One of my desk drawers is labeled "Possibilities." It contains about 75 files on topics ranging from abortion to zoos. My hope is to locate enough information over time to warrant writing columns on these topics. But just because a topic is interesting does not mean it has been well documented. Or maybe the documentation exists -- but is not easily accessible. Regardless, many of my possibility files contain scant information.
For years I have been interested in the people who lived in house boats, most residing along the lower reaches of the White River. Perhaps the best known of the boat people was Hugo Preller, a German immigrant who, along with his wife Gayne, not only lived on a house boat but operated a business from the boat, "Preller's Photo and Repair Shop."
Gayne Preller did much of the photography work -- in addition to raising a family of seven children -- while her husband augmented their income by doing repair work. He also hunted and fished, not only to feed the family but to sell on the sizable commercial game market. One journalist recently described how Preller "fixed guns and watches [and] he played and crafted violins." Preller was also an artist, painting local scenes -- sometimes painting on the shiny interior side of local mussel shells.
The Prellers are well documented by the hundreds of photographs and negatives which survive. However, most house boat people did not leave much in the way of documents, correspondence or memoirs. So I have decided that my research on the house boat culture will be a long-term project. Any information on this topic will be gladly received.
Another topic I have been trying to document is recreation. While most Arkansans in our past worked long hours to put food on the table, they did appreciate fun and relaxation. Horse racing had a wide appeal to early settlers, and most antebellum towns of any size had a race track. Baseball caught on quickly in Arkansas after the Civil War, being played in Little Rock by 1867 -- the first team bearing the strange name "Accidentals."
Horse racing and baseball are fairly well documented, but other sports have often been overlooked. For example, the Nevada County Picayune in May 1885 carried the cryptic note that "Croquet playing is considerably indulged in by our young people. It is an enjoyable and healthy pastime." The same editor had just a few months earlier asked "Why doesn't somebody open a skating rink in Prescott? It is both a healthful as well as pleasant exercise and amusement."
My friend and fellow archivist Tim Nutt and I have been trying to document a popular 1950s country music program in Little Rock called "The Barnyard Frolics." The show, which was broadcast live over KLRA Radio, was apparently quite popular judging from the scant available information. Newspaper advertisements indicate the show was managed by Dutch O'Neal.
A surprising number of successful entertainers got their start on the "Frolics," including Jim Ed Brown and his sister Maxine -- who would later join up with younger sister Bonnie to form an incredibly gifted threesome known simply as "the Browns." Jim Ed and Maxine appeared on the "Frolics" wearing matching cowboy shirts made by their mother. Both Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley often appeared on the "Frolics," as did a very young but skilled guitarist named Louie Sheldon.
My file on cemeteries is quite thin, but that does not imply information is not available -- sometimes too much information. I have written a column on the historic Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock, known as the "Westminster Abbey of Arkansas" due to so many prominent people being buried there. But Mount Holly is only the tip of a huge iceberg.
Oakland and Fraternal Cemetery Park, located in eastern Little Rock at the corner of 17th and Barber streets, is actually an assemblage of seven distinct burial grounds containing more than 62,000 graves, the first being dug in 1863 during the Civil War. Fraternal Cemetery is the final resting place of many prominent black Arkansans, including M.W. Gibbs, a political and business leader who served at one time as U.S. consul to Madagascar. The Reformed Jewish cemetery contains the grave of Jacob Trieber, the first Jewish federal judge in America.
Oakland Cemetery in the historic city of Camden, Ouachita County, is one of the many old cemeteries which deserve more recognition. Among the prominent people buried in this historic cemetery are stagecoach magnet John Chidester, Arkansas Supreme Court Judge Henry G. Bunn, and Porter Clay, a beloved Baptist missionary and the brother of famed Kentucky political leader Henry Clay.
I maintain dozens of files on individual Arkansans, people who might not be well known but who deserve historical recognition. One of these is George W. Murphy, a Confederate Army veteran who served two terms as state attorney general. Murphy is one of those rare Arkansas political leaders who rose above racism and partisan politics to become something of a conscience for early 20th century Arkansas. After serving two terms as attorney general as a Democrat, Murphy switched his allegiance to the Progressive Party and was that party's unsuccessful nominee for governor in 1913. In the 1920s Murphy worked with the illustrious black attorney Scipio Africanus Jones of Little Rock in securing the freedom of 12 black men who were unjustly sentenced to death in the aftermath of the Elaine Massacre of 1919. Murphy deserves a full biography.
Junius J. Johnson came to my attention years ago, but I have never had time to really work on this scion of the politically prominent Johnson family, which produced a vice president of the United States and a U.S. senator from Arkansas.
Junius Johnson, who attended the U.S. Military Academy but never graduated for reasons that are unclear, earned a place in American labor history by leading the defense of miners in the famous Cripple Creek, Colo., miners' strike of 1894. When the strikers were attacked by a force of 125 "deputies," Johnson's men blew up the shaft house and steam boiler, forcing the attackers to retreat. Someday I hope to understand Junius Johnson well enough to tell his unlikely story.
Sometimes I get interested in a historical character simply because he is so outrageous or unorthodox. Such a man was George Cook Lyon of Benton. Lyon, an eccentric who drove around town in a Rolls Royce, was convicted in Federal Court in 1983 for issuing degrees from two bogus institutions, Thomas A. Edison College and Sequoia University. Lyon, who claimed to be a minister and a bishop in an unnamed church, would make a great subject for further research.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.firstname.lastname@example.org.
NAN Profiles on 07/08/2018
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