The Historic Arkansas Museum, insight into the Arkansas Frontier

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I’m always ready to go see a historic village and wanted to stop at the Historic Arkansas Museum, from the moment I spied it while riding on the trolley tour. I talked Scott Sudduth of the North Little Rock CVB into a quick visit before Keith and I headed back home to Illinois.

The Historic Arkansas Museum offers Arkansas frontier history. While we didn’t have time for the whole shebang, we did take a tour of part of the historic grounds and Leon Tidwell was our guide.  “This started out with Louise Watkins Wright Loughborough, she was the founder of Historic Arkansas Museum,” Leon said.

She was a member of the Ladies Association of Historical Preservation that kick started preserving fine art, buildings and other historic items from Arkansas’s past.  Inside, there are vast galleries, a theater and the museum store.  Outside the museum’s historic grounds offer a pre-civil war neighborhood that includes the oldest home still standing in Little Rock and the site where William Woodruff once printed the Arkansas Gazette. We had a chance to tour the print shop and see how the early press worked.

Part of the fun and educational aspect of this museum is the  living history characters that are dressed and acting out their parts allowing you, the visitor to ask questions about their lives.  Our first stop was the Hinderliter Grog Shop that was built in the late 1820’s.  As Little Rock’s oldest standing house built by Jesse Hinderliter the building served as a tavern, restaurant, hotel and private residence.  The early clientele included travelers, trapper, surveyors, boatmen and others.  The log building was covered with clapboard before the Civil War. “There were also map makers and trappers that talked to the local tribes,” Leon explained.

When asked exactly what Grog entailed, Leon said, “Grog is made of rum and water.  You have to remember, in the 1820’s; we were part of the west. There was the Louisiana Territory, Arkansas Territory and Texas. Everyone traded a lot; there wasn’t a lot of currency.”

It is interesting to note that the bar inside the Grog shop is surrounded by a wooden fence like area so the grog was locked up when it wasn’t being served.

On the tour of the Grog shop and the breeze-way that connected the shop to the residence Leon said that it started out as a dog-trot but they put a door into it, creating a room where a lot of business was conducted. The dining room was a brightly colored room because Leon added, “the colored walls better reflected light.”

Upstairs were the families sleeping rooms and lodge rooms.  We passed by a kitchen garden on our way to the Brownlee House.  Built in the late 1840’s, this was the home of the Scotsman Robert Brownlee who was in Arkansas from 1837 until 1849.  He built a federal style brick house then rented it to his brother James.  While in the brochure they state that Robert wrote about his dislike of slavery, his brother still owned a slave Tabby who lived in the attached quarters by the backyard kitchen.  This was an interesting home with many items like the clay jars that they used to can with.  “They were topped off with either pig stomach or wax,” our guide said.

She also demonstrated how the rope bed worked and how the ropes were tightened and thus the phrase, “Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite,” only they really meant, don’t let the real bed bugs bite!

In the fireplace, there was a neat Dutch oven on three legs where a lot of the cooking was done.

The Brownlee house was reconstructed on top of the brick footings unearthed by archeologists and recreated to old drawings and an ad from 1852 where the house was for sale.  Robert eventually sold the house because he never came back after leaving for the Gold Rush.  He stayed in California.

The reconstructed Print shop was completed in 2010. William Woodruff was the young man, who ran the shop and printed the first edition of the Arkansas Gazette at the Arkansas Post.  Woodruff moved to Little Rock after the territorial government moved to town.  The two-story brick print shop was used from 1824 to 1827. Besides printing the paper, Woodruff also sold seeds and stationary supplies and ran a lending library, the territory’s first.

The last building we visited was the McVicar House.  Scottish stonemason James McVicar came to Arkansas in 1836 to work in the beautiful Old State House.  “After the great fire, we Scots came to North Carolina, then to Arkansas to finish building the State House,” the guide appearing as McVicar shared.  “The next big adventure was California.”

Before leaving in pursuit of gold, McVicar served as a penitentiary warden, and a leader of the Mason’s.  According to the museum history, he built his home after serving in the Mexican War and just before leaving for the 1849 Gold Rush.

Besides the historic buildings we saw, there is also an 1850’s Farmstead where the Pemberton and Perry families of Scott Arkansas started farming cotton. The families found an abandoned log house that they moved into.  In the 1970’s, the house made of cypress logs was moved to the museum from Scott.  There is another cabin and a barn, a blacksmith shop and a fencing that is an unusual bois d’arc fence which The brochure states, “When lined up closely together, bois d’arc trees were ‘horse high, bull strong and pig tight’ and widely used as fencing until barbed wire was invented. This may be the first bois d’arc fence planted in Arkansas since the 1800’s.”

Located in downtown Little Rock at 200 East Third St., the Museum is open every day. Check the website, www.HistoricArkansas.org for hours and upcoming events. This is a neat museum that you could spend all day at.  I enjoyed the time we had there and would like to go back and explore a bit more!