Monday, April 16, 2018
One hundred years ago in March, an Arkansas Gazette reporter named C.T. Davis followed 30 revenuers on a manhunt into the community of Fancy Hill in Montgomery County.
His report on the arrests of 12 moonshiners troubled good citizens/developers of Greasy Cove who, he wrote a few weeks later, "conceived the idea that the story as it appeared in the Gazette might, through some process of association, reflect upon the good name of the county."
Davis explains this at the start of a long followup feature in the April 15, 1918, Gazette, about how he was invited back to Montgomery County by some of the good citizens/developers, to right their reputation. Accompanied by circuit court Judge Scott Wood of Hot Springs, former Attorney General Hal Norwood of Little Rock and Brad Smith of Garland County, he spent three days touring about via automobile.
The trip included a return to Fancy Hill, and after the experience of Fancy Hill revisited, the Gazette has nothing to retract from its original story.
In "justice and honesty" Davis continues, "it may be here set out that Montgomery County does not rank supreme in the counties of Arkansas either in wealth, fertility or in scenic grandeur and beauty."
In particular, the unrepentant reporter writes, the White River country or northern Arkansas excel it in beauty of landscape. And yet --
One could build a Chinese wall about Montgomery county and cut it off from all import and export and the county could maintain itself without feeling the loss. In many sections that is practically what is done.
He reports expansively upon the sparsely populated county with its two small towns, Womble and Mount Ida, 50 schools, surprisingly well maintained roads, cornbread, historic DeSoto Trail and probable campground, fervor for Liberty Bonds, and the proliferating descendants of men who once upon a time trod the woods with Albert Pike.
About the middle of the second page of this feature, Davis leaves mere prose behind:
To one who loves the inspiration of lofty mountains, the swaying miles on miles of forest floored with tessellated enamel of the May apple and sweet with the balm of the mountain pine, the crystal clarity and whispering chant of the eternal rivers, it is good to live in Montgomery county. It would be a paradise to sportsmen. In the fall of the year the deer breaks from the forest tangles, and the bell mouth of the fox hound rings through the valley. The quail pipes in every covert, and along the slashes the big greenhead mallard rises from the feast of mast. In the spring the trout and bass rise in the long pools of the rivers, and strike at -- what they strike at I don't know; certainly nothing I had along.
There follows a detailed tale of fishing woe, complete with his hackles and wooden minnows and how he lost each one, and how much line it took with it.
After a weedless wobbler -- which had been sold to him under an ironclad guarantee -- came untied at the top of a cast and whirled out across a field on the far side of the creek, he became aware of an audience. Assorted sized boys were enjoying his humiliation, the latest arriving out of breath to the chides of his fellows:
"Whyn't you run when first I called ye, Buddy?' one of the others was asking. "Ye done missed the best part of it. He's beginning to repeat hisself now, but yuddorter heard him the first two or three of them play purties he hung up in the tree."
Davis reports: "I quit fishing."
If you sense here the mind of a poet, you sense aright.
Charles T. Davis (1888-1945) had joined the Gazette staff after five years as secretary to U.S. Rep. Henry Madison Jacoway. His people were society, as folks used to say. A photograph of one of his sons, Richmond Hill Davis, was published on the Gazette society page simply because he was attractive. But, then, Davis' father, Col. Marcellus Davis of Dardanelle, had been consul to Trinidad under President Grover Cleveland.
According to his obituary in the Dec. 22, 1945, Gazette, C.T. Davis joined the paper as North Little Rock beat reporter before World War I and covered Camp Pike during the war. It appears very likely his was the erudite voice Old News has heard complaining so amusingly about terrible mule-and-automobile chariot races on the road to Camp after ice storms, and laughing at the poor use of semaphore at the Fort Roots hospital.
About that same time, a uniquely annoying but anonymous storytelling reporter showed up in Gazette news columns, serving up brilliant little stories in a style that makes them mostly unrepeatable today.
I have been thinking of that unknown reporter as "Dialect Guy," because he squirreled up his colorful, three- or four-paragraph stories with dialogue rendered in apostrophe-bedizened dialect -- trying to replicate or mock the speech of drunks, black people or immigrants. And yet, give him credit, Dialect Guy noticed and told the stories of "everyday" people.
Was this C.T. Davis? Maybe.
Although most of what he wrote as a reporter went unsigned, he was already a recognizable voice when his byline debuted on the editorial page of the Arkansas Gazette on Dec. 17, 1916, below this poem:
The Dear Little Boy
A little boy
Fell down on Main Street
the other day,
And I picked him up
"Did you fall down,
And he looked up at me
Out of his bright
Dis is d' way I walks.
Under the column logo Jes' Ramblin' Aroun', his daily poems delivered sharp jokes using corn-pone dialect thorny with apostrophes. Often they depicted a gruff character named Oscar. He collected them in two books, Poems in 1923, and Riders in the Sun in 1927.
Also, with his father and brother, outdoors writer Henry P. Davis, he wrote The Stranger, a collection of stories about foxhounds. (According to his obituary, Henry P. worked at the Arkansas Democrat, the Pine Bluff Daily Graphic and The Commercial Appeal at Memphis.)
Mrs. Hay Watson Smith, a formidable Little Rock matron of the early 20th century, once credited C.T. with inventing one of only three jokes about Arkansas that had risen to national currency in her lifetime (which wound up being 1877-1953). To wit: Two Arkansas men went to New York during Prohibition and, when the band played "How Dry I Am," they stood up, thinking it was the national anthem.
But that's not why you'll find the name C.T. Davis in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture today.
In 1923, by concurrent resolutions of both houses, the Arkansas Legislature named him the state's first poet laureate. It appears this post was created for him, because after his death in '45, it sat empty for seven years.
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