Restoring history

Wednesday, April 5, 2006
Jerrod Price shows some of the railroad spikes found on the property.

And what did you do on your spring break?

Most students seek to relax and take it easy during their week off from school, but not four ambitious teen-agers from Buffalo island Central - Jerrod Price, Jed Sparkman, Curtis Kennett and Todd Thompson. They have chosen instead to work from early until late removing paint, cleaning and repainting the old Cotton Belt depot, in Leachville.

They are definitely on a mission to preserve the old depot, built in 1910 as part of the BL&AS Railroad (Blytheville, Leachville and Arkansas Southern) line. The railroad was later purchased by Cotton Belt Railroad.

When asked how their commitment came about, they all agreed, "It just needed to be done, before another old historic structure disappears."

"There are so few old structures left in Leachville, with historical significance, that it just made me sad to see another one go by the wayside," Price said.

Price sponsored the Northeast Arkansas Talent Show at Leachville, on March 18, and cleared $800. He talked with his friends about using the money for a good cause, with restoration of the old depot in mind. Price also sponsors a talent review each year to raise money for Relay for Life, which he plans to do in September.

Price contacted three of his friends who like reconstruction also, and believed in the project as much as he did. They talked to the property owner, Tom Puckett, about their idea and were given the go-ahead.

"I was pleased to see young people wanting to do something positive for our community," Puckett said. "I bought the depot and property from Barton Lumber Company 10 years ago, mostly for overflow parking for my trucks.

"I didn't want to see the depot destroyed so I put a roof on it, as it was starting to leak," he said. "The windows panes were all knocked out, it was boarded up to keep the rain out. It has just set there year after year, empty and forgotten.

"The Cotton Belt train has been a part of my childhood, growing up in the Rocky Community, south of town. I heard it pass by my house everyday. I was always fascinated by the train and the depot, but realized that restoring the depot was going to be a big job for anyone.

"I offered to deed it over to them, but they weren't interested in doing that just yet. They expressed the hope that it could be given to the City of Leachville at some date, so it would come in line for some grant support."

"We weren't interested in ownership, just restoration," Price said. "After surveying the needs we decided it would be too time consuming to scrape the tongue and groove walls and ceilings, inside and out, for repainting. I rented a power washer for $300 and we used it inside and out. It was very messy and we were covered from head to foot with filth.

"After it was cleaned it looked magnificent. Not one inside wall is damaged and it is in wonderful shape. Some of the outside needs some wood replaced and repaired, and a small three foot section of the ceiling in the receiving room.

"It took quite awhile to get it all cleaned up inside, from broken glass, dirt-dobber nests, dirt and wood shavings. We scooped up, carried out, scooped out and then swept it good. Even my grandmother (Barbara Lloyd) came down to help, as well as my aunt (Tracy Lasiter). We welcome any and all help we can get on this project, as it grows bigger every day."

Parents and grandparents of Price and Sparkman tell of how they both like architecture and building things, as well as fixing things up. Price made a small true to scale model of the City of Leachville, buildings, streets and everything, at age 7. Sparkman used old discarded wood scraps to construct a large tree house in his back yard, in Monette. The family called it "Jed's Place."

The layout of the old depot consists of four rooms. The large cargo room on the north side of the building was reportably used for outgoing shipments. There are three sliding doors, on the east, north and west sides. Antique steel bolts and locks remain intact on the doors, along with large barn hinges. Stepping down three steps, there is the waiting room, complete with a steele-barred ticket window. There is a west door leading to the outside, where the train arrived and departed. The next room housed the ticket agent and scales. It has a large bay window protruding from the front, looking in three directions, and a back window looking east. The last of the four rooms, on the south end was for receiving packages and cargo, which also has an outside door, and an add on toilet room.

Loretta Cude, Leachville city recorder in September 1991, prepared the lengthy nomination for the old BL&AS Railroad (Cotton Belt) depot to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The depot was then owned by E.C. Barton Company, of Jonesboro, and used for storage. It was officially placed on the National Register in Washington, D.C., on June 11, 1992. Puckett purchased the depot and property in 1996. He also owns the property where the old JLC&E depot (Frisco) once stood, in the northeast corner of the two train track crossroads. The JLC&E Railroad arrived in Leachville in 1898, and the BL&AS soon afterwards.

The students have been careful to restore the depot in its original colors and not change things.

Joe Cashion, of Jonesboro, worked as a relief agent telegrapher for the Frisco R.R. and was very familiar with the Cotton Belt station also.

"W.D. Cruse worked as agent for the Cotton Belt," Cashion said. "He sat in the agent's room, with the big protruding window. Everything that came in had to be weighed so he did that. Also he checked in the things that arrived on the train. Cotton, cottonseed and soybeans were shipped in the early years. They sold tickets to ride the train and also delivered telegrams.

"E.Z. (Eber) Bassett worked there for years also. The Cotton Belt went out of business first, then Mr. Bassett went to the Frisco depot."

"The agent telegrapher copied train orders as they came in, attached them to a long stick, with a 2 1/2 foot string attached to it. We would hold the stick up as the engineer passed in the engine and he would reach out and grab the rope with orders attached. Then we would pass orders to the conductor, the same way, in the caboose. This is the way they kept the tracks clear, and prevented running to each other. Later CTC (central traffic control) came into effect and orders were dispatched. This made communications better. If another train was en route then one train had to get off on a side track and wait for it to pass.

"High water was a problem, in the early days. There was always a low spot from Chaffee, Mo., to St. Louis. High water ran over the tracks and stopped the trains. Cattle or animals on the tracks, or falling trees could also cause problems."

Cashion recalls Frisco stops from Memphis to Chaffee as being Frenchman's Bayou, Joiner, Wilson, Luxora, Keiser, Blytheville, Dell, Manila, Leachville, Monette, Lake City, Steele, Holland, Hayti, Caruthersville, Kennett, Holcomb, Campbell, Malden, Gideon, Portageville, Marston, Risco, Sikeston, Vandoozer, Moorehouse, Advance, Puxeco, Pocahontas, Walnut Ridge, Oran, and then Chaffee, the headquarters.

"As I stand here and look out these big windows in all directions, I try to imagine how it was when the railroad was a big part of this town," Price said. "So much history is wrapped up in the remembrance of those days. I feel like we are helping to preserve a part of history that needs to be cherished."

There are 13 large 3x7 foot windows in the depot, plus two small ones, and windows in doors. There has been no estimate as yet, as to what replacing them will cost. Most of all the frames are left, with only the glass missing.

"We hope people will come forth and donate a window in their or their family's name, as right now we don't have the money for that," Price said. "If someone donates the replacement of a window, we plan to put a memorial placard on the window. So many people want to leave memorials, and I think this would be a good way to do something significant.

"We have received a few donations, but with the purchase of paint and equipment the funds are disappearing fast. We really want to complete this project before the 100th birthday of the building, in 2010, and we think we can do it, will help and support from the community."

Everyone wants to leave something good behind, something to give their time, money and attention to. These young people are making an investment in the future of this nationally acclaimed historic site, and are in turn putting their mark on the future.

"We plan to place a plaque on the wall in the waiting room, listing the names of people who have worked on this project, or donated to it," Price said. "Our list is already growing. Every day someone else drops by to visit. Every day someone encourages us to keep on. We have come to feel that this is a good thing, and we are on the right track.........literally."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: