Welcome to Arkansas, Mr. President! (Part 6)

Old State House Museum - Wednesday, April 03, 2019


Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936As 1933 dawned, these five words were music to the ears of a state whose people had spent over a decade buffeted by agricultural stagnation, a devastating flood, a catastrophic depression, a near-bankrupt state, and a debilitating drought. It appeared to the average Arkansan that its leadership on both the national and state levels was floundering at best and indifferent at worst to the mass suffering that had engulfed the people.By proclaiming in his inaugural address, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” it was plain that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would seek to lift the nation not just from the depths of economic malaise, but from the despair that had overwhelmed the American spirit.

Nowhere had that spirit been crushed more than in Arkansas. It was indeed a somber time, and the Arkansas Centennial Celebration of 1936 did its part in helping to raise the spirits of a citizenry still mired in depression and hardship. The crowds and excitement that was recorded in photographs and stories that survive to this day make it clear that although times were hard, a birthday party with guests as honored as the President of the United States would prove to be a welcome diversion.

For the first four years of FDR’s New Deal, the people of Arkansas were blessed with two of the most effective senators that served up to that time. Joe T. Robinson, for whom Camp Robinson is named, had already gotten national attention as Senate Majority Leader, a presidential candidate in 1924, and the Democrats’ choice for Vice President in 1928.Hattie Caraway had become in 1931 the first woman ever elected to the United States Senate.

Both Robinson and Caraway were instrumental in taking advantage of New Deal programs to help lift Arkansas out of the Great Depression, especially Robinson, who controlled a huge network of federal patronage. Up to that time, the two senators had secured funds for lasting accomplishments such as the Civilian Conservation Corps’ projects that developed several state parks, along with saving thousands of acres of farmland from soil erosion.

The Works Progress Administration boasted a school lunch program for poor children,the Commodity Distribution Program, the Arkansas School for the Blind, a 25,000-seat football stadium in Fayetteville now known as Razorback Stadium, and improvements at Little Rock’s Adams Field (later Clinton National Airport), among many. Also, there would be the construction of a magnificent municipal auditorium in downtown Little Rock, which would be named Robinson Auditorium in memory of Senator Robinson after his death.

The two senators also secured some federal funding for a centennial celebration. The fruits of this, along with months of planning, manifested itself in tangible results. The U.S. Treasury struck commemorative coins for Arkansas, and monuments were erected statewide. But it would be a visit to the state by President Roosevelt, the first to Arkansas by a sitting president since William Howard Taft in 1909 that towered over all centennial activities.

FDR and his entourage arrived in Hot Springs on a special train on June 10, 1936. Upon their arrival, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was at once escorted to the Grand Ballroom of the Arlington Hotel for a breakfast in her honor, while the President received a tremendous ovation from the citizens of Hot Springs when he stepped out of his train to ride to the Arlington to pick up the First Lady. FDR traveled in a convertible, accompanied by Harvey Couch, Chair of the Arkansas Centennial Committee, and Senator Robinson.

The First Couple proceeded with a stop at the Fordyce Bath House, which today serves as the visitor center for Hot Springs National Park. While there, the Roosevelts met with a group of Arkansas children who suffered, like FDR himself, with polio. Couch opened his home, Couchwood, for lunch and a rest for the dignitaries. A planned driving tour of Hot Springs, which included enthusiastic public receptions in Malvern and Rockport, culminated in a train ride to Little Rock later in the day.

The next day, June 11, the First Lady peeled off from the official party to make a trip to Eastern Arkansas to tour a place that she had become impressed by reports about resettlement programs for farm families. Dyess Colony in Mississippi County, a New Deal relocation program in northeastern Arkansas for displaced farmers, was named for William Dyess, the first relief director for Arkansas. Dyess Colony and Arkansas received positive national publicity in First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s newspaper column, “My Day,” when she wrote of her visit with the residents, “My first glimpse of Arkansas was a drive through very rich country just before sundown on my way to the Dyess Colony.” For a state long dismissed as a poor backwater, it was superb press.

FDR’s visit to Arkansas had political implications, too: the late Senator Huey Long of Louisiana had been FDR’s biggest adversary in Washington.Long was very popular in rural areas of Arkansas and campaigned for Hattie Caraway when she ran for re-election to the Senate.Ultimately, FDR carried both states in his 1936 landslide. Roosevelt would return to Arkansas twice more: in 1938 to Booneville to campaign for a congressional candidate, and in 1943 to review troops at Camp Robinson.

Photo from: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Harris & Ewing, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-123456]