(Excerpted from James F. Willis, Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School’s Centennial History, 1909-2009, pp. 128-31)
Celebrating history was a driving force for Magnolians who persuaded Overstreet to renovate a faculty residence on the campus’s west side in 1934 to house the South Arkansas Museum. An amateur historian, Nettie Kilgore, then gathering materials for her book on Columbia County, secured Overstreet’s promise in 1930 to establish a museum and headed a committee to collect artifacts. Overstreet finally provided space when he moved football players who had been using the former residence and calling it the Mulerider Stables.
Overstreet hired Samuel D. Dickinson, a young anthropologist, to serve as museum curator and teach full-time. A native of Prescott, Arkansas, Dickinson had a B.A. degree from the University of Arizona and had done graduate study at Mexico’s National University, one of the world’s premiere institutions in his field. His appointment was not hurt by his friendship with A&M board member Judge Harry J. Lemley of Hope, an amateur archeologist. Together they had collaborated in archeology “digs” in Southwest Arkansas that earned Dickinson a claim to the title “father of Arkansas archeology.” He was among the first academically trained to undertake scientific excavations in the state. His studies and publications about the Crenshaw site in Miller County were among the earliest analyses of the region’s prehistoric peoples.
Within a few months, Dickinson organized the museum’s collection to illustrate the state’s rich past. Exhibits included hundreds of fossils and Indian stone implements; a spinning wheel and other household furnishings of early white pioneers in Columbia County; a sword and other relics of the Civil War battle of Poison Spring fought some forty miles north of A&M; and the dueling pistol of famous Arkansas lawyer, general, and author Albert Pike.
Dickinson had a wide knowledge of literature, art, and theater that he shared in a variety of ways with A&M students. For example, Dickinson and his NYA assistant, Robert Dusenbury from Mena, painted three large murals on the museum’s burlap-covered walls. These were bright enamels using line and color and distorted figures reminiscent of Pablo Picasso’s creations. They also painted a less avant-garde but still striking mural in the foyer of the New Girls dorm (Caraway Hall).
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An immensely popular instructor—a cigarette constantly hanging from his lips as he loped across campus, recalled Dorothy Couch Longino—Dickinson was liked as much perhaps for his social as his cultural pursuits. He sponsored the first formal student dance ever held on the campus and established the Geoanthropology club that became, in 1934–35, the single largest club exceeding in size even the YMCA and YWCA. His primary purpose was to create interest in his “digs” at fossil and Indian sites, but without doubt, many students joined for the club’s dances. Magnolia citizens had held the National Guard Armory’s first dance on January 30, 1934; called the President’s Ball, it like others across the nation supported President Franklin Roosevelt’s charitable efforts on behalf of polio research and rehabilitation. School rules prohibited student dances, a policy that most small colleges in the state still followed. The decision to permit Magnolia A&M dances may have been a response to an open student rebellion in the 1934 spring semester at Monticello A&M. Monticello students’ demands included dances. Their protest eventually led to longtime Monticello president Frank Horsfall’s resignation. The controversy probably nudged Overstreet and the state’s other college presidents to make some changes. The first informal student dance at Magnolia A&M occurred on October 6, 1934, at the Clubhouse. That year’s Muleridercheerfully declared that the event had turned the institution “from a reform school to a real school.” The first formal dance took place on January 1, 1935, at the armory; onstage was a large dinosaur replica in recognition of Dickinson’s sponsorship of the milestone event. When he left A&M in 1938, the school’s museum shut down. The dancing continued.