Lifetime’s work has resulted in a priceless collection of Arkansas books

I started collecting Arkansas books and printed matter in 1969 while studying history at what is now the University of Central Arkansas. Although I don’t have a count, I estimate the number at 2,500 titles plus journals and miscellaneous.

These books have been a double blessing. It was an immense pleasure to collect them, and over time I built up a good internal reference library.

The first Arkansas title I collected was a booklet about the USS Arkansas published when the warship was commissioned in 1912. I kept the bound booklet for years before giving it to a library. Most of the heavy collecting took place when I was in my 20s and 30s, haunting bookstores, flea markets, and thrift stores.

I spent many Saturdays during my college years poring over the Arkansas Books section at the Arkansas Book House, then located in the Broadmoor Mall on South University Avenue in Little Rock. The owner was a crusty old man named Hackett, who reluctantly sold me Arkansas securities. He thought I was too young to collect what he called Arkansiana, but he warmed up a bit after my repeated visits and purchases.

I couldn’t afford most of the rare items from the Hackett Bookstore. However, he sold me a copy of “Early Days in Arkansas” by William F. Pope, an 1895 volume written by the nephew of Territorial Governor John Pope. The book should be used with care, but it is a wonderful insight into the primitive government of Arkansas.

Governor Pope was a good leader. If nothing else, he deserves credit for moving his family to Arkansas, the first governor to do so. (Two first appointees to our territorial Supreme Court didn’t even bother to take a trip to Arkansas.)

I learned of many available books from friends and other collectors. I met one of the administrators of a Goodwill store, and he alerted me to Arkansas-related titles in his retail store.

This allowed me to buy several fine titles, including the first state history book, “Biographical and Pictorial History of Arkansas” by John Hallum, published in 1887 and containing 581 pages.

It wasn’t a real story in the sense that much of the book consisted of biographical sketches. Yet it included a wealth of information not found in other published works on Arkansas.

Another rare book I found in a Goodwill store was “A Pictorial History of Arkansas”, 1,200 pages, published in 1890 by Fay Hempstead. At this early stage, I didn’t know Fay was a man, but I soon learned that, along with the fact that he wrote huge books.

Hempstead earned a place in our state annals in 1889 when it published Arkansas’ first history textbook. At 236 pages and including many lithographs and maps, “A History of the State of Arkansas for Use in Schools” was published in beautiful embossed boards with marbled edges.

While Hempstead deserves credit for this much-needed school history, he also deserves censure for initiating the accursed practice of having his book organized by the governor’s administration. Generations of young people in Arkansas were destined to study Arkansas history chronologically by governor, rather than following a more integrated approach. Hempstead later published two complete state histories for adults, one of which contained three volumes averaging 600 pages each.

I have worked diligently to collect books documenting the myriad roles the Black Arkansans have played throughout the state’s history. Because little effort had been made to document black history, research sources were few in the 1960s. One book was particularly significant: “Shadow and Light,” a 1903 autobiography by Mifflin Wistar Gibbs of Little Rock, the first black municipal judge in American history.

I read the long subtitle of the blue hardback book and wondered if it could be true: “Fatherless, carpenter and contractor, anti-slavery lecturer, merchant, railroad builder, my superintendent, attorney, county attorney, city councilman judge, US cadastre, US consul in Madagascar…”

Turns out Gibbs did all of those things and more. I know this because a few years later I wrote my master’s thesis on him. Subtitle omitted he helped build Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia, made a small fortune selling gear in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, helped found the first black newspaper west of the Mississippi, served on the city council of Victoria, British Columbia, and founded a bank in Little Rock.

In recent years, large quantities have been published by Black Arkansans, easily revealed by a visit to Garbo Hearne’s premier Hearne Fine Arts bookstore and gallery in Little Rock, which opened in 1988. Its shelves are crammed with titles from Black Arkansans, including many memoirs and reminiscences as well as novels.

In the days before the Internet, I benefited from collecting a large number of Arkansas reference books such as “Arkansans of the Years”, a four-volume series of biographies published in 1951; “The Territorial Papers of the Arkansas” (1954), four massive volumes covering our years as a “remote and restless” territory; and the two-volume “Handbook of Texas” (1952).

Available online at www.tshaonline.org/handbook, “Handbook of Texas” contains an enormous amount of Arkansas history in its 27,467 entries. Years later, as director of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System in Little Rock, I used “Handbook of Texas” as a template for creating the Arkansas Encyclopedia.

Today, as I look to full retirement and downsizing, I’ve been trying to decide what to do with my Arkansas collection. In the meantime, I have coffee every morning in my library – with my cat – and sometimes regale her with my triumphs as a collector, although she pays no more attention to them than my wife.

Tom Dillard is a retired historian and archivist who tends to his book collection at his home in Glen Rose, near Malvern. Email him at [email protected]

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