50 Years After the War on Poverty: ARVAC and Local Stories


The first ARVAC craft co-op board. From the Courier. Image donated to Boiled Down Juice by Sory's granddaughter.

The first ARVAC craft co-op board. From the Courier. Image donated to Boiled Down Juice by Sory’s granddaughter.

This Seed and the Story column originally ran in February of 2014.

January of this year marked the fiftieth anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. In his first State of the Union address on January 8, 1964, Johnson called upon the nation to aggressively fight the 19% poverty rate, exclaiming,“We shall not rest until that war is won.”

Wide-ranging programs and legislation soon followed Johnson’s original decree, including medicare and medicaid programs, Head Start early education programs, the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 (which supplied breakfast foods for children in public schools), numerous small business loan programs to strengthen the business community, and the VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program, just to name a few. By the time he left office the poverty rate had dropped to 12%.

Columnists and leaders on all sides of the political spectrum have written at length about what this fiftieth anniversary means and where we stand nationally with the war on poverty. But what might this anniversary mean on a more local level? Where are these programs today and what’s their legacy in central Arkansas communities?

One of our core goals of this column’s partner organization, the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action, is to research local history and encourage intergenerational dialog around this history, focusing primarily on the stories of everyday people. You may remember from past columns a focus on one local incarnation of the War on Poverty: ARVAC (Arkansas River Valley Area Congress).

In the 1960s the poverty rate for the river valley was about 60%, much higher than the natural average. ARVAC was one of the earliest VISTA programs in the nation and one of the most successful. Early programs included low income housing development in the tradition of regional barn-raising, a short-lived housing cooperative, and a highly successful crafts co-op that allowed regional craftswomen and men to market their wares and generate money for their families. Throughout the 1960s they also housed a seed bank and gave away garden seeds to help ensure local food sufficiency. ARVAC and other VISTA programs like it have a long history of working across racial lines and directly living out the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. An independent organization today, ARVAC still exists, working to promote, as their mission statement says, “economic and social development of the region.”

In ServicePart of our outreach work at the McElroy House includes writing entries for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture and we’re currently working on an entry about the history of ARVAC, early VISTA work, and the role this has played in the community from the 1960s up through today. You can visit the Boiled Down Juice to read our past research about the history of ARVAC in Yell and Pope Counties, including the story of Violet Sory of Delaware, one of the original craft co-op members as told by to us her granddaughter, Connie Shepherd.

Historical and archival research is important. But it can only go so far, and for younger generations like myself and those of us research the with McElroy House organization, it’s no substitute for hearing real stories from people who have experienced this history directly. This isn’t the first time we’ve put out a call for stories about the War on Poverty in this region and probably won’t be the last. We believe this to be an essential part of our recent history and we want to know more.

We you involved in the ARVAC crafts co-op or perhaps the short-lived the housing co-op directed by a woman named Betty Burnet? Were you involved in early ARVAC work or other related VISTA programs throughout Arkansas? You can learn more about our partner project, the McElroy House by visiting www.McElroyhouse.wordpress.com. If you’re interested in learning more about the VISTA programs across the state, be sure and check out the book, In Service to America: A History of VISTA in Arkansas 1965-1985 by Marvin Schwartz. Thanks so much to the late Bob Atkinson for assisting me in researching this history and thanks so much to you for reading!

Previous posts on the War on Poverty and ARVAC:

“Violet Sory and the ARVAC Crafts Co-Op”

“ARVAC, VISTA, and the War on Poverty in Arkansas.” 

“The United People’s Co-Op in Mississippi County.” 


The Seed and the Story is a partnership with the Courier in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.