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Memories from the Museum – Frank & Jesse James’ Visit to Tillar

August 15th, 2010 by

Nearly every city has allegedly experienced a brush with a famous person whether he is “good or bad”. Bonnie and Clyde reportedly once visited Monticello. Tillar, a small farming community, also had a visit from legendary outlaws – the notorious James boys.

This event was recorded by Hie C. Birch of Tillar and found in the Drew County Archives. Mr. Birch was born August 24, 1874, on Macon Bayou and died in McGehee on January 10, 1956. At some point before his death he wrote his memories of the James’ visit to Tillar during his youth. This article is a summary of that ignoble visit.

Mr. Birch recalled that his father, W. A. Birch, and the Henry brothers opened a general merchandise store in Tillar near the new railroad lines. (The railroad was the St. Louis Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad, later the Missouri Pacific.) A Mr. Jack O’Neal was the section foreman for the railroad. He and his family lived at the section house about four miles south of Tillar and were some of the store’s best customers.

Mr. Birch also owned 100 acres of land on which he tried to farm and raise cattle. In addition to the regular store goods, the Birches sold milk and butter to the railroad hands and Mrs. O’Neal. Young Hie Birch would often ride to deliver milk, butter and other things to the section house.

On one such trip the lad noticed several horses tied to the trees. The horses wore saddles different from the McClellan (army) or Morgan saddles that people in the area used. Like any young boy, Hie was overcome by curiosity and strode over to look at them more closely.

As he did, one of the men walked toward him with a kindly smile and asked if he liked the horse and saddle. Young Birch nodded and asked about the saddle. The stranger explained that it was known as a Texas Rig and had a pommel to wrap the rope around if you lassoed a steer. (Neither of the other saddles had a pommel.)

Then Mrs. O’Neal called him inside the house to get his money and take another order. When he came outside again, he noticed the man and several other horsemen riding east into the woods in the direction of an old backwoodsman’s place.

Birch learned later that the men had told the old woodsman they were cattle buyers from Texas looking to buy land and relocate to Arkansas. He had allowed them to “bunk” with him while they were looking for land.

One Saturday night soon thereafter, Hie went to the store to get his father to come home and there were still several customers in the store. He recognized the man he’d met at the section house. They talked about the drought in Texas and cows and the stranger bought the boy a peppermint stick.

Then the stranger and the two men with him bought tobacco, cigars, cookies and other “knickknacks” to carry with them.

Later when Mr. O’Neal and his father went into the office to settle the bill, Mr. O’Neal confided that the men were his cousins, Frank and Jesse James and Cole Younger. (The man who had given Hie the candy was Frank James.) Mr. O’Neal further said the entire James gang was waiting in the woods behind the store and they were leaving Arkansas that night.

O’Neal disappeared a few days after the James boys left and the railroad sent a new section foreman. The night before he left he returned to the store and told about the James boys laughing at the backwoodsman they stayed with because he had bragged how he’d handle the famed desperadoes without realizing they were his boarders.

A month later, a U. S. Marshal came to the store asking questions. He was also a Pinkerton agent and he said that storekeeper Birch had been wise to keep quiet lest he be killed by “friends” of the James boys. He said they suspected the gang had either gone to Oklahoma to hide out or gone back to the Springfield, MO, area.

Years later Hie Birch left Arkansas and worked for the Smith Packing Co. in Chicago (1890s-1900s). Shortly after the 1893World’s Fair, he went to a Saturday parade on the south side of Chicago. Who do you think he saw riding in a carriage in the parade? Frank James and Cole Younger!! They had just been paroled from the penitentiary at Stillwater, Minnesota.

Hie Birch wanted to speak to the kindly man from years earlier but hesitated because the crowd was jeering the notorious outlaws.

Mr. Birch later returned to the Tillar area to live out his life. From his own account he seemed to have still regretted not acknowledging the kindly outlaw he’d met years earlier.

Now you have the story of the notorious outlaws’ visit to south Arkansas. Can’t you just visualize this story as a B-western from the 1950s? Who knows where or when history will touch us?

Come see us at the museum!

One Response to “Memories from the Museum – Frank & Jesse James’ Visit to Tillar”

  1. James Boney says:

    A fascinating story that rings true. The James gang was reported to have come through my area (New Edinburg) about the same time. True or not, it’s entertaining reading!

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