Belief is a powerful notion. Especially in the hands of a motivated Arkansan.
When it comes to folklore, many of the stories we encounter can’t be proven. Truth has little to do with it. The interesting hook of the White River Monster is not if the creature actually exists, but the impact it has on the community of Newport, despite its existence going unproven.
That is not the case with King Crowley. The story of King Crowley is irrefutably true – making its impact much more apparent. That impact all comes down to a simple, closely held belief.
An Education of Sorts
Before working for AETN, I taught broadcast journalism in one of the largest, oldest cities in Arkansas. Kids often signed up for my class for the chance to work with the cameras and computers. On my entrance surveys, I read things like “I want to be famous on YouTube” as reasons for taking the course.
Students were often disappointed when they found out the heart of journalism wasn’t about the cameras, but was about knowing a community and learning to tell its stories. I often asked them at the beginning of a project, “What’s happening around school? What stories have you heard?”
I was met with groans and shrugs.
I would push them to find something unique to cover and they would come back and simply ask for an assignment. As a young teacher, I got frustrated because I didn’t know how to motivate the kids into putting in the work. I misread the situation.
The truth was my students didn’t know how to find the extraordinary stories in their ordinary lives. This was something I had never considered having to teach, and probably the hardest thing for my kids to learn. They saw nothing in their community worth being excited about.
I wish I had known then the story of Bernie Babcock, Dentler Rowland and King Crowley.
A Misunderstood History
Many people learn about Bernie and King Crowley and hear the wrong story. In my research, people seemed to treat the story like a tragic, cautionary tale about a little old lady getting taken in by shyster.
That isn’t the story at all. Bernie Babcock was an Arkansan who was proud of where she came from. When people, like H.L. Menken, told her that Arkansas was not a special place, she set out to prove them wrong. Bernie founded a museum to show the rest of the country (and eventually the world), that Arkansas was a place worth believing in.
And when that belief was challenged by experts who told Bernie one of her prized “ancient artifacts” was only a few years old, she didn’t miss a beat. Bernie took the notoriety from King Crowley and sold tickets. Those ticket sales bought her one of the first mummies to be displayed in the state of Arkansas.
Slowly, Bernie’s Museum of Natural History outgrew its home in downtown Little Rock and moved to McArthur Park. Bernie lived in the basement of the Arsenal building, often spending her nights painting the nature scene murals, which served as backdrops to the museum's different displays.
King Crowley stayed with her through the years, always on display somewhere in the museum, reminding visitors of the facility’s humble beginnings.
Bernie Babcock was the founder and editor of magazines. She wrote ground-breaking novels on American History and traveled the world. She was truly an exemplary Arkansan.
Bernie’s Museum of Natural History carried on well without her. Now, as the Museum of Discovery, it’s one of the top attractions in Little Rock’s River Market.
What Makes King Crowley So Special?
Why is the story of Bernie Babcock, Dentler Rowland and King Crowley worth recounting? What makes it more than just a cautionary tale?
Sometimes I think we’re all like my classroom journalists a few years ago. Every day we go to work and come home – simply going through the motions. The extraordinary beauty of our ordinary lives is often lost on us. We see nothing special about our world.
I think we’d all do well to remember Bernie Babcock and her most famous of discoveries. Determined to put Arkansas on the map, she discovered a fake and was told to give up. Instead, she founded what would become one of the most successful discovery museums in the country.
Bernie Babcock had conviction. She believed King Crowley and Arkansas were important, and that unwavering belief made them important.
Bernie’s belief changed Arkansas history.