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Jan/Feb 2013 Issue

Prepare to Swoon

Get away to Fort Smith, Ark., and find a dizzying array of historical attractions.
By Diana Lambdin Meyer

You can all but hear the hysteria in the teenage girls’ voices. Their schoolgirl handwriting with big hearts drawn in the margins of their passionate letter begs President Dwight Eisenhower to employ his executive powers to prevent this national tragedy. It was a matter of life and death, because, according to their letter, if the president didn’t intervene, these three young women “will just about die.”

statue

Above: A statue of Deputy U.S. Marshall Bass Reeves in Fort Smith.

Below: The Chaffee Barbershop Museum preserves the site where Elvis had his hair cut during basic training. Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism photos

Ft. Chaffee

Unfortunately, the president did nothing to avert this crisis and on March 25, 1958, disaster struck. Elvis Presley entered the United States Army at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, and yes, he got a GI haircut that included shaving off those sideburns, one of Presley’s many attributes that made young girls swoon in those days.

Some fans still get a little weak in the knees when they enter the Chaffee Barbershop Museum and lay eyes on the spot where Elvis’ beautiful thick locks fell to the floor. The letter to President Eisenhower, original shop brooms, and even a barber’s chair where gangster Bonnie Parker got her hair cut for the last time also are on display.

If you visit on March 23 this year, you can have your hair cut for free by descendants of the same barber who cut The King’s hair. Elvis Haircut Day, not yet a national holiday, has been an annual event since the museum opened in 2008. Please keep swooning to a minimum.

The Chaffee Barbershop Museum is a gateway to learn more about the 70-year history of Fort Chaffee, a military post assembled after bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of soldiers passed through these gates, along with German POWs, Vietnamese refugees, and Cubans escaping crises in their homeland, as well as refugees from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The history of Fort Chaffee is, in many ways, the recent history of Fort Smith, the city of 85,000 on the banks of the Arkansas River just minutes from the U.S. Army training facility now managed by the Arkansas National Guard. While smaller in scope, the facility hosts active-duty National Guard and Army Reserve units for training.

Preserving history while looking ahead

For the beginning of the story, many travelers head to the Fort Smith National Historic Site. Operated by the National Park Service, the site tells of the Osage Indians living there prior to the U.S. Army arriving on Christmas Day 1817 and establishing a fort on a hill overlooking the convergence of the Poteau and Arkansas rivers.

The site received an extensive makeover about 10 years ago, making many of the exhibits much more interactive for today’s travelers. Still, the most popular exhibit, in addition to Judge Isaac Parker’s courtroom, is the gallows outside where 160 men died during this period of near lawlessness in the Old West.

It’s also the period of history when Miss Laura’s Social Club was the premiere destination for entertainment of a gentlemanly sort. Her bordello was one of seven on the riverfront, and after a series of natural disasters, Miss Laura’s is the only remaining one.

Today, it is home to the Fort Smith Visitors Center and the Convention and Visitors Bureau and boasts the honor of being the first bordello to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors should stop by for ideas on things to do and to take a tour of the home. You’ll see medical examination certificates for Miss Laura’s nine employees, the names of the girls etched on the transoms above the rooms where they worked, and plenty of artifacts and photographs from the period.

But these days, the big excitement in Fort Smith is all about the future. Just across the street from Miss Laura’s is the planned home of the National U.S. Marshal’s Museum, which will document the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency. From the Whiskey Rebellion to the desegregation of schools, the USMS has played a part in it all, and now has found a permanent home for its story in a yet-to-be-built facility on the city’s waterfront.

Fundraising is still underway for the museum, but the recent addition of a bronze statue of U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves to the historical downtown area speaks to the depth of appreciation for the marshals in the Fort Smith region. Reeves is considered the first African-American deputy marshal in the service. That his statue is facing west into Oklahoma is a tribute to the man many consider one of the greatest peace officers of the Old West.

For the immediate future, all eyes are on the former bank building at 1601 Rogers Ave. that is the new home of the Regional Art Museum. The ribbon will be cut on Jan. 19 and the public will see a collection of more than 200 works of art by local and regional artists dating to the 1940s displayed in a modern facility designed to showcase art.

Until now, a 5,000-square-foot Victorian home has served as the Regional Art Center, but with appropriate climate control, security, and presentation, and more than 16,000 feet in which to exhibit them, the Regional Art Museum is a huge step forward for the cultural opportunities in Fort Smith.

Traveling shows will run the gamut from traditional to contemporary, and plans are underway for an annual invitational show. Classes for children and adults, along with lectures and other special events, are guaranteed to make the Regional Art Museum an interactive and popular showcase to the many riches on the Arkansas/Oklahoma border.

Where to eat and sleep

A bit of 1950s nostalgia is served with breakfast, burgers, and salads at the Boomarang Diner at The Park at West End. Located in a restored Pullman railcar, the Boomarang has plenty of Presley and Marilyn Monroe memorabilia to enjoy. It’s at Garrison Avenue and N. Second Street.

Stay downtown at the AAA Three Diamond Courtyard by Marriott hotel on Rogers Avenue. Located within walking distance to the National Historic Site, the hotel has convenient parking and comfortable rooms. Plus AAA members receive a 5 percent discount off the best available rate.

You don’t have to get all shook up looking for an enjoyable getaway; just look to Fort Smith.

Diana Lambdin Meyer is a contributor from Parkville, Mo.

Fort Smith, AR

BEFORE YOU GO

For details, contact the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 637-1477 or www.fortsmith.org.

To visit Fort Smith, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

Order free information about Arkansas through the Free Travel Information Card, found online.


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