Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


Little Rock Look Back: Founding of what is now Rose Law Firm

Rose Law FoundersOn November 1, 1820, Robert Crittenden and Chester Ashley signed an agreement to form a “Partnership in the Practice of Law.”  This document is the genesis for what is now known as the Rose Law Firm, the oldest law firm west of the Mississippi River.

Crittenden and Ashley were both political leaders.  At the age of 22, Crittenden was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas Territory by President James Monroe.  Ashley would serve as a U.S. Senator from Arkansas from 1844 to 1848.  His son William E. Ashley was the first Little Rock mayor to be born in Little Rock.

Both Crittenden and Ashley have counties in Arkansas named in their memory.  In addition both Chester and Ashley streets in Little Rock are named for the latter.

In 1832, Crittenden and Ashley dissolved their partnership, though each continued practicing law.  George Watkins joined Mr. Ashley in 1837.  By 1865, U.M. Rose joined partnership. The name Rose has been in the firm’s name ever since.

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Little Rock Look Back: LR City Hall Ceases Operation in 1863

LR1863 minutes of closureFollowing the Battle of Little Rock, the City of Little Rock ceased operations on September 21, 1863.

Planning for this had started in August, which would suggest that civic leaders were none too confident in the ability of Confederate forces to hold on to the city.  At the August 24, 1863, City Council meeting it was reported that the City’s funds (presumably Confederate) had been “placed in the hands of a reliable party who is well known to the Council.”  The identity of this “reliable party” has never been disclosed.

On September 21, the Council met and took three votes.  The first was to suspend the operation of City police (which at the time was not an official police force, it was a constable and some volunteers). The second was to suspend the collection of City taxes.  The final vote was to adjourn.

There is no record of Mayor William Ashley being present at this meeting.  Recorder A. J. Smith (the equivalent of City Clerk today) was not present.  The minutes were signed by “J. Ash, Deputy.” Records do not indicate if that gentleman was officially Deputy Recorder or if he had simply been deputized to take minutes at the meeting.  The five City Council members present were C. P. Bertrand (a former mayor and step-son of Little Rock’s first Mayor, Matthew Cunningham), S. H. Tucker, W. B. Walt, I. A. Henry (would would also serve on the first City Council after the war in 1866), and Lou George.


Little Rock Look Back: Mayor William Ashley

W E Ashley signature

On August 6, 1823, future Little Rock Mayor William Eliot Ashley was born in Little Rock.  He would go on to become the first Little Rock Mayor to be born in Little Rock.  Ashley was the son of Mary and Chester Ashley; his father would later serve as a U. S. Senator from Arkansas.  He was the second of the couple’s seven children.

Though he was raised in Little Rock, he did receive some schooling out of state. The State History Commission has correspondence between eleven year old William, studying in New York, and his father. Part of the letter is a request for money.

On October 26, 1846, he married Frances Eliza Grafton at Christ Episcopal Church.  They were the first Little Rock residents to be married in that church.  The couple had five children, including triplets.  Only one of the children, Frances (who was one of the triplets) survived to adulthood.

Ashley was first elected Mayor of Little Rock in 1857. After completing a two year term, he was succeeded by Gordon N. Peay (another scion of a prominent Little Rock family).  In 1861, Ashley returned to the office of Mayor.  He was reelected to a third term in 1863.  In September 1863, following the defeat of Confederate troops by the Union forces at the Battle of Little Rock, the City of Little Rock ceased operations.  On September 21, 1863, Little Rock municipal government closed its doors, stopped collection of taxes and disbanded.  Thus Ashley’s third term ended.

In addition to his interest in local government, Ashley was a member of St. John’s College Board and a director of the newly-formed Little Rock Gas Company.

William Eliot Ashley died on August 16, 1868, at the age of 45.  He was buried in Mt. Holly Cemetery (which sat partially on land that had once belonged to his family). His parents, wife and children are all buried in Mt. Holly as well.

Interestingly, for someone who grew up in a prominent family, there does not appear to be a surviving likeness of Mayor Ashley – either in painting or photograph.  Several exist of his parents, but none of him.


Little Rock Look Back: Founding Fathers of Little Rock

Fathers DayThere are several men who can be considered founding fathers of Little Rock: William Lewis, the first settler, who stayed for a few months in 1814; Roswell Beebe, who acquired most of the land and laid out streets as well as providing land for public buildings and a cemetery; Amos Wheeler, who was the first postmaster and later a land agent; Jesse Brown, who founded the first school and later served as mayor; and William Woodruff, the founder of the Arkansas Gazette.

There are three other men who were not only founding fathers, but also actual fathers to other leaders. They are: Dr. Matthew Cunningham, Major Nicholas Peay and Chester Ashley.

Dr. Cunningham was one of the first residents of Little Rock. He arrived in 1821 and was shortly joined by his family.  Dr. Cunningham would be Little Rock’s first physician. His son Chester was the first child born in Little Rock.  Dr. Cunningham later served as Little Rock’s first mayor from January 1832 to January 1833.  His stepson, Charles P. Bertrand, later served as Mayor of Little Rock from January 1855 to January 1857.  This is the closest Little Rock has ever had to a father and son both serving as Mayor.

Major Nicholas Peay arrived in Little Rock in 1825.  He quickly became engaged in civic affairs and served as a trustee of Little Rock (a precursor to a city council).  In the 1830s, Major Peay served on the Little Rock City Council. In that capacity, he also served as Acting Mayor of Little Rock.  His son, Gordon Neill Peay, would serve as Mayor of Little Rock from 1859 to 1861.  A grandson son, Ashley Peay, was a Little Rock alderman in the 1920s. A great-great-grandson, Joseph B. Hurst, served on the Little Rock City Board from 1967 to 1970.

Chester Ashley never served on the Little Rock council or as mayor.  He was, however, an early leader of Little Rock.  He actually arrived in 1820 and brought his new wife here in late 1821 (a few months after Mrs. Cunningham arrived).  One of Little Rock’s first attorneys, he was instrumental in the settlement of a competing land ownership disputes. In 1844, he was appointed to be one of Arkansas’ U.S. senators. He served in the Senate until his 1848 death.  His son William E. Ashley, served as Little Rock’s mayor from January 1857 to January 1859 and again from January 1861 until September 1863.

With Bertrand, Ashley, Peay and Ashley in the office of Mayor, from January 1855 until September 1863, Little Rock was governed by second generation leaders.

Descendants of the Cunningham and Peay families still reside in Little Rock today.


Little Rock Look Back: City Hall Ceases Operation in 1863

LR1863 minutes of closureFollowing the Battle of Little Rock, the City of Little Rock ceased operations on September 21, 1863.

Planning for this had started in August, which would suggest that civic leaders were none too confident in the ability of Confederate forces to hold on to the city.  At the August 24, 1863, City Council meeting it was reported that the City’s funds (presumably Confederate) had been “placed in the hands of a reliable party who is well known to the Council.”  The identity of this “reliable party” has never been disclosed.

On September 21, the Council met and took three votes.  The first was to suspend the operation of City police (which at the time was not an official police force, it was a constable and some volunteers). The second was to suspend the collection of City taxes.  The final vote was to adjourn.

There is no record of Mayor William Ashley being present at this meeting.  Recorder A. J. Smith (the equivalent of City Clerk today) was not present.  The minutes were signed by “J. Ash, Deputy.” Records do not indicate if that gentleman was officially Deputy Recorder or if he had simply been deputized to take minutes at the meeting.  The five City Council members present were C. P. Bertrand (a former mayor and step-son of Little Rock’s first Mayor, Matthew Cunningham), S. H. Tucker, W. B. Walt, I. A. Henry (would would also serve on the first City Council after the war in 1866), and Lou George.


Little Rock Look Back: William Ashley – LR’s 22nd & 24th Mayor

W E Ashley signature

On August 6, 1823, future Little Rock Mayor William Eliot Ashley was born in Little Rock.  He would go on to become the first Little Rock Mayor to be born in Little Rock.  Ashley was the son of Mary and Chester Ashley; his father would later serve as a U. S. Senator from Arkansas.  He was the second of the couple’s seven children.

Though he was raised in Little Rock, he did receive some schooling out of state. The State History Commission has correspondence between eleven year old William, studying in New York, and his father. Part of the letter is a request for money.

LR sealOn October 26, 1846, he married Frances Eliza Grafton at Christ Episcopal Church.  They were the first Little Rock residents to be married in that church.  The couple had five children, including triplets.  Only one of the children, Frances (who was one of the triplets) survived to adulthood.

Ashley was first elected Mayor of Little Rock in 1857. After completing a two year term, he was succeeded by Gordon N. Peay (another scion of a prominent Little Rock family).  In 1861, Ashley returned to the office of Mayor.  He was reelected to a third term in 1863.  In September 1863, following the defeat of Confederate troops by the Union forces at the Battle of Little Rock, the City of Little Rock ceased operations.  On September 21, 1863, Little Rock municipal government closed its doors, stopped collection of taxes and disbanded.  Thus Ashley’s third term ended.

In addition to his interest in local government, Ashley was a member of St. John’s College Board and a director of the newly-formed Little Rock Gas Company.

William Elliot Ashley died on August 16, 1868 at the age of 45.  He was buried in Mt. Holly Cemetery (which sat partially on land that had once belonged to his family). His parents, wife and children are all buried in Mt. Holly as well.

Interestingly, for someone who grew up in a prominent family, there does not appear to be a surviving likeness of Mayor Ashley – either in painting or photograph.  Several exist of his parents, but none of him.


Septaquintaquinquecentennial of Christ Church in Little Rock (that means 175 years)

christchurch_scaledThough there have been several churches and institutions in downtown Little Rock for over a century, Christ Episcopal Church has been at Scott and Capital Streets since 1840. That marks probably the longest continuous single use of one location in Little Rock’s history.

Today, the church marks its Septaquintaquinquecentennial.  The first church service was held on March 10, 1839, at Little Rock’s Presbyterian Church, which was then on what is now Second Street. The Rt. Rev. Leonidas Polk, missionary bishop of Arkansas, conducted the service.  After it was concluded, a group met in the home of Senator Chester Ashley and organized Christ Episcopal Church, named after Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, of which several of those present had been members.

Among the early members of the church were several future Little Rock Mayors including Lambert J. Reardon, John Wassell, Samuel Webb and Gordon Peay.  Nicholas Peay, Gordon’s father and a member of the church, served on the Little Rock City Council.  Future Little Rock Mayor William Ashley was the first Little Rock resident to be married at Christ Church.

The first sanctuary was constructed in 1840-1841 and was later destroyed by fire in 1873 (most likely due to a lightning strike).  After meeting in a variety of places, a chapel was constructed on the property and served as the church’s primary place of worship while the new sanctuary was being built.  It opened in 1887.  It was in the chapel that future General Douglas MacArthur was baptized as an infant while his family resided in Little Rock.

In 1928, a Parish Hall was built. This was one of the first church buildings in the South which featured a gym and other spaces available for use not just by church members but by the entire city.  It would later serve as the temporary sanctuary of Christ Church.  On October 1, 1938, the second sanctuary burned just as a renovation had been completed.  Though there was no official cause of the fire, it was most likely due to spontaneous combustion of construction materials.

The cornerstone for the third, and current, sanctuary was laid on October 1, 1940.  Construction was completed in 1941.  It was designed by Edwin Cromwell with the unofficial assistance of the then-Rector, Rev. Dr. William Postell Witsell. (Dr. Witsell appreciated architecture and the arts. He was very instrumental in the design of the stained glass windows which hang in the church today.  Charles Witsell, one of the founders of the Witsell, Evans, Rasco firm, is a grandson of Dr. Witsell.) In the 1980s, an addition was built along Scott Street to connect the sanctuary with the Parish Hall.

Along with the revitalization of downtown, Christ Church has been active in implementing innovative programming in a variety of areas including sustainability and the arts. The Rector, Rev. Scott Walters, and Associate Rector, Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander, often pepper their sermons with references to poetry, music (both sacred and secular), writers, artists and even comedians.

The Arts at Christ Church program has brought such varied artists as Mavis Staples, Baltimore Konsort and the Vienna Boys Choir to Little Rock. In 1990, Nichols & Simpson, a Little Rock based organ builder of international renown, constructed a new organ for the Christ Church sanctuary replacing a 1954 organ.  While used in worship, it is also used for a variety of organ recitals throughout the year.  Christ Church has been a sponsor of the Arkansas Literary Festival for the past several years and participates in the 2nd Friday Art Night with a rotating gallery of Arkansas artists. In addition, the Undercroft debuted in late 2013. This intimate music space is located underneath the sanctuary and offers a venue for acoustic music.

To mark the 175th anniversary, Rt. Rev. Larry R. Benfield, the thirteenth Bishop of the Diocese of Arkansas will be conducting an Evensong service this evening.  Prior to being named Bishop, he served as Rector of Christ Church.