100 Years Strong..The Church That Women Built

October 1, 2012 | By More

Arkansas has a history of strong capable women featured in the national press. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton and poet Maya Angelou are among many contemporary Arkansas newsmakers, as was fictional Yell County native Mattie Ross of True Grit fame a few years ago. But for real life grit, a proper group of Presbyterian Church ladies from Dardanelle captured the nation’s attention one hundred years ago. 

In 1912,the Ladies Missionary Society of the First Presbyterian Church of Dardanelle made national headlines for “picking cotton” as a way to raise money to build a new church, according to a pamphlet on the church compiled by member Betsy Snyder Harris. What made this event nationally newsworthy was that many of these “money making ladies” were from “the best families” and had never done anything more strenuous than embroidery and flower arranging.

This labor of love, sweat and tears began after the congregation decided it needed a more spacious and centrally-located church. The new building would replace the church it built in 1872 after their 1856 church, the first in Dardanelle, was destroyed by Federal troops during the War Between the States. Decades later, the U.S Government gave the congregation a few hundred dollars in reparations for the original church and with “bulldog determination and the help of the Lord.” The ladies were each given a quarter dollar of reparation money to invest “in ways to make it multiply” as it says in the Bible.

After the ladies exhausted traditional fund raising activities like bake sales, sewing aprons and selling manufacturer’s samples, they took the Ola train to Clarksville to pick peaches, but they were still short on funds. Then a prominent farmer and member of the congregation jokingly offered them the backbreaking job of picking cotton as new way to make money for their building fund.

On the day of the event, local businesses closed so the men could come out to watch the “ladies” work and a photograph of the women working in the cotton field was taken by the town photographer. This photo subsequently appeared in numerous state and national publications and became so popular it was made into a postcard.

To put the ladies’ cotton picking event in historical perspective, these genteel southern ladies were not only unfamiliar with the hard manual labor of picking cotton, they were still a decade away from getting the vote in Arkansas, so the exploit was newsworthy as much for the group’s steadfast determination as for their departure from established social protocol.

Fortunately, their efforts caught the sympathetic eye of New York philanthropist, Ferdinand T. Hopkins, who sent a substantial donation to fund the new building which laid its cornerstone on Thanksgiving Day, 1912.

“Somehow, the ladies got it into their minds that Mr. Hopkins was a member of the distinguished Hopkins family who had built the famous medical center,” said Harris.

“In reality, Ferdinand Hopkins owned a pharmaceutical company that specialized in ladies nostrums and his claim to fame was a product called, “Mother Sills Seasick Pills.” The ladies never found out the truth,” she added.

The ladies, along with other members, eventually raised almost $9,000 and the cost of the building was paid for by the time the building was dedicated in May 1914, with a balance of just 83 cents in the fund.

Today, the church is a popular location for weddings and special services because of the sanctuary’s magnificent stained glass windows. And although The Ladies Missionary Society is now called the Women of the Presbyterian Church, its female members still rank among the cream of Dardanelle society and continue the legacy of fundraising.

“We hold raffles and bake sales and two years ago we published a cook book, River of Life, which quickly sold out,” noted Harris, daughter of Harold Snyder, the man credited with bringing the poultry industry to the River Valley.

The church will be celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the construction of its present building with an open house from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 17, and a re-dedication of the church at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 18, with a reception to follow in their Fellowship Hall.

For information on the Centennial celebration Nov. 17-18, 2012, call (479) 229-3394. The ladies of the congregation will serve the type of food that might have been served at the original dedication. The Centennial Celebration is free of charge, and open to everyone regardless of their religious affiliation.

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