Oil Trough, Arkansas

Bear lard was the most common kind of cooking fat sold and used in New Orleans from its founding until the middle of the 19th century when bears became scarce. A village in northeastern Arkansas bares the name Oil Trough because this is where pioneer French hunters used to render bear lard into cooking oil before sending it down the river in wooden troughs to New Orleans. Oil Trough was located in an area where there was a dense population of black bears. The habitats were ideal for maintaining an unusually large population of bears. Oil Trough sits along the rich bottomlands of the White River. Before lumber companies discovered it, the bottomlands supported huge oaks and hickories that grew to 9 feet in diameter. Most notable were sassafras trees. Normally, this species is a small shrub, but here it grew to 5 feet in diameter. Pawpaw trees produced so much fruit that even the wild hogs got tired of eating them. These bottomlands were not like the dense 2nd growth forests of today. Instead, the grand centuries-old trees were widely spaced with grass, grape vines, and berry bushes growing between the giant trees. Indians often set fire to the woods, and the thermal pruning resulted in an open parkland type of environment where all kinds of animals and plants flourished. Bears fattened up on the acorns, fruits, and grass. The bears also found refuge in the dense bamboo canebrakes that covered many square miles up and down the White River bottomlands. Bears could hide from hunters in these thickets. Bears also found ideal denning sites in the rock shelters and caves of the cliffs alongside the White River.

Location of Oil Trough, Arkansas.

The white cliffs along the White River provide rock shelters and caves for bears to den in. The water was more clear than in the Mississippi River, one of its outlets.

The many square miles of canebrakes alongside the White River also provided cover for bears.

Bears were so abundant near Oil Trough, Arkansas that bear lard from this area was the main source of cooking fat for New Orleans until well into the 19th century.

Pioneers preferred the cooking qualities of bear fat. John Lawson, author of a New Voyage to the Carolinas, the first American natural history book, wrote bear fat was preferred over all other oils when frying fish. One can find videos on youtube of bear hunters frying catfish in bear grease.

References:

Gerstacker, Fredrich

Wild Sports: Rambling and Hunting Trips Through the U.S. of North America

Stackpole Books 2004

Also see the Encyclopedia of Arkansas available online

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