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Home / Browse / Marked Tree (Poinsett County)
Latitude and Longitude:
5.642 square miles (2010 Census)
2,566 (2010 Census)
July 8, 1897
Historical Population as per the U.S. Census:
Marked Tree is a small town in Poinsett County in the northeastern part of Arkansas. It is possibly the only town in the world with the name Marked Tree. It is also unique because it is located between two rivers, the St. Francis River and the Little River, which, in some places, are only a quarter of a mile away from each other yet flow in opposite directions. Marked Tree is perhaps best known for the Marked Tree Lock and Siphons, just a few miles out of the city limits, which were constructed for flood control and are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Post Reconstruction through the Gilded Age
Poinsett County was formed on February 28, 1838, but at that time, there were no incorporated towns and very few settlers. The area was complete wilderness until the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Gulf railroad, later known as the Frisco Railroad, was built, bringing railroad workers to Marked Tree and the surrounding area. Construction went on from 1881 to 1883. The Frisco depot was torn down in 1981.
Jonathan C. Edwards was the work camp manager. He applied for a post office, and the post office was established on March 26, 1883, originally in an abandoned steamboat tied to the depot. Edwards was appointed the first postmaster. In the 1880s, about 142 people lived in the area around Marked Tree, and over 100 of them were railroad workers. By 1890, however, the first sawmills were built, beginning what would be Marked Tree’s biggest industry for the next few decades.
The town was named Marked Tree for an oak tree marked with a foot-high “M” that used to be on the bank of the Little River. There are two possible explanations as to who marked it. One is that it was marked in the 1830s by a member of John Murrell’s band of outlaws from the area of Jackson, Tennessee. They stole horses and sometimes even slaves from Kentucky and Tennessee and brought them through Arkansas to Oklahoma and Texas.
A less likely theory is that the Indians marked the tree. Osages who lived further north, in Missouri, hunted in the Marked Tree area for many generations. Delaware and Shawnee also had communities in northeast Arkansas briefly during territorial times. Although the marked tree for which the town was named fell into the river during a flood in 1890, a tree was found in the river in 1971 that is believed to be the same tree. It is on display in Marked Tree with a historical marker.
In 1887, Ernest Ritter headed a movement to incorporate Marked Tree as a town. On July 6, 1897, the petition was granted. An election was held on August 17, 1897, and John Krier was elected to be the first mayor. In 1889, Ritter Jr. founded E. Ritter & Company.
Unfortunately, as a result of the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811–1812, much of the land had sunken down as much as nine feet in some places, and the “sunken lands,” as they were called, flooded every spring, making farming impossible. The situation was improved in 1893, when the first steps were made toward building levees. The St. Francis Valley was created by the earthquakes also, and so was the St. Francis Lake, six miles north of Marked Tree.
One of the earliest successful sawmills was the Oliver Davis sawmill, which was bought by John and William Fuller from Newborn, Tennessee, in 1891, and later by the Papka Light Lumber Company of Chicago, Illinois. Ritter also had a sawmill for a while. The biggest sawmill was the one owned by Chapman and Dewey Lumber Company. In 1890, they bought the property of a sawmill formerly owned by a Mr. Harding of Sioux City, Iowa. By 1893, the Chapman and Dewey Lumber Company had over 100,000 acres of land across Arkansas and 30,000 acres in Poinsett County. At the turn of the century, they were the chief employers in Marked Tree. Although a privately owned electricity plant had been built in 1898, the Chapman and Dewey Lumber Company installed the first electric plant for the general public in Marked Tree.
On a Sunday night in July 1894, there was a riot in Marked Tree. Feeling that they were being deprived of jobs, a group of white men targeted local African Americans and the people who had hired them. The black citizens had apparently expected trouble, because they were all barricaded inside their own houses. Although over 500 shots were fired, nobody was killed.
At the time of the 1900 census, 181 adult males lived in Marked Tree, and ninety-six of them, about fifty-three percent, were sawmill workers. There were only eighty-five women and eighty-five children. At that time, there were about ten black households in the Delta area of Poinsett County.
Early Twentieth Century
The Chapman and Dewey Lumber Company was hurt by a major fire in 1902. The fire began during the midnight meal break of the night workers, the day after a strike had been settled. The company had agreed to the workers’ terms, but only for white workers. Some people believed that the fire was deliberately set by angry black workers, but there is no evidence to support that theory. The company had employed about 300 men, but due to the losses, it had to fire about half of them.
On October 4, 1904, a group of landowners including Ernest Ritter and W. B. Miller, who was later to become chairman of the St. Francis Levee Board, petitioned for drainage districts in Poinsett County. The engineer made his report on January 9, 1905. The only opposition raised was, strangely, from Ritter himself, but in the end the drainage ditches were dug. Marked Tree was in Drainage District Seven, which had 164,000 acres of land, although it later expanded to include 190,000 acres.
The earliest churches in Marked Tree were built around the turn of the century. One early church was a Methodist church built in 1908; a new Methodist church was built in 1926. An Episcopal church was built in 1908, but the building was later sold to the Baptists. The early churches were segregated, and for the black community, there was the Anderson Chapel Baptist, organized in 1894, and later a Methodist church and another Baptist church.
Between 1900 and 1910, Marked Tree had its main roads paved or graveled, some sidewalks were laid, housing subdivisions were built, and churches and schools expanded. The population grew to well over 1,000. After nearly a decade of political controversy, saloons were closed in 1916. Most of the major roads in the Delta area of Poinsett County centered around Marked Tree, and when the county courthouse in Harrisburg (Poinsett County) burned down on May 4, 1917, many people thought it should be moved to Marked Tree. Instead, the county courthouse remained in Harrisburg.
In 1912, 1913, 1927, and 1937, the levees broke and flooded the town. The Flood of 1927 was particularly bad. The levees in Marked Tree broke on April 15, and much of the town was underwater for much of the spring and early summer. The crops that year were destroyed.
In response, the Marked Tree Lock and Siphons were built to control flooding and to provide transportation along the St. Francis River. They are of historical significance because they were important elements of the St. Francis River Basin Flood Control Project and the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ flood control plan for the Mississippi River Valley, and according to the Corps of Engineers, they are unique in architectural achievement. The lock was completed in 1926. It is about nine miles away from Marked Tree, on an abandoned artificial channel of the St. Francis River. The siphons are used to control water flow on the St. Francis River. The tubes are nine feet in diameter and 229 feet long. They are located 646 feet away from the lock, over a closing levee. They began operation on June 7, 1939.
World War II through the Modern Era
In World War II, a German prisoner-of-war camp was housed in Marked Tree, one of two in Poinsett County. During the war, the German prisoners did farm work, and they returned to Germany after the war.
The Marked Tree Public Library began in 1938. The Fire Department was established in 1947, and city mail delivery began in 1952.
Constructed in 1939 by the Memphis District Corps of Engineers for Drainage District Number Seven of Poinsett County, the Marked Tree Siphons were an integral part of the St. Francis River Basin Flood Control Project.
The population of Marked Tree grew steadily during the first half of the twentieth century, and by the 1960s, it was over 3,000 people. Since then, the population has decreased, with the 2010 census recording 2,566 people in the town.
Before 1901, the only public school for the children of Marked Tree was about one mile out of town in a building called Woodman Hall. In 1901, the first public school within Marked Tree began. A new building was built in 1906, and in 1914, a three-story brick building was built to house the school. In 1914, the high school began; it was remodeled in the summer of 1949. A new elementary school was built in 1937. It later became the middle school but burned down in 1978. A new elementary school was built in 1957. In September 1938, a school started for black children. It had six classrooms. The schools were desegregated in 1966.
Today, Marked Tree is home to the Arkansas State University Technical Center, formerly the Delta Technical Institute.
The main industries of Marked Tree have been farming and lumber. Before levees were built in the 1890s, farming was very difficult because of floods, but for the last century, cotton, soybeans, rice, and corn have all grown in Poinsett County. A cotton gin was built in 1905, and cotton began to be profitable then. Through the 1920s, cotton was by far the biggest crop industry, but by the 1940s, corn was also very profitable.
In 1993, the Marked Tree Delta Area Museum opened. It has 5,000 square feet and includes exhibits on Indian pottery, some of which is 700 years old; telephones from the early 1900s; and a four-room replication of the old Verser Hospital in Harrisburg.
The St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management Area is near Marked Tree. The St. Francis River is a popular place for fishing and hunting waterfowl.
The great granddaughter of founder Ernest Ritter Jr., Mary Ann
Ritter Arnold took over as president of E. Ritter & Company in 1976. She also served as Marked Tree’s mayor. Cornelius Carpenter was a minister in Marked Tree but gained national attention as the attorney for the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union in the 1930s.
For additional information:
Poinsett County, Arkansas: History and Families. Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing Company, 1998.
Ritter, Anna. “Marked Tree from 1883 to 1936.” Craighead County Historical Quarterly 5 (Winter 1967): 24–27.
———. “Marked Tree from 1883 to 1936, Part II.” Craighead County Historical Quarterly 5 (Spring 1967): 24–28.
———. “Marked Tree from 1883 to 1936, Part III.” Craighead County Historical Quarterly 5 (Summer 1967): 26–29.
Whayne, Jeannie M. “Caging the Blind Tiger: Race, Class, and Family in the Battle for Prohibition in Small Town Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 71 (Spring 2012): 44–60.
———. A New Plantation South: Land, Labor, and Federal Favor in Twentieth-Century Arkansas. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996.
North Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 2/27/2019
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