Leader Blues

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

TOP STORY >>Lonoke celebrates its history

Leader staff writer

Historians visited the Lonoke Community Center Tuesday in a treasure hunt for the state’s rich artistic heritage, and local residents brought them several valuable items to add to the state’s collection. What began as the Historic Arkansas Museum’s preparing pre-Civil War museum houses soon culminated into the uncovering of a wealth of Arkansas arts.

The Historic Arkansas Museum is locating decorative, mechanical and fine art produced by Arkansas artists and artisans from 1700 to 1950. The museum’s research team is traveling across the state in search of original works of art, photography, furniture, handmade silver, firearms, quilts, pottery and other art objects believed to have been made in the state to be collected for future volumes of the Arkansas Made book series.

“We discovered more than one treasure to consider for the books,” Swannee Bennett, chief curator of the Historic Arkansas Museum, said of the Lonoke visit.

Suzanne Gross Marks, president of the Lonoke Historical Society, brought an afghan quilt she sewed in 1944.

She said her family has been in Lonoke six generations, and her great-great grandfather Issac Hicks laid out Lonoke. She said Hicks also ran a safe house for Native Americans crossing through Arkansas on the Trail of Tears. Marks said they stopped there for food and water on their long trek.

“I want people to know that they can work with their hands,” the 83-year-old Marks said, noting that she built her house in Lonoke in 1963, painting the rooms and handmaking her tiles.

Lonoke resident Lynn Fletcher brought in two quilts made by each of her grandmothers. One has names of four generations of family members sewn into it. Her husband Alex brought in photographs that hang in his accounting office in Lonoke: one of school children that Bennett thought might be from 1890 to 1895 and another of a Lonoke baseball team he thought to be from 1910 to 1915.

The Lonoke Historical Society publishes its own book every year and will be meeting at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Lonoke County Museum.

Bennett and his staff researched every page of Arkansas newspapers printed between 1819 and 1870 for the first two volumes of “Arkansas Made: A Survey of the Decorative, Mechanical and Fine Art Produced in Arkansas, 1819-1870” published by University of Arkansas Press.

“The curators also surveyed the census records for the same period along with business directories, personal correspondence, journals and diaries,” Bennett said.

“The new research continues to examine census and newspaper records, along with personal correspondence, journals and diaries, most of which we find in public collections, like the state archives [Arkansas History Commission],” Bennett said. “However, we occasionally have the good fortune to find letters and journals in private hands which furnish us with a great deal of information about life and work at a particular time in Arkansas history.”

He said the museum wants to record the state’s cultural and artistic history to “understand more about the creative legacy in Arkansas. Arkansas is oftentimes viewed in history as backwards, rustic and unsophisticated,” but he said, “we have a fine tradition of quilt-making and fine arts.”

Bennett said researching quilt-making history is difficult. “It was not generally an occupation that got a mention in the census or in newspaper advertisements,” Bennett said. “I suspect when a woman is listed under an occupation as a ‘seamstress,’ that this line of work might include making quilts.”

Quilts made by Arkansas women are the largest part of decorative and functional art that has survived to date. An 1849 journal entry in the UALR archives documents quilt-maker Everard Dickinson, from near the north fork of the White River: “The men gather the wheat, while the Women quilt… and the young men can get a chance maybe to hug and kiss the Galls [girls]….”

The museum encourages all Arkansans who may have an original family heirloom created in Arkansas to contact the research office. The staff will document the heirlooms and will not keep them. For more information, contact the Historic Arkansas Museum at 501-580-5237 or 501-324-9376.