Our trek through Arkansas ended in a special place for me that I have been going to for years – Fort Smith. My mom was born and raised in Fort Smith and my dad lived there for a short time as a boy (it is also the place where their lives crossed paths which led to marriage years later). Summers and holidays were spent visiting my grandma, grandpa, aunts, uncles, and a massive extended family. There was always family dropping in to say hi or we were off to see relatives (including great-grand parents). Ahh yes, it was the good ole’ south where large family get-togethers were common and the place to share plenty of laughs over way too much food.
So Betsy and I set our spring travel sites on Fort Smith for a visit over Easter weekend. The years since my childhood have changed many things. Sadly that includes the passing of my grandma, grandpa, and most recently, my Uncle John. Like in the past, we took a drive to my grandparents old house. The house holds many childhood memories of dogs and cats, climbing trees, games in the yard, multiple trips down the slide, the smells of a Thanksgiving turkey roasting, and having lots of family around. Sadly, the house now stands vacant and ready to be sold. Another chapter closes.
We parked at a great Army Corps of Engineers campground just a short drive from my relatives' houses. The sites were well-spaced, in a beautiful setting along the Arkansas River, and very comfortable.
Now, we were ready to get moving. My Aunts Jackie and Cindy took us to the quaint town of Van Buren (where Jackie is the Director of the Chamber of Commerce) and to see the Drennen-Scott Historic Site for a look back in time. John Drennen was a clever business man with an extended web of enterprises. His life as a plantation owner, bank trustee, merchant, Indian Agent, and other assorted professions brought fortune and made him an influential man in the area.
The Drennen-Scott Historic Site opened its doors to the public in 2011 with the help of $5.2 million dollars and six years. The house dates back to 1838 and was occupied by family members until 2005 when it was purchased by the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith. Today, the house proudly stands as a “working laboratory” for university students. The restoration brings to life the character of the house by saving an astounding 1,000 original items and some 100 pieces of furniture. We were given a guided tour by a very knowledgeable volunteer whose passion made for an interesting and informative tour.
Often we find ourselves in town visitor centers but there is something unique about Fort Smith's – it’s housed in a former brothel (and the first one to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places). Don’t let the official name of the establishment, the “River Front Hotel,” fool you as this lively establishment was known simply as “Miss Laura’s Social Club.” Fort Smith seems to enjoy playing up their colorful past. After all, the visitor center brochure bares the slogan “Our Brothel Still Takes Care of Visitors!” At the turn of the century, Fort Smith was a wild and raucous border town where cowboys, outlaws, pioneers, Indians and all sorts passed through. Add a railroad to the mix and what better location than this for a red light district filled with brothels? Today, the fully restored building serves as a Fort Smith information center and a link to the past. Volunteers offer guided tours throughout the house and tell the shady details of what happened at Miss Laura’s.
A short drive away is the National Cemetery which serves as a beautiful resting place for veterans and their families.
One of the notable persons buried in the cemetery is Judge Isaac C. Parker also known as “The Hanging Judge.” Parker was appointed by President Grant as United States District Judge of the western district of Arkansas which was no easy task at the time. Fort Smith played an important role in the expansion and development of the United States. By the early 19th century more and more white settlers were moving into the newly acquired territory that came with the Louisiana Purchase of 1805. White settlers moving into Native Americans' territory meant competition for resources and space and increased tensions. To ensure the safety of settlers and keep the peace, the U.S. Army established a string of military posts along the western frontier of which Fort Smith was the first and westernmost of these. It was Parker’s responsibility to uphold the law and see that justice prevailed. He heard over 13,000 cases and sentenced 160 people to die (of which only 70 faced the gallows). Parker’s reputation as the hanging judge is a bit of unfair labeling. Parker believed in rehabilitation, reformed criminal justice, and advocated for the rights of Native Americans but his reputation was overshadowed by the hangings.
The story of Judge Parker and more of the Fort Smith's history play out at the Fort Smith National Historical Site. Here a representation of the stark gallows still stand prominently on the complex. The visitor center offers an orientation film, extensive exhibits, and expansive grounds which tell more of Fort Smith’s history.
Not too far from downtown is another place where history was made. The barber shop at Fort Chaffee where Elvis got his GI military haircut. Oh, you know we had to check that out! The building is restored to its 1958 condition where thousands of U.S. Army enlistees received their signature army buzz cut. There is also a historical museum with photos and artifacts documenting the 70-year history of Fort Chaffee – a base that was used by the United States Army to house German prisoners of war, Cuban refugees and relocated Vietnamese citizens.
We had a great time exploring Fort Smith. But the best part of our trip was the time we were able to spend with family making new memories.