Generations of societies have enjoyed those few individuals who leave an impact in multiple fields. There are those men and women whose gentle words and deeds soften a hardened world and seek to make it more bearable. Fay Hempstead, a noted Little Rock lawyer and respected poet and historian, left a positive mark on Arkansas with his works of history and verse alike. In one course of his writing, he helped the world remember; and with the other, he helped the world imagine.
Fay Hempstead was born in Little Rock in 1847. His father was Samuel Hempstead, an early postmaster for Little Rock and himself an attorney. He enjoyed a comfortable childhood. His father sent him to local private schools. In 1859, he enrolled at St. John’s College, a college preparatory program funded by the local Masonic lodge. This began a long association with the Masons that would shape much of Hempstead’s life.
He later earned a law degree from the University of Virginia and became a member of a prominent Little Rock law firm. He also formally joined the Masons. The Masons were an old organization dedicated to belief in God and service to man and the community though they were often criticized for aspects of their organizational secrecy. Hempstead enjoyed the camaraderie of the Masons and their traditions, becoming an active and enthusiastic member.
Eventually, Hempstead rose to become the official bankruptcy receiver for the state, recording and overseeing all the state’s bankruptcies. Along the way, his interests as a writer grew, and he produced several impressive works of both fiction and non-fiction.
In 1878, he wrote Random Arrows, his first collection of poems. Hempstead ultimately wrote eight books, including four history books and four books of poetry. One poem, penned two years before, marked the nation’s centennial celebration. In “One Hundred Years,” he mused about what the next century might bring. “And what will other hundred years/ Of time to come, in coming, bring?/ Bring they only Winter tears?/ Bring they even flowers of Spring?/ Bring Advance, as we have seen,/ In fourfold measure weighted down?/ For we are on the brink, I ween,/ And they shall reap where we have sown.”
His poetry touched on many topics, and he noted that he gained his inspiration from many different sources. Many poems had a patriotic theme. Love and memory were common topics, familiar ground for many poets. In “A Serenade,” he wrote, “Come to thy window, love/ Here by the bowered vine./ Give me a sight of thy face, love/ Make but the slightest sign.” He also wrote many poems commemorating the Civil War and the lives lost. He wrote poems praising such fellow poets as the popular English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Hempstead also took note of a notorious slaughter of Arkansas settlers as they traveled through the Utah Territory in 1857. He wrote of the inevitability of justice in “Mountain Meadows” as one of the perpetrators was found guilty: “Shall laws of God and man be held for naught?/ Shall Justice not arise and men be taught,/ That soon or late, she taketh whom she ought?”
In addition to the poetry that he loved, he also wrote a series of history books. In 1889, he wrote A History of the State of Arkansas: For the Use of Schools. This was the first Arkansas History textbook written for students. Though Arkansas was still a comparatively young state, Hempstead included much information on the early Native American tribes and the early developments of the territory and state. He followed up the next year with A Pictorial History of Arkansas, one of the earliest such works in the state. Hempstead’s Arkansas History books cemented the field’s academic importance and encouraged more study in the history of the state.
His writing caught the attention of his contemporaries. In 1908, Hempstead was named Poet Laureate of Freemasonry. Up to that point, only two others had been given that title, including famed Scottish poet Robert Burns in the late eighteenth century. It was a remarkable honor for such a large organization that included so many prestigious community figures.
His last collection of poems was published in Little Rock in 1922. This last compilation was mostly poems published years before but also included new works. That year he also wrote A History of Cryptic Masonry in Arkansas.
He died quietly at his home in Little Rock in 1934 at the age of 86. His works largely faded into obscurity after his death. Years later, the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock established the Fay Hempstead Collection, which included books, correspondence, articles, and photographs.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a Professor of History and Geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado where he lives with his wife and six children. He is also Resident Historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society, based in El Dorado. Dr. Bridges can be reached y e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.