The sky split open over Greene County at 4:08 a.m. on Feb. 17, 1930, and depending upon their theology, locals thought it was either the devil or Jesus coming.

 

People in five states saw a brilliant streak of light and those near the Finch community about 15 miles southwest of Paragould heard three loud explosions. Roosters began crowing and cattle stampeded at the fiery show and noise.

 

There was debate that it could have been a sudden thunderstorm, but that idea was quickly quelled by witnesses.

 

“It was clear out that night. People could see stars,” said Doris Hagen, president of the Greene County Museum in Paragould whose grandfather, Tellas Treece, saw it and told her years later about the evening. “It wasn’t a storm.”

 

Instead, it was the second largest meteorite ever seen falling in the U.S. and then later recovered. An 800-pound chunk of iron, troilite and LL5 chronidite – a rare form of iron found in meteorites – blasted through the earth’s atmosphere and landed in a field just southwest of Paragould, creating a nine-foot-deep crater. Another 73-pound piece crashed into earth near the Finch Baptist Church and a third rock was never found.

 

Scientists later determined the meteorite broke into three pieces because of the three sonic booms residents reported hearing. The event sparked the interest in things from outer space, both because of the rarity and because of the lucrative nature of finding a meteorite.

 

Four weeks after the meteorite’s fall, searchers found it on farmland owned by Joe H. Fletcher. The nearly four-foot long stone burrowed deep into the soil spraying clay 100 feet from its impact. Five men and a team of horses took three hours to dig the meteorite out.

 

Fletcher soon sold it to Harvey N. Nininger, a biology professor from McPherson, Kan., for $3,600. Nininger then sold it to Stanley Field, the president of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago for $6,200. The sale funded Nininger’s dream to become a meteorite hunter and he soon retired from his teaching position to search for falling space stones.

 

The Paragould meteorite was displayed in the museum on the shore of Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago for decades and was later loaned to the museum at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The fascination with the approaching 2024 solar eclipse helped spur locals into action to bring the rock home. It’s now on loan at the Greene County Museum in Paragould, proudly featured in a room devoted to the event.

 

Meanwhile, an 80-pound piece of the meteorite, found near Finch, sold for $300. It’s now at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. And there have been other meteorites that searchers have discovered in Arkansas over the years.

Meteorite

An etching details the discovery of the controversial Keith Meteorite.

A 107-pound meteorite landed in Cabin Creek, what is now Lamar, on March 27, 1886. A man paid $35 for it and then sold it to a Eureka Springs dealer. A year later, a New York collector bought it and unsuccessfully tried to sell it to the Smithsonian. Later, an Austrian industrialist paid $40,000 for the rock and gave it to a museum in Vienna.

 

About six months after the Paragould meteorite in 1930, a 37-pound stone hit Heber Springs on July 13, 1930. The finder refused a bid of $100 for it, and later sold it to a Rochester, N.Y., institute for $650.

 

Two airplane pilots also reported nearly being hit by meteors. On April 8, 1933, according to the Arkansas Gazette, an American Airways pilot said a meteor nearly hit his aircraft while he was traveling from Fort Worth to Texarkana, Ark. Another pilot said his plane avoided a strike on Dec. 26, 1935, when he was flying over Fort Smith.

 

In all, scientists estimate the Natural State is hit by four or five dozen meteorites (it’s a meteor when it’s in the sky and a meteorite when it lands) weighing an ounce or more each year. Because Arkansas has many wooded areas, many meteorites burning across the sky are not found.

“It has that kind of power.” Hagan with the mysterious rock, currently on loan to the Greene County Museum.

So far, there have been 15 confirmed meteorite findings of significance in the state over the past century or so. And there is one questionable one.

 

Randolph County residents saw a bright streak in the sky in July 1859 over the Black River bottoms just south of Pocahontas. A.H. Keith, a local farmer,  “discovered”  the rock and displayed it in the yard of his Pocahontas home.

 

Legend has it that over the years, people would come to Keith’s home and chip off a piece of the rock for themselves and eventually, the boulder-sized object was lessened in size by nearly 66 percent.

 

In 1986, Keith’s family donated the rock to the county in honor of  Arkansas’ sesquicentennial and it’s displayed now in the Randolph County Courthouse yard. It’s surrounded by a wrought iron fence at the foot of steps near a veterans’ memorial.

 

The problem, though, is that it’s probably not a real meteorite. A University of Arkansas geology team studied the rock and determined it to be a hunk of granite commonly found along the Current River just north in Missouri.

 

“There’s quite a divergence of opinion here on whether it’s a meteorite or not,” said Rodney Harris, director of the Randolph County Heritage Museum in Pocahontas and a professor of history at Williams Baptist University in Walnut Ridge.

 

“Some say it’s not one,” he said. “Others swear it is. Either way, there’s a divisive nature about it.”

 

Meteorite, or meteor wrong, the display brings in tourists who want to look at it whether it’s real or a hoax.

 

“If it’s not a meteorite, it’s an even more interesting story,” Harris said. “How did the idea of it being a meteorite get so far?

 

“This is a small town. The story has taken on a fascinating life of its own.”

 

Harris said the draw is the wonderment of where it came from. If it is from space, it’s eons old and came millions of miles before plunking down in the swampy Randolph County land.

 

“People have always been interested in things like that,” Harris said.

 

In addition to the fascination, there is a long history of fear and superstitions surrounding celestial events. Ancient cultures believed comets, meteor showers and eclipses were bearers of both bad and good news. A meteor shower immediately followed the death of Cleopatra in 30 B.C., and many people began watching the night skies for more signs.

 

A custom in Chile was to grab a stone and hold it after seeing a meteor to ward off any bad luck it could bring. In the Philippines, it was customary to tie a knot in one’s handkerchief before the light of a soaring meteor faded. Even now in the U.S., belief has it that if you wish on a “falling star,” or meteor, that wish will come true. Also, if two people see a meteor flashing by together, they are forever connected.

 

Eclipses, which are far more rare, also play on people’s fears. Several ancient tribes would shoot flaming arrows into the sky during a solar eclipse to scare away the beast that was eating the sun. The Chinese banged drums to frighten the hungry dragon that was devouring the sun during a solar eclipse.

 

Early cultures in Vietnam thought a frog was feasting on the sun. Norwegians blamed a hungry wolf. Northwest indigenous tribes of the U.S. believed it was a bear. In Indonesia, it was believed the mythical god Rahu began eating the sun, but spit it out when he burnt his tongue, causing the sun’s light to shine again.

 

The Kalina of Suriname believed the moon and sun were brother and sister. The siblings fought in the sky and an eclipse, either lunar or solar, meant one knocked out the other. When the unconscious sibling woke, the light of the sun or moon returned, they thought.

 

Hagen said when the Greene County Museum was established in 2008, members wanted to bring the meteorite back home to Paragould and capitalize on the interest of celestial things.

 

“The board began writing letters,” she said. “But we didn’t have the clout.”

 

Earlier this year, though, the Paragould Regional Chamber of Commerce formed its solar eclipse task force after director Allison Hestand heard that more than 40,000 visitors were expected to be in Paragould on April 8, 2024, to watch the eclipse.

 

The task force was charged with helping local businesses prepare for the glut of people who would come to Greene County. A year before the eclipse, Hestand said, Paragould’s hotels were already booked for the night before the event.

 

“In the process of preparing for this, the meteorite came up,” Hestand said. “The museum here is a treasure. We wanted to get the meteorite for people to see when they visited us.”

Meteorite

Local debate still simmers over the authenticity of the Keith Meteorite.

Members talked with Field Museum administrators and were able to get the meteorite on loan from the University of Arkansas museum for a year. Local businesses donated time and supplies to haul the meteorite from Fayetteville to Paragould and to hoist it into the museum.

 

“It’s here now,” Hagen said. “It’s within two to three miles of where it landed 93 years ago. It’s finally come home.”

 

In May 2024, when the loan expires, chamber members can either attempt to renegotiate another loan or buy the meteorite. Hestand did not say how much the 800-pound meteorite would cost, but said she’d heard a meteorite of that size could cost from $750,000 to $1 million.

 

Like the Paragould meteorite, next April’s solar eclipse is quite a rarity. Because it occurs a day after the moon’s perigee, the time the moon’s orbit brings it closest to the earth, the path of total darkness will be 117 miles wide, which is much wider than most eclipse paths.

 

The totality path will traverse from Texarkana northeast to Jonesboro and Paragould before crossing  over the Missouri bootheel and into Illinois and then on toward Ontario, Canada. Total darkness in Arkansas is expected to begin between 1:45 p.m. to 2 p.m. and will last for four minutes.

 

“It will only be a few hours’ drive for anyone in Arkansas to be in the totality path,” said Darcy Howard, a member of the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society and member of the eclipse outreach education team.

 

The last total solar eclipse in Arkansas happened in 1918. A partial solar eclipse, much like the one in August 2017, will cross western Arkansas in 2045.

 

Carl Freyaldenhoven, who, like Howard, is a Central Arkansas Astronomical Society member and on the eclipse outreach team, is hoping for better personal results with this eclipse than the one six years ago. Back then, in 2017, he drove to St. Joseph, Mo., where totality was to occur.

 

“I got clouded out,” he said, referring to the clouds that obliterated his view that day.

 

There is concern that because it’s springtime in Arkansas when the sun is covered, there’s a chance for rain. Long term forecasts (which the National Weather Service generally scoffs at) calls for a chance of clear skies in Arkansas with a higher probability of rain further northeast in the Ohio Valley.

 

Still, Howard said, it will still become as dark as night when the eclipse does happen despite the clouds.

 

“You can’t prepare yourself for what happens,” she said. “The sky becomes unnatural. Chickens will go to roost. Other [nocturnal] animals will wake up. That’s the power of the eclipse. People who see it will want to see another one. You don’t just look at it, you experience it.”

 

Freyaldenhoven thinks next year’s eclipse will continue to enhance the public’s interest in things from outer space. He said there are many videos today of meteors streaking across the sky, events people capture on business security cameras, residential doorbell cameras or cell phones and then quickly upload to YouTube, Facebook or other social media sites.

 

Hagen said she hopes the fascination will translate to more visitors to her museum.

 

“We received the meteorite on April 24,” she said. “On that first day, I just sat and stared at it. It took me two or three days before I could touch it. It has that kind of power.”

 

She said the meteorite came to the Greene County Museum at the perfect time. The COVID-19 pandemic kept people away from social gatherings for more than a year and attendance at the museum dropped dramatically. As the mandates that disallowed social gatherings abated, the museum began seeing more people.

 

“People were angry then,” she said of being quarantined. “We’re not the same people we were before COVID. Now we can get out and see a big rarity. It can make people happy.”

 

The museum, located at 130 S. 14th St. in Paragould is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Special appointments for private tours can be arranged by calling the museum at (870) 240-5810. 

 

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