Remembering Claude Fuller in 750 words or less

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

EUREKA SPRINGS -- How can you condense the life of a man who loomed so large in local, state and national politics and civic endeavors that a mere 750 words cannot do it justice?

That was the question facing John Fuller Cross when he was asked to write about his grandfather, Claude Albert Fuller, for the "Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture," published by the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS).

"This was difficult for me," Cross said. "I'm not used to writing cyclopedia style."

Cross said what got him started on the project was that someone sent him the 2006 CALS calendar. It is full of state history and is published in a similar manner to the one the Bank of Eureka Springs puts out every year detailing local history.

"I had several people say, 'You need to get your grandfather in there.'"

Editor-in-chief Tom Dillard writes a state history column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and had written a column on Claude Fuller in 2005.

"Tom said no one was writing Fuller (for the encyclopedia) and asked if I would write it," Cross said.

He set to work. His resources were his own memories and those of his mother, Ruth Fuller Cross, and written and taped biographies about Fuller, especially one published in 1951 by Frank L. Beals titled "Backwoods Baron."

"I started with a draft of 1,600 words," Cross said. "I was scratching my head -- what was I going to take out?"

That was a daunting task.

Fuller, born in 1876, grew up in Eureka Springs after his father moved here to find work. Although he grew up in poverty, through hard work and ambition eventually became an attorney, serving as both prosecutor and defender. His ambition was such that he ended up owning the streetcar company which he first started driving mules for.

His first political position was as Eureka Springs city clerk. He then served in the Arkansas House of Representatives for two terms, then as mayor of Eureka Springs, during which he built the courthouse. He also served as prosecuting attorney for Carroll, Madison, Benton and Washington counties for four years and on the Eureka Springs School Board for 14 years.

He became campaign manager for several successful local and state politicians, including that of Governor Brough, and out of his gratitude was able to secure funds to build State Hwy. 62 from Eureka Springs to Seligman, Mo., with convict labor. Many projects came about from such reciprocity.

Fuller was elected Eureka Springs mayor again in 1920 and served eight years, this time building the City Auditorium and paving five miles of city streets.

In 1928 he was elected to Congress and served 10 years. While in Congress he secured money for University of Arkansas buildings and the Veterans hospital in Fayetteville.

In Congress, Fuller served on the House Ways and Means Committee, which wrote the Social Security bill. Fuller also sponsored the Flood Control Act of 1938, to create Norfork, Bull Shoals, Table Rock and Beaver dams along the White River.

As chairman of the Patronage Committe in Congress, he made so many political connections and got so many funds for Arkansas projects, said Cross, that "people accused him of getting more jobs for people in Arkansas. He never denied it."

After his defeat for Congress in 1938, he returned home to practice law and was president of the Bank of Eureka Springs for 39 years until his death in 1968. He also owned the Basin Park Hotel for a time and was on retainer for the Crescent Hotel.

He built the parks at Lake Leatherwood and Lake Wedington in Fayetteville and Blue Spring Road in Eureka Springs.

John Fuller Cross' office in the Bank of Eureka Springs is the one Claude A. Fuller had, and it is full of memorabilia, including Fuller's desk and rolltop credenza, wire wastebasket, spitoon, and a host of other items. A painting of Fuller takes up one wall.

Although personal memories of his grandfather were not suitable encyclopedia material, Cross has many stories to tell.

"My grandfather helped raise me," he said. "I had two fathers. He helped raise my brother and I. We spent all our summers with him. My brother and I became the sons he never had. We worked his farm (1,200 acres where Riverview Resort now sits) on the White River. It was slave labor, but he knew how to build character. He taught us to swim, ride a horse and drive a car."

All the politicians from the state and federal levels used to come to Eureka Springs to meet with Claude Fuller, Cross said, including Harry Truman. In fact, Cross missed a chance to listen in on a conversation because Fuller asked Cross to drive him to town, but he wanted to go trapping and squirrel hunting instead, so his brother drove their grandfather and got to meet Truman and listen to the two men talk.

Cross laments the lack of awareness of local and regional history and thinks knowledge of it could help the town thrive.

"Not too many people know about history. We have historic amnesia right here in Eureka. The culture today -- they don't teach it in schools like they used to," he said.

"I wasn't interested in history as a kid. I didn't get interested until 1978. It's amazing that this town is still here."

Four major events spelled economic disaster for Eureka Springs, Cross noted. In 1913, the railroad moved its shops and most of its employees to Harrison. In 1929, the stock market crashed, resulting in the Depression.

"One bank stayed open -- ours. And there was one bank in Berryville."

World War I, from 1916 to 1918, and World War II?in the 1940s also had negative impacts on the town's economy.

The fortunes of Eureka Springs changed when in 1972 it was put on the National Register of Historic Places and passed the 1-percent tourism tax on hotels, motels and restaurants. In 1977 they raised it to two percent, where it has stayed.

Cross was co-chairman of the Centennial Committee in 1979.

"We brought back the train, the trolley, cleaned up the springs and remodeled the bank and the courthouse," among other projects, Cross said.

The Bank of Eureka Springs on South Main is a veritable museum of family and local history, and to Cross holds an important legacy he has tried to preserve through his own service to the Eureka Springs community.

Cross said that in the face of economic impacts, which are affecting Eureka Springs, it is important to remember the history of the town and the contributions of people like his grandfather. He and his family view that service as vital to the strength of the community.

"I've tried to make this town the best it could be," he said.

Cross' article on Claude Fuller will first be published online at the state encyclopedia website at encyclopediaofarkansas.net, which later will be published in hardbound.

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