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Arkansas History Commission Celebrating Centennial Year
May 2005

By Kerry Kraus, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

On April 27, 2005, the Arkansas History Commission turned 100 years old. Also known as the State Archives, the commission, which is located in Little Rock, is charged with collecting and preserving source materials that comprise the history of Arkansas.

A Centennial Presentation Ceremony was held in the Old Supreme Court Chamber, followed by a reception in the State Capitol Rotunda at 5 p.m. The ceremony featured special guest speakers discussing the history of the agency along with highlights from the Arkansas History Commission's huge collection. Those attending were able to view the exhibit "A Century of Preservation: The Arkansas History Commission at 100" in the Capitol Rotunda.

Current director John L. Ferguson was honored for his 45 years of service as the State Historian. Among the speakers were:

  • Dr. John L. Ferguson, state historian
  • Richard W. Davies, executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
  • Dr. C. Fred Williams, professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock
  • Dr. Calvin Smith, Presidential Distinguished Professor of the Heritage Studies Ph.D. Program at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro
  • Wensil Clark, a member of the Arkansas Genealogical Society and many other historical societies
  • Doyle Webb, chief of staff for the lieutenant governor and a former Arkansas history commissioner.

Governor Mike Huckabee, Lieutenant Governor Win Rockefeller, Secretary of State Charlie Daniels and other dignitaries were invited to take part in the celebration.

Public may visit state archives
A treat is in store for those who have never visited the archives, located on the second floor of the Multi-Agency Complex building on the State Capitol Mall. The areas open to the public represent a microcosm of both American and Arkansas timelines. The oldest collection owned by the agency includes French Louisiana records that cover the time frame 1680 to 1800.

Early papers on file also include "Matrimonios De Blanco" which loosely translated is "White Marriages." These papers record the early unions that took place at "Poste de Arkansea" from 1791 to 1840. These files, along with U.S. Census, county, church and military records, are mostly accessible on microfilm.

Treasures for the history buff
A couple of Arkansas gems on view in the offices that are sure to thrill the history buff include Edward P. Washbourne's original Arkansas Traveller painting, and the original 1912 Arkansas flag design submission by Willie Kavanaugh Hocker of the Altheimer community. An interesting note pointed out by Archival Manager Russell Baker is that the original flag did not include the state's name. A mock-up of the winning entry to which Arkansas has been added hangs below the original. Another popular exhibit is one of authentic Civil War currency, which is available for viewing by appointment.

Portraits of well-known personages that had an impact on the state, such as Henri de Tonti, plus famous Arkansans like Albert Pike, line the walls. A rotating exhibit of artifacts owned by the Commission can be viewed just outside the office's main entrance.

History of the Arkansas History Commission
Act 215 of 1905, which was enacted on April 27, established the Arkansas History Commission, making it one of the oldest state agencies. When originally formed as a state board, the office was to identify and collect historic resources that were related to the state and to publish historical journals. Dr. John Hugh Reynolds, a University of Arkansas history professor and later the president of Hendrix College in Conway (1913-1945), provided guidance to the board during its early years. He was responsible for initiating the collection and identification of historical resources related to Arkansas.

The Commission's current mission is to keep and care for the official archives of the state, collecting materials which impact the history of Arkansas from the earliest times, copy official records and other historical data, and encourage historical research.

Herndon first director
Dallas T. Herndon was the first director of the agency in 1911. Herndon stated that year, "The Commission exists to gather the records of all (of Arkansas's) local and state activities to the public." The first permanent home of the agency was in 1912 in the then-new State Capitol Building. As part of the commission, Herndon established the State Historical Museum, which included a portrait gallery of famous Arkansans, a World War Museum with many World War I artifacts, and exhibits showcasing Arkansas history from Territorial days to the modern era. During his tenure, Herndon wrote and edited many books on Arkansas history, the best known of which is his 1922 Centennial History of Arkansas.

Subsequent years brought changes to the Commission, many of which had a negative impact on its mission. In 1935, expansion of state government forced the office into smaller quarters, with most of its irreplaceable collections having to be stored in the dark and clammy State Capitol basement. The museum was moved as well, and for the next 15 years, the agency and its small staff struggled to stay afloat. Restoration of the original state capitol building (now the Old State House Museum) in 1951 provided the commission with a new, expansive home.

Improvements in a new home
In 1953 Ted R. Worley became the new director of the history commission and proceeded to initiate much needed improvements during his seven-year term. Archival storage and a microfilming program which allowed fragile and rare documents to be recorded for prosperity were two major accomplishments. These changes enabled the archives to be reopened for public visitation after many years of inaccessibility, allowing for historical and genealogical research. Bad health caused Worley to resign in 1960 when he was replaced by Dr. John L. Ferguson.

Dr. Ferguson continued Worley's vision by expanding the collection of books, pamphlets, microfilm and manuscripts. One of the major acquisitions was a large microfilm collection of records and source materials relating to the Civil War obtained from the National Archives. In addition, Ferguson began expanding the archives' holdings of U.S. Census records and proceeded to increase the in-house microfilming program.

Dr. Ferguson's arrival and his involvement in improving the commission's collections coincided with an unprecedented increase in interest in Arkansas history and genealogy. A total of 552 patrons used the department's research facilities in 1961. Within two years the total more than doubled to approximately 1,400. By 1966, usage was up to 2,000 and by the middle 70s, the number of researchers had risen to over 5,000 annually. New facilities were authorized in 1974 by the Arkansas General Assembly, allowing Ferguson to work alongside the National Archives to customize the design to fit the archives' specific needs. In 1979 the offices were opened in the Multi-Agency Complex on the Capitol Mall.

Preserving Arkansas history
More changes were on the horizon for the agency. It formed the first state-run historic preservation program in 1969. In 1971 it became a division of the Department of Parks and Tourism with Dr. Ferguson becoming the first director. At that time the division included the history commission, the Old State House Museum, the Arkansas Territorial Restoration and the Historic Preservation program. Results of state government reorganization left the archives with Parks and Tourism while the other agencies became a part of the new Department of Natural and Cultural Heritage in 1975. Today that agency is known as the Department of Arkansas Heritage.

The commission continued to grow and evolve under Dr. Ferguson's tutelage, including playing an integral part in the 1976 American Bicentennial celebration. Also, the Arkansas Black History Advisory Committee was created in 1991 to collect black historical memorabilia for the archives, to encourage Arkansas black history research, and to assist the Arkansas Department of Education in the development of African-American materials for use in public schools. The creation of a Web site (www.ark-ives.com) in 1996 allowed the commission to provide access to historical resources, including over 12,000 digital images, to people worldwide. A traveling exhibit program was added in 1997 to provide free displays to museums, libraries, universities and other cultural and/or historical organizations.

The future is nothing but bright for the State Archives, according to Baker. "There will always be the need to preserve our history for generations to come. And as long as people have a curiosity as to where their ancestors came from, there will be a need for genealogical research." The commission will continue to expand their collections, while serving the public through the research room and outreach programs.

For additional information on the History Commission and its Centennial Celebration, contact either Russell Baker (russell.baker@arkansas.gov) or Julienne Crawford (julienne.crawford@arkansas.gov).

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