Lily Peter (1891–1991)
Lily Peter, state poet laureate, was a distinguished author, successful farmer, teacher, musician, conservationist, and philanthropist. Her biographer, Annie Laura Jaggers, called her “an anachronistic symbol of the pioneering spirit of all Americans and particularly of Arkansas, a state that is a haven for contrasts and extremes.”
Lily Peter was born on June 2, 1891, to William Oliver Peter and Florence Mobrey Peter in Big Cypress Bayou near Marvell (Phillips County). She was the first of ten children, of whom five did not survive childhood. Peter received much of her early education at home before going to public school. Her father, after experiencing varying degrees of success as a farmer, died in an accident in 1907, leaving Peter to take over much of the responsibilities of earning an income and caring for the children and her mother, whose health was fragile. Peter graduated valedictorian at her high school in Ohio, where she lived with relatives, and returned home to teach in small schools nearby.
Though she struggled financially on a teacher’s salary, she managed the farm well and eventually bought a second farm with her brother. After his death, she managed both farms and built a turquoise-colored cotton gin. Peter became a millionaire through persistent care of the two plantations. In the 1970s, she experimented with organic farming and was a leader in conservation and environmental issues.
While teaching and managing the farms, which included thousands of acres of cultivated land, Peter pursued education in literature and music. She studied English at Columbia and Vanderbilt universities, receiving a master’s degree from Vanderbilt and studying violin at Juilliard.
Peter distinguished herself as a philanthropist and a financial supporter of the arts by financing the college education of many students and donating money to build the Lily Peter Auditorium in Helena (Phillips County), which serves the area in cultural entertainment. One act that won her national acclaim was bringing the Philadelphia Orchestra to play at Robinson Auditorium in Little Rock (Pulaski County), on June 3 and 4, 1969, at her own expense. She appeared on ABC News with Peter Jennings and in Look magazine because of her unusual promotion of fine arts in the state.
Having a reverence for words, she wrote throughout her life, producing several published and unpublished manuscripts. Her published works include The Green Linen of Summer, The Great Riding: The Story of De Soto in America, In the Beginning: Myths of the Western World, and The Sea Dream of the Mississippi. These works represent a mixture of introspective, lyrical poetry and historical poetry, mostly about the Arkansas Delta.
Governor Dale Bumpers announced Peter’s appointment as Arkansas’s third poet laureate on October 6, 1971. She remained poet laureate until her death.
Peter never married, choosing to channel her energies into caring for her family and contributing to the causes she held dear: teaching, farming, music, writing, photography, and preserving and appreciating the environment. Her interests and abilities extended even into the medical field; dismayed by doctors’ inability to cure her pernicious anemia, she healed herself by eating peanut butter. Her common-sense approach to treating her disorder caught the attention of the medical school at Vanderbilt, where a taped interview of her unconventional healing became required viewing for incoming medical students.
Peter died on July 26, 1991, in her home. She was buried in Turner Cemetery about twenty miles southwest of Helena. A line from her poem “Note Left on a Doorstep,” from The Green Linen of Summer, depicts her attitude toward death:
Death may have the body
In the room at the head of the stair
But I shall be under a quince tree
With violets in my hair.
Many of Peter’s papers and taped interviews are in the archives at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) in Conway.
For additional information:
Jaggers Papers. University of Central Arkansas Archives and Special Collections, Conway, Arkansas.
Jaggers, Annie Laura M. A Nude Singularity: Lily Peter of Arkansas. Conway: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1993.
Lily Peter Interview. University of Central Arkansas Archives and Special Collections, Conway, Arkansas.
Arkansas State University
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I have fond memories of meeting Miss Lily Peter back in about 1970. While working for Continental Gin Company in Memphis, Tennessee, I drove a truck and delivered some cotton gin machinery to her gin and met her there. I’ve always felt fortunate to have met such a unique and wonderful person.