Now that America has grown weary of Texas and its 150th birthday party, now that all the battles have been reenacted and the Mexicans routed one last time, now that the great big Texana books have been sold and honored -- if not thoroughly read, and now that Larry Hagman has adjourned his public television history lessons and resumed his sleazy J.R. ways, the secret is finally getting out.
This is the Arkansas sesquicentennial.
After quietly observing the grandiose festivities of their neighbors to the southwest for the last four months, Gov. Bill Clinton and a band of proud Arkansans got together a few days ago for a coming out party of sorts in which they informed the country that their state, the land of opportunity, was born in 1836. The location of the party revealed both the blessing and curse of Arkansas. It was held in Dallas -- Texas.
Arkansas, whose population approximates that of Houston, about 2.2 million, is a modest state. Unlike Texas, a place that evokes clear images and stereotypes, Arkansas has never had a special identity, nor has it worried about it.
There are a few villains but no larger-than-life heroes in frontier Arkansas history -- no Sam Houstons and Stephen F. Austins and David Crocketts. The children of Arkansas are not taught to worship Robert Crittenden, the first secretary of the Arkansas Territory, and James Conway, the first governor.
"The story of Arkansas has nothing quite so romantic as the Alamo," said Russell Baker, archivist of the Arkansas History Commission. "But it is important, to us at least."
That Arkansas is a state at all can be attributed to the Missourians. Arkansas, a named derived from the Quapau Indians, was originally part of the Louisiana Territory and then of the Missouri Territory. When Missouri sought statehood, the leaders of the Show Me State decided its government would be too unwieldy with all that land to the south, so they cut off Arkansas and made it a territory.
According to Baker, Arkansas acted as a gateway during its territorial days for settlers heading for Texas.
"Thousands of travelers bound for Texas came through here on the way," Baker said. "Some stayed, some came back, most didn't."
The main road was a path known as the Southwest Trail that slanted across the state from Missouri to Texarkana. Baker said his library's genealogy section is used more by Texans than by Arkansans. They trace their ancestors' trail west.
Although collegiate athletic rivalry between Arkansas and Texas is intense, there is no great animosity or envy in the relationship. Arkansans feel different, not inferior.
"Let Texas be Texas. They're doing things their way, we do it ours," said Nan Brown, director of the Arkansas Sesquicentennial Commission, explaining her state's low-key approach to its birthday. "Arkansans don't necessarily think bigger is better. It's not so important to us that New York and Washington know about our sesquicentennial as it is that our own people know about it. Our celebration is for us, not for show."
The state has not yet begun an advertising campaign to promote its celebration. It has marketed some sesquicentennial memorabilia, but not with the intention of profiting from the enterprise, which seemed to be the motive behind much of Texas' activities this year. While there are hundreds of local festivities in Arkansas, the state's only major celebration is scheduled for the weekend of June 15 -- 150 years from the day that President Andrew Jackson admitted Arkansas to the Union.
There have been no efforts to polish Arkansas' national image in preparation for the birthday party.
"I don't even know how I would define Arkansas," Brown said. "I guess I would say that it's diverse. It has the delta region, which is Deep South. You might as well be in Mississippi. The plantation life. And then to the northwest, the Ozarks, the mountain folk. There's a whole lot of independence in Arkansas. No dominant ethic."
Archivist Baker agrees. "It's a state that defies definition," he said, "either by culture or by geology. It's a sort of transition state. The transition from southern side to the prairie, from the south to the west."
Dale Enoch, a political consultant and longtime observer of the Arkansas scene, said he spent six months last year working during the week in Dallas and then driving home on Saturdays. He said he saw that the closer he got to Little Rock, the better he felt.
"My friends wanted me to stay in Dallas. They said, 'You know, there is more economic opportunity in one square block of north Dallas than in all of the state of Arkansas.' And they were right," Enoch said. "But there is more to life than that.
"It is as though Texas and Arkansas represent the competing forces of human nature," Enoch said, "the desire to succeed and dominate, and the desire to relax and enjoy. Texas has driven personalities. That makes it a great important place in some ways.
"When I was there, I didn't really like Dallas. Arkansans get all anxious to develop the state economically, to be rich and famous, and then they get to the central question: Do we really want a Dallas here? This sure is a peaceful state. It's lovely, easy to get around. Do we really want to screw that up?"