REX NELSON: The Rockefeller of Arkansas

In 2009, historian John Kirk found himself a scholar-in-residence at the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY.

“The RAC is a wonderful place to work for many reasons, including its beautiful setting, its consistently professional, knowledgeable and friendly staff, and a large and ever-replenishing array of impressive scholars,” said Kirk, the George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “This has made the RAC not only an archival repository, but also a valuable place to share thoughts and ideas.

“I started with the modest goal of examining the relationship between Winthrop Rockefeller and the civil rights movement in Arkansas. What I discovered convinced me to undertake a much larger study.”

Kirk was born and educated in the UK. He taught at the University of Wales and the University of London before moving to Little Rock in 2010 to head the history department at UALR.

“The Donaghey Endowed Chair provided funding that helped my research,” he says. “This move also placed me in the same city as UALR’s Center for Arkansas History and Culture, home to the extensive Winthrop Rockefeller collection. For more than a decade, I have occupied a number of archivists with requests for documents.”

The result of these years of work is the book “Winthrop Rockefeller: From New Yorker to Arkansawyer, 1912-1956”, which was published earlier this year by University of Arkansas Press.

Rockefeller is my favorite figure in Arkansas history, a man from what was then America’s wealthiest family who moved to a poor rural state in 1953. In January 1967 he became the first governor Republican since Reconstruction and spurred modernization in Arkansas. Rockefeller saved us as a state at the same time that we saved him as an individual.

The late John Ward, who was Rockefeller’s public relations manager from 1964 to 1971, wrote a book in 1978 called “The Arkansas Rockefeller.” It focused on the period from Rockefeller’s arrival in Arkansas until his death in 1973. In 2004, UA Press published “Winthrop Rockefeller, Philanthropist: A Life of Change”, which detailed the charitable efforts of Rockefeller.

Kirk’s book is the first to explore Rockefeller’s early years and the forces that shaped him. Kirk begins with a quote from Rockefeller during a visit with Saturday Evening Post writer Joe Alex Morris to Winrock Farms atop Petit Jean Mountain: “This is my show. It has nothing to do with a project of the Rockefeller family. It’s all mine.”

Kirk writes: “It was September 1956, and Winthrop was 44 years old. At 6-3 years old and weighing a bulky 225 pounds, he was a commanding presence. He was still handsome, even though the creeping signs of middle age were beginning to appear. to show in his sparse dark hair slicked back and his thinning hairline. The soft brown eyes hint at an underlying shyness, contrasting with this more funky, carefree and outgoing demeanor.

“Winthrop’s aquiline nose was unmistakably inherited from his mother’s Aldrich side of the family. Full, shapely lips formed a wide, cheerful, welcoming smile to guests, which revealed tobacco-stained teeth, a product of unfiltered Picayune cigarettes at strong taste he usually liked to smoke. Winthrop’s work shirt and khaki were the norm. When he worked on the farm, he liked to blend in with everyone.

Like so many Arkansans, my family made the trip to Petit Jean to visit the ranch. It was a pride that a Rockefeller chose to live among us.

“The WR brand was visible throughout the various Winthrop businesses,” Kirk writes. “He stood prominently above the corrals at Winrock Farms, and he was etched in the hides of his herd of 400 cherry-red Santa Gertrudis cattle purchased from the King Ranch in Texas, including his $31,000 (equivalent to about $297,000 in 2020 dollars) flagship bull called Rock.

“Winrock Farms had quickly become one of Arkansas’ top tourist attractions. It was located just outside the town of Morrilton and approximately 65 miles northwest of the state capital, Little Rock More than 60,000 people traveled from near and far to watch in wonder the miracle that had occurred on the Montagne du Petit Jean.”

From 1953 to 1956, Rockefeller spent nearly $2 million creating a storefront. It was a sight to behold for residents of one of the poorest states in the country.

“Winthrop had turned the brush and woods into a model cattle ranching operation,” Kirk writes. “After an initial purchase of 927 acres of land, Winrock Farms had grown to 2,400 acres split between the top of the mountain and the valley below. Everyone told Winthrop that it made much more sense to build Winrock Farms entirely in the valley, right next to the water supply he needed to operate, but the view was better from the top of the mountain, and Winthrop’s ever-overflowing enthusiasm never kept him from believing that any obstacle could be overcome.

“Engineers designed a system that included the construction of four lakes, a riverside pumping station, a 25-gallon-per-minute filtration plant, auxiliary power plants, three miles of underground water pipes and two miles of portable aluminum hosepipes to defy conventional wisdom and keep the green summit pastures irrigated Over 350,000 tons of rock were moved for embankment or retaining walls an additional 50,000 tons were crushed to build roads to make the farm accessible.

What was this New Yorker trying to prove in Arkansas?

“It was Winthrop’s secular version of a city on a hill of which its namesake, the Puritan John Winthrop the Elder, would surely have been proud,” writes Kirk. “John Winthrop the Elder told his flock, as they journeyed to the Americas from England to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, that their new home would be a ‘spiritual city on a hill’ , and he warned them that “the eyes of all the people are upon us. In Winthrop Rockefeller’s case, it was the eyes of the rest of the Rockefeller family that were fixed on him.”

Kirk says Rockefeller failed to meet family expectations three times. The first time was due to a poor academic record which saw him leave Yale without a degree. Redemption came to the oil fields of the American Southwest.

The second was his unsuccessful business and civic career in New York before World War II. Redemption came with military service during the war.

The third was her social life after the war and her brief marriage to actress and divorcee Bobo Sears.

“Within 18 months, the couple separated and long and acrimonious divorce proceedings followed,” Kirk writes. “Sensationalized headlines alarmed private and secretive Rockefellers. Winthrop and Bobo finally came to a divorce agreement in 1954. By then, Winthrop had moved to Arkansas. The breakdown of his marriage sparked much soul-searching and reflection.

“For the third time in his life, Winthrop sought redemption. But this time it was different. He longed for a more permanent solution, rather than just a temporary escape. He was, he said. decided, time to finally take his destiny into his own hands and define his own place in the firmament of the Rockefeller family.To do this, he has once again returned to the field.

It wasn’t an oilfield or a battlefield this time. It was rural Arkansas.

“While his brothers were content with paper pushers with desk jobs, happily pulling strings and making decisions behind their desks in large organizations, Winthrop had always dreamed of working with his hands, dealing with practical matters, tackle issues face-to-face on a daily basis, and constantly interact with and shape the environment around him,” Kirk writes.

“He lived his life, metaphorically and often literally, on the ground, with his boots planted firmly to the ground. … In Arkansas, Winthrop found a place where he could continue to sow the seeds of legacy Rockefeller, but one that would also allow him to cultivate them in his own independent and distinctive way.”


Rex Nelson is editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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