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50 States of Preservation: Fort Smith Museum of History in Fort Smith, Arkansas

March 22, 2017
Buick displayed in the lobby of a museum
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The 1908 Buick displayed in the lobby of the Fort Smith Museum of History was owned by a prominent local citizen, Carl Wortz, Jr.  On Christmas Eve for many years Mr. Wortz would drive his son and daughter and friends in the Buick with Degan Bells, which were operated from the car’s battery, to the orphanage to sing carols for the children.   

Photo Courtesy of Bob Dyer

This feature is part of a series we call “50 States of Preservation,” in which we are touring small and mid-sized museums, libraries, historical societies, and other repositories across the country to show how they are helping to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage. Read other entries in the series here.

The fire engine in the background is one of our favorite artifacts at the Fort S
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Museum of History.  The pumper was the first professional fire engine purchased by the Fort Smith Fire Department in the early 1900s.  Manufactured by the American Fire Engine Company of Seneca Falls, New York, the pumper was later rebuilt by the American LaFrance Company in Elmira, New York.  The fire engine features hand painted wood wheels and metal decorative pieces that were fading with the light from the large windows.  The shades have decreased UV light to 0.0 and visible light to 90.7 lux. 

The Fort Smith Fire Department have told the staff that in the event of a fire at the museum, they will get the steamer pumper first!   

Photo Courtesy of Bob Dyer
Niloak Pottery.
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Niloak Pottery from a temporary exhibition in 2014.  Niloak is named for kaolin, the type of fine-grade clay used in the pottery (Niloak is “kaolin” spelled backwards).  Niloak is a distinctive American art pottery style created in Benton, Arkansas by the Eagle Pottery Company.

Image courtesy of the Fort Smith Museum of History

In the 1870s, Fort Smith, Arkansas, was a rowdy frontier town known for its outlaws, bandits, and saloons.   One of its most famous residents was Judge Isaac C. Parker, who was poached from his post of Chief Justice of Utah Territory to bring law and order to Western Arkansas. Though he is often remembered simply as “The Hanging Judge,” Parker protested that he was “the most misunderstood and misrepresented of men.”  Now a National Historic Site, the former frontier town of Fort Smith holds many stories of Native Americans, military activities, technology, music, women, and African Americans.  And the Fort Smith Museum of History brings this rich and varied history to life. 

Stereocard showing federal courthouse at Fort Smith. (before 1888)
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Stereocard showing federal courthouse at Fort Smith. (before 1888)

National Park Service
This photograph was taken near the end of Isaac C. Parker's life. (1896)
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This photograph was taken near the end of Isaac C. Parker's life. (1896)

National Park Service

With support from NEH’s Division of Preservation and Access, the museum preserves its collection of historic artifacts for visitors from near and far.  A 2016 NEH grant funded the purchase of supplies to monitor and mitigate light levels harmful to older objects.  According to Executive Director Leisa Gramlich, a favorite object on display at the museum is an early-1900s professional fire engine, the first purchased by the Fort Smith Fire Department.  Called a “steamer pump”, it has fragile, hand-painted wooden parts and a leather seat which, she said, would be ruined by excessive light levels.  The fire engine is beloved by museum staff and town residents alike.  “The Fort Smith Fire Department have told the staff that in the event of a fire at the museum, they will get the steamer pump first!” Gramlich jokes.

Exterior of the Fort Smith Museum of History.
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Exterior of the Fort Smith Museum of History.

Photo Courtesy of Fort Smith Museum of History
The Boyd Gallery is used for temporary and traveling exhibitions.
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The Boyd Gallery, on the first floor of the Fort Smith Museum of History, is used for temporary and traveling exhibitions. The large windows on the face west with much light entering. With the installation of the light filtering shades, the UV level is 0.0 and visible light is 90 lux. The Boyd Gallery is named for a family descended from John Rogers who is known as the founder or the father of Fort Smith. Currently featured in the Boyd Gallery is a temporary exhibition, Roots, Rhythm and Rock-Music That Moved Fort Smith: 1945-1995 chronicling music history of the city. Local and regional musicians loaned photographs and artifacts for the exhibit.

The lobby area boasts other large objects including a 1907 International Telephone Utility truck, a 1908 Buick, and a 19th-century doctor’s buggy.  The museum tells the history of this part of Arkansas, including the Native American tribes that originally inhabited the region and the founding of Fort Smith in 1817 on what was then the edge of Indian Territory.  Exhibits also focus on modern technology, transportation, and communication; the life of Fort Smith native Brigadier General William O. Darby, who founded the Army Rangers; racial integration of local schools and businesses in the 1960s; and the relocation of Vietnamese refugees in Fort Smith in the late 1970s. 

The 1920s-1940s era soda fountain, located on the first floor of the Fort Smith
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The 1920s-1940s era soda fountain, located on the first floor of the Fort Smith Museum of History, is a popular “working” exhibit. Old fashioned handmade sodas, ice cream, floats and sundaes are served. The fountain, tables, chairs and display cases are from a drug store in the small town of Mountainburg, Arkansas, close to Fort Smith. The artifacts were collected from downtown Fort Smith drug stores that went out of business in the 1960s and 1970s when stores began moving from the downtown to shopping centers and malls. A local retired pharmacist donated the artifacts and set up the exhibit in the early 1980s.

Photo Courtesy of Bob Dyer
Opening of a 2014 temporary exhibition on Niloak Pottery.
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Opening of a 2014 temporary exhibition on Niloak Pottery.  According to Niloak expert David Gifford, the Fort Smith Museum of History Niloak collection is the largest in Arkansas.

Image courtesy of the Fort Smith Museum of History

About 20,000 people visit the Fort Smith Museum of History each year, including tourists, students, teachers, and local citizens.  Hands-on history experiences include using interactive broadcast equipment and riding in an authentic 1920s trolley.  The museum has mounted exhibitions on Arkansas-produced Niloak Pottery; Manifest Destiny, Real and Imagined; the history of rodeo; and notable female natives including  Ercie Gann, charter member of the Motorcycle Maids, a motorcycle club for women founded in 1940, and diplomat Anne Patterson, who recently served as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. The museum also has a display of pharmacy compounding equipment and a working soda fountain.  “I am truly grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities for rewarding the grant to enable the Fort Smith Museum of History to protect our invaluable artifacts for future generations,” says Gramlich.

 

Niloak Pottery from a temporary exhibition in 2014.
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Niloak Pottery from a temporary exhibition in 2014. 

Image courtesy of the Fort Smith Museum of History

 

In every state, NEH supports organizations that preserve humanities collections.  Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions (PAGs) fund projects that help safeguard photographs, letters, documents, prints, moving images, sound recordings, maps, drawings, artworks, textiles, furniture, and artifacts, making them available for future generations.  These collections help researchers, educators, and members of the public better understand the complex stories of the various cities, towns, and tribal groups that make up our nation.  Since 2000, NEH has made nearly 2,000 Preservation Assistance Grants to small and mid-sized organizations to preserve and care for their humanities collections.  In all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, PAG awards have funded preservation assessments, purchase of shelving, environmental monitoring equipment, and preservation supplies, and training for staff.  Organizations in all states and U.S. territories are eligible to apply, and the program encourages applications from those new to NEH.  The next application deadline Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions is May 2, 2017.  If you have any questions about this grant program, please contact us at preservation@neh.gov or 202-606-8570.  

Funding information

Fort Smith Museum of History received NEH support through Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions, PG-233805-16.