Due to the railroad, Shirley became a bustling town with abundant hardwood being the chief export of the area. A good source of local revenue was available to those who cut hand-hewn cross-ties with a broad ax for the railroad. Area men were provided a livelihood by cutting 3-4 foot long bolts from oak timber. These were shipped by rail to Leslie where staves for barrels were manufactured. Sawmills sawed lumber and shipped by rail.
Shirley’s rich history has been well documented and the preservation efforts continue today with students actively involved in the effort. Shirley High School Service Learning students interviewed elderly residents and published a book with photos and interviews in 2006. Today 8th grade students are working on a heritage project to video record interviews at historic places in the community. Former Shirley School superintendent Glen Hackett was also a local historian and his compilations about the people and history of Shirley are immensely informative.
The Shirley Centennial Museum was established in 2011 during the 100th year of Shirley. A dedicated group of volunteers and history buffs worked to bring together in one location historical publications, newspaper accounts, family histories, books, photos, and records pertinent to Shirley’s past. An old typewriter that was in the railroad depot is on display. Quilts adorn the walls. The museum is staffed by volunteers and is open on Wednesday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Call City Hall for an appointment at other times. (501)723-8290. See a list of publications for sale at the end of this page.
The annual Shirley Homecoming, held the first weekend of June, features a parade on Saturday with floats that depict the early days of the town.
The earliest settlers of the area were Osage and Cherokee Indians who enjoyed the bounty of the river. Arrowheads are still found along the banks of the river today. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas provides interesting information about the history of Van Buren County.
The town of Shirley exists today because of the railroad. Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad eventually extended from Joplin, Missouri to Helena, Arkansas with the Shirley section completed in 1908 and all sections completed by 1909. A bridge had to be constructed over the Little Red River and a sheer bluff precluded the cut from being made at Settlement, an old town just downstream. Thus the town of Shirley was officially established in 1911 where the train bridge crossed the river.
A fascinating photo in the M&NA-Along the Way book shows around 100 men waiting to catch the train at Shirley in 1917 as they were leaving for training at Camp Pike for service in World War I. Local residents recall politicians making whistle stops at the Shirley Depot. Sid Burgess, born in 1889, was the last acting depot agent in Shirley. For twenty years after the demise of the railroad, Sid maintained the old train depot until it was dismantled in 1964.
After bringing forty years of industry and economic opportunity to the area, the Missouri & North Arkansas railroad was closed, ironically, in 1949 due to strikes of the workers.
Today the most visible remnant of the railroad is the bridge which remains a source of pride for the town of Shirley and a popular photo opportunity. In 1978 the bridge was rehabilitated to accommodate one-vehicle traffic. The historic bridge is accessed from the downtown area.
The Green Onion and Moonier Hotel were bustling places in the early days as were several saloons that operated before prohibition. Ed Stevens of Rushing chartered the Bank of Shirley in the first decade of the century. It was located at the corner of Main Street in a nicely appointed building with fine marble slab counters and a large safe. As did many other banks, it bankrupted during the depression. The building still stands as a landmark today. First Service Bank, located just across the river, is the town’s bank today.
Former industries of the town include a furniture manufacturing operation. After it closed, a shiitake mushroom production ran in the same facility until the building burned a few years ago.
Shirley Wholesale was a booming business and “drummers” or salesman sold goods for decades to retail businesses and schools across several counties. The business was originally owned and operated by Homer Brown and Bill Hamm and later by Hugh Brown. Harper’s Service Station was also a fixture downtown for decades.
The longest running retail operation was Privitt’s Store, a hardware and supply store which was run continuously by three generations of the Privitt family until closing just a few years ago. If they didn’t have it, you didn’t need it! Troy Eoff ran a grocery store for many years in downtown Shirley. Today, Carter’s Hardware at Settlement and Flash Mark at the junction provide goods to the area in addition to Craven Foods, a nearby full-service grocery. Many other small businesses are in the Shirley area and are listed on the business page of this website.
One room school houses that have been restored in the Shirley area include Davis Special and Starr Mountain. Many elderly citizens of Shirley got their education in these schools.
The beautiful Cottrell-Wilson trail has its trailhead in downtown Shirley and meanders one mile along the river and up the hill to an old cemetery with both marked and unmarked graves. There some early settlers are buried and one Bulgarian man who died while working on the railroad cut.
Today Shirley remembers and preserves its heritage while forging ahead to make the most of its natural and cultural resources.
Publications for sale at the Museum:
Shirley, Arkansas, An Oral History Early 1900-1980’s, published 2006 by Shirley High School
Service Learning Students - $20.00
M&NA – Along the Way –Station No. 215 a history of the Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad in Shirley, Arkansas. Written by Jimmie Maurice Wakefield and published September 2011 to coincide with the town’s centennial celebration. $5.00
The Shirley Advocate - a reproduction of the October 14, 2021 newspaper. $5.00
A Heritage of Patchwork for Arkansas Quilters - $10.00
Sharing our Best - recipes by Van Buren County Extension Homemakers - $10.00
Shirley Centennial lunchbox tins are available for $3.00