Missouri readers may be slightly irritated when they discover artist/writer/musician Thomas Hart Benton is included in the “all about Arkansas” book. He was, in fact, a native Missourian and the grandnephew and namesake of the Show Me State’s first U. S. Senator, a bigger-than-life hero of the American frontier. The original Thomas Hart Benton, among eight senators featured in John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer prize-winning Profiles in Courage, was so prominent in his era that dozens of locales across the country were named in his honor – to include our own Benton, Bentonville, and Benton County.


The second Thomas Hart Benton was an original in his own right. Born in southwest Missouri in 1889, Benton was pressured by his father, a powerful politician known as “the little giant of the Ozarks,” to follow the family tradition of lawyering. Instead, Benton answered his independent calling – the world of art. He studied first in Chicago and then in Paris before ultimately winding up in New York City. A founder of the “regionalist” movement, Benton painted a series of murals that caught the art community’s attention and landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1934. He also taught at the Art Students League of New York and mentored many young painters, including Jackson Pollock.


Tired of the New York art scene, Benton returned to Missouri in 1935, settling in Kansas City where he was an instructor at the local art institute. Often concentrating on rural America during this stage of his career, Benton roamed across southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, occasionally trekking alone through the isolated backwoods with his knapsack and sketchpad and depending upon hospitality of the hill folks. In a mid-1930s piece for Travel magazine, Benton wrote, “In the spring or the fall of the year there is no more delightful walking ground in the world than the Arkansas Ozarks.”


He’d also floated streams in the region since his boyhood days. In his autobiography, Benton recalled an early fascination with the nearby rivers: “I learned to know the lure of running water and the immense sense of freedom given to those who yield to it.” His favorite waterway in the Ozarks was Arkansas’s Buffalo River, a destination he visited regularly for years. Benton invariably took a sketchpad on those trips, producing over the decades some of his best work with Buffalo River themes.


In the spring of 1970, with proposals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers threatening the river’s future, Benton floated the Buffalo with a party which included a reporter for Sports Illustrated magazine. In the ensuing article, titled “The Old Man and the River,” the 81-year-old Benton is described as “looking like an aged Einstein with his rumpled white hair and untrimmed mustache” – with tobacco stains dribbling down his shirt. Around the campfire after the day’s float, Benton said, “If every American could run the Buffalo just once, the way we did today, then I think our rivers would be beyond the reach of trouble.”


Never shy with sharing his beliefs, Benton worked hard to keep the Buffalo River out of trouble. Unable to attend a Corps public hearing on plans to impound the stream, he submitted a written statement strongly urging the federal dam builders to simply “Let the river be.” After a long and heated battle, that four-word plea ultimately prevailed.


Benton died in his Kansas City studio on the evening of January 19, 1975. He’d enjoyed dinner that night with one of his Buffalo River canoeing buddies and had told his guest he was already planning another float trip for the spring. Benton was 85 years young at the time.


backstoriesJoe David Rice, former tourism director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, has written Arkansas Backstories, a delightful book of short stories from A through Z that introduces readers to the state’s lesser-known aspects. Rice’s goal is to help readers acknowledge that Arkansas is a unique and fascinating combination of land and people — one to be proud of and one certainly worth sharing.


Each month, AY will share one of the 165 distinctive essays. We hope these stories will give you a new appreciation for this geographically compact but delightfully complex place we call home. These Arkansas Backstories columns appear courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System. The essays have been collected and published by Butler Center Books in a two-volume set, both of which are now available to purchase at Amazon.com and the University of Arkansas Press.