The tiny Delta town of Winchester, in the northeast corner of Drew County, celebrated its 100th birthday last week with its oldest resident, Ruth Peacock, attending the celebration.
Peacock, who was born before the town was incorporated, will celebrate her 103rd birthday this fall.
During the town’s birthday celebration last Saturday, Lary Zeno announced that he is donating land to the town for a park.
State Rep. Sheilla Lampkin provided Seark Today the following article she wrote in 2004 chronicling Winchester’s history. The article was originally published in the 2004 Drew County Historical Journal.
Winchester: A Town of the Drew County Delta
In the far northeastern corner of Drew County lies the quiet little hamlet of Winchester. Long thought by many to be a part of Desha County, the town itself was once a hub for agricultural activities in that area called the “Valley.” This area, named after the Valley Plantation, begun in 1849 by John M. Taylor, an early Drew County pioneer. The Taylors also began the Hollywood Plantation in Desha County. Today the land is owned principally by the Arkansas Land and Cattle Company. The town was founded to serve the area along Bayou Bartholomew where the rolling hills of Drew County drop off into the delta lands.
Located in the Live Oak Township, Winchester is one and a half miles from Bayou Bartholomew. Amos Bayou is nearby. Coon Bayou comes out of Winchester Brake that is believed to be the site of an Indian encampment long ago.
The area around Winchester benefited when the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad, later known as the Missouri Pacific Railroad, came through the rich farming area about 1870. Winchester became a shipping point for logs, ties, wood products and later, cotton.
A post office was established there in 1879, discontinued in 1880, and re-established in 1881. Maurice Quilling was the first postmaster. The post office was originally located in the Hardy Peacock store. Then it moved into part of the bank building. Later, it was located in the Clifton Smith store. A new post office was built about a decade ago. In its earlier years, Winchester also had a blacksmith shop operated by a Mr. Brawley and a jail that never saw much use.
During its prime years, Winchester had more than a dozen grocery and dry goods stores. These stores were owned by such prominent local people as Ben Taylor and partners, the Marks family, various members of the Oswald family, Henry Lack, Hardy Peacock and the Peacock brothers, P.L. Morris, the Zeno family, Zach McKinsey, the Clifton Smith family, the Hopkins family, a Mr. Meadows, the Murphys, and others. Many of these store were passed down through families and altered somewhat with the passage of time.
In 1910, Winchester boasted a newspaper, the Winchester Independent, whose editor was C.A. Myers of Walnut Ridge. Myers was sent to Winchester by the railroad, but resigned that job to run his business. He eventually became mayor and chief promoter of the fledgling community.
At one time, three sets of rails ran through Winchester, two for passenger trains and on for freight. The town had a railroad depot, an agent, a large loading platform for cotton and other goods, and pens for loading and unloading livestock.
Winchester was incorporated as a town in 1912 with C.A. Myers as mayor, Hardy Peacock as recorder, J.T. Peacock as treasurer, and S.G. McHan as marshal. The first entries in the treasurer’s book were recorded as dog license taxes.
There was a Justice of the Peace Court and Mayor’s Court to mete out justice. The mayor’s criminal docket shows that on November 30, 1912, a man was brought to court for riding a horse too fast down the street. On April 29, 1917, another man was brought to court for driving a car too fast down the street. They had come a long way in a mere five years.
Winchester’s peak population is thought to have been between 1912 and 1919. At that time Winchester had a variety of businesses.
There was a bank, the Bank of Winchester; two cotton gins; a newspaper; the Winchester Broom Works; a chair factory; several general merchandise stores; a pressing shop for wool suits; rustic furniture factory; grist mills and sawmills. Roy Bryn had a real estate office that later became a laundry. Later, there were two gas stations called “filling” stations. One was owned by Sam Brown and the other by a Mr. Hopkins. Brick buildings gave the town a look of permanence.
The bank of Winchester was organized in 1913 with Chesley King as its first cashier. Henry Thane of Arkansas City sponsored the bank along with others in the area. For many years, the post office was located in the bank building. In 1917, C.W. Oswald opened the Oswald Drug Store, and it occupied the bank building until its close in 1970 upon Oswald’s death.
Two cotton gins in Winchester provided heavy competition between the cotton buyers. One was the Valley Planting Co. Gin, originally a large brick store owned by the Taylor family of the Valley. The other was the Winchester Gin Company begun by the Peacock family. The original gin burned in 1913. A new one was built and lasted until about 1950 when it was closed. Many of the storekeepers bought cotton too. The growers would circulate among the buyers and take bids to get the best price for their crops.
The general stores in town sold nearly everything, including “undertaking supplies.” At that time there were no funeral homes and the families and/or friends “laid away” the dead. Many mercantile goods were bought from traveling salesmen, called drummers, who’d bring their merchandise or samples to town.
The principal business area in Winchester was Oswald Street, located north of Highway 138 and east of the railroad tracks. In 1917, the street began with the bank/Oswald Drug Store building. Then came a cafe and Chinese bakery.
In Winchester’s heyday people traveled often by train. Three or four passenger trains ran each day. The train depot had a large pole alongside the tracks, equipped with a hook on which outgoing mail pouches were hung. If the train did not stop in Winchester, the “catcher” a metal arm that could be extended from the mail car, would snatch the bag from the hook. That was more time efficient than stopping just for mail.
Mules and horses were brought in by the railcar loads and sold to the farmers. Wagons and buggies were stocked up in the fall.
The first streets were dirt, but generally improved by adding a layer of crushed gray rock. Later, a Mr. Berryman from Dermott laid good sidewalks. In 1920, Highway 65 was built to follow the train tracks through Winchester and travel to other towns was greatly enhanced.
Around 1900, a one-room school was built which also served as a meeting place for the Methodist Episcopal Church., later called the United Methodist Church. After damage from a storm, a new two-story red brick school building was constructed in 1913. Anna Matthews from Monticello was the last teacher in the old building and Roy Bryn from Hickman, Tenn. was the first teacher in the new brick building. Some other teachers in Winchester over the years include Adelia Smith, Maude Simpson, Emma Kennedy, Oletta Currie, Irma Rhodes, Mrs. W.P. Haisty, Hazel Newton, Edith Smith, Harry Oswald, Elizabeth Peacock, Molly Appleberry, and Georgia Byrd. In 1924-25, a Mrs. McCullough taught high school upstairs in the brick building.
Georgia Matthews Marks, Gertrude Stroud, Ima Cheairs and Lori Peacock taught piano in their homes over the years.
About 1913, a tw-story buff brick school was erected for the black children. Both schools were closed in 1956 and the students transferred to Dumas Public Schools in Dumas. The buildings were sold and torn down. By that time, junior and senior high students had already been going to Dumas schools for several years.
As for churches, the Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1902 with 11 members. A church building was erected in 1912.
Oak Grove Baptist Church is one of the oldest buildings in town. Hopedale Baptist Church out on Highway 65 was organized about 1947 and serves the community. There were two other Baptist churches in the area.
Several doctors once practiced in Winchester. Dr. John Cheairs had a practice on the southeastern side of the railroad tracks. There was also Dr. Herman Castile, a Dr. Irwin and a Dr. Thrower. A dentist, Dr. Declerk served the citizenry for a time.
In the early days, Winchester had lots of entertainment available. Minstrel shows and small circuses came through every year. The community always had a Christmas tree and program that was a big event. There were also dances, public lectures and concerts.
In the early 1900s , a Mr. Sessions built a skating rink for everyone in town to enjoy. Zach McKinsey built a wooden merry-go-round behind his store. The children also roller skates along the sidewalks and upstairs above C.B Smith’s store.
There was an icehouse behind Peacock’s store where watermelons and butter, among other things, were kept cool in summer. As much as 300 pounds of ice blocks would be unloaded from a freight car onto a wagon and hauled across the tracks to the icehouse.
The icehouse is remembered as having a very thick door and sawdust on the floor.
Donald Moss opened a movie theater. Older citizens recall that when the sound occasionally went off, Mr. Moss would get up and narrate the film. Adoph Oswald later ran this enterprise.
As with many small Delta towns, Winchester also boasted a soft drink bottling plant at one time. It was located behind Oswald Drug Store and owned by Ed and Joe Oswald. There the Whistle-Vess brand of fruit-flavored soda was produced and bottled. Many vaguely remember the delicious orange sodas from childhood.
At one time Winchester had a baseball diamond on John Currie’s property and fielded a pretty good community team, according to Paul Peacock. There were always long walks to be taken and community fish fries and such.
Elizabeth Peacock, a lifelong resident, remembers riding in the train caboose to Walnut Lake near Dumas to go fishing. There was also a special car to take them to Walnut Lake for a fish fry. The car was unhooked and left on a siding for the day, then picked up when the train came back.
Before 1914, people got water from private wells they dug or rain water caught in barrels or cisterns. In 1914, a waterworks system was begun. The entire project was though to have been completed in 1916. The original connection fee was $2.50 with user fees of $1.50 per month for the first outlet, $1 for the second and 50 cents for each additional outlet. The 50-cent charge was later repealed. You can still see the small rusted 500-gallon water tank standing over the town.
The city’s water system was updated in 1963 using a government matching grant for $17,000. This money paid for a new 50,000 gallon tank, the land it stands upon and eight fire hydrants. Six-inch water mains were laid in six locations for the hydrants with two-inch pipes laid along the highway for the remaining two hydrants. The city’s matching money was raised chiefly by the sale of 20-year bonds to be paid off in 1983. However, the city made the last payment in 1969. The project was initiated and completed by longtime mayor Mrs. Lawrence Oswald, City Recorder Jesse Peacock, and Water Commissioner Sam Cowgill.
By 1920, farm prices began to fall and things got tough, economically, for the area. In 1929 the Depression hit and most small landowners and farmers found it difficult to continue. Many did lose their farms. Throughout the 1930s, farmers in the area were hit hard by low prices and many were saved only by loans and government grants.
The old highway that was built in 1920 was rerouted in 1940 and moved nearly a mile east of the town limits of Winchester. This hurt the town’s growth. World War II and the advent of mechanized farming further reduced the population of the town.
By 1930, the availability of the farm tractor made the system that used sharecroppers and renters to work the land obsolete. These workers left the farms seeking industrial jobs in other areas and this marked the end of Winchester’s business area. Most of the old town buildings have been torn down or moved. There are only five original buildings standing: the Masonic Lodge, the P.I. Morris home, the Oswald home, the Jerry Hopkins home and the Oak Grove Baptist Church.
Winchester has not been abandoned, however. In fact, the current population does not differ greatly from the original number of ownspeople. Time has just caused the disappearance of stores and businesses. Members of some of the most prominent founding families still live there and keep the spirit and memory of Winchester alive.
Today, the scene in Winchester is changing. Merle Jackson, who served as the town’s mayor from 2000 until 2010, was skilled in obtaining government grants and governmental assistance in upgrading the town’s services. She started programs in adult education and started a food pantry for the area. With assistance from her predecessor, former mayor Percy Morris, Jackson obtained a building for a multi-purpose community center. Winchester has experienced the ups and downs of all Delta towns, but it will continue to exist as long as it has a proud caring citizenry that cherishes the past yet looks to the future.