Thursday, March 4, 2021

Diaries Offer Insight into Family History by Jane Wilkerson


A question the State Archives staff faces often is, “Is it possible I can find out what my ancestor was like? What did they feel and dream?” My answer to this query is, “Yes, it’s possible—particularly if they kept a diary or journal.”

 I’ll bet that you’re thinking, “Aren’t diaries and journals are the same thing?” Well, yes and no.  Technically, diaries are a record of personal feelings and journals focus on activities and events. Commonly, people use these terms interchangeably. So, why is this important to define?  It will help, when doing research, to understand the difference in what information these documents can provide.


Diaries and journals held by archives and libraries in the United States date as far back as the colonial period. Most of these personal narratives, particularly the earliest ones, tended to be journals that recorded farming, financial, and/or weather details. It was not until the 1700’s that girl’s and women’s diaries began to emerge; they remained rare even though statistics from the Foundation for Economic Education show that 80 percent of men and 50 percent of women in New England by 1776 could read and write.[1] In the South, literacy rates for both genders were somewhat lower but rose over time: by the mid-Nineteenth century, female diarists were common in both North and South. Their style tended to be more personal than reportorial (that is, recording inner thoughts, activities, personal feelings, and documenting relationships with others).  After the Civil War, diaries and journals became more common among adolescents and young adults; Both males and females kept such personal records, but over time a pattern emerged of diary-keeping being more associated with women: after  1910, females became the primary creators of these documents.


Many state historical societies, libraries, and archives hold multiple diaries and journals as part of their collections. The Arkansas State Archives is lucky to hold several such. The majority are Civil War related, but not all; the ASA’s diary and journal holdings also illuminate unexpected, fascinating corners of the state’s postbellum story. 


One of the more interesting diaries held at the ASA is that of Cynthia Ann Ward who, like many other women who lived through the Civil War, faced hardships and challenges unimagined before the years of conflict.  We do not know much about her life before or during the war. Ward began a diary on January 1, 1865 and we know that she continued keeping it for the next two years, at least until January 7, 1867. The document gives readers a vivid sense of what one eastern Arkansas woman experienced in the closing days of the war and in her post-war struggle to reclaim her property. In her January 12, 1865 entry, Ward for the first time discussed local military activity and her fear of Federal soldiers.  She wrote, “... ten deserters from Hood’s army came by here and caused the boys to stampede they thought them Fed’s.”  In another entry, she mentions her eldest son, 16-year-old Louis Montgomery, who had joined his uncle’s (unidentified) Confederate unit.  In her January 17 entry, Ward revealed the anxiety she felt for her son: “…I am getting very uneasy about Louis, fear the Yankee’s may capture him.”  Later, on January 20, she noted that “Henry and I came home Louis and Mr. Berry back safe.”


At the archives, one can also sample the diaries written by Ella Maria Flint Hamblen Cole.  The daughter of Col. Samuel Hamblen (the second Superintendent of the Hot Springs Reservation) and Maria Florilla Flint Hamblen, she grew up in Hot Springs and later attended Little Rock University (an institution associated with the Methodist Episcopal denomination), where she met her husband Charles Finley Cole.  After marriage the couple moved to Batesville, Arkansas where they raised their five children.  Ella Cole’s diaries begin in 1886 and end in 1952, giving us a rare 66-year window into one individual’s life, experiencing the best that life offered, as well as the worst. On June 17th, 1890, Ella described how she and her siblings celebrated her mother’s birthday:


Mama’s birthday, spent all the day up at the Reading Room … went downtown and bought a quarter of a yard of ribbon to put on a pallet I had painted for Mama... Besides what I gave Mama an earth ware bowl and a teaspoon holder, Papa gave her his pipe and promised he would not smoke anymore.  Stany gave her two crash towels and Sam gave her $15.00.”


However, through all the joys she expressed over the years with her marriage and birth of her children, the entry that may touch the reader the most is one for February 20, 1945.  Ella’s oldest daughter had been fighting a severe kidney infection and nothing seemed to be helping.  On that day, Ella knew her daughter had taken a turn for the worse:

Karia was extremely restless, from bed to chair and back again. George [George Reazin, Karia’s husband] was with her constantly and did all he could for her. After midnight and a talk with the Dr. George made arrangements for an ambulance to take Karia back to Presbyterian Hospital.  As she was on the stretcher and the attendants were raising her to leave, I kissed her and she said, “Mama, will you stay and take care of things for me?” I promised of course, little suspecting it was my last words to her.


Karia Cole Reazin would pass away the following day.


The Archives also preserves the diary of Ella’s husband, Charles Finley Cole during the time they were courting.  Charles born in 1871 in Wyandotte County, Ohio and moved to White County, Arkansas in the early 1880s.  His diary started in 1892 and ended in 1897. During this period, Cole faced his own share of adversity, including the loss of a leg because of a train accident.  Entries from March 1894 suggest some difficulties in adjusting to a new prosthetic leg:

March 3, 1894, Leg came today. Put it right on. Have been walking nearly ever since.  Went to Land Office and saw Laws. Also took a boat ride. Leg fit well. Think and hope I’ll like it. Estimated distance walked 1 ½ mi…March 5, 1894, … Leg hurting. Put on my old one to go to town with. Sorry it does not fit. Surely, have my share of troubles…


The diary also preserves evidence of his inner conflict over making the hard choice of becoming a lawyer or minister. Cole finally made his choice in June of 1894.: “May 30, 1894, … Received letter from Dr. Curl asking me to take charge of the [Methodist Episcopal Church] Stuttgart circuit. … June 1, 1894, Replied to Dr. Curl[2] saying cannot consistently accept charge and returned [Methodist Episcopal Church ministers] license…”


Ultimately, genealogy and family research is a process of searching records to find information. Keep in mind that even if you cannot find a diary/journal for your own ancestor, one from the area in which they lived can be helpful in making connections and give you information about their neighborhood and society; you may even find your ancestor mentioned! So, the next time you encounter a diary or journal originating in a time and place where your family lived, take a little while to sample it: you may find mention of your family or, just maybe, you may find some new relations! 

[1] Statistics from

[2] Dr. Curl was a Methodist Episcopal minister and president of Little Rock University.

Louis Jordan's Arkansas Roots by Brian Irby


In July  1948, James Jordan sat in the wings of the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., with a smile on his face. He had traveled all the way from Brinkley, Arkansas, for one purpose, to see his son, Louis Jordan, play his saxophone. He was no doubt proud of his son, who had been enjoying success touring the country. His records were all hits, scoring high on the Rhythm and Blues charts. Throughout the 1940’s, he had 54 hit songs on the charts, with 18 of them reaching number one.

Jordan was born in Brinkley on July 8, 1908. Soon after his birth, his mother, Adell, passed away, leaving James to raise the boy alone. As a result, the young child was very close to his father, inheriting his love of music. The elder Jordan had been an accomplished musician in his own right in Brinkley, mastering all the instruments in the big band orchestras popular at the time. Louis acknowledged his influence when a reporter asked him about his father’s talent. Jordan pointed to his father and said, “Here’s the original and I am only the imitation.” 

The young Jordan took up the saxophone as his instrument of choice, playing in local bands around the Brinkley area, including his father’s band. After graduating high school, he attended Arkansas Baptist College, majoring in music. In 1936, he joined the Chick Webb Orchestra, a band which featured a teenaged Ella Fitzgerald on vocals. Between 1936 and 1938, the Chick Webb Orchestra was a staple at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, where they entertained intellectuals and musicians involved in the Harlem Renaissance including such luminaries as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.

In 1938, he was ready to strike out on his own and formed the Elks Rendez-Vous Band. He later renamed his band The Tympany Five. His band was smaller than most jazz orchestras of the time. To make sure that his smaller band had the same power of a larger band, he emphasized a more syncopated rhythm, making the beat punchier. As a result, his small band could move a crowded dance floor into a frenzy. Soon, he was filling dance halls throughout the country as people were attracted to his innovative “jump blues” style of music.

Much of his success was the result of his showmanship. He bantered with his band and his audience, telling funny stories. Many of his songs had a comedy bent to them, including “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens,” and “Open the Door, Richard.”  He always sang with a smile on his face, transferring the joy he felt for the music to his audience. It was hard to watch Louis Jordan without a smile on your face. Melba Joyce, who sang with Jordan’s band in the 1960s and early 1970s, told a reporter for the New York Daily News, “He was a consummate musician, and all of his players knew it. But he also knew his audiences liked partying and having a good time.”  Music writers began referring to him as “Mister Personality.”

In 1941, Jordan recorded what would become his first big hit, a song called “Knock Me a Kiss.”  That hit was followed with a string of hits that shot him into the stratosphere of fame: “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town,” “Five Guys Named Moe,” “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” “Caldonia” and “Somebody Done Changed the Lock on My Door.”  The decade of the 1940’s was very good to Jordan. Between 1943 and 1949, around a third of the number one hits of the decade were Jordan records. His songs were at the top of the Rhythm and Blues charts for a record 113 weeks, more than any other African American artist. This feat has not been repeated by any musician since.

In 1946, he translated his musical fame to the big screen, starring in the film, Beware, a production which featured an all African American cast. In the film, Jordan portrays a successful band leader who returns to his college to put on a benefit show to save his alma mater from financial hardships. He went onto star in other film productions, including Caldonia, which featured a song in which Jordan wondered, “Caldonia, Caldonia, what makes your big head so hard?”

Despite his success, he never forgot about his hometown. When he would return to Brinkley to visit his father, Jordan was known to swoop into town driving his large white Cadillac. He would take time to buy the local children ice cream (he never drank alcohol, preferring ice cream as his vice). When he discovered that the local segregated park was off limits to black children, he bought a tract of land for a park for African American children.

Jordan’s influence on music is undeniable. Jazz great Sonny Rollins said that he was drawn to the saxophone by watching Jordan. Outside of Jazz, his influence would be even more profound. Jordan’s recording producer, Milt Gabler, realized that Jordan’s up-tempo rhythm and blues could be used to innovate other styles of music. Gabler worked with a singer from Michigan named Bill Haley, infusing Haley’s country sounds with Jordan’s jump blues. What resulted was a marriage of the two, with Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” being credited as one of the first rock ‘n roll records. Jordan recognized his influence on what became rock ‘n roll. “The only difference between what we did originally and what became rock ‘n roll was that the beat grew,” he asserted in 1969. “Essentially the music didn’t change . . . they just put more juice behind it.”  Chuck Berry took much of his penchant for showmanship from Jordan.

However, with the dawn of rock ‘n roll, Louis Jordan’s stardom began to fade. Chuck Berry and Little Richard began replacing Jordan on the charts. He slowed down his touring schedule in 1952, leading Jet magazine to erroneously report that he had retired. In response, Jordan remarked, “I am not retired. I am taking a vacation. I have been working ten years straight without a vacation, and now I’m taking one.”  Sensing that the false news of his retirement might mark the end of his career, he quickly traveled to New York to hire new musicians for a new band and then hit the touring circuit.

By 1960, sales had slowed enough that Jordan lost his record deal with Decca Records and was hopping from small independent label to small independent label. With the decline in sales, Jordan also slowed his touring schedule. He was happy to stay home with his wife in their home in Phoenix, Arizona, but he was always open to touring. “Don’t worry,” he told Jazz writer Leonard Feather in 1961, “I’m available; but I’m very satisfied the way things are. In fact, I’ve never been happier.”

Jordan passed away of a heart attack in 1975 in Los Angeles. He was buried in the Mount Olive Cemetery in St. Louis. Upon his passing, his widow, Martha Jordan, remarked, “He was before the concept of rock ‘n roll. But everything they did had almost the same beat as Louis had. He was way before his time.”  In 1987, Jordan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an influence on the music, referring to him as “The Supreme Ruler of 1940s R&B.”

Rare Cyclone Brought Icy Havoc to 19th Century Arkansas by Brian Irby

The winter of 1885-1886 was one of the worst in recorded history.  Blizzards and ice brought death and
destruction throughout the country. It all began when a rare extratropical cyclone [1] developed in the northern plains of the United States in late December 1885 and early January 1886. The Great Plains experienced blizzard conditions, cattle froze to death and telegraph lines collapsed under the weight of the snow. The cyclone moved south through Texas before turning east, gaining strength as it moved into Arkansas. 

The signal service monitoring the weather in the Midwest noted that the front was heading towards Arkansas and put out an announcement that snow was coming.  Traders on the floor of the cotton exchange in Memphis found the prediction laughable, and returned a message asking where the “weather clerk would get his snow.”

Despite the scoffs of the cotton traders, as the low-pressure system entered Arkansas, it dumped massive amounts of snow throughout the northern parts of the state, with the southern region seeing sleet and freezing rain.  As the cyclone tracked east, it left extreme temperatures in its wake.  On the morning of January 8, Fayetteville reported temperatures of 10 below zero.  Subzero temperatures gripped the city for the next several days.  On January 13, Fayetteville residents awoke to -16 degrees.  The editor of the Fayetteville Democrat apologized for any errors readers might find it the newspaper because, “Without being prepared for such an emergency it is impossible to work in a newspaper office with the thermometer 15 degrees below zero.”  As far south as Malvern, the morning temperature on January 10 stood at two below.  At Dardanelle, the number of hogs that died from the cold alarmed residents who feared that there would be a scarcity of meat to feed its residents.

The Arkansas River froze over throughout the state.  At Fort Smith, with the river frozen and the railroad lines blocked by heavy snow, the city was virtually cut off from the rest of the world.  In Little Rock, residents took advantage of the four-inch-thick ice covering the river to strap on ice skates and enjoy ice skating.  Boats were frozen on the banks of the river.  Those that were able to get out of the city before the great freeze found themselves moored by ice flows. 

By the first of February, the temperatures began to moderate.  It seemed that the disaster had passed.  Unfortunately, this was not so.  On February 2, the snow began to fall again in Fort Smith.  By the next evening, the town was covered in 10 inches of snow, and it continued to fall.  The newly fallen snow snared trains, making travel almost impossible.  John Eberle, traveling from St. Louis to Little Rock, told reporters that “it was the worst trip he had ever experienced.”  Since snows of this magnitude were so seldom, none of the towns affected owned snowplows and railroads had few plows allocated to the region, leaving railroad lines impassible.  In Little Rock, streetcar lines were also impassible.  City laborers worked feverishly to clear the lines so that they could resume service. 

The snow blanketed the state.  Newport reported 22 inches on the ground; Judsonia reported 24.  The telegraph wire between Pine Bluff and Hot Springs collapsed.  Merchants in farm towns could not receive their daily market reports from cotton and produce exchanges.

Luckily, the temperatures accompanying the new blizzard were not as extreme as they had been in January.  Although blanketed under 30-inch snow drifts, Fayetteville residents enjoyed a balmy 30-degree high temperature on February 3.

The winter storm was fierce, but some incidents suggested a lighter side.  At Harrison, which had recently allowed saloons in town, the editor of the Banner argued that the dropping of prohibition laws was the cause for the calamitous weather: “When the prohibitionists had control of affairs the weather was delightful, and now look and weep!  Ever since the saloons were licensed, we have had the worst weather that ever cursed the earth.”

In Harrison, five-year-old Jimmy Nicholson made the common mistake of sticking his tongue to a wagon wheel.  His tongue promptly froze to the wheel leaving Jimmy trapped.  Luckily, his mother spotted the boy in his predicament and came and saved him, but afterward he “has been suffering with a very sore mouth ever since.”

Former governor Powell Clayton had ordered 14 tons of ice from an ice packing company in Kansas for his newly opened Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs.  Unfortunately for the former governor, the telegraph operator mistakenly entered the request as 14 carloads of ice.  By the time the last car arrived, Clayton had 980 tons of ice on his hands.  With temperatures hovering around freezing, the Arkansas Gazette reported that “the governor will have ice enough to supply the whole city for a while at least.”

But not all was levity.  Several houses and businesses were destroyed by the severe weight of the snow.  In Charleston, the heavy snow collapsed a mill house, killing 14-year-old Louis Weaver.  E.W. King of Rector, Arkansas, was enjoying breakfast with his family when his house’s snow-laden roof caved in.  Although King was able to escape with his family, his home was destroyed.

As temperatures continued to warm, the drifts subsided and the crisis began to pass; melt off was a little higher than usual but in the main, life returned to normal.  By the end of February, people were starting to talk of spring and planting new crops.  What had been one of the worst winters in Arkansans’ memory began to fade, itself becoming a memory.  

[1] Although the term is often used to refer to a tornado or waterspout, “cyclone” is also a general term for a weather system in which winds rotate inwardly to an area of low atmospheric pressure.  In the Northern hemisphere, the circulation pattern is in a counterclockwise direction. Extratropical cyclones are low-pressure systems that form outside of the tropics in response to a chronic instability of the westerly winds. Concentrated regions of temperature change known as fronts characterize extratropical cyclones.

Director's Letter by David Ware

Iowa-born and Massachusetts-based Patty Larkin is one of my favorite singer-songwriters. This afternoon, one of her songs from some twenty-five years ago is running through my head, just a step away from full high fidelity. It’s titled “he Book I’m Not Reading” and it runs down all of the potentials, the things possible, that she knows that she’s missing. The refrain is a wry cry for help:

oh I need someone to read me stories

oh someone to turn the page

oh the endless quest for love and glory

oh does not fade away with age

I confess; I know the feeling.

I am writing this note in what I would call “shoulder season”—that is, a zone of transition between two things, in this case big, important things. February, which we’re exiting (always seeming to do this a little before time), has been Black History Month, and we are either sliding or floating (depending on how much rain we get) into March, observed nationwide as Women’s History Month. For some days I have been trying to write about one, or the other—"the essay I’m not writing,” anyone?—with little success. Finally, last night, I figured out why I’ve felt stalled, high-centered: the two observances belong together. Each can stand alone, but they complement one another.

Of the two observances, Black History Month has the longer--pardon me—history. Its most prominent parent was the historian Carter G. Woodson, a man of many parts. Woodson made his way as a miner in in the West Virginia coal fields and started high school at the age of 20. He made up for this late start: he received his Bachelor of Literature degree from Berea College, Kentucky, worked and traveled in Asia and Europe and studied at the famed Sorbonne of Paris. In 1908, he received his M.A. from the University of Chicago, and in 1912, he received his Ph.D. in history from Harvard University. Wow.

In 1915, Woodson traveled to Chicago, to participate in a national celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation sponsored by the state of Illinois. Inspired by the three-week event, Woodson decided to form an organization to promote study of black life and history before leaving town. On September 9 of that year, Woodson and four associates met at a local YMCA to form the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). The Association would encourage, promote and publish the work of African American scholars, while urging Black civic organizations to promote the stories unearthed by the researchers.

In 1925, Woodson announced a bold plan to create and popularize knowledge about the Black past. He sent out a press release announcing Negro History Week, the first of which would be held in in February 1926. Why February? Woodson tied the week to the birthdates of two American icons: Abraham Lincoln, on the 12th, and Frederick Douglass, on the 14th, both days often celebrated in African American  communities around the nation. Woodson built on these existing foundations, inviting the public to extend their study of Black history, increasing chances of acceptance for the new observance.

Woodson’s calculation was apt: response was widespread and positive. Over the next decades the movement grew, far faster than Woodson or the ASNLH (still alive and well, today known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) anticipated. In 1976, fifty years after the first celebration, the Association used its influence to promote the transition from a week’s event to a month-long affair, and a change of m=nomenclature, from “Negro History” to “Black History.” Since the mid-1970s, every American president, Democrat and Republican, has issued proclamations endorsing the Association’s annual theme.


Women’s History Month has a slightly younger pedigree. One version of its origin story, repeated widely, focuses on  its legislative history: in 1981, Congress enacted Public Law 97-28 which authorized and requested the President to proclaim the week beginning March 7, 1982 as Women’s History Week. Throughout the next five years, Congress continued to pass joint resolutions designating a week in March as Women’s History Week. 

What this doesn’t explain is how the Congress got to this point of action. The answer comes from the far West: In 1978, noting that women’s history was virtually absent in the K-12 curriculum, the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County (California) Commission on the Status of Women initiated a Women’s History Week celebration for 1978. The week around March 8, International Women’s Day, was chosen for the observance, and dozens of schools planned special programs for Women’s History Week. The grand finale was a parade and program held in the center of downtown Santa Rosa, California. The idea spread and in 1980,  President Jimmy Carter issued the first presidential proclamation declaring the week of March 8 as National Women’s History Week. From there, it was “on to Congress”—where in 1981 Democratic Representative Barbara Mikulski and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch championed the joint resolution that became P.L. 97-28.

In 1987, after being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project, Congress struck again, enacting Public Law 100-9 which designated the month of March 1987 as Women’s History Month. Between 1988 and 1994, Congress passed additional resolutions requesting and authorizing the President to proclaim March of each year as Women’s History Month.

Since 1995, presidents have issued a series of annual proclamations designating the month of March as Women’s History Month. These proclamations celebrate the contributions women have made to the United States and recognize the specific achievements women have made over the course of American history in a variety of fields and more generally celebrate women’s role in the shaping of this nation.
Like the story of Black History Month, this story is much bigger than can be told here.  It is less easy to discern a single “parent“ for Women’s History Month, but I have read that the group that planned that first observance in Santa Rosa included a librarian (full disclosure: I am married to a librarian. I tend to look for stories featuring fierce librarians. They’re out there. Fierce archivists, too.) It started small but, like Carter Woodson’s 1925 vision, it was an idea that found its time and way.
It is too easy, particularly in these "covidian" days, to let such observances blend into each other, or even to disappear. During this past year, life and death matters may have distracted many of us from celebrating, or even doing more than minimally acknowledging, these months of recognition. To some, they may even seem to make points so obvious that no one could ignore or object to.
But to suggest that these commemorations are no longer needed is, I think, naïve. Even the most basic self-evident truths need repeating, both to catch the ear of new audiences and to remind those who have heard them before both of what they know, and of what they should do. A truth heard often can become a truisim but that does not make it less true, or less necessary. February reminds us that African American history--which is part of the warp of the fabric of our larger national story--matters. The same is true for the month before us: the history of this nation is made of the stories of its whole population, examined, comprehended and cherished in the whole and in its several parts. Months or days honoring particular parts of the society can stand on their own, but the calendar reminds us that they butt up against one another, overlapping, supporting their neighbors, making happy noise but not obscuring what each honors.
It is “meet and just” that these two months should be close neighbors; the proximity of the two observations is particularly appropriate. Supporting this notion, I appeal to the authority of activist, author, orator and civil servant Frederick Douglass:
"When the true history of the antislavery cause shall be written, women will occupy a large space in its pages, for the cause of the slave has been peculiarly woman's cause....Observing woman's agency, devotion and efficiency in pleading the cause of the slave, gratitude for this high service early moved me to give favorable attention to the subject of what is called "woman's rights" and caused me to be denominated a woman's rights man. I am glad to say I have never been ashamed to be thus designated."      --The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 1881 

Life in Early 20th Century Piggott Detailed in Letters by Fatme Myuhtar-May


NEARA recently acquired a new collection of letters, postcards, and personal papers belonging to Agnes Johnson (1903-2001) of Piggott, Arkansas. The collection was formally donated by Agnes’s great-granddaughter, Bess Wilhelms, but it was her grandchildren Allen Waldo and Lisa Waldo Wilhelms, who preserved it after Agnes’s death in 2001.

Agnes was born in November 1903 in Stoddard County near Bloomfield, Missouri, to Dr. John Bess and his wife Josie Lettie Bess. The Bess family moved to Piggott in 1918, when Agnes was 15 years old and her father set up a veterinary practice in town. Agnes lived in Piggott for over seventy years, where she went to school, got married and raised a daughter. It was in Piggott that Agnes wrote and received the letters and postcards, now in the collections of the Northeast Arkansas State Archives. She addressed most of them to her only child, Carolyn Bess Waldo and, later, to her grandchildren Allen and Lisa Waldo of Missouri, as well as to her siblings. In them she touched on daily life in Piggott and the love she had for her family.

In 1924, at the age of 21, Agnes married Louis Johnson of Piggott; the couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1974. According to granddaughter Lisa Wilhelms, Agnes grew up on a dirt road across the street from Louis, “who eventually would become the love of her life.” Agnes often told her family the story of how she and Louis “used to throw a ball across the road and play catch with each other as children.” “Papaw,” according to Allen Waldo, “was a bricklayer and … [h]e was involved in many of the brick buildings in and around Piggott.”

Agnes was gainfully employed outside the home for most of her adult life, too. For over forty years, she worked in three historically significant department stores in Piggott: Tucker's Grand Leader, Wall’s Department Store, and Janes’ Department Store. Some of Agnes’s letters contain small samples of fabric, likely from textiles sold in these stores, which she showed to her family members in case they wanted a dress or a quit made from it. According to Lisa’s memories, “she loved working with people and doing for others,” so her department-store career fit well with her personality.

 Agnes also loved quilting and sewing. “Her talent with the sewing machine was quite impressive,” Lisa recalled. “I still have a tub of dresses that I wore as a child that she designed, developed the patterns, and created for me. Each dress was beautifully tailored and finished.” Apparently, Agnes also designed and sewed her daughter Carolyn’s wedding dress.  With her sisters, she “created quilts and afghans from any scrap of material she could find,” with many of the quilts being “hand sewn and quilted.” Agnes lived through the Great Depression, so she learned to make use of anything and everything, producing things both beautiful and useful. “I was always amazed at what she could design and create with small scraps of fabric, wood, and yarn,” Lisa said. “Every year for Easter, my brother and I would have beautiful new clothes upon our arrival [in Piggott from St. Louis] for the holiday.”

Lisa inherited and preserved many of the quilts her grandmother Agnes made. When Bess Wilhelms – Lisa’s daughter – first contacted NEARA about donating her great-grandmother’s correspondence, she also asked if we might be interested in her impressive collection of quits. NEARA is primarily an archive but we put Ms. Wilhelms in touch with a sister agency, the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock. Currently, Lisa Waldo Wilhelms, her brother Allen, and her daughter Bess are in contact with museum staff about donating some of Agnes’s quilt work.

Agnes retired in 1969. It was in her retirement years that her letter-writing burgeoned. Granddaughter Lisa remembers:

She was devoted to her husband and loved her family, as you can tell from the number of letters included in the collection. I remember her sitting at her desk sometimes in the evening writing letters to relatives. When my mother [Carolyn] … moved “far away” to St. Louis, I think, the letters between them were even more important to her [Agnes], given the high cost of a long-distance telephone call.


For nearly five decades, Agnes sent and received hundreds of letters and postcards. Many of them are now part of the Agnes Johnson Papers, preserved at NEARA. A finding aid for the collection will be available on the Arkansas State Archives’ website in the near future.