Sunday, June 26, 2011

Scraps of History: Early Disasters of Melbourne

The photo in the recent post, Vintage Photo: Melbourne Around the Turn of the Century, has garnered some interest among readers of Exploring Izard County and we've had some great response via e-mails and comments on the site. As a result of items that have been shared by readers as well as things I have found when doing what meager research I'm capable of doing, I decided to revisit the previously published photo that was sent in by reader, Mr. Williams.

Note - Click photos to enlarge

When viewing the photo we think was likely taken during the first decade of the 20th Century, one cannot help noticing the barrel perched above the M.F. Hill Store. I must admit, even after reading about the early fires that swept Melbourne between 1905 and 1929...even after sharing what I had read in the comments of the post, I didn't make the connection between those fires and the barrel (which is obviously sitting next to the stove-pipe for a reason). Another reader, Donna, sent us the following e-mail which also includes a couple of newspaper items from another disaster that occurred in 1883, a tornado that devastated the town.

Hello Exploring Izard Crew!

The recent post of the vintage photo - Awesome! As you had said "Don't you love it when history comes together?"...the picture has so many 'words of wonder' and the clues you have provided are good possibilities of the time frame. I had noticed the old wooden water barrel on top of the M. F. Hill hardware store. This made me think of precautions and 'water works' after the devastation of the fires.

Also, sharing this newspaper article that had mentioned the cyclone of 1883 and the destruction of the courthouse and the surrounding buildings. The portions of the town has been rebuilt so many is a wonder and amazing how the town of Melbourne has survived through the years.

Davenport Weekly Gazette | Davenport, Iowa | Wednesday, November 28, 1883 | Page 4

Batesville, Ark., Nov 21 - The town of Melbourne was struck by a cyclone this morning. For a few minutes the air was full of bricks, lumber and debris of every description. People rushed out in their night clothes but were force back by the wind, some to perish in the ruins of their homes. The school house, court house and a number of dwellings and stores were blown down. The residence of the Sheriff of the county, Jonh Hinckle, was destroyed and he was killed. He has a wife and two children. The town is almost in ruins and the damage will amount to many thousands.

(Another account) - A cyclone struck Melbourne, the county seat of Izard County, at 3 o'clock this morning, killing ex-Sheriff John Hinckle, his wife and two children and crippling Mrs. Henry S. --kle. It blew down a store, two churches, the court house and several residences.

(Transcription of newspaper article was posted on the Izard County, Roots Web mailing list (June 14, 2011) by Janice Reed -newspaper article was located on the website

Again, thank you for sharing and for preserving/capturing the History of Izard County.

The early decades of Melbourne's existence were quite traumatic. From 1874, the year the county seat was first moved to Mill Creek, later renamed "Melbourne" by W. C. Dixon, until 1937, Izard County's seat of justice suffered several horrifying disasters including a series of fires that swept the areas around the courthouse. The most devastating of the fires began it all on April 11th, 1889, when the first courthouse erected in the town burned taking all county records with it. Following are accounts of the fires as recorded by the noted  Karr Shannon, in his 1947 A History of Izard County:

On the first Izard County Courthouse in Melbourne

A large barn was used as a courthouse until 1878 when a frame structure was erected. The building site, on which the present building also stands, was secured from Tommy Richardson. He had raised a fine patch of turnips on the ground the previous year.

"This first house stood until the morning of April 11, 1889, when it was destroyed by fire, and with it all the records and documents from the foundation of the county were consumed." - Karr Shannon

On the second Courthouse

"Before building again, a number of people wanted to move the county seat to some other part of the county. But appropriations were soon made to rebuild the house on the same spot of ground...

"This house was also a large frame structure and was little improvement over the other one. It was used for all business connected with court affairs and was also a kind of county and community center for other important occasions and entertainment." -Karr Shannon

The second schoolhouse in Melbourne

"In 1870, the first Schoolhouse was built. It stood south of the creek just east of the Powell grove. A combination hotel and boarding house was erected above Powell Spring. The town had a good boarding school for that time, and has been considered a good school center ever since.

"The house across the creek was abandoned in 1896 and the school entered a new building just east of the present house. This building burned in 1904 and was soon replaced with another frame building. Since then, there has been four additional buildings on the campus - a gymnasium, agriculture building, home economics cottage, and building for grade classes." - Karr Shannon

The Fires that Swept Around the Square

"The business district of Melbourne has suffered losses from four fires. In 1905 the north half of the west side of the public square burned out, leaving only the bank building and the present theater building, which at the time was used as a store. The entire north and east sided, including the hotel, were burned out in 1908. Then, in 1911, the south side of the square went up in flames, including the printing plant and the large stock barn.

"In 1929 a fire swept out all the business houses on the west side except the theater building and Byram's Store." - Karr Shannon

On Izard County's Third Courthouse in Melbourne

"Izard County's second courthouse stood until 1912 when it was torn away to give place to a large brick building. The new building was brought to completion in 1914, and was considered one of the finest in the state.

"The tons of brick, cement and other building materials and furnishings were hauled by wagon-and-teams from the railroad at Guion up Rocky Bayou Creek. The distance was 12 miles and the road was makeshift, consisting of sandbeds, ruts, and hills-and crossing the creek many times.

"On Sunday morning, December 5, 1937, the magnificent brick structure burned. The fire broke out in the attic near the dome of the huge clock which had been striking the time a rippling the waves of the ether with its beautiful tone for a radius of three or four miles for 23 years. Most of the records and valuable documents were saved. What were not moved out were preserved in the two fireproof vaults of the building." - Karr Shannon

In the July, 1973 edition of the Izard County Historian (Volume 4 No. #3), Ray E. Davis writes:


In the past century, the town has suffered from disaster several times. As mentioned above, the court house twice was destroyed by fire. The business district of Melbourne has suffered from four fires. In 1905, the north half of the West side burned leaving only the bank and theater building. The entire north and west sides of the business square, including the hotel, burned in 1908. Then in 1911, the south side went up in flames including the printing plant and a large stock barn. The fire in 1929 destroyed the bank, barber shop, central telephone office, Tomlinson’s grocery, a cafe and Lander‘s store, all on the west side of the square. All rebuilt and business went on in more modern buildings. In addition to the above disasters, in 1883, the Methodist church was blown away by a tornado and in 1904, the school house burned. Both were replaced and the religious and educational activities of the town continued.

The town has continued to grow and become more modern. The population is stated to have been about 300 in 1890. The population has shown steady growth as in 1970 it was about 1,000. Originally the incorporated area was one square mile but in recent years the city limits have been expanded in all directions. The city now has a voluntary fire department equipped with a fire truck and other equipment. A modern telephone system has given efficient local and long distance service. The homes and public buildings are heated and air-conditioned by modern gas and electric systems. The town enjoys a modern water and sewage system.

Karr Shannon offered this about our present courthouse:
"The present fireproof courthouse was dedicated June 13, 1940, at a gala event attended by several state and national celebrities and some 3,000 spectators. The structure is said to have cost $150, 000, part paid by the country and the balance by the Federal government through an N.Y.A. project. - Karr Shannon

There's an important lesson we can all take away from this post. While most of the county's official records have been lost over the years...mainly due to the devastating courthouse fire in 1889...we have an opportunity to record history once more via the internet. The response to Mr. Williams' e-mail to me with the photo of Melbourne has amazed and encouraged me. It's proven something I've long considered - through the use of the internet, serious and amateur historians along with family descendents of the pioneers can share their little snippets of knowledge of the past and through that we can get a much clearer picture of what life was like in Izard County for our ancestors.

Thanks for Randy, our friend, Donna, whose e-mail appears above, and others who have contributed to this article.

Please, I encourage you...if you have family records or photos from Izard County's past, get them out, either by us or via some other site that shares our love and interest for the history and culture of those who came before us!


Mary Lennox said...

We just moved onto the property on Sawmill Rd in Brockwell where there was, indeed, a sawmill which I believe burned down. Does anyone have any information on that sawmill, when it was built and when it burned down?

Donna Byram said...

Do you know which Byram had the store?