The Magnolia Conference of the Arkansas Historical Association at Southern Arkansas University, 2009
Johnson, Ben, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly
A REMARKABLE NUMBER OF VISITORS TRAVELED TO MAGNOLIA, many for the first time, to attend the sixty-eighth annual conference of the Arkansas Historical Association, hosted by Southern Arkansas University (SAU) on April 23-25. "The Arkansas Environment" was an appropriate theme for a meeting occurring in a region heavily invested in the fortunes of the timber and petrochemical industries and at an institution with a mission to study natural resources. At the same time, those in attendance were reminded throughout the conference that this was the centennial year of the four "Farmers' Schools": Arkansas State University, Arkansas Tech University, Southern Arkansas University, and the University of Arkansas at Monticello.
Sherrel F. Johnson of El Dorado handled arrangements with her incomparable flair and precision. She worked closely with Cammie Hambrice, Executive Director, Magnolia-Columbia County Chamber of Commerce, who coordinated with accomplished skill and enthusiasm all local arrangements, including overseeing a bevy of community leader volunteers and event hosts, mailing information packets to all participants before the meeting, and marshaling event underwriters. The community's efforts left all impressed with Magnolia's warm hospitality. Susan Young brought to bear her indispensable experience as chair of the Annual Conference committee to insure continuity with AHA's tradition of superb meetings.
Generous grants from the Arkansas Humanities Council and the Department of Arkansas Heritage underwrote important meeting activities.
All of the meeting sessions and conference meals took place in the spacious and handsome Donald W. Reynolds Campus and Community Center on the SAU campus. The Reynolds Center staff adeptly responded to needs and challenges as they arose.
The large number of registrants anxious to get an early start to the meeting required the shifting of the Thursday evening reception and meal from the open-air Gantt farm to the Magnolia Country Club. Bob Gantt, the Magnolia Advertising & Promotion Commission, Magnolia Unlimited, and the Magnolia-Columbia County Chamber of Commerce sponsored, without cost to attendees, an unbeatable steak dinner grilled by the Milam Construction cooking team from El Dorado. The Milam group won the 2008 World Champion Steak Cook-Off Governor's Cup. Tireless volunteer community leaders provided both food service and information about Magnolia. Mayor Lane Jean welcomed the AHA with assurances that such good food was standard fare in the community, and international fiddle champion Mickey Davis, accompanied by Bobby Bird, played a rich blend of traditional and well-known music. Members of the Milam steak cookers mingled with diners, offering tips on how to prepare an unforgettable steak.
The sun was shining in south Arkansas as early risers were officially welcomed the next morning by Pres. David Rankin of Southern Arkansas University, who surveyed the history of the institution. Rex Nelson, whose public career has given him rare insight into latter-day Arkansas history, moderated the opening session on "Arkansas Forests." Don Bragg of the U.S. Forest Service introduced meeting-goers to G. P. George, who warned in the 1920s that the planting of pine trees on cutover land represented a menace to small farmers. Jami Forrester, completing her graduate work in history at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, revealed how the Three States Lumber Company veered early in the twentieth century from standard practices to transform cutover land into agricultural fields. Although illness sadly prevented John Ragsdale from presenting his overview of the Deltic Timber Corporation, C. Fred Williams of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock ably elucidated the company's history, spanning tree harvesting to planting a west Little Rock residential development.
Streaming out of the session, attendees were seduced by the hot Spudnuts available during a break hosted by Southern Arkansas University- Camden. Dan Milam, instructor of history at SAU-Tech, had little difficulty persuading the wary to try the distinctive doughnuts found only in Magnolia and El Dorado.
A distinguished group of presenters expanded upon critical turning points in the histories of the district agricultural institutions or "Farmers' Schools." Fred Williams made certain that the session ran smoothly. Michael Dougan, with appropriate dramatic effect, explained how Arkansas State endured a catastrophic fire and the hard times of the Great Depression. Thomas DeBlack highlighted the contributions of Arkansas Tech leaders Hugh Critz, John Tucker, and Bob Brown, while also noting the Wonder Boys' football prowess. James Willis traced how internal dissension at Southern Arkansas and a stand-off between Gov. Thomas McRae and the board of trustees preceded the elevation of the school to a junior college. Walter Everett also examined an important transition, in this case the largely unrecorded steps that led to the merger of Arkansas A&M in Monticello with the University of Arkansas system.
As they finished a Louisiana-flavored Cajun repast at the noon luncheon, diners were treated to the first official reports of Laura Miller, AHA president, and Patrick Williams, secretary-treasurer (Association members had elected both to office at the 2008 meeting). Joe Key, chair of the nominating committee, presented a slate of nominees for the board of trustees, and the assembled members elected Josh Williams of Washington and Blake Wintory of Lake Village to three-year terms while choosing to retain Key, Mike Polston, and Tom Wing for second terms. Had he been present, the term-limited William Shea would have been wildly applauded for his service on the board. Emon Mahony, a Nature Conservancy of Arkansas board member, introduced two speakers who outlined the Conservancy's goals and accomplishments in the state. Scott Simon, director of the organization, described how the Conservancy's efforts to promote ecological diversity had preserved many species unique to Arkansas. Charles Thomas of the family-owned Calion Lumber Company explained that his alliance with younger relatives led the firm to grant the Conservancy a conservation easement on a beautiful tract of 3,000 acres along the Ouachita River.
A large contingent gathered after the luncheon at the south end of the university mall, a broad green space that once housed the historic campus of SAU. James Willis, university historian and author of a forthcoming history of the institution, through description and photographs conducted a ghost tour of the vanished buildings. The informed reverie was interrupted when Sunny Wilcox, the SAU Mulerider, galloped across the mall on Molly B. and approached the tour group, which greeted the rider and mount with applause.
Beginning in the early afternoon, conference attendees chose between a tour of the downtown square led by Molly Harsh Burns, a native and local historian, or a bus ride to the 1928 Harvey C. Couch school in Calhoun, a few miles to the south. The downtown commercial district was recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places but has retained its character as viable retail center even as newer shops operate in buildings still identified by many residents with former tenants. Couch, the founder of what became Entergy Corporation, honored his rural hometown by erecting the state-of-the art school building that housed classes until 1951. Todd Smith, of Farmers Bank and Trust in Magnolia, pointed out other Couchrelated landmarks to the bus riders on the way to Calhoun. Entergy underwrote the transportation costs. Once on the school grounds, the group heard from Julie Nicholson, who has led efforts to preserve the building, and alumni who recalled the school's early days.
The tours ended on schedule so that all had time to freshen up for the evening's events. Many walked a block from the Quality Inn, the convention hotel, to the former auto showroom on the first floor of the McAlester Building. Built in 1948, the five-story structure is still the town's tallest building. Joe Woodward, a permanent member of the AHA, owns the building and displayed several of his striking antique automobiles. Walter Hale played piano as attendees mingled and enjoyed refreshments made possible by the sponsorship of Mr. Woodward, the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, and Magnolia Unlimited.
President Miller presided over the annual awards banquet and introduced federal judge William R. Wilson who delivered a short "Brief for the Mule." Proprietor of Rasputin Mule Farm, Judge Wilson left his listeners with few doubts about the centrality of the mule in American history and its basic nobility of character. On that ascendant note, the audience looked forward to the announcement of those receiving awards. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, established by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, garnered the Arkansas Diamond Award to the enthusiastic approval of audience members, a fair number of whom had contributed entries to the authoritative reference. Grif Stockley accepted the J. G. Ragsdale Book Award for his Ruled by Race: Black/White Relations in Arkansas from Slavery to the Present, published by the University of Arkansas Press, by paying tribute to John Ragsdale for his unparalleled efforts on behalf of Arkansas history and the Association. The outstanding work of Cherese Smith at Ozark Junior High School was recognized with the J. H. Atkinson Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Arkansas History. Their notable essays earned Michael R. Deaderick and Justin Gage respectively the Lucille Westbook and Violet B. Gingles prizes. Trey Berry and Shay Hopper shared the inaugural Susannah DeBlack Award for their Arkansas history volumes for young people. Miss DeBlack presented the awards with the assistance of her father. The Arkansas Women's History Institute presented to Kara Ellis the Susie Pryor Award for her essay on the role the American Association of University Women played in the Little Rock crisis. The Summer 2009 issue of the AHQ provides the complete list of those receiving county and local awards.
The morning sky grew overcast on the final day of the conference, but this did not dampen the anticipation of those who gathered for the superb presentations. Mark Christ, community outreach director for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, welcomed the audience to a session on "Changes in the Land." Steven Dunlap, an education officer with the Game and Fish Commission, compared the Arkansas River Valley landscape witnessed by the early European explorer Bénard de La Harpe to the plant and wildlife seen by anyone retracing his route today. Jeannie Whayne, the former AHA secretary-treasurer and Arkansas Historical Quarterly editor, introduced her new research project on the Arkansas delta, which explores the environmental transformation of the region from swamplands to row crops and the corresponding effects on economic development. John Svendsen of Little Rock described some of the numerous lost spa communities that rose with grand hopes adjacent to mineral springs throughout the state and his continued search for more such sites. David Jurney from the U.S. Forest Service marshaled an array of historic photographs of the Ozark National Forest to document the environmental alterations resulting from evolving resource management practices from the Native American era onwards. Audience members continued to discuss the first-rate presentations as they left the hall and enjoyed the pastries and beverages underwritten by the University of Arkansas Press.
Even before Wendy Richter, the state historian, began her duties as moderator and called the final session to order, the auditorium was filled by those eager for the incisive set of papers on the theme "Public Policy and the Environment." J. French Hill of Little Rock had served as an aide to U.S. senator John Tower and provided a behind-the-scenes account of how the conservative Texan surprised many by signing on as sponsor to the momentous Arkansas Wilderness Act of 1984 that was introduced by Senator Dale Bumpers. Craig Colten traveled from Louisiana State University to explain how degradation of Corney Creek, a portion of which flows through Columbia County, provoked protest by sportsmen in the late 1950s that prompted a pioneering federal investigation of interstate water pollution based upon the threat to the natural environment. Senator David Pryor recounted how an onrush of letters from citizens influenced his decision as governor in 1975 to save the "noble Strawberry" River by directing the federal Corps of Engineers to halt plans to erect the Bell Foley dam.
Those attending the Saturday luncheon were fortified for their journeys home by an ample buffet of Italian dishes. Sherrel F. Johnson, chair of local arrangements, introduced the speaker with an affectionate, tonguein- cheek list of his accomplishments. Archie Schaffer, vice-president for external relations at Tyson Foods, related how his company's environmental awareness shapes procedures at the various stages of processing its product. President Laura Miller closed the proceedings by offering a special commendation to her predecessor, Tom DeBlack, for his steady service to the AHA and graciously thanking Southern Arkansas University and the community of Magnolia for the hard work and remarkable generosity that made for a memorable and successful conference. The sky had cleared as convention-goers left for their homes.
The sixty-ninth annual conference will be hosted April 15-17, 2010, by Arkansas State University, Jonesboro. All hail the Red Wolves.
Ben Johnson is dean of the College of Liberal and Performing Arts and associate professor of history at Southern Arkansas University.…
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Publication information: Article title: The Magnolia Conference of the Arkansas Historical Association at Southern Arkansas University, 2009. Contributors: Johnson, Ben - Author. Journal title: The Arkansas Historical Quarterly. Volume: 68. Issue: 3 Publication date: Autumn 2009. Page number: 312+. © Arkansas Historical Association, Department of History, University of Arkansas Autumn 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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