The Seed and the Story: Bernie Babcock (Federal Writers Project Part 4)

From the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.

The Seed and the Story is a weekly column exploring oral history, community life, traditions, sustainability in the Yell County area. The column is published in the Post Dispatch and is syndicated in the Courier. Please remember to support your local paper and independent media!The Seed and the Story column is just of many features you can find on the Boiled Down Juice. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoy our posts, please tell a friend. And thanks for reading.

This week’s column continues an ongoing look at the Federal Writers’ Project and its role in Central Arkansas. As part of our partnership with the Arkansas Encyclopedia, today’s column profiles one of the Project’s most influential writers: Bernie Babcock.  Born Julia Burnelle Smade, Bernice Babcock lived and worked in Central Arkansas at multiple points during her life. The author of over forty novels and the founder of the Museum of Natural History, Babcock was also the Federal Writers’ Project’s Arkansas folklore editor and contributed a great deal to the Project’s research into Native American and African American history.

A white woman born in Union, Ohio in 1868, according to the Arkansas Encyclopedia author Marcia Camp, Babcock was raised with “a freedom uncharacteristic for that time.” After her family moved to Russellville, at the age of 15 she read “her impassioned essay” at the Women’s Christian Temperance Union Convention, which was later published by the Russellville WCTU. An eclectic thinker and perhaps a bit of a progressive for her time, she went on to write multiple novels, edit the society pages for the Arkansas Democrat, and create, edit, and publish her own magazine of poetry, painting and stories entitled the Sketch Book.  She later lived and worked as a writer and organizer in both Chicago and New York, became submerged in studying the life of Lincoln, and eventually become one of the nation’s leading scholars on his life.  She was fascinated with the supernatural and wrote for the London-based magazine, The Modern Mystic.  And in an effort to offer a counter narrative to H.L. Mencken’s critique of life in the south, she created the state’s first incarnation of the Museum of Natural History in a storefront on Main Street in Little Rock.

Amid all of these other projects, in 1935 she became the editor of the folklore section of the Federal Writers’ Project, placing her in charge of the research on Native American and African American history, including interviews with over 1,000 ex slaves as detailed in the past week’s column. Why Native American and African American history were relegated to only the folklore section of the Project’s research is clearly troubling, yet her work with African American researchers Samuel S. Taylor and Parnella Anderson (more about them in upcoming columns) helped to establish the Arkansas collection as one of the most extensive bodies of research on the lives of former slaves.

In the 1940s Babcock opened the Museum of Natural History in the Arsenal Building of the Little Rock City Park. According to the Encyclopedia, “then in her seventies, she literally lived in the basement and often scaled ladders to paint murals of prehistoric scenes on the walls to enhance exhibits.”  She retired in 1953, billing the museum for donations and received money to start a new venture.

At the age 85 she moved back to the readership area and moved into, Marcia Camp writes, “a small house on top of Petit Jean Mountain, where she began to paint and continued to write. In 1959 she published her only volume of poetry, The Marble Woman. She died at home on June 14, 1962, a few weeks after her ninety-forth birthday; a neighbor found her sitting with a manuscript in her hand. Her mountaintop retreat had been aptly named—Journey’s End.”

You can read more from Marcia Camp’s entry on Bernie Babcock, including information about her early temperance novels, her fictional look at the legacy of slavery in Mississippi, and her writings about Lincoln by visiting the Encyclopedia online here. Do you know about Babcock? Have you read her writings or are familiar with her home on Petit Jean Mountain? The Encyclopedia welcomes readers’ questions, comments and stories, which you can submit by scrolling down to the bottom of the page and clicking on “submit a comment” or “submit a narrative.”

To see previous posts related to the Federal Writers Project in Arkansas visit the Seed and the Story page here. Alos check out last week’s Friday Video here.