Once an Arkansas boom town, Washington has found a second life by interpreting its history for state park visitors.
Morning starts gently in Washington. Sunlight filters through ancient catalpa trees. The quiet of the dawn is broken by the cacophonous crowing of competing cocks in the barnyard behind the Sanders’ house. The donkey joins the serenade. It may be 2007, but it sounds like 1850.
From the early 1800s, the major route through Arkansas was the Southwest Trail tracing a path from St. Louis, Mo., to the Red River. The town of Washington, established in 182412 years before Arkansas became a statewas a convenient stop on that route.
In addition to rich agricultural resources, the settlement of skilled and professional people built the town into an important hub. During the Civil War, after the Union occupation of Little Rock, the Confederate capitol was moved to Washington.
The town boomed until 1874 when it was bypassed by the railroad. Two fires in the 1880s destroyed most of the business district. Though never a ghost town, Washington was headed for the fate of so many rural communitiesgreat history, little future.
In 1929, the Arkansas Legislature allocated the first historic preservation funds in state history to restore the Arkansas Confederate Capitol. Almost 30 years later, citizens of Washington organized to save other historic structures and in 1973, Old Washington Historic State Park was established.
Today the state park is scattered through town. Modern residents sidle up next to historic properties. The name has been changed to the less cumbersome Historic Washington State Park.
Visiting the past
Visitors stroll along board sidewalks and past picket-fenced cottages. The first stop is the visitors’ center located in the Hempstead County Courthouse, a red brick Italianate structure built in 1874 and used until 1939 when the county seat moved to Hope.
Visitors can browse several rooms of displays and buy tickets for tours, which include a number of historic sites. Twelve out of the 26 historic structures are open to the public; seven to nine are included in the full tour. Buildings to be visited vary by day. Guests are greeted at each site by docents, often in period dress.
Though the structures range widely in construction datesfrom the early and mid-1800s through early 20th centuryit is primarily 1800s history that is interpreted. Several museums and collections are included in the tours.
Rifles, knives and revolvers line the walls and fill cases at the B.W. Edwards Weapons Museum across the street. The oldest piece, a powder horn, dates back to the 15th century. The entire collection comprises 607 firearms.
One of the special exhibits is a collection of interpretations of the Bowie knife by contemporary bladesmiths. The Bowie knife originated in Washington when, in 1831 or ’32, local blacksmith James Black fashioned a knife for Jim Bowie to his specifications. Other locations have taken credit for this honor but an item in the local newspaper in 1841, the earliest printed documentation, helps substantiate Washington’s claim.
Bowie knives are also a major focus in the re-created blacksmith shop, an interpretive center with two working forges. Blacksmiths were vital to the community and did everything from shoeing horses to making and repairing tools, weapons and even cooking pots. Ghost hunters enjoy the stories about Andrew, the mischievous spirit, who likes to move the blacksmith’s hammers around. The blacksmith shop is included in tours Tuesday through Saturday.
Serious knife makers or collectors come to the nearby Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing for classes that draw enthusiasts from as far away as New York, Florida and New Mexico. Given by experts, the workshops cover many aspects of bladesmithing.
The most historically significant building in town is also one of the most unprepossessingthe Arkansas Confederate Capitol and 1836 courthouse. A plain, white, wooden, two-story building with a moderately pitched, hipped roof and a brick chimney, it features no ornamentation or ostentation. The interior is just as utilitarian. Docents bring history alive as they describe politics on the frontier. Harsh times called for harsh measures, and the legislature responded by making forgery, horse thievery and misappropriation of public funds capital offenses.
Several houses are included on the tours, including the 1845 Simon T. Sanders House and Farmstead. Furnished with period antiques, the house also contains some of the Sanders’ own furniture. Children love the backyard with its chickens, donkey and goat.
Everybody’s favorite stop is Williams’ Tavern (1832). Wednesday is chicken and dumpling day; catfish is served on Friday. Other specialties include chicken-fried steak, pork chops and meatloaf. Almost everything is homemaderolls, corn bread, cobblerseven, when fruit is available from trees or plants in the park, jams and jellies. This is traditional country cooking at its best.
Thousands of yellow blooms dance in the breeze during one of the park’s biggest events, the Annual Jonquil Festival in March. The town’s population swells with visitors who come to enjoy the spring display of blossoms, check out the arts and crafts exhibits, watch craftspeople at work and sample lots of tasty food.
Various workshops and programs are held through the summer. Other offerings, like the popular Dutch Oven Cooking workshop, are scheduled throughout the year.
Another major event, the Civil War Weekend, will be Nov. 3 and 4. Educational programs, displays of artifacts and, of course, re-enactments of skirmishes or battles are highlights of the gathering. Re-enactors portray both military and civilian figures and fill the town with their colorful attire.
Historic Washington State Park is one of those few, magical places, like Colonial Williamsburg; Arrow Rock, Mo., or Columbia State Historic Park in California’s Gold Rush Country, where visitors can walk hand-in-hand with history. Here, in sleepy southwest Arkansas, the charming cottages, unpaved streets and overhanging trees call the visitor to step back in time.
Elaine Warner is a contributor from Edmond, Okla.
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