It was the era of expansion, and the frontier was booming. Arkansans, eager to vote in the 1836 Presidential election, were pushing for statehood. One candidate from Tennessee, Senator Hugh Lawson White, overwhelmingly won the favor of the territory, and on October 23, 1835, White County was founded from sections of Independence, Jackson and Pulaski counties. Arkansas was signed into statehood the following July, and largely supported White’s run for President of the United States. Although White was defeated, White County began to grow.
At the time White County was founded, the area that now makes up Searcy was known as White Sulphur Springs. A health spa touting the therapeutic properties of its white sulphur, chalybeate and alum springs drew in visitors, but later became defunct.
Richard Searcy, an early settler of the Arkansas territory and prominent legislator, was appointed to the Fourth Circuit Superior Court of Arkansas by President James Monroe. On Christmas day in 1832, Searcy died at the age of 36.
In 1837, the State Legislature appointed the area of White Sulphur Springs to serve as the county seat and to be named after Richard Searcy. In 1838, the city was officially renamed Searcy. The home of David Crise, the first resident of Searcy, served as the White County courthouse.
Land disputes quickly arose, and after much mayhem, Crawford Walker was awarded the ten acres where the courthouse now stands, and donated the land to the county. In 1840, the original log cabin courthouse was erected for a total cost of $138.50, and stood for the next decade. In the meantime, further land ownership disputes arose in the Searcy area, eventually ending up in the United States Supreme Court. Israel Moore emerged as victor, and after the civil war, donated a portion of his land as a park. That land is now Spring Park and the Main Street Methodist Church.
Moore, a surveyor from Philadelphia, was given the task of laying out and naming the streets of Searcy. In the spirit of nostalgia, he named the streets after those of Old Philadelphia: Race, Arch, Vine, Market, Spring, Cherry, Locust, Pine and Spruce. Moore replaced the famous Chestnut Street with the name Main Street, which he deemed fitting for a frontier town. He settled along North Line Street, which was changed to Moore Street in 1957 in his honor. Pine Street was also renamed, after a phone call about a fire was misheard and sent the fire engine rushing off to Vine Street instead. Gum Street took its place.
Construction on the new, Georgian-style courthouse began in 1850 and was completed in 1871. The courthouse still stands gracefully today in the square bordered by Race, Arch, Spring and Spruce streets, and is the oldest courthouse in Arkansas still used for its original purpose. On August 6, 1851, the city of Searcy was incorporated.
The city thrived as Searcy Landing, at the Little Red River and Gin and Deener Creeks allowed steamboat access to Searcy. The pioneers that floated in built up much of the economy around the courthouse, and included Stephen Brundidge, Sr., the architect responsible for many of the first brick buildings in Searcy. Many of Brundidge’s buildings still stand, like the bank that is now home to Quattlebaum’smusic store. In 1851, Searcy’s first Methodist church, then a log cabin, was erected on its present plot and became Searcy’s first established church. The first school was the Polytechnic Institute Incorporated of Searcy in 1849, followed by the Searcy Male Academy in 1852. Israel Moore donated the land for the Male Academy, where the current day junior high school sits.
On May 19, 1862, Searcy was disrupted by the small, but significant Battle of Whitney’s Lane. Union foraging parties were sent to farms along Whitney’s Lane, and were charged by Confederate troops after crossing the Little Red River at Searcy Landing. The battle was a victory for the Confederacy, though casualty counts vary hugely from one account to the next. The exact location of the battle is uncertain, though it is speculated to have taken place near Doniphan, in Kensett. The bodies of the dead Union soldiers were later carried back to Searcy Landing, where they were buried in a trench. The River Oaks subdivision is now located in the Searcy Landing area.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Searcy was struggling. The city was in disrepair and suffering from an economic downturn. Then, in 1868, improvements were made to the old springs, and visitors began to trickle in again. The city council slowly began making enhancements to Spring Park, and the medicinal qualities of the waters were once again a topic of discussion. Crowds were soon commonplace, and Spring Park evolved into a lively community gathering place. Searcy was finally experiencing the revitalization it needed.
Searcy continued to prosper and grow over the years, and incorporated many of its famous landmarks. In 1870, one of Searcy’s most famous residents, Will Yarnell, built his famous house, which still stands today. Memorials stand on the lawn of the courthouse to honor the United Daughters of the Confederates and the brave Searcy veterans of both World Wars and Vietnam. Another landmark is the site of Galloway College, founded in 1889, and the location of Harding University since 1934. Grisham’s Ice Cream Company, as it was originally known, was established in Searcy in 1923, and was purchased in 1932 by one of its best salesmen, Ray Yarnell. Yarnell’s Ice Cream survived the Great Depression and thrives still. The first theater in town was the Grand Theater, which was torn down and replaced with the Rialto Theater in 1923, which still operates on a daily basis.
The city of Searcy, Arkansas is full of rich history and vibrant life. If you would like to read more, the book Searcy, Arkansas: A Frontier Town Grows Up With America, by Raymond Lee Muncy, is an in-depth history, and the source of much of this article.