If you ever find yourself driving down Hwy 45, it’s easy to miss Canehill, AR. There’s a few rough looking buildings, the old Cane Hill College, and the rusty old mill at the side of the road. For most Washington County residents, Canehill is just another small dot on the map. Last week, the Postal Service announced that it might be closing some post offices in Arkansas. Canehill was on the list. The news hit the local television stations yesterday. Residents of Canehill strongly oppose the possibility, as you can see on the clip from KFSM bellow. I imagine most folks in Fayetteville or Springdale think it is a shame, but probably understand the financial reasons for its possible closure. They might even be surprised that Canehill had a post office, their own area code, in the first place.
It’s hard to see in the rotting buildings and the crumbling mill, but Canehill, Arkansas used to be a pretty big deal in this part of the country. In fact, it was the first substantial settlement in Northwest Arkansas. The first church in Northwest Arkansas was created there in 1828. The first college in Arkansas was built there in 1834, one of the first colleges west of the Mississippi River. All when the area was still part of the distant American frontier.
Cumberland Presbyterian minister James Buchanan scouted northwest Arkansas in 1826 and decided to settle near natural springs in what would become Cane Hill (renamed Canehill in 1901). The northwest portion of Arkansas, named Lovely County, was officially opened to white settlers in 1827. Several hundred families made their homes in Lovely County shortly thereafter. In the same year, the Pyeatt and Carnahan families (pioneering Cumberland Presbyterians), along with other settlers from Crystal Hill, AR followed James Buchanan to Cane Hill. Fertile soil, a plentiful and varied source of timber, wild game, and clear springs made the area attractive to settlers. By 1828, Cane Hill was the most thriving community in Washington County.
In the March 7, 1836 edition of the Arkansas Gazette, a man writing under the penname “Philom” reported what he had seen in Cane Hill. He described the booming town as “one of the most densely settled neighborhoods in the west. There are four dry-goods stores, one grocery, two wagon-makers and four blacksmith’s shops, a post office, one church, an excellent school, one saw mill, and three grist mills.” Cane Hill received the third post office in Washington County in 1830. The name of the post office was changed eight times (even John Mellencamp hasn’t changed his name that many times). It started as Cane Hill, became Steam Mill in 1839, changed to Boonsboro in 1843, Boonsborough in 1866, Cane Hill in 1867, Boonsborough in 1887, Boonsboro in 1893, and finally was changed to Canehill in 1903.
On October 28, 1834, a group of Cumberland Presbyterians met at the Cane Hill meetinghouse to organize the Cane Hill School. The school began classes six months later with the purpose of educating young men for the ministry. The Cane Hill Collegiate Institute was established in 1850, which became the four-year Cane Hill College in 1852. An act to create the college was approved by the Arkansas legislature on December 15, 1952, one day after Arkansas College in Fayetteville was chartered. The Cumberland Presbyterians of Cane Hill were the most influential people in the county. They held many of the county’s offices and owned large percentage of the area’s slaves.
The Civil War brought the end to Cane Hill’s prominence in the region, its days as a boomtown were over. Both armies occupied the town during the war. On November 28, 1862, 7,000 men fought at the Battle of Cane Hill. The battle lasted eight hours but resulted in only modest casualties. Bushwhackers, guerillas, Pin Indians, and deserters ravaged the countryside. Women, children, and old men were left to survive on their own. Trade ceased and food and necessary goods were hard to come by. On November 12 and 13, 1864, Union soldiers burned the Cane Hill College. Union General Blunt ordered the destruction of the buildings and most of Cane Hill in order to prevent Confederate benefit. Only the dormitory that was used as a hospital was spared. At least 30 of Cane Hill’s men were killed in action during the war, more died on the home front. Five of the nine trustees of the college died.
In the years following the war, Cumberlands in Washington County experienced a loss of land and personal wealth. From 1860 to 1870, the average real estate value of identifiable Cumberland head of households decreased from $2660 to $1530. During the same period, their average personal property value decreased from $1779 to $493.
Cane Hill College was rebuilt in 1868, but the damage done by the Civil War was too much for the once thriving town of to overcome. The selection of Fayetteville as the seat of the new state college marked the end of Cane Hill College. In 1891, the Cumberland Presbytery moved Cane Hill College’s charter to the College of the Ozarks in Clarksville. Fayetteville became the most prominent town in Washington County. Railroads were built through Fayetteville, not Cane Hill.
Today Canehill has around 800 residents. On the third weekend of every September, the community holds the Cane Hill Harvest Festival on the college grounds. They celebrate their past with arts, crafts, and food and raise money to keep the old building managed and the grounds kept. The post office has become the center of the community, its gives the residents their identity. Without that area code, it’s just a suburb of Lincoln or Prairie Grove.
Unfortunately, the post offices at Adona, Alicia, Bigelow, Board Camp, Boles, Casscoe, Dell, Driver, East Camden, Fayetteville Johnson Station, Gepp, Goodwin, Hoxie, Ida, Lawson, Monroe, Montrose, Ogden, Ozan, Parks, Peach Orchard, Pineville, Rivervale, Saratoga, Springdale Downtown Station, State University, Wideman, Willisville, and Witter all might be closed in Arkansas. None serve a community with as rich a history as Canehill’s.