Eric Standridge is a historian and author who focuses on Oklahoma's history, with an emphasis on LeFlore County and Poteau.
The Quick Rise and Fall of an Oklahoma Town
Today, little remains of the old town of Cowlington, Oklahoma. Officially, the town began with the establishment of the post office on August 27, 1884, but it can trace it roots even further back.
Named for E. F. Cowling, the town can trace its roots back to the 1830s during the time of the Choctaw removals. Long before the Kerr Lock and Dam was constructed, the land just below the Arkansas River was prime bottom land. The fertile soil produced some of the best yields in the region.
The largest wave of immigration to Cowlington came following the Civil War. In the late 1860s and 1870s, the town blossomed. While those of non-native heritage weren’t allowed to own land, many of those who fled the devastation of the Civil War leased lands from the Choctaw landowners.
Among those who fled the war were Coke and E. Fowler Cowling. The land was initially a family farm, but others soon followed. The fledgling town became informally known as Short Mountain. Although Mr. Cowling was white, he married a full blood Choctaw, which gave him the right to own land. Other early day settlers included the Jarrards, Overstreets, Hunsuckers, Roses, Lowerys, Tuckers, and Stines.
E.F. Cowling was instrumental in establishing a Baptist Church there and helped found the first Baptist association in the territory. Initially, the settlement’s economy was agricultural. Production of wheat, cotton, potatoes, and livestock was predominant.
By 1884, the town had grown significantly. Short Mountain, as it was known, had established a post office that year and changed the name of the town to Cowlington in honor of the Cowling family. Short Mountain Cemetery, a quarter of a mile of Cowlington, still bears the name of the old town.
The first major setback in the town’s history came in 1898. That year, the Arkansas River flooded, sending a cascade of water down through the Arkansas Bottoms. The local economy was nearly destroyed, as it relied primarily on agriculture. Still, residents were persistent and rebuilt. That same year, the Continental Asphalt Company opened a mill in town, which helped stabilize the economy. Unfortunately, the company only lasted a few years.
In 1901, Will and Stella Jarrard arrived in Cowlington. They came in a covered wagon from Scranton, Arkansas. Will was hired as Deputy Marshall. A story is told that he got into an altercation with an outlaw on the main street. When he tried to arrest the man, the outlaw pulled out a gun and started shooting at Will. Unfazed, Will calmly drew his gun and fired back. After wounding the man, he carted him off to jail as it if was a normal day on the job.
Ms. Jarrard spoke of the nature of the town, saying that the stores were well organized and carried a full line of merchandise even then. These goods were brought from Ft. Smith by wagons drawn by oxen as well as mules. By this time, Nathan Stine and Mark Lowery owned general mercantile stores, Mr. Tucker had a grist mill, Mr. Puckett had a cotton gin, and Mr. R. Hunsucker owned a general store. There was also a bank, drug store, and two barber shops. J.D. Beckett, Mr. Mixon, C. B. Billings, and R. E. Lester were the local practicing doctors. R.E.’s family, M.G. (Mace) Lester, T.D. (Kelley) Lester, and R. E. Lester also taught at the local school.
As in 1898, another flood almost devastated the town in 1904. However, residents had learned much from the previous flood and quickly flourished. These were a hardy people; however, the beginning of the end came with the Railroads.
For the most part, trade was accomplished on the Arkansas River. Until the early 1900s, river traffic was bustling with steamboats coming out of Ft. Smith. As the railroads were developed throughout Indian Territory, traffic diminished as easier ways of hauling goods and people were created. Mr. Cowlington negotiated with several of these railroads, however, he was unable to convince them to run a line through town. Frustrated, he sold his holdings in town and moved to Pittsburg County in the 1910’s.
The town suffered further in the 1920’s. That decade saw two tornadoes that ripped through the town. Those were closely followed by the Great Depression. This reduced the town’s population from 344 in 1920 down to 224 by 1940. Two more floods, one in 1941, and another in 1943, further decimated the town. By 1950, there were only 83 residents left in town. With so few residents, the post office was closed on Halloween, 1953.
The Robert S. Kerr Lock and Dam
It is likely that Robert S. Kerr never visited Cowlington, but he had a big impact on the town. With plans in place for the Kerr River Navigation System, the area just north of Cowlington on the Arkansas River was selected for a new lock and dam. In anticipation, city officials decided to annex more than 30 acres. There was fierce competition from other towns along the navigation system, but since the Robert S. Kerr Lock and Dam was set to be just north of town, Cowlington got a significant portion of that.
After completion, tourism became the predominant force in the local economy. In 1964, just before construction began, there were only 74 people living in town. When construction ended in 1970, the town reached a high point of 751. In addition to the increased trade in the area, the dam also stopped the erosion of the Arkansas River bottom-land and brought the floods under control.
Things were certainly looking up for the town but it was short lived. The tourism boom lasted around 20 years before tapering off. By the year 2000, the population was down again, hovering at around 133 people. Still, if it wasn’t for Sen. Kerr’s vision, the town would have vanished long ago.
The Overstreet House
One of the most famous landmarks in Cowlington is the Thomas Overstreet House.
While living in Missouri, Tom met Margaret Victor, a full blood Choctaw. They were married in 1871. Because Margaret was Choctaw, that enabled them to move to the Indian Territory later that same year. After arriving in Cowlington, they began clearing what would become a 3,000 acre plantation. Their first home was a small log cabin constructed at the foot of Short Mountain. The area was nearly impenetrable with cane thickets, but determination and hard work paid off. They soon had the land cleared and began raising cattle, hogs, horses, cotton, and potatoes. Their business endeavors were very profitable, which allowed them to build a white palatial two story house. Originally named The Cowlington House for its grand stature, the home soon became called the Overstreet House. This is the name that it is known by today.
They began working on the “big house” in 1890. The materials they used were the best available, “without a fault or knot in a single piece of lumber.” The Overstreet House contains 15 rooms, each containing inside chimneys that lead to back-to-back fireplaces, closets, and a captain’s walk. These were all features that were completely new to the area.
In 1988, the Tom Overstreet donated the house to the Kerr Foundation. For many years, it ran as a tourist destination. Yearly events were held there, as well as regular tours of the home and the working farm. Sadly, due to budget cuts, the Overstreet Home was sold to a private individual. While the property is private, the home can still be seen from Overstreet-Kerr road, just south of the Lock and Dam. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NR 80004285).
Another popular destination point in Cowlington is the man-made Cowlington Point. This is located on a small peninsula near the southern end of the reservoir. Cowlington Point contains a campground that is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Offering 35 campsites, each site offers back in drives, water hookups, and most have 15 amp electric outlets.
There is also a group picnic shelter, as well as facilities. Next to the water is a boat ramp and a swimming beach, as well as a playground and fire rings.
© 2017 Eric Standridge
Janice Walsh on May 01, 2018:
With my daughter moving to OK I decided to look up the town my grandfather came from. His name was James Fowler Cowling.
I always knew there was a town named after their family. I am grateful to find this article!!
Jack Gatewood on October 01, 2017:
John Steinbeck's book, "The Grapes of Wrath" refers to Cowlington prominently in the first part of the book. The book paints a sad picture of life in Cowlington in the dust bowl days of the 1930's
Sharon June Dillard Wyatt on October 01, 2017:
My Grand Ma, Grand Pa, Mom, Dad, 2 brothers, Aunts, Uncles and cousins are Buried in the Short Mountain cemetary. Love that little town
Margie salyards Berry on October 01, 2017:
my Grandmother and Grandfather Patterson and an uncle is buried at short mountain Cemetary.
I read and enjoy the history of the town.
Ronnie G. Smith, Sr. on October 01, 2017:
I read and enjoy the stories and history of these town's in my area. Will you someday do a story of Pocola. I've lived here all my life, now in my 60's. My grand parents lived their lives here also. If should do a history/story of Pocola. I would be happy to help on who, what, and for example. When and where. Please let know if. Can be of assistance.