Located on the southern edge of the Ozarks, Bald Knob was named for a large outcropping of layered stone that was a natural landmark, especially if approached from the White River and Little Red River floodplains east and south of town. The acre-big sandstone rock resembled a giant washtub turned upside down and partially buried. It was round with fairly flat top. The area around the big rock was sparsely populated before the Civil War. To the east and north, big virgin timber covered the hillsides – oak, hickory, sweet gum, elm, and cedar. But the timber was worthless because there was no way to transport it. To the south, vast acres of canebrakes led into the Little Red River and White River bottoms.
There was no town then. The few inhabitants lived around Shady Grove church-schoolhouse a few miles north of the rock. They serve subsistence farmers who drove their cattle into the river bottoms to graze.
In the spring, the rock, known throughout White County as “the knob,” “the big rock,” or “the bald knob rock,” became a gathering point. Cattlemen would bring their herds to pens beside the rock. There they would brand calves, salt the herds, and sell and trade cattle.
In February 1873, a railroad was completed through Arkansas from north to south. It was built by the Cairo and Fulton Railroad Co. and it connected the rock with the rest of the world. Time began running out for the great rock. By 1876, the Cairo and Fulton merged with the St. Louis, Iron Mountain, and Southern Railroad and had taken the name of the latter company. The railroad had laid miles of tracks but still had not undertaken the huge job of putting ballast rock around and under the track to make it stable. Railroaders knew that would take a lot of rock. As they rode past “the bald knob rock,” they eyed it as a source of ballast and leased the ground from Michael Howard and B.D. Turner.
About this time, John Kerr built the first sawmill in the area and began cutting timber. John Bradford came too, to log the woods. The area’s timber industry was born. And the big rock began to be quarried for railroad ballast. Between 1876 and 1878 men from the North and East, many of the immigrants from foreign countries flocked to work in the rock quarry. Finally, the big rock disappeared. It had been turned into fragments lining hundreds of miles of railroad. The site where it once stood is at the end of Center Street, just south of state Highway 367. Some residents still get a twinge of sadness looking at it. The mass of sandstone served as a gathering place; it provided miles of ballast for Arkansas railroads, and it gave birth to a town. By 1900, the quarry had wound down, but it was reopened briefly in the 1920s to furnish rock for buildings at Southwestern College (now Rhodes College) in Memphis, Tennessee.
Benjamin Franklin Brown, one of Bald Knob’s founding fathers, posted a sign beside the railroad tracks around 1873 labeling the area Bald Knob. In 1876, there had been nothing but a rock. In February 1878, Lunsford Worthington applied for a post office, and 150 families soon received mail at the new station. The 1880 census listed 221 residents, with 51 of them quarry workers. The census shows teamsters, saloons, hotels, blacksmiths, a doctor, a druggist, tailor and butcher. On September 16, 1881, a petition to incorporate the town of Bald Knob was signed by 37 men. In 1881, Merrival F. Dumas was elected the first mayor. In a few short years, the timber, railroad and quarry had created a bustling town.
Liberty Valley, south of Bald Knob, is the site of prehistoric salt extraction. Some scholars hypothesize that this is the site of Palisima, a Native American village mentioned in documents from the Hernando de Soto expedition. The area, sparsely settled before the war, was initially named Shady Grove after a church and schoolhouse in what is now the northwest part of town.
During the Civil War, workers extracted about two bushels of salt a day by boiling the water in large kettles. In the area’s only notable Civil War incident, Union troops broke most of the kettles on August 10, 1864. Some kettles still remain in private possession in the vicinity.
Harvesting of the vast hardwood forest of the White River and Little Red River bottoms began in the late 1870s with small sawmills. The number and size of the mills reached a high in the 1930s when the Fisher Body Company of Memphis required eighty railcars of hardwood logs daily, to be used in the body supports of General Motors automobiles.
The strawberry triggered another economic surge for Bald Knob. The sandy, upland soil was ideal for the fruit, which was introduced in neighboring Judsonia (White County) in the 1870s. The first strawberry association in Bald Knob was organized in 1910. In 1921, Brown, June “Jim” Collison, and Ernest R. Wynn organized The Strawberry Company. They built the longest strawberry shed in the world, a three-quarter-mile structure parallel to the tracks of the Missouri Pacific Railroad (now Union Pacific). In the peak year of 1951, Bald Knob growers sold $3.5 million worth of strawberries. Bald Knob became the “Strawberry Capital of the World,” which described the city until the 1960s, when berries ceased to be a major crop because of changing market and labor conditions.
The Bald Knob School District, at first a two-teacher school, was formed in 1897 from the old Shady Grove District. Numbers of students and faculty increased over the years until all twelve grades were taught in 1927. Much of the physical plant was destroyed in a March 1952 tornado.
The Great Depression brought public works programs to Bald Knob. The National Youth Administration built a gymnasium for the high school. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) improved rural roads. The WPA also built a new schoolhouse for School District No. 45 northwest of town. The No. 45 Schoolhouse is on the National Register of Historic Places because of its representation of Prairie-style architecture. Today, the Hopewell Community Church occupies it.
Bald Knob’s citizens pitched in to aid the World War II effort by buying war bonds, rounding up scrap metal, and rationing sugar, butter, gasoline, and tires. At least seventy-six community members entered military service. This included the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAC); Ruth Blanton served in Allied headquarters under General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s command at the end of hostilities in Europe.
Bald Knob’s agriculture changed again in 1953 when rice and soybeans became prominent. Bottomlands that once had been covered with hardwood were cleared and planted in these crops. A severe drought in 1980 and worldwide economic conditions led to a period of economic distress for farmers of Bald Knob and all Arkansas. Rice remains an important crop.
Hunting and fishing opportunities bring people to the Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area, which contains 17,000 acres supervised by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. The area was formerly owned by the Fisher Body Company. It became state property in 1941 and has been enlarged over the years. In 1993, the Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge was established on 14,800 acres south of town.
The 1915 train depot, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was restored in 2004 to become the home of Arkansas Traveler Hobbies. Other National Register properties include St. Richard’s Catholic Church, a classic example of the Park or Rustic style, and the First United Methodist Church, recognized as one of the finest examples of Tudor architecture in Arkansas.