The Seed and the Story
The Seed and the Story is a bi-weekly column is published every other week in the Post Dispatch and syndicated in the Courier. Columns focus on life in the river valley, including community traditions, the relationship between people and place, storytelling, sustainability, and human rights. Columns sometimes discuss other areas of the state or general discussions of tradition and sustainability, All columns are published online at the Boiled Down Juice, a blog edited by the center director. If you’re a facebook user, you can “like” the blog here and receive the Seed and the Story and other posts in your newsfeed. If you’re a fan of these columns, don’t forget to support the local paper!
The Seed and the Story: Decoration Days
Throughout the month of May area cemeteries celebrate Decoration Day, a time when families bring flowers to their loved one’s graves. Each cemetery designates a specific Sunday of the month for the decoration, and as a child I fondly remember going with my parents and grandparents to decorate graves in Cotton Town, Harkey’s Valley, Chickelah Methodist, and Brearley Cemeteries.
The all-day tradition of dinner on the grounds and community singing had died out by the time I was a child, but there was still a great deal of visiting, especially at Harkey’s Valley. First we’d decorate the graves with bright, silk flowers, sticking the stems into the soft, red clay near the headstones. Once all the family plots were bright with color and blooms, the adults would unload the fold-out chairs and sit around reminiscing about the people buried nearby, great grandparents, aunts and uncles who became mythical figures in my childhood imagination. I’d sit and listen to the stories awhile before heading off with my cousins to chase lizards and explore the older tombstones at the edges of the cemetery.
Because of my family’s stories, I felt like I knew the family buried there, even if they’d been dead for decades. And while I didn’t fully grasp it at the time, Decoration Days helped me to understand, from a very young age, that death wasn’t scary or strange but was instead a fundamental part of being human.
As I grew older and became increasingly interested in living traditions and oral histories, I began to love Decoration Days as a time for family to come together and recognize those we’d lost who helped to create the community we called home. In my adult mind the once mythical figures became real people—-people who built houses, labored in the cotton fields, gave birth to babies, trained mule teams, and worked in the chicken plant. I also began to understand that the dead are never really dead. They are always near, affecting our daily lives in countless ways even if we don’t always recognize this.
Now in my thirties with children of my own, Decoration Days have become increasingly personal. I lost my mother over two years ago, and now I find myself decorating her grave, just like she once decorated her family’s. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking, and strangely peaceful sight to look across Brearely Cemetery the evening of Decoration Day and view the whole cemetery glowing with color. It reminds me that we’ve all lost but also that we all remember. And because we remember, the dead will always be with us. I am deeply thankful that my mother, my father and grandparents taught me this wonderful tradition of honoring and remembering the dead and that I can pass it on to my sons.
What about you? Do you celebrate Decoration Day and/or remember celebrating it as a child? Do you remember the days when people still had singing and dinner on the grounds? Why is this tradition important to you? I’d love to hear your stories and possibly share them in upcoming columns. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a young girl, my mother would frequently take me with her to drop off mail at our 1930s era post office in Dardanelle. She’d always point out the New Deal-era mural hanging above the post master’s door. A three-panel painting depicting the artist’s rendition of industry in the river valley, the two side panels feature men spinning cotton and loading boxes on boats to send down river. In the larger, center panel are white and black men working in the cotton fields. “See those people picking cotton,” my mother would say. “Your grandparents used to pick cotton in Cardon Bottoms.” My mother loved that mural, and fostered in me a deep curiosity about the history of family and community which fuels my work today.
I had the opportunity to visit with Dr. Gayle Seymour, an art historian at the University of Central Arkansas, who studies and advocates for the twenty one Depression-era murals across our state. Whether in the classroom or in the communities, Seymour spreads the word about the importance of these public pieces. The mural in Dardanelle, she explained, was created by Ludwig Mactarian. Born in 1908 in Smyrna and of Armenian descent, Mactarian escaped the Armenian Genocide before coming to New York City at the age of thirteen. Like most mural artists who applied for the Federal Art Project, Mactarian was a largely unknown and out of work. He was hired to create the mural for Dardanelle’s new post office under the Percent for Art model, wherein one percent of the building’s cost was allocated for the creation and installation of community art. This federal program put artists back to work and is known today as one of the most successful public art projects of all time. One thousand four hundred murals were completed nationwide, all for installation in public buildings known for their high traffic and everyday use.
The center panel is what makes the Dardanelle mural particularly daring, Seymour explained. The government specified that all murals focus on regional history, industry and growth. There was little room for challenging the status quo. But Mactarian, a man intimately familiar with injustice, focused on the economically poor black and white families whose labor fueled the industry. At the center of the mural, standing out from the other workers, is a black man carrying a loaded basket of cotton high on his back. From an art historian’s perspective, Seymour explains, the man is a reference to “Atlas supporting the globe.” The artist’s intent, Seymour argues, “is to show [that] the African American sharecropper carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.” Mactarian, man who never visited Dardanelle before coming to install the mural, chose to focus on the human lives and stories behind the industry. His work is one of few in the nation depicting African Americans.
The cotton industry died out in Yell County decades ago, but is still very much a part of our oral history, a subject which needs greater documentation. Mactarian’s suggestion that million-dollar industries are upheld by those men and women who work the hardest, are paid the least, and have the fewest opportunities, is as true today as when the mural was created. The industries, workers, and societal structure may have somewhat changed, but the larger economic and social realities remain.
We’re lucky in Dardanelle. Our post office is still standing and the mural intact, thanks to the hard work of citizens who’ve fought to keep it that way. But the mural needs restoration to prevent decay. There’s been some talk of forming a Friends of the Mural Group (Seymour’s brilliant idea) to raise money for the restoration and help spread the word about its historical and present-day importance.
The Dardanelle Post Office mural is layered with meaning and this column barely skims the surface. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s looked up at the mural and wondered about—maybe even remembered—what it was like to be a sharecropper. What are your thoughts on the mural? Do you have an interest in helping to form a Friends of the Mural group? Send me an email email@example.com or leave a comment below. And if you happen to head to downtown Dardanelle today, visit the post office and take another look. The doors are open twenty-four hours a day.