Arkansas Historic Preservation Program E-Newsletter        Friday December 8, 2006

State Review Board Nominates 33 Properties to National Register of Historic Places

LITTLE ROCK-The State Review Board of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program nominated 33 properties in 24 Arkansas counties to the National Register of Historic Places when it met Dec. 6, AHPP Director Ken Grunewald announced today. 

Among the nominated properties was: The Widner-Magers Farm at Dell in Mississippi County, containing agricultural structures erected between 1912 and 1939.

From: Sarah A. Jampole, Survey Historian; Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, AR

Email, Wednesday, December 13, 2006

"...It has been a pleasure working with you on the nomination of the farm. The members of the Board are so very impressed with the buildings and the wonderful condition they are in. 'we need more properties like this in the state' one member commented. "

Arkansas Historic Preservation Program E-Newsletter        Monday February 19, 2007

Seven Properties Listed on National Register of Historic Places

LITTLE ROCK-Seven Arkansas properties have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the country's official list of historically significant properties, Arkansas Historic Preservation Program Director Ken Grunewald announced today.

Listed with the seven properties was: *Widner-Magers Farm Historic District at Dell in Mississippi County, AR, a collection of Plain Traditional-style agricultural structures built between 1912 and 1939.

History of the Widner-Magers Farm

Constructed between 1912-1939, the Widner- Magers Farm Historic District is comprised of five buildings and three outbuildings. Located on North Arkansas State Highway 181 approximately 1.6 miles north of Dell, Mississippi County, Arkansas, the complex is being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places with local significance for its association with cotton farming in Dell and Mississippi County, Arkansas. Set against a backdrop of cotton fields and the Pemiscot Bayou, the WMFHD has been a center of agricultural activity since 1896, however, most of the buildings were constructed by Earl Magers between 1930-1939.  Excellent examples of 20th century Plain/Traditional and Craftsman architectural-style, the farm buildings have been maintained with few changes by the Earl Magers/Curtis Duncan family for 77 years.

The Widner-Magers Farm Historic District  is located on Arkansas North State Highway 181 in the northern part of the Mississippi County, Arkansas Delta, 9 miles west of Blytheville, Arkansas, and 10 miles south of the Missouri Bootheel. It is 1.6 miles north of the present town of Dell, in the township of Hector.

The original absentee owner of the future Magers property was Thomas J. Blackmore, who acquired 159.17 acres on June 17, 1855, through the Swamp Land Act of 1850. This property would pass through several more absentee owners until 1878 when W. B. Sizemore, one of the original pioneers of the area, bought it. He owned the land until his death, when his son Robert Sizemore inherited it. J. D. Widner apparently bought the land sometime around 1896. In an affidavit of March 1926, Hugh and J. W. Perry stated that J. D. Widner had lived and farmed the acreage for thirty years.

Between 1878 and 1902, the Dell community was located north and west of the Pemiscot Bayou. The settlement had a population of approximately two hundred people. Mr. Widner and his family were a part of this settlement. Neighbors included the Hector families, who were the first settlers east of Big Lake. They moved to the area in 1832. The township is named after them. Other neighbors included the Perrys, the Sizemores, the Petersons, the Rays, the Daughterys, and others. Many of the original families were of Cherokee descent, including the Hectors. Their houses were built on the many Indian mounds along the Pemiscot Bayou, for the area was very swampy and subject to flooding each year. A number of the early settlers are buried on one of the old cemetery mounds approximately 1/2 mile south of the Widner homestead. Descendents of these early families still live in the area. In fact, a descendent of Sam Hector lived on the Magers farm until his death in 1995.

The community depended on the Pemiscot Bayou as access in and out of the area. There were no roads, only trails. The swampland was flooded much of the year, which made ground travel almost impossible. The Dell community was on somewhat higher ground. A post office has been reported to have been there since 1889, but the postal service records states the first post office was in 1897, located in J. B. Richardsonís store, on the south side of the bayou. Mr. Richardson also owned a loading dock there, where goods could be brought in and cotton, wood, furs, fish, and game could be sent south to the Mississippi River or north to St. Louis, Missouri. A wooden bridge crossed the Pemiscot Bayou at Richardsonís store. In 1896, School District #23 was formed. The first schoolhouse was built not too far south from Mr. Widnerís farm. The building was also used as a community church.

In 1902, big news arrived at the Dell community. The railroad was coming! The Jonesboro, Lake City, and Eastern Railroad was building a bridge across Big Lake, just west of Dell, in order to access the thousands of acres of virgin timber. Dell was a boomtown overnight.  Farmers from all over the country moved in behind the massive logging industry, buying the cutover land for as little as fifty cents per acre. Some of the original farmsteads north of Dell began to be divided into small farm lots. Mr. Widner apparently sold part of his acreage in this fashion, but he kept the best land and his farmstead for himself until 1930.

Earl Magers was one of the many farmers who came to Arkansas to buy the cheap, rich, swampland. He arrived with his wife and two daughters in 1916. The year before, the family had moved from their home in Hayward, Missouri to Yarbro, Arkansas. Earl was not impressed with the land there. He made a trip further south to the Dell area, only to find richer soil, plus the opportunity to fund his farm through real estate transactions. He returned to Yarbro to gather his family.

Earl was a major influence in the shaping of Dell and itís communities. From 1916 until 1957, when he died, Earl remained in Dell. He bought and sold many parcels of land, including lots in and outside of Dell. He was not a real estate agent. His interest was in helping the community grow. In 1919, he bought the remainder of the First Addition of Dell owned by the Sparks Brothers Land Company, Inc. He kept an entire block of lots for his own home and for the future homes of his three daughters. He sold the remainder lots to other families. He also built many of the early houses in Dell, with the help of local labor. He set aside one section of the First Addition of Dell for the black community. There he had several of the houses and establishments built. One of those buildings, the grocery, is now located at the Earl Magers Farm Headquarters.

In 1918, Earl served as recorder for the Dell town council. From 1925-29, he was mayor of that same council. From July through October 1928, he was postmaster for Dell. During the 1920ís, he took his turn with others as town marshal. That was the days of walking the levee to make sure no one dynamited the long mounds of dirt in order to relieve the water pressure up north but causing flooding south. He also rounded up many stills, holding raids on "moonshiners" during the Prohibition.

One of the major accomplishments of Mr. Magers occurred during the Great Depression, when most school systems operated in the red and many had to close. With only an eighth grade education, Earl, and the schoolís principal, Mr. Mullins, kept the Dell School in the black for all but one year. He served on the Dell School Board from 1933-1941 and was instrumental in consolidating Half Moon, Ekron and Perry schools into the Dell School District. Until 1939, the Dell School only had eight grades. Students had to travel ten miles to Blytheville in order to finish high school. Mr. Magers worked hard to turn the Dell School into a twelve grade system. In 1939, Dell had its first graduating class.

Earl Magers also served on the Dell Methodist Church Board of Directors for many years. When the church leaders decided they needed a new facility, Earl was appointed to the building committee. The new church was dedicated in 1950. There was no mortgage on it. All debts were paid in full. The new church appeared in Life magazine.

Three cotton gin companies were built in Mississippi County due, in part, to Earl Magersí efforts. The State of Arkansas incorporated the Dell Gin Company, which was located inside the Dell City limits, on June 5, 1926. Earl was one of the first stockholders, along with C. F. Floyd, J. N. Welborn, Charles Armstrong, E. M. Woodard, J. L. Wallis, S. T. Freeman, and E. A. Stacy. He was elected secretary and appointed, along with Charles Armstrong, to "look after the building of the gin and purchase material". The Dell Gin Company ran until 1975, when liquidation of the assets began.

On May 20, 1946, the State of Arkansas incorporated the Farmerís Gin Company of Dell. Earl Magers, Ulric Moore, Leslie Moore, Russell Greenway, and Dewey Sheppard were the principle stockholders. The ginning facilities were located approximately one mile from Dell, on east Highway 18. The Farmerís Gin Company was in operation until 1985.

The third cotton gin Earl helped established was built at Half Moon, Arkansas. This structure was entirely composed of poured concrete. Because of the threat of fire, most cotton gins in the area were framed in wood, but the walls and roof were covered in tin. This concrete building was an experiment in the gin building concept.

Earl was interested in developing the farming industry in Mississippi County by using innovative ideas. One example was his foresight in the use of an irrigation system during hot, dry summers. In 1951, he was the first farmer in this area to build and use such a system. Area farmers were invited to witness the event, which was well attended. Most farmers today still use irrigation.

Another innovative practice Earl began was to clean, weigh, and bag a part of the soybean crop as it was harvested in the field. Enough of the bagged soybeans were kept for the next yearís planting. The excess bags were sold to other area farmers at a reduced rate, bringing down the cost of buying seed each year.

For himself and his family, Earl was interested in obtaining the best farmland in the area. On March 5, 1930, Earl bought the 50.51-acre farmstead from J. W. Widner and his wife Kittie. He paid $6566.30 for it ($4566.00 cash to the Widners and took over a $2000.00 note). He already owned a number of acres in the Dell area, but this property was centrally located and an excellent choice for a headquarters. Also, there were several houses, barns and outbuildings that could be incorporated into the complex. Earl moved the original Widner home to a new location for one of his farmhands and built a new house for his farm manager. This is the present house found at the headquarters. Within the 50.51 acres Earl bought, more farmhouses were built for the ten to fifteen families who worked for him. A 1938 map indicates at least twelve houses lined either side of the road on the Magers property, close to the complex. Two large barns were also built within a mile from each other to house the livestock, hay, and equipment used for farming. The barn, still standing at the farm complex, housed the mules, a few horses, and some of the wagons. The cribs in that barn held corn and feed for the stock. It also stored cottonseed each year. One of the old wagons and a few pieces of the original equipment are still housed in this barn. The small barn shed, built by Mr. Widner and located at the headquarters, was also used for animal stock.

The largest barn, less than a mile away and located on the Pemiscot Bayou, stored hay and was shelter for the cows and horses. A shed for the pigs was close-by. Both of these buildings were torn down years ago.

All barns, farmhand houses, outbuildings, and sheds were painted red with white trim, Earlís trademark. Cypress was the wood of choice, for it was very abundant in the area. Lumbering was still a big business until the late 1930s. Much of the lumber used on the Magers farm was virgin timber, cut and milled close-by. It was plentiful, cheap, and a natural deterrent of termites and other insects. The barns and buildings were built to last. Unfortunately, when farming turned to mechanization and tractors replaced mules, the sheds of the old barns werenít wide enough to house the tractors and their equipment, which is one of the main reasons some beautiful old barns were torn down. The large barn and the smaller barn shed at the headquarters are the only ones left on the original Magers acreage.

In 1957, Earl Magers died of cancer, as was the fate of many of the early farmers. I was ten days from being six years old. My Mom, Irene Magers Duncan, inherited part of the 1000+ acres and the 1.34-acre farm headquarters. She and my Dad, Curtis Duncan, had moved to Dell in 1950. He worked for Earl as the Farmers Gin manager and "right hand man". After Earlís death, Ireneís inheritance became the C. C. Duncan Farm. My father ran the farm, while maintaining his position at the Farmerís Gin Company. In 1975, he retired from farming. The Dilldine Farms of Half Moon, Arkansas began renting the land for crop rent and continues to do so today.

For the next thirty years, the farm complex was used very little, mainly for the storage of cast-off farm equipment and a multitude of old tires. Only Mr. Dilldineís farmhands occupied the farmhouse. For the most part, these barns and buildings, with all the rich history within their walls, laid in wait. The complex waited and watched as one by one the other farmhouses, barns, and outbuildings disappeared from the area. Its only inhabitants were barn owls, rabbits, mice, and snakes.

In December 2004, Irene Magers Duncan passed away suddenly. Granddaddy had left the farm to the "heirs of her body", being my brother Richard and me. Preserving a little of the Delta farm history by returning the farm to the 1930ís had been a dream of mine for many years. Some trading took place. The farm complex became mine.

My Dad was able to see the beginnings of the dream coming true before he passed away in 2005. I spent long hours with him, pouring over old photographs and listening to his stories. He gave me much information about the farm, the people, and the land. He was able to make one last visit to the headquarters in 2005, just to make sure that we "got it right". His final comment was, "Itís good to see Life come back into this ole farm. Now, I know it will be taken care of."

I see the Magers Farm Headquarters as an opportunity to preserve a part of the disappearing Delta history. Itís an opportunity for visitors to observe a farm complex of the 1930s in the Mississippi Delta, where few original buildings remain. It is a part of our history that needs to be kept and recognized, so that the "future may know our past".