White settlement in Polk County began about 1830. At that time the region was part of Sevier County. Polk County, named for President James K. Polk, was separated from Sevier County by the legislature on November 30, 1844. The 1860 census gave the Polk County population as 4,090 whites and 172 black slaves. Slaves were not widely used in Polk County because the mountainous terrain was not good for row crops, though some corn, wheat, oats, and cotton were farmed early on. Hunting and timber attracted many of the early settlers, who came principally from Illinois, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
When Arkansas joined the Confederacy, a local unit of sixty-four volunteers formed, called “The Polk County Invincibles.” There were a few Civil War skirmishes in Polk County.
The first Polk County courthouse was in Dallas, named for Polk’s vice president, George Dallas. It burned, and all records were destroyed. A second courthouse was built in 1869. It, too, burned, with all its records, in 1883.
Dallas, with its location on Long’s Trail, which to the north connected to the Butterfield Overland Express, and to the south passed into what is now Oklahoma, became a regional center and a major stop for the stagecoach. At its height it had a weekly newspaper, two churches, a dozen stores, three mills, livery stables, and boarding houses.
Arthur E. Stilwell founded the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad, now the Kansas City Southern (KCS). He chose a site about three miles west of Old Dallas as the location for a new town, Mena. Mena was the nickname for the wife of Jan de Goeigen, a Dutchman who worked for Stilwell.
Railroad chief construction engineer Robert Gillham laid out the streets in the original townsite of Mena. Downtown streets were an unheard-of eighty feet wide. On June 30, 1896, Fred A. Hornbeck, a Kansas City real estate agent, began selling Mena lots. The railroad arrived on August 19, 1896. In a special election on June 25, 1898, even the residents of Dallas voted for moving the county seat to Mena. Mena incorporated on September 18, 1896.
Stilwell founded other towns along his railroad, naming them for investors, employees, and friends. What is today Hatfield began as Clayton Spur, which was founded before the Civil War, but was renamed after Sam Hatfield, a railroad worker killed in a blasting accident. Vandervoort (Polk County) was named after the maiden name of Jan de Goeigen’s mother; it was originally named Janssen, his wife’s maiden name. Stilwell became friends with George Pullman, of the Pullman sleeping train car. The second vice president in Pullman’s company was Thomas Wickes. Wickes (Polk County) was also established by the railroad.
Ever since the railroad arrived, Mena has been the largest city in Polk County. In 1900, it had the central division shops of the railroad. With a population of 3,423 Mena was two and a half times the size of Tulsa. In 1910, the railroad moved its division shops to Heavner, Oklahoma, taking away over 800 workers. Making things worse, Mena was hit by a tornado on April 13, 1911.
On February 20, 1901, Peter “Nigger Pete” Berryman was arrested following an argument with Essie Osborne, a twelve-year-old girl who was nailing a board on the fence opening that he used to get water. A little after midnight, eight masked men stopped officer Al Jones, and, without a word, took his jail keys and gun. The next morning, Berryman’s body, gruesomely beaten, bloody, and shot, was hanging from a tree on the outskirts of town. A committee formed that raised a $380 reward for the killers, but no arrests were ever made.
The killing (considered by many scholars to be a lynching) likely had a great impact upon demographics in Polk County, transforming its towns into “sundown towns.” In the early 1900s, there was a small all-black farming community near Boardcamp, east of Mena, called Little Africa, but eventually these residents began to leave. By the 1910 census, the number of African Americans living in the county dropped from 177 to forty-six. Mrs. Cicero Cole and her two grandchildren were the last to leave the area. Around the 1920s, Mena was advertising itself as a town with “No Negroes.” By 1960, Polk County was one of only six counties in the state with not one African-American resident.
World War I took many young men in Polk County from their families and farms. Many wives, unable to work their farms alone, moved into town. Some lost the family farm to taxes. Many men, upon returning, soon left the area. A few years after the war, on November 24, 1921, a tornado struck near the town of Wickes, killing eight people.
Polk County was also the site of the controversial Commonwealth College, which soon moved to Ink, east of Mena, then into Mena, then to an eighty-acre farm ten miles west. By 1932, twenty-two buildings had been constructed, and the campus was 320 acres. Lee Hays of the musical group “The Weavers” and Governor Orval Faubus attended Commonwealth College. The college soon attracted attention by becoming active in labor movements, and in September 1940, three charges were filed against the college. Justice of the Peace Clem Brown found the college guilty of failing to display the U.S. flag, displaying an unlawful emblem, and “anarchy.” He fined the college $2,500. Its assets were sold to satisfy debts and fines.
During the war, Mena gave triple its quota of scrap iron. When rationing came, 4,363 people in Polk County registered for sugar. The fourth War Bond drive went nearly twenty percent over, to $287,669, with KCS Railroad buying $100,000 in War Bonds. Polk County lost eighty-three to World War II. From 1940 to 1960, the county’s population dropped as many sought work elsewhere, often leaving for California, though a good number of them returned upon retirement.
In 1985, a man known as “Barry” Seal was accused of smuggling the drug methaqualone. He reportedly moved his fleet of airplanes from Louisiana to Mena. He was convicted, and agreed to cooperate with authorities. He photographed members of the Medillin Cartel loading cocaine onto his plane. His cover was later blown by an article in the Washington Times, and on February 19, 1986, he was murdered by three Colombians in the parking lot of a Salvation Army halfway house in Baton Rouge, where he was serving a six-month probation sentence. His cargo plane, The Fat Lady, serviced in Mena, was shot down in Nicaragua while delivering ammunition and supplies to the Contras for Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, who had known Barry Seal. Allegations were that drugs were being used to raise money for Contras in Nicaragua to overthrow the government. Seal’s plane was reportedly modified in Mena to carry drugs. Such planes left Mena carrying Arkansas-made guns and returned to the United States carrying 20,000 tons of cocaine over a three-and-a-half-year period. Allegedly, money laundering was carried out in Mena, and Contra pilots were trained by Oliver North at an unlighted CIA airstrip near Nella, north of Mena.
Some sources say The White House in 1988 blocked investigations of what happened at the Mena airport. Some sources say Polk County Sheriff A. L. Hadaway once grounded The Fat Lady but later said that the DEA in Miami ordered him to leave it alone. Today, Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport is a thriving city-owned center for aviation services.
The 1990 census showed not a single black resident of the county, but that has changed. Approximately sixty-five African Americans were living in Polk County in 2010, including James Tarver, a black entertainer in Branson, Missouri, who married a woman from Mena and moved there. He has given one-man shows at Ouachita Little Theatre and Rich Mountain Community College.
At about 8:10 p.m. on April 9, 2009, an F3 tornado touched down in Polk County. It traveled 14.5 miles, beginning 0.7 miles south/southeast of Potter, crossing Mena, then lifting off three miles northeast of Ink. Three Mena citizens died: Anna Cress, Albert Shaw Jr., and Judy Lobner.