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Snow was falling on the darkened hills. Neighbors tiptoed through the cabin, whispering. The old midwife muttered about his size, barely two and a half pounds. The doctor declaredout of the mother's hearing, we assume"This baby will never live 'til morning." But they got him breathing, then cleaned and wrapped him and sat down to wait.
It enrages common sense to suggest that anyone there might have thought, much less uttered aloud, that this wretched infant not only would survive but would someday become known throughout the world, would be remembered among other things as probably the last public figure in America to have been born in a log cabin. These were not Kennedys. There was no fortune waiting to finance the ambitions of genius. And genius itself was not much in evidence. Of all the children, who eventually would number almost as many as their contemporaries the Kennedys, only this one would go much beyond the ordinary. No burning siblings would be watching from the wings.
On that first night, January 7, 1910, it is probable that the only one in the cabin who believed in the baby's chances with any shred of conviction was the seventeen-year-old girl. Her motherly longing and belief must have been absorbed by the child, and in a few days he had grown large enough that the girl could no longer display him like a kitten cupped in one palm. In later years, she would tell people that her newborn son could have fit into a quart jar with the lid on.
So how could he not have been afraid, not just at the beginning but on down? The claw of fear was in him as he tested thewildness of first the rocky hillside yard and then, slowly, the extending forest of Stanley Mountain and Ritchie Branch, and then the outer world that seemed enormous to a frail, quiet boy: Greasy Creek winding down to the white River, the town of Combs, the railroad disappearing into the mystery.
Much later he would come to think of nature as his friend. But in the beginning, nature was his monster. It was nature's deep spring of sweet water that he fell into when he was just old enough to say a few words, reaching to retrieve his only toy, a tin cupand somehow did not drown but clambered out in time to meet his frantic mother racing down the path.
It was nature that killed his two playmates when he was seven, one felled by diphtheria and the other by a sawn tree. He learned early that if you move slowly, the woods will crush you, and that if you attract the wrong germ, you will slowly suffocate.
For years, he feared that he would choke to death. He had the croup one night when he was a year old. His father snatched him from his bed, ran out into the cold air, and plunged a finger into his throat to clear his trachea and make him breathe again. Many years later, as an old man, he would walk a visitor through the Combs cemetery and point out the shortened grave depressions all over the yard, the tombstone inscriptions saying, "Infant of ..." One plot had four short graves in a row bearing cousins of his, each tombstone labeled, "Infant of Mr. and Mrs. John E. Faubus."
Flux swept the community when Orval was a boy and killed two children in a neighboring family, a three-year-old girl and her seventeen-month-old brother. They died thirty minutes apart. "I never will forget. I went to the funeral, and you could hear men crying half a mile away as they came walking up through the field there to the cemetery where they were buried."
Death was everywhere. Farm animals died. Dogs were executed for killing sheep. Hawks were shot for killing chickens. Crippled chicks were not pampered; they were killed. His mother handed him an unfortunate chick one day and told him to get rid of it. "It was a cold day. And I cupped it in my hands, and it began to cheep, you know, like it had found a friend. And I had to take it out there and kill it."
Old people did not die in hospital rooms. They died where they stopped breathing. His grandmother Joslin died of a heart attack while she was holding Orval's baby sister Bonnie. The boy watched as his father caught the falling infant. The family's friend Will Hunt died working in a field.
The ants were crawling over his face and in and out of his mouth. Those things make an impression on a rather timid youngster like I was. There were a lot of hardships and things that the modernists today say would cause trauma. Hell, we never heard the word then. We got over it all right without all the counseling that you have to do now.
Then there was the fear within the boy's own dreams. For he was burdened with great pride. He saw the scorn of the neighbors when his father preached his radical opinions. The boy would do almost anything to avoid scorn or looking like a fool.
I once heard a story of a drunken stag party at a hunting camp at which he, by then the occupant of the state's highest office, by then a man of chilling gravity, deliberately made himself ridiculous by riding a donkey backward through the crowd. I do not believe that it happened, not unless, against all odds, he was so drunk that he managed for a brief hour to escape the terrible confines of his mind and become ordinary.
Even as a boy, he knew that he was not ordinary. Pride and self-knowledge set him on an early course for what was in the beginning merely escape from that place and circumstance. He could not claw his way out through brute strength, as some had done. He remained frail almost until manhood. But he also knew his advantages. He had a good mind and an extraordinary memory, so that he was able to store all that he read and heard.
He could read before he entered first grade at the Greenwood School. He had a gift for language, and he learned that language bestows power.
Through it all, the dread and fear remained. And of all the fears the boy acquired and cultivated, one was more persevering than all the others. He would eventually conquer his fear of nature's monstrosities, of illness and accident, of war, finally even of death itself. But there was one apparition that he never outran. The dreadful shadow that haunted him all his life was the fear of failurethe fear, in its everyday, ordinary form, of looking like a fool.
Orval Eugene Faubus was born in a rented log cabin on the slope of Stanley Mountain a few hundred yards above Ritchie Branch in Madison County, Arkansas. Ritchie Branch waters the Gulf of Mexico by way of Greasy Creek and the White River. The White flows impertinently north through the Arkansas Ozarks into southern Missouri, then back south across hills and delta into the Arkansas River and thence into the Mississippi and on into the world.
Where the parents got the name Orval is uncertain. There is no uncertainty about the middle name. Sam Faubus's hero was Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist leader and labor organizer who, in less than ten years, would be in federal prison for his beliefs. Sam and nine other men of the Combs community chartered their own chapter of the Socialist party in May when the baby Orval was four months old. John Samuel Faubus was twenty-two years old when he became a father and a Socialist.
The farming community of Greasy Creek, a mile and a half north of Combs, was no more prosperous than any other rural habitat of the Ozarks. The residents scraped by and felt lucky to do so. Food came from the soil, cultivated by both parents and all the children old enough to handle a hoe, and from the meat of animals, wild and domesticated. Money came from selling one's spare labor in the woodscutting and hauling logs, barrel staves, and railroad ties. Quiet cash could be picked up in the distilling and sale of whiskey. Women and children often had a little egg money.
Combs throve. The dirt streets were always busy with wagons drawn by horses or mules. When Orval was a boy, the town had three hotels, two physicians, two blacksmith and barber shops, and enough general stores to provide a brisk competition. The Black Mountain and Eastern Railroad built tracks through the town to transport the crossties and other wood products to the manufacturing centers. There was a sawmill and its lumber yard next to the railroad. As a boy, Orval dreaded going to Combs because the steam engines frightened him.
Think about that vast isolated region where the loudest sound you ever heard was the sound of the chopping axe and the voice. And then that big hissing steam locomotive would scare the mules to death. You had to get out and get them by the bits and hold them. So I was always afraid we'd come to the railroad the time the train was coming through, and I was always scared the mules would run away.
Nearly every family kept a milk cow, even in town. Cattle, sheep, and horses ran loose on the streets, as they do today in many of the cities and towns of Asia and Africa. One Halloween, some boys of Combs built a high pen of crossties around one man's cow. It might have been the same bunch who disassembled a farmer's wagon and put it back together on top of Barron's Store.
The dappled and improbable history of the South that has engaged scholars for generations is mainly that of the plantation country. Black and white whirled together there, tolerating and rubbing each other raw, joined like carelessly attached Siamese twins in something more than a dance and something less, usually, than mortal combat. For better and often for worse, they stole each other's manners, speech, style, music, and tastes. These became the southerners of popular romance fiction.
Up on the rim of the South beyond the fertile cotton land, an entirely different history teased itself out. The upland southerners were, except for the steadily displaced Cherokees and the other indigenous tribes, predominantly Anglo-Saxons and Celts from the British Isles. Many were Scotch-Irish, a convenient label for those Scots who had paused in Ireland for two centuries without ever becoming Irish and had then paused again, just briefly, on the Atlantic seaboard of North America before pushing into the wilderness, taking the frontier with them, living always on what Frederick Jackson Turner called the meeting place between savagery and civilization. The upland southerners evolved into something quite different from the lowlanders. These were Orval Faubus's people.
By the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Scotch-Irish had shoved up the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and into the piedmont of North Carolina. They crossed the Alleghanies into Kentucky and Tennessee during the time of the American Revolution. From there, they drifted south and west along the ridges and valleys, settling the higher altitudes of Georgia and Alabama, and finallyjust before reaching what would become the barrier border of the Indian TerritoryArkansas.
Thousands of Scotch-Irish arrived in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas during the middle of the nineteenth century. They huddled in the hardwood hills, isolated except for the adjacent Germans and French of the Missouri Ozarks and the Cherokees who, prodded by the Europeans, had drifted west and settled uneasily in the same Arkansas hills and hollows.
The French and Spanish had moved into the lowlands of eastern Arkansas late in the seventeenth century. The Ozark highlands were virtually innocent of Europeans until early in the nineteenth century. Fayetteville had become just a village by 1828. It was connected to the more populous eastern precincts by a single path known as the Carrollton Road. By 1829, much of eastern and central Arkansas was served by postal routes; west of Batesville, the Ozarks were untouched by this hint of civilization. Settlers followed the numerous rivers in other parts of the state. Ozark streams were as unnavigable as the wooded slopes were impenetrable. Only those Europeans who were foolhardy or desperate or hardheaded or visionary saw any reason to venture in.
There were some advantages. While the soil of the slopes was thin, that of the creek bottoms and the northwestern prairie was reasonably fertile. Wheat and corn did well there. Madison County, where the Faubuses settled, was among the top-ten corn-producing counties of Arkansas by 1860. But for cottonthat is to say, for real moneysettlers chose the malarial delta, and brought slaves. Migrants into the lowlands tended to come from the lowlands of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. The stubborn Scots sought the infertile highlands, as if enslaved by a genetic disposition against wealth.
There was another difference. The uplanders were never quite southern in the demonic sense of the word. Lacking large numbers of slaves, or indeed any neighbors who did not look like themselves except for a few Indians, their race prejudice was not the same as that of the lowlanders. On the one hand, they were largely free of the virulent fear and hatred of black people that lowlanders were capable of. On the other, they lacked the sympathy for blacks that the lowlanders were also capable of. Bereft of proximity, the uplanders had no deep feelings toward black people other than a strong and atavistic distaste for strangers.
The Faubuses were not among the first settlers in the Ozarks. Those first arrived in some numbers during the 1830s. Orval's ancestors the Thornberrys and Salyers were settled in Madison County before the Civil Warsome perhaps as early as 1840after the savage edge of the frontier had been dulled a little. They were known, in fact, as prosperous farmers. One of the Salyers became a leading merchant of the town of St. Paul after the Civil War.
The first American Faubus known to the family was one William. He spelled it Faubous. The name has had many spellings. It is believed to be derived from the Scottish Forbes. In America it has been Forbis, Forbush, Furbush, Forbus, Fawbush, Faubush, Faubous, and Faubus. Members of the family remember being addressed as Fawbush as recently as 1954.
William was a Scot who migrated to New York about 1750, without benefit of hiatus in Ireland. He fought under George Washington in the French and Indian Wars and perhaps later in the Revolution. A military size roll of 1758 or 1759 describes him as a planter living in Virginia. It says he was 5 feet 7 1/2 inches tall, of fair complexion and red hair, and lusty (stout, robust) with good limbs. He would have been about twenty-five years old.
Orval's family records show no direct connection with William Faubous. However, Orval's great-great-great-grandfather John Faubus was born August 25,1759, in Frederick County, in the hills of western Virginia, about the time and place that the immigrant William would have produced children.
The Faubuses were hill people from the beginning. Before the Revolution, John's family moved on down the Appalachians to Burke County, North Carolina. Family lore has it that young John fought the British in the Revolution, and that he was wounded in one eye by a bayonet at the Battle of Eutaw Springs. About 1786, he moved his family to Washington County, Tennessee, still clinging to the hills.
Further family lore says that Orval's great-great-grandfather Thomas Faubus enlisted in the War of 1812 and fought under Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. Afterward, Thomas pursued the traditional family occupation of farming and added a new venture, distilling whiskey. Thomas's son, Ellis, Orval's great-grandfather, was born in 1827 in eastern Tennessee. The family moved again when the boy was sixteen, this time to Laurel County, Kentucky, less than fifty miles northwest of the Cumberland Gap. If the Faubuses ever owned slaves during any of their hill-country migrations, it would have been in meager numbers.
In 1868, when he was forty-one years old, Ellis made the longest family move since William's voyage from Scotland to New York. Gathering up his family, including a babe-in-arms, Ellis migrated six hundred miles from eastern Kentucky to northwestern Arkansas. The family legend is that they made most of the trip by boat and disembarked on the Arkansas River at the town of Ozark, thence overland to Madison County. By 1889, Goodspeed's History of Northwest Arkansas reported that he had left his original homestead, nine miles away, and was "now the owner of 200 acres of excellent land, it being in the White River Valley." It was there in the White River valley of Madison County that a core of the Faubus clan would remain, in various numbers, on through the twentieth century.
There are indications that the new country in Arkansas was not uniformly generous, even with the "excellent land." Ellis wrote to a nephew in Kentucky in July 1892. It appears that the nephew had been left in charge of selling some Kentucky land in which Ellis had an interest. "If there is any thing for me," he wrote, "I will Expect it as soon as posible to make all things rite." In the same letter, Ellis reported that crops in the White River valley were favorable in spite of a "terrible wet and backward spring" that had delayed planting. Then he added a dark note: "Times is hard in this country."
Hard times or not, the Faubuses reproduced in abundance. William Henry, the baby when Ellis brought the family from Kentucky, grew up and married Malinda Sparks. The Faubuses probably considered it a good marriage for young Henry. Malinda's mother was from the prosperous Salyer family, which owned much of the town of St. Paul. A distant relative in the Sparks family became governor of Alabama. The Sparkses also provided the northern sentiment when the Civil War was remembered; Malinda's father, Eli, had been a Union soldier.
Henry and Malinda produced seven children. The oldest, John Samuel, was born October 24, 1887, on Mill Creek a little south of Combs. Sam Faubus was destined to enter history as the father of a famous man. If history had been more logical, a little less given to luck and caprice, it might well have come about that the first Faubus to be governor of a state would have been not Orval but his father.