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Fort Smith Museum of History Celebrates One Hundred Years

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Fort Smith Museum of History
Fort Smith Museum of History
    Fort Smith Museum of History
Fort Smith Museum of History
Fort Smith Museum of History
Fort Smith Museum of History
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Feb. 9, 2010


Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

For 100 years, the Fort Smith Museum of History has been the time capsule for Fort Smith’s rich and colorful heritage. This cultural center celebrates its centennial this year beginning with a Feb. 12 Mardi Gras fundraiser, which kicks-off a 10-month series of events and exhibits.

The museum offers permanent and traveling exhibits and programs, and an audio tour. Focusing on life on the frontier and the Civil War and reconstruction, it also houses an old-time working soda fountain, antique vehicles, home appliances, toys, furniture and hundreds of photos that detail life in Fort Smith in the 1900s. The facility touches on World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl.

Current long-term exhibits are dedicated to the stories of General William O. Darby, the Fort Smith native who established Darby’s Rangers during World War II, as well as the history of the museum building, and the changing perspective of the gallows in Fort Smith.

The audio tour is now offered via cell phone. Patrons dial a number and then listen to a narration of the exhibits on their phones. The narrator is J. Fred Patton, a local historian who died last year at the age of 102. “It’s like a piece of history itself to have his voice on the recording,” said Leisa Gramlich, museum executive director.

While the museum acquires, preserves, exhibits and interprets objects of historical significance relevant to the founding and growth of Fort Smith and the region, that description may make it sound like a dusty, dry place. Gramlich describes it as exciting and full of great stories. After all, since the 1940s, Wild West stories of Fort Smith have been showcased in books and movies such as “True Grit,” “Rooster Cogburn” and “Hang’em High.”

“It was just a wild place,” Gramlich explained. “You have to remember how Fort Smith began and why. It literally was the edge of the United States. It was the frontier for a long time. It was also a supply depot for the gold rush in the west and later for western settlement. During the Civil War the fort was occupied by both Union and Confederate troops and the national cemetery has both buried in it. There was Hangin’ Judge Parker, Indian years and fugitives.”

Throughout 2010, the museum will mount special exhibits in the Boyd Gallery to show off some of its collection that is normally stowed away and rarely seen. Exhibits will include: “Bass Reeves and Fort Smith’s African-American History;” “American Indian Realism;” “The Fort in Flight: Bud Mars and the City’s Aviation History;” “Boom and Slash! Weapons from the Museum Collection;” and, “Return to the Commissary.”

This 10-month program will culminate in a birthday party for the museum on its official birth date of Dec. 10. Members and friends will be invited to buy gifts from area stores — anything from expensive audio-visual equipment to more affordable perishable supplies the museum needs.

The museum has set new goals for itself this year — 100 new members and a fundraising target of $100,000. Using billboards, social media and an even more vigorous outreach to the community, it will seek to expand its profile and educational mission into its second hundred years.

The museum was founded by some of the city’s leading ladies, whose original intent was to save the commissary that was part of the fort. Up to that point, the commissary had been used for supplies, by explorers and soldiers, played a role in two wars, and served as an office for Federal Judge Isaac Parker.

“It is the oldest building still standing in Fort Smith. If it hadn’t been saved by the ladies, it would have been torn down,” Gramlich said. “They began collecting artifacts relevant to the history of Fort Smith at that same time. Through the years they collected a great number of artifacts. I remember as a child the building was just stuffed full.”

Originally known as the Old Commissary Museum, it eventually became the Museum of Fort Smith History and moved to its current location in 1979. “We were able to purchase the building at the time,” Gramlich added. “So we’re not only preserving Fort Smith history, but also a building that is part of the history of Fort Smith.”

The museum is housed in the former Atkinson-Williams Building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The 101-year-old structure contains two large floors of exhibits and two floors devoted to preserving artifacts. The gift shop sells unique, locally produced pottery, crafts and prints of historic Fort Smith. Ice cream floats, sodas, and sundaes are popular in the 1920s replica pharmacy with its working soda fountain.

Hours of operation are Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $5.00 for adults, $2 for children 6-15, and free for children under 6. Admission is free to the lobby, where visitors can access the gift shop, pharmacy and soda fountain. It is fully handicapped-accessible using an elevator and ramps for easy access to all the exhibits. An entrance ramp is located

at the South 4th Street entrance. The facility is available for group tours and for after-hours events by special arrangement. Visit the museum at 320 Rogers Ave. or phone 479-783-7841 for more information.

Nearby attractions include the Fort Smith National Historic Site, located a block away, and the Fort Smith Trolley. The historic site embraces the remains of two frontier forts and the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas. It also commemorates a significant phase of America's westward expansion, and today stands as a reminder of 80 turbulent years in the history of Federal Indian policy.

Tokens for trolley rides are available at the museum’s reception desk. The trolley runs through the downtown amid neighboring attractions and historic places of interest. The cost is $2 per adult and $1 per child.

Fort Smith Museum of History Centennial Events:

“Bass Reeves and Fort Smith’s African-American History,” Jan. 12 – March 28. As well as honoring legendary U. S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves, the museum’s annual Black History Month exhibit traces black history in Fort Smith from the establishment of the first fort in 1817 to present day. Through the exhibit, meet prominent families and everyday people who had an impact on the history of the area. The exhibit includes a lecture and book signing with Chicago based author Art Burton accompanied by T. Baridi Nkokheli, director of the Department of Sanitation, City of Fort Smith, who portrays Bass Reeves. This event is sponsored by the “Lincoln Echo,” “Entertainment Fort Smith” and the Bass Reeves Legacy Initiative.  

A welcome reception will be held at the museum for noted historian, scholar and Fort Smith native Angela Walton-Raji, in conjunction with the history conference, “Uncovering the Black History of Western Arkansas and Indian Territory” to be held at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith on Jan. 30.

“American Indian Realism,” April 1 – May 14. The traveling exhibit from the Oklahoma Museums Association and the Oklahoma Arts Council features a series of photographs of the Native American Tribes who were removed to Indian Territory during the late 19th century. A presentation will be given by Catherine Foreman Gray, Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism, on April 3.   

“The Fort in Flight:  Bud Mars and the City’s Aviation History,” May 20 – Aug. 12. On May 21, 1910, Bud Mars completed the first airplane flight in both Fort Smith and Arkansas. The exhibit will include photographs as well as reproductions of posters and articles about this historic event. The Fort Smith Air Museum will loan aviation artifacts relevant to the area.   

“Boom and Slash!:  Weapons from the Museum Collection,” Aug. 19 – Oct. 14. The exhibit will showcase weapons and artifacts from the Benjamin L. E. Bonneville Collection, recently acquired by the museum. Also included are firearms, swords and knives from the museum’s collection. Mike Bradlee, a weapons expert and historical interpreter from Fort Gibson in Oklahoma, will present a program on weapons from the museum’s collection. 

“Return to the Commissary,” Oct. 21 – January 2011. In commemoration of the centennial on December 10, 2010, the exhibit will re-create the look and feel of the museum when it was housed in the Old Commissary Building, now a part of the Fort Smith National Historic Site. This step back in time will utilize photographs and interviews to arrange artifacts as they were in the early days of the Old Commissary Museum.