered through the reconstruction of silt-covered farmland and the loss of livestock and homes into the fall of 1927 but Keo was relatively untouched by the devastation.
Through the flood and the recovery the town’s commercial area remained a vibrant center for farmers and their families. Agnes Coffman Nixon, a former Keo resident, recalled that in the late 1920s the two seemingly massive cotton gins dominated life during harvesting season. The sounds and the activity emanating from the complexes were exciting and it brought business and neighbors into town to have a haircut, pick up mail, get an ice cream cone at the drugstore, or eat at Mr. George’s Café. By that time the town had established its own bank. Up to 1913 the documented banking centers for Keo were in Lonoke, England or Little Rock. Keo came to be known as the fifth most important town in Lonoke County and was the headquarters for an extensive area of cotton plantations. Workers were brought into town from Little Rock and adjacent areas by truck to pick cotton but there were many tenant homes in the area for those who lived on the plantations. Nixon described Saturdays at noon downtown as a “milling human throng, who traversed the two main blocks back and forth-back and forth…” 
Dean Morris of Keo also remembered the numbers of people who came downtown on Saturdays in the late 1940s and into 1950. General stores like the W.L. Baird Mercantile and the W. French Store (located in the Morris Building) as well as the cotton gins continued in operation and the downtown still provided entertainment and
goods for the residents.The Bank of Keo was once the site of Dr. Dejalma Leake’s Drug Store. Bishop Kavanaugh Leake, the grandfather of Keo mayor Nancy Tardy, operated the drug store when it was moved north into the Cobb Building. There, he produced Leake’s Liniment in the 1940s. The formula was sold across Arkansas and Louisiana by four traveling salesmen and was bottled and labeled by the mayor as a child. Horses, dogs and people alike were said to benefit from the elixir.
The Cobb Cotton Gin, established around the turn of the century by James David Cobb and Samuel Cobb, continued in business into the 21st century. In circa 1940, William Morris and Walter Magness constructed a new cotton gin on the northwest corner of U.S. 165 and AR Highway 232. This gin remained in business until circa 1970.
The Cobb Cotton Gin is still a fixture in Keo even though no cotton is ginned in the facility. The complex consisting of twenty-two buildings and structures retains several resources that date from the turn of the century, the 1920s and the 1950s. Two of the original four seed houses were destroyed in the 1970s when a gas truck ran off the road, catching them on fire, but the bulk of the resources associated with the original gin remain. The turn of the century wooden gin was torn down in 1946 and a new building was constructed with corrugated asbestos siding and roofing to make it fireproof and keep it cool.
In 1938 the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommended that lot layouts for cotton gins be configured around entrances and exits to highways and railroads. The Cobb Cotton Gin exhibits this typical layout, with the seed houses and cotton bale houses immediately adjacent to the railroad for loading train cars and connections between the cotton gin and seed houses with overhead conveyors. U.S. Highway 165 is just to the east of the railroad tracks and Fleming and Main streets provide access to the complex. Other features on the gin found in USDA Farmers’ Bulletin 1802 can be observed on the Cobb facility. A full-length cantilevered truck shed on the west side of the gin features no posts, which prevents potential damage to the building from large trucks. A cotton dock on the north end of the gin is also covered by a cantilevered overhang with adjacent bale ramp. The ginning equipment has been modernized but a one-and-one-half stories plan was probably utilized to accommodate original two-story driers and elevated platforms. The separation of the seed houses and cotton storage houses from the gin was suggested by fire underwriters with an average distance of fifty feet between the structures, which can be seen at the Cobb complex.
Cotton houses at the Cobb gin also followed the bulletin’s recommendations and were rectangular wooden structures with wooden floors to prevent moisture retention. Seed storage structures at the gin have battered side walls and end walls for the settling of the seed, which was also standard architecture for such buildings.
This busy gin cleaned and separated Delfos cotton from its early years up to the 1960s. After that, the type of cotton ginned was DP&L and Stoneville up to 2008. The Cobbs sold the cotton gin to Yarbrough Brothers in 1954 and they retained ownership through 1970. Bodie Cobb, great-grandson of James David Cobb and grandson of Samuel C. Cobb, came to work at the gin in 1966 after serving in the military. Samuel
Cobb retained ownership of the office and the facility continued to be known as Cobb Cotton Gin despite the new owner. In the mid-1950s the Yarbroughs branched out to soybean storage and sales and a dump pit and silos were constructed to the north of the gin. In 1961 Ken Cole moved from Mena to Keo and was employed keeping books in the office and selling farm chemicals. Cole and Bodie Cobb became partners in the gin by 1970. The slow output of the gin eventually brought an end to operations in 2008. By that time modern gins could produce 100 bales an hour while Cobb’s gin produced twenty an hour. Bodie Cobb still administers farmland in Keo so he and Cole utilize the office today, but the gin and related outbuildings are used mainly for storage and selling pecans.
The Morris Cotton Gin on the north end of Main Street was constructed circa 1940. Today the complex consists of four buildings. Two seed houses remain on the old railroad bed but Dean Morris stated that there were others, which were torn down at an unknown date. The USGS quad map for Keo exhibits a third building’s footprint to the
north of the cotton gin, but nothing remains of a foundation today. The Cobb gin sold seed, which Morris did not, so Cobb had more associated outbuildings. The Morris gin displays the one-and-one-half story plan of the Cobb gin but it is sheathed in corrugated steel. The complex, like the Cobb complex is located at the intersection of two major roads and abuts the railroad tracks. Morris closed for business in circa 1970 and the buildings were vacant until circa 1998, when Old Gin Antiques moved in.
In 1929 Arkansas was affected by nationally decreasing cotton prices exacerbated by overproduction and low domestic and foreign consumption. The creation of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration in 1933 introduced the plow-up
campaign, designed to reduce the numbers of acreage in cotton by 30 percent from 1931 production figures. Arkansas farmers pledged 26.1 percent of their total acreage for destruction so that farm prices could be raised. This improved the situation for many planters but tenants and sharecroppers did not fare as well. Some did not receive their fair share of government checks for the plow-up or they didn’t receive anything at all. Many were evicted from the farms altogether. Such conditions forced people to move from Lonoke County to new areas.
Other factors in conjunction with the plow-up began to further reduce population numbers in cotton areas like Keo. When the Depression pressed down, farm families uprooted to find jobs. World War II opened up opportunities to young men who had traditionally been farmers or cotton laborers. After they received training in the military they were able to put their new skills to work in other states. Increasing mechanization replaced mules and the need for tenants and sharecroppers. By 1950 Arkansas farmers possessed 60,000 tractors, the beginning of a sea change in farm operations. The school in Keo closed because the displaced workers took their children with them and the original 1900s one-room school building and 1939 Works Progress Administration gymnasium were destroyed in the 1950s. Most of the original tenant and laborer houses have been torn down, but one example from the late 1950s remains on the southwest side of the district across from the Cobb Commissary, which provided supplies to the Cobb’s workers.
A small building also related to the Cobb family’s agricultural holdings was moved to the northeast end of the district in 1991. The building is considered contributing to the district as it was only moved two blocks east of its original location and it was an integral element of the commercial-agricultural life of Keo. The building was constructed as housing for a man that came to Keo to care for the Cobb’s son Harvey, who was ill with cancer. After Harvey passed away Jessie W. Cobb used the structure as an office and pay center for his farm laborers. Later, Cobb became justice of the peace and utilized it as a courthouse from 1930-1940.
Through the 1960s and 1970s a few businesses remained in downtown Keo but the streets were no longer filled with crowds. Businesses known to have been operating up to the 1980s besides the Cobb Cotton Gin, were S.C. Cobb Grocery, a fertilizer mixing plant and a Masonic lodge. In the late 1980s the Cotton Belt route through Keo was pulled up but by that time most industries had converted to trucking for transport of goods. The post office remained but was moved to several locations over the years, eventually anchoring the northwest end of the district in 1996. The Masonic lodge, which replaced the hotel, was torn down in 1989 and the City Hall was built on the lot. Despite the fires and the years that buildings stood unoccupied there are only five vacant lots in Keo; one lot on the northwest corner of Fordyce and Main was home to the second C.M. Flynn Corner Store, which was destroyed by fire in 1926. The lot has been empty since the fire. A lot south of the H.A. Coleman Building on Main has been empty for over sixty years as has the lot on the north of the Bank of Keo. The fourth vacant lot south of City Hall was the location of the post office from the 1940s to 1963 and it has been empty since that time. A vacant lot east of Main Street was the site of the Lanehart Chemical Company. The 1990 Gazebo Park was built on the lot of the former Sentell’s Grocery Store and Filling Station. The building had been used as a residence that became known as a drug house so the city had it torn down for construction of the park.
Tourism in the area picked up beginning in the 1980s with the construction of the visitor center at Toltec Mounds State Park between Scott and Keo. In 1985 Arkansas State Parks rehabbed a 1912 general store building for the Plantation Agriculture Museum in Scott. Just down the road from the museum Cotham’s restaurant opened in 1984. Installed in an early 20th century general store with a view of an oxbow lake, the restaurant became a favored eating spot for the state’s politicians, (including then-Governor Bill Clinton) and travelers from across the country. In 1992 Charlotte Bowls of Keo opened Charlotte’s Eats and Sweets in the Cobb Building on Main Street. Despite the skepticism of friends and neighbors about the location and the state of the building, Charlotte’s has remained popular and well-known to tourists. Both restaurants, the museums, and Morris Antiques in Keo brought an increase in visitors but the permanent population by 2007 remained at 281.
 Keith J. Volanto, “The AAA Cotton Plow-up Campaign in Arkansas,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. 59, (Winter 2000), 388, 392, 399; Holly Hope, “Get Down the Shovel and the Hoe! Cotton and Rice Farm History and Architecture in the Arkansas Delta, 1900, 1955,” multiple property context, Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, 2004, Section E, pg. 32; Joann Oliver, Keo, AR, interview with author, January 04, 2011.
The Keo Commercial Historic District is being nominated to the National Register with local significance under Criterion A as an example of the agricultural and commercial growth of the town from 1900-1961 and under Criterion C for its collection of Standard 20th-Century Commercial and early-to-mid-century Plain-Traditional agricultural-industrial architecture.
The rich soil and tradition of farming can be seen in Keo today and it still evokes the character of the small agricultural town that Agnes Coffman Nixon, Bodie Cobb, Dean Morris, Ken Cole, Charlotte Bowls, and Mayor Nancy Tardy knew. The historic commercial and agricultural-industrial character of Keo remains intact because of minimal modern architectural intrusions. Although the railroad is gone, the rise of its path cuts through downtown heading to Altheimer. A small residential area on County Road 848, east of U.S. 165 and the downtown, features three historic homes belonging to the Cobb family. Bodie Cobb and other family members instrumental in the commercial and agricultural development of the town continue to live and work in Keo, as do members of the Morris family. Their presence contributes to the history of the town and maintains the connection of their families to its rich past embodied in the Keo Commercial Historic District.
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