Fort Smith has True Grit

In certain respects, Fort Smith is the Rooster Cogburn of Arkansas.

In other words, there are plenty of Arkansans who view the city as a sort of “one-eyed fat man,” the same way Ned Pepper viewed the deputy U.S. marshal who was hunting him down in “True Grit.”

When you get to know the sometimes gritty manufacturing city on the border, though, you’ll find that its people are tough, resourceful, loyal and hard working.

Mess with Fort Smith? Get ready to “fill your hand.”

The Coen brothers’ adaptation of the Charles Portis novel opens in theaters across the country next week. The folks in Fort Smith are hoping it’s as good for the tourism business as the original film was back in 1969.

The focus on Fort Smith also could help the fundraising efforts for what will be an important addition to our state. In January 2007, the U.S. Marshals Service selected Fort Smith as the site of its museum. That was a big victory for Arkansas.

The hard part, though, was still to come: Raising the $50 million needed to build the 50,000-square-foot facility along the banks of the Arkansas River in downtown Fort Smith. It didn’t help that the Great Recession set in soon after that announcement four years ago.

With the U.S. economy slowly beginning to turn around (an emphasis on “slowly”), coupled with interest generated by the movie, perhaps things will take off in 2011 from a fundraising standpoint. The state already has contributed more than $2 million to the effort.

A meeting is being held in downtown Fort Smith tonight to update the public on what’s going on in the fundraising arena. Museum officials will provide an outline for what steps will occur during 2011.

Back in April 2009, the public was given a look at the proposed design for the museum.

The City Wire at Fort Smith (one of the best news sites in the state at www.thecitywire.com — excellent reporting, writing and commentary) described it this way: “Peter Kuttner with Cambridge 7 Associates, one of the two architectural firms hired to design the museum, delivered an almost 60-minute presentation in which he said the basic design was built around the star of the marshals’ badge. The building features several roof structures that mimic the look of a star segment, and each room ‘protects a different function’ of the museum. The spire portion of the roof is eight stories tall. … The roughly 50,000-square-foot building includes a large lobby space that would allow for up to 200 to be seated at formal dinners associated with fundraisers, Kuttner noted.”

The City Wire further reported that there will be three exhibit spaces — “Frontier Marshals” will feature the early history of the U.S. Marshals Service, “Marshals Today” will highlight the modern era and “America Divided” will highlight the role of marshals during difficult times in U.S. history (hopefully providing exhibits on the important role played by the U.S. Marshals Service during the civil rights era here in the South).

The facility also will include:

– A retail store

– A cafe that will provide a space for people to rest in an area near a terrace that will stretch to the Arkansas River

– A hall of honor and reflecting pool to recognize marshals who have died in the line of duty

– Theater and classroom space

Doug Babb, the chairman of the board’s design committee, said at the time: “We really felt this would be a design that would capture the imagination of people around the United States.”

If done correctly, I firmly believe this star-shaped museum on the banks of the Arkansas River can be an iconic structure for our state that will complement the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville and the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock.

If you love history, you should love Fort Smith.

Go to the website www.awardsdaily.com and find the piece by Jennifer Boulden of the Fort Smith Convention & Visitors Bureau titled “The Real Fort Smith: The Fact & Fiction Behind True Grit.”

She writes: “Not only does this new ‘True Grit’ look to be a great film, perhaps even a Great Film; not only is it being directed by my favorite directing team, the Coen brothers, and shot by my favorite cinematographer, Roger Deakins; not only is it an adaptation of one of my favorite books ever by Arkansas literary genius Charles Portis, and starring some of my favorite actors working today; no, it’s also set in and during the most fascinating time in my city’s history — and communicating that city’s unique history to tourists is what I happily get paid to do for 40 hours a week from my office in a restored Old West bordello.

“That’s right. My favorite directors are directing my favorite book starring my favorite actors set in the place I live and work and am passionate about promoting. I mean, how crazy is that?

“I’m talking about Fort Smith, Ark. Now a city of about 85,000 people, my adopted hometown has been featured in a surprising number of films and television shows from ‘Hang ‘em High’ to ‘Lonesome Dove.’ There’s even an AMC show called ‘Fort Smith’ in potential development by the producer of ’24.’

“The best known of these, and the film that has been one of the primary drivers of tourism to the Fort Smith National Historic Site for 41 years, is of course 1969′s ‘True Grit’ starring John Wayne. That film reportedly was so popular in Fort Smith that it played in the cinema here, pre-multiplex, for more than a year. Every time John Wayne said, ‘I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned. Or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience. Which’ll it be?’ a huge cheer would arise from the crowded theater.”

Boulden goes on to explain to readers that Fort Smith was once the “last bastion of law and order before the wild frontier. What was unusual about the federal court in Fort Smith was that it had an unbelievably large coverage area: 75,000 square miles of lawless Indian Territory (now the state of Oklahoma) with one judge to hear all those cases. Any crimes committed in Indian Territory were automatically federal cases. Seeing the frontier as a probable safe haven, troublemakers from all over the country would flee to hide out in this territory, raising hell and robbing, raping, murdering and generally terrorizing anyone who got in their path.”

She repeats the old saying that “there is no law west of St. Louis and no God west of Fort Smith.”

The wonderful article goes on to separate fact from fiction.

The bottom line is that the movie should increase the number of visitors to the Fort Smith National Historic Site. The site was established in the early 1960s to protect the remains of two military forts, including the building that once housed the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas. The foundation remains from the first fort (1817-24), the commissary building (1838) from the second fort still stands and a reconstruction of Judge Isaac Parker’s gallows is also a part of the historic site.

Exhibits focus on Fort Smith’s military history from 1817-71, Judge Parker and the federal court’s impact on the Indian Territory, the country’s western expansion, the role of deputy marshals, federal Indian policy and Indian removal along the Trail of Tears.

Completion of the U.S. Marshals Museum would drive visitor numbers at the Fort Smith National Historic Site even higher.

Adjacent to the historic site is the excellent Fort Smith Museum of History, a three-story building containing exhibits that tell the story of Fort Smith from that first fort in 1817 to the manufacturing and regional trade center the city has become. The museum turned age 100 last week. It began in 1910 when a group of the city’s women worked to save the Old Commissary Building, which later became part of the Fort Smith National Historic Site.

Fort Smith has a new mayor in Sandy Sanders, will receive a new burst of publicity from the Coen brothers’ latest movie and hopefully will soon have a completed U.S. Marshals Museum.

With the restoration of historic buildings and the addition of more shops, restaurants and clubs along Garrison Avenue in recent years, downtown Fort Smith could actually be described as chic.

What once was merely old is now fashionable thanks to the efforts of the people in this underappreciated Rooster Cogburn of Arkansas.

Fill your hand!

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4 Responses to “Fort Smith has True Grit”

  1. Tracy Winchell says:

    Thanks, Rex. This Batesville-born and Little Rock-raised Arkansan has called Fort Smith home for nigh on 21 years now, for the reasons you’ve been able to characterize right here. A friend of mine from Fayetteville was in town this evening and said, “I’m not sure why I thought I didn’t like this town. There’s a lot going on here and the people seem to be pretty special.”

    Indeed.

    Mr. Portis has reportedly said that Rooster Cogburn was not based on one U.S. deputy marshal, but that the character was a composite of many. Only one USDM of the Judge Parker era was blind in one eye – Cal Whitson. Several Fort Smith area residents are descendants of deputy marshal Whitson. I’m hoping to be in the theater with some of them as I watch the film.

    Come see us anytime, friend. Might be worth the drive to catch the film amongst descendants.

  2. rexnelson says:

    As you know, Tracy, I like Fort Smith and its people. Thanks for all you do for the city — Rex

  3. Dave Robertson says:

    My daughter married last June so we had family in Fort Smith from across the US. I lead several groups of visitors downtown to the Fort Smith visitor’s center housed in Miss Laura’s, a former brothel. What a truly unique and fascinating place to begin a tour of our western heritage here in Fort Smith. Our next stop was the historic court house and museum at the sight of Fort Smith. From there we were able to walk to the Fort Smith Museum and then board a trolley for a nostalgic ride.

    All of this we sometimes take foregranted living in Fort Smith, but, I tell you everyone of my visitors thought it was wonderful and could not believe the wealth of history and lore that they experienced here. Everything from madames, to hanging judges to US Marshalls to Civil War history. What a treat! The US Marshall’s Museum will be a great addition to this city!

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