Arkansas Listings on the National Register of Historic Places: Bigelow Methodist Episcopal Church, South, Bigelow, Perry County
09 Monday Sep 2013
Written by Mark Christ
The Bigelow Methodist Episcopal Church, South is being nominated under Criterion A with local significance for its association with the lumber mill boom era of Bigelow. Under Criterion C, the church is also locally significant for its relatively unaltered appearance that conveys firsthand the Plain Traditional-style religious architecture being constructed in small towns in the first decade of the twentieth century.
The town of Bigelow owes its origins to Gustave Carl Fredrick Wilhelm Klingelhoffer, who arrived in Little Rock with a colony of immigrants in 1833. Klingelhoffer and other members of the group scouted the Arkansas River Valley for three years before choosing land along the Fourche La Fave River. Klingelhoffer settled about two miles west of present-day Perryville and operated a ferry across the river at that site for about twenty years. In 1856, he moved downstream to a small mountain overlooking the river. Soon, a small settlement named Esau was established around Klingelhoffer’s residence. A post office was established in 1880, and during this decade a cotton mill and a shingle mill were in operation at Esau under the ownership of John M. Crist, who married Klingelhoffer’s youngest daughter, Josephine.
By 1900, the Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf Railroad (later Chicago, Rock Island, & Pacific) had extended its line to the south of Esau, and Prichard Niemeyer started operation of a small independent saw mill on the banks of the Fourche La Fave River. In the middle months of 1900, the Bryant Lumber Company opened and employed 175 people. Two years later, the Fourche River Lumber Company, the “giant of the lumber industry in Perry County,” opened, and a serious economic boom was initiated. A company town was constructed from the edge of the river to within a quarter mile of the railroad, a distance of two miles. This town was soon known as “Graytown” since every company owned building and residence was indeed painted gray. Within Graytown was a large commissary, office building, and a fifty-three bed hotel.
Coinciding with this development was the demise of the original settlement of Esau. As the citizenry of Esau abandoned the old town for land nearer the railroad, a new community, which was also known as Esau, was established. In 1903, the Fourche River Lumber Company connected “new” Esau and Graytown with board sidewalks. In spite of their proximity, the two villages remained separate entities until 1905 when a group of thirty people petitioned Perry County to incorporate as the city of Esau.
At the height of the boom in 1910, the residents of Esau could boast their own local newspaper, “The Citizen’s Press” and a telephone exchange. The town contained, among others, a hardware store, a jewelry store, a drug store, barber shop, two dry cleaning establishments, three general stores, an ice house, a baker, and a butcher shop. Other institutions were the State Bank, four hotels, and Patterson Hall, which was used for dances, balls, fraternity orders, parties, and other public functions. The population of Esau at this time was estimated at 10,000 people, and it was claimed to be the largest city between Little Rock and Fort Smith. While this figure is undoubtedly exaggerated (the 1920 census reveals a population of only 589), it is known that the numbers of workers employed by the lumber industry during the boom dramatically augmented the population of the original settlement.
In 1911, the citizens of Esau requested permission of the State’s General Assembly to change their town’s name to Bigelow in honor of N. P. Bigelow, the second president of the Fourche River Lumber Company. As the lumber industry continued to fuel Bigelow’s growth, many citizens believed the county court should be relocated from Perryville to Bigelow. A county election was held in 1915 with Bigelow receiving twelve more votes than Perryville. The election was contested, however, and Perryville retained the county seat. By 1920, the lumber industry boom had nearly expired as most of the timber had been cut over, and in the following year the Fourche River Lumber Company closed. Hundreds of families left Bigelow in search of work, and many businesses failed. The boom era was over.
The Bigelow Methodist Episcopal Church, South was constructed c.1908 during the boom years of the town on land donated by J. G. Smitherton in 1906. Little is known about the individual history of the church congregation other than the Methodist Church has continually held services in the building. Now known simply as the Bigelow Methodist Church, it is one of the few remaining structures in Bigelow from the boomtown era. As such, the church is locally significant under Criterion A for its association with the early history and economic zenith of Esau/Bigelow. Under Criterion C, the Bigelow Methodist Episcopal Church, South is also locally significant for its relatively unaltered appearance that conveys firsthand the Plain Traditional-style religious architecture being constructed in small towns in the first decade of the twentieth century.
Information submitted by Bonnie Frey, July 1995.
“Living the Times . . . 1776-1976 A Bicentennial Tribute to Perry County.” Compiled by Heritage Committee Members. “Bigelow”: pp. 40-47.