Rockefeller Institute: An Arkansas gem

As I wrote in a previous post, I can see the old Hotel Sam Peck from my office window here in downtown Little Rock. It’s the place that the man friends called Win and aides called WR first called home after coming to Arkansas in 1953.

It didn’t take long, however, for Petit Jean Mountain to become Winthrop Rockefeller’s real home. It was atop this mountain that Rockefeller built his model ranch, a place that the introductory film shown during the Winthrop Rockefeller Legacy Weekend called “a model for progress, an inspiration for change.”

Rockefeller obviously had resources that other Arkansans didn’t have. But he wanted to use those resources wisely to show the types of things that could happen in what was primarily a rural, impoverished state. He also wanted to give Arkansans a sense of pride in the process.

I think most Arkansans were proud that a Rockefeller had chosen to leave New York and live among us.

He brought the famed Santa Gertrudis breed of beef cattle to Petit Jean. The tropical beef breed had been established in far south Texas in my wife’s hometown of Kingsville. The cattle were named for the Spanish land grant where Captain Richard King originally established the King Ranch. When the breed was officially recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1940, it became the first beef breed developed in the United States.

Rockefeller’s annual cattles sales atop the mountain attracted people from across the country.

Winrock Farms, however, would become more than a cattle ranch. Much more.

There were row-crop farming operations in the Arkansas River Valley below and a branch of the farm in east Arkansas.

More than anything, though, Rockefeller wanted the mountain to be a place where people would come, discuss ideas and have time for contemplation in a relaxing setting away from their homes.

“I do think he found a certain amount of peace right here on this mountain,” former journalist and Rockefeller friend Dorothy Stuck said last Saturday. “The big task now is to keep his legacy alive.”

It was fitting that I was on the ranch last Saturday, May 1. It was his birthday. Had he lived, WR would have been 98.

Rockefeller died of pancreatic cancer on Feb. 22, 1973, in Palm Springs, where he had gone to escape the cold weather. His ashes were brought back to his beloved Petit Jean.

The year of Rockefeller’s death, Winrock International was established on 188 acres that had served as the heart of the ranch. For three decades, the global development organization called Petit Jean Mountain home before making a decision to build a new headquarters in the Riverdale area of Little Rock. With the organization’s move off the ranch, the property reverted to the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust.

The board of the trust had a decision to make. It made a wise one.

The board decided to team with the University of Arkansas System and create a world-class conference center and educational institute. Using funds from the trust, almost 30,000 square feet of existing space was remodeled. New lodging facilities were constructed. Extensive landscaping was done. More than $20 million has been spent in recent years to create a place that now hosts everything from art exhibitions to culinary classes to native tree identification workshops.

You can also stay at the institute just as you would a resort. Registered guests have access to a fitness center, indoor tennis and basketball courts, paddle boats, fishing opportunities, bicycles, jogging trails and walking trails. The River Rock Grill is open each Thursday, Friday and Saturday for lunch and dinner.

There’s a well-done gallery that tells the Rockefeller story and an interactive theater. The permanent exhibit in the gallery is titled “Winthrop Rockefeller: A Sphere of Power and Influence Dropped Into a River of Need.” More than 300 restored and enlarged photographs are incorporated into 180 murals and interpretive panels broken into these areas: The Man, His Heritage, The Mountain, His Influence and His Legacy. 

The institute’s website (www.uawri.org) describes it this way: “During his 20 years in Arkansas, Rockefeller hosted more than 200 conferences and meetings at his home at Winrock Farms. Many of these conferences, attended by state and national leaders, hammered out solutions for Arkansas’ most difficult crises.

“Rockefeller addressed issues such as water quality, rural economic development and education. He explored how to build Arkansas and improve race relations. He also held training for farmers. Rockefeller’s conferences provided a necessary spark to improve public and private-sector policymaking. Rockefeller’s legacy continues to shape events at the Rockefeller Institute. … By integrating the resources and expertise of a statewide university system with the legacy and ideas of Gov. Rockefeller, this educational institute and conference center creates an atmosphere where collaboration and change can thrive.”

Areas of emphasis include economic development, archeology (in cooperation with the Arkansas Archeological Survey), the arts, the culinary arts, the environment, health and wellness and public affairs.

Arkansas needs a place such as the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, a secluded spot where we can gather to examine our past, debate our current problems and design our future. I can’t help but believe WR would be proud of what has become of the ranch he called home for almost two decades.

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