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Bentonville: craft fair capital

Published: Mar/Apr 2002
By Durand Young

Flanking the Peel Mansion and Historic Gardens in Bentonville, Ark., are the corporate headquarters of the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, and one of the company’s huge supercenters.

The restored 1875 Italianate mansion overlooks nearly six acres of gardens that feature19th-century plantings. The mansion and gardens are open Tuesday–Saturday. Flowers begin to bloom in mid-April and are a rainbow of colors by about May 1. Frequent special events throughout the year also show off the home where Confederate Col. Samuel W. Peel and his wife raised nine children. The property was donated to the Peel House Foundation by Wal-Mart.

This juxtaposition of a modern merchandising success and a museum of affluent living in a small Southern town illustrates the two sides of Bentonville. A vibrant business climate is successfully mixed with the preservation of a small-town atmosphere.

Arts and crafts abound

Enjoy a variety of arts and crafts in town./ Bentonville A&P photo
Not far from the Peel House is Ole’ Applegate Place Farm, chief among nationally ranked arts and crafts fair venues that bring thousands of people to the Bentonville area each year. Applegate has major shows in May, September (Labor Day) and October. Crafters from across the nation exhibit their works at these shows and also at nearby Springdale, Bella Vista, Rogers and War Eagle Mills Farm, where the historic water-powered gristmill is an added attraction. Early reservations are advised, as accommodations can be hard to find at craft show time.

Coinciding with the spring craft shows is Bentonville’s Balloon Fest. This year’s fourth annual event, May 3–5, will attract some 40 colorful hot air balloons to Bentonville’s Municipal Airport.

Population up 75 percent

Bentonville is part of a rapidly growing northwest Arkansas corridor along U.S. Highway 71 and Interstate 540, from the Missouri border south to Fayetteville. This stretch of 40 miles also includes Bella Vista, Rogers, Lowell and Springdale.

Bentonville’s 2000 U.S. census population of 19,730 represents a gain of more than 75 percent in 10 years. Northwest Arkansas Community College, which began in 1990 with 1,200 students in 22 rented or borrowed locations, has also grown rapidly. Within five years a new, permanent campus was built. Some 4,300 students are now in college credit classes plus several thousand others in non-credit courses.

Preservation keeps heritage alive

The courthouse square is common in Southern county seats and Bentonville is no exception. Standing tall in the center park is an elevated, life-size statue of a Confederate soldier. Within a block or two of the square are some 20 historic buildings dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pick up a brochure from the Bentonville/Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce.

The Wal-Mart Visitors Center, housed in the former “Walton’s 5-10” store on the square, hosts approximately 50,000 visitors annually. Exhibits trace the history of the company with photos, documents, merchandise and video presentations.

Civil War history

Bentonville’s role in the Civil War included a March 6, 1862, incident in the center of town. Early that morning Brig. Gen. Franz Sigel strode into the dining room of the Eagle House and ordered ham and eggs for breakfast.

In below-freezing temperatures, the 600 soldiers under his command gathered round warming fires, including one on the courthouse plaza, a block from the Eagle House. Sigel’s inattention nearly led to a defeat at the hands of advancing Confederate soldiers in a prelude to the Battle of Pea Ridge March 7 and 8. East of Bentonville, Sigel’s men, found themselves outflanked by rebel troops. They fought their way through until help arrived and the attackers ceased their pursuit. A historical marker on the site where the Eagle House stood recalls Sigel’s breakfast stop.

One of the largest engagements west of the Mississippi River, Pea Ridge has been called the battle that kept Missouri safely in the Union. Pea Ridge National Military Park, 15 miles northeast of Bentonville, commemorates the conflict. The visitor center includes a museum, a video presentation about the battle and a bookstore.

Plenty of room for your boat

For water lovers, Beaver Lake is mere minutes away. Formed by the damming of the White River, the 28,000-acre reservoir boasts numerous developed parks–including Beaver Lake State Park–campgrounds, marinas and other recreational facilities. Year-round fishing has anglers pulling in white bass, stripers, large- and smallmouth bass, crappie, and bream.

A non-profit corporation, the Bentonville/Bella Vista Trailblazers, has raised funds and built a paved walking trail around Lake Bella Vista, a small body of water in the retirement and recreation community of 16,500 that adjoins Bentonville on the north. There are plans for additional amenities, including a connection between the new trail and Bentonville’s expanding bike trail.

As the city grows, it nonetheless retains much of the small-town feeling that has marked its 175-year history.

Durand Young is a contributor from Bella Vista, Ark.

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