Opinion

Tom Dillard: Life’s work has resulted in a priceless collection of Arkansas books

I began collecting Arkansas books and imprints in 1969 while an undergraduate history major at what is today the University of Central Arkansas. While I do not have a count, I estimate the number at 2,500 titles plus journals and miscellany.

These books have been a double blessing. It was immense fun collecting them,, plus over time I built a good in-house reference library.

The first Arkansas title I collected was a booklet on the USS Arkansas issued when the warship was commissioned in 1912. I kept the paperbound booklet for years before donating it to a library. Most of the heavy collecting occurred when I was in my 20s and 30s, haunting bookstores, flea markets and thrift stores.

I spent many Saturdays during my college years poring over the Arkansas books section at Arkansas Book House, located at that time in Broadmoor Shopping Center on South University Avenue in Little Rock. The proprietor was a crusty old man named Hackett, who sold me Arkansas titles reluctantly. He thought I was too young to be collecting what he called Arkansiana, but warmed a little after my repeated visits and purchases.

I could not afford many of the rare items in Hackett's bookstore. However, he sold me a copy of "Early Days in Arkansas" by William F. Pope, an 1895 volume written by the nephew of Territorial Gov. John Pope. The book should be used with care, but it is a wonderful peek into early Arkansas government.

Gov. Pope was a good leader. If nothing else, he deserves credit for moving his family to Arkansas, the first governor to do so. (Two early appointees to our territorial Supreme Court did not even bother to make a trip to Arkansas.)

I learned of many available books from friends and other collectors. I got to know one of the administrators at a Goodwill store, and he alerted me to Arkansas-related titles in its retail shop.

That allowed me to purchase several nice titles, including the first book-length history of the state, John Hallum's "Biographical and Pictorial History of Arkansas," published in 1887 and containing 581 pages.

This was not a true history in the sense that much of the book consisted of biographical sketches. Still, it included a wealth of information not found in other published works on Arkansas.

Another rare book I found at a Goodwill store was the 1,200-page "A Pictorial History of Arkansas," published in 1890 by Fay Hempstead. At that early stage, I did not know Fay was a man but soon learned that, as well as the fact that he wrote huge books.

Hempstead earned a place in the annals of our state in 1889 when he published the first Arkansas history school textbook. At 236 pages and including many lithographs and maps, "A History of the State of Arkansas for the Use of Schools" was published in handsome embossed boards with marbled edges.

While Hempstead deserves credit for this much-needed school history, he also deserves censure for inaugurating the damnable practice of organizing his book by gubernatorial administration. Generations of Arkansas youngsters were destined to study Arkansas history chronologically by governor, rather than following a more integrated approach. Later Hempstead published two full-scale adult-level histories of the state, one of which contained three volumes averaging 600 pages each.

I have worked diligently to collect books documenting the myriad roles Black Arkansans have played throughout state history. Because little effort had been made to document Black history, research sources were few in the 1960s. One book was especially meaningful: "Shadow and Light," a 1903 autobiography by Mifflin Wistar Gibbs of Little Rock, the first Black municipal judge in American history.

I read the long subtitle of the blue hardbound book, and wondered if it could be true: "A fatherless boy, carpenter and contractor, anti-slavery lecturer, merchant, railroad builder, superintendent of mine, attorney at law, county attorney, municipal judge, register of U.S. lands, U.S. Consul to Madagascar ..."

It turns out that Gibbs did all those things and so much more. I know this because a few years later, I wrote my master's thesis on him. The subtitle left out that he helped build Mother Bethel AME church in Philadelphia, made a small fortune selling hardware in San Francisco during the gold rush, helped found the first Black newspaper west of the Mississippi, served on the Victoria, B.C., city council, and founded a bank in Little Rock.

In recent years, vast amounts have been published by Black Arkansans, easily revealed by a visit to Garbo Hearne's first-rate Hearne Fine Arts bookstore and art gallery in Little Rock, opened in 1988. Her shelves are loaded with titles by Black Arkansans, including numerous memoirs and reminisces as well as novels.

In the days before the Internet, I benefited from having collected a large number of Arkansas reference works such as "Arkansans of the Years," a series of four volumes of biographies published in 1951; "The Territorial Papers of the Arkansas" (1954), four massive volumes covering our years as a "remote and restless" territory; and the two-volume "Handbook of Texas" (1952).

Available online at www.tshaonline.org/handbook, "Handbook of Texas" contains a huge amount of Arkansas history within its 27,467 entries. Years later, as director of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System in Little Rock, I used "Handbook of Texas" as a model in creating the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Today, as I look toward full retirement and downsizing, I have been trying to decide what to do with my Arkansas collection. In the meantime, I have coffee every morning in my library -- with my cat -- and I sometimes regale her with my collecting triumphs, though she pays no more attention than does my wife.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist who tends to his book collection at his home in Glen Rose, near Malvern. Email him at [email protected].

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