Blacksmith shop, circa 1900 (Courtesy of the FCHS and UCA Archives)
Blacksmith shop, circa 1900 (Courtesy of the FCHS and UCA Archives)
by Mr. and Mrs. Charles Milburn

As early as 1861, pioneers began to settle in this area now shown on maps as being in Cypress Township and about fourteen miles east of Conway on Highway 64. The name “Vilsonia,” which means “land of two valleys,” was chosen by those settlers.

The Masons were active during those years, and by 1873 they made application for national affiliation through the Washington, D.C. office. In the process of gaining affiliation, the name went into the record except that the “s” of the original “Vilsonia” was omitted. Rather than go to the further trouble of getting the “s” back into the spelling they accepted Vilonia as the official spelling.

Mr. and Mrs. Charles Milburn, who wrote “Vilonia – A Short Sketch” for a 1968 issue of Faulkner Facts and Fiddlings, identified the first family to arrive as being that of Mary Downs. A Confederate soldier’s widow, she and her five daughters and son came from Mississippi. The boy was the father of Vilonia’s prominent pioneer physician, Dr. J .H. Downs. In 1866, following the war, the family of Joel J. Jones came to Vilonia. He was the grandfather of Raymond Moore, who was the source for much of the information gathered by the Milburns.

Arriving in 1869 were the families of J .R. Simpson and his son, Noah. They came from Mississippi by way of Helena, and stopped for awhile near Mountain Springs in Lonoke County. There, Mollie Simpson, the wife of Noah, gave birth to one of five sons of the family. William Simpson, who later married Lee Hill, a lifelong resident of Vilonia, and Owen Simpson, a nephew of Noah Simpson, later moved to Conway.

The community grew slowly but by 1870 several stores served the needs of the people. A blacksmith shop and grist mill also came into existence. Names of early blacksmiths are Barnes, Herring, Holt, and Faulkner. G. W. Harris and Toll Ward built the first cotton gins. The Harris gin used steam for its power and the Ward gin used horses to power the machinery. W.R. Evans built the first general store which included a saloon, and youngsters of the time made money by finding bottles and reselling them to Evans. Some bottles were worth twenty-five cents.

The Milburns wrote that at about the same time, 1870, Dr. Carr arrived to begin his practice. “He built a small dwelling which housed his medical practice and also contained a general store.”

The Masonic Lodge was organized in 1873 with meetings being held in space above the old one-room schoolhouse built a year later. The lodge was disbanded about seventy years later. The first schoolhouse was located on the southwest corner of the intersection of highways 5 and 64. This school was operated as a private school by a Mr. Suttle before its eventual consolidation into the public school district known originally as the Oak Grove District.

Early school had short terms, referred to as “split terms,” to permit the children to be used on the farms at the planting and other seasons. The Vilonia Training School was controlled by a private group as well as by the public school board. In 1896, a new two-story frame building replaced the original schoolhouse. The new building located near the site of the present gymnasium was also used by the Masonic Lodge.

The first school was ungraded, and this system was continued until about World War I. In 1928, the first brick school building was built. This was on the southeast corner of the intersection, and at about the same time the name Vilonia School District was adopted. The brick school building burned early in 1941 and was replaced by a new school. A few years earlier, two buildings of native stone were constructed on the campus for use in home management and industrial education programs. In more recent years, the school district has expanded greatly.

The Arkansas Holiness Academy, which continued until 1930 when it was consolidated into the Nazarene College in Bethany, Oklahoma, was commonly called a college, although its students ranged from age six to thirty years. The history of the Nazarene Church in Vilonia is traced to the early years of this institution. The Free Methodists began the work but transferred it to the Nazarenes.

The first building was a one-room schoolhouse, and Fannie Suddarth was the teacher. Construction of a new building was begun in 1905, the same year that the board called C.L. Hawkins, a graduate of Asbury College, to serve as the first president. Within the next five years, three other buildings were erected. Latin, geometry, trigonometry “and other common subjects” were offered, the Milburns wrote, but there was emphasis placed upon the Bible with chapel services held daily.