Courtesy of the Arkansas History Commission
Harvey Parnell, a gentleman farmer, was born in Cleveland County, Arkansas, on February 28, 1880. In 1903 Parnell married Mabel Winston. The couple had two daughters. Content to work "Old Crooked," his Chicot County plantation, Parnell was nearly forty before venturing into politics in 1919 as a representative to the Arkansas House. By 1924 he had been elevated to the state senate, earning a reputation as a friend of reform for his support for such measures as child labor laws. In 1926, the Supreme Court settled a long-standing dispute by ruling that the office of lieutenant governor had in fact been approved by a majority of those voting in 1914. Parnell's friends insisted that he run for the post, which he did virtually without opposition. As lieutenant governor, when Governor John E. Martineau vacated his office to become a federal judge, Parnell became governor.
Being the incumbent, if only for a few months, gave Parnell an advantage over his opponents, particularly since that year Arkansas's favorite son Joe T. Robinson was the Democratic nominee for vice-president. As governor, Parnell accompanied Robinson as he campaigned across Arkansas, a significant advantage over the opposition.
Once re-elected governor in his own right, however, Parnell's luck took a decided turn for the worst. The year 1929 began with a devastating series of tornadoes in the spring and ended with the stock market crash. In 1930 Arkansas experienced the worse drought in the nation's history.
For his part Parnell seemed slow to grasp what was happening. He was still attempting to fund Martineau's Road Plan while the economy was beginning to crumble. In 1930, when a quarter of the state was receiving assistance from the Red Cross because of the drought, Parnell hired a New York consulting firm to offer a plan to revamp the state's constitution. The legislature, however, resoundingly rejected the plan proposed by these "slick brain trusters."
Aside from lambasting Hoover for his economic policies, Parnell appeared not to appreciate the depth of the financial catastrophe engulfing the nation. In the 1930 election he was still campaigning on the promise of a massive road building effort. His opponent Brooks Hays, who warned that such measures would lead to bankruptcy, went largely unheeded.
Meanwhile the banks were closing, over a hundred in Arkansas in 1930 alone. Then on January 3, 1931, bureaucratic bungling prevented Red Cross relief from arriving at England, Arkansas. An angry mob of farmers soon gathered demanding food from local merchants. Emergency rations were distributed and the crowd dispersed. Word of the England "food riot" was quickly picked up by the wire services and spread around the nation. Parnell dashed off telegraphs to newspapers around the country denying economic hardships in Arkansas, only to have to rescind these in the face of efforts by Arkansas senators Joe T. Robinson and Hattie Caraway to make use of the England incident to increase federal drought relief for Arkansas.
Parnell never truly grasped the situation, even as unemployment topped 38% in Arkansas. Though he ordered the salaries of state employees cut by 10% and state spending by 20%, he confidently proclaimed that "signs of the dawn" were at hand. Out of touch, Parnell came to be viewed as the Herbert Hoover of Arkansas. He was stunned when the state House of Representatives passed a resolution rebuking his administration as "the most corrupt since the days of reconstruction and the most wasteful in the history of the state." The resolution was rescinded a few days after it was passed.
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