They Saved the Old State House (Part 1)

Old State House Museum - Tuesday, July 09, 2019


Even before state government vacated its original home, the dangers to what would become known as the Old State House were manifest. The state’s financial condition was so precarious that Governor George Donaghey and several legislators were considering several plans to sell the property. One involved demolishing the building and subdividing it into lots (an act was actually passed in 1901 authorizing this); another was to sell to a railroad with the understanding that a central passenger station was to be erected on the site. As early as 1912, a year after the governor and the General Assembly had departed for their new home, and other state constitutional offices would do so in short order, Secretary of State Earle Hodges objected to the sale of the property on the grounds that its historic and cultural value was such that it far exceeded any amount of money that would be raised and spent quickly. Hodges spelled out his position to the General Assembly in 1912, in his Biennial Report:

“I am heartily in favor of the preservation of this Old State House. I believe that it is the one sacred landmark of the state’s greatness, and to barter it for a few shekels with which to replenish our depleted coffers is not only to forsake the teaching and traditions of our fathers, but is to ‘sell our birthright for a mess of pottage.’”

Hodges had plenty of allies in spite of the expected legislative resistance. Anticipating a protracted fight over two bills aimed at preservation of the Old State House in the 1907 session of the General Assembly, several groups created a coalition to push for the passage of two specific bills: HB 327, which was “a bill for…an act to preserve and maintain the old capitol building and grounds,” and HB 474, “a bill for…an act to preserve the grounds of the old state capitol.” The coalition would consist of what was at that time a broad coalition of the preservationist community, which included the Colonial Dames, the Arkansas Historical Association, the Arkansas Historical Society, and the Arkansas Historical and Memorial Association. But over the long term, the organization that would truly step into the breach on the question of whether to preserve or demolish the Old State House would be the Arkansas Federation of Women’s Clubs.

The Arkansas General Federation of Women’s Clubs was founded as the Arkansas Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1897 and became a member of the national organization, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs that same year. The federation has been instrumental in numerous social and educational movements in Arkansas in the 20th century. Initially, the clubs’ mission centered on education, child study, art, women’s suffrage, and bringing traveling libraries to underserved communities. In time, the AGFWC expanded their efforts to include lobbying efforts to persuade lawmakers to appropriate state funds for libraries in Arkansas. After the Legislature approved measures that allowed cities to levy taxes to support libraries in 1903 and 1911, AGFWC gained an appropriation of $100,000 for the State Library Commission in 1937 and 1939 for the support of rural libraries. They started the push for preservation of the Old State House in 1904, seeking to preserve it as a museum, and in February 1951, this was accomplished, with federation member Agnes Loewer as the museum’s first curator.

AGFWC furnished one of the period rooms displaying Federation memorabilia, as well as contributing financially to the recent renovations. The federation has also been active in issues such as care for the disabled, protection of the Buffalo River, and admission of women to the bar. The AGFWC was also instrumental in securing the adoption of the apple blossom as the state flower in 1901 and the mockingbird as the official state bird in 1929, which paid tribute to the federation’s efforts in protecting the birds of Arkansas.

While the preservation of the Old State House was long the passion and one of the most prominent causes of AGFWC, their contributions expanded as both the state and the opportunities of its people changed. The clubs affiliated with AGFWC have been leaders in fundraising and lobbying efforts to improve the lives of people throughout Arkansas. From advocating for the state’s first Pure Food and Drug Act and legislation for the 8-hour work day, the federation successfully persuaded policymakers to implement two key changes that helped bring Arkansas workers into a more competitive position when the state transitioned into a more industrial-based economy. The group’s commitment to literacy in the state continued unabated by its support for Governor Mike Huckabee’s Arkansas’s Promise campaign; raising funds and donating over $13.5 million in books to the Libraries 2000 project, and over the last decade of the century raised and donated another $200,000 to Arkansas libraries. Their advocacy of the compulsory school attendance law laid the groundwork for the standards that raised the education level of generations of students that would grow up to be contributors to the transformation of Arkansas’s economy. It goes back to the original mission of the AGFWC: literacy, from where progress in all areas originates. But to this day, the AGFWC can count as the beginning of its service to Arkansas as preserving a stately manifestation of a state’s progress, and dedicating it to the enrichment of its people.

Courageous and forward-thinking people worked through the decades to make sure Old State House Museum remained a treasure for all Arkansans to enjoy today. Now, you have the unique opportunity to support that cause by joining the State House Circle.

When you join the State House Circle by donating $1,000 or more, your name will proudly be recognized on our State House Circle wall on the first floor of the museum, and you will get to attend an annual historic-themed dinner exclusively for our State House Circle members. To join, please complete the attached pledge card and mail it with your donation to Foundation for Arkansas Heritage & History at 300 W. Markham, Little Rock, AR 72201.