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The poet laureate of Freemasonry

by TOM DILLARD | February 11, 2018 at 1:52 a.m.

Fay Hempstead is little known today, but Arkansans of a century ago knew him as a man of letters and a prominent Freemason, lawyer, and raconteur.

During his 86 active years, Hempstead wrote the first Arkansas history textbook, was a long-serving Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Arkansas Freemasons, and could always be counted on to write a poem suitable for any commemorative event. His descriptions of antebellum Little Rock are unusual in their attention to details often overlooked by others--the color of houses, poor drainage, the fact that Main Street was paved with cobblestones.

Born on Nov. 24, 1847, in Little Rock, Fay Hempstead--who had no middle name as far as I could determine--was the son of Samuel H. Hempstead and Elizabeth R. Beall Hempstead. His father was an attorney and Little Rock postmaster.

Since neither Little Rock--nor Arkansas for that matter--had a public school system, Fay was educated at home by tutors. He attended St. Johns' College in Little Rock, a Masonic institution, from 1859 to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. After the war, he studied law at the University of Virginia.

While studying at Charlottesville, he met Gertrude Blair O'Neale. They were married in 1871 after Hempstead returned to Little Rock to practice law, a union which produced seven children.

Hempstead became Registrar in Bankruptcy in Arkansas in 1874, holding the post until 1881 when he became Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Arkansas Freemasons. As Ethel C. Simpson notes in her biography of Hempstead in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, "he spent the rest of his life in service to Freemasonry and was much honored for his work."

In an era when Freemasonry had a huge following nationally and in Arkansas, Hempstead found plenty of opportunities to serve the order. In addition to serving as Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Arkansas for 53 years, he held positions in his local lodge ranging from secretary to local Commandery recorder. In 1908 Hempstead was named poet laureate of Freemasonry; one of his predecessors was the great Robert Burns of Scotland.

Hempstead was 31 when he published his first volume of poetry, Random Arrows (Lippincott, 1878). Three more collections were published over the next 40 years.

Ethel Simpson believes that Hempstead's poetry, "like that of many other late Victorians, has not aged well." He was prone to using archaic language, but he must be given credit for technical achievement, including experimenting with, as Simpson writes, "a great variety of meters and rhyme schemes ..."

While he might have been guilty of using "the imagery and rhetoric of an earlier age in poems about contemporary subjects," he could be venturesome. His long poem "The Wrangler" was composed in quatrains of rhymed tetrameter in which Hempstead tried to reconcile evolution and modern science with a biblical understanding of humanity.

Fay Hempstead earned a place in the annals of our state in 1889 when he published the first Arkansas history textbook. At 236 pages and including many lithographs and maps, A History of the State of Arkansas for the Use of Schools was published in handsome embossed boards with marbled edges.

While Hempstead deserves the credit for this much needed textbook, he also deserves censure for inaugurating the damnable practice of organizing his book by gubernatorial administration. Generations of Arkansas youngsters were destined to study Arkansas history by governor rather than following a more integrated approach. Later Hempstead published two full-scale adult-level histories of the state, one of which contained three volumes averaging 600 pages each.

Among my favorite Fay Hempstead pieces was a 1931 reminiscence of the Little Rock of his youth. I was surprised by the statement that many of the homes and business of antebellum Little Rock were painted or whitewashed blue. The blue color was usually applied as a lime-based whitewash which had "a portion of indigo or bluing with whitewash to give a bluish tint, as a cheap substitute for paint."

It is difficult for me to imagine the legendary Anthony House hotel painted blue, but it was. The large City Hotel was also painted blue despite being made of bricks. Hempstead wrote that even Christ Episcopal Church did not escape the blue whitewash.

Hempstead recalled in his old age that he was "one of a gaping multitude of old men and young boys" who watched the Confederate gunboat CSS Pontchartrain arrive in Little Rock in the summer of 1862, bringing a large cannon to defend the city against federal gunboats. Young Hempstead volunteered to help position the gun atop Hanger Hill overlooking the river.

Later the gun was moved to the north side of the Arkansas River, but it saw no action in September 1863 when Little Rock fell to a large federal army. Hempstead recalled that "on the day of the capture of Little Rock, the Confederates made ineffectual attempts to burst the gun, but failing in that, they plugged up the touch-hole with a nail driven in and abandoned [it] to its fate."

Hempstead recalled that the old cannon lay on the river bank for years, half buried in sand. The ill-fated gun was retrieved and repaired by volunteers loyal to Gov. Elisha Baxter during the Brooks-Baxter War of 1874. The cannon was trained on the Statehouse, where the Brooks forces were securely barricaded. The "war" died after a few weeks when President Grant recognized the incumbent Baxter. Today the cannon, known as Lady Baxter, stands in front of the Old State House Museum.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at

Editorial on 02/11/2018

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