200 years after Arkansas became a territory, Historic Arkansas Museum preserves and shares its history.
If you’re driving or walking down a certain block of downtown Little Rock at just the right time, it’s possible to
look over a fence and see a hatchet flying through the air. Thrown expertly by a man dressed in 19th century garb into a stump mounted like an archery target, the hatchet is one of thousands of objects and artifacts Historic Arkansas Museum (HAM) uses to tell stories of our state’s Territorial period. 2019 marks the bicentennial of Arkansas Territory and the 80th year of HAM, part of the Department of Arkansas Heritage.
From 1819 to 1836, when Arkansas became the 25th state to join the Union, Arkansas Territory was home to a melting pot of cultures. Early pioneers, Native American tribes, merchants, farmers, slaves, artists and artisans are all part of the living history HAM’s staff and volunteers interpret.
“It’s important to realize early Arkansas was not one thing,” says Swannee Bennett, executive director of HAM and its chief curator. “Yes, it was largely primordial wilderness with wild animals and mountain men, but there were merchants, artisans, artists and educated people who were also establishing an urban frontier. There was also a level of sophistication that runs counter to the primitive characterizations. As our museum’s founder, Louise Loughborough said, ‘There’s more to Arkansas than a leaky roof and a coonskin cap.’”
Inside galleries and exhibits
There’s much more to HAM, too. Today, HAM takes up about a city block and a half at the corner of Third and Scott streets. The offices, galleries and fantastic Museum Store are in the main building, a beautiful museum
built in 2001 that still feels shiny and new. Inside are multiple galleries with exhibitions of art and artifacts, as well as space for contemporary art, an interactive children’s gallery and an impressive display of hand-crafted knives including the Bowie knife, or “Arkansas Toothpick,” in the Arkansas Bladesmith Society Hall of Fame. Upstairs, a permanent exhibit of the Caddo, Osage and Quapaw tribes uses more than 150 Native American objects to tell their stories. The museum also started the Arkansas Made program; researchers document Arkansas-made items around the state, and the Museum Store focuses on Arkansas Made gifts.
Among the 2019 exhibits are three commemorating the bicentennial. “Life in the Western Country: Arkansas Territory from 1819-1936,” is a carefully curated exhibit open until next April. Director of Exhibits Carey Voss says it aims to personalize the stories of people who might feel remote today, by showing objects that were used by their hands, things that were important to them. “We talk about the formation of the territories, the first communities that formed here at Fort Smith and Arkansas Post, the native people who lived here, a little about the naturalists and explorers who came to the territory, and about the comforts of home — the things people brought with them or had reproduced to make them feel comfortable and remind them of home in what was then still a wild frontier,” Voss says.
Two other exhibits specifically tie into the bicentennial. The first is a juried art exhibit (July 12-Sept. 8) from the Heart of America Artists’ Association, with about 80 works of art inspired by early Arkansas people, places, objects, stories and culture. A separate exhibit of beautiful, historic maps of Arkansas — dating from the early 18th century to Arkansas statehood — will be up May 10-July 7 and reopen Sept. 13-Jan. 5. Voss says it’s an exciting exhibit because the current, recognizable shape of the state did not exist until statehood, so early maps of Arkansas Territory — then called Akansa — look strikingly different.
A block preserved
The Arkansas Territorial Restoration began in 1939 when Little Rock resident Louise Loughborough
successfully campaigned to the Arkansas Legislature to save a half block downtown that contained the last remnants of antebellum Little Rock. Sharing that block with the museum building are grounds with structures that were all part of that city block sometime between 1819 and 1850. The Hinderliter Grog Shop, a two-story home and tavern now framed in weatherboard, is Little Rock’s oldest building. It served as a lively and historic gathering place for early Little Rock residents and travelers. Nearby are the homes of Robert Brownlee and James McVicar, Scottish stonemasons who came to Arkansas to help construct the state Capitol building (now known as the Old State House). A couple of detached kitchens, plus slave quarters, an outhouse, a smokehouse, a well, gardens, a carriage house and Arkansas Gazette founder William Woodruff’s print shop (which was also the state’s first lending library) fill out the block.
Across Second Street is the log cabin area of the Territorial Restoration, representing a typical rural farmstead
that most Arkansans would have lived in around the 1850s. Plum Bayou Log House is a three-room double dogtrot-style cabin that was transported to the block from Scott, Arkansas.
A blacksmith’s forge and some slave quarters are also on that lot, with a heritage garden in the middle. The hatchet-throwing takes place here during certain special events.
Ellen Korenblat, director of community engagement, says the level of detail that went into restoring the buildings was astounding, especially the print shop where the Gazette, once the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi River, was first published. The print shop, rebuilt from scratch in 2010 on the exact same location as it originally stood, was built using authentic 19th century methods. “The nails were made by a blacksmith, the bricks were handmade, the windows are blown glass, the paints were dried natural pigments literally mixed with linseed oil,” she says, still marveling at the details.
HAM worked with a nationally known and local architectural historians to get every detail right. Even the floor brads, L-shaped nails used in the 1820s and 1830s to clamp the floorboards down, were purchased from the last manufacturer of cut-flooring brads in the world, a company staff tracked down in Scotland.
Voss says at the heart of HAM are the objects that have been made and used by Arkansans throughout the 200-year history. “We create a narrative based on our collection. Objects have stories to tell, and seeing the things ordinary people used in their ordinary lives helps make history real for us today.”
One item in the territorial exhibit is a sampler made in 1828 by a Cherokee girl, Mary Graves, at the Dwight Mission School for Native Americans in the Russellville area. “It’s actually the earliest known Native American-made sampler in the United States,” Voss says of the piece. About 5,000 Cherokee were relocated to that part of Arkansas during the Trail of Tears. Voss says this school, created at the behest of a Cherokee leader, was one of many efforts to “civilize” the Cherokee. “At that time, Native Americans weren’t sure whether it would be overall more beneficial for their young people to learn the ways of the white settlers or hang on to their own culture. It wasn’t a clear-cut situation.” Graves’ sampler provides a way for HAM to tell the story of the Cherokees’ early Arkansas experience.
Aisha Credit, Felicia Richardson and Amy Armstrong are living history actors who work for HAM. Credit works as Hands-On History coordinator, and Richardson is the Living History coordinator. Armstrong, a social worker who enjoys working as a living history actor and guide, does a little bit of everything. “My goal is to be the pioneer Martha Stewart,” she says with a laugh, mending a frontier jacket by the hearth.
Hands-On History provides interactive programs for school groups. The women, in their floor-length calico dresses and headwear, show students what women’s daily lives in the 1850s were like. They lead the children in hands-on activities like dipping candles, churning butter, working with raw wool, pickling vegetables, planting beans and similar “make-and-take-home” crafts and experiences. Museum visitors touring the grounds often come upon the re-enactors engaged in the routine activities of life: chopping carrots, melting wax in a Dutch oven over the hearth, using a blow poke to stoke the fire.
Blacksmith and master bladesmith Lin Rhea reliably draws a crowd in his blacksmithing shop, where smoke billows out the open sides as sparks fly and red-hot iron clangs while being hammered into submission. Covered in sweat, Rhea narrates each step to the onlookers. “We have people who look at this forge and ask, ‘Is that gas or electric? How does it turn on?’ This is 100% authentic, down to the bellows and the way it’s built inside. That’s real fire, real blacksmithing. There are no shortcuts.”
Credit and Richardson’s characters are slaves who, aside from Native Americans, were among the first
Arkansans to settle the territory. Credit says, “These people had stories and were part of history, part of making Arkansas what it is today, and they should have a voice as well.”
Richardson says, “We don’t have many written accounts from the life of someone who lived the life of an enslaved person. The best we can do is try to reproduce it and show it to people. We show they were people who happened to be enslaved, and they made the best of their situation.”
Children often have a hard time grasping what slavery meant, Richardson says: “The older kids will ask, ‘Were we paid?’ ‘Do we live here?’ even ‘Are we really slaves?’ They don’t comprehend the lack of choice people had. I had a little girl last week who asked, ‘Well, why didn’t she just get up in the middle of the night and cook what she wanted to?’ They don’t understand consequences, that there are certain things people are not going to risk their lives for. You have rules and abide by them because your object was to survive.”
Credit says, in contrast, the smallest children are delighted to see them in their long dresses. “The littles just think we’re princesses,” she says, smiling.
Likewise, Bennett says the permanent exhibit on the Caddo, Quapaw and Osage of Arkansas uses sources that rely heavily on the tribes’ interpretations of their history, and HAM actively involves tribes in their special events. He says their perspectives and voices — literally, the tribe members’ voices are part of the interactive exhibit — are more important than the traditional Anglo-European historians’ interpretation. “Often, we’ve found this is the first time their history has been told to the public from their perspective,” he says.
HAM’s Territorial Fair, falling this year on Mother’s Day weekend, May 11, is bigger than ever for the
bicentennial, says Joleen Linson, education director. Dozens of reenactors and vendors will be on hand for the day. Folk musicians will perform, and the Arkansas Country Dance Society will teach people dances like the Virginia Reel, plus the timely Maypole dance.
“One thing I’m excited about is we’re bringing in a silhouette artist, Lauren Muney,” Linson says. “You can come and sit down by her and she quickly draws and cuts out your silhouette. It makes a great Mother’s Day gift.” Another artist also will be hand-printing cards from cut linoleum.
Other expert-led activities include surveying, making compasses, watercolor maps, building and repairing wagons, making farm dolls, weaving textiles, crafting birdseed eggs, keeping bees, making the ubiquitous 19th century spice blend “kitchen pepper,” and popping popcorn in the fireplace.
Popular events the rest of the year include 2nd Friday Art Nights, the three-day Fall and Spring School Fairs, Pioneer Day Camps, the Frontier Fourth of July, the Big Boo-Seum Bash, the Annual Nog-Off and the Christmas Frolic and Open House. Second Friday Art Night — a monthly downtown-wide event with a gallery opening, live music and Arkansas craft beer — this month falls on May 10, the eve of the Territorial Fair.
Korenblat says the Candlelight Gala, held every other fall, raises about $80,000 for the museum’s missions, including a fund to provide scholarships for students to come to the museum for field trips and programs. (Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation is a Silver Sponsor of the event.) It has served about 20,000 students so far, and Korenblat says HAM’s board hopes to raise more funding to reimburse schools for transportation and to bring HAM staff and programs to schools around the state.
“We try hard to serve the entire state, beyond the Little Rock area and realize that coming this far can be difficult for some schools. That’s a major mission for our board,” Korenblat says.
The Arkansas Made program, established at HAM more than four decades ago, has traveled to homes and attics in every county of the state, visiting with families and collectors to document Arkansas-made art and artifacts. Bennett says in the hands of HAM’s researchers, Arkansas-made objects give up their secrets: “We now know so much about Arkansas-crafted items. We can read those artifacts, and we know what they tell us. Looking at an object, we can tell you levels of craftsmanship, where technology was, what the community liked and didn’t like, who made what and when and where and why.”
He continues, “We often have people who decide that at some point their artifact should come to us. We value these donations, but more importantly to us, we just want to know what’s out there and be able to document it.”
Likewise, the Museum Store sells almost exclusively Arkansas-made products from contempory artists and artisans. You’ll find Arkansas pottery, jewelry, textiles, glass, food products, turned wood, candles, soaps, books and toys. Korenblat says HAM is continually seeking products from today’s artisans and makers from all parts of the state. “If you have Arkansas-made gifts that you sell, let us know,” she invites.
Korenblat says that while history itself doesn’t change, at HAM no day is the same, and the museum changes a lot throughout the year. “This is a place that draws people in and creates a family as they come back again and again and we get to know them. We actually have a term for that; we call it our HAMily, where everyone feels part of what we’re doing.”
For more information about Historic Arkansas Museum and its educational programs, exhibits and special events throughout the year, visit historicarkansas.org or call 501-324-9351. Click here for information on the 2019 Candlelight Gala.