Mena was founded by Arthur Edward Stilwell during the building of the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad (now the Kansas City Southern), which stretched from Kansas City, Missouri to Port Arthur, Texas. Train service to Mena began in 1896.
Stilwell named the town in honor of Folmina Margaretha Janssen-De Goeijen, the wife of his friend and financier Jan De Goeijen, whom Mr. De Goeijen affectionately called Mena. Janssen Park in the center of Mena is also named for her.
Mena was settled in 1896, and incorporated on September 18, 1896.
In 1897, the Bank of Mena was founded. The following year, the county seat was moved from nearby Dallas, Arkansas to Mena.
Mena's population had grown to 3,423 by 1900.
The town's main industries were timber, agriculture and mineral extraction, though it was advertised as a spa city located within a healthy environment.
Stilwell donated land to the city in 1906, and a park and campground were constructed.
In 1910, the railroad moved its shop facilities from Mena to Heavener, Oklahoma, causing a loss of 800 jobs.
A private school in Mena, Hendrix Academy, closed in 1905.
In 1911, a damaging tornado struck the town.
A black community called Little Africa developed on Board Camp Creek east of Mena. The community was small, with a population of 152 in 1900.
In 1901, a black man there was lynched after an alleged altercation with a white girl. No one was arrested for the crime. Several other instances of racially motivated hate and violence towards Mena's black community had been noted. This, combined with declining job prospects after the railway shops left town, led many blacks to leave Mena. By 1910, just 16 remained.
The Mena Star advertised the town as being "100% white" in its March 18, 1920 edition, and a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was organized in 1922. In 1927, the Mena Commercial Club created advertisements which stated that Mena, in addition to having "pure soft water" and "beautiful scenery", also had "no Negroes".
Like many other communities in America, Mena had become a sundown town. In the 2010 census, 0.2% of Mena's population was black.
During the 1980s, according to rumor, drug smuggler Barry Seal moved his operations to the Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport, where he owned and operated many planes and helicopters, as well as advanced radar equipment.
On April 9, 2009, a large and violent tornado devastated the town, killing three and injuring 30. Many homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed. The Arkansas National Guard was deployed to the affected area. The tornado was rated as a high-end EF3, with winds near 165 mph (266 km/h), and damages estimated at $25 million.
Some of the businesses in the creative economy are working to create a Downtown Arts District in Mena, anchored by the Mena Art Gallery at 607 Mena Street. The gallery is a non-profit organization which exhibits about 12 shows a year ranging from invitational (a well-known artist is invited to display his or her work in the gallery for approximately 30 days) to open shows featuring primarily local artists in a variety of media. There is also an annual Children's Exhibit and a High School Exhibit. Admission is free. The gallery has one part-time director and is staffed primarily by volunteers.
An estimated 1.2 million visitors each year come to Mena to enjoy its nearby natural features, which include the Talimena Scenic Drive, a National Scenic Byway, and the Queen Wilhelmina State Park. The Cossatot River is included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System and runs through the Ouachita National Forest. Lake Ouachita, and the Black Fork Mountain Wilderness, are also nearby.
Mena is home of the Mena Gaming Association charity youth organization, founded in 2003, and has numerous arts and crafts organizations and there are several events held annually in local parks.
Mena is also the home of Rich Mountain Community College, which is known throughout the state for being one of the best colleges in Arkansas. There is also the Mena Regional Medical Center, which is a Level 4 Trauma center, staffed with local doctors and doctors who commute from surrounding cities.
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