Rohwer of Desha County is a historic community ten miles northeast of McGehee (Desha County). It is perhaps best known as the site of the Rohwer Relocation Center, one of two internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II located in the area.
In September 1904, the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad (later acquired by the Missouri Pacific) completed a rail line over the Arkansas River from Helena (Phillips County). The railroad allowed local timber to be harvested, processed, and shipped out. Several stores opened in Rohwer to support the sawmills and the numerous families farming nearby. Prior to the railroad construction, the community was mostly non-existent. The post office, which was first called the Harding Post Office, was established on March 22, 1907. The U.S. Postal Service later rejected “Harding,” as Arkansas already had a town named Harding. The superintendent of railroad construction through the area was named Rohwer (pronounced Ro-ar), and he suggested the town be named Rohwer. It was incorporated on February 25, 1913, but it never functioned as a municipality.
Rohwer was the site of a Japanese American relocation center, Rohwer Relocation Center, during World War II. The center opened in September 1942 and housed up to 8,420 Japanese Americans before closing in 1945. Only a memorial cemetery and a monument to Japanese American soldiers who died fighting the Germans in France and Italy remain at the site, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Rohwer and all of Desha County were impacted by the creation of the Japanese Relocation Center. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers, many of whom had recently immigrated to the area from the Arkansas “hills,” feared the Japanese. Although they were confined, the Japanese had running water, plumbing, electricity, and a steady source of abundant food—amenities most local residents did not have. Therefore, these residents still reeling from the financial destitution of the Great Depression resented the camp residents.
Rohwer is near the Southeast Research and Extension Center–Rohwer Division, previously called the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station–Rohwer Research Station. The station was established in 1957 with the purchase of 500 acres of prime farmland and the gift of another 134 acres from Baxter Land Company, a prominent business at nearby Kelso (Desha County), where the station is physically located two miles south of Rohwer on Arkansas Highway 1. To broaden its scope, the station later entered into a long-term land lease agreement for an additional 200 acres with U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of the Interior. In 1993, the station merged with the Southeast Research and Extension Center at the University of Arkansas at Monticello (UAM) campus.
Farming practices in southeast Arkansas have benefited from research at the station; these include developing specific information to aid farm management decisions based on variety selection, soil type, fertilizer application, irrigation timing, and seeding and pesticide rates. Many publications distributed by the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service and used by farmers were developed in part by research at this facility. The station has also provided employment in the area.
When the railroad through Rohwer ceased operation in 1969, only a few people still lived in the area. The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism is converting the old roadbed into the rails-to-trails Delta Heritage Trail from Helena-West Helena (Phillips County), through the rustic White River National Wildlife Refuge, over the Arkansas River and through Kelso. It is hoped that a tourist trade can develop along the route.
Currently, the only business operating at Rohwer is the post office. Desha Central School located at Rohwer was consolidated with the Watson School District in Watson (Desha County) in 1972 and was renamed Delta Special School District. The campus was located at Rohwer until the declining population necessitated another consolidation with McGehee in 2004. Today, people living in the Rohwer community are mostly landowner farmers. Others are retired or working in agriculture-related employment; however, some are educators or employed at the large Potlatch Paper Mill located near Arkansas City (Desha County).
For additional information:
Desha County Historical Society. http://www.deshacountyhistorical.org (accessed June 12, 2017).
Earnest, Larry. “Southeast Research and Extension Center-Rohwer Division, 1958–2008” Brochure produced by the Southeast Research and Extension Center–Rohwer Division.
Pine Bluff, Arkansas