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Northwest Arkansas: A frontier frame of mind

Courtesy Bentonville CVB

Sam Walton and Laura Ziegler lived almost a century apart; they also lived worlds apart. Walton, who died in 1992, founded and built Wal-Mart into the world’s largest retail company. Walton was an Eagle Scout, a World War II veteran and a family man, and his progeny have gone on to do many things, including building America’s next great art museum just a few miles from Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Zeigler ran a social club on the Western frontier in the early 1900s in nearby Fort Smith. Her family, so to speak, were her girls, who entertained roughnecks and cowboys for years on the far edge of westward expansion and the outer edge of social respectability.

Is it a stretch to compare the two? Perhaps. But something tells me they might have admired each others’ business acumen had they ever chanced to meet.

Northwest Arkansas can attribute much of its appeal to people like them. Entrepreneurs, outlaws, artists and presidents have thrived there. For better or worse, big lives have been lived in northwest Arkansas, all of them nurtured by the same fresh air and independent spirit.

Getting to know Miss Laura
Miss Laura, as Ziegler was known in Fort Smith, is now capably portrayed by Carolyn Joyce, tour and travel sales manager for the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau. Joyce is no small personality herself. During a writers trip there earlier this year, I got to enjoy her interpretation of Miss Laura in the restored house where the madam ran her business.

Joyce’s organization was instrumental in saving the house and placed its offices there to ensure its continued use. Joyce dresses in period clothing to portray Miss Laura, and her repartee with visiting groups is as humorous as you might imagine.

“We still entertain our guests here,” she said, “but we have our limits. The charge for one of Miss Laura’s girls was $3, and the girls got $1 of that. Three dollars a week was a good income at that time, so these girls did well.”

Like many similar establishments, Miss Laura’s had a large parlor downstairs for socializing and a stairway upstairs, where nine well-kept rooms accommodated her girls’ guests.

It’s hard to exaggerate how untamed Fort Smith was in the 1800s and early 1900s. The fort played a major role in establishing law and order for the American West. Native Americans were being displaced and moved westward at the same time that white settlers migrated there. Conflict was never far away.

At the Fort Smith National Historic Site, guide Larry Loux told us that city is perennially ranked at the top of those that are protecting their Western heritage.

“The Osage and Cherokee were moved west through here into Oklahoma during Andrew Jackson’s removal of the Indians,” he said. “The Trail of Tears came through Fort Smith. Zachary Taylor kept a house here during the Mexican War before he was elected president in 1848.”

One of the biggest lives lived there belonged to Judge Isaac C. Parker, “the hanging judge,” whose job it was to keep order in this outlaw territory. On the bench from 1875 until 1896, Parker eschewed his nickname and maintained that he never wanted to see anyone hang. Nevertheless, nearly 90 men did hang under his authority, and a reproduction gallows now stands at the site.

An equally compelling character who patrolled that territory was Bass Reeves, an African-American slave born nearby in 1838 who fought with his master and fled into Native American territory to escape punishment.

“Reeves became a lawman,” interpreter T. Baridi Nkokhelli told us. “He caught more than 3,000 fugitives out here and once brought in 17 by himself. He killed more than 20 men but always maintained he acted in self-defense. He was strict. He once arrested his own pastor for selling alcohol to the Indians.”

Upon leaving Fort Smith, we visited the Drennen-Scott House in Van Buren before boarding the Arkansas Missouri Railroad for an afternoon ride to Springdale, just outside Bentonville. We enjoyed lunch, served with a choice of wines, and relaxed as we clicked along through forests and valleys.