De Queen Commercial Historic District
The downtown buildings of what is now the De Queen Commercial Historic District were built from 1900 to 1961. The district is locally significant under Criterion A on the National Register of Historic Places as the original commercial center supporting the city of De Queen (Sevier County). The district was listed on the National Register on January 26, 2012.
The district boundaries encircle thirty-five buildings. Contributing buildings retain many of their historic features, with the historic integrity of this community at fifty-five percent intact. The identity of the area is defined through its proximity to the courthouse and its remaining historic structures. Historically, the buildings in this district were related to commerce, healthcare, recreation and culture, and government. There were also a newspaper company (still operating) and a few upstairs apartments over stores and offices.
The district is composed of portions of West De Queen Ave., West Stilwell Ave., North 2nd, North 3rd, and North 4th streets, and it wraps around the Sevier County Courthouse. A cohesive whole, it comprises primarily commercial and government buildings with the commercial buildings of similar scale, setback, fenestration pattern, and building materials. The majority of the building façades are built of brick or stucco over brick.
The town of De Queen was built to accommodate the railroad. The Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad (later known as the Kansas City Southern Railroad) built its way through what are the present-day De Queen city limits in 1896. The president of the railroad, Arthur Stilwell, founded and named the town (along with several others on the line) in honor of a well-liked business colleague and investor, Jan DeGoeijen. De Queen is the Stilwell-invented American version of the difficult to pronounce Dutch name, DeGoeijen.
Along with the railroad, Stilwell was also the president of Arkansas Townsite Company, a Missouri-based corporation that owned land around the railroad. He sent surveyors to plot out the streets, blocks, and lots and opened the land for bidding in April 1897. The majority of the bidders were from a nearby town site named Hurrah City, which sought to relocate in order to be near railroad amenities. The railroad was important to this community because it provided transportation for its residents and a way to ship crops from this rural and agricultural community to the rest of the country. By July 1897, a town of frame structures had sprung up. The location was popular, as it was centrally located, on the railroad, and had excellent water from springs and new wells.
The town of De Queen was formally founded on June 3, 1897. Before the plotting of the land, few families lived in the area. At that time, the area was covered in fine virgin timber and owned by the Williamson brothers.
On October 1, 1899, a fire destroyed the majority of the community, engulfing most of the town’s wooden structures. Several buildings stored dynamite, and as the fire reached them, the explosions caused even more destruction. In three hours, both sides of De Queen Ave., the block east of the public square, and most of 2nd St. were in ashes. The only buildings left were on the south side of the square (Stilwell Ave.). Only six or seven buildings survived. In all, fifty-four businesses burned. Only sixteen had insurance. Nevertheless, the citizens persevered. Some merchants bought the remaining buildings on Stilwell Ave., and others put up temporary buildings. Some rebuilt in frame, but the majority used brick. The mayor urged that the town be rebuilt in fireproof brick and stone.
In late October 1899, the De Queen Brick Company set up in the southwestern part of town. Some of the first contracts for De Queen Brick were for the Citizen’s Savings Bank (later the De Queen Bank) at the corner of 3rd and De Queen Ave., for G. L. Burson (“Burson the Buggy Man”) at 306 W. De Queen Ave., and for the Williamson brothers for two large two-story buildings at the corner of Stilwell and 3rd St. On November 27, 1899, the first brick ever laid in De Queen was placed in the construction of the bank. On August 8, 1909, the city suffered another fire, which began on De Queen Ave. and 2nd St. It burned six frame buildings, but firefighters subdued the flames and saved the rest of the block.
In January 1900, the Dierks Lumber and Coal Company developed the short line De Queen and Eastern Railroad, which was used to transport timber to the mills and for some passenger service. The company had offices in De Queen and operated a company store, the Big Store Commissary, at 214 W. De Queen Ave.
In 1905, De Queen became the county seat of Sevier County. The original courthouse was two stories tall and constructed of red brick. By 1927, two grand juries deemed the twenty-four-year-old courthouse unsafe when the upper floor of the building was in use. In June 1930, construction began on the new courthouse building; it was dedicated in September 1934.
A new building for the mayor and chief of police, which also housed the fire station and city water department, was built at 315 W. Stilwell Ave. in 1931. There was not much growth in the community from the late 1930s until the 1980s. The popularity of the automobile and the construction of U.S. 71 in 1926, which did not link to downtown, stymied downtown growth.During the 1950s, new businesses began along the highway, resulting in homes and existing businesses being led away from the downtown community.
By the mid-twentieth century, major poultry corporations and their processing plants appeared. During the 1980s, an influx of Mexican immigrant workers arrived to work in the processing plants. They opened businesses in the underused downtown and bought or rented homes in the adjacent residential area. By the 2010 census, De Queen had become a majority Hispanic community, with Hispanics making up 53.5 percent of the population.
Mayor Chad Gallagher, elected in 1998, secured grant funds for downtown street improvements, including the renewal of sidewalks and streets and the addition of park benches, trash cans, and lamp posts. In 2011, several businesses rehabilitated buildings, and a variety of businesses moved into the area. The following year, downtown was once again being touted as the city’s commercial center.
For additional information:
“De Queen Commercial Historic District” National Register of Historic Places nomination form. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas. Online at http://www.arkansaspreservation.com/National-Register-Listings/PDF/SV0121.nr.pdf (accessed October 14, 2021).
McCommas, Betty. The History of Sevier County and Her People (1803–1936). Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing Company, 1980.
“The Rail Builders: The Story of Mr. DeQueen Known by History as Jan DeGoeijen.” The Looking Glass: Reflecting the History and Humor of Western Arkansas (Spring 1995): 9–22.
Antoinette Fiduccia Johnson
Johnson Consulting: Historic Preservation & Interior Design
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