A Brief History of Vilonia: “Looking Back”

In 1861, a small group of pioneers began to settle in the area that is now called Vilonia. According to tradition, this original settlement was called Vilsonia which mean “land of two valleys.”

The name was altered when the first group of Masons established a lodge there in 1873. When they sent their request into the national headquarters in Washington, D.C., the national organization misspelled the name; instead the name was recorded as “Vilonia.” Rather than re-submitting—communication being so slow—the Masons decided to just leave the name the way it was.

Mary Downs was one of the first residents of this new village. She arrived from Mississippi after her husband was called to serve in the Civil War. She migrated to the area with her six children—five girls and one boy—during the war. Her son was to become the father of Vilonia’s most prominent early physician, Dr. J.H. Downs.

The Joel J. Jones family, another pioneer family, made its home in the area in 1866, a year after the war ended. Their grandson, Raymond Moore, was a great source of information about early Vilonia.

Three years later, in 1869, the families of J.R. Simpson and his son, Noah, settled in the area instead of continuing their journey to Texas. At first, they settled at Mountain Springs in Lonoke County but after Noah’s wife, Mollie, gave birth to one of five sons, they moved to the Vilonia area.

By 1870, a few stores began to emerge and Vilonia turned into a thriving little community. Toll Ward and G.W. Harris both built cotton gins in the area. The Ward gin, made of logs, relied entirely on horse power. The Harris gin, on the other hand, was steam powered. Harris also had a grist mill for grinding corn into meal.

W.R. Evans established the first general store in Vilonia. Many old-timers remember it being more of a saloon than a store; all counties was “wet” in those days. Youngsters would collect whiskey bottles to sell back to the saloon, much like children later collected coke bottles.

Vilonia also got its first doctor about this time. Dr. Carr built a small dwelling which housed his medical practice as well as a grocery store. He also opened a drug store with Dr. Jessie Munn.

In 1879, George Wilson established a post office in his home. He opened a hardware store the next year in what would become DeBoard’s General Store. Considered to be the oldest store still standing in Vilonia, DeBoard’s was still in existence in the mid-20th century.

The first schoolhouse in the area was built on what is now the southwest corner of Hwy. 107 and Hwy. 64. Originally a private one-room school, it became part of the Oak Grove School District, established around 1874. The district ran an eight-month split term; school was in session for four months, dismissed for four months for the harvest, and then resumed for another four months.

A new school building was erected across the road in 1896, where the old gym used to sit. It was a two-story frame building which also housed the Masonic Lodge. An ungraded school system would be in place until 1916.

In 1928, the first brick school building was constructed on the southeast corner of the intersection and the district was renamed Vilonia School District. A home management house and an industrial education building were added in 1938, constructed of native stone.

This brick building burned to the ground in January 1941; classes were held in the Nazarene Church until a new building was completed the following year. This building served as the high school well into the mid-20th century. About 1960, an elementary school was added.

In 1894, Rev. J.H. Ferris, a Methodist preacher, established the Arkansas Holiness Academy in Vilonia. Four years later, a Holiness Association and a tabernacle was built, but eventually the Methodists turned the academy over to the Nazarenes. A 40’x60’ schoolhouse was then built on four acres of land for the first school.

C.L. Hawkins became the first president of the academy in 1905 and a new classroom building and girls’ dormitory building were erected. Within the next five years, a boys’ dormitory, the President’s home and a dining hall were built. The Holiness Academy consolidated with Bethany Nazarene College in Oklahoma around 1930.

In the late 1950s, thirteen Mennonite families moved into the area. They contributed greatly to the history of Vilonia but have since migrated farther west. When Vilonia marked its centennial in 1961, it had a population of around 234.

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

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