I recently had an opportunity to visit Trapnall Hall in Little Rock, a fine 19th-century residence at 423 E. Capitol Ave. that lives on as a public meeting facility. It was constructed by prominent businessman Frederick W. Trapnall in 1843.
Trapnall came to Little Rock from Kentucky in 1836, the year Arkansas became a state. He was born May 23, 1807, at Harrodsburg, Mercer County, Ky., the son of Dr. Phillip and Nancy Trapnall. The family was well regarded, his father being a college-educated physician and farmer who served in the Kentucky legislature.
Before relocating to Arkansas, Trapnall practiced law and served in the Kentucky legislature as a Whig. On the first day of November 1836, Trapnall married Martha Cocke, who turned 16 on her wedding day. The young couple immediately set out for the brand-new state of Arkansas on the western frontier.
Mrs. Trapnall had numerous relatives among the political and economic elite of Arkansas. Her brother was married to the daughter of Arkansas Territorial Gov. John Pope, and her sister was married to Daniel Ringo, the first chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Martha and Frederick probably felt at home in Little Rock since a whole phalanx of Kentuckians held positions in politics, business and the law, among them Robert Crittenden, John Pope, William Conway and James B. Johnson.
Trapnall was by all accounts an excellent attorney. Friend and fellow Whig Albert Pike described Trapnall as "... well read, especially in English history, an excellent lawyer, ready and quick, never taken at a disadvantage, never at a loss, never confused, and always alighting, when he fell, on his feet, like a cat. He was the best, readiest and most efficient Circuit lawyer in the State."
The Trapnalls were active in founding Christ Church, the first Episcopal church in Little Rock, consecrated Nov. 27, 1842.
As Trapnall's law firm thrived, he invested in land, often buying properties being sold for failure to pay taxes. The largest was an 814-acre plantation along the Mississippi River in Chicot County. With its own cotton gin and landing on the river, Trapnall's Grand Lake Plantation was home to 39 slaves, 18 horses and mules, 60 cows, 150 hogs and a yoke of oxen. At the time of purchase, the plantation larder contained 7,000 pounds of pork.
It was only natural that young Trapnall would be attracted to partisan politics. He was often called on to speak on behalf of Whig candidates and was an active member of the Clay Club in Little Rock, a group supporting the presidential ambitions of Whig Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky.
One observer wrote that Trapnall "is distinguished as a lawyer and a gentleman of intelligence. As a politician he is a Whig of the deepest dye, and the most active leader of his party in Arkansas."
In 1844, Trapnall was elected to represent Pulaski County in the state House of Representatives. He supported traditional Whig policies, especially favoring a state bank as well as an active program of what was called internal improvements -- road construction in particular. He left the House after one term, only to serve two terms later.
Trapnall was furious when the state banking system collapsed, and he helped investigate "the forgery, embezzlement and other crimes by which the bank had been defrauded out of large sums of money."
As Trapnall's biographer Jan Calloway has written, "One of the most enduring contributions of Frederic[k] Trapnall is his gracious home." In 1843, Trapnall bought an oversized block of gently sloping land adjoining the original city of Little Rock and began work on a house. Calloway describes it as "built in the classic Greek Revival style that was popular throughout the country in the early 1800s."
The basic plan of the house "is severely symmetrical," Calloway has written, noting that it consisted of five rooms and a 14-foot-wide entry hall that contained a sliding paneled door which converted it into two rooms. All windows and doors were the same height, adding to the grandeur. A front porch was supported by four wooden columns.
Thanks to surviving tax and estate records, we know how the Trapnalls furnished their home, what they had to eat, and how they entertained. Sixteen guests could be seated at banquets held in the grand hall, the table lined with chairs of alternating red and white colors.
The table was set with silver flatware and serving pieces. Menus could be large and diverse. Mrs. Trapnall liked fine foods and kept an account at Jacob Hawkins' store. Prodigious quantities of cheeses, raisins, apples, grapes, and brown sugar were ordered, along with spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla. When the steamboats were running regularly, Mrs. Trapnall often purchased seafood -- mackerel, lobster and oysters.
On July 4, 1853, Frederick W. Trapnall died while in Monticello campaigning for Congress as the Whig nominee. He was 46 years of age. Within a decade, he was joined in death by his widow and surviving child. They are buried in a large plot at Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock.
Following Trapnall's death, the Trapnall home went through a number of owners and ultimately served as headquarters of the Junior League of Little Rock for 30 years. The League restored the home in 1963, and in 1976 it was donated to the state. It is administered by the Department of Arkansas Heritage.
Tom Dillard was the founding director of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock. He lives in retirement near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected] An earlier version of this column was published Jan. 23, 2011.