Wednesday, October 12, 2011

War Eagle Craft Fair

Go to Northwest Arkansas
and enjoy the annual
War Eagle Arts and Crafts Fair
October 13, 14, 15, 16, 2011.
It is one of the biggest in the US.

There is a lot of history surrounding this working grist mill on War Eagle River — history that began four years before Arkansas was admitted as a state. The year was 1832.
A young man by the name of Sylvanus Blackburn had moved west from Hickman County, Tennessee, settling in the untamed country near present-day Bentonville. Blackburn worked hard to build a homestead and nearby grist mill. In time, he sent for his young bride, Catherine Brewer Blackburn. The couple would have eight children in the near-wilderness. By 1838, the War Eagle community had developed and included a blacksmith shop, carpentry shop and saw mill.

This is a ONE LANE bridge and you have to wait for the car coming from the other direction to come across, before you get your turn to cross over. Your tires must be lined up on the board planks to drive across. Makes me hold my breath every time I have ever went over it!

War Eagle River, however, is prone to floods. After heavy rains in 1848, the 16-year-old mill and mill pond dam would be washed away. War Eagle Mill was rebuilt soon after by the Blackburn family. The grist mill’s role in the War Between the States would prove dramatic. Sylvanus and Catharine owed a considerable number of slaves. The Blackburns were affluent, respected leaders in the young community, a developing force in the recently admitted slave state of Arkansas. All five of the Blackburn sons joined the Confederacy. As the bloodshed drew closer, Sylvanus Blackburn left Arkansas, taking Catharine and other family members to the relative safety of Texas.

Today, we see grist mills as quaint structures of an earlier, simpler time. During the Civil War, however, mills were simply targets. The food grains produced there were essential to armies. Efforts to capture or destroy grist mills were part of each army’s strategy. On February 28, 1862, Eugene Carr Union colonel encamped at the Cross Hollows Camp near War Eagle wrote, “Colonel Dodge came in this morning with all the men and teams he had at the War Eagle Mills*; he regretted very much to leave them, and says the inhabitants begged him to stay. Blackburn, the owner, is very fearful that the mills will be burned.” On March 4, 1862, Confederate forces rode into the War Eagle Valley, burning the mill to the ground.

Sylvanus' son, James G. Blackburn, would later be killed by bushwhackers. His tombstone in the War Eagle Cemetery simply reads, ”Murdered by a Union Soldier.” Another Blackburn son, James Austin Cameron Blackburn, rebuilt the grist mill in 1873. War Eagle was given a post office that year. Catharine Blackburn passed away on March 13, 1890. Sylvanus died less than a week later.

James A.C. Blackburn’s mill, the third on the property, would last 51 years. In 1924, War Eagle Mill burned down. The site lay empty for decades. The rural population dwindled. The post office closed in 1967. In 1973, however, War Eagle Mill was rebuilt by the Medlin family. Today, it is Arkansas’ only remaining grist mill and is reported to be the only working undershot waterwheel in the nation. The18-foot waterwheel turns 30-inch stone buhrs, now grinding corn year-round.
The War Eagle Fair, founded in 1953 and known as the grandaddy of all Ozark craft fairs, fills the pastures just across the old War Eagle Bridge, built in 1908. The fair is an Ozarks tradition, drawing visitors by the thousands every fall and spring. When I was there on the first of October they were already putting up the acres and acres of tents for the arts and crafts exhibitors. At the same time as the War Eagle Fair most of the other communities and towns in Northwest Arkansas also have events to attend. You can make an entire weekend of checking out some awesome displays. 

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