Joe David Rice has done it again. The state's former tourism director has come out with a second volume of Arkansas Backstories: Quirks, Characters and Curiosities of the Natural State.
The first volume, released last year by the Central Arkansas Library System's Butler Center Books, covered interesting items that begin with the letters A through L. Rice tackles M through Z in this latest volume.
He says his goal is to produce books that cause readers to say, "I didn't know that."
"Few people, for example, may realize that a world-class yodeler from Zack ran against John F. Kennedy in 1960 for the top spot on the national Democratic ticket, or that an African American born in Little Rock campaigned for the presidency nearly 70 years before Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm made her historic run," Rice writes in the introduction to the latest volume. "Or that bands of bloodthirsty pirates once lurked in the bayous and backwaters of eastern Arkansas, preying on unsuspecting Mississippi River travelers."
That candidate from Zack in Searcy County was Elton Britt, the Yodeling Cowboy. He was James Elton Baker when he was growing up in a music-oriented family with four siblings. When he was 10, his parents bought him a $4.95 guitar from the Montgomery Ward catalog.
"Not only did he become an accomplished guitar player, he was a big fan of Jimmie Rodgers and learned to yodel--and he could yodel for particularly long stretches," Rice writes. "Elton's ability to control his breath had an interesting origin: swimming underwater in the local creeks for minutes at a time as a kid. In 1930, Elton, barely a teenager, went to Los Angeles for a six-week gig with the Beverly Hill Billies, a popular country and western group that played almost daily on radio station KMPC ('the station of the stars'). That trip led to a 42-year run in show business. Told his name wasn't sufficiently hillbilly, James Elton Baker soon became Elton Britt."
RCA signed Britt to a contract in 1937. He stayed with the label until 1956 and eventually earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was inspired when Louisiana voters elected guitar-playing Jimmie Davis as governor. Britt announced in January 1960 in Concord, N.H., that he was running for president. Just 17 days later, Kennedy supporters delivered sworn affidavits to the New Hampshire secretary of state's office. They claimed that Britt had used the signatures of dead men and fictitious voters to get on the ballot. He was kicked off the ballot that same day.
Britt died of a heart attack in 1972. He was 58.
The black candidate for president from Arkansas was George Edwin Taylor, who was born in Little Rock on Aug. 4, 1857. His mother was a free black woman. His father was a slave. When Taylor was an infant, his mother fled to Alton, Ill. Taylor would later become the president of the National Colored Men's Protective Association and the National Negro Democratic League. In July 1904, the new National Negro Liberty Party held its convention in St. Louis. More than 300 delegates representing 37 states attended. Taylor accepted the party's nomination to run for president.
"On Nov. 8, 1904, Republican incumbent Teddy Roosevelt was elected president," Rice writes. "Given the political realities of the time, George Edwin Taylor never had a chance. In fact, due to discriminatory laws, his name never officially appeared on state ballots. Even so, one party loyalist estimated that Taylor had garnered 65,000 votes nationwide."
And what about those pirates?
"As boat traffic increased on the Mississippi River in the late 1790s, bloodthirsty buccaneers frequently attacked crews manning the flatboats and keelboats headed downstream," Rice writes. "The most notorious of the lot was Samuel Mason, a Revolutionary War hero gone bad. He and his band of desperadoes began their crime spree along the lower Ohio River and operated from southern Illinois for several years before vigilantes forced them to seek refuge farther south in the wilder regions of the Mississippi River valley. They continued their evil ways, hiding in the remote backwaters or among the river's islands, before raiding an unsuspecting vessel."
Mason and his fellow pirates rented a house in what's now northeastern Arkansas.
"Neighbors soon became suspicious of the secretive and highly armed group and informed Spanish officials, who arrested Mason and his gang," Rice writes. "Shortly thereafter, a three-day hearing in nearby New Madrid, Mo., ended with the determination that Mason was indeed the nasty pirate. The fact that he had $7,163 in bank notes in his possession--a tidy sum worth about $150,000 today--was a bit out of the ordinary, and so was the discovery of 20 human scalps in his luggage."
Guards took Mason downriver to New Orleans. The Spanish governor ordered that Mason be turned over to American representatives. There are conflicting stories as to what happened next. Some believe that Mason overpowered guards and escaped. Others think that Mason's own men killed him and presented his head to authorities in exchange for a bounty.
Arkansas Backstories is filled with such tales. Rice even has two entries for the letter X--Mr. X and XV Club.
Mr. X was a pseudonym used by the vile Gerald L.K. Smith, the anti-Semitic preacher who began the Great Passion Play and had the Christ of the Ozarks statue built at Eureka Springs.
The XV Club is a group of 15 business leaders from Pulaski County that was formed in 1904 and still meets 15 times a year.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 08/03/2019