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This Old House and a Tale of Two Governors

Old State House Museum - Thursday, June 21, 2018

Heated rivalries between ambitious people seeking to hold high office are nothing new. In Arkansas, these are legend: Hindman vs. The Family, Brooks vs. Baxter, Fulbright vs. Adkins, Faubus vs. Rockefeller, McClellan vs. Pryor, Clinton vs. White, and the list goes on and on. But one of the most intense struggles in Arkansas’s political past involved the chief question of the early twentieth century: where would Arkansas’s seat of government be located? The debate was a colorful as the two men who played central roles in shaping it.

Gov. Jeff DavisJeff Davis made constant appeals to rural discontent during the Populist revolt of the late 1890s and early 1900s without ever addressing the causes of such. Growing up the son of a Russellville attorney in a comfortable middle class background for his day, young Jeff, having witnessed the Pope County Militia Wars as a child, would spend adulthood glorifying the Confederacy, attacking business interests like the insurance and oil industries, referring to them as representative of the “high collared crowd” in opposition to the “Wool Hat Boys” and the “Sun-Burned Sons of Toil” of the state’s small towns and farms. Davis reserved special invective for newspaper editors, claiming in a speech that "If I find that boy [ a future son] is a smart boy, I will go and make a preacher out of him; if I find he is not so smart a boy, I am going to make a lawyer out of him; if I find he has not a bit of sense upon earth, I am going to make an editor out of him and send him to Little Rock to edit the Arkansas Democrat."

His rival and eventual successor would catch the sting of Davis’s attacks, but was more than able and willing to handle them, George Washington Donaghey was a product of Union Parish, Louisiana whose family moved to Union County when George was two. He worked on the family farm and migrated to Texas when he was twenty, working at odd jobs, and even worked as a cowboy on the cattle drives on the Chisholm Trail. He moved to Conway a few years later to live with his uncle and stayed for three decades. After a year at the University of Arkansas, he gained the skills of a carpenter and parlayed it into a successful career as a builder and general contractor in Arkansas and Texas. He became so financially successful that he contributed thousands of dollars to drives to bring Hendrix College and Central College for Women (now Central Baptist College) to Conway.

Gov. DonagheyAlmost the moment he became Governor, Jeff Davis began a constant war against vacating the Old State House and building a new Capitol on the site of the former state penitentiary building. The Kimbell State House Act, signed by Governor Daniel W. Jones, authorized the construction of the new structure, and Jones designated Capitol Commissioner Donaghey to lead the project, worked mostly by convict labor.

After the foundation and cornerstone was completed in late 1900, Davis, attacking the project and Donaghey as part of an “elitist sham,” did everything possible to slow the project in his six years in office, although ironically, Donaghey supported Davis on other issues during his terms even after Davis-backed legislation removed Donaghey and two other Jones appointees from the Capitol Commission. Davis, convinced that the Capitol project was too expensive and would be financed on the backs of his rural constituency, obstructed and stalled the project every way possible until he left office in 1907. Incredibly, Davis even proposed to build a new building on the site of the existing one.

Two years later, Donaghey came into the Governor’s office on a pledge to finish the structure after Davis’s obstruction and scandals involving politicians and contractors. Davis tried to have it both ways, saying of Donaghey, “I selected one Jeff Davis man, and the people selected another.” Donaghey, distancing himself from his one-time ally, simply replied to Davis, “I wear no man’s collar.” Donaghey wasted no time in dismantling the political structure and the legacy of obstruction that Davis left behind, and that included completion of his chief legacy, the Arkansas State Capitol. But his indirect legacy was the march toward a new era for the structure that was left behind, the Old State House, which would progress far from a time when the ceiling fell in on legislators in session to the showplace we enjoy today.