Will Rogers Comes to Conway: “Looking Back”

One of the most important celebrities to ever visit Conway in yesteryear was Will Rogers, an American stage and motion picture actor, vaudeville performer, humorist and newspaper columnist from Indian Territory in Oklahoma.

Rogers, who got his start as a rope-spinner on the vaudeville stage, was known for his off-the-cuff wisecracks about the current politics. His well-known motto was “All I know is just what I read in the papers” and his daily newspaper column was carried by the New York Times and some 400 other newspapers around the country.

A popular and well-respected speaker, Rogers’ observations were never mean, but they were sometimes barbed. They were always keen and well-received, making him a beloved entertainer. He would be named the country’s top box-office attraction in 1933.

In early 1931, Rogers would travel 15,000 miles and raise $220,000 as part of the Red Cross relief tour of drought-stricken areas in Arkansas and his home state of Oklahoma. Rogers’ inspiration for the tour was born from the “England Food Riot” that took place in England, Arkansas on January 3, 1931.

Around 400 tenant farmers, some armed and all angry, gathered in the small Arkansas town, demanding food for their starving families. The local Red Cross agency felt the brunt of their anger as it had exhausted its supply of food vouchers. The farmers dispersed when the Red Cross got permission to issue more vouchers and local merchants voluntarily distributed food without payment.

The situation in England was not unique. Similar conditions were pervasive across the South. Upon hearing of this event, Rogers visited President Hoover to appeal for federal relief, but Hoover said that the Red Cross, local institutions and churches should provide such aid.

Rogers then flew to Arkansas, personally witnessing the ravages of the drought. From Little Rock, he announced that he would embarking on a relief tour. The tour started February 2 in Oklahoma City where he addressed the state legislature and did an evening performance in the downtown Shrine auditorium. He then hop-scotched on a plane to various cities in Oklahoma before heading to Arkansas.

Capt. Frank Hawks, with his famous Hell Diver, was the pilot who flew Rogers around for these appearances. On February 10, 1933, Hawks and Rogers arrived in Conway, landing on the grassy runway. He was greeted by Sam Donnell, Conway Chief of Police; William M. Berry, local pilot; and a small group of young boys who usually gathered any time a small plane landed at the airport.

That evening, Rogers kept 2,000 Conway citizens in Pike Hall at Arkansas State Teachers College (now UCA) “rocking with laughter for an hour and a half, shouting with applause as he raised $2236 for drought relief” before flying on to Fort Smith.

The next day, Capt. Hawks borrowed Berry’s smaller and lighter American Eagle plane to fly Rogers to Fort Smith because the Fort Smith airport at that time was even smaller than Conway’s. He worried his faster but heavier plane would have difficulties landing there. They returned Berry’s American Eagle and flew away in their Hell Diver to the next stop on the tour.

Photo as appeared in the Log Cabin Democrat.

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.