For More Details
For more information, contact the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-637-1477 or visit online at www.fortsmith.org; the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-332-5889 or visit online at www.vanburen.org.

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When the West was wild in Arkansas
Once at the edge of the frontier, Fort Smith preserves the memories of its wild days, while nearby Van Buren recalls a more gentile past

Published: May/Jun 2002
By Elaine Warner

Van Buren’s restored downtown looks as it did in the late 1800s. /Van Buren Convention and Visitors Bureau photo
If one were casting a Western movie, Fort Smith would be the lawman and Van Buren would be the schoolmarm. Though both towns were founded about the same time, their populations were decidedly different.

Van Buren was a quiet riverboat town on the Arkansas River. A few miles upstream at the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau rivers, Fort Smith was established as a military outpost, around which the town grew.

Frontier fort

The first fort was built in 1817, abandoned in 1824, then rebuilt in the late 1830s. The second fort played a role in patrolling the adjacent Indian Territory (Oklahoma) and curtailing bootlegging on the river. The fort also became a major supply depot for Western military outposts and an important stop on the California Trail and the Butterfield-Overland Stage Route.

With western expansion following the Civil War, the fort was once again closed. In 1872, the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas occupied the old barracks at the post.

Outlaw's outpost

The court's jurisdiction included western Arkansas and Indian Territory, a magnet for brigands and outlaws. Tribal courts, the only legal system in the territory, only had authority over Indians. Malefactors roamed at will, then scurried over the border where Arkansas lawmen could not touch them. The U.S. Marshals of the federal court became the only recourse.

“Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker presided over the court from 1875 to 1896. This nickname is probably unnecessarily harsh, considering that of the 13,500 cases–many involving the most hardened criminals–that were docketed during his 21 years on the bench, only 79 prisoners were hanged.

By the turn of the century, things were considerably tamer around town. But a number of saloons still lined Garrison, the main street, and one of the most successful cottage industries was located nearby in a strip called “The Row.” The proprietress of the most successful house was Miss Laura who had the first player piano in town and, in a good month, chilled champagne in an upstairs bathtub for high-class clientele.

Today, the building is believed to be the only former brothel on the National Register of Historic Places and the home of the Fort Smith Visitor Center.

Today's tourist

The visitor center should be your first stop. In addition to taking a tour of the restored house with its Victorian furniture and authentic decor, you can stock up on brochures and maps.

Your next step is just outside the door–and onto the red and yellow trolley bus for a 30-minute narrated tour of major Fort Smith attractions.

The Fort Smith National Historic Site, which recently completed a $7.5 million restoration, offers plenty of colorful stories. The museum in the barracks-courthouse-jail is arranged to take visitors through the area's history. View interesting displays and videos on subjects like the illegal whiskey trade, the Civil War and frontier justice. See the re-created gallows and follow a short path to find the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail Overlook.

For a broader look at area development, head for the Fort Smith Museum of History. The fort and the military have always played a prominent role in Fort Smith, but this museum shows its influence from the civilian viewpoint. One of the highlights is an old-fashioned pharmacy and soda fountain where you can order a sarsaparilla or ice cream float. Another special feature is a room showcasing the career of native son Gen. William O. Darby, organizer of the 1st Ranger Battalion, called “Darby’s Rangers,” noted for bravery in World War II.

Belles of the ball

Don't miss the 22-square-block historic district known as Belle Grove. Approximately 25 charming houses have been restored, from the classic Victorian Renaissance Clayton House to the small brick John Rogers House, one of the oldest houses in Fort Smith. A leisurely stroll along the tree-lined streets offers the best chance to enjoy the elegant homes and small architectural details that make each unique.

Located a few blocks east of Belle Grove is the 1887 J.M. Sparks mansion. The Romanesque Victorian-style home now houses Taliano’s Italian Restaurant. Enjoy homemade pastas, sauces and soups in style while admiring the elaborate woodwork, Carrara marble fireplaces and original light fixtures.

For seafood, head to the river's edge and the Lighthouse Inn. Heavy on seashore decor, spacious decks and great views, its location is as appealing as its cuisine. The Lighthouse has been a Fort Smith fixture for 30 years for good reason.

To top your visit off with an elegant night's stay, book a room at Michael's Mansion. The historic, three-story, white glazed-brick, neo-classical home features an exquisite grand stairway with Tiffany windows. There are five rooms, all with private baths; some include whirlpool tubs.

Hit the road

Across the river, east of Fort Smith, is its tiny neighbor, Van Buren. One-fifth the size of the bigger town, Van Buren is described in an 1837 real estate ad as “picturesque and pleasing to the eye.” That description is still accurate.

Its 10-block historic downtown has been restored to its late 19th-century appearance. Main Street must have its own agent because it has been featured in many films, including “Frank and Jesse,” “Biloxi Blues” and “The Blue and the Gray.”

Van Buren’s antique, gift and craft shops offer great shopping opportunities. Antique Warehouse is the largest seller of European antique furniture in Arkansas. The selection of stained glass is unparalleled. Christmas and Spice is in a holiday mood year-round, while Visual Enterprise offers contemporary paintings, pottery and furnishings. The distinctive smell of new leather permeates Cowpolk’s, which features Western clothing and leather wear for horse or Harley riders.

Haunting memories

The Old Van Buren Inn in the 1889 Crawford County Bank Building houses one of Van Buren’s best lunch spots. Owner Jackie Henningsen also presides over an upstairs bed-and-breakfast which, according to rumor, is shared by a late banker and his wife. The eclectic decor reflects Henningsen’s many interests and talents. Rooms are spacious enough to accommodate both guests and ghosts comfortably.

The Classic Cafe on Main Street looks like an ordinary small-town diner, but the cuisine is definitely a cut above average. Owner/chef Russell Kious offers old favorites along with more sophisticated entrees like swordfish and shrimp kabobs.

To complete your trip back in time, check the summer schedules for the Arkansas River Queen, an authentic paddle wheeler that departs from Fort Smith, or the Arkansas-Missouri Railroad that makes regular runs from Van Buren to Winslow in turn-of-the-century, restored mahogany passenger cars.

The Wild West is wild no longer, but in the streets and buildings of Van Buren and Fort Smith, you can catch glimpses of an earlier time. If you listen carefully, you might just hear the jingle of spurs, the tinkle of Miss Laura's piano or the clopping of horses’ hooves.

Elaine Warner is a new contributor from Edmond, Okla.


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