Leslie's cooperage world's largest in 1900
September 16, 2005
More History Q & A
Question: Where was the factory in North Arkansas that made whiskey barrels?
Answer: Leslie was the home to the H. D. Williams Cooperage Company, widely known for the manufacture of whiskey barrels. Although the company produced many other items, it is still best known for oak whiskey kegs and barrels.
H. D. Williams of St. Louis negotiated for large tracts of timber in Searcy County, in the vicinity of Leslie, Arkansas, and moved his factory from Popular Bluff, Missouri to that small community in 1907. After 21 years in southeastern Missouri, the plant in Popular Bluff had exhausted the timber supply, so Williams turned his search to North Arkansas. Since Leslie was a terminus on the Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad, making shipping easy, he chose the hamlet as the site of a factory to market the vast quantities of hardwood.
H.D. Williams Cooperage Company & private rail line
The H.D. Williams Cooperage Company dominated the Leslie landscape as the Searcy County community entered the 1900s. The company even built a 17 1/2 mile private rail line with Shay type geared locomotives to haul timber off mountain tops and out of valleys.
The plant became the largest of its kind in the world. During operations, 17 � miles (some say 19 miles) of private railroad line was constructed to haul timber from 85,000 acres west and south of Leslie. This little rail line was called "The Dinkey Line." Because of steep grades, Shay type geared locomotives were used. The first locomotive arrived on a North Arkansas flatcar November 4, 1906, and two weeks later the second arrived. Many tales of "The Dinkey Line" have been told, and can be written in another column.
Reports say 1,200 men and more than 300 teams of mules and horses were required to carry on daily business at the cooperage. Adjacent to the plant, the company erected about 60 homes for its men. This growth had a remarkable effect on Leslie. Today, it is hard to imagine that beautiful, quiet community inhabited by that many workmen.
Every piece of timber - bolts, slabs and tree tops - were put to some kind of use.
Timber not suitable for staves was used for wagon hubs, or telephone or telegraph pins and brackets. A sawmill, adjacent to the cooperage plant, sometimes produced table stock for furniture, while the hub factory used timber too small for either staves or saw mill work, with nothing going to waste.
The company manufactured a complete line of barrels and kegs - the size ranging from one gallon to 160 gallons. Using its own rail cars, some 60 in number, the company shipped barrels and kegs to every part of the United States and Mexico. Kegs went to canning and packing companies to be filled with pickles and to packing houses to be filled with lard. Some barrels were especially designed for cotton seed oil, crude oil and their byproducts, while others were used for whiskey, wine, brandy and other distilled products.
The evening of November 26, 1912, a fire was discovered at the Williams Cooperage Company plant. Only the company office building and the boiler house survived the fire. President Williams said the plant was fully insured, but that evidently was not true. In 1913, only a portion of the plant was rebuilt.
The H. D. Williams Cooperage Company declared bankruptcy in 1915 and was reorganized as the Export Cooperage Company. In 1921, despite Prohibition, this company employed 500 men and continued to operate the logging railroad. A short time later, along with other Leslie timber products companies, Export Cooperage was forced to shut down completely, bringing great economic strife to Leslie. Conditions were so acute that the Red Cross was called in to help feed the children attending the local schools.
Like so many towns along the M&NA Railroad, Leslie suffered when the rail line closed years later. The old M&NA depot still stands today, owned by Derickson Lumber Company, but there is nothing left to remind one of the H. D. Williams Cooperage.
The Boone County Heritage Museum will host its Annual Railroad Day on Saturday, October 8. Doors open at noon, followed by a presentation on M&NA railroad history at 2 p.m. Harvey Cragon, author of The Eureka Springs Railway: An Automobile Tour Into The Past, will present to autograph his book.
The public is invited to attend this free program (information for this article was obtained from the James R. Fair book, The North Arkansas Line.)
The Heritage Museum is located on the corner of South Cherry Street and Central Avenue. Hours are from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
This column appears Fridays in the Harrison Daily Times. Mail questions to Boone County Heritage Museum, P. O. Box 1094, Harrison, AR 72601. Marilyn Smith can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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