A world of history hidden in rural Lawrence County

POWHATAN, Ark. – “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

The powerful quote has been repeated throughout history, although it seems to have originated from George Santayana in the 1800s, but it carries the message of why the Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives (NEARA) hold such importance.

Archival Manager Meredith McFadden echoed a quote derived from the same line of thought Tuesday.

“If you can’t see where you’ve been, how do you see where you’re going?” McFadden hypothetically asked. 

In the small town of 50, Powhatan is an old river commerce town which dwindled with the end of river commerce. Sitting atop a hill on the winding road leading to the small community is a beautiful courthouse, appearing like a postcard on the horizon. While it may appear to be the building which holds the most history in the community, it isn’t even close.

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Behind the post office in a building rather unassuming for what it contains are the NEARA facilities. The archives, at 11 7th Street is off of the beaten path for most. The area served by it, however, is unimaginably large.

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img_2440McFadden presented NEA Report with several maps highlighting the exact area once encompassed under the Territorial Lawrence County banner. In 1815, Arkansas only contained two counties – Arkansas County and Lawrence County. Lawrence also stretched into southern Missouri, as it is known today.

An entire 23 counties in both Arkansas and Missouri were wholly part of Territorial Lawrence County, with another 23 being partially in it. Counties like Craighead, Poinsett, Cross, and Jackson were partially once Lawrence County territory, while most other NEA counties were entirely encompassed.

The vast history from all of these areas has roots inside of NEARA. It has become a passion for many, including McFadden, who was hired by chance when she found the perfect job opening.

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McFadden shows the archive vault

“I was just looking for anything in my field and was lucky enough to find it open,” McFadden said. “I love researching and reading books. I always loved watching History Channel and I wanted to be the person researching that.”

It was the perfect fit. NEARA needed someone with that passion but it needs more than just McFadden, who currently must manage the entire facility without help, due to a hiring freeze by the Arkansas government.

President of the Lawrence County Historical Society, Lloyd Clark, said it does not bode well for the future of NEARA. Saturday, Jan. 14, Clark attended a meeting of the Friends of the Arkansas State Archives in Little Rock. In an e-mail, Clark said he had the feeling some wanted to see NEARA closed.

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“They have left the facility with only one employee and are citing a job freeze as the cause,” Clark said. “This is just a ploy to reduce usage numbers so they can close it at a future date. Historical archive facilities all must have a minimum of two people on site so that valuable documents or other artifacts (Bibles, wills, abstracts, court records, photographs, maps, genealogical data, etc.) are never left alone. Experience shows that some unscrupulous folks will steal or damage documents if not supervised.”

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Documents from a handwritten court case for slander mention a “damned perjured rascal” as the slanderous term.

It isn’t just about preserving the history for Clark, though. Also a Justice of the Peace on the Lawrence County Quorum Court, Clark said NEARA is research heaven for those wanting to find out more about history.

“When people come here, they spend two or three days, stay in hotels, shop here, and visit cemeteries and other museums,” Clark said.

Residents from all 50 states, including Hawaii and Alaska, have used NEARA for research, McFadden said. And with additional staff, McFadden could take the resources of NEARA to area schools, making history personal for young minds in education.

dscn3792“I love when I get people in here to do research,” McFadden said. “I had a niece of someone archived who came in and read letters he wrote. Archives tell stories. Archives are a link to the past. Archives are what allows you to have that and preserve that. People have been wonderful and horrible for as long as history.”

And for those who love to do research, there might be a cash reward for you.

Each year, $1,000 in cash is awarded for one research project submitted using NEARA documents, with citations, for research. The NEARA Award is presented for a submitted manuscript of no more than 35 pages. You can find more information about the NEARA Award at this link, on the Arkansas Historical Association’s Website (scroll down). The deadline is Feb. 1, but the award is presented yearly.

While $1,000 is nice, the value of NEARA is far beyond one measurable in monetary terms. NEARA provides a rich source of history for the region and Clark, McFadden and others hopeful for it’s success want NEA to know it is there for all.

“What we’re looking at are the results of others’ decisions,” McFadden aptly described.


Photos and story by Stan Morris.

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