The Blytheville area, as part of the Mississippi River delta region of the U.S., has a lush underlying history. Literally. For deep beneath the alluvial delta soil a sophisticated pre-Columbian society has been discovered. Ongoing “digs” at the big site in Gosnell have revealed entire households, complete with pottery and artifacts galore. The region was ideal for such a big settlement, bordering the mighty Mississippi – superb for travel – and bestowing soil rich enough to grow any crop.
The history is significant, because the people of Mississippi County always have used what the land could give them. Prior to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Mississippi County had thousands of acres of cypress and hardwood trees. With the huge demand for cheap timberland for rebuilding the Windy City, Blytheville by 1890 was no longer a sleepy, backwoods town, but a rip-roaring mill camp with looking-for-trouble honky-tonks, pool halls, rooming houses, slick businessmen with waxed mustaches and questionable ladies.
After the woodlands were razed, residents looked to that fertile Delta soil for their livelihood, planting cotton and soybeans. Until a quarter-century ago, agriculture reigned supreme in the Blytheville-Gosnell area. With the advent of mechanization farming required less manpower, resulting in significant cuts in the number of farm workers. Many left for jobs in other places. Cotton gins and former industry giants like Chicago Mill diminished in number or disappeared; the area suffered economic decline until the old industries were replaced by the newer industries – particularly steel-related – that now fill the industrial park and river port areas.
Backtracking, the town of Blytheville was founded by the Reverend H.T. Blythe, a Methodist minister who led a rather tumultuous life. Each of his five wives died, and although he died a widower in 1904, he had fathered nine children.
Blythe became a community activist and major landowner, involved in most every aspect of the town, which became known first as Blytheville. During the timber boom of the 1800s, rail transportation became essential, and as the new railway was established, the geographic boundaries changed leaving “old Blytheville” and the new area, Blytheville.
The trees had vanished, but the people of Mississippi County learned again how to be highly prosperous. Farmers were attracted to the soil and land was cheap. As the agricultural economy bloomed, people came and brought churches, schools and merchants. Downtown Blytheville emerged as a solid family community, one that was the center of commerce and activity for the county, and the area remained a world leader in cotton production until the latter 20th century.
In later years, when agriculture production changed so dramatically, the people of the Blytheville area were again called on to find new roads to success. Blytheville’s prime location on the Mississippi River appealed to the steel industry, as did the strong work ethic and physical willingness of farmers who provided a perfect workforce. With the arrival in the late 1980s of Nucor Steel, the area expanded industrially as the nation’s leading steel-producing County.
The heritage of Blytheville area people is not necessarily defined by toil or cotton or new industry. It is also defined in their dedication to community and their determination to become the best at whatever they do. Local organizations such as Main Street Blytheville, the Mississippi County Delta Blues Society and the Ritz Civic Center join with the Greater Blytheville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Great River
Economic Development Area Foundation to play integral roles, not only in the active preservation of landmarks and customs, but also in facilitating an atmosphere of love, pride and progress amongst local residents. Whether these organizations are building hometown pride by renovating storefronts of Main Street, by restoring the historic art deco Greyhound Bus Station, by inspiring awe when listening to a Delta Blues concert, or by steadily increasing job opportunities through industrial and retail recruitment, they are bringing it all back around to the one asset that is both the heritage and the future of Blytheville, Gosnell and Armorel: the people. The great people of this Mississippi Delta community prove themselves today as they have proven themselves throughout the years. They are distinguished. w