Welcome to Arkansas, Mr. President! (Part 5)

Old State House Museum - Wednesday, March 27, 2019

After the attention given to The Natural State by Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, Arkansas would again suffer from a dearth of presidential presence during the 1920s.

The decade began with the presidency of Ohio’s Warren Harding, who waged a “Front-Porch” campaign from his home, which left the candidate little time for a side trip down to Arkansas. The “Roaring Twenties” would soon sweep the country with the image of the “flapper.” (You can see it in Mabel Martineau’s gown in the collection at the Old State House Museum.)

Harding’s sudden death in 1923 brought to power Vermont-born Calvin Coolidge, who kept his discourse so brief that it earned him the moniker, “Silent Cal.”So sure of victory in 1924 was Coolidge that he ignored the South. One Arkansas connection to the 1924 campaign was Senator Joe T. Robinson, who became the first Arkansan to have his name placed in nomination at a major party convention. In a record-setting sixteen day convention, Robinson received 21 votes on the first ballot, peaked at 46 on the sixteenth, and settled at 20 on the one-hundred-and-third ballot, when the delegates settled on John W. Davis. But great things would soon come for Robinson: he was the first Arkansan to receive the nomination of a national party as Al Smith’s Democratic running mate in 1928.

Herbert Hoover hailed from closer to the Mason-Dixon Line than any serious Republican presidential hopeful since the Civil War. The product of rural Iowa, he was orphaned at age ten, worked his way to an engineering degree at Stanford University, took a position with a London-based mining company, and by 1900 was a millionaire with mining holdings all over the globe. He came to the public’s attention in World War I leading efforts at private food relief in German-occupied Belgium; he would lead similar efforts all over Europe after the war. When America entered the war in 1917, President Wilson named Hoover as U.S. Food Administrator, leading efforts to secure sufficient food supplies for America and her allies to help speed the conflict to a finish. In 1921, President Harding named Hoover as Secretary of Commerce, continuing under President Coolidge. His Commerce Department became involved in so many activities that Hoover was often called, “The Secretary of Commerce and the Undersecretary of Everything Else.”

One of those areas was disaster relief, and this is where he established a deep and lasting connection to many Arkansans. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 resulted in the flooding of millions of acres, and the worst impact was in Arkansas, where floodwaters deluged about 6,600 square miles, with thirty-six out of seventy-five Arkansas counties under water up to thirty feet deep in places. Over 350,000 people and more than two million acres of land were affected by the disaster in Arkansas Further, more Red Cross camps were required and more families were in need of assistance than any other state, and over one hundred people died.

Disaster response did not fall under the Commerce Department. The overwhelmed governors of six states along the Mississippi specifically asked Coolidge to appoint Hoover to coordinate the response to the flood. Hesitant to involve the federal government, Coolidge ultimately agreed. Hoover called the flood “America’s greatest peacetime disaster” and said that “the disaster felt by Arkansas farmers, planters and residents of river lowlands was of epic proportions.” Yet while Coolidge authorized Hoover to coordinate private and state relief efforts; the president refused to approve one dollar for direct disaster relief for individuals.

Hoover saw a chance to change the plantation system which had been in place since Reconstruction. With some large planters bankrupted by the flood, Hoover proposed dividing the remaining land into smaller holdings, to result in land ownership for both black and white tenants and sharecroppers. In a confidential memo, Hoover described to his friend Harvey Couch, President of Arkansas Power & Light and flood relief director, a plan to use $1–2 million from flood relief funds for resettlement on twenty-acre farms through a resettlement corporation with directors with “colored representation.” As president, Hoover established private resettlement corporations, all of which failed. Others took place under his successor, one of which became Dyess Colony.

While their efforts had limits, they ultimately made strides in alleviating the suffering from the immediate disaster. Hoover would visit Arkansas in 1927 as the guest of Governor John Martineau and Couch, among others, and Hoover would stay at Couch’s famous “Couchwood” retreat near Hot Springs. Hoover was well-known for his skill as a fly fisherman, and on one Sunday during a press event, a photographer asked the soon-to-be presidential candidate for a photograph fishing on Lake Catherine. Strict Quaker Hoover replied, “The Hoovers do not fish on Sunday.” When asked if he would just pose with a rod and reel, Hoover retorted, “The Hoovers do not even pretend to fish on Sunday.” He may have fished Lake Catherine, but the public never saw it. One final favor that he performed for an Arkansan was done for John Martineau, whom he recommended to President Coolidge for a seat on the federal bench, to which the Governor was confirmed in 1928.

Pictured above: Herbert Hoover (left), Harvey C. Couch (center), and Unidentified Man at Couchwood Near Hot Springs, Arkansas, Undated. Photo is courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies: