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The Arkansas News

1990 Spring
Women in Arkansas

« Back to 1990 Spring Issue Articles

Bernie Babcock Gained Fame as Author

CONWAY COUNTY – Bernie Babcock, the well-known author and founder of the Museum of Natural History and Antiquities, has retired this year of 1953 to “Journey’s End,” her house on the top of Petit Jean Mountain.

Bernie Smade read her first temperance essay at Arkansas’ Women’s Christian Temperance Union Convention in 1884, when she was 16 years old. At that time men’s drinking was viewed as the cause of abuse and poverty that afflicted the lives of many women. The young girl who became author Bernie Babcock used her spirit and intelligence to fight injustice.

Widowed at 29 with five children, Babcock began earning a living as a writer. Her first book, The Daughter of the Republican, had a prohibition theme. It sold 100,000 copies in six months.

More books followed, but she did not have a glamorous life. Babcock went to work for the Arkansas Democrat for $12.50 a week as editor of the society page and book reviewer. She also wrote features and editorials, though she was never given credit for them because women were not supposed to write editorials. She was the first female telegraph editor in the South.

Working at the newspaper by day, Babcock wrote stories, novels, and plays by night. Her works became so well-known that in 1903 she was named to Who’s Who for writers, the first Arkansas woman to achieve that honor.

In 1910, Babcock and her children moved to Chicago. She worked for a newspaper and wrote stories in support of temperance and women’s suffrage. She spent part of two winters in New York City studying the social life of “submerged poverty people.” She helped get higher wages for female garment workers.

Back in Arkansas, Babcock read a charming story about Abraham Lincoln’s early love for Ann Rutledge. Her interest became the book The Soul of Ann Rutledge. It was an international best seller and went through 14 printings. She wrote four more books about Lincoln.

Babcock wrote over 40 novels, but she was paid only $300 to $500 for each. The Great Depression found her almost destitute. On May 24, 1927, she wrote, “no money in sight to pay bills due June One . . . Well — there’s nothing to do but keep trying. Who wants an easy job anyway.”

In 1935, Babcock became folklore editor for the Federal Writers Project. Materials collected included Folkways in Arkansas and The Negro in Arkansas. She also wrote Indians of Arkansas, an account of all tribes represented in the state.

Babcock’s interest in Indian artifacts led her founding of the Museum of Natural History and Antiquities. It was first located on the third floor of the City Hall in Little Rock. After many setbacks, the Arsenal Building in City Park became the museum’s permanent home in 1941. Babcock wrote General Douglas MacArthur, who was born in the Arsenal Building, and later succeeded in having City Park named after the World War II military hero.

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