Arkansas' Grant County Museum preserves history
Times Record, Fort Smith, Ark.
FORT SMITH, Ark. — The exhibits found between the walls of one Arkansas museum are vital to preserving history and promoting education.
Those words come from Lindsey Stanton, museum director for the Grant County Museum in Sheridan. Located at 521 Shackleford Road, the museum includes relics from the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry, one of the most violent battles during the Civil War, as well as one of the nation’s largest display of military vehicles, an antique car gallery and several original buildings once found in the city south of Little Rock.
“We’re celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry on April 30, and it’s been great to see what all people in Grant County have excavated over the years,” Stanton said during a recent telephone interview. “There have been pieces of pottery, musket balls, dishes and silverware from the past that have been found by Grant County citizens and donated to the museum.”
The Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry was the climactic battle of the Camden Expedition, which was part of the Union Army’s Red River Campaign and resulted in a large number of casualties for both Union and Confederate forces.
“We’ve also seen buttons and belt buckles, both from Confederate and Union sides, that were donated to the museum,” Stanton said. “It’s very interesting for us and for visitors that we have those things here.”
Open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and containing as many as 100 exhibits, the museum includes the Richard G. Harrison Military Vehicle Collection. The collection was donated by Harrison, a Little Rock resident who was in Hawaii during World War II. Harrison drove a Jeep for the U.S. military, delivering secret documents before starting the welding company Welsco in Arkansas, Stanton said.
“The Grant County Museum has Big Bertha, which is a tank retriever and artillery vehicle,” she said. “There are more than 15 military vehicles in this collection, and several Grant County veterans donated uniforms, artillery and anything else that was sent back or brought back from overseas.”
The Harrison Military Collection also boasts a U.S. Navy communications bunker, a Jeep similar to the one driven by Harrison and a monolithic camera, Stanton said. The camera was used to enlarge photos the military took of terrain while preparing troop maneuvers and battles.
“We also have Heritage Square, which is host to original buildings that were in Grant County,” Stanton said. “This area has a one-room school house, a blacksmith shop, a rural church and the Mill Town Cafe. We’ll have special events in the cafe sometimes, where we’ll serve popcorn and demonstrate history.”
A wildlife gallery, nature trail and a log-cabin area also serve to entertain and educate visitors, she said. The log cabin demonstrates life before modern conveniences, Stanton said.
“We show how difficult doing laundry used to be in the past, and there are clothes and a washboard displayed,” she said. “It’s important for children and for those who remember seeing these things to see this and remember this. Doing laundry back then wasn’t easy. You had to deal with chapped hands in the water. Once the kids see this, they might not be upset about doing laundry these days.”
In 1963, the museum originated as a display case in teacher Elwin Goolsby’s classroom at Prattsville High School in Prattsville, she said. Since the early 1990s, the W.R. “Witt” Stephens Building has acted as headquarters for the museum; W.R. “Witt” Stephens Jr., the son of one of the co-founders of Stephens Inc., now acts as chairman for the museum’s foundation.
“It’s kind of difficult to pick a favorite exhibit here at the museum, but I’d say for me, it would be a house dress from the Civil War,” Stanton said. “It’s from 1865, and it’s in really good shape. And it’s great to see that someone actually wore that dress – that piece of history.”
Each year, about 4,500 children and adults visit the museum, which hosts school tours, group tours and other events, she said.
“What’s fun is we get visitors who are from all over Arkansas and the world, really,” Stanton said. “We have visitors who are from overseas who come in here, so that’s an exciting part of the Grant County Museum. We’re a special museum.”