“Why do they call it that?” she asked. My Instagram friend was referring to the moniker “Dogtown,” the nickname that my hometown of North Little Rock has carried for – well, as long as I’ve ever known, and I’ve lived here my whole life. I had posted a photo of a print that I’d designed for an art auction here in town; scenes of the city with the words “Dogtown Life” laid over them.
I quickly typed back the standard answer for a North Little Rock native; the story goes that the good people of Little Rock used to cross the river and dump stray dogs on the north side. She replied just as quickly, “They dumped dogs?!? Then what do people call them?” It made me laugh, and it made me think. For me, that one sentence about the dogs was a cute fact to spout. Local color, if you will. I’d never really thought about how it sounded to others, or even if it was true.
So I decided to find out.
I turned to the lovely folks at the North Little Rock History Commission. As soon as I walked inside and mentioned Dogtown, the director, Sandra Taylor Smith, whisked me around a corner. “You’ll want to see this,” she said, “it’s the gravestone!”
She was right.
That’s right. A real gravestone, which at one time was placed along with a real coffin right on the corner of 6th and Main in downtown North Little Rock. Here it was, proof that the Dogtown nickname was real and was taken seriously enough by the city government that in 1965 they held a funeral and “buried” the name. I could understand why just a little more as I talked with Sandra and she recalled attending high school athletic events where “Dogtown! Dogtown!” was yelled at NLR students as an insult.
So where did the name come from? Some sources simply credit the imaginations of those very students that yelled the insults. The first mention of the name in print was in 1960, where a writer at the local paper reported a new cheer at the basketball games: “Beat Dogtown!” Whether it started then, or much earlier as many older NLR residents believe, it can be attributed to the longstanding rivalry between North Little Rock and our counterpart across the river.
You see, back in the late 1800s Little Rock was already established as a city. However, the area to the north was unincorporated and something of a Wild West situation. The population was mostly blue-collar workers, many of them immigrants or former slaves. There were plenty of gambling houses and saloons, and this area, called Argenta, gained a reputation for lawlessness and all sorts of bad behavior.
In 1890, Little Rock took action by annexing Argenta as the Eighth Ward of Little Rock. Interestingly enough, the people that actually lived in Argenta didn’t get to vote. It really should come as no surprise that a few years later, an alderman named William Faucette and about 200 local businessmen hatched a plan to take the city back for themselves. First, they incorporated another city north of Argenta and named it North Little Rock. Then they managed to get a sneakily worded bill through the state Legislature that essentially changed the annexation laws so that North Little Rock could annex Argenta with its consent. The bill passed, and the annexation election took place even though Little Rock sued to stop it. After much negotiating and a few public skirmishes, including a standoff on the Main Street Bridge, the two cities finally separated.
But what about the dogs? Legend has it that during this same time frame Little Rock took to dumping their dogs, but beyond that the details are hard to pin down. Some people swear it happened as revenge after NLR broke away from LR. Other folklore holds that it happened much earlier, and it really hasn’t been proven either way. Even so, the story has worked itself into our history. It’s been useful in a way, an anecdote to sum up the way we feel about LR and how we think they feel about us. In that sense, it doesn’t really matter whether it is factually true or not.
The good news is that the farther the old story sinks into the past, the more people seem to embrace the lighter side of our nickname. Dogtown shirts are seen all over town, and the #dogtownlife hashtag is a great way to see our city on Instagram, or follow what’s happening here on Twitter. There’s even a group on Facebook. The name Dogtown represents much of what I love about North Little Rock: we’re feisty and we don’t really care what you think about us. We have the ability to have a good laugh at our own expense. Most of all, we are deeply loyal to this unique, beautiful, slightly wacky place that we call home.
Special thanks to the North Little Rock History Commission for allowing me to photograph their archival materials.