Ft. Smith, Arkansas: Frontier Heritage and Elvis’ Haircut

You’ve got to love Ft. Smith, Arkansas. While other towns born on the rough, ready, raunchy frontier try to sanitize their past and gentrify the present, Ft. Smith revels in its colorful history.

Consider the beautifully restored Victorian mansion that’s on the National Register of Historic Places that serves as the town’s Visitor Center. It was once “Miss Laura’s Social Club,” one of the town’s more upscale bordellos. Many of the rooms are restored to their “business” appearance with original furnishings and photos, and the staff cheerfully gives tours with lots of anecdotes.

The city did, indeed, start as a fort. On the Arkansas River at the border between Arkansas and the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), it was an Army outpost with troops charged with keeping the peace between the Native American tribes living in the area and to bring some semblance of law to the chaotic Arkansas frontier. Considering that the Natives had been forced from their homes in the east and the outlaws paid little attention to authority, the mission was largely a failure.

A desperate citizenry demanded order. Enter “Hanging” Judge Isaac Parker and the US Marshalls. The Marshalls went after criminals wherever they tried to hide – including the Indian Territory, which was officially beyond US law, something the outlaws knew. That didn’t impress the Marshalls or Judge Parker. (Remember Rooster Cogburn and True Grit? This is the setting.) Parker presided over 13,490 trials. (Of those, 9,454 returned guilty verdicts.)

The Ft. Smith National Historic Site houses Judge Parker’s courtroom on the upper level and the dark, dismal, communal holding cell below ground. Other displays explain the dangerous, dynamic time in the 1880’s and Judge Parker’s story. Contradicting his image as a bloodthirsty vigilante, he advocated prison reform, women’s rights, and admitting the Indian Territory as a state for Native Americans. Outside, park rangers hang nooses on the restored scaffold on the anniversary of a hanging. Of the 160 men and women condemned to hang, 79 were actually executed. The others died while in prison, appealed, or were pardoned. (Several times a year, cases are reenacted by actors in period dress working with authentic transcripts.)

Across the street, the Ft. Smith Museum of History concentrates on the city’s more “respectable” times and citizens. It illustrates the determination of residents to turn the rough town into a lively, livable city. One of the highlights is a working, old-time soda fountain – a good place to take a break. Outside, hop onto a vintage trolley which circulates through the downtown historic district. A scenic train ride from Ft. Smith shows off the unexpectedly beautiful countryside. It’s especially nice in the autumn.

Just outside town, is the former army base of Ft. Chaffee. The former military base is undergoing redevelopment as a residential and business location. But one building remains as a tribute to a significant cultural event. The Chaffee Barbershop Museum is the place where Elvis Presley had his famous haircut when he joined the Army. It’s all there: the barbershop looking like it did then, the chair where Elvis sat, old newsreels showing the haircut. But there’s no hair there. It was swept up with the rest of the new recruits’ shorn locks. In later years, the base housed Vietnamese refugees, Cuban boat people, and evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. Compelling displays those important stories.

The Ft. Smith Tourism site is easy to navigate and beyond merely comprehensive. www.fortsmith.org , 2 North B, Ft. Smith. 800-637-1477, 479-783-8888. National Historic Site: www.nps.gov/fosm; Fort Smith Museum: www.fortsmithmuseum.com; A&M Scenic Railroad: amrailroad.com; Chaffee barbershop Museum: www.chaffeecrossing.com

Photos courtesy Ft. Smith Tourism, Associated Press