Smackover’s existence is a result of one of the largest and most dramatic oil discoveries in the nation. Its sixty-eight-square-mile oil field led the nation’s oil output in the mid 1920s. Prior to the discovery of oil, economy in the area initially relied upon cotton and a successful timber industry due to the vast forests of southern Arkansas.
Smackover is located about two- and- a- half hours from Little Rock. The area was originally settled by French trappers and hunters in the early 1800s. An uncharted wilderness greeted them along the Ouachita River. An expedition led by William Dunbar mapped the area from Monroe to Hot Springs.
By 1830, settlers holding land grants had migrated to the area. There are several stories of how the town got its colorful name. According to Ernie Deane’s Arkansas Place Names, “Evidence is strong that Smackover can credit the French for its name. This is despite popular legends that tell of oil blowing “smack over the derrick,” or a pioneer settler jumping “smack over” the creek, etc. The source of the name of Smackover Creek, from which the town’s name came, appears to have been the French term’ Chemin Couvert,” meaning covered way. The name Bayou de Chemin Couvert appears in a letter, dated April 5, 1789, written by the commandant of Fort Miro (present-day Monroe, La.) to Gov. Estevan Miro, the French governor of the territory. An 1804 map of the Ouachita River, by an American, shows Deep Creek Chemin Couvert. The “covered way” likely was a trail through the forested wilderness, overhung by limbs of trees. There is also speculation that the name might have originated in the French “sumac couvert,” meaning a covering of sumac.
A farming based economy led by cotton production was prevalent until after the Civil War. Though only one major battle was fought in the area, the war caused extreme difficulties for the town and taxation added to this.
The town would soon experience an economic boost that would completely alter the destiny of the city. In 1922 a well owned by Sidney Umsted, who operated a saw-mill and logging company in town, hit oil and the discovery of one of America’s largest oil reserves was unleashed. Within six months the quiet little town with a population of around 100 grew to a seam-splitting 25,000 and boom-town status. Its uncommon name would quickly attain national acclaim and thousands of drill bits discovered oil with a 95% success rate from 1922 -25.
Smackover was officially incorporated on November 3, 1922. The exact number of people living in town is unknown since the city was a very transit community with people moving in and out on a regular basis. Dangerous work in the oil fields meant jobs were often filled by rowdy inpiduals. Lawlessness was rampant but when it occurred, the sheriff would often hold court on the spot and swift justice always prevailed.
The oil boom of the 1920s was relatively short-lived as millions of barrels of oil were wasted because of over-drilling, spectacular fires and inefficient extraction, storage and transportation methods. By the early 1930s, the Smackover oil field’s production had declined dramatically, and the petroleum industry’s attention turned to new discoveries in Texas and Oklahoma. The 1923 population of 25,000 decreased to 2500.
The town’s economic outlook improved during World War II, when new oil discoveries fueled the area’s four refineries. The war effort created a huge demand for petroleum, and the oil field was the focus of renewed exploration and drilling. Although the Smackover field is still going strong today, it has none of the vigor that was so prevalent in the 1920s.
Today the petroleum industry still plays an important role in the town’s economy with half of its population depending upon the oil industry. The city, which has a population of around 2,000, has experienced numerous improvements through the years, but its main street appears much as it did in the boom days. The area is well known to outdoor enthusiasts for its fishing, hunting, and boating opportunities. The city hosts an annual four day Oil Town Festival in June.
Interesting locals include the late Rhena Salome Miller Meyers, better known as the “Goat Woman,” an ex-Barnum and Bailey circus performer. Meyers’ circus carriage is featured in an exhibit gallery at the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources State Park. The museum, which has won numerous awards for its exhibits and interpretive programs, is located on Ark. 7 two miles south of Smackover and about 10 miles north of El Dorado.