by Ryan Nix, Photos by Jamison Mosley
El Dorado is making waves in an otherwise sleepy area of southern Arkansas, and this town — Arkansas’ very own city of gold — may soon live up to its name
Arkansas’ Original Boomtown
El Dorado’s roots often are traced back to the 1830s, when traveler Matthew Rainey’s wagon broke down, stranding him in the wilderness and scattered cotton farms of south Arkansas. Without any better options, Rainey began selling his possessions. He apparently was so amazed by how receptive the locals were to his wares, Rainey decided to literally set up shop, opening the area’s first general store.
The city was officially incorporated in 1843, when Rainey ceded 160 acres of his land to create a centrally-located county seat for Union County, which became the El Dorado we now know. He kept 4 acres to himself for his cabin and store, and the former still stands today as the Newton House Museum. El Dorado’s creation was carefully calculated by Union County officials, noting its central location on the north-south trail between Arkansas and Louisiana and its position on the east-west route from Arkansas Post and Texarkana. Its close proximity to the Ouachita River’s shipping lanes also made the area more appealing as a county seat.
El Dorado remained an isolated farming community until the early 1920s, when the advent of automobile travel spurred oil speculation. In 1921, the first oil well was built on the abundant Smackover oil field. Within three years, nearly 100 oil companies would move into El Dorado, briefly ballooning the city’s population from 4,000 to 30,000 — such heights the city has never seen again.
Of the many crude companies and prospectors that sprang up during the Roaring Twenties, none have had a stronger impact on El Dorado than the Murphy Oil Corporation, whose own roots are intertwined with the city’s, but twist back to Charles Murphy Sr. Murphy founded a banking and lumber business in El Dorado in 1904. When rumblings of a potential oil boom began taking shape, Murphy began purchasing large tracts of land around south Arkansas, attempting to increase his chances of winning royalties if a drilling company discovered black gold on his property.
This paid off when companies in which Murphy had invested began striking oil, starting with his business partners, the Marine Oil Company. Murphy continued this pattern of maneuvering his way into receiving land royalties and owning interest in oil companies until 1941, when he suffered a debilitating stroke and his son, Charles Murphy Jr. took over the family’s businesses.
After several more oil fields were discovered in Louisiana, Murphy Jr. and his siblings decide to pool their collective oil fields and land interests to form the Murphy Corporation in 1950, later incorporating as the Murphy Oil Corp. in 1964.
City of Black Gold
From there, Murphy Oil expanded into Montana, Canada, Venezuela, the Gulf of Mexico and eventually Malaysia. Murphy Oil currently employs more than 1,100 people worldwide, and reported $2.6 billion in revenue last year. Additionally, Murphy Oil has had several companies grow out of it, foremost among them Murphy USA. A familiar sight to many Arkansas motorists, Murphy USA partnered with Walmart, operating retail gas stations and convenience stores located adjacent to Walmart stores. In 2016, Murphy USA began its Murphy Express project, opening their own in-house, independent retail fueling stations.
Murphy USA currently operates more than 1,470 retail fueling stations across the country, nearly 250 of which are Murphy Express stations. Their 6,800 employees serve roughly 1.4 million customers across 26 states every day. It’s $12.524 billion revenue earned it the 257th spot on the Fortune 500 list of largest corporations.
Despite its international success, Murphy Oil and Murphy USA have kept their corporate headquarters in El Dorado, maintaining its close connection with the city. John Moore, Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Murphy USA believes that is unlikely to change. “I don’t think so. My dad graduated from school here in the 1950s, and he said there were rumors that Murphy would leave El Dorado back then,” says Moore, also a lifelong El Dorado resident himself. “There’s always questions, and no public company can say what the future holds, but in the past 25 years I’ve spent with Murphy, I’ve seen firsthand the board of directors’ and shareholders’ commitment to El Dorado; they’ve given so much time and financial support to the city.”
A Promising Future
The most evident of Murphy’s civic contributions is the El Dorado Promise. Established in 2007 at the direction of Claiborne Deming, Chairman of Murphy Oil, who said, “We’re big enough, and our town’s student population is small enough, let’s do something big for the community. Without spending too much, we could have a huge, positive impact.”
The El Dorado Promise is a completely unique scholarship program in Arkansas. The $50 million initiative allows students who have attended and graduated from the El Dorado School District to receive full tuition, equivalent to Arkansas’ most expensive public university, which is currently Arkansas Tech. This means that any student who spends at least four years in the El Dorado school system and graduates would receive a $9,500/semester scholarship, regardless of merit. For El Dorado students, attending college isn’t a distant possibility. It’s a clear, hopeful reality.
“We’re devoid of restrictions. If you graduate from our high school and have been with the district for four years, you get the scholarship no matter what,” says Sylvia Thompson, the El Dorado Promise director. “It’s good for our students. Our kids now know it and understand what is expected for them. When kids can go K-12 knowing they’re going to college, it changes them for the better, and it changes our teachers and schools. We’ve created a real college-going culture.”
Thompson and Moore hope the El Dorado Promise will entice new residents and businesses. As of 2019, the El Dorado Promise has been kept with more than 2,600 students, attending 140 different schools across 31 states. “The Promise is a first-payer universal scholarship, and it stacks with other scholarships a student might earn, then it goes to fees, room and board, whatever they need,” says Thompson. “The Promise invigorated our town. It made people want to be a part of something greater, because they saw what a real public good like this can do. It was a game-changer.”
MAD about El Dorado
Murphy also has its fingers in revitalizing El Dorado’s downtown area, starting in 2017 with the Murphy Arts District (MAD). MAD is a vast renovation effort, meant to preserve El Dorado’s cultural landmarks, transforming them into modern, exciting entertainment venues. The city built a large amphitheater, which sits alongside its new Griffin Restaurant and First Financial Music Hall. “We plan to be a real venue for arts and entertainment,” says Pam Griffin (No relation), President and COO of MAD. “We’ve gotten very far with MAD’s Phase One, and we’re about to kick off Phase Two.”
MAD’s Phase Two will involve building a state-of-the-art Art Gallery in the historic McWilliams building, partnering with Crystal Bridges to bring beautiful artwork to south Arkansas. The Music Hall currently hosts an inflatable, interactive art display, created by Chicago artist Claire Helen Ashley, but Griffin has even loftier aims. “Once we have the McWilliams Art Building online, we could do more. It would be compliant with the American Museum Association’s requirements for humidity, climate and security controls, and thus we’d be able to exhibit precious works of art.”
Phase Two will culminate with the complete renovation of the century-old Rialto Theatre, which will feature traveling shows, Broadway acts and symphony performances. “It’s a really exciting time to be a part of something like this,” says Griffin. “People of all ages from all around are really interested in what we’re doing here, I think it’ll be a great pull for young people to want to move here, too.”
A City of Progress
Despite the Murphy Oil Corporation impacting almost every aspect of civic life, there have been significant other influencers, too. In 2018, El Dorado made history by electing Veronica Smith-Creer, both the first female and first African-American to become the city’s mayor.
Smith-Creer’s election isn’t an upset, though. She has been a fixture in El Dorado’s community life for years. Among the dozen organizations with which she’s served she points to her time as president of the NAACP of Union County, as well as serving on the South Arkansas Community College board of trustees, El Dorado Crimestoppers, the El Dorado Schools PTO and United Way of Union County.
Smith-Creer first dipped her toes into the murky pool of politics in 2006. “I worked for Governor [Mike] Beebe on his first gubernatorial campaign, and that really opened my eyes to the political process. Before then, I kind of assumed voting was something everyone did, which unfortunately isn’t true.” The mayor is right; only 41percent of eligible voters in Arkansas cast a ballot in the 2018 election. “I realized how important it is to get people active and involved,” Smith-Creer says. “I wanted to make sure voters understood the issues that their candidates were running on.”
Her continual work and presence in El Dorado’s public sphere led several peopleto ask her to run for mayor. Smith-Creer finally pulled the trigger in 2017, campaigning for and winning the 2018 election. “I ran because I wanted someone to represent everybody, and give everyone an immediate voice in how their city is run,” she says. “I’m committed to an open-door policy; if somebody in town has an issue and thinks I can help, they’re welcome to drop by. I remind the city council members that we are in positions of service, not positions of power.”
When asked if she experienced any challenges or pushback due to being one of the first black female mayors in Arkansas, Smith-Creer replied “Well, if I said ‘yes,’ it would sound like there’s been a huge amount, and if I said ‘no,’ I don’t think that would be accurate. Whether you voted for me or not, I’m still your mayor,” says Smith-Creer. “Not to be negative about anyone who voted against me, if they preferred another choice. You should vote for who you want. The fact that they got out and voted at all is great, I think.” She continues, “As far as me being the first woman and first person of color to be El Dorado’s mayor, I think that shows a huge cultural shift, one that the majority has embraced.”
The mayor’s biggest concern, however, is El Dorado’s apparently continual drop in population. Her plan to reverse this trend is deceptively simple. Make sure the 2020 census counts everyone. “The 2020 census is right around the corner. That count will determine how much grant money our city will receive, which is vital to our continued growth,” says Smith-Creer. “Our target is making sure that everyone in El Dorado gets counted. We’ve learned that the last census [in 2010] apparently only counted about 67 percent of our citizens, and that’s actually caused our city to miss out on $250 million in state funding.” Seeking to prevent a repeat of the 2010 census results, the city of El Dorado has started a Complete Count Committee, aiming to educate El Doradoans about the census process and importance, hopefully ensuring that every citizen gets counted.
Beyond that, Mayor Smith-Creer does see further challenges for Arkansas’ own city of gold. “From my position, we’re facing and overcoming the challenge of educating our people about what they can do as citizens, that their voices can and should be heard,” she says. “When I decided to run for mayor, I said that I wouldn’t run a campaign. I would launch a movement, and that movement would have to be about everybody working together.”
With a progressive, optimistic mayor like Smith-Creer and such a surprisingly generous and devoted anchor corporation such as Murphy Oil, it’s hard to disagree with her sentiment. El Dorado promises to continue shining, like Arkansas’ diamond in the rough. “We’re living in an age with endless possibilities,” says Smith-Creer. “El Dorado is moving into that bright future, and not regressing.”