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OPINION | REX NELSON: Moores the merrier

by Rex Nelson | March 26, 2023 at 1:46 a.m.

March 12 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of one of the most influential county sheriffs in Arkansas history, Robert Moore Sr. of Desha County. He had an automobile accident two days earlier south of Pine Bluff as he was returning home from delivering an inmate to Little Rock.

The Moore family remained active in Arkansas government and politics during the next five decades. The sheriff's son, Robert Moore Jr., became speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives and later chairman of the powerful Arkansas Highway Commission. I'm aware of no group that has ever loved southeast Arkansas more than members of the Moore family.

Robert Sr. was born in 1908, the son of state Sen. I.N. Moore. After graduating as valedictorian of Dumas High School, he attended what's now Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. Robert Sr. became the Desha County circuit and chancery clerk in 1945. In 1948, he first ran for sheriff. He took office Jan. 1, 1949, and served until his death.

"Moore's service as sheriff would define his career," Ben Harvey writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "He was elected to 13 consecutive terms, during which time he became involved in law enforcement organizations on the state and national levels. He was president of the Arkansas Sheriffs' Association and the National Sheriffs' Association, and was instrumental in the formation of the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy."

After the sheriff's death, Gov. Dale Bumpers appointed Moore's widow, Dorothy Moore, to finish his term. Known across the Arkansas Delta simply as Miss Dorothy, she was a force of nature. She was born on the DeSoto Plantation north of Arkansas City on Oct. 26, 1910, to Emogene and Arthur Price.

After she died at age 97 in April 2008, Miss Dorothy's obituary noted: "She spent her childhood under the guidance of self-sufficient parents, deeply involved in their farm operation. They instilled the values of honesty, hard work and a belief that achievements were only limited by an unwilling mind.

"The Great Depression and the Great Flood of 1927 brought hard times to the Price family. Dorothy recalled residing in a tent on the levee near Arkansas City, but she also remembered that during this trying period her mother always managed a hot meal for the family. Receiving her high school diploma in a boat on the record floodwaters of the Mississippi River seems only appropriate for a woman whose life was known for an unrelenting dedication to those people and causes that stood for her belief in the goodness of this country and the political process on which it was founded."

Miss Dorothy later recalled in an interview about the Great Flood: "My brother took me out to our house in a motorboat. I could just see the tip of the house."

After studying at Hendrix College in Conway and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Miss Dorothy returned home and took a job in the sheriff's office. It was there that she met Robert Sr., then a deputy. The couple married on Oct. 4, 1938, and moved into what's known as the Dickinson-Moore House with Dorothy's parents. Less than a year later, they had a daughter.

The parents moved out, and the Moores resided in the Dickinson-Moore House for the remainder of their lives.

According to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program: "Constructed in 1915, the house was built upon a tall foundation to protect it from the high water that frequently inundated the area. This practical adaptation makes the Dickinson-Moore House a unique example of Craftsman architecture in Arkansas City.

It's believed that a member of the Dickinson family had the house built. The family patriarch was planter and attorney J.W. Dickinson of whom the Goodspeed history of the area speaks glowingly, saying that 'no name is entitled to a more enviable place in the history of Desha County than the one that heads this sketch.'

"Born in Tennessee, Dickinson moved from Memphis to Arkansas City in 1874. He studied law and was elected to the Arkansas Legislature. The Dickinsons sold the house to Arthur Price and his wife in the mid-1920s. The Prices lived there with their daughter Dorothy."

Miss Dorothy's obituary noted that she was the "backbone" of her husband's political career.

"After service in World War II, Robert returned to his beloved Desha County, where he and Dorothy had their second child," it said. "Robert succeeded his former boss as sheriff in 1949. From that time until his untimely death, Dorothy served as deputy collector in the sheriff's office, devoted Christian wife and mother, and trusted friend and adviser to her husband, whose terms in office earned him respect achieved by few lawmen in our state's history."

Miss Dorothy, a true steel magnolia, later took her Delta strength and charm to the state Capitol.

The obituary noted: "Her deep roots in the Democratic Party were tapped by Gov. Bill Clinton late in his first term to serve as receptionist. A bond was formed with that administration, which found her dealing with friend and foe alike, either from the campaign office or from her position at the reception desk during legislative sessions. Many a heated legislator is said to have cooled off in passing Miss Dorothy's greetings on their way to see the governor.

"After working in the Clinton presidential campaign, Dorothy was honored to be asked to continue her service with Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, with whom her husband had worked on the Criminal Code Revision Commission when Tucker was attorney general. Miss Dorothy's friendships with Arkansas governors continued with Gov. Mike Huckabee. Though frail, she was elated when her longtime friend Mike Beebe was sworn in as governor."

When Robert Jr. first ran for the Arkansas House in 2006, he said: "I consider myself blessed coming from a small town in the Delta. My wife and I really enjoy traveling, but coming back home to the farm is the best part of every trip we take... . I love southeast Arkansas."

I've long been fascinated by this remote corner of the state and a county seat with only 376 residents in the 2020 census. I'm fascinated by the fact that it was a trade and cultural hub before the Great Flood left it isolated. I'm fascinated by its tastefully renovated courthouse and the collection of old photos that cover its inside walls. I'm fascinated by the haunting beauty of abandoned businesses along the levee and the colorful characters who live here.

"It had a natural steamboat port and two railroads, as well as 14 saloons and three sawmills," writes historian Paula Reaves. "Some of the finest cotton in the United States came from this area. An opera house existed in Arkansas City by 1891, and opera companies were hired to come to the city. The building was used as an unofficial town hall; at other times, it became a dance hall, and citizens danced to music from Memphis bands.

"The opera house was also the location for boxing and wrestling exhibitions, including an exhibition by John L. Sullivan on March 8, 1891. Jack Dempsey also held a boxing exhibition there in 1924. These exhibitions were under the auspices of the Arkansas City Sporting Club."

Matt Dellinger began a 2005 story in the Oxford American this way: "It has never been good luck to be the seat of justice of Desha County. Behold today's Arkansas City--beat-up, broken-down, devoid of the trappings every county seat deserves. No four-lane road. No Chinese restaurant. No muffler shop. No Walmart. There is a newly renovated county courthouse (if county courthouses are your thing) and, for the well-guided visitor with a generous imagination, the shabby remnant of great things long gone."

Throughout much of Desha County's history, there have been members of the Moore family here. Robert Jr. may have left the Arkansas Highway Commission at the end of last year, but that just gives him more time to promote southeast Arkansas.

Now in his mid-70s, he shows no signs of slowing down.

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

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