As president of the Historic Arkansas Museum Foundation board, Lori Burrows is familiar with the era that predates creature comforts like electric lights and plumbing.
Burrows, who with her two young daughters is a frequent museum visitor, never tires of the operational blacksmith shop, the pristine log cabin, split rail fence and other examples of pre-statehood Arkansas life that stand on the museum’s grounds in downtown Little Rock.
To visit the cluster of early 1800s-style buildings sitting on either side of Second Street, or to take in the museum itself, is to Burrows a trip back to a period in which comfort and sustenance had to be built by hand and clawed from the ground.
It was a sunrise-to-sunset existence in which simple tasks like cooking, gardening and even bathing came with some level of back-bending effort.
“We’ve come a long way through grit and a lot of hard work, and I think that’s what the museum represents,” Burrows says.
Burrows’ insights into state history don’t end at the blacksmith shop door.
In her full-time job as vice president and general counsel for the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation, Burrows understands how progress in the form of technology reshaped and modernized rural Arkansas.
As a Peace Corps volunteer during the turn of the millennium, Burrows experienced the results of modernization firsthand. She was assigned to the Federated States of Micronesia and its capital Pohnpei, an island with a population of approximately 40,000. The head of Burrows’ host family welcomed her by building the family’s first outdoor, flush toilet.
“He said, ‘You’re American. You must have a flush toilet,’” she remembers.
Hardships like the lack of hot water or having to cook on a kerosene stove, coupled with the locals’ communal approach to life, taught Burrows not just how little a person needs to get by but also underscored how advanced the U.S. is.
Looking back on her time in Pohnpei, Burrows can see similarities to the lives of Arkansas’ pre-statehood pioneers and she can appreciate “the extraordinary privilege we have in this country and the degree we take the modern world and all the things we value for granted.”
As the Historic Arkansas Museum prepares for its sole fundraiser, the biennial Candlelight Gala in October, Burrows is inspired yet again to reinforce the museum’s mission of education and outreach to young people, especially in rural areas.
The gala this year celebrates the bicentennial of Arkansas becoming a U.S. territory and benefits the museum’s Bill Worthen Future of History Fund. The fund supports initiatives and programs that provide school groups from around the state a chance to experience the museum and interact with Arkansas history.
“Having an opportunity for kids to come to Little Rock, much less learn about Arkansas history, I’m all for that,” Burrows says.
Or, as she told her own kids one warm and sweaty day in front of the blacksmith shop, “‘You know, people lived like this.’
“Just reinforcing my indoor-dwelling, hyper-comfortable children,” she says.
A native of Bryant and graduate of the University of Central Arkansas, Burrows chose the Peace Corps in 1999 to satisfy her passion for service. At 22, she wanted to use the volunteer opportunity to see the world.
Burrows had hoped to hold out for an assignment to a French-speaking country since she knew the language, but accepted the assignment to Micronesia rather than take the chance on a long wait for her desired post.
She was told the nation, roughly a three-hour flight from Guam, was in the South Pacific, but it’s actually north of the equator.
“So even the Peace Corps didn’t know where it was,” she laughs.
In her two-year assignment Burrows worked as a development volunteer and, like almost everyone in the Peace Corps, she tutored English. She also dodged a cholera outbreak, became a certified scuba instructor — “If you live on an island, you have to learn to scuba dive” — and learned that quality of life doesn’t necessarily include a wealth of comfort.
Not that the flush toilet wasn’t appreciated, both by Burrows and the members of her host family, but it was the communal spirit and way of life that made her recall the warmth of her Arkansas family and neighbors and made her hungry for home. Enriched by her volunteer experience, she enrolled in law school, determined to use a legal career to do some good in her home state, pointing to Atticus Finch, the principled lawyer and father of “To Kill a Mockingbird” as inspiration.
With the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, Burrows fulfills a compliance and risk management function in her role as general counsel. The nonprofit utility is owned by the people it serves and provides electricity for close to 1.3 million Arkansans.
Such cooperatives historically helped rural areas, and thus the whole state, to grow and modernize. Being on a grid gave a community access to the world at large while also improving life at home immeasurably.
An avowed fan of history and an avid reader of biographies, Burrows’ job gives her a greater appreciation for the Historic Arkansas Museum and its depiction of life before Arkansas was wired for electric service.
“I think that’s what HAM does so well,” she says.
Burrows and her husband Jeff have two girls, Gemma, 8, and Greta, 6. She was a Historic Arkansas Museum denizen before its leadership ever asked her to join the board, and given the hours she and her kids were already spending there, accepting was a no-brainer.
“I was really flattered by the ask because I perceived the board as a really impressive, high-profile, high-initiative group,” she says.
Burrows and her girls were such regulars they would even show up on the rare day there wasn’t some program or activity for kids on the museum schedule.
“When we go on a regular day they’re like, ‘Where’s the face painting? Where’s the balloons?’” Burrows says.
But it’s programs like the Bill Worthen Future of History Fund, and so many others, that inspires Burrows in her work with the foundation and support of the Candlelight Gala. Named for the former museum director, the fund has underwritten field trips for more than 20,000 kids, and the goal is to expand the program.
“It’s a great program and a lot of people know about it,” she says, “but a lot of people don’t, and that’s one of the goals of the gala — to raise awareness.”
The experience for the school kids is invaluable but, Burrows points out, the field trips cost money, which is a bigger challenge for rural schools.
“Ninety-nine percent of what we offer is free,” Burrows says, but adds that even the bus and bus driver come with a price tag.
The gala’s fundraising goal is $60,000, but director of community engagement Ellen Korenblat says the hope is to get the fund to $100,000. The museum offers a number of grade-level, state-standard programs with hands-on activities, living history performances, tours, a children’s gallery, storytelling, music programs and much more.
Living history is more than just showing people what life used to be like, Burrows says. It’s also about looking to the future by looking to the past and its people, those who worked hard, persevered, grew the state and grew the nation.
“My interest in history stems primarily from my interest in people,” she says. “I find people and their stories imminently fascinating, and I think where we’re from is where we’re headed.”