Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Story Of A City at the Fort Smith Museum of History.

In any community, there are a lot of stories to be told, just as many stories as there are individuals. Some museums go for a single or dual angle. In Fort Smith, the Fort Smith Museum of History offers the equivalent of a historic quilt, a patched-together collection of the city's best stories, many of which deserved to be spread far further than the confines of Sebastian County.

Hunter and walked over to the Museum of History after touring the Fort Smith National Historic Site a block away.  I knew about the soda fountain.  I didn't know about all the cool things I'd find.

First off, this building on the corner of the Fort Smith National Historic Site on the other side, is also the oldest building in town. It is the old commissary,
built in 1839.

It was also home to the Fort Smith Museum of History beginning in 1910 and continuing for nearly 70 years.

commissary remains part of the historic site run by the National Parks Service today.  The museum, though, stands in this red brick building to the southeast of that park.

Though the first museum was created to save the city's oldest building, the museum's purpose evolved to include a whole lot more.  The Fort Smith Museum of History strives to preserve approximately 40,000 artifacts chronicling the history of the city and surrounding region, and to care for the Atkinson-Williams Warehouse in which it is housed.

The Atkinson-Williams Hardware Building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, opened in 1907, Williams Hardware and Speer Hardware both occupied the structure later.  The Fort Smith Museum of History has been in residence here since 1979.

On our epic road trip along US Highway 71 from the Louisiana border to the Missouri state line, Hunter and I had encountered a lot of things.  But one of the first things she found within the museum was an old fashioned fire department water wagon that got her curiosity.

There was also an old black bell that was just as large if not larger than Hunter is.

An exhibit on the ground floor of the Fort Smith Museum of History shares information about musicians that has come from and influence Fort Smith, including bandleader Alphonso Trent, a well known jazz musician born at the turn of the 20th century.

The Hartford Music Institute operated from 1921 into the early 1950s. It taught individuals shape note style singing. This was very popular with those learning how to sing. At one point more than 400 students attended sessions at Hartford, Arkansas.  This cabinet includes books from the school as well as photographs of its students and instructors.

Here's the microphone from Old Fort Smith radio station KFPW. It's called an Elvis, because Elvis Presley recorded his first hit record at Sun Studios in Memphis using a similar microphone. How do I know this?  Outside of the outstanding interpretation here, I've actually seen this mic.  To the left, that's me with the actual mic at Sun Studios.  Yes, I don't do a lot of selfies, but when I do, I choose some fun subjects.

Hunter had her eye out and made sure I saw this old Ford and pump.  She's now on a car kick after her visit to the Four States Auto Museum in Texarkana.

This exhibit showcases scouting in Fort Smith over the years, complete with scout troop memorabilia.

An old telephone switchboard is on display.  Hunter knew what this was, thanks to seeing part of the old switchboard for Fort Chaffee at the Chaffee Barbershop Museum.

The sheer number of items on exhibit can be a bit overwhelming.  If we'd had a full day just to take in the museum, I'm not certain we'd have accomplished that goal.  There are great, well-curated pieces everywhere... and sometimes, the unexpected, such as this collection of euphoniums and other brass parts (I believe that's the top half of a valve trombone to the left) hanging from the rafters.

I have friends who would be jealous of this incredible loom.  It's part of a fantastic textile display.

Sewing notions of the past are preserved in this hutch.

This is the saddle of the infamous Belle Starr.

Upstairs, we explored a series of exhibits on Fort Smith television and radio.  This really took me back.  Many of these items, including the camera pedestal and monitor banks, are about identical to equipment I've worked with back in my past years at KAIT in Jonesboro and THV in Little Rock.  Longtime Fort Smith Carl Riggins donated much of his own personal memorabilia for the exhibit.

If there's any question about whether this is the real deal, let me silence that question now.  Yes, it very much is.

With the exception of the Associated Press machine, which in my days would have been a dot matrix printer, this is very similar to the setup I started using when broadcasting on KXRJ in my college years, down to the reel-to-reel player, turntable (I would have loved to have three!) the cart machine... yeah.  Broadcasting is far different these days, and I am thrilled to see this so proudly displayed.

This display made me absolutely giddy.  It's memorabilia of the old Hotel Goldman, which is an important place to start Fort Smith roadfood research.  There are still extant copies not only of the menus from the early 20th century when this grand hotel stood along Garrison Avenue; there's a photographic history as well.  I plan to come back here for more research.

This is a photo from inside the restaurant at the Hotel Goldman.  It also had a coffee counter.

And what says hotel food like men in suits with sides of beef?

The grand display includes serviceware and photographs and even architectural drawings.

I'm certain there are woodworkers and blacksmiths who will feel about the tool exhibit the way I felt about the radio and Hotel Goldman exhibits at the Fort Smith Museum of History.  It's a fine collection.

That's the thing, though... we just scratched the surface during our visit.  We quickly gazed at the Judge Isaac C. Parker courtroom (representing his final years in the position; his earlier years are preserved in the courtroom at the Fort Smith National Historic Site next door), a section on the history of famous black residents of Fort Smith, information about the Civil War and a whole section on General William O. Darby, who founded the Army Rangers. I plan to come back to do a story just on that, too.

Hunter absorbed a lot of this and kept asking questions and reading... quite engaged.  The phone exhibit, which has phones from throughout the 20th century that kids can touch and work, is excellent.  But after an hour, she had just one thing on her mind.

The Fort Smith Museum of History has its own soda fountain - an Arkansas tradition that should be celebrated, and often!  They make sodas and such from soda water and syrup (even their Cokes!), sundaes and such.  Hunter had to have a cherry vanilla soda - which is cherry syrup in soda with vanilla ice cream.

I had the same, but with chocolate.

The soda fountain is at the eastern corner of the building, and it serves ice cream and such at very reasonable prices.  More importantly, it keeps alive a grand tradition of these parlors, which started out in pharmacies, all across the state (many of which can be found on this list). A double scoop soda is $4, and there are sundaes and ice cream cups and flavored sodas as well.  Many museums offer refreshment, but few offer ice creamy treats.

You can visit the Fort Smith Museum of History between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (and Sundays during the summer).  Admission is $7 for adults, $2 for kids age six and up and free for younger kids.

BUT - if you have a school group and you're in the Fort Smith School District, you can go for free!  If your class or group isn't part of that district, it's a dollar a person for student, teacher or chaperone.

For more information, check out the Fort Smith Museum of History website and keep up with the museum's Facebook page.

Other places to visit while you're in Fort Smith:
Fort Smith National Historic Site
Chaffee Barbershop Museum
Enchanted Doll Museum
Miss Laura's Visitors Center

Share our experiences - click here to see where else we went on our epic road trip along US Highway 71 from the Louisiana border to the Missouri state line.

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