Winnfield Rotary Hears History of Dodson from Mickey Simmons

Rotarian Bob Holeman, left, interviewed Mickey Simmons on the history of Dodson

Dodson, the town some may consider just a “speed trap half way between Winnfield and Jonesboro on Highway 167,” actually has quite a history, evidenced at Winnfield Rotary Club’s meeting May 10, 2023. Long-time Rotarian and Dodson native, Mickey Simmons, was interviewed about historical Dodson and its “heyday” by Rotarian Bob Holeman.

Simmons related that Dodson began as a community about 1860, a little before the beginning of the Civil War, when a man named Reeks settled there. The railroad which was run through the area a few years later resulted in growth of the population around the depot to serve those who brought agricultural products to be transported to other markets by train. The name originally planned for the community was Lena, but It was discovered another Lena, Louisiana, already existed. It was then named Dodson, after the last name of the engineer who ran the train. However, Dodson was not formally a municipality until 1901.

In comparison, Winnfield was established as a municipality and the parish seat in 1852. Thus, the old tale that Dodson was considered for the parish seat cannot be true, although there may have been some discussion of moving the parish seat to Dodson when it was thriving and had a population between 2000 and 2500.

Two rather unusual things about Dodson noted by Simmons are that it has no cemetery, and it is home to the only “mountain” in Winn Parish called Doc Cole’s Mountain. located west of the railroad tracks but within the city limits.

What is seen today as one proceeds on Highway 167 through Dodson is not what made up the community of Dodson in earlier days. Most of the businesses, stores, offices, homes and streets which made up Dodson lay east of what is now Hwy 167. At the same time, Gansville was a thriving community, as was Winona. The three spread out so they almost ran into one another. Both Dodson and Gansville hosted a fair and horse races in their heyday. In fact, Gansville was the location of the first Milam & Sons business, and the Milam family then bought property in the Dodson community.

The “town” buildings of Dodson in the earliest days included a medical building, as Dodson had four doctors at one time. Many children, including Mr. Simmons and his brother Harry, were born in the clinic building in Dodson. In addition to a municipal building, there were stores and a café, the home of Dodson State Bank, and an office for the Dodson Times, the local newspaper which printed its last edition in about 1928.

Just south of this area, Mr. Jones and Mr. Milam developed a residential neighborhood, the Jones and Milam addition, where the first brick building in town, the Dodson School, was built. The first principal of Dodson’s school was Charlie Shell, a great uncle of Jan Shell Beville, who always wore a black suit, a black shirt and a black bowtie, and was never seen without a tie. The school remains in that same location today, although the original school building was destroyed in 1939 or 1940 by a gas explosion related to new heaters that had been recently installed in the school. One of Simmons’ childhood friends lived in the neighborhood, and said that, when he and his family heard the explosion, his father said, “the Japs have attacked! Go get my shotgun!”

Mr. Jones, the grandfather of Kenneth Hightower, had a store in town which was thriving even before the advent of the railroad. He moved his store to the area of the railroad depot, and it became even more prosperous. Thus, when he and Mr. Milam developed Jones and Milam addition to the town, he built the huge ramshackle house one can now see from the highway.

The town came into its own when the Louisiana Lumber Company discovered Dodson and its stands of timber and brought its sawmill to town. This is when it peaked in population and industry. Once it had cut all the marketable timber, however, the company left town and moved on to other forested locations. Almost at once, the town died, its population dwindling from 2000 to about 400 at the time Simmons was a boy growing up in Dodson.

Eventually, the businesses in “downtown Dodson” were no more, and the buildings were left uninhabited. A man who was planning to build a house in Winnfield purchased the buildings which made up the downtown and tore them down to salvage the brick during Mr. Simmons’s boyhood. Although he managed to move the salvaged brick to his lot in Winnfield, when he discovered how much the labor to erect the house would cost, he gave up on the scheme and let the brick sit where it was. It seems some of it may still be left here in Winnfield somewhere.

Despite the small number of people still there, Simmons was able to name many who grew up in Dodson and went on to become very successful in the wider world. Two brothers with whom he played as a child became professional athletes. One played pro football with the San Diego team, then the New York Jets, and finally the Detroit Lions. After his football career, he worked for Ford Motor Company in Detroit until retirement. His brother was drafted by and played for the Baltimore Orioles, but hurt his shoulder and left the game. He was later recruited by New York City’s community college system to teach physical education for many years. This friend was inducted into the Grambling Athletic Hall of Fame. There was a Stovall family in Dodson, two of whom played on LSU’s undefeated 1908 football team. The famous Jerry Stovall, who played pro ball for the St. Louis Cardinals and was head football coach at LSU, was a member of this same Dodson family.

Dr. Paul Peters came from Dodson. Another Dodson native went into the U. S. Air Force after completing a degree at Tech, helped design a famous weapon system, and then helped design the first computer made by IBM. A son of Dr. Tolbert who practiced medicine in Dodson for many years followed his father into medicine and became the first board-certified pediatrician in Monroe.

When asked about the “Great Dodson Train Wreck,” Simmons related the following story: “Around about Big Creek where the mill is, there was a train derailment once upon a time. Three boxcars full of cargo, two with Gold Medal flour and one with evaporated milk, overturned and lay in place overnight. A local guy was hired as watchman, and when the company officials showed up the next morning, they found only two cases of milk and one of flour left in the cars.”
The Rotary meeting was adjourned, as customary, with its motto, “Service above Self!”