August 1959 was a difficult time for one North Arkansas community. The mine that had long been the focal point of the community of Cushman closed, forcing many men out of work and beginning a decline for the community as it struggled to find new ways of maintaining its economy. The cause for the collapse of one community’s economy was the mining of one almost unheard-of metal: manganese.
Manganese is a hard, brittle metal. It is almost always found combined with other elements. For centuries, it has been used to color glass. Manganese dioxide is often used in producing chemicals in laboratory experiments. Manganese was also found to be useful in coating metals to protect them from corrosion. Modern uses also include its use in batteries and another form of the metal is commonly employed in the circuit boards of various electronics products.
Manganese itself is also used in steel production, specifically for removing impurities such as sulfur and oxygen from steel to make a more durable product. In high concentrations, manganese steel increases the hardness of steel overall. Starting in World War I, manganese steel was used to make helmets for British and American infantry troops. As tanks began being employed by Allied armies, manganese became increasingly important for military use. Tanks, specifically tanks with steel reinforced by manganese compounds, became an essential part of the modern armed forces.
Mining began in the area near Batesville in 1866. In the 1880s, the town of Minersville was established to tap into the manganese deposits in the area. Eventually, the town was renamed Cushman.
During World War I, manganese production surged in Independence County. So much was needed by the United States and the Allied forces that the mine could not keep up with demand. The area was fairly lightly populated at the time, and many able-bodied men had enlisted in the military. Production was considered so crucial for the Allies that President Woodrow Wilson allowed the Italian army to send troops to Cushman to work in the mines to keep production flowing. After the war, however, production dropped as so few nations were producing weapons needing manganese. Production surged once again with World War II.
As the Cold War unfolded in the early 1950s, defense officials worried about the United States being caught off-guard for a prolonged conflict with the Soviet Union or suddenly being cut off from vital materials the nation needed for defense purposes. Though the United States has an incredible wealth of many different minerals and metals, federal officials decided the government needed a stockpile of certain critical materials already at its disposal for military use. A list of critical metals was made and approved by President Harry S. Truman in 1952. Among those strategically important metals was manganese.
The government planned to buy 28 million tons of the metal, and the mining was to be done in the Cushman area in a vein geologists typically referred to as the Batesville Manganese District. Initially, the program was to continue through January 1961. But by 1959, the contract had been largely filled. In August, the contract was cancelled, and the mine shut down. Economics closed off the remainder of mine activities in the area as the cost of foreign imports of the metal undercut Cushman’s production costs.
The closure of the mine was a crushing blow for Cushman. Population steadily dwindled as a result. The mine was one of the last to produce manganese in the United States. According to the US Geological Survey, domestic mining of manganese ended around 1970. Most manganese today is produced in such countries as South Africa, Brazil, China, and Australia.
Though agriculture is still the most commonly identified industry in rural areas, mining still plays an important role in the state’s economy. Arkansas is one of twenty-five states still mining coal. Silica pebble mining is performed on a small scale in Grant County for the production of sand. Quartz crystals are mined in the Hot Springs area, mostly for their impressive appearances rather than any industrial application. Crater of Diamonds State Park in Pike County is the only area in the world where the general public can dig for diamonds. The Arkansas Geological Survey notes that more than three thousand Arkansans are employed in mining, producing hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity each year.