The Columbia County seat, about 2.5 hours from Little Rock is a charming Southern town with a quaint courthouse square. The town proudly displays its heritage with colorful murals on buildings around the square. Numerous shops and restaurants ringing the courthouse await visitors. Also highlighting the square are the stately trees which give the town its name. Founded in 1909, Southern Arkansas University, a liberal arts college that calls Magnolia home, offers a varied calendar of events and tours of its 658-acre Agricultural and Horticultural Farm. At 3,000 acres, Lake Columbia is one of the largest Arkansas Game and Fish Commission impoundments in South Arkansas and is popular with both anglers and outdoor enthusiasts. The Magnolia Blossom Festival and World's Championship Steak Cook-off draws thousands of visitors each May. At nearby McNeil, Logoly State Park is an environmental-education park that is popular with school groups and scout troops. Twelve miles south of town is the tiny community of Emerson which every June hosts the World's Championship Rotary Tiller Race and Purplehull Pea Festival.
Natural resources have played an important role in the region. Cotton was the cash crop in the nineteenth century; timber, oil, and gas in the mid-twentieth century; and later bromine became instrumental.
The first inhabitants of the area were Native Americans. Settlement of the area began after Arkansas achieved statehood in 1836, when small communities were formed. Columbia County was created from portions of Lafayette, Hempstead, Ouachita, and Union counties in 1852. The county seat, Magnolia, was incorporated three years later.
Columbia is the only one of Arkansas’s seventy-five counties not situated on a river so transportation was an issue for the county. For early travelers, the county’s creeks and bayous were too narrow and shallow to support water traffic. The arrival of railroads created a dependable transportation option. It was not until the construction of the St. Louis, Arkansas and Texas Railroad in 1882 that the first cotton was shipped from the county by railcar. Cut off from the planned railroad, leaders in Magnolia resolved to have a spur line built to the city. The branch was completed the next year. The Louisiana and North West Railroad was built between Magnolia and points in Louisiana in 1899.
Magnolia grew steadily after World War II. Cotton remained the chief crop into the early twentieth century, and offshoots from the cotton industry provided the area with its earliest trade and manufacturing base. An important example was the Magnolia Cotton Mill in 1928, the first textile mill in southwest Arkansas.
The discovery of the Magnolia Oil Field ten years later was another monumental turn for the town. This quickly led to the development of an oil and gas exploration industry within the county. While the importance of oil and gas drilling declined steadily, a new natural resources industry arrived in the mid-1960s as chemical companies discovered the high bromine content of brine, an element used in many chemical and manufacturing processes, located thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface. Columbia and Union counties sit on one of the largest brine reserves in the world. Today Albemarle Corporation in Magnolia and Great Lakes Chemical in El Dorado play an international role in the commercialization of bromine. Timber also holds an important role in the area.