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Latitude and Longitude:
2.102 square miles (2010 Census)
984 (2010 Census)
June 9, 1919
Historical Population as per the U.S. Census:
Altheimer is a second-class city in Jefferson County, located roughly halfway between Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) and Stuttgart (Arkansas County). Founded as a railroad town and named for the Jewish family who encouraged the building of the railroad, it quickly became a center for the shipping of cotton, surpassing older cities in eastern Arkansas.
Located in the Arkansas River Valley, the site of Altheimer was originally flood-prone forestland. Doctor Samuel Johnson Jones was the first resident of what would become Altheimer. He acquired and cleared 500 acres of timberland and moved to Arkansas from Mississippi in 1857, bringing his family and 150 slaves with him. His mansion, the Elms (which is now on the National Register of Historic Places), was built the year after the Civil War ended. About the same time, Louis Altheimer first visited the state of Arkansas. Altheimer, who had immigrated to the United States from southern Germany and was living in Indiana, traveled down the Mississippi River, stopping at Napoleon (Desha County). He continued south to Jackson, Mississippi, where he began a mercantile business. Having read Friedrich Gerstäcker’s accounts of his travels through Arkansas, Altheimer decided to invest in the state, seeing its potential for profit.
Louis Altheimer and his brother Joseph had associates in the St. Louis Southwestern Railway, commonly known as the Cotton Belt. They encouraged the company to build its line through Pine Bluff, and while that construction took place around 1886, they acquired roughly 12,000 acres of land in Jefferson County and cleared the trees away for fields of cotton. The railway station at the center of that land was named for the brothers, and it became a rapidly growing city, although it was not incorporated until June 1919. Around 1900, Jacob Cohn settled in Altheimer and opened the city’s first grocery store. Installing a deep well on his property with a pump and a tank, Cohn became the first resident of the city to have indoor running water. Aviation pioneer James Smith McDonnell Jr. spent much of his childhood in Altheimer.
The Arkansas River flooded in 1904, ruining the year’s cotton crop. The Flood of 1927 also devastated the city when the Plum Bayou Levee broke on April 15 of that year, flooding thousands of acres of Jefferson County, including Altheimer. Some residents took shelter on the second floor of various downtown structures, while others were helped by the Red Cross, which erected tent shelters on higher ground near Altheimer. During the Depression, Altheimer had only one paved street, Front Street, which was lined with stores, gas stations, a bank, the Methodist church, the post office, and a Chinese grocery store. The city also contained several cotton gins and a three-block African-American community with its own stores, churches, and schools. In 1936, the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal program, purchased nearly 3,500 acres of farmland four miles south of Altheimer and created a cooperative community of farmers called Lake Dick.
In 1935, Joseph Altheimer’s son Benjamin purchased the old Jones plantation home, the Elms, eventually making it the center of a philanthropic foundation that built a clerical and machine trade school and a technical school in the city, as well as a Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts building. In the 1940s, the Ben J. Altheimer Foundation began offering college scholarships to Altheimer High School graduates and also provided extensive funding for the public school system.
As late as 1953, Altheimer still had four cotton gins, eighteen stores, and three churches (Methodist, Baptist, and Church of God). It had a high school and elementary school for white students and also a high school and elementary school for black students. The water and natural gas companies were municipally owned and operated. During the 1960s, the school system was quietly desegregated without controversy.
William H. Bowen, who was chief of staff to Governor Bill Clinton from 1991 to 1992, is from Altheimer. On April 27, 2000, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s law school was named for Bowen, who was dean of the law school from 1995 to 1997.
In the twenty-first century, Altheimer is bypassed by U.S. Highway 79, but Business 79 still travels down Front Street. The school was consolidated with the Dollarway School District in 2012 and closed its doors in the spring of 2013. Lake Dick and the Elms are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as is Roselawn, another plantation house built when the city was first being established in the 1880s. The Elms has become a bed-and-breakfast, and lodges for duck hunters have been built on the property.
For additional information:Bowen, William H. The Boy from Altheimer: From the Depression to the Boardroom. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2006.
LeMaster, Carolyn Gray. A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s–1990s. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.
Leslie, James W. “Jefferson County’s First: The Elms.” Jefferson County Historical Quarterly 29 (June 2001): 4–12.
O’Shay, Chick. “Altheimer Clings to Past in Sentimental Way.” Arkansas Democrat Magazine, August 16, 1953, p. 3.
Steven TeskeButler Center for Arkansas Studies
Last Updated 11/7/2016
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