Arkansas Heritage/National Register Write-Up
The Keo Commercial Historic District is being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places with local significance under Criterion A for its association with the agricultural-commercial development of the town from 1900-1961, and Criterion C for its collection of Standard 20th Century Commercial buildings and early-to-mid-century Plain-Traditional agricultural-industrial structures.
An overhead view of Keo and the surrounding area reveals a grid of agricultural fields for miles. Oxbow lakes snake through the landscape and pecan trees form cathedral arches in orderly rows. After the installation of the Altheimer-to-Argenta branch of the St. Louis, Arkansas and Texas Railway in the late 1800’s, Keo grew around the line. It provided vital links for the community and its agricultural goods. The farm families of the area were served by a small commercial core that offered a variety of services. With the development of the highway system the importance of the railroad as a link for travelers lessened. Changes in the agricultural character and culture of the area contributed to loss of population and commerce began to die out in Keo by the 1960s. Despite this, the town retained its agricultural-industrial complexes and several commercial structures within its historic environment of farm land. A small renaissance of commerce has made Keo a popular stop for tourists and antique shoppers because the community still conveys the feel of an early-to-mid-20th century farming town, and as such tells the story of the Arkansas Delta.
The area of Keo has been known by three historic names until it eventually morphed into one when the railroad began to exert its pull on commerce. The first recorded location of the future Keo was Cobb Settlement, also known as Cobbs, which was approximately one mile north of U.S.165 on Arkansas Highway 15. Nothing is left of that settlement and the area is now farm fields and two late 20th-century houses. The community was also referred to as Lafayette Township. Before the railroad was laid through the area the Dunham family occupied forty acres on the south end of the Keo Commercial Historic District. This was known as Dunham Station. As with the neighboring communities of England and Lonoke, the railroad became the nexus of residential and commercial life. Keo was established when the Altheimer-Argenta branch of the St. Louis, Arkansas and Texas Railway was laid to the west of current U.S. 165 between 1887 and 1888. The rail1ine name was changed to the St. Louis Southwestern Railway (Cotton Belt route) when Jay Gould purchased it in 1891.
In 1884 the Southwestern Improvement Association offered land and town lots along the line. It was touted as a safe investment free from "blizzards, cyclones, droughts, floods or malaria, no intense heats or bitter cold spells." Although the area was able to avoid blizzards most of the items on the list of climatic scenarios did eventually come to fruition. It was true though that the railroad brought business to farmers, fruit men, mechanics, lumbermen, stock men, and merchants." The rumors of rail line construction in Lonoke County prompted Arkansan J. W. Brodie to purchase property in Dunham Station. The impact the railroad could have on a town must have been clear to Brodie as it was reported that the year the neighboring community of England was reached by rail a township committee under John C. England began to layout lots for development. In 1888 the Lonoke Democrat stated that the town possessed "a depot, a cottonseed house, livery stable, barber shop, two general stores and other buildings." This was an explosion of development compared to one year earlier. The population ofEng1and was recorded in 1889 as twenty but by 1900 it was 368.
Lafayette Cobb was recorded as the first postmaster for the Cobbs Post Office in 1880. Cobb settled in the county in 1873 so it is likely that the settlement would have been named for him at that time. The area was also known as Lafayette Township, another possible attribution to the early settler. The community of Cobbs (recorded in 1884 as the possessive Cobb's) was a busy agricultural center with six cotton gins. Lafayette Cobb was the justice of the peace and owner of the general store. In 1889 there were eight cotton gins and a school and the population had grown from 45 to 53.
As the rail line stretched north toward Argenta (North Little Rock), Dunham Station celebrated the arrival of the train by re-naming the community Keo after Miss Keo Dooley. The girl's father was Judge P. C. Dooley, who owned the farmland the new railroad traversed. Another story was that she was the first female who debarked when the train reached Dunham Station, which is a possible, and likely orchestrated, scenario. By 1892 Keo appears in the Arkansas Gazeteer and Business Directory along with Cobbs. A post office was established in Keo by 1889 and both areas had experienced serious growth as 100 people then resided at Cobbs and 200 at Keo. Cobbs was still leading in the number of cotton gins though, with five gins compared to Keo's one. Lafayette Cobb had branched out and opened a second general store in Keo and the town had begun to reflect a more diverse commercial character than Cobbs.
Keo featured seven general stores, two blacksmiths, a sawmill and shingle factory, two cotton gins, a restaurant, hotel, a real estate office, drug store, butchers, doctors and a feed stable. The last available volume of the Business Directory in 1912-13 recorded a population drop to 75 for Cobbs while Keo's had risen to 250. The Cobbs Post Office was closed in 1916 but even though the area is not known by that name anymore, the original location of the community is still noted on mapping website Google Earth. The distance can be measured at approximately a mile north, though the Business Directory of 1888 and 1892 put the mileage to Keo from Cobbs at alternatively 4 or 5 3/4 miles. It is not clear why there would be such disparity. Keo was incorporated in 1919.
The sixteen-mile Altheimer to Argenta railroad line was the catalyst for commercial growth in Keo because it allowed the fanners who raised cotton, com and oats in Lonoke County (part of Prairie and Pulaski counties until 1873) to get their goods to market in Little Rock. That commercial growth was fueled entirely by agriculture, primarily cotton. The first recorded Cotton Gin in Keo was owned by residents Morris and Brodie. In 1898 Moren and Adams were recorded in the Business Directory as being co-owners of a gin. By 1906 Morris and Moren became partners in a gin, which stood on the south end of Main Street until it was destroyed in the 1960s, but it is not known if that was the 19th century Morris and Brodie gin building. James David Cobb and Samuel C. Cobb had established their own cotton gin in 1906. This, too, was on the south end of Main. The draw of the railroad was obvious in its effect on Cobbs as business and residents funneled south to the rails.
From this movement a diversified economy appeared to serve the agricultural community. The hotel at Keo accommodated travelers on the railroad, residents needing temporary homes and drummers making the rounds of the towns on the line. It was first listed in the Business Directory in 1892 and was owned by J.Z. Donahue, but in 1913 the hotel was administered by Mrs. E. V. Bryant and was advertised as "the best the market affords." Bryant had been in Keo for eight years and served food to the customers in "large dishes." It was reported that the hotel was usually filled to capacity. The west side of Main Street was lined with commercial buildings of frame but no commerce other than the depot building was recorded on the east side of the road. A shingle factory was constructed in 1894 and subsequently moved to England in1897. By 1913 Samuel Cobb had started his own shingle factory and sawmill along with his general store and cotton gin. The shingle factory provided jobs for his gin laborers, who were out of work during the off-season for cotton.
The Keo Depot was located north of 'the Cobb Cotton Gin. The only extant image of the depot displays Eastlake/Stick-style architecture. It is not known if this was the original depot building but in 1910-11 the Cotton Belt introduced some improvements. The St. Louis Southwestern Railway (Cotton Belt Route) Depot in Coy, Lonoke County, (NR listed 01/22/2004) is very similar to the image of the Keo Depot, If the depot in Keo was not constructed in that style it is probable that it took on the appearance after the turn of the century under the improvement program, In the 1950s the depot was moved approximately a half block south on Main Street but by the 1960s the building had been moved north to the town of Scott where it was destroyed by fire.
Fire was often the reason Main Streets in Arkansas underwent multiple transformations. A 1904 photograph of Keo's Main Street reveals a row of frame structures. By December 21, 1913, it was reported that a large part of the buildings in that row had been destroyed by an early morning fire. The town marshal saw the flames coming from C.M. Flynn's general store but the volunteer fire brigade was unable to stop the destruction. Keo lost two stores, a restaurant/store, five storerooms and other small buildings. Being in an important location next to the railroad, Keo was able to rebuild. By 1926 the town suffered another fire that began in the post office. This was thought to be the work of an arsonist and again the town sustained extensive damage. The brick buildings seen on Main Street today were built to replace those that were destroyed. The Hotel Keo, which was situated near the current site of the Keo City Hall and the Post Office, survived the 1913 fire only to fall victim to the 1926 blaze. The Baptist church next door to the hotel was also destroyed, necessitating a move to the school until the 1940s when anew church was constructed.
In the spring of 1927, the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers overflowed their banks as early snowmelt in Canada and record rains in Arkansas destroyed levees. The floodwaters destroyed crops and homes in thirty-six counties, killing over 100 people. Keo was spared catastrophic damage because it was located in a dry pocket extending south from Scott toward Tucker. The water did rise to the west of town, lapped at the commercial area, and embraced it on all sides. The school grounds where refugees were being housed a few short blocks west of Main Street were almost entirely covered by water that took two months to subside. The state suffered through the reconstruction of silt-covered farmland and the loss of livestock and homes into the fall of 1927 but Keo was relatively untouched by the devastation.
Through the flood and the recovery the town's commercial area remained a vibrant center for fanners and their families. Agnes Coffinan Nixon, a former Keo resident, recalled that in the late 1920s the two seemingly massive cotton gins dominated life during harvesting season. The sounds and the activity emanating from the complexes were exciting and it brought business and neighbors into town to have a haircut, pick up mail, get an ice cream cone at the drugstore, or eat at Mr. George's Cafe. By that time the town had established its own bank. Up to 1913 the documented banking centers for Keo were in Lonoke, England, or Little Rock. Keo came to be known as the fifth most important town in Lonoke County and was the headquarters for an extensive area of cotton plantations. Workers were brought into town from Little Rock and adjacent areas by truck to pick cotton but there were many tenant homes in the area for those who lived on the plantations; Nixon described Saturdays at noon downtown as a "milling human throng, who traversed the two main blocks back and forth-back and forth …"
Dean Morris of Keo also remembers the numbers of people who came downtown on Saturdays in the late 1940s and into 1950. General stores like the W.L. Baird Mercantile and the W. French Store (located in the Morris Building) as well as the cotton gins continued in operation and the downtown still provided entertainment and goods for the residents. The Bank of Keo was once the site of Dr. Dejalma Leake's Drug Store. Keo mayor Nancy Tardy's grandfather, Bishop Kavanaugh Leake, operated the drug store when it was moved north into the Cobb Building. There he produced Leake's Liniment in the 1940s. The formula was sold across the state and Louisiana by four traveling salesmen and was bottled and labeled by the mayor as a child. Horses, dogs and people alike were said to benefit from the elixir.
The Morris and Moren Cotton Gin was active until the mid 1960’s when it closed. It was torn down at that time but the Cobb Cotton Gin established around the turn of the century by James David Cobb and Samuel Cobb continued in business into the 21st century. Around circa 1940, William Morris and Walter Magness constructed a new cotton gin on the northwest corner of U.S. 165 and AR Highway 232. This gin remained in business until circa 1970.
The Cobb Cotton Gin is still a fixture in Keo even though no cotton is ginned in the facility. The complex consisting of eighteen buildings and structures retains several resources that date from the turn of the century, the 1920s and the 1950s. Two of the original four seed houses were destroyed in the 1970s when a gas truck ran off the road, catching them on fire, but the bulk of the resources associated with the original gin remain. The turn of the century wooden gin was tom down in 1946 and a new building was constructed with corrugated asbestos siding and roofing to make it fireproof and keep it cool.