Around mid-summer, Arkansas wineberries begin to ripen. Prickly tangles of fruit and vines native to China, Korea, and Japan, the wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) arrived in the United States around 1890. Intended for use as breeding stock for new varieties of raspberries and blackberries, the plant’s beautiful red canes soon were planted as ornamentals as well. Perhaps inevitably, the wineberry escaped cultivation and began spreading through the wilds of North America.
Foragers eager for the delicious fruit have learned to stake out patches well in advance of the harvest. Thanks to the plants’ fuzzy red canes, they’re easy to find, particularly when a dusting of winter snow makes them even more obvious.
Wineberry canes in winter – Beargrass Creek Nature Preserve, Louisville
Amos Reeder, an early settler on Arkansas’s Rich Mountain and a well-known horticulturalist, introduced wineberries to the mountain community, perhaps encouraged by the success of mountain vineyards and berry patches. An 1891 Biographical and Historical Memoir of Western Arkansas, published by Chicago’s John Morris & Co., noted the abundance of fruit in the Ouachitas, both cultivated and native.
“This is the home of many varieties of grapes. The Ouachita, or mountain grape, about the size of the Concord, grows wild on the mountain. The few vineyards that have started have given entire satisfaction, with not a failure in eight years: large fruit and a fine flavor, no blight, mildew or insects, and but few leaf rollers.
Strawberries grow wild wherever protected from stock. The few that have cultivated the strawberry have received ample reward for their labor in large and finely flavored berries and an abundant yield.
Born in Kentucky in 1847, Reeder served the Union as a Sergeant in the 22nd Kentucky Regiment during the Civil War before moving to Arkansas, where he met and married Lida Kesterson in 1891. The couple moved to the summit of Rich Mountain, where they cultivated 120 acres and received their land patent in 1903. During those years, Reeder continued to work with his berries, which eventually established themselves along the length of the mountain’s north slope.
When Reeder died in 1916, his burial took place in the Sexton cemetery at the foot of Rich Mountain, almost directly below the Queen Wilhelmina Inn. Today, no stone marks his grave, but it lies in sight of vines descended from those he brought to the mountain himself.
Amos Reeder came to Rich Mountain relatively early, but he was far from the first to be laid to rest in its shadow.
Bill Putman, born in Texas in 1828, also arrived at Rich Mountain after the Civil War. A Confederate veteran, he married Elizabeth Morris, a Choctaw woman, and eventually owned 400 acres of land on and around the mountain.
At the time of Putman’s death in 1888, friends honored his request to be buried at the foot of a shade tree near the dooryard of his home. In her history of the area, Aileen McWilliam notes that such burials were customary among the Choctaw, and Putman may have been following the practice of his wife’s tribe.
Another at-home burial was that of the woman known both as Granny Bowling and Grandma Williams, since she married Mr. Williams after Mr. Bowling died. Her son Caleb received his land patent in 1900, and she was buried near the house on their family property: her grave marked by a simple stone cairn.
Oddly enough, both Bill Putman and Grandma Williams appear in some lists of settlers buried in the Pioneer Cemetery atop Rich Mountain. To understand how that could happen, and to understand who might — or might not — be resting there requires following the trail to the cemetery itself.
After land patents began to be granted by President Lincoln in 1862, James L. Witherspoon acquired three parcels of land along the Rich Mountain summit. After his death, the land was bequeathed to his son, John, then sold and resold a total of five times until it eventually became United States Forest Service property in 1923.
In September, 1890, owners A.Y. Hays and M.M. Triplett deeded one acre of the former Witherspoon land for a church, a school, and a cemetery. At the time of the deed, for which Hays and Triplett received ten dollars, the combination church and school already had been built, and it’s possible one burial had taken place in the cemetery.
Today, the exact number of graves there remains an open question. Some say there are twenty-three, while others suggest twelve, or sixteen, or twenty. Determining the exact number is difficult since records are sketchy, and only one grave, that of Bill Hefley, has a typically inscribed marble stone. Some gravestones have crumbled or been toppled over the years. Other plots are marked with native rocks whose inscriptions — if any- – have faded, and at least a few graves never were marked.
In time, even the cemetery’s original name, Witherspooon, faded away. Another branch of the Witherspoon family had established their own cemetery near Vandervoort, south of Rich Mountain, and the James Witherspoon family hadn’t deeded the land for the mountaintop cemetery, so the decision was made to call the last home of those early settlers the Pioneer Cemetery.
According to Elsie Allred, the great-granddaughter of William Beauchamp — a homesteader on the land where the Queen Wilhelmina Inn was built — the first Pioneer Cemetery burial may have been a young Wilkerson girl.
The details of her story vary according to the source. Some say she was sent for water, others for wood. But in its broadest outlines, the story remains intact, having been passed down through the decades by former residents of the mountain.
A family living on the mountaintop near where the cemetery is now fell sick, all but a little girl too young to go for help. The nearest doctor was at Bethesda Springs, near Dallas, the county seat: about seventeen miles distant.
The weather was bitter cold. The girl was sent outside to bring in some firewood and was treed by wolves. The next morning, her frozen body was found in the crotch of the tree, and the weak and stricken family managed to secure help to dig a grave and bury her close by the church-school building.
Quite apart from such dramatic circumstances, infant mortality was high, and it’s assumed several unknown children might be lying in small plots. One whose name is known was Jesse Farless, who died in 1894, and whose father moved off the mountain to join the community at Mountain Fork.
James Witherspoon, his wife, and at least one of their children are among those whose graves were marked only with native stones, as were the graves of A.Y. Hays, who died on the mountain; an Indian named Redbird; a man named Wohlenburg who sold honey; Peg-Leg Keith; Mr. Williams, who may or may not have been Grandma Williams’s husband; and Betty Bowling Davis, who died (perhaps of tuberculosis) while her two children were at school.
While the circumstances and even the dates of so many deaths are ambiguous at best, others are rich in vivid detail. The demise of John McSlarrow in the early 1930s is an example.
In the early 1930s, Carlos Hill, who had been for a while at Commonwealth College in the Center Point community, was living in the old laundry buildings that had been an adjunct of the Queen Wilhelmina Inn. He was engaged in building rock cottages for summer people. [One house built by Hill sold to Oklahoma oilman C.E. Foster; now a historical site, it’s part of Queen Wilhelmina State Park.]
[Hill] was joined on the mountain by John McSlarrow, another man who had been at Commonwealth as a worker. One day McSlarrow had been down the mountain and had brought mail from the Rich Mountain post office. The trip afoot up the mountain evidently overtaxed him, and he died of a heart attack.
Hill got Lawrence Walker, caretaker at the Craig house, to help him. Together the two men managed to wrap McSlarrow’s body in sheets and take it to the old cemetery, where they dug a grave and laid him in, with Walker saying a few words by way of ceremony.
The last person to be buried in the old cemetery also was the last of the settlers to leave Rich Mountain. Bill Hefley remained on the mountain as long as possible, but came down in 1949 in order to live closer to medical care.
Sometimes called Uncle Bill, but just as often referred to as The Old Hermit, Hefley brought his wife to Rich Mountain for her health: particularly the presumed benefits of fresh mountain air.
Not long after their move to the mountain, Hefley’s wife died. After her body had been taken back to their former home near Fort Smith for burial, Hefley himself returned to the mountain, and lived as a recluse. Even thirty years after his death, jars of preserved food he’d buried atop the mountain continued to be found, giving new life to stories about his unusual habits.
In his latter years he tended the old graveyard, fencing it against wandering cattle and generally overseeing things. All he asked was to be buried on the mountain he loved; in 1952, after 86 years of life, his wish was granted. Some say he still watches over the old graveyard from his resting spot there: the bits of stone and coins atop his gravestone seem to acknowledge a continuing sense of his presence.
Outside the cemetery clearing, the Ouachita trail meanders for more than two hundred miles through the forest: westward over Winding Stair mountain into Oklahoma, or eastward to the outskirts of Little Rock. If you choose to hike east, you’ll pass the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge before reaching the fire tower on Section 17, the land for which William Wilkerson received a patent in 1897.
Not far away lies Section 16, where A.E. Wilkerson squatted for years, making good use of its clear, dependable spring and the deep, rich soil which gave Rich Mountain its name. Traces of his terraces and walls remain, but the gardens are gone. Only the grasses, the woods, and the wildflowers serve as tokens of the life that blossomed and spread across the mountain in centuries past, waiting to greet the settlers.
Surrounded by such beauty, visitors sometimes describe the Pioneer Cemetery as barren and poor: a depressing testament to the harshness and brevity of settlers’ lives. Scattered stones and encroaching vines do suggest neglect, and the absence of any names or dates beyond those on Bill Hefley’s stone can make it difficult to grasp the history lying beneath the surface.
Still, the riches continue to spread through the woods and creep through the cemetery fence, suggesting that, in time, the mountain will reclaim its own. The lyre-leaf sage pushing up through the stones, the exuberant spiderwort peering through the fence, the lovely and useful self-heal lining the trail are little different from the wonders enjoyed by those who dared the mountain life.
For the settlers who remain on the mountain, the soil still is rich, and the waters still flow, just as the flowers that brought them pleasure and the fruits that once fed them endure.
Having lived on, loved, worked, and fought against the privations of the land, the pioneers truly have settled in at last: embraced by the mountain they loved, and cheered by the cup she raises in their honor.
Standing winecup (Callirhoe digitata)
Comments always are welcome.
Details about land patents can be found in the Federal Land Records for Polk County, Arkansas. Additional information came from the Family Maps of Polk County and the ArGenWeb Project.
Quotations are taken from a Ouachita National Forest/Arkansas State Parks brochure titled “The Old Pioneer Cemetery Historical Site.”
All photos are mine, except for that of the wineberry canes, which can be found through the links inserted above.