Cave City Area Origins
Between the time Arkansas became a state in 1836 and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, a migration of families moved into the area that was later to become Cave City. Many of these families moved to that area from Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, etc., and settled along the creeks and waterways in the more temperate climates away from the mosquitoes and malaria of Eastern Arkansas.
The area now known as “Cave City” was originally situated entirely in Independence County, most of which was in Barren Township. When Sharp County was formed in 1868, what is now Cave City was still in Independence County, including north of present-day Cave City to almost the Maxville area. Then, in 1875, the current county line was established, moving the Independence County line to its present location and creating Cave Township.
Over the years, small communities and churches sprang up in this area of Sharp and Independence counties, many of which established their own post offices and schools. Some of these were Hickory Valley, Sandtown, Curia, Clarkson, Reed’s Creek/Fairview, Maxville, Emery, Mobley, Flat Rock, Cedar Grove, and Loyal. It has been said that most of the post offices and schools were about five miles distant, as that was about as far as people were willing to walk or ride a horse to get to these establishments!
Many of the families who lived in these smaller communities resided in those areas for years before the town of Cave City was ever imagined. Many of the early pioneer family names echo through the area today: Jackson, Horn, Barnett, Brewer, Laman, Gray, Meacham, Wooldridge, Shanks, Rawlings, Green, Witten, Landers, Rodgers, Ball, Crow, Wilson, Fore, Lewis, Aldridge, Montgomery, Johnson, Gilbert, Vance, Vaughn, Stewart, Story, Stout, Matlock, Baxter, Bain, Jones, Chaudoin, Martin, Felts, Burge, Albright and Ford.
One of the earliest churches was the Flat Rock Methodist Church, established in 1858. It was affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and during part of its early years housed Curia Lodge #144, F. & A. M. A little further north the community of “Loyal” had been established, near the present location of the Subway restaurant in Cave City, and at the intersection of US Hwy. 167 and 115.
Cave City Established
The town of Cave City was started around 1890 when two brothers, James Andrew (“Jim”) and John William (“Jack”) Laman, moved to the present site of Cave City. This line of the Laman family had settled on Curia Creek, about a mile south of present-day Cave City. Ruthel Laman Heasley, a granddaughter of Jim Laman, stated that her grandfather and his brother were determined to create a new town when they moved their families there in 1889. They both built homes (on the site of the current location of the Bank of Cave City and on the old bank property just to the north) and moved in by 1890
Apparently the Laman brothers bought large tracts of land in the Cave City area, built their business and encouraged other merchants to relocate at that place. They platted off the town and reportedly gave land to other churches and for the establishment of a school.
The first school was taught in Cave City in 1891 and was located at the site of the present Hometown Market. Many out-lying families moved into town soon after the creation of the new school to better educate their children. Other students moved into town and “boarded” with family, friends, or in boarding houses which were made available to entice more students to the school. The second school was located about two blocks off Main Street on what is now East Center Street, with the finally campus at its present site.
The nearest post office, which had been located at Loyal, was physically “moved” to the new town of Cave City in 1892. Town and family lore have it that the post office was secretly spirited out of Loyal and rolled on logs to Cave City after the presidential election of 1892 placed more friendly Democrats in charge of the postal department! The first post master at Cave City was Thomas J. Wooldridge, whose term began December 16, 1892.
The Story of The Cave
Another point of interest was the cave which was located in the center of town, and from which the town received its name. In earlier years, before the creation of the town, the cave had belonged to the Horn family, and was known as Horn’s Cave. Later, the cave was purchased by Dr. G. T. (“Dock Tom”) Laman. The cave supplied the drinking water for the local school, as well as serving as a veritable “town refrigerator.” Many families stored their milk, butter, and other produce in the cool cave to prevent them from spoiling.
The cave was both a great asset to the community and a source of mystery. Over the years, various attempts have been made to explore the cave and to determine the origins of the Crystal River which flows under the town of Cave City. No one has ever been able to show where the river begins or where it eventually ends. Although the town of Cave City is some 150 miles from the Mississippi River, it has been said that the Crystal River rises and falls with the Mississippi River.
In the early 1930’, Hubert Carpenter purchased the cave properties. With the help of C. P. (“Prince”) Matlock, efforts were made to develop the grounds and add cabins to what became known as Cave Courts. It had been known for years that local Indians had used the cave for dwellings. Mr. Carpenter retrieved many of the Indian relics from the cave and built a museum of sorts which housed these relics on the walkway into the entrance of the cave. The cave at Cave City served as a source of pride for the community for many years, and the Cave Courts housed many tourists who traveled through that area of Northeast Arkansas. Today it still stands as the oldest motor court of its kind in the state, and likely the entire region.
Notable Town Milestones
Many other milestones occurred in the early years of the history of Cave City. In the early 1890’s, what was apparently the second church established in town was the Methodist Episcopal (or “North Methodist”) Church. The building for that church was completed in 1898 and existed until the Methodist Church was united in 1939. The First Baptist Church was organized in June of 1901. The original church was located on the site of the current Hometown Market. That congregation has continued to grow and is currently adding to its present structure to accommodate an ever-expanding membership.
The Bank of Cave City was organized in 1906, with James A. Laman as the first president. In 1919, J. M. (“Roe”) Street became president and served in that capacity until his death in 1942. His son, Eagle Street, later became president in 1942 and served until 1984. The Street family has maintained a controlling interest in the bank since the time of Roe Street’s election in 1919.
The town of Cave City was incorporated in April 1907 with a Mayor-Council form of government. The first mayor was J. T. Harrell, with W. A. Meacham as recorder.
Early Cave City Culture
In its earlier years, Cave City’s means of entertainment appeared to revolve around camp and/or brush arbor meetings and revivals at local (and often not-so local) churches. People would travel for miles around to attend theses “meetings”, sometimes called “union meetings” or “tent revivals”, where two or more church de-nominations would hold meeting at the same time and place. One of the most favorite and anticipated of these camp meetings was the holiness camp meeting held every year at Calamine by ministers of the Nazarene Church.
The Fourth of July Picnic at Cave City was another major attraction, bringing folks from all over the surrounding country. One of the earliest references to a Fourth of July picnic at Cave City was in the Sharp County Record newspaper in June of 1899, planning a picnic for that year. Another interesting mention of the picnic in 1902 related that “The rents for swings and lemonade stands will be used toward buying a wind mill to draw the water from the cave.” [An article from the Record dated July of 1928 states that the town had been celebrating the Fourth of July each summer for 35 years, which would have put the tradition starting as far back as 1893.] The town celebration of the Fourth of July continued for many years, but fell out of favor in the last few decades.
These days, the reason for Cave City’s renowned and its place on the map is due primarily to the annual Watermelon Festival! Held each year since 1980, Charles and Anita Landers spearheaded the one-of-a-kind event for decades. In 2015 they "retired", and a new committee of volunteers have since taken the festival to even greater success, with expanded entertainment, activities for the entire family, and record-setting crowds; from the beginning to now it's always been about celebrating the town and its rich history of producing the world’s best watermelons. Today, people from around the world come to this small place each summer to help us do just that!
Watermelon growing is not a new thing in Cave City, however. As far back as 1938 a Melon Grower’s Association for Sharp and Independence counties was organized at Cave City, with the following officers elected: President, Fred Anderson; Vice-President, Wilburn Jackson; Secretary, Marvin Bull; and Treasurer, Orville Girtman. By 1955, the Melon Grower’s Association met and elected a Board of Directors, consisting of Hassel Ford (President), Silas James, Coy Crow, Verl Ball, and Ernest Landers (who, by the way, was Charles Landers’ father). In August of 1958, Burnis Brown was the manager of the Cave City Watermelon Growers’ Association, which consisted of 127 members with 1,000 acres planted in watermelons. Ellis and Ernest Landers had the largest acreage planted in watermelons --- 45 acres.