Reading 100-year-old newspapers gets a little depressing, what with all the awfulness that makes news be news — murders, drownings, suicides, lynchings, mind-numbing road improvement districts, overblown infighting in government, obvious dummies in government, name-calling and, oh, so many awful ways to die if you were a horse. Oh, my gosh.
Also, in a maddening feature of 1921 — the year we’re exploring in the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat archives — the heavy stuff is leavened generously with flippant, ill-intended or naive racial characterizations and a relentless mockery of poor folks, all presented in the most elegant prose.
And yet, open those pages and a wondrously parallel universe — the past — twinkles into view.
From the week that was printed 100 years ago, we could read about the official announcement from the federal War Department that Camp Pike in North Little Rock would be abandoned and Fort Roots handed over to the Public Health Service, a bureau of the Treasury Department. That would be educational. But would it be as useful as the information that, in 1921, zoos bought exotic animals by the square inch?
A Page 1 item in the July 26 Gazette reported pachydermal pricing from a newly imported cargo of zoo animals at San Francisco, and elephants were going for $3.34 per square inch.
Before World War I, the story said, elephants cost $1.67 per square inch, or about $1,500 for a medium elephant. The report added:
“Now they are quoted at $3,000 and upwards — mostly upwards.”
MEANWHILE, AT PARAGOULD
One Clarence Warren, living 7 miles east of the city, was cultivating garlic. He intended to harvest 6,000 pounds from 1 ¼ acres. He had been offered 33 cents a pound for his crop, which would need to be cured before he could deliver it and drive home with his $1,980 or so.
He said the work of production was much less than that required to cultivate cotton.
For Arkansas farmers, growing garlic in earnest — redolent fields of it, waving in the breeze — was a new industry dating from about 1913 when C.S. Burkholder and M.S. Tuggle of Booneville converted 1,500 pounds of seed into $4,800. Their testimony persuaded others, and by 1916, hard times for farmers, the Gazette reported on folks planting garlic as a standby cash crop.
But garlic and its cousin wild onions were known to taint the flavor of cow milk. The cows didn’t necessarily have to eat the garlic to pick up an odd flavor; it might insinuate itself into the milk as they were merely strolling around nearby.
So you had to consider all your revenue streams before leaping into garlic.
AND THEN, AT CONWAY
For years, customers at Greeson Drug Store were in the habit of dropping pennies and nickles into a box called “the kitty.” The cash in the box offset the cost of a daily call from Conway to the Gazette office in Little Rock to obtain baseball scores from the Southern, National and American league teams.
But the kitty had died, the Gazette reported July 29. The professional Travelers team at Little Rock had killed it by losing.
Eventually, only enough coins came in to justify calling once every three days. On July 28, when the report came back that the Chattanooga Lookouts had won a three-game series over the Travs, the final game by a score of 14-7, Greeson’s dumped the dead kitty into the dustbin.
Two unmasked men robbed the Bank of Bauxite shortly before 4 p.m. July 28. After looting the vault of about $9,000, they kidnapped Mrs. J.S. Rucker, assistant cashier, and J.A. Parson, president of the Bauxite Mercantile Co., at Rucker’s request.
Estimated as 21 and 30 years old, the robbers had intended to lock her and Parson inside the vault, but she pleaded with them not to, because they would suffocate. The head cashier, the only person who knew the combination, was in Little Rock.
The bandits looked at one another. Then they marched the two at gunpoint out of the bank and over to the railroad viaduct, where they forced jitney driver H.M. Leach to give them all a ride.
At the Rock Island Railroad crossing outside town, the robbers paid Leach $2 to return Rucker and Parson to the bank. Then the bandits ran into the woods.
Impressed by Rucker and Parson’s close call, the July 30 Gazette editorial page urged the designers of vaults to do something quickly to protect bank officers from less compassionate bandits:
“It is a familiar practice for bandits, when robbing a bank in daylight, to lock bank officers, employees or other persons in the vault. This has happened so many times, and the great American bank robbing industry seems so well established, that we venture to suggest to vault manufacturers the desirability of equipping vaults with a device by which they could be opened from the inside.”
BUT THEN, OF COURSE …
Two days after the editorial appeared, the Gazette published another story about bank vaults.
Turns out, it wasn’t all that hard to get out of a vault — according to Robert E. Wait, secretary of the Arkansas Bankers Association, who contacted the paper after reading its editorial. AS the paper put it:
“The removal of a few screws, Mr. Wait says, from the inside of the door of the ordinary bank vault will allow it to open.”
Just keep a screwdriver, a candle and matches inside your vault at all times. Also, instruct employees in their use.
“The mistake most of our bankers make is in assuming that it is the other fellow’s bank that is going to be robbed,” Wait said.
Another correspondent had said the same thing. John V. Hughes, a piano and organ dealer at Clarksville, had informed the Gazette that he could get out of an ordinary bank vault if he was locked on the inside, and it would take him from one to five minutes.
Wait seized the occasion to share a few tips for bankers from the latest number of Arkansas Banker magazine. They included obvious ideas such as installing some well proven and reliable electrical burglar alarm system and also building your next new vault using reinforced concrete according to approved plans. And then telling everyone you can how strong your vault is.
Other, less obvious precautions:
◼️ Never leave your bank open in the care of only one employee at lunchtime. Just close the bank at lunchtime.
◼️ Keep the vault door closed and partly locked during business hours. Only keep enough cash in the drawer and on the counter to make change: “A big pile of money in sight is more tempting to the robber than it is confidence inspiring in the customer.”
◼️ Keep a good revolver in the vault along with the screwdriver, candle and matches. Also keep one outside the vault. Make sure they are loaded.
◼️ Pay attention to strangers, peddlers and suspicious-looking parties, so you can provide reliable descriptions. And keep “quiet tabs” on the personal habits of all your employees.
◼️ Do no banking at night:
“The best advertisement a bank can have is for passers-by after dark to see everything locked up tight, lobby clean, desks in nice shape and the all-night light in front of vault or safe burning brightly. Night work in a bank may indicate to some people that you have insufficient help or incompetent help — it often raises a question mark in the minds of those who observe it.”
So there you go. Talking bandits into kidnapping you was unnecessary, even in 1921.