Experience the unexpected
in Fort Smith, Ark.
On B Street just this side of downtown Fort Smith, the boxy silos of O.K. Feed Mills grain elevator rise out of the ground and stretch toward the boundless Arkansas sky. It’s not much of a tourist attraction, but this whitewashed grain elevator commands attention.
This elevator is home to three gargantuan murals. Portraits, really, like fine pen-and-ink drawings, the three individuals occupy their own space on the mural, and in perfect symmetry and proportion, gaze steadily at the mortals below.
This particular work — picturing Kristina, a young African-American woman; Ed, a Native American man of the Apache tribe; and Gene Beckham, a real-life giant in the history of the elevator, having worked there for 70 years — pays homage to the mix of people that make up this former frontier town. Arguably the most striking, the work is not the only mural in Fort Smith. Downtown has several of them, products of a unique Fort Smith festival that brings in international artists to reimagine space and set the table for the city’s reinvention.
They call the mural movement the Unexpected Project, but they might as well adopt it as the town motto, too. From dining and shopping, to history and the arts, the unexpected is precisely what Fort Smith offers visitors these days.
History on the Frontier
Fort Smith is the second largest city in Arkansas behind only Little Rock, and the co-county seat (it shares the distinction with Greenwood). Fort Smith has a long and colorful history. The abundant French names in the area tell of early trappers who likely plied their trade in the Arkansas and Poteau rivers.
The first American troops arrived on the spot in 1817 and erected a fort that would become the namesake of the settlement. The Army stayed for seven years. When local businessman John Rogers sold land to the federal government, construction on a second fort began in 1838. This was used to train soldiers for the Mexican-American War, and later became a major supply depot for the Army. During the Civil War, it was used by Confederate and Union forces.
Today’s visitor to Fort Smith can take in this history around every corner, starting with the Fort Smith Museum of History at 320 Rogers Ave. Fort Smith has always seemed to have a sense of its place in history — the museum dates back to 1910 — and is today located in a nearly 110-year-old former hardware warehouse, telling the tale of Fort Smith’s frontier days straight through today.
Don’t miss the exhibit featuring the storied federal judge Isaac C. Parker who, with 13,490 cases and 160 death sentences, was as legendary as the Old West outlaws he brought to justice.
History buffs will want to visit Fort Smith National Cemetery (522 S. Sixth St.), the oldest of the state’s three national cemeteries. Established in 1867 around the post’s original cemetery, the oldest gravesite is believed to be that of Thomas Russell, the fort’s surgeon, interred in 1819. Among the thousands of headstones standing in formation at the cemetery are the marked graves of 473 Confederate soldiers. Many unmarked graves in the cemetery belong to the fallen of both Confederate and Federal soldiers.
Another historical point of interest is the Fort Smith National Historic Site (301 Parker Ave.), the site of the first fort, Belle Point. There also are buildings from the second iteration of the Army fort. Walk where Mexican War and Civil War soldiers drilled, pause along the Trail of Tears Path and Overlook, and stand where Judge Parker’s harshest sentences were carried out.
Other sites of note include Miss Laura’s Social Club (2 N. B St.), the first former brothel to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places; the many original homes in the Belle Grove Historic District; and the Bass Reeves Monument (200 Garrison Ave.) that commemorates a former slave who became the nation’s first black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi.
And be sure to take the time to ride the Fort Smith trolley (part of the Fort Smith Trolley Museum at 100 S. Fourth St.) for a nice break from the day’s trekking.
Where to eat and sleep
Steeped as it is in history, Fort Smith also has taken bold strides to diversify its attractions and appeal to new generations. A trip through and near the reawakening downtown (just follow the murals, they’re everywhere) yields a treasure of local shops and boutiques with names like Creative Kitchen (309 Garrison Ave.), Gallivanting Ladies Apparel (4300 Rogers Ave.) and Hazel’s Haven (4120 Rogers Ave.).
When it’s time to eat, try the tamales at Rolando’s Nuevo Latino Restaurante (223 Garrison Ave.) or sample the sushi at Sake Sushi and Martini Bar (823 Garrison Ave.), both located downtown.
Farther afield, the relatively new but very popular Stonehouse at Chaffee Crossing (8801 Wells Lake Road) serves up great steaks in an up-and-coming mixed-use section of town. Visit Green Papaya for great Vietnamese food (6301 Highway 271 South), particularly the spring rolls and Ca Ry Ga, a chicken curry served with a mound of white rice.
Or if you want a down-home taste of the Fort Smith your grandparents might remember, grab a seat at the timeless Calico County (2401 S. 56th St.), a café serving up comfort food for as long as anyone can remember. A word to the wise: They bring you cinnamon rolls like some places bring out complimentary chips and salsa, so pace yourself.
A number of AAA Three Diamond hotels and motels can be found in town.
Such attractions are available any time of year in Fort Smith, but the calendar is also crowded with special events. Run the Fort Smith Marathon on Feb. 12, catch Riverfront Blues or Peacemaker music festivals over the summer, or pedal the True Grit or Hell on the Border cycling events in June and September, respectively. Take in a taste of Fort Smith’s heritage with the Old Fort Days Futurity and Rodeo the last weekend in May, or get a glimpse of the future with the Unexpected Project, if you’re lucky enough to catch them at work.
But the most striking example of blending Fort Smith’s past and future is still on the drawing board. The U.S. Marshals Museum project is a $60 million 50,000-square-foot tribute to the 225-year history of the nation’s first federal law enforcement agency. The project, currently in fundraising phase, will be built on the Arkansas River and feature state-of-the-art exhibits and programming. Awarded to Fort Smith in 2007, the museum is working toward opening on Sept. 24, 2019.
Whether seeking an Old West adventure or wanting to try something new, visitors of all ages will find something unexpected in Fort Smith.
Dwain Hebda is a contributor from Little Rock, Ark.
January/February 2017 Issue
Plan to visit nearby Van Buren
If you’re making a weekend of things, don’t miss the chance to visit Van Buren, Ark.
The beautiful Main Street alone is worth the short drive, featuring six blocks of lovingly restored Victorian buildings now home to art galleries, antique shops, and restaurants. If it’s hard-to-find or one-of-a-kind, you’ll get it here.
History buffs will also enjoy the Drennen-Scott House, a working laboratory for University of Arkansas Fort Smith students working to re-create the 1936 structure that’s linked to the Trail of Tears, the Underground Railroad, and the Civil War.
Explore the Arkansas Heritage Trails System, including where the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoaches once traveled.
You may want to hop aboard the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad for an excursion or catch a performance at the King Opera House that’s rumored to be haunted.
For more information, click on vanburen.org.
— Dwain Hebda
Use the Van Buren trolley to explore downtown shops and galleries. Williams/Crawford & Associates
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