Friday, January 10, 2014

Arkansas McGraws

When I was younger I wasn’t very interested in my genealogy.  For a lot of my life I was much more interested in where I was at that moment than where I came from.  Moving to Arkansas and teaching at the school where my grandfather graduated in 1931 started to change that.  When we recently had a chance to visit some of the little towns in Franklin County, Arkansas, where some of my McGraw ancestors settled after the Civil War, my desire to find out about that part of my family was heightened. 

This photo makes a nice focal point for some fascinating (to me) stories.[1]  The stately couple in the foreground of the photo are Daniel Murdock McGraw and Catherine Babb McGraw, my great great grandparents with all ten of their children on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1922.  My great grandfather, Fred, is standing directly behind his dad. 

Dan McGraw, who everybody called “Buddy,” fed up with the limited opportunities available in post-Civil War Mississippi, heard about homesteads available in northwest Arkansas and decided to start fresh.  He was only eleven when the Civil War started and his attempt to enlist with his buddy, Harvey McRaven when they were fifteen was annulled by Dan’s mother the next day.  His father and two older half-brothers had fought in the 3rd Mississippi Cavalry in Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Corps and Dan may have felt like he never had a chance to strike out on his own. 

In 1878 he traveled alone to Ozark, Arkansas via a series of buggies and trains with sixty dollars in his pocket.  He purchased a plot of land near Cass, Arkansas on Mulberry Mountain and built a cabin with a dirt floor and a door covered with a deerskin.  Then he sent for his wife and three small children.  He farmed his land and worked for neighbors to earn money to buy what he couldn’t grow.  His wife Catherine (he called her Katie) taught school in their home for a dollar a month per child.  Dan McGraw didn’t stay on the homestead long, though.  His search for better circumstances forced him to move to nearby Ozark and Altus.  He kept his eye out for better jobs and educational opportunities for his children.  In the ensuing years he would work as a farmer, Deputy County Sherriff, house parent for the Central Collegiate Institute (later moved to Conway and renamed Hendrix College), County Surveyor and coal company superintendent.  He had no formal education.  When he was elected county surveyor he bought the equipment he needed and learned on the job.  For years after he left the surveying job, surveys in Franklin County were considered to be most accurate if they had “McGraw lines.”  He was shot in the throat while on the job as a deputy and was knocked unconscious by striking coal miners, leaving him with a large scar on his forehead for his remaining years. 

Several strong women populate the McGraw family history in Arkansas.  Catherine Babb McGraw was an educator, a civic leader and writer.  She insisted that a church be built in Altus and personally oversaw its construction.  She was a Temperance Union activist and eventually became principal of the school in Altus.  One of the daughters in the photo, Ophelia, graduated from Radcliffe College when it was the all-girls institute paired up with Harvard. 

Florence (tiny lady on the left of the photo), the writer of the book where I found most of these stories, married John McRaven, the son of Dan McGraw’s childhood friend who tried to join the Confederate Army with him.  Florence McGraw McRaven was an exceptionally forward-thinking woman in many ways (racial tolerance was not one of those ways).  She was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1926 and served until 1930.  When she decided to sponsor legislation limiting the number of hours women could work over dangerous machinery, she ran afoul of the large cotton mills.  The bill failed, but not without her putting up a fight.  The “Scopes Monkey Trial” occurred around that timeframe in a neighboring state.  One of the Arkansas legislators, in an effort to ingratiate himself with his fundamentalist constituency, introduced legislation which would make it illegal to teach the theory of evolution in schools.  Florence took the floor and argued against the legislation saying, “any theory is but an indication of a search for truth; that truth is of God, and why should we fear to explore any avenue in the search.”  She served two terms in the House and then set her sights on the state Senate intent on working to abolish capital punishment in the state.  Her stance on key issues when she was a representative cost her the backing of several key people and she lost. 

Florence’s brother, Fred, was my great grandfather.  He worked for the coal company at Denning, near Altus.  Eventually when my grandfather was off to college at Ouachita, Fred McGraw moved his family to Ft. Smith where he found work as an accountant, a move necessitated by the closure of the coal mines near Altus.  When he was younger, Fred went off to training in preparation to be shipped off to the Spanish-American War and also lit out to present day Oklahoma west of Ft. Smith, the wild country depicted in the movie True Grit.  Something he saw or experienced in “the territories” convinced him being a bookkeeper back in Arkansas was the best way to go.  I’d love to know what he saw out there.  Or maybe I wouldn’t. 

[1] Most of this info comes from a book written in 1953 by Florence McGraw McRaven entitled Swift Current