Peter Van Winkle (1814–1882)
Peter Van Winkle was a prominent lumberman and sawmill owner in northwestern Arkansas who came back from losing most of his property in the Civil War to establish a timber empire that helped rebuild much of the region after the war.
Peter Marselis Van Winkle was born in New York State on February 25, 1814. (His middle name is sometimes rendered Manelis, likely an error.) His family moved to Illinois when he was young, and he grew up there before moving to northwestern Arkansas around 1837 and establishing a business breaking prairie land in the region. He married Frances Wilcox, who apparently died, and he then married Temperance Miller on May 3, 1840; they would have twelve children.
The Van Winkles established a farm three miles west of Fayetteville (Washington County), and Peter Van Winkle augmented his prairie-plowing business by working as a blacksmith and wagon maker. Between 1850 and 1852, he moved to Rock Island, Illinois; came back to Arkansas; moved to Texas; and again returned to Arkansas, establishing a mill in Benton County.
Van Winkle’s first mill was powered by oxen and then by horses, but in about 1858, he moved his operation to Van Hollow and acquired a steam engine to provide power. The family built a large house near the mill and, by 1860, owned eighteen enslaved people. Archaeologist Jamie C. Brandon observed that this was “not an insubstantial number for Northwest Arkansas, where only the largest slaveholders in the region claimed thirty slaves.”
As the Civil War began, Van Winkle received contracts in 1861 from the Confederate government to build wooden cabins at Camp Benjamin, part of the Cross Hollow complex adjacent to the Springfield to Fayetteville Road in Benton County. As Union troops established dominance in northwestern Arkansas, he fled with his family and their slaves to Bowie County, Texas. Returning to Arkansas in 1866, they found their home and the mill burned to the ground.
Van Winkle rebuilt on the same site, aided in large part by a formerly enslaved African American man, Aaron “Rock” Van Winkle, who had begun working as a paid employee. Business was booming, as much lumber was needed for rebuilding Fayetteville and other war-damaged communities. Van Winkle also supplied materials for the construction of the flagship University of Arkansas (UA) building now known as Old Main.
His business grew as the new towns of Rogers (Benton County) and Eureka Springs (Carroll County) were established, setting up lumberyards in both towns, as well as a portable mill in Madison County. One journalist wrote that “he added many improvements, established other mills, and purchased thousands of acres of pine lands, until he owned nearly all the pineries in Benton, Madison and Carroll counties.”
In 1879, he began building a three-story, T-shaped building on the Fayetteville square, with the upper floor serving as a public hall. The Van Winkle Hotel was completed about a year later.
Van Winkle was walking down a street in Rogers with his wife and son on February 10, 1882, when he suddenly dropped dead from apoplexy (what is now known as a stroke). A special funeral train was dispatched from St. Louis, Missouri, to transport his body to Fayetteville, where it was met at the depot “by a large number of the best and most prominent citizens, who took charge of the remains, and escorted the hearse bearing him to the Van Winkle House.”
Van Winkle is buried in Fayetteville’s Evergreen Cemetery, with the Fayetteville Weekly Democrat eulogizing that “a good man and true has gone. Peace to his ashes.”
For additional information:
Brandon, Jamie C. “Van Winkle’s Mill: Recovering Lost Industrial and African-American Heritage in the Ozarks.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 67 (Winter 2008): 429–445.
“A Brief Sketch.” New Bentonian, February 22, 1882, p. 2.
“Death of Peter Van Winkle.” Fayetteville Weekly Democrat, February 16, 1882, p. 3.
“A Great Loss.” Arkansas Democrat, February 15, 1882, p. 3.
Hicks, Marilyn. The Van Winkle Family: Peter Marselis Van Winkle, 1814–1882. Wolfe City, Texas: Henington Publishing Co., 1990.
Huggard, Christopher, and Jerry Moore. “Rock Van Winkle: Black Builder of Northwest Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 80 (Spring 2021): 1–37.
Rothrock, Thomas. “Peter Manelis [sic] Van Winkle.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 32 (Spring 1973): 61–70.
Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System
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