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Tom Dillard: 'Box of neglect' yields fascinating history, treasures

by Tom Dillard | May 24, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

With all the public libraries and archives closed for the coronavirus pandemic, I have been spending a good deal of time in my home library. My collection of books, periodicals and ephemera about Arkansas, the results of more than a half-century of collecting, offer both reading and research opportunities. A large box of loose papers, accumulated over several years, provided some unexpected historical encounters.

Removing the dusty lid of the box, I found myself trying to read a badly discolored Thermofax copy of an article from the Arkansas Democrat dated Feb. 6, 1919, and titled "Country girl admits she sat on neighbor woman." I don't recall why I had taken the time and expense to copy this clipping, but it does document that journalists have always had a sense of humor, sexist though it might be in this case.

The country girl in question was "Lizzie Crook, a buxom, red-cheeked country lassie of 16, who was charged with assaulting Mrs. Essie Smith, aged 21, a neighbor ..." It was alleged that Lizzie confronted Essie because she had made "slighting remarks ... about Lizzie before a large gathering of neighbors one Sunday afternoon in December, while Lizzie was strolling past in the company of her first real beau."

When put on the witness stand, Lizzie admitted she had "sat upon her less able bodied opponent in an effort to wring out of her victim admissions of guilt." Several witnesses said Essie Smith had "hit first," and the jury promptly found Lizzie innocent. This is not, however, the end of the story.

The unnamed author reported that when the clerk of the court read the verdict, "Lizzie's father sprang to his feet and cried out, 'Thank you, gentlemen,' while a large clan of Crook factionists gathered around to congratulate him."

It turns out that Lizzie and Essie were members of opposing factions in a long-running feud among families living "about 10 miles from Little Rock on the Arch Street pike." The "two clans" were "both largely represented in the court room," but no violence was reported.

Continuing through my box of neglect, I found a copy of a fascinating and lengthy 1883 account by a well-known local writer named Fay Hempstead of how Little Rock had changed in the 20 years since the city fell to Federal troops on Sept. 10, 1863. Hempstead, who would go on to become one of the leading historians of his era, was a keen observer and sometimes held strong opinions.

His piece was written as a letter to the editor, taking up almost a full page of small print. He provides an interesting account of the hurried evacuation of Confederates as it became clear the city would fall: "By 5 o'clock [Sept. 9] the confederates were streaming through the town in retreat, with the federal advance moving in, and from that time until 1 o'clock at night, [on] one of the dustiest days the sun ever show [sic] upon, the streets resounded with the rumble of wheels, the clatter of horses, and the tramp of men, and Little Rock was effectively in federal possession."

Much of Hempstead's remembrance is given over to describing buildings which were constructed since the war. More than one of the antebellum buildings replaced during the period of rapid growth following the war had been painted blue. Even C.G. Scott's brick store was painted blue. An eight-sided frame structure stood at Broadway and Markham, though Hempstead did not identify its use.

Eventually Hempstead's tour reached the location of the state Capitol building on Markham Street at the foot of Center Street. Now known as the Old State House Museum, the stately Greek Revival building had never been well maintained, and Hempstead did not try to restrain his contempt for "this antiquated pile."

Though he acknowledged efforts by the then secretary of state to repair the structure, Hempstead wrote: "Its native ugliness and acquired dilapidation was all the more conspicuous from the entire absence of carefully tended trees or smoothly shaved lawns, well defined walks and seat[ing] in the showy flowers, or a bubbling fountain."

According to Hempstead, even the Civil War cannon nicknamed Lady Baxter for its famous role during the Brooks-Baxter War "now rests grimly on the lawn of the state house ground, clad in a new coat of shiny paint."

Only a few minutes after reading Hempstead's disparaging remarks about what is perhaps the most historic structure in Arkansas, I came across a book of poetry from 1929 titled Representative Poetry of Arkansas, E. A. Townsend, editor. I don't normally collect poetry but made an exception in this case because the book bore the ownership signatures of prominent writers and sisters Diana Sherwood and Bernie Babcock.

I was more than a little surprised to discover that one of the longer poems in the volume was a plea to preserve the Old State House, which was no longer the state Capitol and faced the possibility of either demolition or simple death by neglect.

"Let Vandal Hands Profane Thee Not" was written by Clio Harper, a prominent Little Rock journalist, editor and for a time, part owner of the Arkansas Democrat. "Forbid this sacred spot for gold/Shall be possessed!," Harper wrote in defense of the "Gray relic men of vision wrought."

In continuing to peruse the 19th-century news clippings, I was struck by the editorial practice of mixing brief news accounts with unlabeled advertisements. For example, the same Feb. 10, 1874, news column which told of a stagecoach wreck near Clarksville and a steamboat accident on the lower Arkansas also contained a promotional piece on Professor Gessler's traveling exhibition. For a small fee, patrons could see some of "the greatest curiosities of the age." In addition to witnessing "the child with two heads, four arms and one body," one could watch an armless man "who does with his toes what nimble fingers accomplish for others." The star of the show was touted as Gessler's "wonderful educated hog Romeo."

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

NAN Profiles on 05/24/2020

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