Rural Life in Northwest Arkansas

Northwest Arkansas: Initial installment on series of the best sections of North America in which to pursue rural life, including population, jobs and crime, real estate and taxes, and education and health.
By Sara Pacher
September/October 1986
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Cream of the country: northwest Arkansas. The first in a series of the best sections of America to live a rural lifestyle. 

Rural Life in Northwest Arkansas

A great plateau once covered some 60,000 square miles of northern Arkansas, a large section of southern and central Missouri, and small bits of Oklahoma and Kansas. Over millions of years, however, that flat-topped mountain has eroded to produce the limestone bluffs, mountainous woodlands, sweeping meadows, trout streams, lakes, and rivers that we call the Ozarks. While the lover of rural life can find beauty and tranquility in abundance throughout this region, we selected four counties in extreme northwest Arkansas (Washington, Benton, Carroll, and Madison) because of the diversity of lifestyles — from urban to remote rural — that can be found within an area some 55 miles long and 75 miles wide.

U.S. Highways 71 and 62 intersect at Fayetteville, the area's largest city, which is 192 miles from Little Rock and 126 miles from Tulsa. Its airport offers daily flights to Dallas/Ft. Worth, Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Tulsa, and Little Rock.

Southern portions of Washington and Madison Counties are covered by the huge Ozark National Forest, another small section of which can be found on the border between Washington and Benton. In the north, man-made Beaver Lake, which looks from the air like a great flying dragon, stretches into Washington, Benton, and Carroll Counties. The lake is popular with campers, boaters, and fishing enthusiasts.

All, however, is not a rural paradise. Along U.S. 71, strip-building worthy of Los Angeles borders almost the entire straight line from Fayetteville north through Springdale to Rogers. "The Corridor," as this section is called by the locals, may soon evolve into Arkansas's first megalopolis. However, go a mile or so in either direction off this route, and you're right back in a rural setting.

Northwest Arkansas Population, Jobs, and Crime

When it comes to the point of trying to choose your own special spot within these four vastly different counties, amenities and economics will probably play a big role.

Washington County, with its two urban centers, Fayetteville (36,680) and Springdale (23,458), has a total population of 100,494, or 105.7 people per square mile. In March 1986, there were 53,225 people in the work force with unemployment running at 4.4%, as compared to a national average of 7.3%. By far the biggest employer is the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, which accounts for some 4,000 jobs and also helps to make the town the cultural center of the area. Agriculture (primarily fruit, poultry, and livestock) and diversified manufacturing (including a big Campbell's Soup operation and industries that produce printed forms, copper tubing connections, electronic organs, industrial tools, filter media, truck bodies, Mexican food products, steel communication towers, dairy products, electrical equipment, clothing, and wood products) occupy another large group of workers, but, according to March 1986 figures, the average wage for manufacturing workers in Washington County is $6.70 per hour, as compared to $7.31 per hour for Arkansas and $9.88 an hour for the U.S. as a whole. The average annual salary is $13,357 compared to $14,973 for Arkansas and a national average of $18,335.

Benton County's largest town is Rogers (17,429), though its county seat is Bentonville (8,756). The county's total population is 78,115, or 92.6 people per square mile. Its work force numbers 43,000, and its unemployment rate in March '86 was 4.3%. Again, manufacturing and agriculture employ a great number. Benton's average annual salary is $14,396.

The more mountainous Carroll County, with a population of 16,203, or 25.6 per square mile, relies on tourism for a great deal of its income, and many people have to commute into Washington or Benton to work, though Tyson's (a large poultry-processing company) employs over 2,000 and is still expanding. Employment is also found with a defense contractor and a log-home company. Even so, with 9,225 in the work force, unemployment in March 1986 stood at 9.5%, and the annual average salary was only $10,813.

Carroll's main centers of activity are its county seat of Berryville (2,966) and Eureka Springs (1,989), an old mineral springs resort whose winding streets, lined with charming Victorian houses, are packed with tourists during the spring, summer, and fall.

Madison County (population 11,373, or 13.6 per square mile) is the most rural and least prosperous of the four counties, with an average annual income of $9,625. Its county seat, Huntsville, has a population of only 1,394, and its labor force numbers 4,725, but its unemployment is a whopping 10.1%. Agriculture and tourism make up most of its income, but many talented craftspeople can be found tucked back in its remote coves, and it's only a 45-minute commute from Huntsville to Fayetteville.

As in any area of the country, northwest Arkansas has its crimes against property and domestic disputes that end in death, but random violence is rare, and you don't have to be overly concerned about rape, murder, and muggings as you wander about the towns and countryside here. Even in terms of crime statistics — which count only homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft, auto theft, and arson — northwest Arkansas comes out looking relatively good. While the national average for such crimes is 5,222 per 100,000, Washington County has 4,065; Benton, 2,319; Carroll, 2,947; Madison, 1,291. (The rate for cities in the United States is 6,220 per 100,000.)

Northwest Arkansas Real Estate and Taxes

Rental housing is plentiful in Fayetteville, where a two-bedroom apartment runs $200 to $425 a month, but rentals are scarce in the smaller towns and in the countryside.

There's good news, however, for the newcomer who wants to purchase land: In absolute dollar values, land costs less than it did eight years ago. (The only exceptions are the houses in Eureka Springs, which start somewhere around $50,000.) How much you'll pay depends on how far you want to live from major towns.

Rough land in Madison County and the southern section of Washington County sells for $100 to $300 an acre. The thin-soiled grassland in Carroll County also starts at $300 an acre. In Lincoln, some 16 miles southwest of Fayetteville in the rich, prairie-like strip that runs through west Benton and Washington counties, 40 acres is selling for $24,000 and 80 acres for $35,000. Any good piece of property close to Fayetteville or Springdale sells for around $10,000 an acre for three to five acres, $8,000 an acre for 10 to 15 acres, and $5,000 an acre for 40 acres. Being in the Fayetteville school district can add another $2,000 to $3,000 an acre to the going price. On the other hand, you can get a two-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot house on a lot in Berryville for $26,000 to $28,000. Furthermore, building permits and building-code inspections are required in urban areas, but are practically nonexistent in the counties.

Real estate taxes are based on 20% of the market value times the millage rate in the school district. Taxes generally average less than 1% of the selling price of the property.

The quality of soil is, of course, of prime importance. Generally speaking, the prairie-like earth in west Benton and Washington Counties is very productive. However, in other parts of the region topsoil is very thin, and much of the land is used primarily for cattle grazing and poultry raising.

Lumber companies followed the railroads into this section of the country in the last century and wiped out the virgin forests, along with extensive wildlife habitat. When the timber was exhausted, the companies subdivided the cut-over land and sold it to those former employees who loved the Ozarks and wanted to remain there. The soil, which was just four to eight inches deep in the hilly areas and only a little better in the level sections, soon began to erode. Many of the springs, which provided plentiful water for the early settlers and made the digging of wells almost unnecessary, also disappeared.

Northwest Arkansas Water, Waste, and Energy

Today, adequate potable water should be a primary concern when buying land in this area. If you plan to grow crops, irrigation is almost essential during dry spells in July and August. And although water may seem plentiful, keep in mind that it's not always drinkable. The underground limestone channels, which in larger versions form such beautiful caves, can carry waste from a septic tank or some factory discharge to groundwater miles away. Some parts of Carroll County, in particular, are having serious problems with water pollution. Droughts, too, are not unknown. They occurred in 1881, 1911, 1913, 1914, 1935, 1936, 1955, 1956, 1975, and 1976.

On an average, wells for households come in at 200 feet, though it's not unusual to have to drill 450 feet for water. Wells used for large agricultural purposes are required to tap the Roubidoux aquifer at an average of 1,300 feet. Well-drilling companies charge around $5 a foot for drilling and $5 a foot for casing.

Septic systems in this area cost $1,500 and up. On land comprising over 10 acres, they don't have to be inspected but must be situated at least 100 feet from any well.

Other expenses you may encounter if you buy raw land include putting in access roads and power lines. The cost of roads can vary as much as the terrain varies. As for getting electricity to the old homestead, there is no cost to an electric co-op member for overhead lines of up to 300 feet to a permanent residence or a house under construction. Anything over that will cost 50¢ a foot for the next 2,000 feet, and for lines over 2,300 feet, the charge will be $2 a foot, though this amount will be rebated at a rate of 20% of electrical use on the meter.

This part of Arkansas, which has abundant sunshine, is well suited to the development of passive solar energy.

Northwest Arkansas Climate and Agriculture

The growing season in the Ozarks is about 180 days. The first killing frosts usually occur in late October and the last in late April. Real winter weather, however, normally doesn't set in until late December and ends around the first of March (except for occasional short cold spells). But if anything is unpredictable, it's the weather in northwest Arkansas. Having said that, I should point out that Fayetteville's average daily high is 70.7 degrees Fahrenheit; its average low is 46.2 degrees; its average precipitation is 46.2 inches, with the wettest period lasting from March through May. Average temperatures in January range from a high of 46.2 degrees to a low of 23.3 degrees. In July, the average high is 89.9 degrees and the average low is 66.6 degrees. There are occasional below-zero temperatures in January and February, and seldom will July and August pass without a few days of 100 degrees or so.

Tornadoes out of Oklahoma and Kansas hit the area from time to time in a widely varied pattern, but the region's excellent early warning system has saved many lives.

As to farming in the region, poultry and cattle are the livestock choices, though you will also find show sheep, horses, and rabbits.

Crops are very diversified and seem to follow trends. Strawberries, apples, and tomatoes have been favorites in the past and are still grown commercially, but now the big market is for blueberries. (Raspberries and blackberries are also gaining in popularity.)

Grapes are another long-term investment well suited to the climate and soil. Many vineyards are found northwest of Fayetteville near Tontitown (population 615), which was settled by Italian immigrants and has its own Catholic school and two popular Italian restaurants. Some of the grapes are sold to the descendants of Swiss-Germans who settled near Altus, Arkansas, on the extreme southern border of the Ozarks and whose Wiederkehr Wine Cellars produce superior wines and champagnes.

Most small growers, whatever the crop, depend on very well organized agricultural co-ops to market their produce. For example, the Arkansas Blueberry Growers Association contracts to buy all the berries produced by its members, and the Ozark Organic Growers Association tests and certifies its members' soil and runs a truck of organic produce to Dallas twice a week.

The Cultural Climate

The importance of the University of Arkansas to the cultural climate of the region can't be overrated. Its 14,000 students are enrolled in the Colleges of Agriculture and Home Economics, Architecture, Arts, Sciences, Business Administration, Education, Engineering, and Law, and in the Graduate School. Aside from the cultural events sponsored by the university itself, Fayetteville attracts many artists and performers on national tours. Theater groups also abound in the region.

People here have a strong sense of history, too. Arkansas was a constant battleground during the Civil War, and the tiny town of Prairie Grove, though it doesn't have a traffic light, preserved the Prairie Grove Battlefield until it was eventually turned into a state park. (A larger Civil War battlefield, Pea Ridge National Military Park, is in northeast Benton County.)

This awareness of the value of historic heritage is particularly apparent in Fayetteville, Bentonville, and Rogers, which have preserved and enhanced their old downtown buildings, bringing new life to these areas. In fact, a shopping mall just outside Rogers has low traffic, while it's difficult to get a parking place in the bustling and beautiful downtown.

Education and Health

Generally speaking, the educational system gets higher ratings in this section of the state than it does in the rest of Arkansas. In recent teacher competency tests, Carroll County scored highest in the state, a fact which many observers think is due to the in-migration in the past two decades of well-educated back-to-the-landers, who have worked to improve the schools or ended up teaching in them. However, outsiders may be a little shocked at the fundamentalist attitude toward discipline, including corporal punishment, that still exists in some public school systems.

Though there is an average of only 10 to 15 inches of snow each winter, the lack of the necessary highway equipment means that schools sometimes have to be closed because of the weather. School children also get a day off during deer-hunting season to help bring home venison for the family larder.

Aside from offering access to the university library, which recently had a million-dollar drive to update its already excellent collection, Fayetteville has an attractive public library with a large section for the seeing impaired. Towns with populations above 1,200 have branches of the Ozark Regional Library, and smaller communities are visited by bookmobiles.

As for health care, Washington County is served by the Washington Regional Medical Center and City Hospital with a combined capacity of over 400 beds, the 65-bed Charter Vista Hospital for psychiatric and addictive disease patients, a 187-bed V.A. Hospital, the Washington County Public Health Center, and several nursing homes. Hospitals are also found in Bentonville, Rogers, Huntsville, Eureka Springs, and Berryville.

The People

Despite the influx of new residents into this section of the country, most of the people are still white, native-born Protestants with a fierce love of their land. Many object to anyone telling them what to do with their property.

Considering the above, one would expect an attitude of suspicious unfriendliness to outsiders, but quite the opposite is true. People here are extremely open, helpful, and courteous both to outsiders and to each other. Most likely, it will be they, not you, who first strike up a conversation.

"When newcomers move down here, particularly from some northern city," a Berryville banker said, "it takes them about two or three years to realize that nobody is trying to cheat them. After that, they become our staunch friends." Then he smiled and asked, "What in the world do they do to those poor people up there to make them so suspicious?"

The banker, who used to wash this same institution's windows when he was in high school, also explained why his bank has $75 million in assets in a town of less than 3,000: "We didn't get over the Depression here until the '50s, and people still remember what it was like. Over in eastern Arkansas, when farmers have a good year, they buy new cars and take trips to Europe. Here, when a person earns a dollar, he or she puts 50¢ in the bank. Why, even the bank in Green Forest (population 1,609) has assets of $61 million!"

It's true, though, that an outsider moving into the Ozarks may have to make allowances for a different pace of life. For example, a worker hired to repair your house might put down his tools as if taking a coffee break and not return for several days. When he finally shows up to finish the job, he may give no explanation for his absence. If you weren't a stranger, maybe you'd know the bass were biting real good at Beaver Lake.


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