Ashley County, Arkansas
That small-town ‘Mayberry’ charm
Business View Magazine interviews Jim Hudson, County Judge of Ashley County, Arkansas, for our focus on American Infrastructure.
A gem of southeast Arkansas, Ashley County captures the heart of residents and visitors with its small-town ‘Mayberry’ charm and inherent natural beauty. Established in 1848, Ashley County lies in the midst of Chicot County to the east, the Ouachita River to the west, Drew County to the north, and northern Louisiana’s Morehouse Parish to the south. Its population of 22,000 resides in the cities and hamlets of Crossett, Hamburg, Fountain Hill, Parkdale, Montrose, Wilmot, Portland, North Crossett, and West Crossett. The region’s rich soil nurtures a wealth of cash crops, including cotton, rice, soybeans, wheat, and grain sorghum. Tomato, cucumber, and bell pepper producers contribute to the economy, as do a few cattle ranchers. Some rice farmers have even turned their fields into catfish farms.
The forested western part of the county developed into the city of Crossett in the late 1800s and became home to one of the largest industrial enterprises in Arkansas: the Crossett Lumber Company. Georgia-Pacific Corporation (GP) bought Crossett Lumber in 1962 and continues to be the county’s biggest employer. At its peak, GP owned some 800,000 acres in southeast Arkansas and northeast Louisiana, and Crossett touted itself as “The Forestry Capital of the South.” Today, forest products account for 57 percent of the value of all shipments from the county and are responsible for 26 percent of the employment. Other large employers are the Bemis Company in Crossett and the Barnes Companies in the City of Hamburg, which is also the County Seat.
Ashley County Judge, Jim Hudson, is full of downhome character and happily shares his adoration of the county and its people. “The main attraction is we’re a small rural county with a Mayberry feel. We have two major cities and five outlying towns with populations from 300 up to 800. Half of our industries are agriculture-based, the others are forestry. We have a lot of Arkansas mahogany here – they’re called pine trees. Georgia Pacific, the third largest paper mill in the U.S., does toilet paper and paper bags, here. Another division prints the paper for dog food bags, etc. And we have a chemical mill that breaks down the paper wood fiber; another plant that renders animal fat, mostly chicken fat, into biodiesel. It’s a pretty large operation. We also have an ink plant, and seven big logging contractors. None has less than 50 employees. One has 13 trucks.”
Ashley County has one rail system, but most shipping is done by truck, since U.S. Highway 425 serves the county from north to south and U.S. Highway 82 from east to west. Plans are in the works to convert Hwy. 425 from two lanes to four, this year, and to expand Hwy. 82 to four lanes in the future. That transportation upgrade will be a boon for drawing new business to Ashley County, and the Crossett Economic Development Center is there to help in that regard. “Things are looking up,” says Hudson. “We have plenty of housing and land. If an industry moved down here, they could buy land and build their houses here. We have an excellent education system. Our police department is great, crime is low. We have one of the best Veterans’ Affairs services in the area. Veterans come from Louisiana, Mississippi, and we go above and beyond to take care of them.” When it comes to healthcare, Ashley Medical Center offers a 350-bed hospital facility with an emergency room, obstetrics, and an extra-large MRI machine.
Crossett is the headquarters for the 69,000-acre Felsenthal National Forest and Wildlife Management project to channelize the Ouachita River. For outdoor enthusiasts, Bayou Bartholomew, the longest bayou in the U.S., runs through the county. Hudson reports, “Bartholomew Bayou used to be navigable, they brought small steamboats up it. That’s pretty much the way this county got started. The waterways were the way people got where they were going – the Bayou, and the Saline River, and the Ouachita River, and we’re only 30 miles from the Mississippi River. We’re in a unique area. We have seven lakes for fishing and people come from all over for deer hunting.” The County is also home to many festivals and events, none more renowned than the world-famous Armadillo Festival. Seriously, no joke. According to Hudson, “It’s been going on a long time. On the second weekend in May, kids go out and find armadillos and bring them back here to race. When it’s over, they turn them loose again, unharmed. It’s a rural thing.”
Ashley County has an innovative recycling program that has taken 65 percent of the waste stream out of its landfill. Residents from all over the county take their lightly used clothing and old furniture to the Shelter Workshop in Crossett, where the items are refurbished and sold. The Workshop provides jobs for mentally and physically challenged members of the community and gives people who don’t have a large income a place to buy quality household goods at an affordable price. In another warehouse, plastic bottles, books, newspapers, and magazines are collected and shredded, and put into bulk containers. The county owns equipment to press paper and yard waste into small cubes, which are then sold to Georgia-Pacific for use as fuel.
“We are an industrial county that just needs a shot in the arm to help us grow a little bit bigger,” says Hudson. “We have a vocational school that’s a part of the University of Arkansas at Monticello (UAM). They just consolidated with UAM and you get the same credits you’d get at college, but it’s vocational. They offer welding classes, an instrument orientation class, a computer class – a program where they’re teaching students who want to go into the workforce the basics of how to machine; how to do setup. We’ve got the technology and the skilled labor for computer jobs, but the blue-collar jobs are in more demand than the white-collar jobs and we do not have a workforce for those. We’re training the younger ones now at our Vo-Tech that it’s good to do a blue-collar job – a plumber makes $150,000 a year and there is a shortage. To make a business work, you need white collar and blue collar. We’re trying to fill the niche for both, here.”
He adds, “I would love to have a tech-based company move in, because we just don’t have any of those jobs available. The Silicon Valley started out just like Hamburg, a rural community. This is a great place to raise your children. Our crime rate is very low, our drug problem is down to a bare minimum. We don’t have armed guards at the school. And I’m hoping that’s what industries are looking for. My children are grown, now, and live in Ashley County. The reason I ran for this job was with the idea if I can make this county better for my two children, then I can make it better for everyone else. My goals are pretty selfish. How many people have children that have to leave their home town to get a job? A lot. I’d like to have them stay here.”
Ashley County is indeed a special place. In the square in Hamburg, there is a pavilion, a gathering place. And periodically when the weather is warm, they’ll have impromptu concerts there. Everybody brings lawn chairs and listens to the music. “It’s just a family atmosphere, Hudson muses. “There are kids running everywhere, having a good time. Ninety miles north in Little Rock, there is no way I would let my grandchild run loose on the riverfront. I would keep a tight watch on him. But here, everyone knows everyone, one way or another. In my opinion, if an industry was to come down here and look at the whole picture at what we have they would think, ‘This is a place where our people would want to work, live, and retire.’ It’s an area where your kids are safe. That’s what matters. We have the technology here to do whatever we want but we still have that small hometown Mayberry feeling.”
AT A GLANCE
Who: Ashley County, Arkansas
What: Rural Arkansas county; population 22,000
Where: Southeast Arkansas