Moro (Lee County)
|Latitude and Longitude:||34°47’42″N 090°59’28″W|
|Area:||0.96 square miles (2020 Census)|
|Population:||177 (2020 Census)|
|Incorporation Date:||May 22, 1914|
Historical Population as per the U.S. Census:
Located at the intersection of State Highways 238 and 78, Moro is the second-largest incorporated community in Lee County, exceeded in size only by Marianna, the county seat. Despite a population of only approximately 200 residents, it has about thirty businesses in the twenty-first century. The present town of Moro is the second one in Hampton Township to carry that name. The two towns were not in the same location, and the first one vanished nearly a decade before the current town was founded. Today, that earlier village is remembered as “Old Moro.”
Old Moro emerged as settlers claimed land around an intersection of military roads constructed in 1835 connecting Helena (Phillips County) to the capital at Little Rock (Pulaski County). However, a local legend repeated in the 1987 book Lee County History claims that the first town of Moro was founded in 1850 by a “medical doctor of wide fame” named James Sullivan, a native of England who lived in Virginia before moving to Arkansas. Sullivan (1821–1865) was a resident of Old Moro during the final decade of his life, but according to testimony before the Southern Claims Commission by Sullivan’s widow, Louvisa, and other town residents, Sullivan was born and raised in Evansville, Indiana. In 1845, while in his early twenties, he left home and moved downriver to Helena by which time Old Moro already existed.
By 1850, the population of Hampton Township totaled 342, including three wagonmakers, six carpenters, a blacksmith, and a clerk-of-court, signaling that some center for trade had likely formed. James Sullivan and his family lived on a small farm near LaGrange (Lee County) until May 1855 when Sullivan, who had served briefly as a postmaster in Phillips County, was hired to set up a new post office in Hampton Township. In the summer of 1855, he filed a squatter’s claim under the Federal Swamp Land Act on 160 acres of land in the township, and afterward the family moved there to live.
Though not the town’s founder, Sullivan probably did give it the name Moro, as the postmaster was responsible for naming the post office. Legend claims that he named it after “Moro Bay in England,” but no such place is found in nineteenth-century English gazetteers or maps. However, “Moro” is a Latin-based surname found in Spanish colonial land grants and in portions of the American Southwest that in Sullivan’s day were part of Mexico, suggesting that he may have encountered it while serving in the war. Too, the regimental rendezvous point for the Arkansas Mounted Volunteers during the war was in Hempstead County, and on the way there, the Phillips County soldiers may have seen Moro Bay, a lake known by that name as early as 1804.
In July 1862, the Civil War arrived at Moro as General Samuel Curtis and 15,000 to 20,000 Union troops traveled through the village when marching from Clarendon (Monroe County) to Helena. Louvisa Sullivan testified in court that she and James watched from their porch as soldiers passed their farm along the “Middle Helena Road.” In November, some 1,200 Union troops under Colonel William Vandever camped overnight at Moro, as did 160 Federal soldiers commanded by Major William Walker in May 1863. In June, an army of Confederates led by General Theophilus Holmes passed through Moro during a failed attempt to retake Helena, and Union general John Davidson reported that he camped there in August. Local residents later reported that Confederate and Union troops looted the village.
Old Moro had no more than about 200 residents at any time in its existence; sources claiming higher totals likely conflate the township population with that of the village. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 1900, Old Moro was hit by an unseasonable tornado, and headlines in the Arkansas Gazette reported that the village had been “wiped out,” with every store, the schoolhouse, and most homes destroyed. Three died in the storm. The village was never rebuilt, and nothing remains of it.
In 1907, the Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad (M&NA) announced that its rails would be extended from Leslie (Searcy County) to Helena, passing through Hampton Township about a mile from the site of Old Moro. This second town was financed and built according to a railroading scheme that aligned towns in the direction of railroad tracks rather than Federal land survey grid lines. The second town of Moro was laid out this way, as were the nearby rail towns of Rondo (Lee County) and Aubrey (Lee County).
In 1907, right-of-way agents with Allen-West Commission Company of St. Louis, Missouri, met with Jonas Miller of Hampton Township, on whose farm the MN&A was taking a perpetual lease. Miller named the new town Moro after the village where he had grown up. By 1908, Moro’s streets were in place, and six brick store buildings were under construction along Front Street. That same year, Moro Mercantile and Gin Company was organized and occupied two buildings on the corner opposite the depot. The firm also built a steam-driven cotton gin at the end of Front Street. A separate business named Moro Mercantile Company opened in two adjacent buildings and another gin was built nearby to be known as Moro Gin Company. Other businesses there included a butcher shop, dry goods store, physician’s office, grist mill, blacksmith, barbershop, and machine shop. At least three churches were established, including Baptist, Methodist, and Lutheran. By 1909, a depot and livestock pens had been constructed along the rails, and telegraph lines had been strung to coordinate train movements. That same year, Moro Land and Lumber Company built the first of two lumber mills there, and the Arkansas Gazette noted that Moro was destined “to be one of the leading towns of this state.”
Organized in August 1911, the Bank of Moro constructed a two-story brick building; later reduced to one story, it became the post office. In September, a two-story brick schoolhouse opened for classes. Three surrounding school districts were consolidated with the Moro district, which provided covered, heated wagons to transport children who lived up to five miles away. The Gazette reported that Moro was the first district in Arkansas to provide such service at no cost to students. In 1912, another block of brick stores was built at the southeast end of Front Street. Jonas Miller used cash he earned from lot sales to construct his own mercantile store in that block nearest the cotton gins.
In 1914, this second town of Moro was incorporated, and the town plat was enlarged, bringing the total to more than 440 commercial and residential lots. The same year, Moro Supply Company and Farmers’ Gin and Seed Company were incorporated and acquired the assets of Moro Mercantile and Gin Company. In addition, the Moro district set up an agricultural school on an eighty-acre farm adjacent to the school and employed an expert with the experimental program at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) to teach agriculture and manage the farm. Moro’s waterworks and electric light system were fully operational by fall 1915. Around that same time, the telephone system was installed.
In 1917, the M&NA had just started to show a profit when the United States entered World War I and the federal government took control of all railroads. In 1918, Moro was stricken by the influenza epidemic and in October the Gazette reported that one to three people were dying daily at Moro, in part because the only two doctors in town were sick with the flu. (In 1921, the financially troubled M&NA halted service and reorganized under bankruptcy laws.)
In 1925, fire destroyed an entire block of stores along Front Street. Along the route of the M&NA, the Flood of 1927 washed out bridges and miles of right-of-way, halting trains for an extended period. In 1935, the railroad was again forced into bankruptcy and reorganized. Then, in 1941 the United States entered World War II, and once again the federal government took control of the railroads. In early 1947, the railroad filed for bankruptcy for the third and final time. Five years later, the rails through Moro were formally abandoned and ripped up.
By the 1950s, trucks were replacing railcars for hauling freight. Two major highways serving Moro were paved during this period. In 1953, a new elementary school with central heating was opened. However, following an economic downturn in 1958, many Moro businesses closed, and soon Moro High School closed during another wave of consolidations.
In 1959, Jonas Miller’s grand-nephew Jesse D. Smith opened a farm store in one of the brick buildings on Front Street. By 1960, the economy was bouncing back—Moro’s streets had been paved, a new city water system had been installed, and a new post office and branch bank were under construction. Smith expanded into the seed, fertilizer, and cotton-buying businesses, continuing to run these enterprises for more than a decade, during which time Moro’s population reached a peak of around 500.
In the twenty-first century, all the original buildings along Front Street are gone; a city park stands there. The town has a well-equipped volunteer fire department. There are several churches in Moro, including Baptist, Missionary Baptist, Pentecostal, and a House of Prayer. Businesses include a branch bank, agricultural suppliers, construction companies, grocery stores, farm and home services, automotive services, and a restaurant. The population in 2010 was 216, of whom 202 were white and twelve were African American.
For additional information:
Lee County Sesquicentennial Committee. Lee County History. Dallas, TX: Curtis Media Company, 1987.
Smith, William Ramer. “Dr. James W. Sullivan and Louvisa C. Sullivan of Old Moro.” Tri-County Genealogical Society. http://tcgs.genealogyvillage.com/firstfamilies/sullivan_james_w_and_louvisa_c.html (accessed July 21, 2022).
William Ramer Smith
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Thank you for this history, Billy. Born and raised in Moro, Arkansas: best place in the world. William and I were next-door neighbors as children and played and fought together. Many good memories.