The Arkansas History Commission

The Arkansas History Commission was created by the General Assembly in 1905, by Act 215 which was enacted on April 27, established the Arkansas History Commission, making it one of the oldest state agencies. The History Commission is composed of seven members appointed by the Governor with the approval of the State Senate. Members serve seven-year terms staggered so that one expires each January. Members may be appointed for additional terms.

When originally formed as a state board, the office was to identify and collect historic resources that were related to the state and to publish historical journals. Dr. John Hugh Reynolds, a University of Arkansas history professor and later the president of Hendrix College in Conway (1913-1945), provided guidance to the board during its early years. He was responsible for initiating the collection and identification of historical resources related to Arkansas.

Dallas T. Herndon, the first director, was employed in 1911; Herndon stated that year, "The Commission exists to gather the records of all of Arkansas's local and state activities to the public.", and he served for forty-two years. During most of his tenure the offices and archives were located in the present State Capitol. In 1951, when the Old State House was restored, the History Commission was moved into a part of the west wing of that building.

The first permanent home of the agency was in 1912 in the then-new State Capitol Building. As part of the commission, Herndon established the State Historical Museum, which included a portrait gallery of famous Arkansans, a World War Museum with many World War I artifacts, and exhibits showcasing Arkansas history from Territorial days to the modern era. During his tenure, Herndon wrote and edited many books on Arkansas history, the best known of which is his 1922 Centennial History of Arkansas.

Subsequent years brought changes to the Commission, many of which had a negative impact on its mission. In 1935, expansion of state government forced the office into smaller quarters, with most of its irreplaceable collections having to be stored in the dark and clammy State Capitol basement. The museum was moved as well, and for the next 15 years, the agency and its small staff struggled to stay afloat. Restoration of the original state capitol building (now the Old State House Museum) in 1951 provided the commission with a new, expansive home.

In 1953 Ted R. Worley became the new director of the history commission and proceeded to initiate much needed improvements during his seven-year term. Archival storage and a microfilming program which allowed fragile and rare documents to be recorded for prosperity were two major accomplishments. These changes enabled the archives to be reopened for public visitation after many years of inaccessibility, allowing for historical and genealogical research. Bad health caused Worley to resign in 1960 when he was replaced by Dr. John L. Ferguson. Under Ted R. Worley, a three-story annex was added to the west wing.

John L. Ferguson served as State Historian from 1960 until 2005. Under his direction, the History Commission became a part of the Department of Parks and Tourism in 1971, and moved into its present quarters in the One Capitol mall Building in 1979.

Dr. Ferguson continued Worley's vision by expanding the collection of books, pamphlets, microfilm and manuscripts. One of the major acquisitions was a large microfilm collection of records and source materials relating to the Civil War obtained from the National Archives. In addition, Ferguson began expanding the archives' holdings of U.S. Census records and proceeded to increase the in-house microfilming program.

Dr. Ferguson's arrival and his involvement in improving the commission's collections coincided with an unprecedented increase in interest in Arkansas history and genealogy. A total of 552 patrons used the department's research facilities in 1961. Within two years the total more than doubled to approximately 1,400. By 1966, usage was up to 2,000 and by the middle 70s, the number of researchers had risen to over 5,000 annually. New facilities were authorized in 1974 by the Arkansas General Assembly, allowing Ferguson to work alongside the National Archives to customize the design to fit the archives' specific needs. In 1979 the offices were opened in the Multi-Agency Complex on the Capitol Mall.

It formed the first state-run historic preservation program in 1969. In 1971 it became a division of the Department of Parks and Tourism with Dr. Ferguson becoming the first director. At that time the division included the history commission, the Old State House Museum, the Arkansas Territorial Restoration and the Historic Preservation program. Results of state government reorganization left the archives with Parks and Tourism while the other agencies became a part of the new Department of Natural and Cultural Heritage in 1975. Today that agency is known as the Department of Arkansas Heritage.

The commission continued to grow and evolve under Dr. Ferguson's tutelage, including playing an integral part in the 1976 American Bicentennial celebration. Also, the Arkansas Black History Advisory Committee was created in 1991 to collect black historical memorabilia for the archives, to encourage Arkansas black history research, and to assist the Arkansas Department of Education in the development of African-American materials for use in public schools. The creation of a Web site (www.ark-ives.com) in 1996 allowed the commission to provide access to historical resources, including over 12,000 digital images, to people worldwide. A traveling exhibit program was added in 1997 to provide free displays to museums, libraries, universities and other cultural and/or historical organizations.

Dr. Ferguson's arrival and his involvement in improving the commission's collections coincided with an unprecedented increase in interest in Arkansas history and genealogy. A total of 552 patrons used the department's research facilities in 1961. Within two years the total more than doubled to approximately 1,400. By 1966, usage was up to 2,000 and by the middle 70s, the number of researchers had risen to over 5,000 annually. New facilities were authorized in 1974 by the Arkansas General Assembly, allowing Ferguson to work alongside the National Archives to customize the design to fit the archives' specific needs. In 1979 the offices were opened in the Multi-Agency Complex on the Capitol Mall.

Wendy Richter became the agency's fourth director in May 2005. Today, the agency continues the tradition of preserving Arkansas's documentary heritage by collecting and providing access to manuscript materials, maps, books, visuals, family histories, and various county, state, and federal records. The Commission serves thousands of patrons and hosts several million visits to this website each year.

The Commission's current mission is to keep and care for the official archives of the state, collecting materials which impact the history of Arkansas from the earliest times, copy official records and other historical data, and encourage historical research.

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