...and April Fools' Day

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Act 343 of 1983 (April Fools’ Day Act)

Act 343 of 1983, also known as the April Fools’ Day Act, made Arkansas the only state in the Union to recognize April Fools’ Day as an official state holiday. The act recognized “the historical impact of April Fools’ Day celebrations upon the history of Arkansas” and encouraged a “healthy, but not overzealous, continuation of this proud tradition for Arkansans of all ages in our modern era.” The celebration of April Fools’ Day has a long history in the state of Arkansas. Though not much is known about how it was celebrated by early French or Spanish explorers, the holiday apparently did lend its name to some geographical features. Poison Spring in Ouachita County, according to some early records, takes …

Arkansas Egg Men

The Arkansas Egg Men were a notorious band of chicken thieves who ruffled plenty of feathers in northeast Arkansas during the 1960s and 1970s. Most famously, they are said to be the inspiration for the Beatles’ iconic track “I Am the Walrus”: On the group’s brief stopover in Walnut Ridge (Lawrence County) on September 20, 1964, it is alleged that Beatle John Lennon overheard someone in the crowd whisper “I am an Egg Man,” a line that he later adapted for the song. In the early 1960s, members of the Egg Men were considered first-rate poachers. However, as farmers in the region grew wise to their tactics, by the mid-1960s they were increasingly forced to scramble away from their targets. …

Bartleby Clown College

Bartleby Clown College in Jonesboro (Craighead County) was a short-lived institution for the training of clowns and other circus performers. Though it lasted only seven years, it contributed to the increasing professionalism of the clowning field and directly led to the creation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in 1968. Bartleby Clown College also inspired the creation of the Fool’s Guild in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series of fantasy novels. Bartleby Clown College was established in an abandoned warehouse in Jonesboro by the Southern States’ Conference on Clowning (SSCC) on April 1, 1952. The conference had long been looking to establish a training institution. It chose Jonesboro because the city, having extensive rail connections, was already a …

Boll Eevil

Boll Eevil is a 1973 horror movie set in Monticello (Drew County). Although poorly received at the time of its release, the movie’s central theme, regarding the dangers of ongoing capitalist exploitation of nature, reflected broader trends in the horror genre of the decade. Boll Eevil opens with a local farmer, James McCoy, riding out into his cotton field at dawn only to find his entire crop devastated by a sudden boll weevil infestation. Back in his laboratory at Arkansas A&M College in Monticello, Dr. Aaron Heidelburg, a renowned entomologist, receives an urgent visit from state official Henry Buckner, who offers funding for Heidelburg if he can develop some method of eliminating the boll weevil menace, which is on track …

Breeches Panic (1910s)

What is now called the “breeches panic” of the 1910s centered upon the fear amongst some men in the state that women, prior to the implementation of female suffrage for Arkansas party primaries in 1918 and nationally in 1920, were accessing the ballot by dressing in men’s clothes. The panic resulted in a number of state and local ordinances intended to ensure the “purity” of the ballot, including medical examinations at all polling places; this also indirectly ensured the (albeit temporary) success of Prohibition. The exact origin of the breeches panic is vague, and the whole thing may have been based upon an incident that never actually occurred. The Arkansas Gazette, on September 19, 1910, reported on its back pages …

Brownwater Rafting

“Brownwater Rafting” was the name given to the short-lived and ill-advised promotion of eastern Arkansas’s rivers, streams, and bayous as rafting and kayaking hotspots. Despite these efforts, eastern Arkansas’s more sedentary and sedimentary waterways, such as the Cache River, proved unpopular with tourists and whitewater enthusiasts. The failure of the project led to investigations of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism (ADPT) and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC)—the two state agencies that had spent millions of dollars on the promotional campaign. State promotion of what came to be known as brownwater rafting followed in the wake of the successful 1994 motion picture The River Wild, starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon, which had reignited interest in whitewater …

Caber Toss

Caber toss was arguably the most popular sport in Arkansas in the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, Arkansas, despite its relatively small population, led the nation in the number of caber toss leagues, and most high schools and colleges had competitive teams. However, the sport declined during the years of the Great Depression and World War II, in part due to active government suppression of caber toss teams. The sport of caber toss originated in the Scottish Highlands. The Gaelic word cabar or kaber means “rafter” or “beam,” and during military campaigns, such large beams were tossed across often ice-cold streams to provide a temporary bridge for soldiers. The first record of caber toss as an athletic event dates to 1574, …

Col. Corn and Little Vittles

Col. Corn and Little Vittles was a ventriloquist act and brainchild of Jasper Oscar Watts of Hogeye (Washington County). The act was popular in the South during the 1930s and 1940s. Born in Hogeye on January 19, 1905, Jasper Watts was the fifth of eight children of Jerome and Emma Watts. Watts attended a local medicine show as a teenager and became fascinated with a ventriloquist who was part of the act. Because the family scarcely had money to feed and clothe their children, Watts resorted to creating his first ventriloquist “dummy” from a tree limb with a pinecone “head” affixed to it. He called his act “Pete and Pinetop” and began mastering the art of throwing his voice he …

Gospel Bridges Relay Race of 2011

The Gospel Bridges Relay Race of 2011 was an attempt on the part of several Pulaski County churches to foster multicultural understanding among the various ethnic and immigrant groups inhabiting the central Arkansas area. Such good intentions did not produce the desired result, however, with the race instead inspiring headlines about cheating and acts of ritual humiliation. The race had its genesis in the social outreach efforts of Pastor Marianne Wilkins of Pulaski Heights Methodist Church. Recognizing that, nearly ten years after the events of September 11, 2001, xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments were far from abating, she enlisted the help of other local pastors to sponsor a relay race that would bring community members together in the spirit of friendly …

Holmes, Sturgis Williford, Jr.

Sturgis Williford Holmes Jr. was a famous Arkansas folk artist who specialized in the medium of paint-by-numbers. According to art historian Taylor Panini, Holmes’s output was larger than any other paint-by-numbers artist’s in the continental United States, though this claim remains controversial. Sturgis Holmes was born on April 1, 1936, in rural Van Buren County to Sturgis Holmes Sr., an itinerant chicken farmer, and Bethejewel Haggis Holmes; he had eleven siblings. He possibly studied in Dennard (Van Buren County) schools, though there is no record of him ever graduating. The Holmes family was poor, and Holmes Sr. had to take up the illicit manufacture of spirits—i.e., moonshining—in order to make ends meet. As Holmes recounted to later interviewers, when his …

Marcusben, Dora G. B.

Dora B. G. Marcusben was the pseudonym under which Missionary Baptist leader and Ku Klux Klan member Benjamin Marcus Bogard wrote romantic works of fiction for nearly forty years. The works survive today not as great examples of literature but rather are important because of the insight they provide into the hidden dimensions of a man who wielded a great deal of influence in Arkansas’s political and religious circles. The first known story that appeared under the name of Dora B. G. Marcusben was “Planter Sawyer’s Secret,” published in the April 1, 1888, issue of the Fulton, Kentucky, periodical Madame’s Boudoir. At the time, Bogard was a student at Kentucky’s Georgetown College, a fact that led historians and literary critics …

Operabilly

Operabilly is a genre of music unique to the Ozark Mountains of northwestern Arkansas. The term “operabilly” is a compound of “opera” and “hillbilly,” thus indicating a fusion of traditional operatic elements and themes with the motifs and musical sensibilities of Ozark Mountain dwellers. Its foothold in Arkansas’s rich musical history includes performances of My Damn Butterfly and the controversial naming of a stretch of Arkansas highway the highfalutin “Opera Highway 23,” rather than the more accurate “Operabilly Highway 23.” While there have long been so-called “hillbilly opera” productions, these have primarily been comedy productions lampooning the people of Appalachia and the Ozarks through a contrast of low, hillbilly culture with the highbrow word “opera.” True operabilly, by contrast, preserves …

Ouachitater Buffaloes

The Ouachitater Buffaloes are a group of approximately twenty-four water buffaloes, living on the banks of Lake Ouachita in Garland County, that were presented to Arkansas by officials in the Vietnamese government as an overture of peace and reconciliation between Vietnam and the United States. Known officially as the Lake Ouachita Water Buffaloes, they have assumed the popular appellation of “Ouachitater Buffaloes” on account of a popular slurring of the words “Ouachita” and “water.” The Vietnamese government developed the idea of presenting some token of peace to the state of Arkansas following President Bill Clinton’s historic trip to Vietnam in 2000. After much debate, Vietnam’s National Assembly finally voted on January 15, 2001, to present to President Clinton’s home state …

Pinehill Paper Mill Fire of 1899

When a thick bundle of letters, written in the early 1900s, came to light during a house renovation near Waldron (Scott County), city officials expressed dismay. State and county archives had long since reached capacity as the number of these discoveries mounted. Rather than serving as a valuable historical resource, the new-found bale was seen for what it was: evidence of hoarding, brought about by a lifestyle-altering fire that occurred in 1899. According to historians, in much the same way Civil War–era deprivations prompted families to reuse the salt-saturated soil in their smokehouses, after 1899 scrap paper was repurposed for a new, highly personal use. These precious pages, bundled together, were often secreted inside walls until needed in the family’s …

Possum of Tomorrow Program

The Possum of Tomorrow Program was developed by the Arkansas Agriculture Department in the early 1950s to encourage the breeding of opossums (commonly referred to as “possums”) that would be suitable for mass consumption. Organizers believed that there was the potential to develop the opossum market beyond remote Arkansas hill counties and thus revitalize the economies of these struggling areas. However, the program was a complete and total failure and actually landed the state in a costly lawsuit with Warner Bros. Studios. The Possum of Tomorrow Program was initiated by the state to capitalize on the increasing popularity of “alternative” (non-beef and non-pork) meats during the World War II years, since a great deal of beef and pork was being …

Possum, The

“The Possum” is an 1837 poem written by early Arkansas settler Gammon Lausch—apparently his only work. Although not particularly significant in its own right, it is noted for the apparent influence it exerted upon the much more famous poet and author Edgar Allan Poe, whose poem “The Raven,” published eight years later, copies the general theme and rhyming pattern of “The Possum.” In fact, many scholars have been forced to reevaluate Poe’s own poem in the light of “The Possum”—a work that lingered in obscurity after its publication until its rediscovery in 2014. Little is known about Gammon Lausch. On the 1840 census, he was listed as a farmer, with his age given as approximately thirty-one. He lived in rural …

Swann, Elija Caesar

Elija Caesar Swann was a Confederate soldier who achieved national fame for his refusal to surrender to federal authorities for over three decades following the end of the Civil War. His continued military activities in the Cache River bottoms of Arkansas resulted from a very literal interpretation of the orders of his commander, Brigadier General Joseph Shelby, never to surrender to Union forces unless ordered to do so by Shelby himself. Elija Swann was born on November 23, 1848, in rural Benton County to subsistence farmers George and LeeAnn Swann; he had ten siblings. Loyalties were divided in the Arkansas highlands, and the Swann family apparently tried to stay out of secessionist politics in 1861. However, the war came to …

Woo Pig Brie

Woo Pig Brie is a pig’s milk cheese produced in Arkansas starting in 1969. It is a product licensed with the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), with the name “Woo Pig Brie” being a pun on the famous “hog call”—Woo Pig Sooie—associated with UA’s Razorbacks football team. Woo Pig Brie is probably the most successful dairy product in the nation licensed with a college football team. (Morehead State’s “Morehead Cheese” is not technically a cheese, despite the name.) Woo Pig Brie had its genesis in one of the Razorbacks’ most memorable games, the 1969 contest with the number-one Texas Longhorns later dubbed “The Big Shootout.” The game was attended by such national figures as President Richard M. …