The Real Legend of Petit Jean

When I was in graduate school, I became interested in a woman that I’d known by sight most of my life. Her name was Marguerite Turner, and she lived in Dover – where I grew up.  She was one of those people that, given some money and the right encouragement, might have become a famous writer or artist. As it was, she was shunned for eccentricities and cut off from any way to develop herself as artist. She became what is known as the town “crazy lady.”  If you grew up in a small southern town, you know what I am talking about.  There’s always a “crazy lady,” of some kind or another. She is generally a woman that lives alone, and according to her own instincts.  The actual facts behind her mental health have very little to do with it.

Marguerite may have actually had some actual mental illness.  But her “crazy” manifested itself not in any of the behaviors we would normally associate with that.  She didn’t talk to herself, she didn’t collect cats. Instead, she tried desperately to turn her home county into something fabulous – something with a deep and abiding history. She saw the place was miraculous in its own ways, and she wanted other people to know about it too.

She did this, though, through stretching the truth just a little bit.  Writers do this, you know. She wasn’t trained as a historian; so much of her “historical” writing was really more like what we’d call “fan fiction” now.  Even the cast-iron pot in the middle of Dover that claims to have belonged to Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet, has some suspect origins.   I once wrote a long essay about that salt pot that you can read here.

Most folks in Dover know about this. What isn’t as well known is that Marguerite is also the author of a true Arkansas legend.   During the 1950’s, she won a grant from the same organization that became the Arkansas Arts Council to write a book about the legend of Petit Jean.  Almost everything we understand about that myth comes from her imagination.  The book that she put together is called Petit Jean: A Girl, A Mountain, A Community.  While it’s rare these days, I own a copy – and most of the libraries in Little Rock that deal with Arkansas history own a copy.

The reality of Marguerite’s Petit Jean story is that it is as far-fetched as her Sequoyah salt-pot story.  Yet, we enjoyed her stories enough to fold them into the mythology of our state.  We like her romance, her crazy, her creative approach to mythologizing all of our experiences as Arkansans.

When I first started researching Marguerite, I expected to be disappointed by the fact that so many of our stories come from her imagination – rather than from historical fact.  Instead, I was even more fascinated to learn that even one lady, a little weird and definitely not part of the normal social milieu in my hometown, might turn out to be the author of our myths.

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