Written by Mrs. C. J. Morton
February 22, 1939
The site where the town of Bernice now stands was originally a huge forest known as “the big woods.” There large virgin pines stood and it was only natural that the lumber industry looked upon this site, together with those that surrounded it with a charmed eye.
Captain C. C. Henderson, pioneer railroad man and lumberman, realizing the possibilities for both industries, built the Arkansas Southern Railroad from El Dorado, Arkansas, to Junction City, Arkansas, which road was completed about 1898, and he immediately negotiated for the purchase of additional land upon which to build towns which would be along his railroad and was successful in completing his plans to extend his line to Winnfield, Louisiana.
Captain Henderson purchased from Allen Lowery and Dave Cole the present site of the town of Bernice. It was his original intention to build the town approximately one mile north of where it now is but due to his inability to secure a valid title to that property, he moved south and purchased the land from Lowery and Cole. While constructing his line, he took up his abode in the home of Mr. Lowery and named the town in honor of Bernice Lowery, infant daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Lowery.
Upon the completion of his railroad, Captain Henderson plotted the property off into lots, made an extensive advertising campaign, sold the lots at public auction, reserving one block as a gift to the town of the location of what in now know as Oakhurst Park.
Captain Henderson found ready buyers for his lots and on April 18, 1899, with Jake Cruze as its first Mayor, the town was incorporated.
The first business establishment in the new town was operated in a tent by a man named Nelson. It was located near what is now the home of J. M. Butler and the first sale made by Mr. Nelson was that of a box of matches to R. T. “Uncle Dick” Moore. Shortly after this Mr. Will Martin operated a general mercantile establishment in a box car that had been moved from the track of the new railroad.
Within a short period of time, Allen Lowery erected for Jack Henderson, a brother of the founder of Bernice, a frame business building on the site now occupied by The Bank of Bernice. Others soon followed and several merchants who had maintained business establishments at Shiloh, four miles east of Bernice moved their businesses to the new town on the railroad, among those being E. B. Robinson, who is still a citizen of Bernice and Thomas and Joseph Heard, W. R. Heard, son of Thomas Heard, now operates a mercantile business in Bernice and the widow of Joseph Heard still lives in Bernice. Others who entered the mercantile business in the new town were H. M. Blackman, R. I. Mitcham, H. M. Blackman, R. I. Mitcham. Henderson Brothers, Selig & Cromwell and Gray McDonald & Lindsey. A hardware and furniture establishment was opened and operated by a Mr. Buswell, from Arkansas, which business was shortly afterward purchased by a Mr. Jarrell, then a resident of Junction City, who, in turn, shortly later sold the business to C. J. Morton, who operated it from 1901 until his death in 1920, when, after operating the business four years, his widow disposed of it and it is now known under the trade name of the Bernice Hardware & Furniture Company. It was approximately the same time when J. W. Cooper opened the first drug store in Bernice and he operated the same about four years when he sold his business to Charles E. Miller, who still continues to do business one door west of the old establishment.
The citizens of Bernice and the surrounding country take great pride in the Bank of Bernice. This is one of the strongest small town banks in the state of Louisiana. It was founded in 1901, with J. R. Fuller, commonly and affectionately called “Uncle Fuller”, as its first president and his son, Y. S. Fuller cashier and W. F. Grafton, assistant cashier. Its progress has been steady and strong. After the passing of Uncle Fuller, “Uncle Dick” Moore, the same man who made the first purchase in the new town, became its president and after his passing, George W. James became president Mr. James later moved to El Dorado, Arkansas, and then Y. S. Fuller, son of the first president, became president and it was under his administration that the bank was moved to its present modern building. After Mr. Fuller’s death D. A. Pollock became president and remained so until his death in 1931, when Dr. C. C. Colvin took over the office and has continued in that capacity until the present time.
The Baptist church was chartered in 1902, with William Cooksey the first pastor. The first services were held in a small wooden building on east main street and later services were held in the frame school building. The Methodist church was organized shortly after and in 1903 both congregations erected buildings on the site now occupied and from time to time these buildings have been improved. Both churches have parsonages.
J. E. Love first operated what is not The Bernice Mill Company. Mr. Love operated this mill only a short time and it passed into the hands of Messrs. Kirkland and Westbrooks who shortly afterward sold it to Messrs. Brown and James. After a few months successful operation, Mr. James acquired by purchase the interest of his partner and in about 1922, Mr. James sold the same to the Louisselle interests who operated this mil until they “cut out”, or exhausted their timber holdings. For several years there was no mill in operation but in 1933 George W. James, John P. Voss and Alex H. Wacker organized the present company and the same has operated continuously since. The site is the original site selected by Mr. Love.
The first school was taught in Bernice by Miss Julia Foster, who is now on the faculty of the Jonesboro High school. This school was located on the east side of the Rock Island railroad. A short time later Mr. W. A. Forston was the teacher and in 1906, fire destroyed this building. A short time later a substantial wooden building was erected and in 1907 what was for that time, a large brick building was erected and the school became known as the Bernice High school with George W. Newton its first principal. The elementary department was separated from the high school in 1920 when the present high school building was completed and only recently a modern gymnasium has been built and the original high school building renovated.
In July, 1904, the ladies of the town were invited to the home of Mrs. Y. S. Fuller through whose efforts the Ladies’ Civic Club was organized. This organization, with the exception of the war period has continued to function and has brought many improvements to the town among which is a modern community building in the Oakhurst Park which building is used for civic purposes and is indeed an asset to the town. This building replaced the pavilion in the park in the park which was built by this club in about 1907, and represents a cost of approximately $2,000.00. Among the other improvements that trace their responsibility to the efforts of this organization are beautification of the school grounds, the old community house which was sold to Kilpatrick Funeral Homes, the planting of trees and shrubs and many others.
Doctor George Carroll was the first physician to take up his residence in Bernice. He was shortly followed by Doctors Garland and Dendy. Doctor Carroll, about 1907, removed from Bernice and he was followed by Dr. C. C. Colvin who still practices his profession in Bernice, and about 1909 Doctor O. E. Glover moved from Claiborne Parish to Bernice where he continued to practice his profession until his death in 1937. Doctor Talbot was the first doctor of dental surgery and he was followed by Doctor M. W. Laurence, who came to Bernice about 1908 and has remained. His son, M. W. Laurence, Junior, is also engaged in the practice of dentistry here.
The original post office building stood where the mercantile establishment of R. W. Patterson now stands, with Postmaster Couch in charge. Later it was removed to Railroad Avenue and Postmaster Pleasant had office. Again, it was removed to a site near the original site, this time with Postmaster Dow in charge. This site was occupied many years and later was moved across the street three doors west to the present location. After Postmaster Dow relinquished office, Postmast Melton held office for several years and was followed by Postmaster Shields who, in turn, was followed by the present postmistress, Mrs. Minnie Baldwin.
J. W. Pickens established the first telephone system in Bernice which after a few years operation in private hands was purchased by its present owner, the Bell Telephone Company.
The light system was inaugurated by the Bernice Lumber Company and was sold by that organization in about 1927 to the Louisiana Power and light Company. The Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company, in 1930, extended its line to Bernice and since that time this corporation has serviced the town with gas. For the past several years the local office has been under the pleasing and efficient management of O. B. Kroll.
The railroad facilities in and out of Bernice have been greatly improved as time has gone on The Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway, in 1907 or “08 purchased the line built by Captain Henderson, the founder of the town. Better freight and passenger facilities were inaugurated and excellent connections to distant points may be made from our town.
Bernice is also served by excellent bus connections. With the completion in 1931 of the paving of highway 167 the Tri-State Bus Company inaugurated its service and now Bernice has north and south bus transportation daily.
Bernice has grown from a small settlement in “The Big Woods” to a thriving little town of more than 1,200 inhabitants. Much civic improvement has accompanied its growth and too much credit cannot be given to its pioneer merchants and citizens. From a business standpoint, for a town of its size, it is second to none in the state and we know, with the state and we know, with the installation of a modern water system it will continue its steady substantial and consistent growth.