Seventy years ago this month, Governor Sid McMath and his family moved into the brand-new governor’s residence, and this week, some of the First Families who have lived there joined the First Lady and me to celebrate the anniversary.
Twelve First Families have lived in the residence since it was completed in February 1950. At least 22 “first children” have lived there, and no telling how many “first grandchildren” have visited.
Our guests included former governors Jim Guy Tucker, Mike Huckabee, and Mike Beebe; and former First Lady Gay White Sigler. Also attending were six of the McMath children; Governor Bumpers’s daughter, Brooke; and Governor Faubus’s granddaughter, Ellen Faubus Kreth.
The official residence is sometimes called the Governor’s Mansion, but we like calling it the People’s House. The fact that Arkansas even has a governor’s house is worth celebrating because for the first 114 years as a state, there was not an official residence. That changed when out-of-state visitors asked their hostess, Agnes Bass Shinn of Harrison, to show them Arkansas’s Governor’s Mansion. She was embarrassed that we didn’t have one, so she began the campaign to build one. In 1945, the legislature rejected the idea, but two years later, the general assembly created the Governor’s Mansion Commission and allocated $100,000 to build one on the original site of the Arkansas School for the Blind.
The mansion opened on January 10, 1950. There wasn’t a ribbon cutting, but the public was invited to tour it. More than 180,000 showed up during that week. We haven’t slowed down since.
Last year, more than 15,000 people visited, and since January 2015, we’ve had more than 72,000 guests. Using that as an average, we can calculate that roughly 1.2 million visitors have visited the mansion since 1950.
Some of the more famous visitors include Rosa Parks, the Little Rock Nine, Vice President George and Barbara Bush, the cast of the Beverly Hillbillies, Billy Graham, Captain Kangaroo, Colonel Sanders, and Glen Campbell.
In the forward of his book, Open House: The Arkansas Governor’s Mansion and Its Place in History, local attorney John Gill offers highlights about the mansion and the people who have lived there. For instance, Bill Clinton learned he would become the 42nd president of the United States as he watched election returns on a TV in the mansion basement.
Governor Winthrop Rockefeller made plans in the mansion library for the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial service at the Arkansas Capitol – the first such service in the south.
Every year, guests from across the state and nation visit the Governor’s Mansion for the holiday decorations or to enjoy a real-life old-fashion Southern-style tea party. The First Lady and I are blessed to be stewards of a space that belongs to all the people of Arkansas.