Quitman, originally a part of Van Buren County, is now located in both Cleburne and Faulkner counties. Twelve miles southwest of the Cleburne County seat of Heber Springs, the small commercial center was once home to Quitman Male and Female College.
White settlers began to arrive in the area in 1840, attracted to readily available land and plentiful water. Early families were the Witts, McClures, and Newells. Methodists played an important role in the early years. In 1843, they founded Goodloe’s Chapel, the first church. At about that time, the settlement was known as Red River Mission.
In 1848, a post office was established with Jesse Witt as postmaster. The budding town was named after Mexican War brigadier general John Anthony Quitman. Business slowly began to grow. In 1849, William Lay established a cotton gin, followed by a grist mill. William Wakefield Garner founded the first mercantile in 1856. In 1860, the Masons established Hollond Lodge No. 158.
The turmoil of the Civil War delayed the town’s growth. Many men of the town enlisted in the Confederate Tenth Arkansas Infantry, with Company A being known as the Quitman Rifles. Military forces moved in and out of the area, with skirmishes fought near the town on March 26 and September 2, 1864. Union forces were reported to have pillaged the town at one time.
Major development did not begin until after the war, with the town officially laid out in 1868. That same year, W. C. Rollow founded the first hotel. The following year, the Quitman Male and Female Institute was founded; it was later renamed the Quitman Male and Female College. The small town is said to have been selected due to its isolation, thus reducing the temptations of vice for the students. The school claimed to be the first theological school in Arkansas. Always struggling with finances, it closed in 1898, and the buildings and grounds were turned over to public school authorities. Due to the local educational opportunities, some called Quitman the “Athens of Arkansas.”
By 1880, the town was home to eight merchants, a blacksmith, a cotton gin, two physicians, a carding factory, and a number of other businesses. In 1880, H. W. Dodge founded the town’s first newspaper, the Quitman Light. It was followed by three others, the Monitor, the Cleburne County Tribune, and the Temperance Voice, all founded in 1897.On May 25, 1881, the town was officially incorporated, with continued growth due mainly to the popularity of the college. In 1883, land was taken from Van Buren County to create a new county. With its annexation into Cleburne County, Quitman became the new county’s first incorporated community. Growth was hampered when the railroad bypassed Quitman and built through the new county seat of Heber Springs (Cleburne County). Still, by 1890, Quitman was a well-established town, with its business section having added a wood-working shop, a drugstore, a furniture store, and a sawmill. In 1890, the state-of-the-art Quitman Roller Mill was constructed. The four-story mill attracted customers who came from miles around to have their grain milled into flour.
The first public school was opened in 1868. The building remained standing until its demolition in 2009. One of the college buildings was destroyed by a tornado in 1937. Several buildings were constructed during the Great Depression as a part of the New Deal. The home economics building and the main building were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992 and 2003, respectively.
In 1903, the Bank of Quitman was founded. Telephone service became available in 1911, and electricity was provided to Quitman beginning in 1920. Many felt that the exploitation of the six local springs might develop the town into a tourist attraction much like nearby Heber Springs. Though the city was located on State Highway 25, such development never materialized. The town’s population did not top 600 until 1990.
The town has been severely damaged by fires on at least two occasions. In 1945, approximately half of the city business district burned. In 1976, a second fire did similar damage. Each time, the town rebuilt. In 1998, a new post office was opened.
In 2010, Quitman was home to more than 100 registered businesses. While several area schools have been consolidated due to falling enrollment, Quitman Elementary School and Quitman High School maintain a student enrollment of more than 600. The town provides a rural lifestyle for many residents who commute to jobs in Conway (Faulkner County), about twenty-two miles to the southwest.
Pappy Gunn, who was a fighter pilot in the Navy for twenty years, was from Quitman. He invented successful bomber modifications during World War II, which led to him overseeing aviation factory production of B-25s with his new modifications.
CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas
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2nd Class City