Pencil and Persistence

Elsie Mistie Sterling

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Elsie Mistie Sterling was born in Chicago and attended the Chicago Art Institute. She married Richard Sterling in 1928 and the family fortune was wiped out in the Great Depression. They bought two knapsacks; a 50 pound one for him and a 12 pound one for her and set out hoping to earn their living by Elsie’s portraits, sign painting, and restoration of ancestral paintings. As they traveled, Elsie sketched the flowers found along the way and later added water-color, colored pencil, and ink to create the paintings you see here. Elsie returned to the plants when they were in seed so we get to see the flowers throughout their life cycle. There are over 400 botanical paintings in the Arts & Science Center collection and they give us a glimpse into the plants found in Arkansas in the early 1940s. Elsie was an original member of the Council of Ozarks Artists and Craftsmen, Inc. a member organization that pioneered and promoted arts and crafts through fairs such as the Prairie Grove Clothesline Fair which began in 1951 and the War Eagle Fair which began in 1954. These fairs provided the underpinning for the crafts that are now ubiquitous throughout the Ozarks.

Lenore Shoults, Ph.D. Curator



Elsie Mistie Sterling left a gift for modern day botanists and natural historians.  Her illustrations, technically accurate and detailed enough to allow for positive identification, provide a valuable contribution to the scientific record of the flora of Arkansas.  She took pains to include the parts and features important for proper identification and generally included the date and location where the plants were found.  In these respects, her botanical portraits are nearly as valuable to the scientist as pressed and dried herbarium specimens.

While many of her subjects are common and widespread species, a review of her work shows that she also got off the beaten path and into some interesting (and today rare) habitats.  She explored the tallgrass prairies around Rogers, bluffs and rock outcrops along the upper White River, and the botanically spectacular shale glades and barrens of the Ouachita Mountains near Arkadelphia.  These habitats support rare and unique plants, and are themselves considered to be of conservation concern.  The prairies around Rogers, for example, which once occupied tens of thousands of acres, are almost entirely gone today, making her record of the flora she found in them especially important.  Her illustrations are like a time machine, allowing us to go back and see what these areas were like nearly 75 years ago.  


Working from pre-1940s botanical references considered poor by today’s standards, Sterling was not always able to completely or correctly identify the species that she documented, but her illustrations are so accurate that botanists today can vet them as thoroughly as they would actual specimens in a museum, annotating the identifications and updating names.  For example, an illustration from Rogers she labeled “Anoda hastata” is clearly Winecups or Fringed Poppy-mallow (Callirhoe digitata), a native grassland species, uncommon today.  Other declining species she drew from these grasslands around Rogers include American Feverfew (Parthenium integrifolium), Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), and Hoary Vervain (Verbena stricta).

Her documentation of the flora around Arkadelphia is equally important and interesting.  A mint she illustrated in 1942 and identified as “Calaminth” is today known as Arkansas Calamint or Glade Savory (Clinopodium arkansanum), a species of seasonally wet shale glades and barrens in the Ouachita Mountains.  This was perhaps found at the same site where she collected and illustrated several other uncommon glade species like Long-flower Cornsalad (Valerianella longiflora) and Engelmann’s Milkvetch (Astragalus distortus var. engelmannii).  And her Wild Hyacinth illustration from this area is not the common and widespread Camassia scilloides, but is without question a rare species known almost exclusively from the shale glades of the Ouachita Mountains.  This species is closely related to the Midwestern Prairie Hyacinth (Camassia angusta), but is presently being studied by botanists who believe it represents a distinct and undescribed species that is new-to-science and of great conservation concern.

But Sterling’s contributions to the scientific record extend beyond rare native species and unique habitats.  Her 1948 drawing of Climbing Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) from Pleasant Hill, Arkansas is the first and only documentation of this non-native species from the state.  It is invasive to our north and while long expected in the state, was not previously known (to the modern scientific community anyway) to occur in Arkansas.  Now, thanks to Ms. Sterling, we know to look for it around Pleasant Hill between early June, when she found it in flower, and July when she found it in fruit.

Theo Witsell
Ecologist & Botanist, Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission
Curator, Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission Herbarium (ANHC)


Maeleen Clay Arrant

Pine Bluff, AR

Interviewed and photographed by Cheryl Cohen, 1976 The Pine Bluff Women’s Center, Inc.

Maeleen Clay Arrant was the supervisor of elementary schools in Pine Bluff until 1969. In 1932 she taught in an experimental school for African Americans, sponsored by the Southern Education Foundation, to study the benefits of having qualified teachers in a low-income area. Arrant often talked about freedom and racial prejudices, and her belief in hard work. Her activism continued after her retirement in 1969.

In 1974, Arrant served on the governor's Committee for the Integration of Institutions and Higher Education. She remained active in Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated and as an alum of the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff. Maeleen Arrant was also a member of the Arkansas American Association of University Women. In 1980, the Arkansas Education Association named a scholarship in her honor. Maeleen Arrant died in 2000.

Chanah Reid Foti

Pine Bluff, AR

Interviewed and photographed by Rebecca Kilmer, 1976 The Pine Bluff Women’s Center, Inc.

Chanah Reid Foti was the youngest person interviewed at the age of 7. When asked about work, she said, “I’d like to be a carpenter. I’d build a house.” When asked, what do you think a poor person is? She said, “Somebody who doesn’t have any friends and can’t get along with people.”

Chanah lived in Arkansas throughout her early twenties. She then moved to California and became a drug and alcohol counselor with her husband, Pierre La Merre. Chanah passed away in 2017.

Mrs. O. G. Dawson (Ethel B.)

Pine Bluff, AR

Interviewed and photographed by Cheryl Cohen, 1976 The Pine Bluff Women’s Center, Inc.

Mrs. O.G. Dawson (Ethel B.) worked for the sharecropper program National Council of Churches in Lincoln County, and encouraged people to vote and pay their taxes. Dawson discussed racial segregation, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committees activities in Pine Bluff, and facing and challenging sexual discrimination as a working African American woman. “I’ve always been accused of being outspoken. I don’t mean any harm. I never meant any harm, but at the same time, I’m just telling the truth.”

In her later years, Ethel Dawson worked with the Jefferson County Voters Association and the League of Women Voters. She remained an active NAACP member and strove to get Blacks hired at the Jefferson County Court House. Ethel Dawson died in 1984.

June H. Davis

Altheimer, AR

Interviewed and photographed by Judith D’Elena, 1976 The Pine Bluff Women’s Center, Inc.

June H. Davis was the secretary to the principal and counselor, at Altheimer High School. She discussed the growth of Altheimer, Planter’s Gin, and Altheimer’s Gin Company, and the mechanization of farming. Davis appreciated living in a small town and the tradition and heritage of the area.

June Hale Davis graduated magna cum laude in 1982 with a fine arts degree from the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff and enjoyed camping, hiking, and antiques. She passed away in 2011.

Annie R. Zachary

Marvell, AR

Interviewed and photographed by Ra Heilman, 1976 The Pine Bluff Women’s Center

Annie R. Zachary, “When you say “true grit” well you got to have it f you are going to survive in this world as a woman.” Following her husband’s death, she was a widow, mother, politician, public worker and farm manager struggling to gain respect in the farming industry because of her gender. Zachary was a force to be reckoned with, and in 1969, Governor Rockefeller appointed her the first Black person, male or female, to serve on a Governor’s board.

In 1977, she married Lester Pike, and in 1979, she helped establish National Teachers’ Day. In 1985, the Arkansas Education Association recognized her many years of volunteer service. From 1999 to 2001, she served on the Arkansas Tobacco Control Board. Her husband died in 1997. In 2002, the Phillips County Road 125, which runs through Zachary farmland, was renamed Annie Zachary Pike Road. As of 2019, Pike still resides on the family farm in Marvell.

Geneva Byrd

Tucker, AR

Interviewed and photographed by Cheryl Cohen. 1976 The Pine Bluff Women’s Center, Inc.

Geneva Byrd was the daughter of a share-cropper, beginning a life of hard work as a little girl. Part of her income, in 1976, is from selling eggs. Fresh eggs are popular because, “They say it makes better cakes and the bread looks better.” Her time behind a plow, hauling firewood, chopping cotton, and raising chickens led to independence for Byrd, “ I could live without a husband good as anything because I know how to work. Been working all my days!”

Geneva Byrd worked for the Kahn and Freeman family as a housekeeper until she retired. She enjoyed gardening and caring for animals. Byrd was preceded in death by her first husband Herman Sloan and second husband John Byrd--to whom she was married at the time of his death. Byrd passed away at the age of 94 in 2012.

Mildred Laureles

Snow Lake, AR

Interviewed and photographed by Cheryl Cohen, 1976 The Pine Bluff Women’s Center, Inc.

Mildred Laureles had been a postmistress since 1947. Lamenting on the disappearance of her town of Snow Lake, “Well I’ve seen it goin’ down an awfully lot. When I came here, you see, there was two stores, and two gins, and a number of sharecroppers’ families. Lots of people. Now the stores is gone, the gins is gone, and most of the people’s gone.”

After serving as Snow Lake’s postmistress for over 30 years, Mildred Laureles retired in 1981. After retirement, Laureles moved to West-Helena, where she ran a gas station and enjoyed watching soap operas in her free time. In August 1990, Laureles was diagnosed with lung cancer. She passed away in 1992.

Emma Merlo

Pine Bluff, AR

Interviewed and photographed by Arleen Olsen, 1976 The Pine Bluff Women’s Center, Inc.

Emma Merlo was a mother, wife, gardener, and greenhouse manager of what was formerly known as Woodstock Plantation. Merlo found joy in the solitude of the Delta and described Pine Bluff as quiet and peaceful with few disturbances.

Emma Merlo sold Woodstock Plantation after the death of her husband Claude Merlo in 2002. As of 2021, Merlo is 90 years old and resides in Belton, Texas, with her daughter, Claudia Croswell, and son, Joseph Merlo.

Ora Brown

Pine Bluff, AR

Interviewed and photographed by Cheryl Cohen, 1976 The Pine Bluff Women’s Center, Inc.

Ora Brown, owned rental properties and Ora Brown’s Beauty Salon. Small business ownership was one way to earn income in an era of few career opportunities for minorities.

Ora Lee Brown was born in 1906 and died in 1982.

Idella Kimbrough

Gould, AR

1976 The Pine Bluff Women’s Center, Inc.

Idella Kimbrough, was a reporter for the Lincoln County newspaper for 26 years. Kimbrough’s work within the community and church earned her an Outstanding Citizenship Award. She recalled her grandmother growing up in slavery working as a cook, and the hardships and injustices of the era.

Idella Kimbrough was born in 1906 and died in 1986.

Lucyle Cantley

Pine Bluff, AR

Interviewed and photographed by Cheryl Cohen, 1976 The Pine Bluff Women’s Center, Inc.

Lucyle Cantley was interviewed at her antique and book store. She was in business for 49 years. Listed in Who’s Who in Arkansas and in Distinguished Americans of the South, Cantley opened her first store at 17 years old. Cantley recalled the obstacles women faced obtaining business loans and needing fifteen times more collateral than a man.

Lucyle Cantley died in 1978.

Jessie Tidwell

Pine Bluff, AR

Interviewed and photographed by Cheryl Cohen, 1976 The Pine Bluff Women’s Center, Inc.

Jessie Tidwell, was a cook and housekeeper. She began cooking with her mother at an early age. Tidwell recalls her mother’s home remedies for colds and other ailments. She remembered the Flood of 1927 and its impact on her family and neighbors. Tidwell stated that the event brought together Whites and Blacks in shared hardship.

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