Arkansas has been the home to a surprising number of successful and innovative entrepreneurs. Among them was manufacturer Ben Pearson of Pine Bluff, an internationally known pioneering maker of archery equipment.
Pearson was born Nov. 16, 1898, at Paron in Saline County. The family moved about, and although he was a gifted child, he received only a few years of education. What he lacked in schooling, however, was more than compensated for in other natural gifts, including a deep sense of determination.
That drive helped young Pearson land his first job. In later life, Pearson recalled that he long had "a little hankering for electricity." He studied with single-minded resolve, and before long was employed as an electrical appliance repairman and ultimately with the Little Rock Railway and Electric Company.
In 1925 he took a job with Harvey Couch's Arkansas Power & Light Co. The following year Pearson made his first bow, which had a 90-pound pull and was named Old Hickory.
In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, Pearson left AP&L and went into business on his own. He invested savings of $500 and a great deal of sweat on an experiment to grow plants by starting them in "hot beds" heated by electrical cables.
Pearson reasoned that the use of electricity allowed him to start plants much earlier than in conventional solar-heated hot beds. He was also growing dewberries "on a large scale for shipment to Eastern markets."
The Arkansas Democrat ran an article with three pictures on Pearson's revolutionary hothouses. The article portrayed a brash young man whose shock of thick wavy hair would come to symbolize his penchant for taking risks.
With a straight face, the newspaper reporter told of Pearson's strongly held theories on marketing agricultural products. "He thinks he has a plan by which this can be largely overcome, if not entirely so. However, he is not making public any of his plan until he develops it a little further."
Grand marketing plans and resolution were not enough to save Pearson's foray into farming, and he soon found himself selling Caterpillar tractors in Little Rock. He would have an interest in large farm equipment for the remainder of his life.
At night, he made arrows in his garage for himself and for sale.
Pearson developed an interest in archery as a child. A model which he found in a Boy Scout magazine enabled him to make a replica of an English longbow. It was important to be able to make bows and arrows, as they were not readily available for purchase at that time.
In 1926, at the age of 28, Pearson entered the Arkansas State Archery Championship in Little Rock. The results were humbling, but he set about to make better archery equipment and to practice more intensively.
The following year he won the state championship. He competed nationally for the next decade, ranking seventh in the 1938 National Archery Association's Nationals.
In March 1938, Pearson incorporated the Ben Pearson Co., issuing its first catalog the same year. The catalog offered only arrows at first, boastfully describing them as "arrows of distinction."
Though he was able to stay in business, profits were limited by a lack of capital -- not to mention the continuing Great Depression. About 1937, wealthy Oklahoma oilman Carl Haun appeared on the scene, asking to buy some of Pearson's arrows. When Haun left for home at the end of the weekend, he was an investor in Ben Pearson Inc.
With increased capital, the company built a new plant that included several machines either designed or modified by Pearson himself. Production soared to thousands of arrows per day. Income soared too, and by 1939, Pearson was the largest manufacturer of bows and arrows in the nation.
For years, Pearson's tended to be traditional longbows -- the kind he had learned to use with incredible accuracy. A skilled showman, Pearson put together a traveling archery extravaganza that played in arenas throughout the nation and Mexico.
At first Pearson, like hundreds of generations of Native Americans before him, used wood from the native bois d'arc tree (commonly pronounced bo-dark but also known as Osage orange, hedge apple and many more common names) to make his bows. His employees often went home with yellow hands, testifying to the yellow sap of the bois d'arc.
By 1963, average daily production exceeded 3,000 bows and about 3,500 dozen arrows. Prior to 1958, Pearson sold his bows by catalog number. That year the company brought out Bushmaster and Cobra, later joined by Cougar, Javelina and Safari. The Cougar was a popular bow, being in production from 1959 to 1977.
Not surprisingly, Pearson extended his plant after World War II to manufacture the Rust Cotton Picker. John Daniel Rust (1892-1954) invented the first practical cotton picking machine in the late 1930s while living in Texas.
Rust, along with his brother Mack, tried to establish a manufacturing plant in Memphis, but that failed. Finally, in 1949 Rust signed a deal with the Pearson Co. to manufacture the new pickers. By mid-1953 Pearson had manufactured 1,500 pickers -- which tended to sell well in foreign markets. The Allis-Chalmers Co. also manufactured Rust pickers under license.
Pearson sold his company in 1967 to Leisure Group, and the headquarters departed Pine Bluff for Los Angeles. A succession of corporations owned the company until 1996. McPhearson Archery of Alabama bought the company name in 2000, so one can still find Ben Pearson bows for sale. Older Pearson bows show up on Internet auctions regularly.
Pearson was among the charter inductees in the Archery Hall of Fame in 1972. He was also inducted into the National Bowhunters Hall of Fame, the Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame, the Arkansas Bowhunters Hall of Fame and the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
In his later years Pearson invested heavily in saving historic buildings in downtown Pine Bluff and lived in one. He owned a cattle ranch and rental properties and shared his resources with many philanthropies.
Pearson died March 2, 1971, at the age of 72.
Tom Dillard, a historian, was the founding director of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock. He lives in retirement in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected] An earlier version of this column was published April 29, 2007.