Online Exhibits: Limelight: Introduction
Limestone (calcium carbonate) is a sedimentary (layered) rock created from the mineralized skeletons and shells of marine animals. One layer of limestone, known as the Boone formation, was deposited over 300 million years ago when an ocean covered what is now Northwest Arkansas. The Boone formation is extensive and composed of high-quality limestone and chert.
At the turn of the 20th century, local lime companies quarried limestone and burned it in a kiln (a big fire pit) to produce a product known as quicklime. The cooked, powdery substance is unstable and must be kept dry, or it can turn back into limestone. By 1923, the Ozark White Lime Company was able to make hydrated lime (slaked lime) by carefully adding water to quicklime. Hydrated lime is more stable and safe to handle than quicklime.
Quicklime was used in the manufacture of mortar, plaster, and cement. In March 1908 Ozark White Lime took on a number of new workers "since the rush of spring building has caused such a demand for. . .[its] lime which is being shipped to a number of states of the great Mississippi valley." Farmers used both quicklime and hydrated lime as a soil amendment and fertilizer. In the 1930s lime was used to make an insecticide for use on cotton crops.
Lime is an inexpensive product. Its weight and bulk made long-distance transportation by wagon unprofitable. Because railroads offered a cost-effective way to move mountains of lime, generally only those limestone deposits located near rail lines were exploited. Over twenty lime companies are known to have been in operation in Northwest Arkansas in the late 1800s and early 1900s, primarily in Benton and Washington counties. The two largest were the Rogers White Lime Company and the Ozark White Lime Company.
Rogers White Lime—Begun in 1893, fifty men worked the quarry and kiln at Diamond Springs, east of Rogers. Businessman (and later company president) Fleming Fontaine Freeman bought an interest in the company in 1900 and began making improvements, such as purchasing equipment to build shipping barrels in-house. The Diamond Springs plant closed in 1902 when the Cross Hollow plant came on line. Cross Hollow had three kilns and a 1,000-feet-long rail siding along the Monte Ne Railway, allowing it to connect to other shipping points via a Rogers-area railroad line.
The company marketed its Lily White Lime brand as 99.4% pure. A steam engine was installed in 1905 to operate the heavy cables needed to pull rock-filled tram cars up a tramway to the tops of the kilns. In 1908 the company shipped out 75,000 barrels of lime in 600 rail cars, valued at $55,000; that year the entire output for eastern Benton County was 125,000 barrels. A steam-powered lime crusher was added in 1913 and two years later, two kilns were erected east of the White River, possibly because the lime was running out at Cross Hollow. Freeman was replaced as president in 1915 after a series of financial blows. The company was on shaky ground as the parent company of the Monte Ne Railway was about to abandon the line. Rogers White Lime entered bankruptcy in 1918.
Sightseers at the lime quarry, Johnson, about 1908. Marion Mason, photographer. Maudine Sanders Collection (S-97-57-456)
Ozark White Lime—The Crescent White Lime Works was founded by John W. Carter in Johnson around 1891, along a massive limestone bluff flanking Clear Creek. In 1897 Fayetteville investors purchased Carter's operation for $2,500, at a time when the kiln was producing 100 barrels per day. With W.L. Stuckey as president and Frank O. Gulley as vice-president, the company incorporated two years later with a capital stock of $10,000. They changed the name to Ozark White Lime in 1902 and later purchased a second lime plant nearby. By the 1920s the company produced 50,000 barrels annually.
In 1923 the company installed an electric hydrating plant, the first in the state. Ozark White Lime doubled its output, processing 40 tons of lime in a ten-hour period. They sold "Clear Creek" quicklime and "Sunshine" hydrated lime. About 100 men worked at the quarries and kilns throughout the year, more if both plants were operating. Cordwood came from Oklahoma, where Gulley owned timberland; the company switched to cheaper natural gas in the 1930s. The plant made 50,000 barrels a year using shipped-in barrel parts. In 1940 the company had 40-50 workers and sold lime in 12 states. About 50% of its output went to the chemical trade for use in paper mills, city water plants, and oil companies. By the mid 1940s the lime deposits were depleted and the business closed.
Men were needed to quarry the rock, move it to the kilns, cook the lime, crush it, and shovel it into barrels for shipment. Coopers made barrels, blacksmiths shoed horses and made or repaired equipment, and timber cutters provided cordwood for firing kilns and wood for making barrels. Local farmers earned extra money by selling cordwood from newly cleared land or working at the lime plants and quarries during the winter months.
In Johnson, men worked 12-hour shifts, one starting at noon, the other at midnight. Workers earned 15 to 20 cents an hour. Many worked six or seven days a week. Because of their relative isolation and the long working days, the larger lime companies built employee housing and operated company stores. At Cross Hollow, workers could rent a house for $1.25 to $1.50 a month. At the Johnson kilns, there were 20 to 30 two-room houses in "Lime Kiln Hollow." In 1936, J.D. Cordell worked 10-hour days, 55 hours a week for $5.50. Rent was $3.00 a month and a week's worth of groceries cost $3.00.
Rockslides, accidents, and burning lime made for hazardous work. In 1904 Bob Wright fell 35 feet from a scaffold at a Johnson quarry. The fall fractured his arm and leg, cut off his lower lip, and caused internal injuries. The doctor gave him "little hope of recovery." Sometime around 1906, a hole was drilled into the rock face at Ozark White Lime and an explosive charge placed inside. It failed to detonate. The next day the foreman held the drill in the same hole as a 17-year-old pounded on it with a hammer. After a few blows the drill hit the explosive, killing the foreman and seriously injuring the youth.
Quicklime was dangerous. It irritated a worker's skin, sometimes causing burns. Former lime-kiln worker Al Luper once recalled, "It would take the hide right off you." When mixed with water, quicklime creates a violent chemical reaction. Luper recalled seeing patches of lime burning in Clear Creek, on a day the river had overflowed its banks and swept through the lime plant. The creek often played havoc with the kilns. In 1906, 200 barrels of lime were destroyed at the Crystal kiln. The kiln shed nearly caught on fire from the burning lime.
The production of quicklime and hydrated lime in Northwest Arkansas started to taper off in Johnson in the 1930s, although the plant remained in operation during World War II. In 1949 Clark and Charles McClinton leased the defunct quarry and operated a rock-crushing plant, producing gravel for road construction. Zero Mountain, Inc., turned the old lime caverns into cold-storage facilities in 1955, which are still in use today. For a time one of the abandoned caverns was the scene of many parties and fraternity initiations.
At Cross Hollow, Bill Branningham built a new plant in 1952 to process agricultural lime, operating the business into the 1960s. Although Rogers White Lime is long gone, the 1905 concrete powerhouse used to power the tram cars still stands. Today the only company in the state still producing quicklime is the Arkansas Lime Company in Batesville.