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Few people know Arkansas better or love the state more than Joe David Rice. Born in Paragould and raised in Jonesboro, Rice spent almost three decades as the state's tourism director. He was in the business of selling Arkansas in his post at the state Department of Parks and Tourism. Along the way, he gained a vast knowledge of each of this quirky state's 75 counties.

When Rice retired from state government, he launched a writing career. The fruits of his efforts are evident with the first volume of Arkansas Backstories: Quirks, Characters and Curiosities of the Natural State, which recently was published by Butler Center Books of Little Rock. The first volume covers subjects that begin with the letters A-L.

Rice whets our appetites for the second volume, which will cover topics beginning with the letters M-Z, when he says: "Essays will address such things as America's most notorious con man, Arkansas' near-miss on what would have been a spectacular national park, and an ambitious and talented native of the state who became the country's first African American to run for president. You'll read about an accomplished charlatan and quack who operated not one but two very successful hospitals in central Arkansas during the darkest days of the Great Depression and another character whose biography is subtitled 'Minister of Hate.'" The second volume will be published next year.

As a boy, Rice spent weekends with his family on Lake Norfork, where he gained an appreciation of the state's natural beauty. After receiving a bachelor's degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, he went to the University of Illinois for a master's degree in environmental engineering. His love of Arkansas brought him back as an owner of an outfitting business on the Buffalo River. Rice helped build one of the first mountain biking trails in the state and once owned the second-longest cave in Arkansas.

The first volume starts with the Aesthetic Club and ends with B.B. King's guitar Lucille. In between are subjects ranging from chiggers to Grapette to Klipsch speakers. Rice even throws in kudzu and lightning bugs.

Nine women organized the Aesthetic Club at Little Rock in 1883. Minutes from a meeting in 1895 note: "We are a circle of women who read and study and listen to enlightening papers upon every known subject."

"Every known subject included programs on art, literature, music and history--with time set aside for sharing a period of social enjoyment," Rice writes. "The club's membership, originally set at 15, was increased to 35--but only those women residing east of Main Street were eligible. Well over a century later, there's still some confusion about this interesting stipulation. One theory holds that it kept membership within walking distance, while another says it avoided forcing members to ruin their shoes and clothing by traipsing across an often muddy Main Street."

Meetings were held for several years at the homes of members. The meetings moved to the former Little Rock Arsenal building in MacArthur Park in 1894. The club, with its membership expanded to 100, still meets there.

As far as Lucille, King named the guitar following a fire at Twist in the Arkansas Delta in December 1949. The Cross County juke joint where King was playing was known as Babe Mason's and attracted black sharecroppers from miles around.

"While Lucille Royston chose to enjoy live music, her husband Mike opted to slip into a back room for a little gambling action and probably a drink or two of bootleg liquor," Rice writes. "At some point during the evening, the attractive young woman accepted an offer to accompany another man onto the dance floor, where couples were jitterbugging, snake-hipping and trucking. When he heard about Lucille's socializing, Mike wasn't pleased. He abandoned his gambling buddies, rushed into the dance hall and confronted his wife's dancing partner.

"This was before the days of central heating and air conditioning, at least in rural eastern Arkansas. During the winter months, the place was heated by the steady flames flickering above a barrel of kerosene positioned in the middle of the building. In the ensuing melee, someone knocked over the kerosene. As a carpet of fire spread across the floor, everyone in the wooden structure--including the 24-year-old juke-joint musician--raced for the exits. That musician happened to be a young man from Indianola, Miss., named B.B. King. Breathless and standing outside in the frigid night air, he realized he'd left his $30 Gibson guitar--the sole source of his livelihood--in the burning building."

King ran back in to get the guitar. A wall behind him collapsed, and King suffered burns on his arms and legs. Two people died in the fire. King learned that the fight was over a woman named Lucille and later wrote: "I decided right then and there to christen my instrument Lucille, if only to remind me never to do anything that foolish again."

Rice says he finds Arkansas endlessly fascinating. He writes that few people realize that Federal Express was first based in Arkansas, "only to relocate to Memphis after Little Rock's civic leaders balked when asked to assist with the firm's expansion. Fewer still are aware that Abraham Lincoln apparently resided in the Arkansas Territory for a short time as a young man, chopping wood for a Crittenden County plantation owner.

"Likewise, it's not commonly known that glaciers can be found in the state, that the first assassination of a sitting member of Congress occurred in Monroe County back in 1868 or that Arkansas is far and away the leading producer of goldfish. Although a fair number of readers have heard that Johnny Cash and Paul 'Bear' Bryant are native Arkansans, most probably have no idea that the men were born almost within shouting distance of each other in L.A. (Lower Arkansas)."

With his retirement, Rice can now satisfy his desire to educate Arkansans about events, characters and traditions in the state.

"We've not done nearly enough to recognize its amazing collection of distinctive stories," he says. "That's the primary reason I wanted to write this volume and the next. My goal is to introduce the state's lesser-known aspects, helping readers understand and acknowledge that Arkansas is a unique and fascinating combination of land and people."

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 10/21/2018

Print Headline: Stories of Arkansas

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