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Chickalah is an unincorporated community in the northeastern portion of Yell County located on Arkansas Highway 27, approximately nine miles west of Dardanelle (Yell County). The community is reportedly named after a man named Chikileh, a Cherokee leader who resided in the area in the late 1700s and early 1800s, making his home somewhere between Little and Big Chickalah creeks. In addition to the community and the creeks, Chickalah Mountain, a 925-foot peak, also bears this name. The peak is approximately twelve miles to the west of the Chickalah community near Spring Lake in the Ozark National Forest. Chickalah history is closely linked to the Harkey Valley (Yell County) and Sulphur Springs (Yell County) communities, both of which lie to the northwest.
Before the coming of Highway 27 in the late 1920s, the original Chickalah community, sometimes referred to as Chickalah Village, was located about a half mile north of its present location. Written records detailing Chickalah’s early days are sparse, but the first post office in the community opened in 1838. In 1858, Colonel Eli G. Collier and his brother, Cleyburne Collier, operated a sawmill on Little Chickalah Creek. The earliest tombstones in the Chickalah Methodist Cemetery date from as early as 1841, many engraved with the McCray name, a family believed to have once operated a shoe factory in the area.
By the late 1800s, the community boasted a daily mail route and numbered approximately 250 inhabitants. Both Methodist and Church of Christ congregations were located in the area, and according to oral histories detailed in Wayne Banks’s book on Yell County history, the two churches often held “heated debates” under a brush arbor located between their two buildings. The first schools in the community were subscription based and operated under the direction of the Methodist church. In 1874, a deed was set aside for building the Chickalah Academy, the first nondenominational school in the area. There are conflicting reports as to the exact date the school opened, but it appears to be sometime in the late 1800s. The school had three departments—primary, grammar, and academic—and original school board members included B. F. Doyle, W. R. Kirkwood, and H. A. McDaniel. The building, located near where the Chickalah Rural Fire station now stands, was two stories tall and had four separate entrances. The school burned sometime in the early 1900s and was replaced by a two-story building and lodge house. After the fire, the school decreased in size and employed only two teachers.
In addition to the school and churches, Chickalah was once home to an active business community and a thriving timber economy. In 1899, there were eight businesses operating in Chickalah, including three general stores, two hotels, a sawmill and grist mill, one doctor, and a blacksmith. The number of businesses decreased slowly over the years, but the timber industry remained strong until the mid-1950s. Bud Rector, a native of the Chickalah–Harkey’s Valley area born in 1914, recalled the days in the 1930s and 1940s when “everybody was going around with a chopping ax and cross cut saw.” Logs were cut in the surrounding mountains and brought to nearby Dardanelle for processing and shipping. Timber and sawmill owners Arthur Tillman and Thomas V. Jones are remembered as two of the main employers in the region.
Between 1928 and 1932, there was a statewide movement toward the consolidation of rural schools, and grades eight through twelve consolidated with Dardanelle by 1930. In 1934, the seventh and eighth grades moved to Dardanelle, and by the mid-1940s, the Chickalah School closed all together. Some years before consolidation, the two-story building was replaced by a one-story, two-room structure. During the 1970s, several Chickalah residents organized to keep this small red building up and running. Today, it serves as a community center where potlucks, family dinners, and other community events are held on a regular basis.
Construction on Highway 27, which connects Dardanelle and Danville (Yell County), began in 1926. The portion that winds through Chickalah was paved in the mid-1950s, a development that slightly altered the layout of the previous dirt road. Both the Methodist and Church of Christ congregations moved their buildings to be near the major roadway.
A few well-known people are associated with Chickalah, including brothers Paul and Dizzy Dean, who spent their early childhood years on Chickalah Mountain. Their younger brother, often referred to as “Poodle,” was part of well-known rural baseball league that held games throughout the region. The outlaw Belle Starr is also said to have resided in the area in 1885, frequenting a spring near the Sulphur Springs area. The spring is referred to today as Belle Starr Spring.
Twenty-first-century Chickalah is a close-knit rural community with three churches, a rural fire department, and two cemeteries. Regular events are held at the Chickalah Community Center, and many of the families living in the community today have been in the area for generations. Numerous people pass through the community each day traveling between Yell County’s dual county seats, Danville and Dardanelle, or on their way to one of the many popular spots in the area such as Lake Dardanelle, Mount Magazine, or Spring Lake.
For additional information:Banks, Wayne. History of Yell County, Arkansas. Van Buren, AR: The Press Argus, 1959.
Rogers, Catherine Eikleberry. Readin’, ’Ritin, and ’Rithmetic. N.p.: 1981.
Tebo, Suzanne. “Chickalah: Named after Cherokee Chief, Is Small in Size, but Big in History.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. January 1, 2000, p. 9S.
Yell County Historical and Genealogical Association. Yell County Heritage: A History of Yell County, Arkansas. Bedford, TX: Curtis Media, Inc., 1997.
Meredith Martin-MoatsMcElroy House: Organization for Folklife,Oral History and Community Action
Last Updated 10/13/2017
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