History of Vilonia
In 1861, a small group of pioneers hailing from North Carolina, Mississippi, and Tennessee settled into the area near the Cypress Creek forks. They named their town Vilsonia, meaning "land of two valleys," after the landscape.
In 1873, the local Masonic Lodge, which was established early in the town’s history, applied for national affiliation through the Washington, D.C. office, where a transcription error dropped the 's' and thus, Vilonia was born. While there are claims the transcription error occurred not when the Masons applied for affiliation but when the town established a post office, the Masons version is generally accepted to be true.
After the Civil War, families of English, Irish, German, and Scottish descent searched for fertile land to grow cotton, grains, vegetables, and fruits and moved into the settlement. The first family to arrive is identified as Confederate widow Mary Downs from Mississippi, who brought her six children: five girls and one boy. Her son, William James Downs, eventually fathered a son, Joseph Henry Downs, who became one of the most prominent doctors in Vilonia, practicing medicine for fifty-four years, and serving on the school board for fifty years.
In 1866, the family of Joel J. Jones, grandfather of Raymond Moore, arrived in Vilonia. In 1869, the families of J.R. Simpson and his son Noah left Mississippi for Texas, by way of Helena. When they reached Mountain Springs in Lonoke County, they decided to stay rather than continuing on to Texas. Noah's wife Mollie gave birth to William Simpson, who later married Vilonia native Lee Hill. Noah's nephew Owen Simpson later moved to Conway.
By 1870, businesses began to appear, most aimed toward serving the local farmers. Toll Ward built a cotton gin built of logs and powered by horses while George W. Harris erected a cotton gin powered by steam; Harris also had a gristmill for grinding corn into meal. Many blacksmiths plied their trade, with Barnes, Herring, Holt, and Faulkner being among the most well known. W.R. Evans established the town's first general store, although from most accounts it was more saloon than store. Many youngsters would collect the empty bottles and resale them to Evans for up to 25 cents each (that's almost $5 by today's standards). Dr. Carr arrived and established the first medical practice, building a small dwelling to house both his practice and a small general store; he later opened a drug store with Dr. Jesse B. Munn, who was related to future Dr. Joseph Downs. The first drugstore, however, was owned by Oscar Simpson. R.B. Evans was the town dentist and Mr. Davis was the miller.
The town's official naming occurred in 1873, with the organization of the Masonic Lodge and the affiliation snafu. This lodge lasted almost seventy years before disbanding.
In 1874, the first school was established; a private school, it was a one room log cabin with two floors located on the southwest corner of the Hwy 5 and Hwy 64 intersection. The Masons used the top floor for their meetings, while the bottom was used for classes by teacher William T. Suttle. The school eventually became public in 1880, when it consolidated into the Oak Grove School District. The district ran an eight-month split term: four months of classes, four months off for harvesting, then another four months of classes. Future changes included:
1896: a new two-story frame building replaced the cabin
1916: a scholastic grading system was introduced
1928: a brick building was built on the southeast corner of the intersection and the district renamed Vilonia School District
Fred Monroe Bollen became superintendent.
1938: two native stone buildings were built, housing home management and industrial education
1941: the brick building burned in January and classes were held in the Nazarene Church
1942: a replacement was built for the lost brick building
1960: an elementary school was added
In 1879, George Wilson established a post office in his home, then erected a hardware store in 1880. The hardware store eventually became DeBoard's General Store.
In 1894, Noah Simpson and Reverend W.F. Dallas organized the Arkansas Holiness College, known originally as the Holiness Academy. It operated until 1931, when it consolidated with the Nazarene College in Bethany, Oklahoma, where it was relocated. Baptist, Methodist, and Nazarene churches were established in the community by 1900.
Vilonia was incorporated on August 23, 1938, with Thomas Henry Hill as mayor.
The Great Depression, which drastically lowered the price of cotton, combined with several drought seasons greatly impacted Vilonia, as approximately eighty to ninety percent of the residents were cotton farmers. However, the population of Vilonia managed to remain steady, given the self-employed nature of farm work and the lack of jobs elsewhere.
On January 8, 1942, the brick school building burned. Classes finished the term in other buildings. One month into World War II, all resources were going to the war effort. But Vilonia citizens donated labor, money, and materials to rebuild the school. The new building was finished by the next school year. By this time, many Vilonia citizens had found employment at the Arkansas Ordnance Plant in Jacksonville (Pulaski County), which operated three daily shifts. Buses, which were granted extra gasoline during this time of rationing, transported workers to the plant for two of the three shifts.
Modern-day Vilonia has a city hall, a fire department, a police department, a park director, a city court clerk, banks, restaurants, stores, and other services.
There is no industry in Vilonia and only minimal agriculture; most citizens now travel to the nearby cities of Conway and Little Rock (Pulaski County) for employment. However, Vilonia still boasts a noted educational system, and the school continues to be the center of the community. In 1997, its elementary school was chosen by Redbook magazine as one of the 177 outstanding schools in the nation.
On April 25, 2011, a tornado swept through Vilonia, killing five people and damaging structures. Another tornado on April 27, 2014, killed eight people, flattened homes and businesses, and destroyed the new Vilonia Intermediate School, which had been set to open in the fall. In response to the latter disaster, President Barack Obama conducted his first official visit to the state in order to survey the damage and visit with Vilonia residents on May 7, 2014.
For additional information, check out the resources used on this page:
Faulkner County Historical Society. Faulkner: Its Land and Its People. Conway, AR: River Road Press, 1986.
Milburn, Mr. and Mrs. Charles. “Vilonia–A Short Sketch.” Faulkner Facts and Fiddlings 10 (Spring 1968): 3–10.
Trimble, Betty Owen. The Path from the Cellar. Raleigh, NC: Pentland Press, 2001.
Trower, Kathy. “Vilonia ‘Land of Two Valleys’ Gets Spelling from Typographical Error.” Log Cabin Democrat. March 10, 2000.