1939 September 1
This document was written by Walter Rowland, who was a writer for the Federal Writers' Project under the Works Projects Administration. This document discusses the Lithuanian community in Arkansas, when they came into Arkansas, and where they settled, and includes a biographical sketch of a Lithuanian man named Petrolas, discussing his life in Lithuania and his move to the United States.
The Works Progress Administration, which became the Work Projects Administration (WPA), was the largest and most ambitious of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal agencies. The Arkansas Federal Writer's Project was the part of the WPA that was created to focus on the history of Arkansas as part of the American Guide series. Publications such as these would give points of interest from each state, covering topics of agriculture, geography and geology, history, Indians, industry, place names, immigration, and transportation. The Work Projects Administration's final report for Arkansas was completed on March 1, 1943. During its operations it expended more than $116,000,000 on employment programs, paved over 11,000 miles of roads, built over 600 new public schools, and repaired many others.
Arkansas Writers' Project
Writer: Walter Rowland
Lithuanians in Arkansas
As far as we have been able to discover, there were no Lithuanians
in the state prior to 1912. Between that year and 1914, however, a few
families settled near Bigelow, in Faulkner County, approximately twenty
miles from Little Rock. Additions to the group brought the total number
of families to about twenty-four in 1918. The Lithuanians who made up
this colony, or at least the heads of the families, had come to the United
States between 1904 and 1910 because of unsatisfactory conditions in their
native land, especially after the Russo-Japanese War. Landing in New York,
or other Eastern ports, they at first settled in Eastern and Midwestern
cities where they had relatives or friends. The members of the group that
later came to Arkansas apparently found working conditions and wages in
the cities satisfactory, but felt unhappy at being away from the soil.
Real estate salesmen in Chicago and other industrial centers found it easy
to sell the immigrants, at high prices, land for which extravagant claims
While the Arkansas land sold to the Bigelow group proved a disappoint-
ment to them, they set about with typical peasant industry, and seem to
have done fairly well financially. The inability to speak good English,
however, and in some cases even passable English, led to a self-imposed
segregation; this, together with their isolation from friends and relatives
elsewhere in the United States, may have made them somewhat dissatisfied.
At any rate, during the early 1920's all but five of the families gave up
the attempt to make homes in the Arkansas hills, and returned to Chicago,
where they found jobs in industry.
Of the five families that remained in the state, in 1939 four were
living on rural mail route number 2, out of Bigelow. The fifth family
has a farm and service station on State Highway 10, about fourteen miles
northwest of Little Rock.
All five of the families have a love of farming, and seem frugal and
industrious. Their small vineyards furnish enough wine for home use. (An
Italian settlement near Bigelow sells wine that enjoys a state-wide reputa-
tion.) They do not rely heavily on cash crops, but instead are firm be-
lievers in subsistence farming. They grow their own vegetables, kill their
own meat, and can both types of food.
The family heads are Roman Catholic, and attend church when services
and transportation are available at the same time. The children remain in
the same faith, though perhaps they are not as firmly attached to it; this
is partly because they are on an Arkansas "mission", and there is no resi-
dent priest, or opportunity to attend mass regularly.
In the homes Lithuanian is spoken, because none of the parents speak
good English. In speech the children are bi-lingual, though they do not
read Lithuanian. Every family, however, subscribes to a Lithuanian news-
paper. The grandchildren probably will never learn Lithuanian, nor reveal
a trace of the accent in their talk. Some of the children farm; a few have
migrated to midwestern and northern cities.
In addition to the small group remaining near Bigelow, there is a
Lithuanian gardener living in North Little Rock. The farmer who lives on
State Highway 10 near Bigelow says that perhaps there are a few of his
countrymen in the coal mining district near Fort Smith, but it has not
been possible to ascertain the names or residences of such persons. Nor
has it been possible to verify the possibility that a Lithuanian farmer
resides in the vicinity of Ash Flat, near the residence of Maldo Arnold.
Attached to this note concerning the few Lithuanians Known, or thought,
to be in Arkansas, are two brief biographical sketches typical of mem-
bers of the Bigelow colony.
Arkansas Writers Project
Writer: Walter Rowland
Lithuanian Biographical Sketch (1)
Petrolas was a short, stocky man with thick, work-roughened hands.
His blue eyes twinkled, and he occasionally removed a sweat-stained work
cap, revealing sandy hair. He was mowing hay, and called to his team in
English, though it was evident that even after this many years he was more
at home in his native tongue. Even so, he spoke better English than his
bulky wife, who made up for her lack of vocabulary by nodding and beaming
in support of all he said. Her face fairly glowed in the sun and she
laughed at everything. She showed a delighted enthusiasm, offering, for
example, to "run to the house" despite the heat so that we could see what
a Lithuanian paper was like.
He was born, he said, in 1883, near a little place called Radviliskis.
Their crops included wheat, oats, barley, rye and flax. Their home was a
log structure, chinked with moss, and almost unbelievably cold in the
winter. In the very worst weather the smoke from their great ovens-- as
big as an automobile, he insisted-- became so thick in the house that they
had to lie upon the floor to keep from choking. They made their own linen,
baked twenty-pound loaves of black rye bread, and did practically all their
work by hand, since they had few animals and no machines.
The Russo-Japanese Way left the country almost unlivable for the
Lithuanians. Their language was suppressed, or at least it was not taught;
there were "no schools, no newspapers, no nothing." The railroads were
tied up by strikes, and large numbers of Lithuanians were sent to Siberia.
The only employment was in the hated Russian factories, where a year's
wages might amount to twenty or twenty-five dollars.
In 1906 a cousin in American sent him a ticket. The ship docked in
Baltimore, "Md." A train took him to Philadelphia, where he had friends,
and they got him a job in a "shoogar" factory. It was as if a child were
given a job in Santa Claus' shop. Sugar had been a rare delicacy in the
old country, an almost unheard-of luxury; here it was as so much dirt.
Why, they would actually let the workers eat all they wanted! He ate it
by lumps and handfuls, he dissolved it in cold water and drank it. Truly
this America was a rich country, where a common worker might eat all the
precious sugar he could hold. He sadly told me that he didn't care much
for sugar now, and his wife doubled over at the gleeful remembrance of the
first time she got all the sugar she wanted.
Work in the sugar factory was satisfactory, but during the slack win-
ter season employment was often difficult to obtain, because of the numbers
of "young men" anxious to work at the prevailing wage of 15¢ an hour for a
twelve-hour day. Several of his best friends in Philadelphia died, and in
1908 he moved to Chicago, the American mecca of his race.
Continued association with foreign-born groups had kept him from
learning English well, but through Lithuanians in Chicago he obtained work
in the stockyards. After seven months he got a job in a tailor shop. At
first his pay was fifteen cents an hour; by gradual increase it rose to
thirty cents, but there was work "joost four or five" hours a day. His
fellow tailors organized and went on strike, going back to their machines
at the phenomenal wage of seventy cents an hour. He met his wife in Chicago
and they were married and began to save money. ("Yeah, Yeah!" she threw
up her hands and laughed all over.)
They lived in Chicago nearly ten years and saved enough to pay a slick-
tongued, Lettish-speaking salesman five or six times the value of the Ark-
ansas tract they bought. It was cleared, rich land, the richest in the
world, the salesman said, and would grow anything. When they came South
and the wife saw the brush-covered hillside that would grow anything she
wanted to give up and go back to Chicago.
The wife broke in, "I vanted [SIC] to go back, but he say no, you got to
stay, I vant [SIC] to farm," and they stayed. Both were strong-- she was not
fat then-- and they worked from morning till night chopping off the trees
and underbrush. They still had some money to buy seed and stock, and the
Their home is fairly comfortable, differing little from their neigh-
bors' except perhaps it is cleaner. At first he tilled his fields with
Old World frugality and care, but now they look about like any in the vi-
cinity. The homeland touch is a small vineyard, from which he makes a few
gallons of wine each year.
In 1931 the government granted him a loan on his crop. Before that he
was shrewd enough to homestead eighty adjoining acres so that if a stock
law is passed he has land to fence for a pasture. Already he has the county
agent's promise to bring him some lespedesa seed to get his pasture started.
He watches the foreign situation rather closely and has predicted that
Lithuania will be gobbled up by Germany, a country for which he holds little
love. He and his wife have no children, which he considers just as well,
since children "don't like to live on farm nowadays."
A sick friend lived with them a long time without paying rent, and
when he died he left them his car, a late model Chevrolet. Neither Petrolas
nor his wife have the slightest idea how to run a car but he is going to
learn, because both are very fond of travel. Then, too, they can begin
going to the Roman Catholic church, a habit they dropped because the church
is some distance from their home.
When Petrolas came to Arkansas he was cheated on prices a few times.
But a Lithuanian peasant learns quickly; he does very well in his trades now,
and all in all, is quite content. The cities have too many cars and too
much gas to be healthful, he says. Last fall he returned to Chicago for
a six weeks visit, and found that a number of his friends had died. In
Arkansas people get vegetables and milk, butter and meat, fit food for
those whose ancestors have farmed for generations. He is fifty-six, strong
and hearty, still able to do a day's work with ease. "We be dead long ago
I'm sure if we don't live here. Arkansas is healthy," he said, and his
wife commented that though she was fat she never hurt any and could still
do plenty of work.
He is proud of being a citizen. It is their bulwark against European
difficulties. He says that since he is a citizen nobody can make him go
back, and nobody can take his farm away from him. When asked if he liked
Arkansas he answered, "Shoore; if we no like it here we move," and his wife
shook with merriment.
Document, 8" x 10.5"
Works Projects Administration; Lithuanian Community; Immigrants
Bigelow, Faulkner County (Ark.)
MS.000567, Box 6, Folder 76, Item 1
Works Progress/Work Projects Administration (WPA) Arkansas research files, MS.000567
Arkansas State Archives
Arkansas State Archives
Arkansas Federal Writer's Project: "Lithuanians in Arkansas", Works Progress/Work Projects Administration (WPA) Arkansas research files, Arkansas State Archives, Little Rock, Arkansas.
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