It’s a given, fan of Arkansas history, that you have visited Little Rock’s largest history museums — the Historic Arkansas Museum, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, the Old State House Museum and, featuring favorite native son, the Clinton Presidential Center. The first three cover 19th- to 20th-century Arkansas history; the last shows what an Arkansan can accomplish.
Outside the capital, though, you can get into some Arkansas specifics. Like what it was like to be a country doctor in Arkansas. Or be treated for tuberculosis. Or be interned because your ancestors were Japanese. There’s a museum for railroad buffs, and one for racecar fans. One museum got national airtime at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Another tells the story of Arkansas’s big oil days. Down where the Arkansas River meets up with the White River is a museum dedicated to Arkansas’s French and Indian cultures, where folks fought for who would be top nation. What follows is a trip through time in Arkansas.
(We also take a detour to visit some prime kitsch in — where else? — Hot Springs. See that here).
Arkansas Post National Memorial
1741 Old Post Road
8 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays
In 1686, south of what is now Gillett, Henri de Tonti created a trading post for the French near the Quapaw town of Osotouy on the Arkansas River. What ensued was years of conflict by French, Spanish and Indian forces and battling American brothers over this strategic spot at the confluence of the Arkansas and White rivers. The original Arkansas Post, half a musket shot, it’s said, from Osotouy, was moved several times because of flooding; the park site, the second and fourth locations of the Post, was once called Ecores Rouges. Much later, after the 1783 attack by the Chickasaws and English, the post became the territorial capital of Arkansas from 1803 to 1822.
Today, things are pretty quiet at Arkansas Post, tucked between Moore’s Bayou and Post Lake, a backwater of the Arkansas River. The museum features exhibits on Arkansas’s colonial history, the back-and-forth ownership between France and Spain, the Louisiana Purchase, the fur trade, the steamships and keel boats that traveled up from New Orleans to the post, the culture of the Quapaw and the Civil War.
The latter has gotten increasing attention, thanks to the sesquicentennial. Arkansas Post was the site of Confederate Fort Hindman, built to keep the Union from advancing upriver to Little Rock. The remains of the fort, destroyed by Union troops in January 1863, are under Post Lake. The park has installed wayside exhibits interpreting the Civil War past, and is partnering with the Quapaw tribe on wayside exhibits on their cultural influence on the post.
You can visit the village of Osotouy, but you’ll have to walk in, and if you visit in summer, you’d be well advised to don long pants infused with barely legal bug-killing poisons. Pay attention, too, to the many alligators that make their home in the flatwaters around the post.
Historical Research Center
University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences
Library, fifth floor, Room 5/109
9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. weekdays
(see also the Country Doctor Museum)
It isn’t exactly a museum, the Historical Research Center, but if you want to see artifacts and read materials that tell the story of Arkansas’s hospital history, this is the place for you. We’re not talking just old photographs (though that’s part of the collection) and records and papers on venereal disease. Director Tim Nutt can show visitors Dr. Edwin Bentley’s Civil War medical scrapbook, which includes segments of shellacked intestines glued to the pages. They document the ravages of typhoid and smallpox and were used as a teaching device, rather than a collection of offbeat mementos. There’s a baby scale and a baby carrier from the 1940s that looks like the box you use to take your cat to the vet, and a bit of quackery called the Farrador conductor, a cord one would attach to a wrist or ankle at one end and cold water at the other for a little electric shock to release negative ions. The HRC also has the Civil War letters of Dr. Roscoe Green Jennings, a Union doctor, to his brother in Washington (Hempstead County). Jennings was one of eight doctors who later founded UAMS, in 1879. Nutt was formerly head of Special Collections at UA-Fayetteville.
The Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanatorium Museum
256 Carey Road
8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. weekdays
It is hard to imagine, in this age of medical miracles, that scores of Arkansans were once cut off from their families and shipped far from home because they suffered from a disease that can be quickly cured today with antibiotics. Such was the case, however, with the scourge of tuberculosis. In 1910, the Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanatorium was established on a windswept mountaintop outside Booneville. Over the next 40 years, the 1,000-acre complex would become a self-contained city, with farms, a cannery, a dairy, a slaughterhouse, a fire department, a dedicated water treatment plant, and everything else needed to keep the facility running and as isolated as possible from the outside world. In 1941, the property was crowned by the Nyberg Building, a blond brick monolith six stories high and tenth of a mile long that served as the main hospital. There, thousands of Arkansans were treated, and untold numbers met their end. Better medicines eventually made the sanatorium obsolete, with the last patients leaving there in 1973. Now home to the Booneville Human Development Center, “The Hill,” as locals call it, can still be quite a moving place to visit. The small Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanatorium Museum was opened on the grounds in September 2010, featuring historic photos, documents and medical equipment. But the real attraction — if it can be called that — is the sanatorium complex itself. Many of the original buildings, including Nyberg, remain. While The Hill is not exactly a feel-good destination, it’s definitely one that will make a future dweller thankful that we live in these times. To see the museum, go to the headquarters building, sign in and get a key for a self-guided tour.
Arkansas Country Doctor Museum
109 Starr Ave.
1-4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday
Lincoln is a little town of 1,752 people in Washington County, and is known, to those who know it, for the annual Arkansas Apple Festival, held the first weekend of October every year to commemorate the town’s erstwhile heritage of big apple orchards. Lincoln also pays homage to the early days of medicine, when doctors paid house calls, might accept a chicken for pay and did their best without the technology (and hassle) of today’s health care system. The Country Doctor Museum features medical instruments, including an iron lung and a birthing bed, in a building that was the primary clinic for the town from 1936 to 1973. The museum’s greatest appeal should be to researchers interested in the early medical community of Arkansas, with its records on more than 200 Arkansas health professionals and oral histories. Here you can learn about Ruth Queenie Eldred (1903-1983), said by Sparks Regional Medical Center to be the first trained and certified nurse anesthetist in Arkansas; Dr. Fred Thomas Jones (1877-1938), an African-American doctor who built the Booker T. Washington Memorial Hospital (later renamed the J.E. Bush Memorial Hospital) in Little Rock, which operated from 1918 to 1927, and the Great Southern Fraternity Hospital, where he was chief surgeon; and Dr. Edward Pelham McGehee, who, according to the museum, got “stranded in Lake Village,” and set up his practice and a small hospital locals called the “Mayo of the South.” Outside is a Model T. Dr. Herbert Boyer was the last doctor to practice in the home; the museum was created by his son, Dr. Harold Boyer.
The Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources
3853 Smackover Hwy.
8 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 1-5 p.m. Sun.
First discovered in El Dorado in January 1921, oil was very good to South Arkansas, a region that had previously been a dusty backwater relying mostly on lumber mills. After drillers struck paydirt in nearby Smackover, the hamlet of less than 100 people soon bustled with over 25,000 residents. Though the boom quickly faded, the 40-acre Smackover oilfield produced more black gold than anywhere else in the U.S. for five straight months in 1925. The Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources, originally established as the Arkansas Oil and Brine Museum in 1986, celebrates the area’s boomtown heritage and fossil fuel-entangled legacy. Inside the museum’s 25,000-square-foot exhibition hall, visitors can look at exhibits on geology and how crude oil deposits form. There are also historical exhibits featuring period photos and artifacts. Especially impressive is a scaled-down re-creation of Smackover’s Main Street in the boomtown days, complete with stores, shops, figures in period dress and 1920s vehicles. Also on display is a rare 1927 Ford Model T circus wagon that was once the home of Smackover resident Rhene Miller Meyer, a.k.a. “The Goat Woman,” a former circus performer who settled in the area with her husband during the Great Depression. Outside the museum, visitors can visit Oil Field Park and see examples of vintage and modern oil producing machinery, including a 112-foot wooden derrick like the one that brought prosperity to the area almost 100 years ago.
Southern Tenant Farmers Museum
117 N. Main St.
9 a.m.-3 p.m. weekdays, noon-3 p.m. Sat.
One July night in 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression, 18 desperate men gathered in a country schoolhouse about 30 miles northwest of Memphis. Seven were black and 11 were white, but all were tenant farmers or sharecroppers left devastated by drought, the economic collapse and the predations of local landowners, many of whom were diverting New Deal payments intended to aid farm laborers into their own pockets. Thus was born the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which over the next four years grew to include some 35,000 members throughout the Arkansas Delta, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and beyond.
The organizing successes were short-lived, however: By the end of the decade, the union was collapsing as a result of internal struggles, harassment from landowners and the federal government’s exclusion of farm workers from many of the labor protections afforded to industrial workers by the New Deal. Nonetheless, the formation of a racially integrated union of poor farmers in the heart of the South was a landmark in the history of both labor and civil rights. The struggle is memorialized today in the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, which is operated by Arkansas State University and located in the building once occupied by Harry Mitchell and Clay East, two local businessmen and avowed socialists who led the creation of the union.
The Arkansas Railroad Museum
1700 Port Road
9 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Housed in a 70,000-square-foot train shed built in the 1890s, the Arkansas Railroad Museum in Pine Bluff is a true unsung gem of Arkansas museums, something like the mother church of a bygone age of steam and smoke. An air-conditioned room at the front features all the things you’d expect from a museum about rail travel: timetables and dining car menus, pocket watches and toys. Out in the engine shed, though, are the real stars of the show: long rows of retired rolling stock, including five or six diesel locomotives, three restored cabooses, a black iron snowplow, and the star of the collection: St. Louis Southwestern Engine No. 819, a 200-ton steam-powered behemoth that was the last locomotive built in Pine Bluff and the state. Completed during World War II, she ran the Cotton Belt Line until her retirement in ’53. After languishing in a park for decades, the engine was restored to working condition in the 1980s. Scattered amongst the rail cars and engines are other beauties, including a roofless 1940s Sebring fire truck, pumper handcarts, model trains and flashing lights and railroad-related signage by the ton. Best of all is the fact that, other than a few spots blocked off with cones, everything is open for visitors to explore at their leisure: cabooses, sleeping cars, the fire truck, everything. One can even scale the steps to the cabs of the big diesel locomotives, or cock an elbow out the window of Engine 819. How this place exists without train-obsessed kids and their parents lined up out the gate every morning, elbowing to get in the minute the door flies open, we’ll never know. For anyone who ever loved a choo-choo, it’s a sooty sort of heaven.
WWII Japanese American Internment Museum
100 S. Railroad St.
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.
The Japanese American Internment Museum operates in a renovated railroad depot building in downtown McGehee, about 12 miles from the camp in Rohwer where some 8,500 men, women and children were imprisoned from 1942 to 1945. A second so-called “relocation center” in nearby Jerome held another 8,500 detainees. All were U.S. citizens or residents of Western states torn from their homes, jobs, schools and businesses in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack. Their crime was simply being of Japanese descent.
Photos document families being “evacuated” from California — fearful parents, crying children, “Everything Must Go” signs hanging in San Francisco storefronts — and the new normal of life under armed guard in the Arkansas Delta. Existence at Rohwer was backdropped by row after row of military-style barracks, and, beyond that, row after row of cotton. In the words of one inmate quoted in the exhibit, Eiichi Kamiya, their new residence was “far enough south to catch Gulf Coast hurricanes, far enough north to catch Midwestern tornadoes, close enough to the river to be inundated by Mississippi Valley floods, and lush enough to be the haven for every creepy, crawly creature and pesky insect in the world.”
The museum includes letters and newspaper clippings, school assignments and personal effects, but nothing is more striking than the artwork that came out of Rohwer and Jerome. There are reproductions of murals painted by children in the Rohwer camp’s school, a wooden owl in bas relief, a carving of the Japanese characters for “gaman” — a Zen Buddhist term meaning “stoically enduring the unbearable.” Yet for all the indignities suffered by camp residents, the museum also notes that Desha County life outside the fences was in some ways worse than life within, at least if you were unlucky enough to have been born poor, or, especially, African American. The authorities stripped Japanese inmates of their rights and their liberty, but it gave them sufficient food, clean water and electricity. Delta sharecroppers often lacked those privileges.
After exploring the museum, make the drive to Rohwer itself. All that remains of the complex is a smokestack in the distance and a cemetery memorializing both the inmates who died there and the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the legendary Japanese-American unit that fought for the U.S. in World War II. There’s a walking tour narrated by recordings of George Takei of “Star Trek” fame, who was imprisoned at Rohwer as a small child with his mother and father. Takei’s baritone aside, the land is quiet and still, barracks and sharecroppers alike long since cleared away by the march of industrial agriculture.
Clinton House Museum
930 W. Clinton Drive
$8, free Oct. 11, the Clintons’ wedding anniversary
10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.
If you heard Bill Clinton speak at the Democratic National Convention this summer, you heard about his courtship of fellow Yale Law School student Hillary Rodham. After they graduated from Yale, they took a trip to Europe, where he proposed. She declined. In May 1975, Clinton, who was teaching at the University of Arkansas Law School, bought a house at 930 California Drive that Hillary had admired and apparently that won her over; they were married in June in the living room of the house. If Hillary Clinton wins the election in November, the house would be the only museum in the country where two presidents wed each other. That should sharpen the interest in this museum, and perhaps encourage the contribution of more artifacts to it. As it is, there’s a reproduction of Hillary’s wedding dress, video of Bill’s campaign ads from 1974 (unsuccessful, against John Paul Hammerschmidt for U.S. House) and 1976 (successful, to become state attorney general), copies of his political speeches, observations by friends of the couple’s time in Fayetteville and photographs. In 2010, a First Ladies Garden was added, planted with favorite plants of the nation’s first ladies. Completely unrelated, but fun to see, is the elaborately painted hog statue on the lawn, no doubt a part of the “Pigshibition” public art event of 2012. The museum is skimpy compared to the Clinton Presidential Center, but if Hillary wins, expect it to get a lot more traffic.
Mark Martin Museum and Gift Shop
1601 Batesville Blvd.
8 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.
There’s a theory that our secretary of state got elected because many voters thought he was the winningest stock car racer in the International Race of Champions, Mark Martin. Secretary of State Mark Martin is not in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, nor any other hall of fame, unless it’s a hall that honors faulty voter information. Racecar driver Mark Martin now operates a Ford dealership in Batesville, and there you can see Martin’s past race cars, including the No. 6 Viagra Coca-Cola 600 winning car (sounds like it had a lot of pickup), the 1990 Folgers Thunderbird, the ’89 Stroh’s Thunderbird, the No. 60 Win Dixie Busch car, and the car in which Martin won his record fifth IROC race. There are also race helmets, firesuits, trophies and other memorabilia, and things for sale, like autographed T-shirts and die-cast cars.