The first thing I must admit here is that my only frame of reference for this organization is the song that was recorded by the Village People years ago that involves spelling out the letters with your arms. Other than that, I really thought this was an organization that was only found in big cities. I also knew it provided lodging.
So I was totally surprised one day when I stumbled across an article about the Conway YMCA in the book, Faulkner County: Its Land and People (1986). I have paraphrased what I learned in the paragraphs below:
The Conway Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was formed in January 1888 by the Reverend Edward A. Tabor. This is the same man who helped found Hendrix College and led the campaign to close the saloons in Conway. Membership grew in the first year to over 100 according to some and by 1890 to nearly 200.
Rev. Tabor originally planned to establish a place where young men of the Conway community could come and have a place to rest and give them a place hang out instead of at the local saloons. The Conway YMCA was located on Front Street just over the Cole General Store.
It was furnished with makeshift bookshelves, reading tables and chairs on one side. Gym equipment was set up on the other side of the room so members could work out. The library was started by large donations from Captain W.W. Martin and J.C. Gist. There were around 800 books by the end of the first year and by the end of 1889, there were 1,500-1,600 volumes.
Some of the books were on religious topics but there were also copies of such periodicals as “Princeton Review.” Also included the library were biographies of leading men in history as well as books on history and philosophy.
Members of the board were elected from the various churches around the Conway area. Almost all the board members had been involved in locating Hendrix College in Conway. Captain W.W. Martin was elected president and represented the Methodists. Each vice-president was from a different Christian denomination.
James A. Pence, cabinet maker and funeral director, represented the Lutherans. He built the first Lutheran Church in Conway. Colonel G.W. Bruce represented the Baptists. He was also largely responsible for helping keep Central Baptist College in Conway.
D.O. Harton, Captain Martin’s partner at Harton and Martin Mercantile on Oak Street, was a vice-president representing the Methodists while Sheriff Andrew Jackson Witt represented the Presbyterians.
Dr. J.F. Kinchloe, leading Conway physician and druggist, was pastor of Conway Christian Church and listed as representing the Christians while J.C. Gist was a member of the Union Sunday School Convention and was listed as Union. W.H. Dyer was listed as not representing any specific denomination but was appointed as a Methodist minister in late 1890.
In 1891, the Conway YMCA merged with the Hendrix YMCA. The merger served two purposes: it gave the Hendrix organization all the Conway YMCA furnishings and gave the Hendrix College Library some 1,600 volumes. This was said to have doubled its circulation and supposedly made it the largest college library in the state at the time.
There are only a handful of YMCAs left in Arkansas. The two YMCA buildings in Little Rock have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The three-story masonry YMCA building, built in 1908 at the corner of East Capital and Scott in Little Rock was placed on the Register in 1992. It became the home of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. The Little Rock YMCA located at 524 Broadway was a four-story brick building in the Mission Revival style with a tower rising in the middle. It was built in 1928 and was placed on the Register in 1979. It has been restored in the last few years to provide mixed-use space for office, retail and restaurants.
Cindy Burnett Beckman is a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history. She may be reached email@example.com.