Mount Magazine Mountaintop Settlers
In the latter half of the 1800s, new land on Mount Magazine could be acquired in two ways. A legislative act in 1853 granted a wide swath of land for the construction of a railroad in the Petit Jean River Valley. Excess land could be sold to settlers for up to $2.50 per acre. Later, the Homestead Act of 1862 opened 270 million acres in the United States to settlement. Land had to be surveyed before claims could be made. Homesteaders had to live on the land, build a home, make improvements, and farm there for five years before they were eligible to receive title.
Many of the original settlers came to enjoy the health benefits of the elevation’s cooler air and the good water on the mountain. Since the mountaintop stays at least 10 degrees cooler than the valley below, and insects are less a problem here, the mountain became a summer retreat. Almost every flat area atop the mountain was farmed. Many of the place names you see on the Mountain today were named for settlers who first cleared land here.
Rural farms in those days were nearly self-sufficient. Farming was done with mules and oxen. A portion of the land would be used to grow row crops. Onions, potatoes, and watermelons did especially well on these mountaintop farms. Corn was raised to feed family and livestock. Orchards of apples, pears, and peaches were planted. Some farms even had vineyards. Wild berries supplemented diets. Bee hives provided honey to be used as a sugar substitute. Fruits, vegetables, and native berries were canned and stored in cellars. Water was provided by natural springs before wells were dug.
Excess produce was taken by wagon down to the valley to sell and barter. Wagons would return with barrels of flour, sugar, salt, and other necessities the farm could not provide. These trips often took a week of traveling rough wagon roads. Women on the farm made clothing from bolts of fabric. Cotton lint was spun into thread to knit stockings for the whole family.
After the Civil War, Confederate veteran Thomas Rush Cameron moved his family from Georgia to Arkansas. For a while, they lived near Chickalah, south of Dardanelle. Cameron was advised to seek a higher elevation to help his wife’s respiratory condition. One day while bear hunting on the mountain, he discovered a flat, fertile area above a peninsula of bluffs that overlooked the northern slope of Mount Magazine. His family established a homestead on what is now called Cameron Bluff. To look at that heavily forested, modern camping area today, it is hard to imagine that farm fields and orchards once thrived here. The magnificent background above the bluffs created a romantic site for weddings. The first known wedding held there was that of Lois Cameron to Daniel McGuire. This scenic setting is still a popular site for exchanging vows.
In 1880, Benjamin Benefield was granted title to 160 acres of land on the southeast leg of the mountaintop where the Benefield Picnic Area is now located. The Benefield family’s first home was a log cabin with a lean-to kitchen. Later a two-story house with four upstairs bedrooms was built. The Benefield’s seven children help to clear and farm approximately 40 acres. A grave near the entrance to the park’s picnic area is the final resting place of one of the Benefield children.
The area called Brown’s Spring was settled by Benjamin Brown. He, too, was a farmer, but made extra money by supplying tourists with mules to ride. His two sons settled adjoining land to the west.
Another pioneer of the mountain was Friedrich August Morsbach, a Union veteran from Germany. He arrived on the mountain in 1880 and was granted title to 80 acres on the northeastern leg of the mountaintop five years later. Like other homesteaders, Morsbach cleared his land for farming, a difficult task including removing an endless supply of rocks. All around his farm, these rocks were used to form fences and buildings.
Friedrich’s son, Albert, and daughter, Clara, settled on what is now called Mossback Ridge. Albert’s first wife, Serena, died in 1896, and was buried on the northern slope of Mossback Ridge. He married Susannah Walker the following year, and they raised four children.
Will and Lulah Greenfield established a home near the head of Bear Hollow in 1893. Nine of their 10 children were born on the mountain. The Greenfields expanded their house to rent out rooms and, in addition, built seven cabins to accommodate tourists escaping the summer heat in the valleys below.
For the health of a baby suffering from “summer complaint,” Tom Buckman started bringing his family up to spend summers on the mountain in the 1890s. Winters were spent in Belleville. Crops of corn, vegetables, and apples were fenced with rails because cows grazed freely on the mountaintop. After some years, Tom decided to profit from tourists by building cabins near a large dining area and kitchen. A gas pump lifted water up from a spring below the cliff. Below the spring he built a swimming pool of stone and tar.
Children on the mountain attended classes in a one-room school house on the northern slope of Mossback Ridge not far from Serena Morsbach’s grave. The “Summer Home School” started in the late 1800s and had as many as 40 students. Albert Morsbach was one of the early teachers. Some of the students, like Tony Brown, became teachers in the school even though they lacked formal high school educations. The original building burned in 1920. Afterwards class was held in a cabin between the Greenfields and the Buckmans. Erma Greenfield was their last teacher in 1929.
The stock market crash of 1929 started an era of economic hard times called the Great Depression. Money and jobs were hard to find. Tourists stopped coming to the mountain. Property taxes could not be paid, and many homes were lost and taken over by the government. None of the original buildings remain. Federal programs started a new era of change on Mount Magazine.
In 1934, the Resettlement Administration purchased all private land on the mountain. Four years later, in 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt transferred the property to the U.S. Forest Service. Between 1939 and 1940, the Works Progress Administration constructed a 27-room lodge and restaurant here that the U. S. Forest Service operated until it was destroyed by fire in 1971.
For genealogical research, contact the Arkansas History Commission at (501) 682-6900, or log onto: www.ark-ives.com.