Janssen Park was listed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1979, after three years of research to verify the Park's history. Mrs. Christa Parsons spearheaded the project along with Glenn "Penny" Wimberly, the Parks Chairman. It is impossible to tell the story of Janssen Park without telling the story of Mena. The log cabin in the park was the only building on the land area we know as Mena, when the town was settled. The other items of historic interest were added as the town grew.
In 1895, Arthur Stilwell sent railroad scouts to the Ouachita Mountains (then thought to be part of the Ozarks). The men were to scout the area and lay out the best path for the soon to be built railroad, which was to run from Kansas City to a newly created town along the Gulf coast.
When the surveyors came there was very little cleared land. The area purchased for the future townsite of Mena was mostly a farm of 210 acres owned jointly by Dr. G.G. Baker and R.S. Owens of Old Dallas. (The county seat of Polk County.) The two men sold it to the Townsite company for $5,000. This comes to just about $1 per person, using today's population count.
The area was plotted in lots and placed on the market for sale. However, it was almost a year later, August 19, 1896, before the town fathers decided to recognize the town as officially settled. They chose the official coming of the first railroad passenger car as the town's birthday.
Mena was called a "diamond in the rough" by The Mena Star. However, with "sufficient polish and labor it would take on a metropolitan appearance as a railway division point and commercial center to command the trade as a large section of the country." And so it has.
Within one year the town that had began with some 300 campers in tents and wooden shacks now had 3,185 inhabitants with many store buildings, homes, churches and schools.
There were 223 cottage residences and business houses erected during the year of 1897. Of these, 104 were built upon the original townsite, 24 upon the Vineyard Addition, 34 upon the Hall Addition, 63 upon the Eureka Addition, and 8 upon the Hornbeck Place addition. This did not include a number of "shanty shacks".
By January 1898, a petition to move the county seat from Dallas to Mena had been signed by 1,200 voters and submitted to the county court. A special session was called to take action on the petition. The Townsite company donated an entire block upon which to build a new courthouse and donated $5,000 toward its construction.
Mena became home to hundreds of railway employees and was a stop-over for hundreds more. As a division point it was necessary to construct a roundhouse and other railroad related businesses. An area for holding cattle was needed, as were loading docks, water tanks and, of course, a depot.
It was Stilwell who decided Mena would be the name of this new town along the route to Port Arthur, Texas. He named her so in honor of his beloved friend and financier Jan DeGeoijen's wife, Folmina Margaretha Janssen DeGeoijen, whom Mr. DeGeoijen affectionately called Mena.
It was Mena's father for whom Janssen Park was named, as well as the town of Janssen. Later, Janssen had its name changed to Vandervoort (Mr. Janssen's wife's maiden name.) The change was required by the postmaster because there was already a town in Arkansas named Jansen and the mail was always getting mixed up.
Just as Dallas was doomed, Mena was set to prosper.
Dallas valley is just about the most beautiful place on earth and the town was prospering and growing daily. However, if the railroad was to run the new tracks into the already established town there would be no need for Mena. Railroading did not make money in those days, land speculation was were the money was. Therefore, it was necessary to miss the established town of Dallas by at least three miles (the distance one could be expected to travel afoot) .
Engineers surveyed, plated, and mapped the area while the Kansas City based company sent their best salesmen to promote and sell the town lots. Merchants were quick to relocate. The Arkansas Construction Company will appear as the first owner on most local abstracts.
Thanks to Stilwell, Mena has always been able to boast of the best schools, roads, and parks for a town of its size. After donating land for two parks, Janssen and Stilwell, Mr. Stilwell had a clause incorporated into the original deeds to all real estate sold in the original plat of Mena, providing for a tax of two-and-one-half percent on the purchase price of all sales for the use of parks, streets and schools. The tax is to be used in this manner; one percent should go into the school fund, and one and one-half percent to the park and street fund of the city for all time, becoming a lien on the real estate sold, until paid. Stilwell virtually assured that the town would prosper.
Mena was hard hit when the railroad moved out in 1910, and again when Hendrix Academy closed that same year. Many other times large businesses have closed their doors placing a strain on our city budget, but this move by Stilwell has assured us of operating money in the areas mentioned above.
By far the most historical building in Mena is the old log cabin in Janssen Park.
The day was hot and dusty, the new boom town had not seen rain in over 40 days. The only "watering hole" was the spring in the park. The park was also the site of the only wooden structure as the new city got under way. It was this old cabin, built in 1851, by William Shelton, which served the Townsite company as an office and living quarters for the land agent, Joseph P. Landes.
For more than a century this modest log cabin has stubbornly defied the elements and ravages of the years, welcoming all those who came its way, and serving man continuously since 1853. Affectionately referred to as the, "Capitol of Polk County," this unpretentious cabin seems to answer the oft quoted wish of Joyce Kilmer for, "..a house by the side of the road," with the sole desire to be “a friend to men." For this cabin was built by the side of a road and from the day of its completion it has served primarily as a friend to man. It was born of necessity and sired by need; every timber cut from virgin forest, every nail and every bit of hardware hand-forged.
The road was the Old Line Road, a military road connecting Fort Smith, Arkansas and Fort Towson in Indian Territory. The cabin, originally intended for a private dwelling, became an oasis of home life for travelers of the Old Line Road. Here, strangers found welcome, rest, food and shelter from storms, wild beasts and irresponsible wanderers, who frequented the mountain area and preyed upon travelers.
Built eight years before the Civil War, this hand-hewn cabin was constructed by William Shelton, a crippled veteran of the Mexican War, for his home.
Throughout the turbulent years, with little physical change, it has served as a home, hospital, inn, a club house, civic center, a museum , and for a time, as the City Hall of Mena. it was thirty-one years old before a title grant was obtained for the land. During those years before 1882, it was just another "squatter's cabin". The title grant bears the signature of President Chester Arthur.
In 1906, the cabin, together with four city blocks surrounding it, was donated to the City of Mena by Arthur Stilwell and his associates. They were so charmed with its natural setting, and so vocal in their admiration, that it inspired the local people to develop the park.
Many plants and flowers were donated by those who remembered the quaint log cabin and its hospitality. There was a Linden tree sent all the way from Berlin, Germany. Throughout the park you will find relics of three wars. The large memorial clock is evidence of another pioneer family who lived near the site. It was during this period of stimulated civic pride and interest in the cabin and its park that the City Hall of Mena was moved into the cabin and the rent saved was put into landscaping. Thus, it became the only log cabin City Hall in the nation and was featured in Ripley's Believe It Or Not.
During its tenure as an inn the ladder to the spacious loft was mounted by many a weary traveler, the rungs lighted by the glow of the fireplace or a lighted candle he carried. One never knew how many shared his sleeping quarters until the light of day.
Frances Shelton, one of the ten children of William Shelton, was married here in 1855. There is a story about Frances helping her father when the broad axe with which she was hewing a log, slipped and cut her foot. The log was placed unfinished, and can still be seen just above the west door. It still carries the stain of her blood. Perhaps William Shelton felt this evidence a rebuke for her carelessness and he wished to impress upon the other children a lesson in safety.
Frances' life history would be hard to tell in every detail, but there are some things we can pass on to you. She was born near Knoxville, Tennessee on August 3, 1829. She came to Polk County in 1840, with her family. She died in 1933 at the age of 104. When she died she had 16 living grandchildren and 34 great-grandchildren and 4 great-great-grandchildren.
Doubtless there were many weddings, deaths, and births within these walls but we only know of the first birth. This was of a "pickaninny" (the name given to a black baby born in slavery) in 1861. Her parents were owned by an Arkansas farmer by the name of Peter Boyles.
In 1861, the shadow of the Civil War fell over the cabin and bushwhackers were preying the border. Shelton, realizing that the cabin was no longer a safe place, abandoned it and moved further into the wooded area. The cabin was soon taken up by the lawless and it is said that even Jesse James and his gang stopped here on several occasions.
Although no proof exist of this, it is possible as the James gang was known to travel through the area on their way between Hot Springs and the Indian Territory. It was also quite common to steal horses in Arkansas and sell them in the territory, or vice versa. In fact there is a cave and spring called Horsethief Spring between here and Oklahoma, which is said to be the place the "gang" holed up with their stolen horses.
The cabin became home again when Thomas Mills, Judge of Polk County, and his ten children moved into it. Mr. Mills also contracted with the U.S. Mail to carry mail over six mail routes. He headquartered in the cabin and carried mail from Hot Springs, Fort Smith, Arkadelphia, and points in Howard and Sevier Counties, and on the Stringtown route in Indian Territory. This route was a distance of one hundred thirty-five miles and required eight days. Mail was carried on horses or mules over the winding mountain trails.
In 1869, Judge Mills' daughter, Nancy, married Elijah Cagle in the cabin. Cagle later became a city alderman. After the Mills' the cabin again became home to anyone who passed that way and needed shelter.
William Jennings Bryan, in his last campaign for the Presidency of the United States, spoke a vote-soliciting speech from here. Carrie Nation, waging her battle against open saloons, brought to the people of Polk County her message from the side porch of this cabin, as did Huey P. Long.
Surprisingly little had been done to the cabin over the years. Much of the original building remains, part of the floor, the walls and even the ladder to the loft. The original roof was of rough split clapboards two feet long. The clapboards were fastened with square iron nails to small logs set on top of the side walls and run across the roof like sheeting. These clapboards were replaced years later with shingles. When the cabin was damaged in November 1993, by a tornado, it required that the roof once again be replaced. A local craftsman, Loren Hellam, who specializes in log cabin construction and reconstruction, did the work.
All lumber for the cabin was cut with a whipsaw. (The whipsaw resembles the modern crosscut saw, except that the handles are set at right angles to the brace and the teeth sharpened to cut in only one direction.)
Windows were cut in the cabin after it was built and it originally had wooden shutters that closed out light, weather and wild animals. These shutters swung on leather hinges. The floor was of puncheons. (Puncheons are slabs of timber split as near the same thickness as possible with the upper surface smoothed off with an adz, after the floor is laid.)
Original doors were fashioned on this puncheons and fastened to cross battens with wooden pins. To lift the door latch from the outside a thong of deer skin was passed through a small hole in the door. At night this thong was pulled inside, the door was then considered locked. This custom gave rise to the expression of welcome, "the latch string is always out."
The original fireplace was of "stick and mud," which needed constant repair. This was removed and rebuilt with brick in 1892, when the first brick making was undertaken in the Mena area. The fireplace was again rebuilt, years later, from used brick when the old Central School was torn down. Central was located across the street from the park. The Baptist Church is located there today.
This type of cabin was the least expensive to erect in those days. Then too, it could easily be extended to become the more pretentious "saddle bag" cabin, or the three "P" type, referring to two pens and a passage. One pen for general living, another for cooking and eating, with the passageway dividing the two.
You will note at either end of the cabin there are two large logs about forty feet in length, which gives credence to the supposition Mr. Shelton intended to turn this cabin into a "saddle bag" or "three P" home.
When William Shelton moved from the log cabin in Janssen Park there were lean-tos on both the front and back of the cabin and several outbuildings in the area. Through time these were all removed and only the main structure remains, and even that has seen changes and alterations.
Since its inception the park has been home to wild animals as well as people. The gazebo (bandstand) in the park was raised several feet off the ground and wolves were once housed under it. The Mena Star reported on August 21, 1914, that Judge J.S. Kelly was "on the warpath this morning when he found that during last night someone had unlocked the wolf den and liberated the wolf."
All was not peace and beauty in those days in the park. In fact, Judge Kelly had been trying for seven or eight years to bring some pride and civilization to the area. However; lawlessness and vandalism had discouraged him "to the limit."
Another of Jude Kelly's projects was to bring the first "greenhouse" to Mena. The Judge had a building constructed and housed may ferns and flowers which he periodically offered for sale and deposited the money into the park fund.
The two ponds were constructed in the park through a joint effort of the city and the Kansas City Southern Railroad. The railroad needed a source of water for the many trains passing through the area and the park offered the only reliable water source. The ponds were constructed and the water diverted to the roundhouse which lay directly south of the park.
It is not known exactly when the first swans and ducks were placed in the park. However, even the early photographs of the area show them as well as a pretty little floating house. Of course there were and still are many goldfish in the ponds. Fishing is not allowed in the park except for special senior and youngster fishing tournaments.
The ponds were a popular place for baptizing, and they served as a place for young people to stroll around. An alligator was found in the pond in 1900, after its owner, E.P. Smith, a local store owner, let it get away. It is also a well known fact that at least one man committed suicide at the park spring. This was no easy feat as he had held his head into the opening of the spring until drowned. Local people who came to get water the day he was found questioned whether the water was affected by the affair. They came to the conclusion that the rapidly flowing water had washed away any ill effects. However, this feeling was short lived when it was discovered that the old man's teeth had not been recovered!
A board fence surrounded the park in the early years. This fence was constructed of diagonal board and sturdy posts, with a four-inch wide board top. At all the entrances, (on all four surrounding streets) were large gates with chains weighted with wagon axles to keep them closed and the livestock which roamed the city out. The fence was known to attract the daring youth who tested their skill at walking the top board without falling.
There was another fence around the cabin itself and many species of plants were in the "yard" area of the cabin. Ivy grew over the east and west walls.
The animal pen was located on the south side of the park, but later a large pen was constructed on the northeast corner. Deer were the primary attraction in later years. In fact, deer were housed here until the 1993, tornado which destroyed the pen and most of the trees in the park. Although the people of Mena fought to have the deer replaced the city officials and the architects who were hired to redesign the park after the devastating storm damage chose not to replace the deer pen. Today it is the site of a children's playground.
During the early years the county fair was also held at the park and people came from many miles away to participate in the activities. Among the favorite attractions was the merry-do-round or carrousel. Mule swings, with a mule driven in the center of the swing to provide motive power was another popular attraction. Each seat held two persons, and was swung by iron rods. A boy rode a beam near the mule to switch the animal if needed.
One young man who held this "seat" of power thought it would be great fun to run the mule at full speed. The centrifugal force caused the seats to swing out nearly horizontal, and every few minutes some coward would get off. A fiddler, who provided music, never stopped his playing. The mule finally fell, exhausted, and the swing stopped.
A large part of the festivities was the submission, judging and the award of prizes for the best produce, canning, sewing, and farm animals. Large outbuildings were built to house the exhibits and a pen constructed to hold the farm animals.
Parades were a glorious affair and great pains were taken to decorate the floats, horse and buggy, and bicycles. In 1905, the first automobile came to Mena and made its appearance in the parade and children were given free rides in Dr. Cockran’s new "contraption".
Although Janssen Park had its share of homeless and shiftless wanderers, camping and overnight stays were not allowed (legally). Arthur Stillwell donated a second area for a park to be used for camping and overnight trips into town. Stilwell Park was located on top of the hill where Stilwell Retirement Center is today. This park served the area until horse and buggies were no longer a part of everyday life. In 1947-48, Stilwell Elementary School was constructed (by the H.C. Walker Construction Co. of Cove) on the site and it is that building which was remodeled for the retirement center.
In the early 1990s, the city sold that building to Dr. Howard Hall, an optometrist, because they did not want the expense of tearing it down or removing the asbestos from it. However, some question the city's right to sell the building as in the original deed the land was given to the city with the stipulation that it was only to be used for a school or park. However, my research has revealed a legal order brought about by the Arkansas Legislature which gave the city the right to sell.
In 1918, Father Gallagher, priest at St. Agnes Catholic Church, was appointed "Park Commissioner" and given $300 in city funds with an additional $20 each moth to clean up the park and make it something the people could be proud of.
Father Gallagher did not let the people down. He made changes to the park and planted many new flowers and trees. It was he who is credited with the planting of the many cedar trees around the park. Most of these were destroyed in the storm of 1993. Father Gallagher also planted cedar trees around the St. Agnes church grounds.
Another of the Father's accomplishments was the construction of a "real" spring house. This area seemed to be a favorite gathering place for the wind to blow rubbish and a place for those who did not wish to seek a rest room to do their business. Father Gallagher realized the unsanitary conditions and set about to have the new structure built.
The first school was located where the library is today and was housed in a building with wooden sides and a canvas "tent" roof. The spring served as a source of water and the park as a playground. Later a brick school was constructed where the Baptist Church is today, but the park still served as the school's source for water and as a playground. The children each brought a tin cup and marched across the street twice a day to get water from the spring.
The four-sided clock was placed in the park in 1918, by the family of George Lochridge, a local store owner, relocated here from Texas. When Mr. Lochridge died he left provisions in his will for money to be used to beautify the park. His widow and mother added to the sum and bought the clock.
The boy and girl fountain in the park has been there since 1914. Much research has been done to find the exact date of purchase. It is believed to have been around 1904. In 1904 a Mena delegation went to the World's Fair in St. Louis and there they saw such a fountain and thought it would be just the thing for the park. However, in 1904 there was a major murder in Mena, and perhaps it was thought not to be a good time to embark on the placement of the fountain.
Records show the fountain was purchased and the railroad donated the shipping charges. Two other identical fountains have been located, one in a cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia and the other on the campus of the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. The Illinois statute was a gift of the class of 1887, and has served as the beloved focal point on that campus since.
The cannons in the park are war relics of the Mexican, Civil and Indian wars. They were donated to the town by Congress. (Some of the original cannons in the park were donated to the scrap drive during WWII when there was a need for metal.)
Early Janssen Park
The first anniversary of Mena was held in Janssen Park in 1897. a large pavilion was erected to house exhibits, as well as some other structures. A bandstand and greenhouse were also built.
The park had a board fence which was removed in the fall of 1906, and replaced by a shrub fence.
The park and spring was and is an attraction. There has never been a time in recorded history that the spring did not flow. Folklore has it that at one time a dye was put into the water at various places in the United States to try and determine where the water flowed from. Alaska was the place deemed to be the mother of this water source.
There was a drought in Mena in the 1940s, which caused the spring to lose some of its force, however, it never ceased completely. Many trees were lost to this unusual dry season and The Mena Star reported the park has lost its look as a forest.
Among the unusual trees in the park was a Linden tree brought from Belgium, another was an Australian Pomona tree, which was brought to the park by Mr. St John, (editor/owner of The Mena Star) in 1902. Mr. St. John was a noted horticulturist and did much to enhance the area with beautiful plants, ornamental trees, and fruit trees.
The most well known tree, before the storm of 1993, was the one which grew into the pavement at the drive entrance. When the drive was constructed the town's people did not want to see this tree destroyed and it was allowed to remain and the pavement laid around it. The tree succumbed to the force of the tornado.
The first July 4th celebration in the park featured a ball game by full-blood Choctaws, foot races, barrel races, sack races, greased pole climbing, swings, etc. Music was furnished by the Port Arthur Route Band.
It is still a tradition to have music in the park during the summer months and on special occasions.
Janssen Park was noted for the wild animals who lived there. From its inception until November 1993, the park was home, (at various times), to deer, bear, ducks, geese, swans, squirrels, possums, raccoons, rabbits, peacock, pigeons, foxes, monkeys, and wolves.
Mena’s Big Publicity Stunt
Things were not going well for Arthur Stilwell and his railroad in 1896. He had already suffered through two recessions and tried to settle several towns that failed to "boom" and had to be abandoned, when he decided to build the town of Mena and make it the halfway point on the Kansas City Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad. (KCP&G, or Pee Gee, later became the Kansas City Southern.)
Stilwell called up the eastern papers and made an announcement that he was only 40 miles from this new division point, Mena, and that he would lay a mile of track a day for the next forty days and that the first train would pull into the new town on August 19, 1896.
This was a brash and bold statement for never in the history of track laying had any crew laid that much track in one day. The eastern papers laughed and made fun of Stilwell and his boastfulness.
However, Stilwell had the last laugh as he successfully completed the first mile on schedule and the excitement of the event was picked up by locals and the eastern press.
Readers began to watch for the daily announcements of Stilwell's success, hoping that he could beat the odds and continue with his super achievement. He didn't let them down. As the time for completion drew closer and the crew neared the new townsite, Stilwell began to offer excursion tickets on the train. Passengers rode the distance from Kansas City to the point of work, where the track ended. Here they camped in tents and the next day pulled up camp and traveled the next mile.
The added excitement really caught the attention of the nation and Stilwell played it for all it was worth. he began offering free rides in Pullman cars, food included, with the purchase of a lot in the new town. Hundreds signed on and even more came along just for the ride.
By the time the first train pulled into the station (a temporary affair) in Mena, there were over 300 tent campers set up at the present intersection of Seventh Street and Sherwood Avenue (then referred to as Front Street). This area was called Dennison after a railroad official. And so was born, Mena's tent city. (Fred's Dollar Store sets here today.)
Copyright by Shirley Manning