Recently, I reviewed a list of historic events in Arkansas and was struck by the number of interesting goings-on that occurred in Januaries of yesteryear.
The first day of any year will have historical significance because legislation often takes effect on that date. Jan. 1, 1916, marked the beginning of statewide prohibition in Arkansas.
We tend to look back on prohibition as an archaic topic normally portrayed in popular culture with humorous disregard. But for the legions of people who had worked for generations to outlaw liquor sales, prohibition was the culmination of a crusade waged by a diverse coalition of religious, social and women's organizations.
Jan. 1 often is historic because newly elected public officials take office on that date. For example, Joyce Ferguson, the first woman elected to serve as mayor of a first-class city in Arkansas, became mayor of West Memphis on Jan. 1, 1975.
Many corporations and businesses get under way with the beginning of a new year. The State National Bank of Texarkana began business on Jan. 2, 1896, during a time of economic prosperity in the twin cities straddling the borders of Arkansas and Texas.
Clarendon in Monroe County incorporated its first telephone company on Jan. 4, 1899. This reminds me how quickly new technologies moved across America. By 1900, most Arkansas communities of any size had telephone service, although it might not have been connected to a larger system. Those same communities often had municipal power plants that provided electrical service for everything from home lighting to streetcars.
A look at Januaries of the past reveals how our ancestors had to deal with weather extremes. On Jan. 6, 1879, Van Buren Mayor F.M. Neal walked from Van Buren to Fort Smith, crossing the Arkansas River on solid ice. A few years later in 1884, ice obstructed the Arkansas River at Fort Smith so completely that it was referred to in the press as an "ice blockade." During the same freeze, the steamer Fort Smith was crushed by ice and sank at the Fort Smith wharf.
The river was frozen solid on Jan. 8, 1864, when David O. Dodd, a 17-year-old civilian found guilty by a U.S. Army tribunal of spying for the Confederacy, was hanged before a crowd of thousands near St. John's College in Little Rock. Many from north of the river rode horses or walked across the thick ice since the ferries were ice-bound.
Many milestones in the history of poultry production in Arkansas have occurred in Januaries. On Jan.2, 1925, Hugh Webb of Pea Ridge placed 800 chicks in a small broiler house, becoming one of the pioneers in commercial poultry growing.
The first commercial chick hatchery in Northwest Arkansas was opened by Jeff D. Brown in Springdale on Jan. 17, 1930. Within a decade, the poultry business had grown to the point that it warranted a Northwest Arkansas Live Broiler Show in Springdale, which attracted large crowds.
Many milestones in Arkansas education occurred in Januaries, including the 1855 opening of the Princeton Male and Female Academies in modern Dallas County. Classes began at the Arkansas Industrial University, which later became the University of Arkansas, on Jan. 22, 1872, with seven students in attendance.
What was probably the first attempt at live theater came to Arkansas in January 1839, when Little Rock Theatre opened with performances of "Charles the Second" and "Young Widow." A local newspaper reported that the Theatre opened to a "respectable audience."
However, the same newspaper editorialized, "We are somewhat surprised that so few of our country friends visit the theatre. The nights are now moonlit and pleasant; the performances close at an early hour; and a ride of six or eight miles on a brisk pony would not be unpleasant, particularly if there were a lot of lively girls in the company."
Almost a century later, on Jan. 1, 1937, famous Arkansas-born operatic soprano Mary Lewis made her last public appearance when she sang "The Star Spangled Banner" at the inauguration of Herbert H. Lehman, the Democratic governor of New York.
It was not unusual for newspapers large and small to publish new year's greetings to readers, sometimes exhibiting humor in the process. The Helena Weekly World, one of Arkansas' venerable newspapers, published a list of greetings on Jan. 6, 1897, including one extended to "the unmated ... May they all be able to establish the entente cordiale with some brother or sister in distress, and in mutual counsel and deliberation find a happy issue out of all their afflictions."
For his colleagues in the newspaper business, the Helena editor had a special greeting: "A Happy New Year to the boys of the press, everywhere! May none of their subscribers be able to enjoy life serenely so long as overdue balances are unliquidated."
The Arkansas Gazette refused to acknowledge 1900 as the beginning of a new century, noting that January 1901 was the actual beginning. But the editor offered a happy new year with a caveat: "The Gazette wishes a happy new year to all and hopes that long before the new century begins on Jan. 1, 1901, there will be peace and joy in every country in the world."
The turn of a new year gives us the opportunity to reflect on the past and anticipate the future. In my case, I am happy to report that this is the 904th column I have written (or rewritten in the case of repeated columns) over the past 181/2 years. While this might seem like a lot of Arkansas history, I am constantly amazed by new discoveries or new interpretations of our heritage.
The new year offers many opportunities, and I plan on turning over a lot of rocks to shed a little light on the history of our fascinating Arkansas. Suggestions are always welcome. And happy new year to everyone as we begin the first year of the new decade.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]