Arkansas: unlikely birthplace of the Tycoon, the General and the President.

This is where it all began (sort of): Sam Walton’s nickel and dime store, in Bentonville, Arkansas. It was actually his second store as the first Walmart (by name), is in a nearby town but has long been taken over by other businesses when Walmart outgrew the building. This little store has become the symbolic first and is now a museum to the greatest commercial enterprise ever built.

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It is difficult to compare Walmart to any other retail giant, so let’s compare it to a country. Walmart’s annual sales of $469 Billion in 2012 exceeded the GDP of 167 of the world’s 193 countries. 59 countries have a total population that is smaller than the total number of Walmart employees, 2.2 Million. The founder prided himself on spending little time in the office and a lot of time in the stores meeting his “associates”. With close to 10,000 locations in 15 countries, he would have found that quite challenging these days.

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The success left the four kids rather well off (actually 3 kids and a widow now). Combined, they are by far the richest people in the world, with a combined net worth of $107 Billion. Two of their cousins also got a few shares, now worth $8.4 B. Even after the business went public, there was much money to be made. 1000 stocks bought at IPO in 1970 (for $16,500), would now be worth about $150 million.

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I wonder if the descendants remained as down to Earth as their father was. While big innovations were high on the list of Walton’s priorities (computerized inventory before everyone else), his connection with employees, his presence in the stores and his attitude were apparently the stuff of legends. He certainly had a down-to-earth attitude; I can’t imagine too many CEOs walking around with a name tag that reads “Sam”.

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While this is certainly not the Smithsonian, it’s worth a stop if you are in Bentonville (admittedly, a big “if”). I was impressed looking at this hand drawn layout of a store plan that would end up being reproduced on a massive scale, thousands of times around the world.

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Dear to Walmart’s culture is the fact that the customer is always right, and the small museum has a collection of doubtful returns it nonetheless accepted, such as a mixer the customer claimed was possessed, a fishing rod that didn’t catch enough fish, a pencil sharpener because it didn’t work with ink pens and this wall thermometer, because it never had the right time!

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On a very different note, I learned quite by accident that Little Rock had been at the epicentre of the fight for desegregation. I had seen this picture and footage of those scenes many times, but I had just not taken notice that it happened in Little Rock. I vaguely remembered that the National Guard had to be sent to protect the first group (9) of courageous black kids who attempted to attend the all-white school. My memory was quite wrong, the National Guard was sent by the Governor to prevent them from attending! Then, the President sent the 101st Airborne Division to allow them in! He also federalized the Arkansas National Guard, temporarily removing it from State control.

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Little Rock Central High School is a beautiful and very large school, and still operates as a high school today, with an interpretation centre across the street. It was much more interesting than I expected. It is easy to paint a story like the fight for Civil Rights in a simplistic way, since from our contemporary point of view, it is hard to see beyond the “good guys – bad guys” storyline. This centre does a good job of explaining the problem in a more complete way. For example, while racism and prejudice was obviously the core of the issue, constitutional battles were also waged in the sidelines. Desegregation had been imposed by a Federal Court, in an area – education – under the responsibility of the States. Many feared accepting this would create a precedent which would erode the powers of the States in favour of Washington.

In the end, 8 of the 9 kids ended up graduating, but this was far from the end of the fight. Neighbouring Mississippi was only fully desegregated in 1970, and then the state saw an explosion of de facto white only private schools which still exist today. More importantly, desegregation didn’t really happen in many parts of the country because all efforts in this direction were rendered irrelevant by changes in demographic realities. After the 50s and 60s, you could try to integrate inner city schools as much as you wanted, but they would still be almost exclusively attended by minority kids, because all the white people were gone, having moved towards the new dream of the post war years, the suburbs.

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I don’t know if the area around the school is depressed because of the consequences of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, or just in general decline, but I walked just one city block (around the school), and counted 7 such abandoned, boarded up houses.

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Businesses were not doing any better.

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I saw a lot of such decline in small towns as well, such as here in DeValls Bluff, population 783.

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It reminded me of many small villages in my native Quebec, which used to rely heavily on agriculture and where today, the only booming businesses are retirement homes like this enormous, brand new complex, also in DeValls Bluff.

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Knowing of only one famous son of Little Rock, I went to the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library, a strange building located on a beautiful riverfront location close to downtown.

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The first thing I learned about the library? It’s not a library. At least, not one with books. Think of it more as a Clinton museum, with rooms for events and halls for temporary exhibits. As a museum, it doesn’t really do a good job because it feels more like a big Clinton commercial. I’m not saying I expected the stained dress on display, but this was more a list of accomplishments. It does however contain all of President Clinton’s archives, and there are a lot of them. These columns contain thousands upon thousands of boxes filled with Clinton papers, and this is just a minuscule portion of the documents contained in the vaults. In total, it is estimated the collection contains 84 million pages of archives.

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A replica of the Oval Office. I hope the real one doesn’t have people peeking in the window like this!

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I also visited the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History, a small but well set-up museum presenting what its name suggests, with a particular emphasis on the city’s most celebrated military man, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur. In this day and age, the kind of career MacArthur had would not be possible, so reading about it seemed almost surreal. When he was relieved of command in Korea by President Truman, he was 71 years old, an age when most of today’s generals would have been retired for well over a decade. At the time, he had 33 years of military service… as a general!

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Finally, the museum had a small section describing the Little Rock United Confederate Veterans reunion of 1911. I could not stop looking at this picture, over a hundred years old, but reflecting a much older reality. These elderly gentlemen were both veterans who fought on opposing sides, during the American Civil War.

#USA

6 thoughts on “Arkansas: unlikely birthplace of the Tycoon, the General and the President.

  1. Thanks for reminding us that the US is a fascinating place, filled with History, a diverse Culture, interesting people and not just the home of fast food, guns and Christian Fundementalism.

    • You are so very right Karine, but I must say that listening to day time radio during a road trip in the Mid-South, that last thing you mention sure takes up a lot of space!

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