For those of a certain age, “Black Oak Arkansas” conjures up visions of a band, rather than a town. The name was put on the map when local musician “Jim Dandy” Mangrum and a friend formed a rock group that took the moniker of Mangrum’s hometown. Throughout the 1970s, the group was one of the highest-grossing rock groups in the United States. The story is told that during the group’s heyday, Black Oak had difficulty preventing the town name sign from being stolen.
Along with a rock band, the town has ties to another nationally recognized personality. Bestselling author John Grisham attended first grade there, and his 2001 book, “A Painted House,” is set on a farm near Black Oak. In writing his book, Grisham drew on memories of the town and the migrant workers brought in to assist with the harvest.
Black Oak is in Craighead County, about 17 miles east of Jonesboro. It is one of five towns that make up an area known as Buffalo Island. According to legend, floodwaters once stranded a herd of buffalo on an “island” now occupied by Black Oak, Caraway, Leachville, Manila, and Monette. These same floodwaters hampered settlement of the region until tracks for the Jonesboro, Lake City and Eastern Railroad were laid through the area. By 1902, a railroad station was constructed and named Black Oak, a reference to much of the timber being hauled out of the area. After the timber was depleted, cotton became the mainstay that led to the town’s continuing growth and incorporation in 1923.
The town is working on a museum that will celebrate Black Oak Arkansas, John Grisham, and other aspects of local history, including the town’s golden days when logging, railroad and cotton industries were booming. Black Oak is on the Buffalo Island Loop off the Great River Road National Scenic Byway.