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Jonesboro (Craighead County)
County Seat

Latitude and Longitude:

35°50’22”N 090°42’08”W

Elevation:

330 feet

Area:

79.87 square miles (2010 Census)

Population:

67,263 (2010 Census)

Incorporation Date:

February 16, 1883

Historical Population as per the U.S. Census: 

1810

1820

1830

1840

1850

1860

1870

1880

1890

1900

-

-

-

-

-

-

155

NA

2,065

4,508

1910

1920

1930

1940

1950

1960

1970

1980

1990

2000

7,123

9,384

10,326

11,729

16,310

21,418

27,050

31,530

46,535

55,515

2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

67,263

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Jonesboro is the largest community in northeast Arkansas and the fifth largest in the state. It is the Craighead County seat (though Act 61 of 1883 created the “Eastern District of Craighead County,” providing for the establishment of another county courthouse at Lake City due to early difficulties in travel). Jonesboro is a regional center in education, retail, healthcare, and industry; its largest employers are Arkansas State University (ASU) and St. Bernards Medical Center. Jonesboro is also an agricultural center in processing rice, cotton, and soybeans, and it is a regional hub for the food-processing industry, being home to Riceland Foods and plants for Frito-Lay, ConAgra Foods, Kraft Foods/Post Division, and Nestle.

Louisiana Purchase through Early Statehood
Crowley’s Ridge, a crescent-shaped rise that is the highest point in northeast Arkansas, was an important factor in Jonesboro’s development because it was safe from the periodic floods that devastated low-lying areas. A Benjamin Crowley built a homestead on the ridge in 1821 to escape the seasonal flooding. A makeshift courthouse was established at Crowley’s settlement, and the area came to be called Crowley’s Ridge.

In 1858, Senator William Jones proposed the creation of a new county. The proposal called for the county to incorporate land from the area represented by Jones’s fellow state senator, Thomas Craighead, who opposed the idea. When the bill passed, Jones proposed that the county be named for Craighead, who, in turn, proposed that the county seat be named for Jones. The town of “Jonesborough” was created, with the spelling later simplified.

Craighead County and Jonesboro were officially born on February 19, 1859. Farmer Fergus Snoddy donated fifteen acres for a town site in the area that is now downtown Jonesboro. Twenty-four years later, with the railroad coming to Jonesboro, voters finally approved the town’s official incorporation in 1883.

Civil War through the Gilded Age
The town’s population was about seventy-five when Arkansas voted to secede from the Union. On August 2, 1862, the Skirmish at Jonesboro took place on Court Square when Union soldiers captured Confederate troops south of town and took them to the county courthouse. A Confederate unit attacked and drove the Union troops from the town. Jonesboro did not sustain major damage from the war and returned to its agricultural economy afterward.

The town was also the center of a great logging industry at the time, requiring efficient transportation to get the lumber to market. In 1881, the Cotton Belt railroad laid track north of downtown. Later, the Missouri Pacific, Frisco, and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroads served Jonesboro. Jonesboro’s growth was significantly enhanced in 1906 with the creation of City Water and Light (CWL) as a municipal utility. CWL continues to serve the town and, due to its extremely reasonable utility rates, is often cited as a major factor in Jonesboro’s growth, attracting business and industry to the area.

Early Twentieth Century
In 1900, following a malaria epidemic, a group of sisters from the Olivetan Benedictine order established a six-room hospital in Jonesboro called “St. Bernard’s” in honor of St. Bernard Tolomei, founder of the Olivetan Benedictines.

In 1904, Woodland College was created, and in 1924, Jonesboro Baptist College was established; both were forced to close within a few years for budgetary reasons. In 1909, the Arkansas legislature passed a law providing for state public schools of agriculture in each of the state’s four districts. Jonesboro competed against Greene County and Mountain Home (Baxter County) to house the school, and after a pledge of $40,000 and 200 acres of land, Jonesboro was chosen. It was named the First District Agricultural School when its first classes were held on October 3, 1910.Now known as Arkansas State University (ASU), it was the first of its sister district colleges to be granted university status.

In 1910, a group of area farmers decided to try growing rice in the fields outside of town. Their success led to the creation in 1930 of what was at the time the largest rice mill in the world, operated by Riceland Foods, Inc. The rice industry continues to be one of Jonesboro’s leading businesses, along with the cotton and soybean industries.

Jonesboro continued to grow through the 1920s, though its prosperity was muted due to its agricultural economy and the demise of its timber industry when the forests were logged out. As a town with an agriculturally based economy, Jonesboro was forced to weather the Great Depression as best it could. While it was physically safe on the high ground of Crowley’s Ridge from the Flood of 1927, Jonesboro’s economy suffered from the devastating impact on its low-lying neighbors who traditionally came to Jonesboro to shop as well as to process and sell their produce. As the impact from the 1927 flood was beginning to improve, Arkansas was struck by drought in 1930 and 1931, which also had a ripple effect on the town’s economy.

In September 1931, the town made headlines in The New York Times for what became known as the Jonesboro Church Wars. Following fiery preaching by the evangelist Joe Jeffers, two opposing Baptist factions fought each other, and gunfire was exchanged before order was restored. Governor Harvey Parnell called out the National Guard and ten state policemen to keep peace. The September 21, 1931, issue of Time magazine called it the Battle of Jonesboro.

In 1920, Jonesboro citizen Thaddeus Caraway was elected to the U.S. Senate. In 1932, his widow, Hattie Caraway, became the nation’s first elected female senator. She often helped Jonesboro by finding jobs on federal projects for poor and handicapped residents, interceded at Arkansas State College to find work-study positions for needy students, and lobbied to build a new post office at Jonesboro.

World War II through the Modern Era
When World War II began, Caraway helped convince the U.S. government to establish a training detachment for the military at Arkansas State College. The College Training Detachment brought GIs from all over the nation to Jonesboro; many settled in town after the war. On September 23, 1944, a county-wide election was held. The vote turned out in favor of creating a “dry” county, outlawing sales of alcoholic beverages.

In 1950, Jonesboro resident Francis Cherry became governor of Arkansas. The town saw a dynamic period of growth in the 1950s and 1960s with the establishment of businesses such as Arkansas Glass, Colson Caster, Frolic Footwear (a division of Wolverine, makers of Hush Puppies), General Electric, Pepsi-Cola, and Hytrol Conveyor Co., one of the largest manufacturers of conveyors and conveying equipment in the world.

Jonesboro’s African-American Cultural Center today emphasizes the history of the black citizens of Craighead County. The E. Boone Watson Community Center in Jonesboro is also dedicated to preserving and remembering black culture in the town, with more than fifty exhibits, including photos, newspaper articles, and other pieces of historic memorabilia. The traditionally black Booker T. Washington High School has held a reunion every two years since 1926 for graduates of Jonesboro’s black school during the segregation period. In 1955, two years before the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, Army Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Turner Jr., Walter Strong, and Larry Williams began taking classes at Arkansas State College. Strong and Turner were the first two black students to graduate from Arkansas State, in 1959 and 1960 respectively.

On May 31, 1958, the Nettleton community voted 699–76 in favor of a proposed annexation to join the city of Jonesboro. Tthe highly rated Nettleton School District continues to operate independently of Jonesboro schools though it is within the city limits, as do the school districts of Valley View and Westside, which were also absorbed as Jonesboro continued to expand geographically.

In 1984, local resident Earl Bell won an Olympic medal for the pole vault. In 1990, Debbye Turner, a Jonesboro resident, became Miss America. Bestselling author John Grisham, who was born in Jonesboro, chose the town for the world premiere of the television movie based upon his book, A Painted House. Jonesboro has its own television station, KAIT, an ABC affiliate, plus numerous AM and FM radio stations as well as the Jonesboro Sun newspaper. In addition to the continuous growth of St. Bernards Medical Center, Jonesboro is also served by NEA Medical Center, formerly Regional Medical Center of Northeast Arkansas.

The town made national news because of deadly tornadoes in 1968 and 1973, as well as a tragic school shooting at its Westside Middle School on March 24, 1998. The Mall at Turtle Creek, was a $100 million project that is now the largest mall in northeast Arkansas. Nearby towns such as Bono (Craighead County), Brookland (Craighead County), and Paragould have become virtual bedroom communities, as many people come to Jonesboro daily to work. A significant Hispanic population has also been attracted to the town by employment opportunities in construction, agriculture, and food processing.

The Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce has been extremely active in recruiting large businesses such as Nestle and Frito-Lay. Local amenities in Jonesboro include the Craighead County–Jonesboro Regional Library, the Jonesboro Municipal Airport, and the Fowler Center for performing arts.

Jonesboro’s Craighead Forest Park is owned by the city and was first developed in 1937, when the local Young Men’s Civic Club began work on the fifty-five-acre lake. Today, the lakeside park offers outdoor sports, hiking trails, camping, fishing (with the lake stocked by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission), and special events such as July 4th in the Forest and a Labor Day blues festival. In 2004, the Forrest L. Wood Crowley’s Ridge Nature Center opened in Jonesboro, offering visitors a look at the native wildlife of Crowley’s Ridge.

For additional information:
City of Jonesboro, Arkansas. http://www.jonesboro.org/home/home.htm (accessed March 21, 2006).

Dew, Lee A. The ASU Story. Jonesboro: Arkansas State University Press, 1968.

Hanley, Ray, and Diane Hanley. Jonesboro and Arkansas’ Historic Northeast Corner. Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2002.

Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce. http://www.jonesborochamber.org/index.php (accessed February 21, 2006).

Stuck, Charles A. The Story of Craighead County: A Narrative of People and Events in Northeast Arkansas. Jonesboro, AR: 1960.

Williams, Harry Lee. History of Craighead County, Arkansas. Little Rock: Parke-Harper Co., 1930.

Nancy Hendricks
Arkansas State University

Last Updated 10/24/2013

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