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Bear of Garland County was a boom town of the 1880s whose phenomenal growth was fueled by rumors that gold, silver, and other precious metals could be found in the nearby Ouachita Mountains. One enterprising fraud claimed to have found the legendary Lost Louisiana Mine. However, all such rumors ultimately proved false, and the town diminished as quickly as it had grown.
Before the gold rush, people had homesteaded in the area around Bear Mountain—the mountain from which the town later took its name. One early settler was Melson Larkin. The first post office was established in 1882. As early as 1884, rumors of gold in the area began to spread. That year, the first plat of Bear was filed. A telephone exchange was installed, and a drugstore and other businesses were soon founded in the boom town, necessitating an extension of the town’s limits. At one time, two different newspapers served Bear: Bear City Times and the Arkansas Mining Journal. By 1887, according to a list published in a Hot Springs (Garland County) newspaper, thirty-five different mining companies operated in Bear. Speculation was rampant. For example, the Garland County Silver Mining Co. alone issued more than 200,000 shares of its stock, which were valued at $5 million. By 1888, the town boasted five hotels, two sawmills, saloons, a Masonic lodge, and subscription schools. Estimates of the town’s population at its height range from 1,200 to 5,000.
Not everyone believed the unsubstantiated tales of gold and silver. Joseph Reynolds, who built the “Diamond Joe” railroad line from Malvern (Hot Spring County) to Hot Springs, offered to extend his line to Bear, provided that evidence of precious metals, in profitable abundance, could be produced. Rumors of gold helped motivate the state legislature to revive the Geological Survey of Arkansas (today the Arkansas Geological Survey) in order to investigate the various claims. John Casper Branner, state geologist, assigned Theodore B. Comstock to examine the mines at Bear and other such towns in the Ouachita Mountains. The survey soon published the first volume of the Annual Report of the Geological Survey of Arkansas for 1888, subtitled Report upon the Geology of Western Central Arkansas, with Especial Reference to Gold and Silver, which disputed the reported presence of precious metals in the region. Branner was reportedly hanged in effigy in Bear, but in the face of mounting evidence against mining companies’ claims, company stock was immediately made worthless, and the town fell apart.
A small community remained, however. A two-story schoolhouse was built in 1906. In 1930, Clarence B. Jewell opened a factory in Bear to mass-produce handmade, split-bottom, ladder-back chairs of the sort that had been made by the local Bumps family starting in the late 1800s. The Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal agency, later published positive accounts of the factory, which employed approximately twelve people at any given time. Two churches were also established in the 1930s. In the 1940s, the Bear school was consolidated with the Lake Hamilton School District in Pearcy (Garland County).
As time went by, the remnants of infrastructure built in the boom days began to interfere with local attempts to bring land into cultivation, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s, residents began to petition to have certain streets declared closed so that they could more conveniently open the land to farming. As of 2010, a few families remain in Bear, which is entirely surrounded by the Ouachita National Forest.
For additional information:“Bear City Directory 1888.” The Record 17 (1976): 145–157.
Harington, Donald. Let Us Build a City: Eleven Lost Towns. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.
Hudgins, Mary D. “Gold and Silver Boom Town of Bear Thrived a Decade.” Arkansas Gazette. January 24, 1971, p. 4D.
Guy LancasterEncyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture
Last Updated 6/13/2017
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