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Digging southwest Arkansas

The sun is already high in the June sky by the time Paul Austin, the executive director of the Arkansas Humanities Council, and I arrive at Washington in Hempstead County on a Wednesday morning.

In a small field in the middle of one of the state’s most historic communities, tarps help keep the early summer sun off the professional archeologists and the amateurs who are hard at work.

This spot was the merchant center of Washington in the 1830s. It was therefore among the most important places in Arkansas during the final years of the Arkansas Territory and the first years of the state (Arkansas became the nation’s 25th state in 1836).

In those days, what we now think of as the cotton country of the Arkansas Delta was mostly mosquito-infested swamps and impenetrable forests of bottomland hardwoods. The cotton country in those days was farther to the southwest with Camden and Washington as centers of trade.

Paul and I are greeted by Tom Green of Fayetteville, the director of the Arkansas Archeological Survey, the finest organization of its type in the country.

Too often we fail to recognize the areas in which Arkansas is a national leader. This is certainly one such area. In 1967, the Arkansas Legislature created the Arkansas Archeological Survey, becoming the first state to have a coordinated research and public service organization of this type. The survey is responsible for studying prehistoric and historic archeological sites, managing information about those sites and sharing that information with Arkansans.

A longtime state representative from my mother’s hometown of Des Arc, John Bethel, was interested in archeology. As early as 1959, he sponsored legislation creating an archeological laboratory on the University of Arkansas campus. Bethel also sponsored a 1959 bill protecting archeological sites on state land.

The work of the survey has been complemented through the years by the efforts of the Arkansas Archeological Society, which was formed in 1960.

In 1964, a series of weekend excavations began under the direction of University of Arkansas Museum archeologists and society members. The Arkansas Archeological Survey partnered with the society in 1967 on these events.

By 1972, what had begun as a series of weekend events had expanded into a 16-day training program with excavations at various sites across the state. It’s the oldest and best program of its type in the country.

The archeologists are in Washington for a second consecutive summer, discovering the foundations of buildings that were once on the site and carefully removing everything from nails to pieces of pottery to coins.

Meanwhile, life goes on in this part of southwest Arkansas as a large lumber truck rumbles down the sunken gravel road that once was part of the Southwest Trail.

The Southwest Trail was the network of routes that linked St. Louis with what’s now northeast Texas. The trail entered the state at Hix’s Ferry across the Current River in Randolph County and exited the state southwest of Washington along the Red River.

The first big wave of immigration to Texas occurred in the 1820s. After 1817, an estimated four-fifths of the new arrivals in Texas came via the Southwest Trail. Sam Houston, Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie were among those who came through Washington on their way to Texas. Washington was later a mustering point for troops marching south to fight in the Mexican War.

Elijah Stuart had built a log house on the sandy hill that would become Washington as early as 1818. That house served as an inn and tavern. Stuart’s Tavern was designated as the first permanent seat of government for Hempstead County in 1824 because of its location.

“The land around the tavern was then surveyed and laid out in square blocks oriented along the Southwest Trail,” Steven Teske writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “A land auction in 1826 created the structure of the city, and merchants began to conduct business soon thereafter.”

A courthouse (just across the Southwest Trail from the site being excavated this summer) was built in 1836. A Presbyterian church was established in 1836, and a Baptist church was built in 1845.

The Washington Telegraph began publication in 1840 and was the oldest weekly newspaper west of the Mississippi River when it ceased publication in 1946.

“By 1860, Washington had seven dry goods stores, two drugstores, a tailor shop, a watch repairman and other businesses,” Teske writes. “Many wealthy families built mansions, some of which have been restored and are preserved in the contemporary state park. The area also held many slaves, who served as household servants and also worked in the cotton fields surrounding the city. A Methodist church was built in 1861.”

A new courthouse was constructed in 1874, and the businesses at the site being excavated this summer began to move. A major economic blow came in the 1870s when the Cairo & Fulton Railroad bypassed Washington and went through Hope. A depot was built, and Hope was incorporated on April 8, 1875.

Devastating fires struck Washington on July 3, 1875, and Jan. 21, 1883, furthering its demise as a center of business. As early as 1879, people were advocating that the Hempstead County seat be moved to Hope, though the change did not take place until 1939.

“Unethical behavior abounded on both sides, consisting of lies, cheating, mudslinging and election fraud,” writes Bryan McDade. “Finally, the Arkansas Supreme Court intervened and, in a ruling in May 1939, declared that Hope was the county seat.”

The Legislature appropriated $5,000 in 1929 to help restore the 1836 courthouse. The United Daughters of the Confederacy played a key role in pushing for those funds and supplementing them with private contributions.

In 1958, the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation was organized to raise money and plan the preservation of Washington’s historic homes and commercial properties. Annual tours of remodeled homes were part of the group’s efforts.

During the administration of Gov. Dale Bumpers, when the state parks system was in an expansion mode, the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation donated buildings and antiques to the state.

On July 1, 1973, Old Washington Historic State Park opened.

During my years in the Huckabee administration, I regularly was contacted by the noted Arkansas preservationist Parker Westbrook.

“It’s not Old Washington,” Parker would insist. “It’s just Washington.”

Parker got his wish in September 2006 when the state Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission voted to change the name to Historic Washington State Park.

I consider Washington to be among the most important historical and cultural assets in this part of the country. The 101 acres in the park contain 54 buildings, 30 of which are historically significant. Several of the buildings are open for tours.

When my mother was still living at Arkadelphia, we would attend the Jonquil Festival each March at Washington. The jonquils only bloom in late winter and early spring, but the trees are always there — the massive, gnarled trees.

The catalpas. The magnolias. The pecans. The black walnuts.

Trees that were planted in the 1800s for shade and nuts still survive. I can’t imagine that there’s a better collection of catalpa trees anywhere in the country. Just across the street from where the archeological work is taking place is an enormous magnolia that reportedly was planted in 1839. The road is blocked off to traffic at this point with the limbs of the old tree covering half the street.

In 1995, the state created what’s known as the Arkansas Famous and Historic Tree Program. There are several trees at Washington that made the list — a pecan tree associated with Abraham Block, the first permanent Jewish settler in the state in 1823; a catalpa associated with mail carrier John H. Smith; a black walnut on the grounds of the 1914 public school; and a loblolly pine on the grounds of the 1836 courthouse that was planted in 1976 from seeds taken on the Apollo 14 mission to the moon.

There are eight professional archeologists at work during what Paul and I refer to as the summer dig. The volunteers include everything from a firefighter to a hairdresser. Some of them have been participating in the 16-day summer program since the 1970s, spending the night in tents that are placed in a grove of trees next to the excavation site. They are building on the work done last summer, digging 10 centimeters at a time, bagging artifacts and keeping meticulous records.

Under a pavilion in an area known as the lab, 86-year-old Anna Parks helps bag items. She has participated in the summer excavation since 1976.

The volunteers are particularly anxious to show us the ornate label that came off a bottle of olive oil in the 1800s. American coins minted in 1806 and 1827 have been found. Spanish coins minted in the 1700s also have been discovered.

Jamie Brandon, an archeologist stationed on the campus of Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia, shows us around. We walk through the Pioneer Cemetery, where both black and white residents of Washington were buried beginning in the 1820s. Whites continued to be buried in the cemetery until the 1880s. Blacks continued to be buried there until the 1920s.

The Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives, which is in a former elementary school at Washington, has produced a book on the pioneer cemetery titled “Thou Wert Dear To Us” by Mary Kwas and Jami Lockhart of the Arkansas Archeological Survey.

The past envelops us as we walk through Washington. A country lunch of stuffed porked chops, squash and okra awaits at the state park’s Williams’ Tavern, bringing us back to the present.

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