“Once Upon a Time in Arkansas” hopes to shine a light on folklore from across Arkansas. Some of these stories are rather famous, while others are mostly forgotten.
The five stories we’re going to recount this month all center on a common theme – highlighting the difference between truth and belief.
Truth and belief. Both powerful concepts. Each for different reasons.
The story of the White River Monster in Newport is the most familiar to me, of the five stories covered this season. I suppose it is appropriate we release it first.
I grew up in Cave City, not incredibly far from Newport and only about 25 miles from the White River dam in Batesville. Though the White River Monster never made it to Batesville (that I’m aware of), tales of his exploits certainly drifted upstream.
A branch of my father’s family came from Newport. We visited occasionally when I was a kid. From the stories recounted to me over the years, my great-grandmother had a flower garden people visited from across the state, though I never saw it.
The name Z.B. Reid appeared in several news articles from the nationally famous, 1937 sighting of The White River Monster.
Z.B. Reid was a deputy sheriff in Newport and my great-grandfather. He died long before I was born. In every interview he gave on the topic, Reid insisted there was no “monster” in Newport, just a large catfish and a gullible public.
Skepticism may be genetic. After spending a good part of this summer tracing the White River Monster’s history, I can’t say I believe there is much more in that river than shadows and sunfish. But belief was never the goal of this series. I don’t have the persuasive prowess to make a strong enough argument for the validity of any of these tales.
Truth wasn’t our goal either. I don’t have a particularly strong background in history or science. Some of our stories have been long forgotten. Tales like Dexter Harding’s Sawdust Bridge exist only in the memory of folks who heard them as campfire stories in their childhood. Finding truth in hearsay is practically impossible and not what we are after.
Experiencing a Living History
What truly sets the White River Monster apart from other Arkansas monsters is his evolution. While sightings of the Gowrow or Fouke Creek Monster have stayed mostly consistent, every time the “devil fish” resurfaces, he has a more terrifying look.
I don’t consider this a miracle of biology. The community is so determined to keep the legend alive that, with each sighting, the creature becomes more outlandish and unforgettable. The people of Newport have worked hard to keep the legend alive and well. Why is that?
Stories and histories are living things. They change a little with each time they are recounted. The story of the White River Monster is a unique living history of a small Southern town and may be the longest running “fishing story” in the state.
Yet, the White River Monster isn’t the only bit of outlandish living history in Arkansas.
Remembering the Unlikely
For almost 100 years, in the stark face of probability, science and common sense, The Phantom Hitchhiker on 65, The Ghosts of the Crescent Hotel and countless others continue to resurface.
Why are these stories so important to us? What gives them the strength to linger, be told, forgotten and retold again for decades like a game of intergenerational, catch-and-release?
Creating Native Myth
As children, most of the stories we encounter are of long-lost times and far-away places, kept in dusty books on library shelves or flickering screens of dim theaters. Awe-inspiring events only seem possible in places we’ll never see.
But not folklore.
Folklore is shared at the dinner table, in a deer stand or the musty cab of your grandfather’s pickup. Folklore are the tales of familiar places and familial names. Folklore gives our own backyard mythical possibilities. The improbable becomes real, and history becomes personal.
Belonging to a Place
Historically, there would be no Newport without the White River. And, locally, there is no White River without its aptly-named, resident creature.
The shared narrative of the White River Monster has come to – in some small part – define what it means to be of Newport. And Newport is far from the only Arkansas community with an outlandish tale close to its heart.
This “ownership” of legends is what “Once Upon a Time in Arkansas” hopes to explore.
Whether it’s the evolving tale of a river monster or any of the countless other local legends, beliefs about the places and people we come from can have far-reaching, long-lasting ramifications which color the truths we live by.
Let me show you.