Bob King's pride is evident as we walk through the Buffalo River Historic Jail & Museum at Marshall. King is the museum's director and curator, lovingly overseeing a building that served as the Searcy County jail from 1902-76.
The building was unoccupied from 1976-80. The Searcy County Retired Teachers Association operated a museum in the old jail from 1980-2002. The building was closed to the public from 2002-21, though the work that resulted in the current facility goes back two decades. In 2002, a museum restoration plan was created for the Searcy County Historical Society. In 2016, the Greater Searcy County Chamber of Commerce took on the project.
The first of several grants (this one for $15,000) was received in 2018. By 2020, restoration efforts had begun. In May 2021, county government signed a 15-year lease with the chamber. Two months later, the Searcy County Master Gardeners began landscaping work around the building. The museum opened to the public on Dec. 3.
It's professionally curated, as opposed to the so-called granny's attic approach often found in small-town museums. King, who once worked at the Old State House in Little Rock, knows what he's doing.
"My passion is capturing the spirit of this part of the Ozarks," he says. "Because of the isolation of the region, it has always attracted highly independent people with unique ways of doing things. This was especially true in the Buffalo River watershed."
This was Osage territory until 1808 when the tribe negotiated a sale to the United States and moved to what's now Oklahoma.
"In 1806, John B. Treat of Arkansas Trading House at Arkansas Post reported that, according to Indian information, the source of the Buffalo was in the neighborhood of other springs flowing into the Arkansas River," James Johnston writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "There was little, if any, American presence when several thousand acres, including all of future Searcy County, were granted to the Western Cherokee from 1808-17. In addition to the Cherokee came Shawnee and Delaware families.
"Although the United States bought the north Arkansas grant of the Western Cherokee in 1828, some Cherokee, Shawnee and Delaware remained for about seven more years. They introduced selected white families to the area and were noted by settlers as late as 1836. Robert Adams was taken to Bear Creek by Shawnee Peter Cornstalk, according to family tradition, and became the first permanent white settler in Searcy County."
In November 1835, the Territorial Legislature established the first Searcy County from western Izard County. The original Searcy County covered what's now Marion County, Searcy County and parts of Boone, Baxter and Stone counties. It was named for landowner and circuit judge Richard Searcy. The first Searcy County's name was changed to Marion County in honor of Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion in September 1836.
"The southern half of Marion County had been settled fairly heavily," Johnston writes. "State Sen. Charles Saunders settled on Bear Creek before 1834. More families arrived from 1835-38, prompting the Legislature on Dec. 13, 1838, to create a new Searcy County."
The county seat moved multiple times. It was first at the residence of James Eagan. A spot on Bear Creek later was chosen and named Lebanon. A post office was established there in March 1840.
"In the decade before the Civil War, the county seat was moved from Lebanon to its present location on a bench of Devil's Backbone Mountain and named Burrowville (sometimes spelled Burrowsville) for Napolean Bonaparte Burrow, a slave-owning secessionist politician," Johnston writes. "The town is now Marshall. In the year leading to Arkansas' secession from the United States, Searcy County men joined those of surrounding counties to oppose secession.
"At the second session of the Arkansas Secession Convention on May 6, 1861, Searcy County's representative, John Campbell, was one of five men who voted against secession. He was the last of four to allow his vote to be changed to favor it."
Anti-Confederate groups in Searcy County and adjoining counties formed a loose affiliation known as the Arkansas Peace Society. In late 1861, local Confederate militias began making arrests. This area of the Ozarks provided almost 90 percent of the Arkansans who fought for the Union. A yellow rag or ribbon displayed outside a home was a symbol of a household's affiliation with the Arkansas Peace Society. Confederates later referred to society members as "yeller rag boys."
Estimates of total membership ranged as high as 1,700. Historian Ted Worley notes: "The society intended to protect itself at home. . . . Left to itself in peaceful dissent, the brotherhood probably would have been merely a Unionist island of passive resistance."
Peace Society members weren't left alone, however.
"More Peace Society members are identified in Searcy County than in any other county," Johnston writes. "The organization was betrayed on Nov. 17, 1861, in Van Buren County by John Holmes. The discovery of the society spread rapidly. Investigations of the Peace Society--first in Fulton County and then in Izard County--led to its discovery on the Izard-Searcy County line. When it was discovered in Searcy County, Col. Samuel Leslie called out the county militia.
"The militia investigated and arrested more than 100 men and marched 87 of them in chains to Little Rock in early December 1861. Forced into the Confederate Army, they were sent to Bowling Green, Ky. Another contingent from north of the Buffalo was marched to Little Rock and forced into the same Confederate regiment. . . . Many more men hid in the woods until they were caught or killed or could make their way to Union lines."
Those Peace Society members personified the independence of Searcy County residents. The Buffalo River Historic Jail & Museum tells their story through six galleries. The former living room of the jail's first-floor living quarters is the Spirit Gallery, bringing to life the people who shaped the Buffalo River watershed. A nearby room used to book prisoners is now the First Peoples Gallery, telling the story of Native Americans who lived here.
There's also the Civil War Gallery (which includes the Arkansas Peace Society), the Badges & Badmen Gallery, the Boom Times Gallery and the Legacy Gallery. After the Civil War, gangs of outlaws terrorized the region for years. That's the focus of the Badges & Badmen Gallery.
"Neither North nor South felt it was worthwhile to occupy and defend the area, even though Confederates operated a mining operation there until early 1864," Johnston writes. "This left it open to guerrillas, outlaws and raids. Emigration of families was heavy, and emigration for men was virtually mandatory because men were either conscripted or killed on sight if suspected of belonging to the other side. Jayhawking and military foraging devastated the county."
The situation was so volatile that U.S. troops were stationed in the county for a time to keep the peace. Unionists pushed the change of the county seat's name from Burrowville to Marshall after Chief Justice John Marshall. The Reconstruction Legislature approved the name change in March 1867.
"Civil War devastation was so pronounced the refugees returning from 1866-70 had to rebuild from scratch," Johnston writes.
The Boom Times Gallery outlines the brief period in the early 1900s when mining, barrel factories and railroads led to population increases. From 1906-15, the H.D. Williams Cooperage Co. at Leslie was said to be the world's largest producer of white oak barrels. The factory employed 1,200 men and produced 5,000 barrels a day. Barrels were used for aging whiskey and wine.
Those boom times wouldn't last, but the pride of Searcy County natives remains strong. These independent people know their place in Arkansas history and now have a museum to teach visitors about their past.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.