Family Legacies, History Preserved
A favorite childhood pastime of playing in the creek has inspired the preservation of three properties in the rural town of Springtown, Arkansas in southwest Benton County.
Located 9 miles west of the Northwest Arkansas National Airport on Highway 12, the small settlement formed along the headwaters of Flint Creek in the mid-1800s has rarely seen more than 100 residents. Thanks to the generosity of the long-established Wasson and Freeman-Riley families, 23 acres of important heritage sites in the once-booming town have been donated to the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust for the enjoyment of future generations.
Forming the Springtown Heritage Loop are three different properties – The Flint Creek Headwaters Preserve, 20 acres surrounding Flint Creek and it’s headwaters, donated by the late Dr. John Wasson and family; The Springtown Methodist Episcopal Church South, established in 1881 and believed by historians to be the oldest standing church in Northwest Arkansas; and the Myrtle Freeman and Jerry Riley Pocket Preserve, a 1-acre parcel near the namesake spring in the center of town.
“Springtown, although small, has outsized significance to the cultural and natural history of Northwest Arkansas. With the preservation of the Springtown Methodist Church, an historic homesite, and a natural area which is home to a threatened fish species, all along a recognized Civil War Trail, the NWA Land Trust is protecting a lot of conservation value within a small package. We are excited about the opportunities conserving these special places will provide to future generations of Arkansans.” - Marson Nance, Director of Land Protection & Stewardship
FLINT CREEK HEADWATERS PRESERVE
The Northwest Arkansas Land Trust was first approached by the late Dr. John Wasson in 2016 with 20 acres of pristine habitat along Flint Creek that had been in his family for generations. One of his fondest memories was learning to swim in the cool deep pools and jumping from limestone outcroppings that border the stream: ‘In the summer, the water was so cold that we dreaded having to enter it,” Wasson once shared. “The water was only about three feet deep and the creek bottom was limestone; I learned to swim very shallow. These are the joys I would like future generations to have. That is why I am trying to place as much of Flint Creek and its riparian banks in the hands of the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust as possible.”
Dr. Wasson donated the property to the land trust to ensure that it would remain
undeveloped and made available to residents of and visitors to Springtown for many more generations to come. In accordance with his wishes, the land trust has developed a plan that allows public access for “quiet pedestrian and educational” use, while ensuring the protection and proper stewardship of wildlife habitat on the property. Visitors to the preserve can explore almost a mile of trails along the creek and are invited to jump in and enjoy the cool waters just as Dr. Wasson had. Flint Creek Headwaters Preserve can be accessed at the corner of Springtown Cut-off Rd and Peach Blossom Lane, off Highway 12 in Springtown.
SPRINGTOWN METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH SOUTH
The Wasson family has a long history in Springtown, tracing their ancestry to the establishment of the Springtown Methodist Episcopal Church South in 1881. The warranty deed for the property on which the church building is located is dated May 30, 1882. Historical records reveal that the foundation of the church was broken from the bed of Flint Creek and hauled up the hill, while the lumber was milled at the Beck Mill located along Flint Creek twelve miles west of Siloam Springs. The pulpit was built by W.D. Wasson from goods boxes from his store, and he also donated the original bell.
According to local historian Rick Parker, the structure is likely the oldest standing church in the region, and “very well may be the oldest continually operating original Methodist Church building and location in Arkansas.” “The building represents a core structure in the community as it has since its first days in 1882,” says Parker. “It is one of the few surviving structures from this period in Arkansas history to have survived the wrecking ball…A good part of western Benton County's history has roots at this church.”
Although the congregation ceased in 1995, the building was available to the community in the years following. While owned by the state Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church, officed in Little Rock, the building lacked a local owner and needed restoration and protective oversight.
"This church was first brought to our attention several years ago by historic preservation advocates familiar with the rich heritage of the Springtown area,” says NWALT Executive Director and CEO Terri Lane. “We’ve been working toward preserving the site since that time, knowing that without an active local owner and protective oversight, the church was vulnerable to continued decay.”
The land trust and historical advocates including Parker reached out to ACUMC at that time to inquire of their interest in donating the property to the trust to secure it’s preservation. “We thank the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church for donating the property to the land trust and sharing our interest that it be preserved,” notes Lane. “We look forward to honoring the many stories this historic property has to tell."
Now that ownership of the site is secured, the land trust intends to apply the church for the register of historic places and will seek funding to pursue a restoration plan. Once restored, NWALT intends to make the site available for special services and community meetings. The church is located on Readings Road in Springtown.
MYRTLE FREEMAN AND JERRY RILEY PRESERVE
The third property in the Springtown Heritage Loop is an historic home site where the Freeman-Riley family lived for almost 100 years. Myrtle Freeman lived in one of two homes on the property as a teenager in the 1920s, and later purchased the homes and surrounding land herself. Although two fires eventually destroyed the homes on site, the property remained in the family as Myrtle’s son Jerry Riley purchased it from his mother in the early 1990s.
“Over the years, many generations of Myrtle’s extended family have visited the property to play in the creek and reminisce about when members of the Freeman-Riley family lived here,” recalls Myrtle’s namesake granddaughter Myrtle McGrath, one of Jerry’s three children with wife Rose. Upon Jerry’s passing in 2012, Rose decided to donate the property to the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust for posterity. Rose says she “hopes that people will enjoy the land and creek as much as Jerry had as a child living here.” The Freeman-Riley Pocket Preserve is located near the intersection of Springtown Main St and Aubrey Long Road in Springtown.
While the rural town is still quite small compared to the rest of the region, development pressure is increasing rapidly in cities both east and west. The permanent protection of these sites represents immense history and heritage, at a time when small towns and their character in Northwest Arkansas are vanishing to urban growth.
The Northwest Arkansas Land Trust is seeking funding for the restoration of the church building and ongoing stewardship of these sites. Those interested can donate at www.nwalandtrust.org/donate or call 479-966-4666 for more information.