Walnut Ridge, located in Lawrence County in northeast Arkansas, is a community with a rich cultural history, much of it tied to various forms of transportation.
The region’s first inhabitants were Native Americans, most likely members of the Osage tribe, who settled in northeast Arkansas and southern Missouri.
Around 1860, the earliest permanent European settlers came to what is now Walnut Ridge. The new residents settled in an area separate from the current town, now referred to as Old Walnut Ridge. Higher in elevation than surrounding areas, settlers believed Old Walnut Ridge was better suited for farming. However, when it was announced in 1873 that the railroad would be laying tracks through the area, the settlement moved closer to the railroad route. Colonel Willis Miles Ponder, a Civil War veteran from Missouri, formally founded the town of Walnut Ridge in 1875. He later served as its first mayor.
Colonel Ponder originally called the town Pawpaw because of the number of pawpaw trees in the original area. When applying for a new post office, Ponder was informed that there was already another town in Arkansas with the name of Pawpaw. Undeterred, the Colonel changed the name to Walnut Ridge, in a nod to the number of walnut trees in the new area.
With the advent of World War II, Walnut Ridge was chosen as the site for an Army Air Forces Flying School. Construction of the airbase began on June 20, 1942. The flying school officially opened on August 15, 1942, and began training its first class of cadets. Over the next two years, pilots were trained to fly BT-13s and over 4,500 students graduated from the school. In 1999, the Wings of Honor World War II Museum was formed to preserve the history of the airfield. Located on the grounds of the Walnut Ridge Airport, the museum traces the history of the school and houses collection of war-related books and videos. The museum also houses an extensive collection of World War II nose art (nose art appeared on or near the “nose” of military aircraft).
In September 1964, four young men from Liverpool landed at the Walnut Ridge airport to be transported to a nearby vacation spot, with a planned return to the plane two days later. The schedule was to be kept secret, but word leaked out, and when the Beatles returned to Walnut Ridge on Sunday, most of the town was waiting. In September 2011, the town of Walnut Ridge dedicated a life-size sculpture of the group in the city’s downtown area. The artwork depicts the group as they appear on the Abbey Road album cover. The Beatles sculpture is called “The British Invasion of the Rock ‘N’ Roll Highway,” in reference to Walnut Ridge’s location along the historic Rock ‘N’ Roll Highway 67. In September 2012, Walnut Ridge hosted the inaugural Beatles at the Ridge Music Festival. The event combined with Iron Mountain Festival, a long-running event the community hosted each October. The Beatles at the Ridge Music Festival pays homage to the area’s musical heritage. In conjunction with the first festival, the community unveiled the Guitar Walk, a 115 foot-long by 40 foot-wide guitar, based on an Epiphone Casino played by John Lennon, honoring the musicians that played along the nearby Rock ‘N’ Roll Highway 67. The guitar features nine plaques dedicated to some of the country’s musical legends, including Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sonny Burgess and Billy Lee Riley. The intro plaque features audio from Gov. Mike Beebe discussing growing up along Rock ‘N’ Roll Highway 67 and the importance music has played in the history of Arkansas.
Walnut Ridge is now home to several new restaurants, shops and attractions, with plans to add more in the near future.