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Conrad Elsken by Tom Dillard
tom dillard / 18 February 2022 / 0 Comment

Conrad Elsken: An Immigrant, Entrepreneur, and Leader

Arkansas never received the waves of German immigrants that flocked to such Midwestern states as Ohio and Illinois. Occasionally the state tried to entice Germans to settle in Arkansas. The Reconstruction government created a Bureau of Immigration and State Lands, and in 1874 the state published a German language pamphlet touting Arkansas as a destination, but it drew few immigrants.

German immigration also received a push when the Roman Catholic Bishop of Little Rock, Edward Fitzgerald, made it a priority. In a shrewd strategy, Bishop Fitzgerald teamed up with the newly built Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad in 1877 to jointly attract Catholic German and Swiss immigrants to the Arkansas River Valley. The Railroad had been given large swaths of land as an incentive to build the tracks, and immigration would not only allow the company to sell land, but it also would provide customers in the form of passengers and freight. The Railroad entered into exclusive contracts with German religious orders, which not only offered cheap land to Catholic immigrants, but also guaranteed land and financial support for religious facilities.

Some of these German-speaking immigrants, such as those who settled in the new town of Conway, tended to come in colonies. Others came as individuals or as family groups. A surprisingly large number of these immigrants had settled earlier in the Midwest, especially in Mo. and Ill. One of the more successful German immigrants to Arkansas was Conrad Elsken, one of the German Catholic settlers in the rolling hills of Logan County.

Elsken was born in 1850 to a family of Prussian farmers. The family emigrated to Belleville, Ill. when Conrad was nine. He attended the local schools, learned English, worked on his father’s farm, and eventually got a job clerking in a store. In 1873, after the death of his mother, the family moved to the vicinity of Morrison Bluff in Logan County, Ark. where they farmed. After a short time, Elsken moved to Paris, Ark., where he worked in a store and then became a land agent for the Fort Smith and Little Rock Railroad.

An entrepreneur at heart, Elsken began a transfer business, shipping freight by wagon from Altus to Paris. Before long, he opened a boarding house called the Elsken Hotel in Paris, which kept his wife and daughter Gusta busy. He also established successful stores in Paris and Charleston.

Like many successful businessmen, Elsken was adept at selecting business partners. He joined with other German immigrants in establishing the Yunker, Schneider, and Anhalt Co., which operated stores in Paris, Spielerville, and Shoal Creek. The company advertised, “We sell goods at low prices and buy all farm products that have a market value.”

Elsken was also a builder, including being the successful bidder for the construction of the original Logan County jail in 1886. Built at a price of $3,890, it continued in use as a jail until 1971 and was converted into the Logan County Museum in 1972.

Elsken was alert to new business opportunities, and in 1900 he foresaw the possibilities offered by the telephone. Along with a number of partners, Elsken organized the Citizens Telephone Co., which began with only 28 subscribers. Elsken served as president and general manager of the company, posts he held until the system was sold to Western Telephone Co., in 1928. He was also an organizer of the Bank of Paris, which he served as vice president.

In 1908 Elsken moved from Paris to the community of Subiaco, where he built a home and, as usual, opened a store. He also served as the new town’s first mayor and postmaster. His home survives, as far as I know.

Amazingly, Elsken made time for a busy life outside of business. He was active in public affairs, serving for eight years as treasurer of Logan County. He also worked tirelessly in the good roads movement, and he was particularly proud of his efforts to secure the construction of state highway 22 from Fort Smith to Dardanelle. He also promoted railroad expansion and served as a director of the Fort Smith, Subiaco, and Rock Island Railroad.

A devout Catholic, Elsken became the founding president of the Catholic Union of Arkansas in 1890. Earlier, while living at Morrison Bluff, he was an organizer of the Saints Peter and Paul Church, and the church’s first Mass was said in the Elsken home by Father Stephen Stenger, a priest from nearby Subiaco Abbey. Elsken was the father of 14 children, seven by his first wife, Elizabeth Besselman Elsken who died in 1899, and seven by his much younger second wife, Gretchen Margaret Kramer Elsken, a native of Leistadt, Germany.

Conrad Elsken died at the age of 81 in May 1931. In a front-page story, the Paris Progress told of Elsken’s death and editorialized that, “We believe we can truthfully say that there is not a man in the county who had more friends than Mr. Elsken.” The papers also reported that “all business in Paris was suspended during the funeral,” a fitting tribute to such an entrepreneur as Conrad Elsken.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Malvern in Hot Spring County. Email him at This essay first appeared in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette newspaper.


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