In the paragraphs that follow, the term “pickup” refers to a lightweight truck, rather than the often cheesy but occasionally clever line one might use to attract a stranger’s attention.

 

Arkansans love their pickups — and own a bunch of them. Last time I looked, for instance, many more than 600,000 such vehicles were on the rolls of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration. Take out underage drivers, and that is one truck for every two men in the state. Here is another way of looking at it: Lined up bumper to bumper (and assuming an average length of 17 feet), the state’s pickups would extend slightly more than 2,000 miles. In other words, that is the equivalent of trucks filling both lanes of a highway around the perimeter of the state (i.e., from Bentonville to Blytheville to Lake Village to Texarkana and back to Bentonville). Those of a competitive nature might be pleased to know that on a per capita basis, Arkansas easily beats Texas when it comes to pickups.

 

The most famous pickup in the state is proudly displayed in the Walmart Museum on the square in downtown Bentonville. Guests can examine Sam Walton’s original 1979 Ford F-150, his vehicle of choice when he and his bird dog, Ol’ Roy, went quail hunting. If they look closely, visitors will spot the dog’s teeth marks on the steering wheel.

 

Most of the 65,627 miles put on the classic red-and-white pickup were not for hunting trips. Before his retailing empire exploded to cover the country, Walton drove the truck from one Walmart store to another to check on inventory, displays and staffing. Veteran managers knew to be on the lookout for the truck and the random surprise inspection. Walton also routinely parked his truck in the lots of competitors, where he gauged store appearance and consumer traffic before wandering in to assess the shopping experience.

 

For certain demographic groups — particularly young men in rural portions of the state — acquiring one’s first pickup truck is a rite of passage. A gun rack in the rear window completes the look, especially if the rack is occupied, and four-wheel drive is highly desired. As for the exterior, the muddier, the better.

 

The first factory-built pickups arrived in the American marketplace in 1925, when Ford Motor Co. offered them for sale. Prior to that, consumers had to purchase a chassis and cab from a dealer and then find local craftsmen to build custom beds for the new vehicles.

 

Given the state’s rural population and strong agricultural base, pickup trucks quickly caught on in Arkansas, and they have remained popular ever since. In a typical year, about 30 percent of the state’s registered vehicles are pickups.

 

These new models are a far cry from the utilitarian 1953 Ford three-quarter-ton pickup Papa Rice drove around Clay County to check on his farming operations back in the 1950s and ’60s. Today’s top-of-the-line pickups are fully tricked out with state-of-the-art electronics, GPS, leather upholstery, climate-control systems and other advancements my grandfather would have seriously questioned.

 

These days, there are a surprising number of pickup trucks parked in the garages of upscale neighborhoods across the state. Most city dwellers rely on their trucks to haul mulch, sod, firewood, garage sale gleanings, sporting equipment, the latest large-screen televisions and the annual Christmas tree, never getting their tires off the pavement.

 

Let me conclude with a reminder that you do not have to own a pickup to be an Arkansan, but you dang sure better know a good friend who has one.

 

backstoriesJoe David Rice, former tourism director of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, wrote 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 — a story 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.

 

 

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