As of the 2010 census, the population was 20,662.
Polk County is the setting for Stephen Hunter's fictional Bob Lee Swagger series, the most notable being Black Light, as well as the place where Joel B Reed's fictional character, Jazz Phillips, of the Jazz Phillips mystery series, grew up.
Polk is divided into seventeen townships, viz: Big Fork, Center, Cedar, Cove, Eagle, Eagle Gap, Faulkner, Freedom, Fulton, Gap Springs, Mill Creek, Mountain, Ouachita, Ozark, Potter, Rich Mountain and White. A large part of the county is in the Arkansas National Forest.
It has an area of 846 square miles and an average elevation of 1,300 feet and lies in the Ouachita Mountain ranges. Included is Rich Mountain, with an elevation of 2,682 feet, officially the second highest elevation in Arkansas. Official records list Mt. Magazine as the highest with 2,753 feet.
Perched atop Rich Mountain is Queen Wilhelmina Lodge, part of the state park of the same name. The Lodge, build by the railroad in 1896 and named for the queen of Holland, closed three years later. Acquired for a state park in 1958 it was completely reconstructed in 1969. The Inn was destroyed by fire in 1973 and immediately replaced; and in 2015 was totally remodeled.
Polk County was created in 1844 by the Arkansas legislature from the northern part of Sevier County, on the state’s western edge about mid-way along the Arkansas-Oklahoma boundary. It was named for James K. Polk of Tennessee, who became United States president the same year the county was established. The land is rolling to mountainous, drained by the Ouachita River, which originates north of Mena, and the Cossatot River, also beginning in the area, along with a multitude of other creeks. Rich Mountain, in the northwest corner, is the second-highest point in the state.
Settlement began in the 1830s over very rough trails, since there were no navigable streams or useful roadways. The county government was originally located at the home of J. Pirtle, also the site of the Panther post office. Soon the county seat was located at the nearby town of Dallas, named for George M. Dallas, U. S. vice-president under James Polk, where it stayed for the next half century, including at the time of this 1868 report. Many of the county records from this era were lost to fires, so the county’s early history is problematic. The coming of the railroad in the 1890s prompted the county seat to move in 1896 to its current location at Mena, a few miles north of Dallas. The railroad was the Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Gulf, and one of its major financiers was John A. DeGoeijen of the Netherlands, whose mother or sister are said to have been the source of the name Mena.
The railroad was a major boon to the economy, especially to the timber industry. Other sources of income for the residents have been ranching, truck farming and a small amount of mining.
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