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Friday 27 May 2011

Tell me, where do you come from my Cotton Eyed To (wer)?

In 1915, when its population was about 1600, the city of Cotton Plant Arkansas USA was the birthplace of one of the greatest ever Americans, Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

A fine documentary recently shown on the BBC about Sister Rosetta opens with views of the water tower, bearing the proud name "CITY OF COTTON PLANT". It's a fairly ordinary water tower and it never supplied water to the home of this great American artist.

It turns out that the present steel water tower was built with funds from the PWA (Public Works Administration, an agency of Roosevelt's New Deal) in 1935. It replaced an earlier water tower which would have been serving the city at the time Sister Rosetta was born.

At the age of six she was taken by her evangelist mother Katie Bell to Chicago to join Roberts Temple, Church of God in Christ, where she developed her distinctive style of singing and guitar playing. 

At the age of 23 she left the church and went to New York to join the world of show business, signing with Decca Records. For the following 30 years she performed extensively to packed houses in the USA and subsequently Europe, before her death in 1973.

In 2008 the state governor of Pennsylvania declared that henceforth January 11th will be Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in recognition of her remarkable musical legacy.

The present Cotton Plant water tower - beside the town's derelict one room jail - is being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places with local significance under Criterion C as a good example of a 1930s water tower. The Cotton Plant Water Tower is also being nominated to the National Register under Criterion A for its associations with the activities of the PWA in Woodruff County during the 1930s. The Cotton Plant Water Tower is being submitted to the National Register of Historic Places under the multiple-property listing “An Ambition to Be Preferred: New Deal Recovery Efforts and Architecture in Arkansas, 1933-1943.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Company noted in its first map of Cotton Plant that the small, eastern Arkansas city had a four inch main running a short distance along Main Street. This water main served eight one inch hydrants used solely for sprinkling the unpaved street. One water tower, sixty-three feet above ground, held 23,000 gallons of water to help keep the dust to a minimum in this quickly growing town. This first water tower was behind a blacksmith shop north of Main Street and west of Ammon Street in the middle of the block. Though the population, 900 in 1908, reached 1,661 by 1920, the city continued to maintain this simple water system and 23,000 gallon tank. More information from Arkansas Historic Preservation Program

Cotton Plant was first called Richmond and was sparsely settled as early as 1840. William Lynch was the first man to build a store in the area, settling here from Mississippi in 1846. After unsuccessfully seeking application for a post office by the name of Richmond, the town settled on Cotton Plant in 1852. Lynch’s store attracted others and soon the village became the center of economic activity in this relatively isolated part of Woodruff County. It was not until 1887 that the town was formally incorporated.

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