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Off to Washington — Arkansas, that is

In the previous post, I mentioned the lengthy story on Hope watermelons that ran in the Aug. 18 edition of The New York Times.

That story, written by Kim Severson, tells of Stephanie Buckley and the farmers’ market she started in Washington (the one near Hope, not the one in the District of Columbia).

Severson writes: “Buckley, who is not afraid to pair a sleeveless dress with cowboy boots, moved to Washington five years ago with her husband, Joe, the superintendent of the state park that envelops Washington. She is a transplanted Mississippi debutante turned farmer, an admirer of the agriculture guru Joel Salatin and a woman who says she loves the Lord and hates hypocrites.”

She also writes a wonderful bog called The Park Wife at Buckley describes herself as “the adoring wife to a man of true integrity and stay-at-home mom to two great boys. I work harder now than when I was in the workforce. I live on a state park and wonder every day how in the world I got here. But I love it.”

Her twice-a-week market in the summer features only Arkansas-grown produce sold by farmers.

Reading her blog made me realize that I need to get back to Washington. It’s a special place.

Washington was founded on George Washington’s birthday in 1824 on the Southwest Trail, which ran all the way from St. Louis to the Fulton Landing on the Red River. It was one of the major trails used by the pioneers headed to Texas. Washington became the economic, political and cultural center for the whole region. Sam Houston, Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie were among those who passed through Washington on their way to Texas.

It was at Washington in 1831 that a blacksmith by the name of James Black made for Jim Bowie the weapon that would become the famous Bowie knife.

From 1831-33, more than 3,000 Choctaws from Mississippi passed through Washington as they were being forcibly removed into what’s now southeastern Oklahoma. In 1846, Washington was the town where 10 companies of men met to form the first regiment of the Arkansas Cavalry before heading out to fight in the Mexican War.

Washington also played a key role in the state’s Civil War history.

Bryan McDade explains it this way in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “In the fall of 1863, the Confederate government of Arkansas fled from Little Rock to Washington. The 1836 Hempstead County Courthouse in Washington served as the state Capitol from 1863-65. Washington was threatened in the spring of 1864 when a Union army under the command of Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele moved south along the Military Road traveling to Shreveport, La. A Confederate force under the command of Maj. Gen. Sterling Price blocked the military.

“The two forces engaged in battle on April 10, 1864, about 14 miles north of Washington. Steele was forced to move east to Camden, and thus Washington was saved from invasion. This encounter was known as the Skirmish at Prairie D’Ane. Many wounded soldiers were brought to Washington for medical treatment. Several buildings, including the Washington Baptist Church, were turned into hospitals to treat the wounded. Seventy-four unknown Confederate soldiers from this battle were buried in a mass grave in the Washington Presbyterian Cemetery.”

Washington began to decline when the Cairo & Fulton Railroad line bypassed the town in the 1870s. The depot was established nine miles away at what’s now Hope. Another blow came on July 3, 1875, when a fire destroyed a large part of Washington’s business district. A fire on Jan. 21, 1883, also destroyed many businesses.

“The railroad had become the new economic artery, and rather than rebuilding in Washington, most businesses moved to Hope, thus precipitating the decline of Washington,” McDade writes. “In the late 1870s, Hope began to promote the idea that the county seat should be relocated from Washington to Hope. For 60 years, and several elections, Hope tried to gain the county seat. Unethical behavior abounded on both sides, consisting of lies, cheating, mudslinging and election fraud. Finally, the Arkansas Supreme Court intervened and, in a ruling in May 1939, declared that Hope was the county seat of Hempstead County.”

The people of Washington, however, were in the vanguard of the historic preservation movement in this state.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy worked to secure money to protect the 1836 courthouse. In 1958, the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation was established to protect other parts of the historic town. In 1973, as the state parks system expanded under the administration of Gov. Dale Bumpers, the foundation donated property to the state to form Old Washington Historic State Park. The park opened on July 1, 1973.

I joined the governor’s office in July 1996 and soon afterward began receiving telephone calls from the indomitable Parker Westbrook. Parker is a bit of a legend himself among those involved in historic preservation. He has long been one of the guiding lights of the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation, was chairman of the Arkansas Territorial Restoration Commission for many years and was also the chairman of the board that oversees the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. He was the founding president of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas.

Parker hated the fact that people referred to the town as Old Washington.

“It’s not Old Washington,” he would say to me. “It’s just Washington.”

He wanted the state Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission to change the name of the park.

In September 2006, Parker got his wish when the commission changed the park’s name to Historic Washington State Park.

No matter what you call it, the park is a jewel. It doesn’t receive the attention of a Petit Jean or a DeGray, but I consider it one of the most valuable restoration projects in this region of the country. There are 54 buildings on 101 acres, 30 of which are considered historically significant. Some of those buildings are open for tours. When my mother still lived in Arkadelpia, I would take her to the Jonquil Festival there each March.

Buildings open for tours include the 1836 courthouse, the 1857 Crouch house, the 1915 printing museum, the 1850 Purdom house, the 1847 Trimble house, the 1860 Clardy kitchen, the 1855 Monroe house, the 1832 Block-Catts house, the 1849 Sanders farmstead, the 1925 bank building that now houses a weapons museum, the 1845 Royston house and the 1835 Royston log house. There also are 1960 reconstructions of a blacksmith shop and tavern. The 1874 Hempstead County Courthouse serves as the visitors’ center.

Some interesting notes:

— The Block-Catts House was the home of Abraham Block, believed to be the first Jewish settler in Arkansas. It’s also is the oldest two-story, wooden-framed building still standing in Arkansas.

— John Williamson established the Haygood Seminary in Washington in 1883 to educate black teachers, musicians and ministers. It once was considered one of the top institutions of higher learning for Southern blacks.

— Some of the oldest and largest magnolia, black walnut and loblolly pine trees in the state are on the park grounds.

— Examples of Greek Revival, Federal, Gothic Revival and Italianate architecture all can be found at Washington.

— The state park also houses the Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives, a resource center for historical and genealogical research. The collection features family histories, scrapbooks, photographs, court records, newspapers and a library of rare books.

— Washington is home to the Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing. The school, which was established in 1987, is the only school in the world dedicated to the art of making knives and swords.

You can have lunch while at the park in the Williams’ Tavern Restaurant, which is open each day from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. I really need to get back soon. Despite its tiny size, Washington — not Old Washington, Parker — is an important piece of this state’s history.

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