Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Director's Letter for December

By David Ware, director and state historian

When I first arrived in Arkansas in 1999, I found a state full of surprises. Like the beauty of its open spaces. Or its unexpectedly complex history. Or the variety of good barbecue to be found within its borders. Or the warmth and welcome of the people I met here.

Arkansas State Capitol, 1916, courtesy of the 
Library of Congress
I remember one particular surprise from that year especially well: That year marked my first holiday lighting ceremony at the State Capitol. At that point, much of the decorating was underwritten by local philanthropist Jennings Osborne. I recall the hundreds of thousands of tiny lights, the Disney characters, the fireworks and the crowd of people who came up at the end of the city’s Christmas parade, to tour the decorated Capitol, talk to Santa, shop the bustling craft show set up in the Capitol’s corridors and generally enjoy being around thousands of others, intent on enjoying a grand evening out.

It was like nothing I had ever seen before, certainly not in or around a public building. Within two years, I would be part of the team that prepared and executed the event. For 19 holiday seasons I helped with the great lighting ceremony by creating displays, assisting with logistics and assembling an historical overview for the event — doing its “family history,” if you will. It was in connection with this project that I first spent significant amounts of time researching in the State Archives or, as it was styled then, the Arkansas History Commission.

I knew, in a general way, that Christmas decorations in public places, particularly on public buildings, did not have a long tradition; they were not much of a public factor before the 1920s. As for Christmas trees, a custom that took hold in the middle of the 19th century, these were private, family affairs. The first White House tree was set up either in 1854 or 1889, and many years there was none in the presidential mansion. The first “national” Christmas tree was erected 1923, during the first year of the Coolidge presidency.

As far as I could discover, looking through dim microfilmed copies of the Arkansas Democrat and the good, gray Gazette, the capital city’s dueling daily papers, the elegant neoclassical Capitol, erected between 1899 and 1915 atop the old Penitentiary Hill, was not embellished for the Christmas season.

In 1938, however, things changed.

C.G. "Crip" Hall
To understand the “how,” one must go back a couple of years further, to 1936, when Little Rock attorney C. G. “Crip” Hall ran for — and won — the post of Secretary of State. Hall was a native of Malvern who, at the age of 18 months, had contracted infantile paralysis or poliomyelitis, which relegated thousands to infirmity each year in those days before a vaccine. Hall was one of the lucky ones: He survived, albeit with a permanent limp which garnered him his nickname. He attended the University of Arkansas and while there served as football team manager. From Fayetteville, Hall proceeded to the Arkansas Law School in Little Rock and received his attorney’s license in June 1926.

Hall practiced law privately in Little Rock and in 1934 ran for Arkansas Secretary of State. He was defeated, but Crip Hall had game: He ran again in 1936, on a simple platform including a promise to make the state Capitol a showplace for the state. He won, handily — and set to work to make good. In 1938, he ran for re-election and won easily. In the wake of the election, Hall may have wanted to celebrate; he did so in a way that created a tradition.

Just south of the Capitol, across 9th street, stood the Arkansas Children’s Home and Hospital. From its windows, the young patients could see the limestone dome of the Capitol. Hall had a soft spot in his heart for the young patients, perhaps a consequence of his own early ill health; his celebration took the form of a Christmas greeting for the young people stuck in the hospital at Christmas time. He ordered his staff electrician to rig red and blue or green lights on thin sheet metal strips; these were hung from the Capitol’s cupola, their weight causing them to conform to the curve of the dome. In front of the Capitol, Hall erected a fir tree, sprayed silver, mounted on a rotating stand with colored lights playing on it at night.

In the days before Christmas, Hall’s staff collected money for Christmas gifts for infirmary-confined children. A party out by the shiny Christmas tree was scheduled for Dec. 22; children from the hospital were invited, as well as Capitol workers and their families. On the day, though, rain arrived — but Hall was undeterred. He had a second tree brought inside and decorated. That evening, 145 children, plus many state employees, enjoyed what would be the Capitol’s first holiday decorations, a friendly gesture and good deed that has endured.

Establishing the story of the Capitol’s holiday decorations would have been nearly impossible, had it not been for a series of scrapbooks kept by Crip Hall, preserving the story of his many years’ service as Secretary of State. Nearly two decades ago, Commission staffers brought me the microfilmed copies of Hall’s scrapbooks and carefully loaded each roll onto my reader; I was to insert tiny paper strips into the film as I rewound it, marking the location of frames to be copied. I took my notes, asked for a few copies to be made and resolved to come back to the scrapbooks, when time permitted, to learn about how something so simple changed into something so elaborate, so widely loved.

The scrapbooks contain clippings, photographs and letters; they document the evolution of the event and the good publicity it generated. After that first winter, Hall garnered warm praise for his friendly initiative: One newspaper accolade quipped “By George, it took “Crip” to come out and “hall” out the Christmas spirit, didn’t it?”

In the years to come, the Capitol’s decorations would become more elaborate, and ceremonies a little more involved. In 1940, blue lights outlined the building, with strips of amber lights on the dome, and the first of several Nativity scenes was installed on the Capitol steps. As a festive flourish, loudspeakers were set up in the rotunda to play Christmas music.


1941, though, was another affair. The Capitol was to be illuminated on Dec. 10, a Wednesday; a Gazette story of a few days before noted that “a religious exhibit will cover the front entrance to the building, and loudspeakers will carry seasonal music to residents of the nearby neighborhood.”


Christmas lights at the Capitol, approximately
1950, courtesy of the Arkansas Secretary of
State's office

What’s significant, I think, is this: The Capitol’s illumination was held as planned. Three days earlier, the United States had been forcibly jolted into joining the global conflict, but on Dec. 10, Crip Hall opted to go ahead and light the lights, in spite of the brand-new state of war. He told a local paper that in such unusual times, the people of Arkansas needed to have a little reassuring normalness.


Since then, the Capitol’s holiday lights have been dependable December markers. They went dark in 1943 and 1944, by federal order, and once again during the energy crisis of the 1970s, but otherwise they have reached out against the early dark of winter skies. In 2001, in the shadow of the attacks of Sept. 11, Secretary of State Sharon Priest faced the same sort of question faced by Crip Hall, six decades before: In the face of a national emergency, should the Capitol’s lights be turned on? They were; like Hall before her, Sharon Priest understood that in the face of uncertainty, something normal and reassuring was what Arkansans needed and should see. On Dec. 1, the Capitol’s lights snapped on as they had in 1938 and 1941, one of Crip Hall’s enduring legacies.




Memories of C.G. “Crip” Hall’s administration are for the most part preserved in his scrapbooks, which were begun as keepsakes for his daughter Nancy. Four of these compilations are held by the University of Arkansas Special Collections; another 12 are preserved in the Arkansas State Archives. For context, researchers may consult the Archives’ unequalled collection of Arkansas journalism preserved on microfilm or, weather permitting, indulge in a leisurely walk around the Capitol, located just east of our Little Rock premises. Timing is, of course, everything: If one walks around in late afternoon, between Dec. 5 and Dec. 31, there’s a good chance of catching the moment when the Capitol lights are switched on. Enjoy them as reminders of a good deed done nearly eight decades ago.