- El Dorado was a community looking forward to the future and looking forward to the peace after the long World War. The dawn of the 20th century was a time of great excitement. America was excited about what the years ahead held for the nation.
And it was also the year the El Dorado Rotary Club began.
El Dorado was then a city of 3,900 residents, with the population of Union County just under 30,000 residents. Most of the people were involved in agriculture or timber, but many of the older buildings seen across El Dorado were not built until the 1920s. The county judges for that year were E. W. Yocum and Alymer Fleniken, with Joseph K. Mahony as prosecuting attorney, and Hugh Goodwin as a noted school board member.
Union County, being the largest geographic county in the state, had a distinction shared by only a handful of Arkansas counties: it had two county seats. El Dorado handled county business for the western half of the county, and New London handled business for the eastern half. Though New London was once a prospering community, it was already in a decline by 1919 when community leaders decided not to push for the railroad to come through. Other communities suffered the same fate, such as Hillsboro, Parnell, Johnston and Dilolo.
Very few people owned an automobile though those numbers were changing rapidly. Most transportation was still by horse-drawn wagon or by train. There were two movie theaters in operation: the Mission Theater on East Main, and the original Rialto, which was completed at its current location in 1918 before being rebuilt several years later. No radio stations existed yet; the first station in Arkansas, KARK, would not go on the air until 1923. Newspapers included the Union County Tribune and the El Dorado Evening Times (forerunner of the News-Times).
The post office at the time was still at the corner of Jefferson and Elm and would move into the new federal building on Main Street in a few years.
El Dorado Power and Water Company still advertised with claims of how much safer and more efficient electricity was compared to candles.
The city boasted what was still a new, state-of-the-art high school, what is now known as the 1905 Junior College Building. It was a 23,000-square foot, three-story, red-brick building that was the envy of many communities and completed for $40,000 (over $1 million in 2019 dollars). In 1908, a second high school opened in El Dorado – Booker T. Washington High School, a segregated school demanded by law at the time.
And for the generation of young men shaped by World War I, they were determined to make the 20th century the American Century. They wanted to see progress for their cities and their nation and were rapidly joining organizations encouraging civic involvement and economic and cultural progress.
The American Legion was organized by returning World War I veterans in 1919. Post #10 – the 10th official American Legion post established – was opened here in El Dorado. It was named after Roy Kinard, as many posts were named after those first to die from their community in the war. Kinard was the only known Union County resident to die in World War I, in a war that took 117,000 American lives. O. L. Bodenhamer, a local businessman and co-founder, became national commander in 1929.
In 1919, the Roman Catholic Church began organizing what became Warner Brown Hospital. As any modern, successful city needed a hospital, local business leaders and donors reached across denominational lines to make the hospital a success. Warner Brown opened with 68 beds in 1921.
This was also the year that Rotary made its appearance in El Dorado. The first Rotary Club was established in Chicago in 1905 by a group led by attorney Paul Harris. The idea was for business and community leaders to break out of their professional shells and build friendships and partnerships with people of other professions. Only one member of each profession would be allowed in each club. Initially, these members met at each other’s place of business, rotating from one location to the next. The philosophy was very simple – service above self.
El Dorado joined the growing group of Rotary Clubs 100 years ago this month. It was the seventh club in Arkansas. It began with 24 members, growing to 30 in 1920, drawn from among the business leaders of the community. The club met at various places across town – first at the Garrett Hotel until 1972, and then at various churches and restaurants, including First Baptist, St. Mary’s and the Oak Tree Restaurant. The first women were admitted in 1989 and have since served ably as presidents and officers of the club.
In every community in the United States, the impact of Rotary is felt – with public parks and playgrounds, libraries, scholarships, community centers and much more. Rotary is also part of the great global effort to eliminate polio from the face of the Earth, a dreaded disease now reduced only to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Rotary is also involved in efforts to support schools in the most remote and poorest parts of the world as well as efforts to provide food and clean water to desperate communities. Rotary is proof that men and women of good will, who believe in service above self, can make a difference.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at kbridges@ southark.edu.