Dogtown: Through a Glass Darkly

The North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce tried to kill it in 1965 with a mock funeral and burial. Others had long tried to deny it or ignore it, but it wouldn’t go away. Some got mad and a few fought over it. Many laughed about it. Legend tried to explain it.

Dogtown, it seems, has always been a part of North Little Rock vis-a-vis Little Rock. Perhaps a couple of generations had to pass to lessen the sting born out of the rivalry between the twin cities. Today, old wounds have mostly healed and people are embracing the historical epithet as a badge of honor or pride, as something even to celebrate.

Its origin, interestingly, has vanished “down the foggy ruins of time” (to borrow from Bob Dylan). What may be clear, sort of, is that dogtown as a derisive nickname for North Little Rock appeared in the press relatively late in history. So far, the earliest known use of it in print – and this could change as research continues – came in an Arkansas Gazette column on September 11, 1960.

The writer credited Little Rock High School students with inventing the insult as a new cheer (Beat Dogtown!) in 1941 when the basketball series between the two cities’ white high schools had reached peak intensity. Mary Munns Williams, the late city clerk and a 1942 graduate of North Little Rock High School, recalled in a 1995 interview that Little Rock High students taunted their northside counterparts in the early 1940s by chanting “dogtown” and calling them “dogs.” She had never found any humor in the word, though she was fond of a dogtown legend older than the one told in the Gazette.

Munns Williams, like others of her generation, knew the story dating back to the early 1900s. According to this version, people in Little Rock (more particularly, saloon patrons) rounded up strays, crossed the Main Street bridge (known then as the free bridge because it had no toll) and dumped them on the north side. Their motive, the story goes, was revenge after North Little Rock separated from Little Rock in 1904.

“The citizens of North Little Rock fed [the dogs that were dumped] and adopted them, and the name ‘dogtown’ was bestowed on North Little Rock,” the late Argenta Drug Company owner John Cook wrote in the 1985 winter edition of the Pulaski County Historical Quarterly. This may well be correct about the motive of dumping dogs in North Little Rock, but the practice may not have predated the nickname itself.

It may be that people started dumping dogs because of the name, not the other way around. The late Walter Metz of Baring Cross wrote of local history and folklore in a series of columns published by The Times of North Little Rock in the 1970s and 1980s. He said that prior to construction of the free bridge in 1897, Little Rock residents dumped dogs on a heavily wooded slope called Dogtown Hill between Main and Orange streets south of Broadway down to Washington Avenue.

How the dog-dumpers got across the river with their strays before construction of the free bridge is problematic. The Junction Bridge, which opened in November 1884, did have some foot traffic, though it was primarily a railroad bridge. During dry spells, the river could be crossed by wading; yet towing a stray would have challenged the most determined dog-dumper.

Why go to so much trouble? Metz didn’t opine on how the name came into being or the motive for abandoning the dogs on Dogtown Hill. He added that some of the canines roamed around in packs and became a menace to livestock and poultry, which could have made an impression on popular memory. Although Metz’s dogtown tale likely contains more folklore than history, he absorbed many stories while growing up in the early 1900s and may have heard one of the earliest explanations for the origin of the derogatory name for the north side.

If, as he said, the construction of Maple Street cut through Dogtown Hill, the legend would go back to the mid-1880s or earlier, since the Sanborn map of 1886 shows Maple street running north from Arkansas Avenue. Argenta, as North Little Rock was known from the time of its platting in 1866, grew economically with the emergence of three major railroad companies and related industries. But lacking a municipal government in the 1870s and 1880s, Argenta developed a wild reputation as a town of drinkers, gamblers and vagrants.

Such “lawlessness” caught the moral wrath of editorial writers in Little Rock. “Each train brings a number of tramps and disreputable characters to the place, who should not be tolerated in any community, but unless some means are taken to police the town they can carry things with a high head and go unpunished,” the Gazette editorialist griped on November 25, 1880. That unflattering view was true up to a point. Many of the new arrivals to Argenta were looking for work.

German, Polish, Irish and Italian immigrants, among others, and African Americans, many of them former slaves, started businesses or found jobs with the railroads, stockyards, cotton seed oil mills, cotton compresses, lumber yards, grain elevators, ice plants and service providers. From this working-class origin, Argenta likely gained the unwanted nickname of Dogtown, perhaps as early as the 1870s.

At the very least, it would have given Little Rock someone or something to look down on. Argenta’s business leaders worried about their town’s reputation, too, and worked to improve it, but they resented whatever Little Rock had to say about it. The Gazette noted in a news brief on September 1, 1885, that Argenta residents had come up with a name of their own for Little Rock – “South Argenta.”

This is the tombstone for Dogtown, which the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce killed and buried in a mock funeral in 1965.

Cary Bradburn

Historian

North Little Rock History Commission