Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Verna Cook Garvan: Time in a Garden

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Verna Cook Garvan: Time in a Garden

Article excerpt

IN 1985, THE DEPARTMENT OF LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, received a gift that would make it one of the most generously endowed programs in the United States. This gift of 200 acres of almost pristine woodland with over four miles of shoreline on Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs, Arkansas, initiated a relationship between the university and the donor, Verna Cook Garvan, that would continue until her death in 1993. Since then, Garvan's fledgling woodland garden has become Arkansas's premier botanical showplace. Drawing about 140,000 visitors yearly, both local and international, Garvan Woodland Gardens has added one more tourist destination to already popular Hot Springs National Park.1

The story of Garvan Woodland Gardens begins with one woman's perseverance despite great personal hardship. Verna Garvan endured many trials both before and while serving as one of only a few women running a major Arkansas company. She kept the details of her life private. Only those who worked closely with her would hear firsthand accounts of her experience. 2

Verna Mary Cook began life in Groveton, Texas, in 1910, the daughter of Essie Bordis Cook and Arthur Bicillius Cook, then manager of the Wis- consin-Arkansas Lumber Company.3 While she was still a young child, the family relocated to Malvern, Arkansas, where A. B. Cook would continue to manage his sawmill and lumber business and later acquire Malvern Brick and Tile Company.4 As his businesses flourished, Cook assumed many positions of distinction, becoming a board member of Malvern's Farmers and Merchants Bank, the Southern Pine Association, and the Malvern School Board.5

Verna Cook would be educated at an elite girls' school in Washington, D.C. At home, she often accompanied her father to various meetings and became interested in business at a young age, being within earshot of many fledgling deals.6 Eventually, Verna became more than a bystander in her father's affairs. She became a partner in his decision-making, a rare position at the time for a woman of her age.

The foundation for Verna Cook's business acumen had been laid, but the impetus for her official entrance into the world of business would come when she was twenty-four years old. About 10:00 P.M. on Saturday, August 11, 1934, a truck loaded with cotton gin equipment struck her father's sedan broadside. He lingered until about 1:00 A.M. the next day, before dying at age fifty.7 On August 14, the Arkansas Gazette reported that the driver of the other vehicle, a trucker from Dyersburg, Tennessee, had been arrested and charged with manslaughter. The man appeared in court the following month.8

Verna, her elder sister Dorothy, and the bereaved widow were suddenly left with businesses to run, but none had been formally educated in finance or management principles. The situation appeared daunting both to them and the local community. Many offered advice to the seemingly hapless women. Rather than the family selling its concerns, though, Verna, after much discussion, volunteered to run the business for her mother and sister. They were, she recalled, appalled at the suggestion, questioning her motives and quickly dismissing her offer. She allowed her proposition to settle. Finally, frustrated with their hesitation, she of- fered once more, explaining that they could trust no one else, and, until they could, she would be the logical choice to take over. This, she argued, would honor her father who had provided so much for them and the community. Finally, her mother and sister reluctantly agreed but promised to revisit their decision when they could think more rationally about the company's future. 9

Verna's father had consolidated his businesses into a corporation called A. B. Cook Company. The Wisconsin-Arkansas Lumber Company manufactured wood flooring, but Malvern Brick and Tile held the most interest for Verna.10 She was particularly proud of the exceptional buff clay pit owned by the company and, years later, still described the brick company with a gleam in her eye. …

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