The town of Gentry, intersected by State Highways 12 and 59, is situated along the western border of Benton County. The county itself is located in the extreme northwestern corner of Arkansas and is bounded on the north by Missouri and on the west by Oklahoma. Benton County was established as the state’s thirty-fourth county on September 30, 1836, the same day that Arkansas became a state. The county was renamed in honor of Missouri’s U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton who had led a strong campaign to secure statehood for Arkansas.
The site of Benton County is a plateau of the Ozark Mountains with elevations of the land ranging from 1,400 feet to 1,600 feet. The soils are well suited to diversified agriculture with numerous waterways and springs. Its greatest advantage in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth century was its complete adaptability to horticulture with apples, peaches, pears, plums, grapes and other small fruits grown in abundance in the county. At that time it acquired the title of “Apple Orchard of America.”
From the time of the first settlement of Benton County in the 1830s, the population increased only gradually until 1880. In that year the first railroad through the county, the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad, was completed. National advertisements stating that the region was unexcelled in the United States for growing all kinds of fruit brought an influx of immigrants into the county.
In the 1890s, Arthur E. Stillwell originated the Kansas City-Pittsburg and Gulf Railway starting at Kansas City, Missouri, with the intent of extending it to the Gulf of Mexico. Settlement of the town of Gentry began in 1894 with the arrival of the railroad. It became the residential and financial center for a vast fruit-growing industry. Indeed, for a short time, it was called Orchard but was incorporated as Gentry in 1898. The town was renamed in honor of the president of the railroad. The name of the railroad was changed to Kansas City Southern in April 1, 1900. By 1903, Gentry had a population of 1,000 people.
Gentry was surrounded by fruit farms from the large apple growers to the small berry growers. The industries of the town included shipping, evaporating and canning of fruits, as well as tourism. The railroad gave rise to a brick depot that was considered one of the finest of the Kansas City Southern line. Numerous merchants in Benton County relocated to Gentry, and several banks and hotels were established. An academy with a thirteen-room dormitory was erected by the 1920s. Gentry’s Apple Blossom Festival was one of the largest events in the state in the mid-1920s.
Local lumber yards were created in towns all along the rail lines. The Roush Lumber Company in Gentry was established in 1903 to meet the construction needs fostered by the fruit-growing industry. This lumber yard exists in the same location today and is owned by the Parks family who purchased the business in 1945 from the J. P. Roush estate. Some of the original 1903 sales records still exist.
Much of the land surrounding Gentry, known as Ozark Orchard, was owned and developed by a bank in Kansas City, Missouri. Small tenant and employee’s houses for farm laborers and railroad workers were built in Gentry. These houses usually consisted of three rooms, according to the local history recorded in Happenings in Gentry, 1894 to 1976. Eventually, many of the orchards were divided into tracts and sold to individuals who transformed the lands from orchards to general farming. The railroad hauled cattle, as well as the fruit produce, to market in Kansas City. Gentry remained primarily an agricultural center until the later half of the 1900s.
Gentry had many kinds of businesses in the early part of the 20th Century. Aside from a booming agricultural economy, the community also boasted a canning factory, a bank, three hotels, two furniture stores, two drug stores, one millinery store, one confectionery store, one restaurant, three real estate firms, two meat markets, one produce house, one newspaper, two lumber yards, four evaporating plants and three coopering establishments.
The KCS built a new depot in Gentry in 1926-27. It was known as one of the nicest depots on the railway line. A banquet was held for the grand opening and railway officials arrived on a special train to commemorate the event. Four to six passenger trains a week came through Gentry until passenger service was discontinued in 1964.
In 1937, Arkansas Highway 59 came through the city running north and south. It remains the main highway through the city, linking Gentry with other west Benton County communities.
In 1946, the City Council voted to buy a water tank for $1,650 from the War Assets Corporation in Kentucky. In 1948, the city held a special election to issue bonds to install larger water mains and additional fireplugs. In the 1950s, the city purchased its own water company. At the beginning of the 21st century, Gentry was expanding water lines into rural areas surrounding the community.
Using donations, local businesses built the first auditorium at the intersection of Main and Collins Streets. The building now houses the city’s police department and courtroom.
In the 1960s, when agriculture was no longer the economic base it had once been for the city and the railroad, the KCS depot was torn down.
The next decade saw the beginning of the construction of a Southwestern Electric Power Company power plant. The plant was a coal-fueled electric generating facility. Today American Electric Power’s SWEPCO continues to provide electrical power, and SWEPCO Lake is used for fishing and recreation.
To ease traffic through downtown, a new Arkansas Highway 12 bypass was built on the southern edge of town.
While Gentry’s economy is no longer primarily agricultural, it still has a thriving economic base. In 1983 the McKee Foods Corporation (then known as McKee Baking Company) opened a manufacturing facility in Gentry. The plant was then, and still is, the city’s largest employer. In addition to Little Debbie’s and Sunbelt snacks (made by the McKee Foods Corporation), Gentry is home to a number of diverse businesses ranging from those in the hospitality industry to those providing power for the future!
Gentry is home to the Pioneers, the mascot of the Gentry School District. With an enrollment of over 1200, Gentry Schools are providing a first-class education to our children and youth. Students from many small communities in the area travel to Gentry to attend school.
Gentry continues to grow. The city has grown in area to 2,516 acres at the beginning of 2008. With annexations and population growth, the city’s current population is estimated at 3,140. New businesses are opening in the historic downtown area, as well as along Arkansas Highway 59.
As a community, Gentry celebrates its past, looks forward to its future and believes the best is yet to be!
Gentry Historical Project
An interactive digital time capsule of Gentry, AR that contains pictures, text, questions, and videos. The purpose of this timeline is to document historical information of the city.