When I was a child, the concept of a century — 100 years — seemed so long that it was only theoretical. I was in junior high school during the centennial of the American Civil War, and it seemed like ancient history to me.
After most of a lifetime studying the past, I now know that a century is a mere moment of time, barely a footstep into the past. Today, as we look at Arkansas on Jan. 30, 1922, we will quickly note that many aspects of our modern lives, many challenges we face daily, were also being played out a century ago.
It is not surprising that Arkansas newspapers of early 1922 were filled with stories about the oil boom then unfolding in and around El Dorado in Union County. Only two years earlier Samuel T. Bussey, a physician turned geologist who claimed descent from frontiersman Daniel Boone, brought in the first successful oil well in Arkansas.
The Arkansas Gazette, which thoroughly covered the oil boom from the beginning, contained a report in the Jan. 30 issue that a group of independent oil drillers had struck oil at 2,143 feet at a well near the town of Stephens in Ouachita County, the first producing well in what is today known as the Smart Oil Field. The same article recorded that the Kansas City Lumbermen’s Oil Co.’s Prutcher Well No. 1 “blew shale 20 feet up the derrick.”
While people with access to capital could make fortunes in the south Arkansas oil fields, many Arkansans of modest means turned to illegal distilling of liquor to make ends meet. Hardly a day passed in January 1922 without at least one newspaper account of a still being confiscated or of an arrest for bootlegging.
The Arkansas Democrat reported that on Jan. 30, Crawford County Sheriff C.H. Bledsoe had captured “a giant still and 100 gallons of mash” on the Lathrop farm north of Alma. The bootleggers had a sophisticated operation: “The still was one of the most complete plants ever taken by local authorities. It was made from a water heater five feet in height, connected by a rubber tube.”
Arkansas newspaper editors in January 1922 were not known for fair coverage of Black Arkansans. The biased and inaccurate newspaper coverage of the October 1919 Elaine Race Massacre had probably contributed to the hysteria of the mobs.
One hundred years ago, Black Little Rock lawyer Scipio A. Jones and others were fighting in the courts to overturn the death penalties meted out to 12 innocent Black defendants blamed for the “insurrection.”
It is, therefore more than ironic that the Arkansas Gazette would publish an article on Jan. 31 touting a U.S. Census report about Black farm ownership in Arkansas. While the headline announced …….