Milling Around an Old Ghost Town

by Jake Ledbetter

photography by Amanda Shelley Ledbetter

Arkansas has a rich history. People have been calling it home for  centuries. It was a fertile hunting ground for many tribes of Native Americans, most predominantly the Quapaw. You can still find this influence in the names of numerous cities, lakes and other natural features. Its curious to note that even the name Arkansas is a corrupted spelling of Arkansea, the Illinois word for the Quapaw. This pristine wilderness was later a haven for trappers and hunters as the land was settled and was eventually incorporated into the United States as the Arkansas Territory in 1819.

Arkansas had begun to flourish by the time it became a state in 1836 with a plantation economy that was heavily reliant upon slave labor. After the Civil War, Arkansas had become a poor rural state heavily reliant upon cotton. But timber was also a big industry then. In 1902, the Arkadelphia Lumber Company received new leadership. William Grayson and Nelson McLeod had become its principal stockholders and moved the company to a site near the Antoine River in 1907 to have access to more virgin timber, which was a common practice of lumber companies. Like a plague of locusts, they would find a lumber rich area and set up shop until they had reaped all the benefits of the surrounding forest and would move on. They named the new camp Graysonia, in honor of the company’s new president, and they started off with a population of 350 as the new lumber town was founded.

The mill at Graysonia became one of the largest in the south due to the demand placed on our country during World War I. Estimates of the maximum population at Graysonia range between 700 to 1,000 people. It took a different path than most logging towns: They incorporated and elected their own government officials. At it’s peak, the town even had amenities such as a confectionery, a movie theater, a schoolhouse, three hotels, and a church. It had a water system and electricity. Things were going great for the company and people of Graysonia.

However, the cut-and-move mentality caught up to Graysonia and eventually signaled its end. As the amount of harvestable timber started to dwindle, 1929 arrived and the Great Depression seized America in its cruel grips.  The  mill kept churning out lumber, but by 1931 the output wasn’t enough to support the mill or the town. With its population dwindling, some residents sought work in the nearby Cinnabar mines. Others just moved on to the next place they could find work.   The Ozan-Grayson directors  told their stockholders that the land was not even worth the tax burden and they sold 10,000 acres to the McMillan family from Arkadelphia. Much of the equipment was moved to Delight, in Pike county in 1937 to build a new mill there. The town’s final resident was said to have been Brown Hickman, and he left Graysonia in 1951.

Fast-forward to summer in Arkansas 2016: What better time to take a break from the day to day and venture into the great outdoors? There are so many sights to see and places to visit, that when my lovely wife broached the idea of taking a road trip to hunt for an old mill ghost town, I thought “of course.” And luckily, there happened to be one about an hour from us. Since it was to be our first nature outing of the season, that meant dusting off our gear and stocking up on water. We enlisted some friends, and their dogs, and set out on our own ghost adventure.

The first challenge of finding a ghost town is that it’s not populated, not with the living anyway. The crux of the situation is location. How do you find it when Mother Nature has had six decades to reclaim her turf? I researched online  articles and listened to directions from people who had been there. I even turned to the all-powerful Google for help in locating Graysonia, Arkansas. Google gave me a map with a wonderful red pin telling me where it thought Graysonia is, or should I say, was. We headed out and soon arrived at the area where friends and internet search engines said we should be.

To enjoy this kind of an expedition, you have to like nature, in the utmost sense. We saw wonderful things on our trek through the woods: birds, snakes, plants and herbs  in bloom, and even a barely visible, rust colored frog that was nestled in the carpet of last year’s leaves that still blanketed our path. After walking up hills, over train trestles, down game trails and more than one dirt road, we realized we had made our way back to the same area. And we did this not once, but twice, without seeing anything resembling civilization other than a few deer stands from local hunters and two or three chunks of concrete that signaled we were not totally off the mark.

We regrouped and took a breather.  Our packs were lighter from the steady hydration our water stores had provided us throughout the day, and heavier due to the fatigue our bodies were showing from carrying them up and down hills, through creeks, along winding game trails and over decommissioned train tracks. After three hours and six miles of hiking, we were starting to give up on ever finding anything that would prove Graysonia had even existed. Following some careful study of our maps and taking into account the lay of the land and the course of the river, we ventured toward the source of our few remaining hours of daylight — go west young man!

The Antoine River had a nice bend that was our mutually-agreed-upon final area of exploration. We came upon a pond that was about 500 feet across and decided to follow its bank just to see what, if anything, was in the woods on the other side. This was easier said than done, as the terrain started to give way to an area that can best be described as swampy. Thankfully, there was an area of clear cutting which made traveling somewhat easier. There, on the other side of the muck and the mire, nestled just inside the tree line, was the unmistakable image of straight lines and right angles.

Eureka! We had done it! Our lethargy melted away and we dashed for the ruins. There, on the banks of the pond, tucked away inside the tree line, was a massive concrete structure. Easily 20 feet tall and 120 feet in length, the remains of what we can only guess was the lumber kiln imposed over us. Its wide, shady bays were cool and echoing. Some were intact and some had lost parts of the ceiling to time and nature. Trees had not only surrounded it, but they started growing up from the interior of the building, meandering around the lip of the roof to spread out and reach toward the sunlight they so steadfastly sought. We wandered the perimeter of the building and explored a few of the bays, and found a cluster of one-foot-high concrete footers that led off into the forest and provided a good indication of where our travels should proceed.

This breadcrumb trail of concrete footers led us to another set of concrete buildings that covered twice as much area as the kiln. These buildings hadn’t survived the trials of time and nature nearly as well as the ones we previously encountered. There was evidence of a fire in one of the buildings, which was easily 40 feet tall. Looking through the remnants of an open doorway was like a glimpse into a magic wardrobe where, just beyond the door, sat the forest. Trees, moss, grass and shrubs dotted the ground where there was once a bustling base of human activity. Suddenly, we picked up the unmistakable scent of cat urine. At first it didn’t strike me, as I was exposed to house cats all my life. But, my better half reminded me that we were in the woods and the remains of small animals had been spotted around the corner. We all agreed that encountering a large, wild cat in its natural abode was not a great idea. It’s right up there with camping in the middle of nowhere in a ghost town. The sun was even lower now, and none of us felt like trekking back in the dark. We trudged back to our vehicle, weary and winded, but we smiled the whole ride home.