|Stave yards of the H.D. Williams and Pekin Cooperage companies|
operated in Leslie, Arkansaas, in the early 20th century. Photo
courtesy of the Arkansas State Archives, circa 1916. G3218.44
Archival Assistant Darren Bell recently presented a lecture on the African American community of Leslie, Arkansas, during the 13th Annual Ozark Studies Symposium at Missouri State University-West Plains. Bell was among several experts to speak about Ozark culture and history.
Hundreds of people turned out Sept. 19 to 21 to hear special speakers discuss the history and heritage of the Ozarks. The symposium was free. The theme was “The Ozarks in Reality and Imagination.”
Bell focused his lecture on Leslie community residents, many of whom worked for cooperage factories and stave mills in the early 20th century. “Much of what is known about the African American community in Leslie was compiled from folklore in the 1960s and 1970s,” Bell said. “The Ozarks symposium, which aims to foster preservation and understanding of the regions culture, was an excellent platform to present and broaden this little-known history.”
“There is an idea that one company introduced African Americans to Leslie from their previous location,” Bell explained. But, proving that theory is difficult because records are scant, Bell said. Bell used census records from 1900, 1910 and 1920 to develop a better understanding of the African American community in Leslie and where African Americans migrated from.
Leslie, Arkansas, was home to the H.D. Williams Cooperage Co., which billed itself as the “world’s largest cooperage factory,” from 1906 to 1915. At one time, the company operated on 68 acres, employed 1,200 men and produced up to 5,000 wooden barrels per day. The company’s workers included African Americans, who lived in a section of town that included about 60 homes. The area was known as “Dink Town.”
The barrels were used for the storage of whiskey and shipped overseas for European wines. Other cooperages in Leslie at the time included the Pekin Stave Mill and the Mays stave mill and lumber company. However, wooden barrels fell out of favor and were replaced by plastic. The companies have long since closed.
“The impact of the cooperage industry has become a statistical footnote in the in history of Leslie and Searcy County,” Bell said.