Collecting Memories in Scott County and Elsewhere

I hope that Gary Blige is still alive when the cousins gather in Scott County in May 2015. “Blythe’s Famous Scott County Museum” (located at  Waldron) is an amazing set of materials. I picked up a brochure that invites tourists to “explore early Arkansas” and “experience the past” as they browse threw his upstairs room filled with “Indian, Pioneer and War Relics.”

Blythe told me that he has been collecting since he was 13 years old when he acquired his Thompson sub-machine gun (which his mother made him register with the local sheriff!). The cover of the brochure shows a framed collection of Indian arrowheads. The last I checked, Mr. Blythe didn’t have a website, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that doesn’t change — assuming that he lives long enough to adapt to the current taste of the tourists he wishes to attract to his museum.

In addition to guns of all kinds, he has saddles, dresses, wagon wheels, and hundreds and hundreds of photographs that he has hanging from a clothesline.  As he took me around his collection, I was struck by the immense variety of things this fellow has collected over the course of his lifetime.  He even claims to have a gavel from Judge Isaac Parker’s court! As a collection, it is marked by the love of a true amateur, rather than the systematic classification of a professional museum curator. But I enjoyed it no less for its homely character.

Before he showed me the upstairs area of his warehouse like collection, Mr. Blythe offered a delightful self-description.  Flashing his sly smile, Gary warned: “Now, look, I may be a hoarder, but I don’t collect dead cats!” In addition to guns. Some of the things he took away from various sites in Japan and the Middle East. Other items, including thousands of arrow heads and other Indiana artifacts, are from Scott County in particular.

While I was visiting Gary Blythe’s pawn shop business, Mr. Blythe phoned Wanda Gray, who is the resident historian for the community of Waldron, Arkansas, and Scott County as a whole. The author of a nice book in the series, Wanda Gray has been a consultant to various historians who want to study the conflicted past of this sparsely populated area of Western Arkansas. Ms. Gray was very helpful to me. She even sent me a copy of one of the few books of memories by one of the people who homesteaded a farm in the Southwestern part of the County in an area adjacent to where Eliza and Thomas settled.

Of course, Ms. Gray and Mr. Blythe are by no means the only folks in the community of Waldron who are concerned about preserving the heritage of Scott County. The folks down at the Scott County Historical and Genealogical Society have a small building that they open to the public a few mornings each week for people like myself. (The Waldron library also has some historical materials that one can browse.)While talking to Gary Blythe, I gathered that there are tensions between the various parties about how to preserve the past. That shouldn’t surprise any of us.

After all, collections serve different interests, and not everyone shares the same interests. For example, in the late nineties Wanda Gray and her family arranged to turn over the deed to several acres of land to a Native American trust so that the tribes of Choctaws and Cherokees who originally held land in this area could re-establish their heritage. From what I gather, when it comes to Euro-Americans in Scott County who are interested in the prospect that Native Americans have the opportunity to re-acquire some of the lands they once owned, Ms. Gray is in the minority

As the author of To Have and To Hold: An Intimate History of Collecting (Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 2002) has written, “Every collection is a theatre of memories, a dramatization . . . of personal and collective pasts, of a remembered childhood and of remembrance after death. It guarantees the presence of those memories through the objects of invoking them. . . . The world beyond what we can touch is with us in and through them, and through communion with them it is possible to commune with it and become part of it.” (Philipp Blom, 191)

I have to say that I am fairly uncomfortable with the ways in which Philipp Blom’s perspective leaves God out of the matter. Elsewhere in his book, Philipp Blom describes how the development of private collections by wealthy people proved to be “engines of secularization”  While Blom is describing what began to happen in early modern Europe, I appreciate his honesty in the matter. Sentimentality is often secular insofar as it attaches value or sweetness to an object independent of God. In that respect, the presence of absence of gratitude is often a good indicator of whether we value something because we recognize it as one of God’s good gifts.

To his credit, Blom also invokes wisdom of the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, who  warned against the vice of unchecked curiosity: “I’m afraid our eyes are bigger than our bellies, and that we have more curiosity than capacity, for we grasp at all and catch nothing but the wind.” (Blom, 20)  Oscar Wilde famously named the difference between a cynic and a sentimentalist when he quipped that a cynic “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing” whereas the sentimental person values virtually everything and understands very little about what he or she holds dear.

Other philosophers, building on Wilde, have observed that many cynics are at heart disappointed romantics. There is probably a grain of truth in both of these observations, but these are not the last words in the matter, merely important observations to engage as we seeke hte golden mean of virtue between the extremes of different kinds of vice. As with many things in life, we often find it hard to find the balance. In that respect, I love the fact that the title of Blom’s book “To Have and to Hold” echoes the vows of Christian marriage.  Where collections are located in relation to households, we also have the opportunity to register the ways in which they reflect the wider set of heritages that are the result of each generation’s reincorporation of the past in the present.–MGC

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About mcartwright1957

I am a member of the senior administrative team at the University of Indianapolis where I have served since 1996. I am married to Mary Wilder Cartwright. We are the parents of four children: Hannah, Erin, James, and Bethany. I currently live in Nashville, IN.
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1 Response to Collecting Memories in Scott County and Elsewhere

  1. Paul Cartwright says:

    Enjoyed this michael, Wanda Gray and the Ladies at the Scott County Historical and Geneaological society have helped me a lot. One of them remembers Grandma well perhaps we can get her to attend.. I have her phone somewhere..


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