During the Christmas break of 1953, I did research for a paper I was writing for a college class, “Parties and Elections.”
During the Christmas break of 1953, I did research for a paper I was writing for a college class, "Parties and Elections."
The title of the paper was "Politics in Sharp County." Sharp was a poor hill county in North Arkansas with a population of 9,000. In spite of its limited resources, it maintained two courthouses, one in Evening Shade, my home town, and another in Hardy, the county's largest town with 500 residents. Initially, the justification for the two county seats was that Strawberry River ran through the county and there were no bridges. Perhaps this is where the expression, "I'll be there if the creek don't rise," originated.
My research involved interviewing present and past county officials, faction leaders and county workers. This was convenient since the court house was located within 100 yards of our home. My great grandfather had given the land for the court house. I had played there as a child. On election night I was in the clerk's office as people streamed in to learn the results. On occasion as a youngster, I would serve as master of ceremonies as the candidates stumped the county. I had played baseball with some of the officials. Trusting that I would be discreet in handling the information, they were very forthcoming. I was surprised at their candor.
A faction leader and former teacher of mine named the individuals whose vote you could buy. The county clerk enumerated ways the absentee ballots could be manipulated. Another official told of giving liquor to this guy who told him, "I know some boys down on the river that I can put on the right track." As it turned out on election day, our man was in the bed drunk and didn't even vote. The official told me he had learned to dole the liquor out in smaller quantities.
At that time the Republican Party, which had chiefs to handle the patronage but no Indians, was not a force in Arkansas. But there were two factions of the Democrat Party. The Democrats conducted both a preferential primary, which reduced the field to two candidates and a general primary which nominated the candidate. This primary for all practical purposes was the election since the Republicans didn't field a slate of candidates locally for the November General Election.
To me the most interesting part of the paper was the campaign. With no radio or television coverage and just a weekly newspaper, the candidates had to bargain with the voters directly. The successful candidate would personally contact approximately 95 percent of the voters. The old pros called it "bushwacking." One office holder put it this way, "the candidate who is not willing to climb a barbed wire fence, plow a few rounds, hoe a couple rows of cotton, milk a cow, feed the chickens, rock a screaming baby or do occasional churning" is not likely to be successful in Sharp County.
Another told me that, "A contact in town is good, one at home is better, but one in the field is best of all." And, "when the sweat bees are bad, you have a conversation to start with. If you are invited to lunch, you had better accept."
Another campaigner said he had eaten a mile of Vienna sausage during his campaign. A local candidate from Evening Shade complained that his opponent had threatened to move the town spring to Ash Flat. They never moved the spring, (it later went dry) but after a 100-year controversy, the courthouse was finally moved to Ash Flat.
A faction leader borrowed my paper and made it mandatory reading for his candidates. Sorting through things after my mother's death in 1980, I found the yellowing pages of this report.
Roy Shaver writes a weekly columnist for the Daily News.