McRae (White County)

Latitude and Longitude:

35°06’46″N 091°49’21″W

Elevation:

230 feet

Area:

0.696 square miles (2010 Census)

Population:

682 (2010 Census)

Incorporation Date:

May 27, 1914

Historical Population as per the U.S. Census:

1810

1820

1830

1840

1850

1860

1870

1880

1890

1900

1910

1920

1930

1940

1950

1960

1970

1980

1990

2000

467

458

420

414

428

643

641

669

661

2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

682

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

McRae is an incorporated city in southern White County, located about nine miles southwest of Searcy (White County). McRae has its origins in the construction of the Cairo and Fulton Railroad through White County in 1872, which entailed the use of abundant virgin timber and arable lands in the area, but McRae did not exist as a defined community until the establishment of its first post office in 1889. The construction of McRae’s own rail depot in 1897 enabled further development and robust growth, which allowed it to emerge as a local contender in timber and strawberry production.

The community was named in honor of Searcy attorney and Confederate brigadier general Dandridge McRae. Two men instrumental in shaping McRae during this time were Captain George Goodrich and Jim “Poke” Smith, the latter so named for his slow gait and quirky mannerisms. Smith is alleged (though details are sketchy) to have gotten a depot built at McRae to the detriment of neighboring Garner (White County), which housed a railroad wood yard at the time. Goodrich was a retired steamboat captain turned businessman and surveyor who acquired much property around McRae during its early days. At various times, Goodrich operated a general store, cotton gin, sawmill, lumber yard, movie theater, fruit orchard, real estate business, and the “McRae Joyland” skating rink, in addition to a sawmill at West Point (White County) and veneering mill at Higginson (White County). Goodrich was also McRae’s postmaster from 1897 to 1913, and upon his death he was buried in a concrete casket made by his own casket company.

As late as 1910, much of McRae and the surrounding area was sparsely settled woodland, and local commerce was restricted to sustenance farming, with many locals still dependent upon fishing and hunting to provide enough food. Through this wilderness, the Cairo and Fulton had built its railroad, and, with access to distant markets, McRae and its neighbors joined the rest of Arkansas in its post–Civil War era timber production boom. Entrepreneurs from northern states quickly capitalized on the newly accessible woodlands, and two lumber companies were operating in and around McRae by 1895. Statewide lumber production peaked in 1909, but this was not the case with McRae, where the industry continued flourishing into the 1920s.

McRae formally incorporated in 1914 and, by this time, boasted several churches and its own high school, in addition to many new businesses. Homer E. Herring and his wife, Maymie, moved to McRae in 1915 following success with his own coffee business. Herring’s business purchased train-car loads of coffee beans, which were roasted and sold locally; Herring began this business in Cabot (Lonoke County) and took it with him in the move to McRae. Locally dubbed McRae’s “hustling merchant,” Herring also opened a dry goods store in 1915, which he operated until his death in 1935.

The timber industry brought growth, but the harvesting of strawberries eventually came to define McRae’s culture and led to its greatest prosperity, as the newly cleared lands enabled farming to begin on a commercial scale. Strawberries were first shipped out via railroad from neighboring Garner in 1894; production at McRae thrived from 1915 until 1950. All White County towns along the railroad grew and shipped strawberries, with McRae, Judsonia (White County), and Bald Knob (White County) wrestling at various times for the elusive title of “Strawberry Capital.” The McRae Strawberry Association and the Honest Pack Association were organized in 1912 and 1917, respectively, and facilitated berry sales from local pickers to process and load onto refrigerated rail-cars for urban destinations. Capping and other processing was done in Searcy. A shortage of sugar during World War II and an increase in wartime manpower at the ordnance plant in Jacksonville (Pulaski County) reduced demand for strawberries and diverted manual labor away from the strawberry fields of McRae. A serious drought from 1952 to 1954 brought many local farmers to foreclosure, and soybeans took preeminence over strawberries as McRae’s primary cash crop by the 1950s.

Town folklore tells of the “McRae Ghost,” the apparition of a bearded old man that in 1916 haunted people for several weeks along a road near the McRae veneering mill. The corpse of an old man fitting the description of the ghost was later found about a quarter-mile from the mill. The cause of death was unknown, but the body’s discovery presumably put the “McRae Ghost” to rest, as it was never seen again.

McRae was also home to the Oak Tree Inn, a café built around an oak tree more than thirteen feet in circumference. The inn was a draw for tourists and a unique landmark that did great business due to its location in the liveliest part of town. The building was destroyed and the tree killed by a fire in the 1940s.

Harry Claiborne was a native of McRae who became known
nationwide in 1986 as the first sitting federal judge to be sent to prison.

Farming is still the primary business concern in McRae today—some strawberries are still grown, but most farms grow rice or soybeans. During its history, McRae had a proud athletic and academic tradition with its schools until 2004, when the McRae district was consolidated with nearby Beebe (White County).

For additional information:
Cook, Bruce. The History of McRae, Arkansas. Searcy, AR: Harding Press, 1981.

———. “Homer Herring: Businessman Was Mayor of Cabot, McRae.” White County Heritage 19 (1981): 88–89.

Johnson, Claude E. The Humorous History of White County, Arkansas. Searcy, AR: White County Historical Society, 1975.

Jones, Darla. “Oak Tree Inn.” White County Heritage 20 (1982): 28.

Leach, W. J. “Early Days in Garner and McRae.” White County Heritage 4 (March/April 1966): 2–4.

White County Arkansas. https://www.whitecountyar.org (accessed June 20, 2018).

Adam Miller
Searcy, Arkansas

Last Updated: 06/20/2018