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The walk downtown


It has been almost half a century, but I still have fond memories of those walks to downtown Benton from my grandparents’ house at 111 Olive St. My grandmother didn’t drive, but the walks were always pleasant.

As the city has grown in recent years, there has been a renewed emphasis on restoring what’s known as the Benton Commercial Historic District.

“Its buildings cover a long span of the county’s history from the early 1900s to the present,” Cody Lynn Berry writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “It contains several properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Among its most historic buildings are the Royal Theatre, the Saline County Courthouse, the Odd Fellows Building, the Benton Masonic Lodge, the Ashby Building and the H.J. Gingles Building. … Only three buildings in the Benton Commercial Historic District were built after 1958. The district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 24, 2008.

“What’s now Benton’s Commercial Historic District lies in the center of the original town plat, which dates back to 1836. When the city of Benton was laid out, it was done in a traditional grid pattern with a town square at its center, on which the courthouse sits. The present Benton Commercial Historic District surrounds the courthouse on three sides — directly in front on Sevier Street, to the left on Market Street and on its right side on North Main Street. Four of the 53 current buildings in the district were built between 1902 and 1908.”

The oldest building in the district is the courthouse, designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles Thompson and built in 1902. It was constructed in the Romanesque Revival style and was featured in the 1973 Burt Reynolds movie “White Lightning.” The courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in November 1979.

According to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program: “In 1836, William Woodruff, publisher of the Arkansas Gazette, offered 120 acres of land to Saline County for its first courthouse. The land was sufficient not only for a courthouse but also for the plat of the town of Benton. The county auctioned off surplus acreage in June 1836, and the receipts were used to fund the courthouse project. Sales netted $3,381.71. Jacob Hoover built the county courthouse in 1839, a two-story brick building costing $3,574. A jail, made entirely of logs, was also completed at a cost of $975. The courthouse stood until 1855, when it was condemned.

“The second courthouse was built partially out of materials from the first one. It was constructed in 1856 by Green B. Hughes and stood until the beginning of the 20th century. With the discovery of bauxite in the area in 1887, new economic development entered Saline County, and county services outgrew the courthouse in 1902. Thompson designed a two-story pressed yellow brick building with a clock tower. There are Romanesque Revival characteristics that include the use of rounded arches and multiple towers of different shapes and sizes. John Odum oversaw its construction, which cost $31,000. Construction started in 1902 on the site of the demolished 1856 courthouse, and the first session of court in the new building was held that September.”

A $24,000 renovation took place in 1939. It included the construction of one-story northern and southern wings. The jail was in the northern wing, and additional offices were in the southern wing. More jail space was added in 1983. A new jail southeast of downtown was built in 2007. The northern wing was remodeled for storage and offices.

According to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program: “A New Deal-era mural by artist Julius Woeltz hangs inside the courthouse. It depicts local bauxite miners drilling holes and filling train cars with the mineral. Benton’s post office, at the corner of Main and Sevier streets, originally housed the mural. It was commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Section of Fine Arts in 1941 and was completed the following year. On Dec. 7, 1941, the date of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, a Texas newspaper published a photo of Woeltz standing in front of the canvas as he sketched the miners in charcoal. Bauxite is a material necessary for the production of aluminum and would be needed to make planes, much of it provided by Saline County mines.”

The John L. Hughes building at 111 N. Main St. was constructed by Benton architect W.A. Atkinson and his son Bill in 1908. The Cash Store building and the Ashby building also were built in 1908. There were 16 buildings in the district constructed from 1910-17. When he was a boy during the Great Depression, my father worked at the H.J. Gingles Store at 145 W. South St. The building that housed the store, long a Benton shopping tradition, was constructed in 1915 to house J.M. Caldwell’s store.

Because capital was hard to come by during the Depression, only three buildings in the district were built during the 1930s. The post office at 129 N. Main St. was constructed in 1939.

The really special trips downtown were those days when my grandmother would take me to a matinee at the Royal Theatre. The Royal is nothing short of a landmark for Benton natives.

“It has been owned by a local family, a corporation, a celebrity and finally a group of locals who took their name, the Royal Players, from the theater’s marquee,” Berry writes. “What’s now the Royal began its life when Wallace Kauffman, a native of Princeton in Dallas County, started working for Alice Wooten, owner of Independent Motion Pictures Theater. The IMP theater had been built on the site of what’s now the Royal, opening on Jan. 14, 1922. Kauffman ran the film projectors at the IMP. There were two screens, one upstairs and one downstairs, allowing two films to be shown at one time.

“The IMP was an independent establishment until 1936, when the business was sold to the forerunners of what would become United Artists. Kauffman ran the business alone until 1949, when a new deal with the parent company allowed United Artists to handle all bookings and record keeping. Their own trained projection engineers ran the machines. Kauffman remained the theater manager. Theaters in Malvern, Arkadelphia and Magnolia signed similar deals with United Artists. After the marquee and large electronic Royal sign were added, the IMP became known as the Royal.”

Kauffman closed the theater for remodeling in 1949. The seating was increased from 590 to 800, and the lounge and foyer were doubled in size.

“The front facade was designed by architects Frank Ginocchio and Ed Cromwell, who also designed the Royal in Little Rock,” Berry writes. “The Royal in Benton reopened on May 12, 1949, with showings of the Jimmy Stewart classic ‘You Gotta Stay Happy.’ The Kauffman family continued to run the Royal for generations. In 1974, Wallace Kauffman died, leaving the Royal to his son, Warren, who managed it until his retirement in 1986. Warren’s son, Randy, then took over. Randy managed the family business for 10 years before it sold it to actor and comedian Jerry Van Dyke in the late 1990s.

“Van Dyke purchased a couple of shops around the theater, creating a candy shop on one side of the Royal and a restaurant called Jerry Van Dyke’s Soda Shop on the other. In 2000, Van Dyke turned control of the Royal over to a group of thespians known then as the Central Arkansas Community Players. The name was changed to the Royal Players. They began running and maintaining the theater, repurposing it for live theater. The Royal was added to the National Register of Historic Places on Sept. 27, 2003.”

On our walks around town, my grandmother would point out sites such as the Shoppach House, the Gann House and Dr. Dewell Gann’s office.

The Shoppach House at 508 N. Main St. was the home during the Civil War of a Confederate soldier named James Shoppach. It was later used by occupying Union troops.

“The Shoppach House was built by German immigrant John William Shoppach in 1852,” Berry writes. “The bricks used to build the house and its well were made on site. Shoppach was born in Hessen, Germany, and immigrated to the United States in 1834, eventually making his way to present-day Saline County, where he built his family homestead in Benton. Shoppach’s wife, Sibby Pelton Shoppach, was born in Illinois and had migrated to Arkansas in 1818. After building his home at Benton in 1852, Shoppach was elected county clerk of Saline County. He maintained his post until his death in 1861 when he was 52.

“The structure continued to house up to five generations of the Shoppach family until 1959, when the house and grounds were sold to David Demuth. The Saline County Art League organized fairs in which handcrafted items were sold to raise funds for the restoration and maintenance of the house and its historic grounds. In 1962, the Saline County Art League had the Pilgrim Rest Church building moved to the grounds of the Shoppach House. A sign above the church’s entrance says it was established in 1833. Pilgrim Rest Church had been located just west of Little Rock, where it had been a beloved landmark. On the Shoppach House grounds, the building was reused as the Saline County Art Center. The Art League used the Shoppach House and its outbuildings to showcase various items of historical value.”

Ownership of the home was transferred to the Saline County Art League in 1974 at a cost of just $10. The Shoppach House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in October 1975. By May 1980, renovations were finished, and the home had been furnished with period-accurate furniture.

“The Shoppach House is in the American Colonial style with the structure composed of brick-and-mortar walls and wooden window frames,” Berry writes. “The front features two multi-paned glass windows on each side of a front entrance made up of pained double doors and a small porch.”

The nearby Gann House reportedly had the first indoor bathrooms in the city. It was constructed in 1895 in the Queen Anne style as the residence of Dr. Dewell Gann Sr. and his family. Gann had been born in 1863 in Georgia. He graduated from Southern Medical College at Atlanta in 1886 and moved to Benton in 1889, where he married the daughter of Benton Courier owner Samuel Whitthorne.

“In Benton, Gann worked as a physician for multiple companies,” Berry writes. “Eight of them were industrial plants and four were railroads. In addition, he had his private practice in a small office built next to his home. The office was built by patients who couldn’t otherwise pay for their treatments. Gann was also a member of the Scottish Rite Masonic Order of Saline County. His wife Martha was one of 12 women chosen to represent Arkansas at the first inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. She died in 1940, and Dr. Gann died on Sept. 25, 1945, at age 82. He was credited by the Arkansas Gazette for organizing the Saline County Medical Society n 1903.

“The house was next owned by Gann’s son, Dr. Dewell Gann Jr., who was born on Sept. 14, 1890. … During World War I, Gann Jr. had received extensive training while serving as a captain and surgeon in the Panama Canal Zone, ultimately attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war, he worked as a surgeon for what are now Arkansas Children’s Hospital and Baptist Health Medical Center. He joined the faculty of what’s now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in 1914 as a professor of surgery. Gann Jr. remained there as a professor until his retirement from teaching in 1936.”

The younger Gann was chief of staff at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Little Rock from 1922-27 and the hospital’s chief surgeon from 1927-36. He was famous for inventing a medical device called the Gann Resuscitator, which was purchased by the federal government in 1940. He died in January 1960 at his home in Benton.

“In the late 1970s, Demuth, who was president of Benton’s Gingles Hardware & Furniture Inc., purchased the Gann House from Gracie Henry Smith of El Dorado for an undisclosed amount,” Berry writes. “Demuth’s widow sold the house in the early 1980s to Sam Gibson and George Ellis. On March 1, 1992, they sold the house to Doyle Webb and his wife Barbara. Renovations began at that time to help keep the original house accurate to its period and structurally sound.”

The Gann Museum of Saline County was established in the adjoining medical office in 1980 to house Quapaw and Caddo artifacts, Niloak pottery and other pieces of county history.

Gann Sr. constructed the building in 1893. It’s reportedly the only building in the country constructed of bauxite.

“Abundant deposits of bauxite were conveniently located nearby, and the soft ore could be hand-sawed into blocks, hardened for six weeks and then used for construction,” Shirley Parson Coppock writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “On an inside wall, which was an outside wall when Gann Sr. used the building for his office, is an imprint of Gann’s foot, made as he sat waiting for patients in a rocker with his foot propped against the wall.

“The building served as a medical office until 1946 when Gann Jr. gave it to the city of Benton to serve as a library and later a museum. Constructed in the Victorian style, it features a five-gable roof, stained windows and ornate wood trim with pastel-colored bauxite blocks. Notable are the separate entrances for men and women installed by Gann to assure his female patients that they could avoid exposure to any rough workmen (railroad or industrial workers) who were visiting the office at the same time.”

Whenever I see the downtown offices of what’s now the Saline Courier at 321 N. Market St., I think of the many times I would read what was then the Benton Courier at my grandparents’ house.

“The paper began its life as the Saline County Digest, established by Vermont native W.A. Webber in 1876 as the official mouthpiece of Saline County Democrats,” Berry writes. “It later lost that affiliation. The Digest was published weekly in a seven-column folio with an average circulation of 1,000. In November 1882, the Digest changed hands for the first time. It was purchased by B.B. Beavers, who renamed it the Saline County Review in November 1883. Col. Samuel Houston Whitthorne bought Beavers’ interest in the paper and renamed it the Saline Courier. Whitthorne was the father-in-law of Gann Sr. … A fire destroyed the Courier office and all of its contents in December 1883. The paper replaced its lost materials in 15 days.

“The paper changed hands a few times before landing back in possession of Whitthorne in August 1886. Whitthorne increased the Saline Courier’s size to nine columns and increased its circulation. He was bought out by A.F. Gardner in October 1887. Gardner then sold the paper to Col. T.C. Mays a year later. Mays sold it to J.J. Beavers in 1890. The paper changed hands several times before being purchased in November 1906 by L.B. White, who owned it for decades after that. Under White, the name was changed to the Benton Courier. … White used his own printing company to print the paper. After 1910, circulation rose to more than 2,000 copies per week.”

The L.B. White Printing Co. also published books. In 1953, White sold the newspaper to Sam Hodges, a Mississippi County native whose father had been the publisher of the Osceola Times. Hodges moved the newspaper from weekly to daily publication in 1970. He sold the newspaper in 1996. The newspaper’s name was changed back to the Saline Courier in August 2010 as more and more of its subscribers came from Bryant.

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