By Matthew Milton
Nothing says Arkansas quite like a tall, cold glass of milk — right? What about biting down into the fruity goodness of a tomato? Or swingin’ your partner ‘round during a pre-pandemic square dance?
Doesn’t that sound like Arkansas to you? It should, because those are just a few of our great state’s “things.”
Ever since being tasked with putting together a report of “Arkansas State Things” back in Ms. William’s fourth grade class, I’ve been fascinated with what, and how, our state has chosen to define itself over the years. Each official state item represents a snapshot of a time when state lawmakers thought, “Hey, this thing needs to be recognized forever.”
Whether or not you’re fond of each category’s selection, or even each category, these things make great trivia questions for native Arkansans and transplants, alike. Want to stump your Zoom happy hour guests with a Natural State question? Have them guess the official state cooking vessel. Hint: It’s not a PK Grill.
Because Arkansas was the 25th state admitted into the Union (another free trivia question), let’s highlight 25 of our state’s state things in order of when they were chosen.
Flower: Apple Blossom (1901)
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the Arkansas Floral Emblem Society began canvassing the state’s women’s groups to gather a consensus choice for the state’s official flower in 1900. Plenty were considered, including the cotton boll, honeysuckle and holly.
The apple blossom came out of the gate with too large a lead to be caught, despite some opposition on Biblical ground, citing the apple’s supposed role in the story of Adam and Eve (although the Bible never actually referenced an apple). The apple’s role as a cash crop in Arkansas, with more than 400 varieties grown at the time, certainly helped its case, too.
The apple blossom’s biggest supporter was Love Barton, head of the Searcy chapter of the Arkansas Floral Emblem Society. Barton’s great-granddaughter was said to have brought a bushel of polished Arkansas apples to the Senate chamber on Jan. 30, 1901. The General Assembly promptly designated the apple blossom the official state flower, and Gov. Jeff Davis signed it into law on Feb. 1.
Bird: Mockingbird (1929)
Arkansans would have to wait 28 long years before they got to debate another official state thing. Like with the apple blossom, the push to appoint the mockingbird came on the work of hardworking women — the State Federation of Women’s Clubs, to be exact, in a campaign directed by Mrs. W.A. Utley.
The mockingbird, popular across the South, doesn’t migrate. It sings for hours, and as the name suggests, can mimic the sounds of other animals. Some have an “inventory” of up to 30 songs.
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the bill proposed to lawmakers was perceived as a joke. But after some stirring speeches about the bird’s value to farmers, the legislation was passed and signed into law by Gov. Harvey Parnell in March 1929. The mockingbird is the official state bird in four other states, making it the third most popular state bird, behind the cardinal and western meadowlark.
Tree: Pine tree (1939)
Fast forward a decade and you’ll find Arkansas lawmakers wholeheartedly agreeing with Rep. Boyd Tackett of Pike County in his quest to designate the pine as Arkansas’ state tree. Tackett rightfully cited the timber as one of the state’s best renewable resources. His resolution was met with no opposition and passed in January of 1939.
In the early 1900s, thanks to good markets and railways, timber was leaving the state quickly. By the time the pine was named state tree, much of the state was “logged out.” But public and private restoration measures helped restore the state’s supply of timber, and by 1951, pine growth was exceeding removal. Perhaps recognizing the pine paid off?
One more thing: The resolution passed by state lawmakers didn’t specify a certain type of pine, although some like to recognize the loblolly. The southern shortleaf pine gets a little love on occasion, too.
Gem: Diamond (1967)
In 1967, state lawmakers made up for all that lost time by going after three state designations in one legislative session. Hang on to your hats!
The diamond is an easy one for those familiar with the state. Arkansas is one of the few places in all of North America where one could and still can find a diamond in nature, and it’s the only place where the public can hunt for them. It’s also the reason we have a diamond shape on our state flag.
Diamonds were discovered in Arkansas in 1906 by Murfreesboro farmer John Huddleston who picked a couple up near the mouth of Prairie Creek. The rest is history. And part of that history includes Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller signing a bill into law in February of 1967, designating it our state gem.
Mineral: Quartz crystal (1967)
That same bill, an omnibus measure, also designated the quartz crystal the official state mineral.
The designation helped raise the status of the quartz crystals mined in the Ouachita Mountains. Prized by collectors, Arkansas quartz crystals were recorded in history as far back as 1541, when Hernando de Soto wrote about Native Americans chipping tools with quartz. Healers and health-seekers have always been pretty fond of them, too.
The measure signed into law by Gov. Rockefeller was introduced into the legislature by Sens. Robert Harvey, J. Hugh Lookadoo and Olen Hendrix. These guys liked their rocks. In fact, the bill cited the importance of such a designation for collectors in order to trade official state gems and minerals with hobbyists in other states. The bill also included …
Rock: Bauxite (1967)
That’s right. Bauxite. For those unfamiliar with this valuable rock, bauxite is the most common ore of aluminum. It became a major economic resource for the state in the 20th century, even inspiring the name of a Saline County town.
As with the diamond, Arkansas proved to be one of the only places in the country that could produce enough bauxite to matter. In fact, 90 percent of all domestic tonnage mined came from Arkansas.
The designation of bauxite as Arkansas’ state rock acknowledged its once important role in our state’s economy. It also proved to be a critical resource during World War II for military aircraft — in 1943 alone, 6 million tons were mined. Much respect is owed to this ore.
Insect: Honeybee (1973)
In February of 1973, Rep. Tom Collier of Jackson County pointed Arkansans to the virtuous, hardworking honeybee. His bill said of the honeybee: “This diligent and willing worker typifies the outstanding citizens of the state of Arkansas.”
He was right. The honeybee was then, and still is, critical to food production. It’s estimated that one-third of the food we consume relies on pollination, mainly by bees. And their importance is recognized now as much as ever, as their populations decline.
Thanks to Collier’s efforts, Arkansas will forever recognize the honeybee’s virtues of hard work, diligence, attention to home defense and productivity.
Drink: Milk (1985)
It does a body good — at least that’s what Rep. Bobby Glover and the General Assembly of 1985 thought when they voted unanimously to designate milk the state’s official beverage.
Dairy production has been an important piece of Arkansas agriculture for generations. By 1940, income from dairy totaled $23 million — no small sum in those days — and dairy cows numbered more than 435,000.
Those numbers had dwindled significantly by the 1980s, likely inspiring lawmakers to call our attention to the once-important Arkansas dairy sector and the healthfulness of milk.
Raise a (pasteurized) toast to milk!
Instrument: Fiddle (1985)
No, not the violin. Violins are for yuppies. A fiddle, on the other hand, was the instrument of choice for the Arkansas pioneer. Just ask Rep. Napoleon Bonaparte “Nap” Murphy of Hamburg, who gave his legislative peers a stirring oration on the floor of the Arkansas House on the history of the fiddle, in support of Rep. Bob Watts’ bill to designate it as the state’s official instrument.
OK, they’re the same instrument. But the “fiddle” was and continues to be a staple in Arkansas folk music, a genre that is alive and well in parts of the state — namely Mountain View, where the popular Ozark Folk Center hosts the state’s Old-Time Fiddling Championship each year.
Without the fiddle, it’s possible we wouldn’t have at least one of Arkansas’ state songs.
Songs: Oh, Arkansas; Arkansas (You Run Deep in Me); Arkansas; The Arkansas Traveler (1987)
That’s right — more than one official song! In fact, we have at least four. Take that, Texas.
The song first to be considered Arkansas’ song, though unofficially, was The Arkansas Traveler, played on the fiddle. The tune became associated with a popular comic monologue that cast our state in a not-so-glamorous light.
In 1916, classically trained composer Eva Ware Barnett released Arkansas, which offered the world an image of Arkansas that wasn’t as rough around the edges. Barnett’s song was once the only official state song, before a decades-long series of legal disputes and newspaper-page squabbles resulted in the adoption of The Arkansas Traveler as the official state song in 1949.
But Arkansas was still a hit with the school choirs, and many in Arkansas still worried that the old fiddle tune didn’t inspire a whole lot of pride. So, in 1963, Arkansas was on top again.
When Arkansas celebrated its sesquicentennial in 1986, several songs were commissioned to honor the state. Two stood out: Oh, Arkansas, written by Little Rock musician Terry Rose and Chicago-based songwriters Gary Klaff and Mark Weinstein, and Arkansas (You Run Deep in Me), by Mallet Town native Wayland Holyfield.
The popularity of these more modern songs prompted Rep. Bill Stephens of Conway to file a bill in 1987 naming both of them official state songs and designating Arkansas the honorific official state anthem and The Arkansas Traveler as the official historic song.
That’s how you end up with four state songs, and perhaps, the next hit Netflix documentary series.
Vegetable: Vine Ripe Pink Tomato (1987)
The tomato has a storied history in Arkansas. Our state has and continues to be a significant source of tomatoes for the nation’s market.
As the country embraced the tomato as a dietary staple, Arkansas farmers began to cultivate a variety that could be picked and shipped at first ripening. These tomatoes, likely descendants of the Cherokee Purple, ripened with a nice, pink hue. They were the South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomatoes.
By the 1950s, Arkansas’ commercial tomato production had reached nearly 300,000 tons, and the citizens of Bradley County, where the pink tomato hails, organized a festival to honor the crop that continues to this day.
In 1987, Rep. John Lipton of Bradley County introduced the bill that would designate the vine ripe pink tomato Arkansas’ official state vegetable.
Fruit: Vine Ripe Pink Tomato (1987)
Did you know that the tomato is both a vegetable and a fruit? Well, it is.
Dance: Square dance (1991)
Square dancing may be the most popular dance craze in the nation. Don’t believe me? Arkansas is one of 31 states to make the square dance its official state dance, making it the most popular step in the land.
In fact, there was a push in 1988 to name the square dance the official state dance of the entire country. It failed, but the effort sparked an interest in honoring the dance from coast to coast, Arkansas included. In 1991, Gov. Bill Clinton signed the bill into law designating the square dance the official state dance in a move that lawmakers thought would “enhance the cultural stature of Arkansas both nationally and internationally.”
Too bad they didn’t have TikTok back then.
Mammal: White-tailed deer (1993)
White-tailed deer have called Arkansas home since before Arkansas was Arkansas. During his historic expedition across the region, Hernando de Soto found Native Americans dressed in deerskins, and the Caddo people relied on the animal for sustenance.
In 1993, Rep. Arthur Carter introduced the bill that would designate the white-tailed deer the official state mammal in honor of the animal’s historic importance to Arkansas’ first residents.
Soil: Stuttgart Soil Series (1997)
Have you ever heard the saying, “God made dirt, and dirt don’t hurt?” Well, God must have taken his time with this dirt, and that’s why it’s Arkansas’ official state soil.
The soils that make up the Stuttgart Soil Series stretch over approximately 200,000 acres of east Arkansas. These soils help grow some of the finest crops in the country, including soybeans and corn. But it’s the rice it helps produce that’s put Arkansas on the map. Without the Stuttgart Soil Series, Arkansas may not be the rice capital of the entire world.
And that’s why, in 1997, Rep. Wanda Northcutt saw to it that this soil series was forever recognized as the official state soil.
Cooking Vessel: Dutch Oven (2001)
Dutch ovens were the cooking vessel of choice for early explorers and settlers, including those who made Arkansas home generations ago. It’s not a pot. And it’s not a kettle. It’s a vessel with a tight-fitting lid that helps contain all that heated pressure needed to cook up a nice meal in the fireplace hearth of a pre-statehood Arkansas home.
The designation of the Dutch oven as the official state cooking vessel is a tip of the cap to what helped feed countless early Arkansas settlers, although I’m sure the microwave would have gotten a few votes, too.
Grain: Rice (2007)
This one’s a no brainer. Rice has been a staple of human consumption for thousands of years, and Arkansas is the king of rice cultivation.
About 90 percent of the rice consumed in the United States is grown in this country, and Arkansas is the No. 1 producer of rice among all 50 states. Each year, Arkansas farmers plant an average of 1.3 million acres of rice and harvest over 200 million bushels, producing more than 9 billion pounds of rice each year.
The annual Arkansas rice crop contributes billions of dollars to the state’s economy and accounts for roughly 25,000 jobs critical to rural parts of the state.
It no surprise Arkansas designated rice the official state grain in 2007. The only question is why it took so long.
Butterfly: Diana Fritillary (2007)
The Diana fritillary is one of 134 resident species of butterflies found in Arkansas, but it may be the most eye-catching.
Named for the Roman goddess of light and life, the Diana fritillary is large and ornate. Males are blackish-brown with orange markings, and larger females are black with iridescent blue markings. Adults usually live four to five months, increasing the chances of being viewed by butterfly enthusiasts. These special butterflies drew increased interest from the public in the mid-1990s when entomologists realized their natural habitat was shrinking.
In 2007, Arkansas became the only state to designate the Diana fritillary as an official state butterfly, thanks to a bill introduced by Rep. John Paul Wells.
Nut: Pecan (2009)
Pecan. Pee-kan. Puh-kahn. It doesn’t matter what you call it, it makes a pretty good pie.
The pecan, first commercially cultivated in the 1880s, is native to much of the South. And in Arkansas, pecan groves produce more than 2 million pounds of nuts a year, far and away more than any other nut grown in the state — although the peanut is making a comeback.
In 2009, Rep. Larry Cowling and 22 co-sponsors introduced the bill that would designate the puh-khan (that’s right) the official state nut.
Grape: Cynthiana Grape (2009)
I can’t imagine every state has an official variety of grape, but we sure do. And for good reason. Since 1870, Arkansas has been home to 150 commercial vineyards and wineries.
Cynthiana is the oldest grape native to North America commercially cultivated today. Identified in 1770, this grape is said to have originated in Arkansas. Today, it contributes to the state’s small but vibrant grape-growing industry.
The bill that designated the Cynthiana our official state grape came at the request of Audrey House, owner of Chateau Aux Arc vineyards, to celebrate Arkansas winemaking history and culture.
I’ll drink to that.
Book: Bible (2017)
This one may only be halfway official.
In 2017, Rep. Dwight Tosh introduced a bill to designate the Bible as Arkansas’ official state book. Of course, there was pushback from those outside of the legislature who suggested a state not endorse a religious text. No matter — the measure passed without any opposition.
But unlike other official state designations, a similar bill was not filed in the Senate.
Dinosaur: Arkansaurus Fridayi (2017)
This prehistoric creature was not named because of its love for the weekend. Instead, it was discovered in 1972 by Joe B. Friday in Sevier County and given to the University of Arkansas, where its bones are kept in the University Museum Collections at the Arkansas Archeological Survey.
The Arkansaurus fridayi is a type of bipedal coelurosaur dinosaur. The foot bones of this dinosaur are the only ones found in Arkansas brought to the attention of the scientific community. They were found in Early Cretaceous age rocks, dating back approximately 146 to 100 million years ago.
The designation of the Arkansaurus fridayi as our official state dinosaur was the result of a campaign started in 2013 by Fayetteville High School student Mason Oury to see the creature recognized. He succeeded in 2017.
Fish: Alligator Gar (2019)
Prior to 2019, Arkansas was one of only five states in the country without an official state fish. That changed, thanks to 11-year-old Henry Foster of Fayetteville. Foster launched a campaign a year earlier to see the alligator gar take the honor, citing its tough and uniqueness.
He was met with opposition from lobbyists and lawmakers alike, as it turned out everybody had his or her own favorite. But Henry was the one who put in the work, and he was rewarded for his efforts when he joined Gov. Asa Hutchinson at the Arkansas State Capitol for the signing of the bill that named the alligator gar the official state fish.
They also take home the prize for being Arkansas’ ugliest fish.
Knife: Bowie Knife (2019)
Some may wonder why exactly we need an official state knife. But those familiar with Arkansas’ rich knifemaking history recognize the importance of the Bowie knife. Known as early as 1835 as the “Arkansas toothpick,” the Bowie knife was named for famed early Arkansas settler Jim Bowie, who would go on to die at the Alamo.
The first Bowie knife is said to have been crafted by James Black in Washington, down in the southwest corner of the state. Washington is now recognized globally as a hub for traditional knife forging, thanks in part to Black’s skill and Bowie’s popularity.
In 2019, Sen. Trent Garner introduced the bill that would designate the Bowie knife the official knife, honoring Arkansas’ most famous weapon.
Firearm: Shotgun (2019)
Riding a hot hand, Garner also introduced the bill that would designate the shotgun as Arkansas’ state firearm. According to the measure, the shotgun is deserving of praise for its role in hunting.
If it were up to me, the Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle would have gotten the nod.