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 new home Vilsonia, meaning "land of two valleys," after the landscape.
In 1873, the local Masonic Lodge No. 324, 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.
The Thomas Sylvanus Latimer family was another post-Civil War relocation from Mississippi. Latimer purchased farm land to the north of Vilonia for $5.50 an acre (roughly $110 today). The family were farmers and stockmen, with later generations serving in the military during WWII.
In 1866, the family of Joel J. Jones arrived in Vilonia. Mr. Jones was the grandfather of Raymond Moore, who served as a postmaster to Vilonia for many years and greatly contributed to the historical information of Vilonia from his family records. 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. 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 (now Hwy 107) 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. Classes at the Suttle school were ungraded and taught practical skills. The district ran an eight-month split term: four months of classes, four months off for harvesting, then another four months of classes. Boarding students came from Woodrow, Holland, Ballard, Ebenezer, and Oak Grove, while students from other districts came by horseback or buggy. Some students worked at household or farm tasks to pay their way.
At one point, the school began to issue a periodic newsletter, The Gem of the West, which included advertisements, inspirational quotes, and academic information on history, geography, science, grammar, physiology, and math.
In 1879, George Wilson established a post office in his home.
In 1880, Mr. Wilson erected a hardware store which would eventually become DeBoard's General Store (pic). The Suttle School consolidated with other local schools into the Oak Grove public school district.
In 1887, a blacksmith shop opened to serve horse owners, operating well into the next century. A Mr. Barnes is credited as being one of the first blacksmiths in the town, followed by Misters Herring, Holt, and Faulkner.
By 1890, Baptist, Methodist, and Nazarene churches had all been established in the community.
In 1894, a collection of people including Noah Simpson, Methodist pastor Reverend Ferris, and Reverend W.F. Dallas put up a tabernacle and began holding meetings. They would soon become the founders of the Holiness Academy.
In 1896, a new two-story frame building was built for the school on the northwest corner of the highway intersection on land donated by G. W. Harris, with construction financed by William James Downs, who mortgaged his farm.
Around 1900, the Suttle School became the Vilonia Training School. Z. L. Andersen was a teacher making $32.50 a month. A five mill school tax was assessed to provide revenue for the school. The Holiness Academy started in 1900 on land donated by Noah Simpson, who owned a general merchandise store with his father J.R.; Noah and his brothers helped financially support the school through its first years.
In 1905, two more teachers were hired by the Vilonia Training School, which had over 150 students. This was also the year Joseph Henry Downs was licensed to practice medicine, which he proceeded to do for fifty-four years, becoming one of the most prominent doctors in Vilonia. He partnered with his uncle Dr. J. B. Munn, taught school for one year, and served on the school board for fifty years, from 1907 to 1957. He is quoted as saying “I wanted to do something constructive for the people in my village and after starting I just couldn’t stop.” The Holiness Academy became the Arkansas Holiness College, with Professor Hawkins as its first president. He served two terms, helping to build the initial curriculum and faculty.
In 1912, C. C. Blair became principal, with B. C. Adams and Alice Moore as assistants, and the school had a board of nine members including Dr. J. B. Munn with Dr. J. H. Downs serving as secretary. Enrollment reached 200 students.
The purpose of the Arkansas Holiness College, as stated in the 1913/14 catalogue, was “to offer to the great Central West an institution where boys and girls – regardless of wealth and rank – can pursue a thorough literary course to the neglect of neither soul nor body.” Rules included “At no time during the year are students allowed to give or receive calls from the opposite sex unless by special permission of the President,” “no student is allowed to absent himself from College or town without consent of the President,” and “loafing positively forbidden. No cards, intoxicants, firearms, tobacco, profanity, vulgarity, brutal games, or reading trashy literature.” With only seven exceptions, all students came from Arkansas. The college included a preparatory school, an Academic school, a College school, a Theological school, a School of Music, a Commercial school, and a course in Expression. Expenses were $112.50 a year for room and board and $36 for tuition. There were few clubs or societies, but a large music department. Fall final exams were held after the Christmas break, which ended December 30, and the semester officially closed on January 17. Arkansas Holiness College was accepted by the Church of the Nazarene in 1914, although it would soon be rejected again, as the Church could only support a limited number of colleges.
In 1916, a scholastic grading system was introduced using percentages and subjects listed included algebra, geography, U.S. history, and physiology.
By 1920, there were an estimated 700 automobiles in Faulkner County, prompting then Senator Hartje to introduce a bill to the Arkansas Legislature to issue bonds to finance road building. Although local farmers objected, delaying construction, United States Highway 64 was one of the first three roads paved in Faulkner County, sometime around 1920.
In 1921, the Union Cash Store was organized. It was managed by R. L. Saye, who also served on the school board during its early years. The Union Cash Store was a frame and rock building located in the center of town and consisting of 86 members with $4,000 in capital (about $60,000 today), although a bank failure during the Great Depression caused some losses. Mr. Saye served on the school board through the 1930s and well into the 1940s and is reported to have been highly respected.
In 1928, a brick building was built on the southeast corner of the intersection, offering grades 1 through12. The district was renamed Vilonia School District and Fred Monroe Bollen became superintendent.
Sometime in the late 1920s, a two-story hotel was located across Hwy 64 from the Downs home. Superintendent Bollen and his family rented the front three rooms on the lower floor while Vilonia teachers rented the rooms on the second floor. With no rural electricity, lighting was provided by lamps and candles. While the cause is unknown, at some point a fire erupted during the night and residents had to evacuate. Dr. Fred R. Bollen, son of Superintendent F. M. Bollen, provided the following account in 2004 while residing in Conway, Arkansas.
“The fire broke out at the back of the hotel. When the hotel caught fire Dad and Mother woke us kids and asked us to go across the highway and stay in the cotton field with quilts and wraps. I crawled back in bed and went to sleep. Dad happened to notice me back in bed and got me up with a quilt and ushered me to the outside and said run to the cotton field. What belongings were saved we moved into a little house back down the road below the Dallas place and that is where we lived until Dad built where the old hotel stood. My sister, Pat was born in that house December 27, 1932.”
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. The Vilonia community has a long history of coming together through rough times to emerge stronger.
In 1931, the additional challenges from the Great Depression and WWII, led Arkansas Holiness College leaders to merge with Bethany-Peniel College, a Nazarene College in Bethany, Oklahoma, where it soon moved. Arkansas Holiness College exists today as a founding college of Southern Nazarene University, still located in Bethany, Oklahoma.
Vilonia was incorporated on August 23, 1938, with Thomas Henry Hill as mayor. Other notable Vilonia citizens of the era included Dr. Ernest Ball, filling station owner Tom Vaughan Hill, Vernon Herrod, John Powell, Dalton Matthews, and general store family Deboard. Mail carriers included Tom Carroll, Clyde Hogan, and T. R. Campbell. This was also roughly when the Tennessee Valley Authority brought electricity to the area. Two native stone buildings (pic) were built for the school, one for home management (home economics) and the other for industrial education (agriculture).
The 1940 Census population was 259.
On January 8, 1942, the brick school building burned. The fire is attributed to worn electrical wiring in the ceiling. Witness accounts state attendance was low that day due to a recent snowstorm, unusual for the area at that time, dropping roughly eight inches of snow and making roads impassable for busses in some areas. They describe watching the building burn as a wind threatened to spread the fire to other buildings, such as home economics. There was no fire department at the time and the school water supply was from a pump. High school students notified the men in town, who quickly formed a bucket brigade, climbing a ladder up the far side of the home economics building, passing bucket after bucket of water, pouring them down the roof to keep it wet as the fire threatened. It was so hot at the top, men had to take turns, many finishing with blistered shoulders, but they saved the building.
One month into World War II, all resources were going to the war effort. Superintendent Bollen met with the school board and they made a plan for the remainder of the year: elementary grades would meet in the Nazarene and Methodist churches, using orange crates donated by merchants for desks, while upper grades would hold classes in the agriculture and saved home economics buildings, and the graduating class held their ceremonies in the Methodist Church.
Word of the disaster spread and donated labor, money, and materials poured in to help rebuild the school. Students spent free time scraping cement from bricks salvaged from the burned building so they could be reused and the new building was ready for classes by that fall, just in time for the next school year, although not all the bricks were in place when classes began. 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.
During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Faulkner County held academic contests for rural high schoolers each spring at the Arkansas State Teachers College (now University of Central Arkansas) and track meets at Hendrix College. Vilonia students excelled at both. When WWII rationing began, gasoline and tires became restricted to essential school activities only and these competitions were discontinued.
In the forties, fifties, and beyond, school board members included Burton Graddy, L. P. Morris, Elbert Wharton, Jerry Stevens, J. A. Harris, and J. H. Gardner.
The 1950 Census population was 215.
In 1952, a gymnasium was built on the school grounds on the north side of Hwy 64 using private donations and materials from five dismantled buildings purchased from Camp Joseph T. Robinson in Jacksonville. Construction was overseen by contractor Burton Graddy. In a memo to Friends of the Vilonia School, Superintendent Bollen stated, “The secretary of the school board explained that the credit of the school or the ability to borrow money for many years to come has already been used in providing necessary class rooms, vocational buildings, and a school lunch building.” This was also the year Superintendent F. M. Bollen stepped down to become the agriculture teacher.
In 1960, the Vilonia Elementary School was built and the Census population was 234.
The 1970 Census population was 423.
The 1980 Census population was 736.
In 1986, Frank Mitchell became superintendent.
In 1990, the Census population was 1133.
In 1994, a gymnasium with retractable bleachers was added onto the high school building. This new gym was used for spectator sports while the old gym continued to be used for training and practice.
In 1997, Vilonia Elementary School was recognized by Redbook magazine as one of 177 outstanding schools in the United States.
The 2000 Census population was 2106.
In 2003, school administrative staff included Assistant Superintendent Michael Ward, Principal Edd Sellers, and Assistant Principal Dr. David Bangs. School board members included Danny Lawrence, Jerry Roberts, Mike Payne, Mark Samuelson, Jim Wooley, Randy Sanders, and Mike West. The marching band was 170 members strong, led by Steve Platt, with four full time band directors and students beginning instrument study in sixth grade. There was both a junior and a senior cheerleading squad and athletic director David Bangs oversaw ten sports including golf, tennis, bowling, softball, volleyball, track and field, cross country, football, and basketball. A soccer team entered development. The football team (Eagles) was coached by Jim Stanley and rated AAAA. Women’s basketball, coached by Alvin Riley, was second in state while men’s basketball, coached by Lance Davis, made an admirable showing. The school district passed 2,700 students and plans began to build a new middle school building. To finance it, the school tax increased to 5.5 millage. The new building was planned for a 34 acre site on the south side of the main campus, with access to Hwy 107. Cost was estimated at $8 million and 12-18 months.
The 2010 Census population was 3815.
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.
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.
Historically, there has been a Vilonia Fest held in May, a Fall Fest sponsored by the Fire Department at Halloween, and an annual Christmas Parade the first weekend of December. In recent years, the Vilonia Fest has been on hiatus and the Fall Fest has become Trunk or Treat.
Vilonia is a “bedroom community,” meaning most residents travel to the nearby cities of Conway, Cabot (White County), and Little Rock (Pulaski County) for employment.
Vilonia still boasts a noted educational system, and the school continues to be the center of the community.
The following resources were used for this page:
Faulkner County Historical Society. Faulkner: Its Land and Its People. Conway, AR: River Road Press, 1986.
Gschwandtner, Dorli. Arkansas Holiness College, 1 Mar. 2004, home.snu.edu/dept/pr/archives/campuses/ahc/index.htm.
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.
Special thanks to Mrs. Dollie Pruitt for her research into the history of Arkansas Holiness College and Vilonia.