|Vol. VII, No. 1, Summer 1993|
by Kim Allen Scott
Kim Scott is head of Processing Services, Special Collections Division of the University of
The letter from Illinois excited Charles Crawford, Pettigrew, Arkansas's banker, so much that he failed to read between the lines before answering it. "We will be very glad to see you here," he typed his reply to the inquiring editor. "We feel like you will have the support of the people here as much as possible to make a roaring success out of the paper." Crawford finished his letter with a flourish of town-boosting adjectives and hurried off to the Pettigrew post office to mail it before the day's train left town.
A firm believer that newspapers were the life of any community, Charles Crawford rejoiced that Pettigrew had at last attracted a newspaperman in the form of William A. Keithley, publisher of the Casey, Illinois, Weekly Commercial. But if Keithley's letter had confirmed his intention to move to Arkansas that summer of 1918, it also contained a precautionary note that Crawford should have noticed:
"We are anxious to get some of your cheap land and begin building us a home, as we care more for this than to get again into the printing business, although we will bring our plant and should it seem advisable will figure on establishing such a printing business as circumstances will warrant."
Over seventy years have passed since that hopeful exchange of letters and little remains of the town in which the banker and the printer were so vitally concerned. Pettigrew, once the thriving terminus of the St. Paul Branch, Fayetteville and Little Rock Railroad, is now a near ghost town sitting quietly along a lonely stretch of state route 16. More than 500 people lived and worked there around the turn of the century, but today abandoned automobiles outnumber the human population and one of Pettigrew's most famous recent residents is a goat domiciled in one of the rusting cars.
If a diary is the biographer' s tool for documenting the life of an individual, it should follow that a newspaper, being the collective journal of a town, is vital for a historian attempting to reconstruct the community of the past. An appreciation for their power to capture the zeitgeist of yesterday' s community makes today' s scarcity of old newspapers all the more alarming. Since the 1819 founding of the state' s first journal, the Arkansas Gazette, almost 3,000 different newspaper titles have made an appearance in the towns of Arkansas, yet samples of few more than 1,100 are available for research today. Many of those 1,100 newspapers, like the Pettigrew Journal, are represented by a single copy, and much of what we know about the settlements that spawned them is based on one crumbling, four-page printed document, published on an arbitrary date and saved by sentiment or chance. Attempting to interpret history of a place by reading a single issue of its newspaper is like trying to guess the plot of a movie by examining one still frame from the film: accuracy depends on the particular frame where the image is frozen. Although Pettigrew' s frame stopped on April 25, 1919, we fortunately have a few other sources besides the Pettigrew Journal that can help us reconstruct the story of both the town and its newspaper.
Pettigrew is at the head of White River in southern Madison County. It was also at the very head of the St. Paul Branch, Fayetteville and Little Rock Railroad, a spur continuously extended up White River to get at the great stands of timber there. Twelve miles down the track was the town of St. Paul; beyond that were more settled reaches of Washington and Benton Counties. Beyond Pettigrew the other direction was the wilderness high ground between White and Kings Rivers.
Established in 1897, Pettigrew was a lumberjack's boom town--while the timber lasted. Quickly a bank of storefronts was erected facing the tracks, and the hillsides became dotted with new residences and sawmills. For the next twenty years Pettigrew worked very hard to live up to its boastful claim of being the "Hardwood Capitol of the World" by churning out tons of wagon spokes, barrel staves, and railroad ties.
Charles E. Crawford became one of Pettigrew's leading citizens, establishing the town's bank and a stave mill while also eyeing other business opportunities in the area, such as the zinc deposits in nearby Newton County. He proudly watched his town grow to house a staggering number of lumber processors and supporting businesses. For example, a 1912 business directory lists not fewer than 10 operating sawmills in the community along with restaurants, hotels, and general stores---quite an accomplishment for a town just 15 years old. By that time Pettigrew did not suffer isolation from the outside world either, not with telephone service to complement the Western Union office, the daily arrival of the train, and the weekly visitation of E.F. Shinn's newspaper, the St.Paul Mountain Air. This last item was one status symbol that Pettigrew lacked, and in the spring of 1918 Charles Crawford personally took action to rectify the situation.
Just how the banker went about advertising Pettigrew' s desire for a newspaper editor is not known. Perhaps he placed a notice in the Inland Printer or another of the many trade magazines circulated among America's publishers. Another possibility is that Crawford merely listed his name as the person to contact in a real estate advertisement, and an exchange newspaper carrying the notice made its way to the Casey, Illinois, office of the Weekly Commercial. The Commercial's editor, William A. Keithly, wrote to the banker in early 1918 to find out more about opportunities in Pettigrew.
Almost everything we know about William Keithly is drawn from a few letters Crawford retained in his personal papers, some photographs and other personal memorabilia the editor left in Pettigrew, and a single issue of the Pettigrew Journal. What can be gleaned from these sources is that Keithley came from a newspaper publishing family in Nebraska and had been involved in the business himself since the 1880s. He wandered down to the Indian Territory in the late 1890s and in 1915 became owner and editor of the Weekly Commercial in Casey. Illinois. A good guess as to why Keithley chose Checotah in 1898 and Casey in 1915 is that he was a habitual "boomer" following the latest promise in economic prosperity: oil.
For some reason Keithley became disenchanted with Casey, though it is hard to see why. His newspaper enjoyed a circulation of 1,500 and easily outdistanced his competitor in the town. Perhaps too many of those 1,500 readers neglected their bills, or advertisers grew lax about payment, but by the spring of 1918 Keithley was ready for a move away from newspapering and to a more promising location for land speculation. When he wrote to Crawford, he asked about buying land with timber and if any property in the area was still available for claiming under the Homestead Act, instead of inquiring about market conditions for establishing a newspaper.
Certainly the portrait Charles Crawford painted of Pettigrew appealed to Keithley' s boomer mindset. The banker stressed the healthy climate, the availability of cheap land, and the potential for development of the area's mineral and oil deposits. Statistics provided by the United States Census tell a different story, though. The peak years of growth for the town were over. Kentucky Township, the district containing Pettigrew, grew from 935 residents in 1890 to 1,385 in 1900. By 1910, the population had fallen to 956, and ten years later only 518 would call the area home.
Crawford should not be blamed for neglecting to mention that Pettigrew had already entered its decline because he probably had not noticed himself. Conditions during the summer of 1918 helped disguise the slide of Pettigrew' s economy by artificially supporting it through wartime prosperity, but not even government contracts and price regulations could replace the diminished stands of white oak timber amidst the balding hills, nor could they create new markets for wagon bows, hubs, and spokes in an age when the automobile was destined to become king.
Ironically, consideration for his car seemed to be one of Keithley's main concerns in moving to Pettigrew. "We assume a car will not be of much advantage to one living at Pettigrew until, as you say, the roads are improved," he mused in a letter to Crawford, "But we would be unable to sell the car now here for what it is worth so we want to take it with us." Crawford replied in honest consternation, "I presume you have some kind of large touring car...cars come here often, and trucks have gone over the road, but it would damage a fine car other than a Ford to come up the river." "We have a five passenger Buick touring car," bristled Keithley after receiving Crawford' s letter, "If Fords are able to get to Pettigrew we are not worrying but what we can drive through." After selling most of his printing equipment to his competitor and loading the balance on a railroad boxcar, Keithley and his family got in the Buick and headed west for Arkansas on June 20, 1918.
Period photographs allow us to at least imagine the disappointing sight which greeted the new editor after he forced his car up the washed out, muddy road to Pettigrew. The building Crawford had reserved for Keithley's new office was located in the center of the town's business district, a row of approximately a dozen storefronts facing a dirt road. Parallelling the road were the tracks, ending at a hand-operated turntable at the upper end of town. On the opposite side of the tracks stood the depot. If he had arrived a dozen years earlier, Keithley would also have seen cut lumber stacked along the tracks for hundreds of yards in piles higher than the train; but now no more than a few mills could possibly have been operating.
Keithley lost no time in establishing the newspaper his new community expected of him, probably realizing there would be few other opportunities to make money at this place. He registered for a second class mail permit on August 2, and had the first issue of the Pettigrew Journal ready for inspection by August 16. Since we have only one copy of the paper for evidence, the editorial course of the Journal must be largely described on speculation. Keithley no doubt avoided allying himself with any political party and restricted his reporting efforts to the immediate area around Pettigrew. It would be interesting to know how Keithley stood on such issues as the new constitution pending in Little Rock that fall, or the idea of women' s suffrage, but we will probably never find out for sure. The closest rival newspaper, the St.Paul Mountain Air, cannot be consulted for clues on Keithley's editorial course because not a single 1918 or 1919 issue of that paper has survived.
For his newspaper, Keithley had all the type set by hand on the premises. Mr. Shinn at St. Paul, along with many other country editors at the time, bought "ready print" paper from newspaper syndicates and only set copy for the inside pages of their journals. Keithley scorned the use of such expensive conveniences and probably set up the whole weekly issue by himself or with the aid of his family, just as he had with his newspaper in Illinois.
But William Keithley came to Arkansas more to speculate in land than to operate a newspaper office. He never joined the Arkansas Press Association, nor did he list his paper with the Ayers and Son's newspaper directory. Traces in the public records show that Keithley purchased 120 acres for his family on September 18, 1918, with a $400 mortgage from Charles Crawford's bank. The following January he divided the property with his adult sons, deeding part to Willie and his wife, Elsie, and another portion to Sidney. By April, 1919, the reluctant editor had set up a real estate business with a man named Thacker and actively solicited business within the pages of his own newspaper, but by that time tragedy intervened to dash whatever slim prospects Pettigrew may have held for him.
The great influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 took as many as 7,000 Arkansas lives. Fueled by the increased mobility of people in wartime and the comparative lack of immunity among back country dwellers, the epidemic swept through many communities with frightening suddenness. The central part of the state was hit first in late September, but Pettigrew escaped the scourge through the end of October.
Charles Crawford reported not a single case in the town on the 25th, but shortly thereafter a public gathering at the Pettigrew school spread the virus so thoroughly that in the space of one weekend not enough people remained well to administer to the sick. A survivor recalled only two deaths inthe town during the epidemic, but the 1918 influenza had a tendency for pneumonic complications and it no doubt left many the following spring in a dangerously weakened state, perhaps including William Keithley' s wife, Mary.
The April 25, 1919 issue of the Pettigrew Journal is the single frame from the movie of the town's history we have to examine. From it we know that Keithley himself was ill that week, and that Mary had been suffering for a long time "with little of encouragement to report." Aside from his preoccupation with the lingering illness in his community, the editor displayed a hint of disillusionment with the economic promise of Pettigrew by reporting on the front page a glowing rumor about an oil boom at Pauhuska, Oklahoma. Apparently the "Hardwood Capitol of the World" had no resident preacher that spring because Keithley eagerly told about visiting men of the cloth conducting services at the schoolhouse. Young people idled by the postwar economic slump had lost their fear of being called "slacker" by this time because the editor advised "some of you young fellows who seem to have considerable time to loaf around" to apply for a job offered by farmer M.C. Goodnight.
As a snapshot of the thirdWeek of April, 1919, the Pettigrew Journal can tell us much about the
town: the price of laying hens (24 cents), the decision of Dr. W. H. Mooney to retire from active
practice, and that merchant Eli Sisemore felt prosperous enough to put a new roof on his general
store building. All the tantalizing little vignettes of the community stand before us in a neatly
printed, four-page letter from the past. Unfortunately, because the Journal stands alone it is like
an appetizer, promising a full meal to follow, but providing little nourishment on its own.
By October, 1919, William Keithley had left Arkansas for Sioux City, Iowa, where he found employment with Farmers and Breeders magazine. Perhaps he had tired of chasing boom towns at that stage in his life and decided to work at his chosen profession for wages from a steady employer. Sidney followed his father, leaving Willie behind to sell off some livestock from the family's holdings before he, too, left the state.
Charles Crawford continued to correspond with the family after they left, if for no other reason than to keep tabs on his bank's mortgage. In a 1921 letter to Willie, Crawford alluded to oil speculation along Madison County' s War Eagle Creek, but by that time the Keithley's were having none of it. In 1923, Crawford foreclosed on the Keithley property, explaining to Sidney "I hope to incur no ill will from you on this matter as it is only Bus[iness]." The property transferred to the Citizens Bank of Pettigrew on October 3, 1923.
As the years passed, more people left Pettigrew. One by one the sawmills fell silent, and then were joined by the hotels, restaurants, stores, and even Crawford's bank. The last train left the town in 1937 and even the rails eventually disappeared. Pettigrew is a very quiet place now, its hillsides once again covered with trees and shrubbery that are slowly erasing the works of man. Its legacy can be seen in that second growth of timber, just as it can be seen in the automobile graveyard flanking the roadbed, and in a yellowed, four-page, printed snapshot left behind from a brief player in the movie of its past.
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