Museum musings: A look at some of Drew County’s famous firsts

This week I thought it might interest some readers to know some “famous firsts” facts in Drew County as a quick reminder of days gone by. Some of these particular “firsts” are especially unique in that they don’t as readily come to mind or stimulate great interest. Yet each is vital in the history of our county.

The first government survey of our present Drew County was done in 1824 before many settlers came and laid claim to the land. Although trappers and hunters may have visited here previously, the first permanent settler in the county is listed as Stephen Gaster who came in 1832 and settled on the banks of Bayou Bartholomew about a mile and a half downstream of present-day Baxter. The first child born in Drew County was his daughter, Elizabeth, in 1833. (Nevertheless there were earlier, and other, settlers through the area, but those stories will be covered in future articles.) 

The first organized church in present-day Drew County was the Mount Pleasant Methodist Church at Campground, organized in 1843. For the record, the first Baptist church in the county was actually organized in 1845 as the Flat Creek Baptist Church. (The area was first considered a part of Bradley County, then Drew, and now is part of Ashley County near Fountain Hill as the county lines shifted over the years.) 

The first county seat in Drew County was established at the community of Rough and Ready on November 26, 1846.  A Baptist church had also been established there around 1845 with its first pastor being Banaiah Carroll. The first session of the Drew County Circuit Court was held in the old Baptist church at Rough and Ready. 

The first Circuit Judge for Drew County was William H. Fields; the first sheriff, David D. Greer; and the first prosecuting attorney, Solon B. Jones. The first grand jury panel foreman was Stephen Gaster. Other familiar early surnames included Bowden, Thompson, Goodwin, Griffith, Whitney and Fannin.

The first survey for the site of the new county seat and city of Monticello was in late 1849. The first courthouse was a wood frame building completed in 1850 and the first session of court was held there in September of 1850. The first jail was completed in 1853.

The first census was taken in Drew County in 1850 and Ann Downey, 95, was the oldest person listed. The oldest native to the area listed was the same Elizabeth Gaster listed as the first baby born in the county. (Elizabeth was 17 at the time. We have her doll bed in the museum.)

The Methodist Church, the first and oldest congregation established in Monticello, was first built north of the old Southeast Arkansas Regional Library on land given by Wiley Crook in 1853. Its first pastor was Hariston Withers. In August of 1860 Banaiah Carroll’s replacement, Peyton R. Smith, moved the Baptist church congregation from Rough and Ready Hill to its present location in Monticello. His first sermon there was taken from Psalms 87. The church took on the name First Baptist Church in 1871.

Many of the oldest known Drew County grave sites are found out in the county. The first person believed to be buried in Drew County was a baby, Viola Handley. She was born September 14, 1845, and died July 9, 1846. She is buried in the Vanlandingham Cemetery, about seven miles northwest of Monticello and one mile east of the Plantersville Road. There are many unmarked graves there and it is nigh to impossible to find without a guide. 

There are well over 100 cemeteries in Drew County but many are “lost” or exceedingly difficult to visit. The oldest birth date on a cemetery marker outside Monticello is 1774. The deceased’s name was Mary Schuler Clower, born in Pennsylvania in 1774. She died and was buried at Mount Pleasant in 1853. I’m sure her lifetime of 79 years saw a great many adventures in her westward journey. She was the great grandmother of Garvin Cavaness who built the Cavaness house that is now the Drew County Museum. 

The oldest cemetery in Monticello is the Old Monticello Cemetery located along Wausau Street and behind the First Baptist Church on Bailey Street. The largest cemetery in Monticello is Oakland Cemetery. The first person buried therein was William Pinckney Burks in 1866, the same year William D. Ford deeded the original 15 acres to the city for a cemetery. (My sources say there are earlier years on some stones, but some remains were moved to Oakland later from rural areas.)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief list of Drew County “firsts”. Come and visit the museum. You may find some “firsts” there too!

The Advance-Monticellonian

Mailing Address:
PO Box 486
Monticello, AR 71657

Street Address:
314 Main Street
Monticello, AR 71655

Phone: 870-367-5325
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