TOM DILLARD: The many nicknames that define Arkansas

Every few years a legislator will introduce a bill to change the nickname of Arkansas. A few years ago a legislator introduced a bill to change the official nickname or promotional slogan from The Natural State back to the one used from 1953 to 1987, Land of Opportunity. While this matter might not seem substantial enough to occupy the Legislature, the question of how Arkansans view themselves has been a constant theme throughout our history.

Before the Civil War, Arkansas was known by a number of nicknames, but the most common was The Bear State. Other commonly used nicknames for the new frontier state were Rackensack and The Toothpick State. As historian C. Fred Williams has written, "The Bear State, although never officially adopted as a nickname by the General Assembly, characterized Arkansas as a sportsman's paradise, with bear hunting the pinnacle of a hunter's experience."

Early visitors to Arkansas often commented on the prevalence of bear hunting, especially German writer Friedrich Gerstacker, whose book Wild Sports in the Far West found an eager audience. Charles Fenton Mercer Noland, who lived in Batesville and later Little Rock, wrote extensively on bear hunting for a popular New York sporting magazine, The Spirit of the Times. But it was another writer, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, whose Arkansas bear-hunting tale became nationally popular.

Thorpe's "Big Bear of Arkansas" story was first published in the Spirit of the Times in 1841, then reprinted many times. Thorpe's story, considered a classic example of Southwestern humor, has been subjected to more analysis than Woody Allen. Scholars believe Thorpe used the Big Bear story to get at the complex relationship between frontiersmen and the environment, between man and nature. Regardless of Thorpe's intentions, the Big Bear story provided much of the impetus to view Arkansas as a backward wilderness.

The Rackensack nickname is not clearly understood. Its exact origin is unknown. Folklorist Vance Randolph believed Rackensack was "a derisive name for Arkansas." The name has been used in a variety of stories and songs, not all derisively. One resident wrote a poem about the name and the state: There's a beautiful land, 'tis a western track/And they call it by name The Rack-in-sack. The name is seldom heard any more; however, the late cartoonist George Fisher played in a local folk group named Rackensack.

The Toothpick State is also derisive. The name referred to Arkansas as the birthplace of the widely known Bowie knife. While Southern frontier areas were often stereotyped as violent, Arkansas' reputation seemed to be justified. For example, political violence was rampant in Arkansas, the most spectacular example being an 1836 knife fight in the state Legislature in which the speaker of the House slew a fellow legislator.

Bill Worthen, the recently retired director of Historic Arkansas Museum and a leading authority on Bowie knives, has noted in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture that "the state's reputation suffered because of its association with violence and the 'toothpick,' and some people called Arkansas the 'toothpick state.'" Herman Melville and Charles Dickens both used Arkansas as a metaphor for a particularly dangerous place.

Given the state's negative national and international image, it is surprising that Arkansas did not adopt a formal promotional nickname until 1923. The General Assembly of that year adopted a resolution recognizing Arkansas as The Wonder State. The wording of the resolution specifically repudiated the Bear State nickname as "a misnomer, and [it] leads to a false impression, while The Wonder State is accurate ..."

In adopting the nickname, the Legislature was following the lead of the Arkansas Advancement Association, a group of leading business and political leaders intent on promoting economic development. Among the leaders of the Advancement Association was former governor Charles H. Brough, who had traveled the nation extolling the incredible natural resources and potential of what he called "the wonder state."

The new nickname did nothing to turn attention away from the reality of Arkansas' poverty, lack of education, massive out-migration, and an economy gripped by agricultural domination. By the outbreak of World War II, Arkansas leaders were eager to attract out-of-state investors. Under the leadership of businessmen such as C. Hamilton Moses of Arkansas Power & Light Co., a Committee of 100 set about to change the national perception of Arkansas. Among the results was a new state nickname, Land of Opportunity. In making the change, the Legislature noted that Wonder State could no longer "command the popular appeal that it once had."

Land of Opportunity was a fitting nickname for Arkansas during the years following World War II when governors Sidney S. McMath and Orval E. Faubus pushed and prodded Arkansas into the modern world. Faubus' economic development director was Winthrop Rockefeller, and during his tenure 600 industrial plants were opened in Arkansas.

By the 1980s Arkansas had diversified its search for economic development, with tourism becoming recognized as a major economic engine. The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism coined the nickname The Natural State, which it used widely. The 1995 General Assembly passed legislation to make The Natural State the official nickname.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com. An earlier version of this column appeared Feb. 6, 2011.

Editorial on 03/25/2018