Thursday, June 30, 2011

Karr Shannon Series: Background of "A History of Izard County"

In 1947, Karr Shannon, known as "The Sage of Lunenburg", published his work, A History of Izard County. The 158 page book is a rare and valuable resource for anyone interested in the history and culture of the county. Mr. Shannon, who was born in Lunenburg in 1902, was an educator, entrepreneur, and journalist who owned and operated the Melbourne Times for 12 years. During those 12 years, he began writing a series of columns as fillers for the publication he entitled, "Just Nozzin' Around". The articles created a following which led to a job with The Arkansas Democrat from 1944 to the early 1970s. During that time, Karr Shannon developed a national following after establishing what associate editor for the Democrat, Robert S. McCord once described as the largest of any columnist in Arkansas. He used his national recognition to promote and defend Arkansas culture and values in his columns and actually wrote a book,  On a Fast Train Through Arkansas, to correct the negative stereotype offered by Thomas W. Jackson's satirical On a Slow Train Through Arkansaw.

Mr. Shannon's  book, A History of Izard County, is a well-written, well -researched work of non-fiction. One cannot, however, walk away from reading it without the feeling that the history of the common folk of Izard county was somehow limited or even omitted. Mr. Sahnnon even addresses this issue in the Introduction to his book stating:
"I confess, before my critics accuse, that many facts and figures have been omitted as unecessary to the story of Izard County..."
He further states:

"We live in a wonderful age. We naturally think it is more wonderful than any previous age. Be that as it may - our ancestors are largely responsible for the many improvements we enjoy. Our fathers worked for better things and made material progress; we started where they left off, but are yet far from the goal. We ought to be proud of the county in which we live, but we should not discredit the majestic work of our forbears."

By understanding the political and social climate of the time, though, one can begin to empathize with the writer's intent.

In 1947, Izard County had just witnessed the trial and conviction of Rubert Byler for the murder of Izard County Sheriff, James Lawrence Harber, killed on December 4th, 1945. The search for Byler and his wife who hid out in caves and barns during the coldest part of 1945 and 1946 is still the single largest man-hunt in Arkansas history.The ensuing trial was a national story and the political and social elite from around the nation debated the reasons for the murder settling on the stereotypical "backward, uneducated hillbilly" explanation for the actions of  Rubert Byler as well as Izard County and other area officials before, during, and after the trial. The national narrative described Izard County as pitifully behind the times.

In the January 20th, 2010 edition of Areawide News, the article, Faces and Places: The Coger Family: A newspaper legacy , describes the scene surrounding the trial as told by Fred Coger, son of Claude Coger Jr., editor of The Melbourne Times during the period:

Fred told of a very historical event recorded in the weekly Melbourne Times while he was in high school around 1943 (EIC Note -Fred Coger must have remembered incorrectly as the murder did not happen until 1945) that contrasted with the coverage of the much larger Arkansas Gazette paper. He said his family's next-door neighbor, then Izard County Sheriff Lawrence Harber, was shot down with a shotgun as he was attempting to serve a warrant on a "uneducated hillbilly out in the sticks." Because the county was so small, naturally the murder trial drew a lot of local attention, but was also covered by the press from other larger cities including Little Rock, ones who weren't as sensitive to the death as the hometown readers. He said at this time it was becoming popular for the press to cover not only the "who, what, where and when, but also the why." The trial coverage went on for days and his father even ran a special edition after the guilty verdict of murderer Rupert Byler. The problem was that the larger city's press coverage attempted to explain the "why" in a far deeper fashion than the small town was used to, including his father. They tried to blame the murder on such things as social deprivation, poverty and lack of education. Although the reporting techniques were very valid, the locals found it an insult to their community; many even thought it was condoning the killing of a well known man that was very liked.
Ken said his father finally wrote a letter to the editor of the Gazette which was published, resulting in him being fired as the local correspondent to the state newspaper. He said even today this can be the result of reporting controversial news and writing it with a controversial twist. But, Ken said this was a part of the integrity his father put into everything he printed.

Karr Shannon, obviously proud of his county of birth and the history of progress he knew to be fact, certainly had the events surrounding Sheriff Harber's murder and the trial that followed on his mind when penning his work. It's even possible that through his socializing among the literary celebrities during the period of the murder and trial that he had knowledge of the material nationally revered John Gould Fletcher would include in his own 1947 work, Arkansas, which  included a passage about Rubert Byler's crime and suggested that the people of the Ozarks were indeed backward and uneducated. It's highly probable that A History of Izard County was written as an apology and is likely why only prominent citizens of the county are covered in the biography section of the book.

So, with this background on the book, A History of Izard County, and it's author, we can begin our new weekly series. On Wednesday of next week, we will be publishing the first of this series, "A History of Izard County: People and Places", using passages from Karr Shannon's book and photos we have taken ourselves as well as vintage photos we have acquired.

We hope you enjoy!

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