The forgotten rebellion 

Drought-stricken Arkansas farmers only wanted food for their families. They stirred America.

click to enlarge STILL THERE: Herschel Archer today and in photo with Will Rogers.
  • STILL THERE: Herschel Archer today and in photo with Will Rogers.

Today, England, Arkansas, seems to be the most normal small farm town in the South.

Its hopes and heartaches are in the cotton fields, the football field, and one more verse of an altar call at one of its abundance of Baptist churches.

Every weekday, the highway lanes going out of town are busier than those coming in. Most drivers return at sunset, after an eight-hour shift in Stuttgart, Pine Bluff or Little Rock.

Others drive away and never return, leaving a population of 3,362, or 2,972, depending on which Welcome to England sign greets you. It is big enough for a mini-Kroger and Sonic Drive-In, too small for a Wal-Mart or Olive Garden.

God is on their side, but prayers for rain have not been answered, and the cost of fuel to run the tractors is near an all-time high.

It’s the gray days between harvesting and planting, giving folks in the coffee shops, post office and feed stores time to wonder who will be the next farmer to surrender.

It is Jan. 3, 2006, and there is no hint that 75 years ago to the day the course of American history was changed by farmers who converged on England, demanding food for their starving families.

“Our children are crying for food, and we are going to get it.”

Some old-timers claim the so-called “England food riot” never happened. Others say it damned sure did. But most in England — or Arkansas or the nation — have never heard of it.

But for those who read the newspapers across America in the days after Jan. 3, 1931, it was hard to miss the drama.

“500 Farmers Storm Arkansas Town Demanding Food for Their Children,” read the front page of the New York Times.

“Disease and Hunger Stalk England, Ark. School Children in Rags; Help Needed at Once,” reported the Chicago Daily Tribune.

“Our children are crying for food, and we are going to get it,” was a quote attributed to the rioting farmers. “We’re not beggars!” “We will work for any amount if we can get it. We’re not going to let our families starve!”

Stories described how tenant farmers around England had run out of options. The land was parched, their livestock frail, the local bank had closed, the lard and flour buckets were empty.

“People straggled along the county roads begging for food” from homes and churches, a 91-year-old lifetime England-area resident recently recalled. “There was no welfare, no Social Security, no nothing back then.”

The hard conditions were not unique to England; they were pervasive throughout the South. But on Jan. 3, Lonoke County tenant farmer H.C. Coney was inspired by a distressed visitor to his house. As he described it (dialect and all) in The New Republic magazine:

“We all got pretty low on food out there, and some was a-starvin’. Mebbe I was a little better fixed than most, ’cause we still had some food left. But when a woman comes over to me a-cryin’ and tells me her kids haint’ et nothing for two days, and grabs me and says, Coney what are we a-goin’ to do? then somethin’ went up in my head.”

Coney said he got his truck, picked up some neighbors and drove into England where a crowd of hungry men became a mob.

The American Red Cross received the brunt of the anger. The agency was responsible for handing out food vouchers for the needy, but the England office had exhausted its supply. Coney said he was upset at the Red Cross for trying to shoulder the whole burden of relief efforts while lobbying against federal aid.

A few farmers were armed, the news said, but there was no violence. The protestors were mollified when the Red Cross got permission from a regional office to issue more vouchers, and when local merchants voluntarily distributed food without payment.

Farmers dispersed and took food home, while one witness — a part-time stringer for the Associated Press newswire — dialed his editors.

“The England food riot stands out as a cancerous abscess.”

Were there 50 or 500 farmers? Were they lazy or previously prosperous? Did the Red Cross and merchants respond because of threats or generosity? Was it spontaneous or well organized — maybe even Communists were involved, as one Ohio congressman claimed?

The primary dispute is whether the events of Jan. 3 could genuinely be portrayed as a “riot” or “rebellion.”

“The farmers meant business, and I’m sure there was a lot of tension, but I’m sure it was sensationalized” in the national media, said Jerry Jackson, longtime editor of the weekly England Democrat.

But 75 years ago, precise details of the England riot became insignificant. After the news, “Drought-stricken Arkansas became a metaphor for anxieties spawned by the Depression,” wrote historian Ben Johnson in Arkansas in Modern America, 1930-1999.

The finger-pointing, the debates in Congress, and media-spinning began.

Emboldened by the headlines, Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe T. Robinson, born in Lonoke County and the first Arkansan to reach national political prominence, moved to earmark federal dollars for loans — “not handouts” — for drought relief and questioned the “intelligence” of those who thought the well-meaning Red Cross programs were adequate.

Ignorance of the enormity of the problem was the issue, the senator said, claiming the riot in England was not the first event of its kind in Arkansas and that others had been “suppressed.”

The refrain by Robinson and others: How could the U.S. government in good conscience find a way to feed plow mules from surplus grains while watching its people starve?

For President Herbert Hoover, the idea of budgeting federal funds to fight poverty and feed the hungry was not new, but it was risky, and could erode the incentive for citizens to work.

Only in natural disasters (such as the Great Flood of 1927 that engulfed about one-fifth of Arkansas) had Washington responded with dollars. This crisis could be overcome, ultimately through self-reliance plus relief from local communities, churches and charities.

Arkansas Gov. Harvey Parnell, a Democrat, joined the Red Cross in attempting to minimize the “situation” and reassure all that conditions were not critical. Parnell refused a request from the mayor of England to put the National Guard on standby.

“The people of Arkansas and the American Red Cross are taking care of the situation in a satisfactory manner …” Parnell wrote the media. “Conditions, although not so good because of the drought adversities, are not alarming and indications are that a normal condition is being resumed.”

News reporters quickly came to Arkansas tenant farms and cabins, reporting harrowing details and statistics. They introduced the world to the faces and names of the starving. And they looked for someone to blame.

“The England food riot stands out as a cancerous abscess upon our distribution in this land of enormous surpluses,” wrote the Newark (N.J.) Journal. “They [England farmers] live in a country whose president, it has been said, has a heart that beats in sympathy with suffering humanity; but whose heart is, in fact, as cold, selfish and unsympathetic as the heart of a water-moccasin.”

One letter to the editor in a Chicago paper stated, “While our well fed senators debate upon various subjects, honest and industrious citizens beg for a little food to ward off starvation. The governor of Arkansas should resign at once and permit someone to assume the office who could meet an emergency.”

In California, a 51-year-old man read the news from England, then sat down at his typewriter.

“Paul Revere woke up Concord. These birds woke up America.”

It was no surprise Will Rogers noticed the stories from Arkansas. As the world’s first multimedia star, Rogers relied on current events as the source of his aw-shucks satire in newspapers, radio, stage and screen.

For Rogers, it was like reading hometown news. In 1864, his father and father-in-law fought for the South in the Battle of Pea Ridge. In 1879, he was born to a ranching family in the Cherokee Nation west of the Arkansas border. And in 1908, he was married in Benton County to Betty Blake of Rogers.

Millions of readers of Rogers’ syndicated column were accustomed to his jabs at out-of-touch politicians, but his Jan. 7 column was like the kick of a Delta plow mule:

“We’ve got a powerful government, brainy men, great organizations, many commissions, but it took a little band of 500 simple country people (who had no idea they were doing anything historical) to come to a country town store and demand food for their wives and children, they hit the hearts of the American people, more than all your Senatorial pleas, and government investigations. Paul Revere woke up Concord. These birds woke up America.”

And he wrote, “… you let this country get hungry and they are going to eat, no matter what happens to budgets, income taxes or Wall Street values. Washington mustn’t forget who rules when it comes to a showdown.”

But to Rogers, the Arkansas crisis inspired more than a daily column.

On Jan. 16, Rogers visited Hoover in Washington, D.C., to appeal for federal relief for drought victims. His idea was dismissed.

The following week, Rogers went to see the Arkansas drought first hand, visiting England, Pine Bluff and the region, accompanied by local media and Red Cross officials.

When Rogers toured the rural Central High School northwest of England, someone pulled aside a 9-year-old barefoot boy in overalls for a picture with the Hollywood star. The boy, Herschel Archer, still lives in England, where he was born in 1921.

Archer said he saw the photo published in the Arkansas Gazette and years later in a Will Rogers biography.

“It [the Rogers visit] was real important to the community here,” Archer said. “He was really a down-to-earth sort of person.”

In his column, Rogers wrote: “Just come from England, Ark., the town you read about, where the people wanted food. It seemed might peaceful and happy now. Went to the school there, where the children were being fed at lunch time, all they wanted of fine vegetable soup, cooked in a big vat that had been a whisky still and presented to the cause by a patriotic moonshiner.”

Archer said he indeed ate soup cooked in a converted moonshine vat, and while he never went hungry, poverty surrounded him. “[Classmates] thought I was rich because I had a nickel or so,” he said.

From Little Rock on Jan. 22, Rogers announced on national radio that he was organizing an ambitious tour — hop-scotching on a plane across Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas to perform 50 shows in 18 days — to raise money for the Red Cross drought relief program.

For cities and small towns hosting the “relief tour,” it was uplifting and momentous. Since Rogers debuted in “all-talking” movies in 1929, his popularity had soared. In 1934, the year before he died, he was the number one box-office star, edging out Shirley Temple and Clark Gable. Folk singer Woody Guthrie contended “the second most famous man who ever lived on the face of the earth was Will Rogers.” Jesus Christ was first.

The Arkansas Democrat, which dubbed the humorist a “drought relief crusader,” reported $38,191 was donated by Arkansans during 19 performances that started in Rogers on Feb. 9 and ended in Texarkana on Feb. 12.

The Stuttgart stop was typical. A crowd greeted a late-arriving Rogers and his entourage at an airport. They were escorted by local dignitaries to an overcrowded theater where Rogers was the headline performer.

In Little Rock, Rogers gave two performances. The Democrat reported, “The wit kept the audiences in an uproar of laughter with his wisecracks which have made him famous throughout the civilized world.”

The humorist told a crowd in Helena that Arkansas did not owe him any thanks for his relief tour, that the state had paid him when he married Betty Blake.

“The tour, in conjunction with Will Rogers’ assorted national radio pleas, ultimately saw $3 million raised for the American Red Cross. Those donations checked the growth of an already catastrophic situation. For example, the agency fed 150,000 people per week in Arkansas in January 1931. By the end of February, that number had increased to 500,000 a day,” one historian wrote.

“The more I get into examining [the food riot], the more I believe it had an impact on Will Rogers, and through him, I believe it touched many, many people,” said Steven Gragert, curator of the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, Okla. In October 1931, Rogers had not given up on promoting more federal relief, and he found a chance on yet another national radio broadcast, where he had been invited by Hoover to join him in lifting spirits and convincing local citizens to support local relief efforts.

Rogers encouraged local action, but he “got off message.” He insisted government should do much more to assist the 7 million jobless and “arrange some way of getting a more equal distribution of wealth in the country.” Rogers said “the most unemployed and hungriest citizen had contributed to the wealth of every millionaire,” so they deserved more help in desperate times.

“It wasn’t the working class that brought this condition on at all. It was the big boys themselves who thought that this financial drunk we were going through was going to last forever. They over-merged and over-capitalized, and over-everything else. That’s the fix that we’re in now.”

The next year, Will Rogers was at the convention hall when Franklin Roosevelt received the first of his four Democratic nominations for president.

“It is not impossible that Herbert Hoover’s career in the White House turned on the accidental inspiration of a tenant farmer in Arkansas.”

If organizers of the England food riot tipped the political scales against Hoover, as an American Heritage magazine article suggested in 1972, it does not take much of a leap to declare the town the birthplace of the New Deal and the layers of government relief programs that have been introduced since. Do not expect anyone to erect such a sign.

The event isn’t in the history lessons in England schools because, they said, it is not part of the curriculum “framework” offered by the Arkansas Department of Education.

There are no plaques where H.C. Coney stood, no monument where Will Rogers performed.

England Democrat editor Jackson, whose paper did not recognize the anniversary, said there is no intentional oversight; it’s simply that a younger generation has a declining interest in history.

It may be more curious why Arkansas, which embraces the death of a teen-age Confederate spy, a hanging judge, a Flood of ’27, a Crisis of ’57, and Shootout of ’69, has not found a greater place in its lore for the England food riot.

Oklahoma has spent a half-century distancing itself from the Joads. Possibly Arkansas is not eager to be symbolized by its own truckload of bedraggled farmers.

Yet, there are echoes in England of that day 75 years ago.

More than 500 children in the England school system receive free or discounted lunches.

In a town where 18 percent of residents live below the poverty level, Kroger each day serves multiple shoppers who use food stamps or other federal programs at the check-out registers.

Each weekday, the Lonoke County Council on Aging feeds about 28 at a senior citizens center, and delivers 26 meals to homebound in the area. Every four months or so, they also deliver commodities to those who qualify.

Center director Emma Bridgman has guided the England senior citizens programs for 25 years. “Our goal is one-third of the daily guidelines of vegetables, protein, bread and dessert,” she said. “We’re constantly fighting budget cuts. We just have to have more fund-raisers, like raffles on quilts.”

From the Cooperative Extension to student loans, from Social Security to child-support payments and work-assistance programs, for better or worse, the economic fabric of England is stitched with federal dollars.

And those who debate the folly or necessity of so many federal programs seem as busy as ever.

In the chambers of the U.S. House, Rep. Marion Berry, a Democrat whose father was from England, made headlines in the current session of Congress after Republicans proposed a budget that would cut more than 250,000 people from food stamp rolls, reduce student loan programs, and scale back other benefits.

Republicans argued poor Americans would benefit from the legislation because it would reduce the budget and eliminate waste.

“What could be mean about demanding that services to people who need them the most are administered effectively, wisely, and efficiently?” one GOP congressman said. “Do we not have a special obligation to root out those dollars that have been directed to the people who need them the most but are not finding their way there because of inefficiencies in government?”

Berry, whose district includes Lonoke County and England, thought cuts should come elsewhere.

“I’m absolutely amazed at the [Republican] boys over there. I wonder what you are going to do when you grow up,” he said. He said Republicans’ comments demonstrated an “unparalleled display of ignorance, stupidity and just down-hard foolishness.”

“I cannot believe that you have the audacity to come to this floor with this assault on women and children and try to portray it, as this Howdy Doody-looking nimrod said, that he wanted to talk about family values.”

Berry’s comments were declared improper “discourse” by some. They were noted in humorist Dave Barry’s 2005 year-in-review of wacky events. The Arkansas congressman said he does not regret his words (“Probably I should”), but he hoped they contributed to House passage of a budget that included less severe cuts to social programs than originally proposed.

“I don’t have any problem cutting spending, but we can go through that federal budget and save $40 billion or $50 billion and not hurt anybody,” Berry said. “I thought it was interesting that the only targets [of the GOP proposal] had to do with single parents, low-income people, foster care, child-support enforcement, and changes in welfare-to-work.

“I wish we could get as much focus on what I think are misappropriations of funds for people like Halliburton as much as someone who might misuse $40 worth of food stamps.”

“England is in a mighty fertile country and this year they really raised something.”

Maybe it is more appropriate that the legacy of England would not be born from the events of January 1931, but rather from an even more obscure event seven months later.

By then, many England farmers were prospering again. Ample rain had fallen, and crops were bountiful.

At the same time, England farmers noticed news of a “hunger march” in Henryetta, Okla. The stories said 500 paraded on the streets, carried an American flag, prayed for God’s guidance, and begged for food.

On Aug. 15, millions of Americans read yet another newspaper column about England farmers:

“Say, you talk about a people and a place being appreciative of what was done for them when they was in trouble. Remember England, Ark., they had all the trouble during the drought last fall? Well, there is the coal-mining section of Oklahoma (same as the coal mines everywhere) they were mighty hard up. Well, this England, Ark., just loaded up thirteen heaping truckloads of food and sent them to Henryetta, Okla. Now that’s remembering ain’t it? England is in a mighty fertile country and this year they really raised something. Course they can’t get nothing for it, but ain’t it nice they help others out with it?” Signed, Will Rogers.


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