Upon first sight, the Gann Museum of Saline County in Benton doesn’t look much different than others except that it has two front doors, each topped by gable, making it architecturally interesting. That’s not what makes it unusual; it’s what the construction material of the building that makes it unique. The museum is the only known structure in the world made completely of bauxite.
Bauxite is another name for aluminum ore and most commonly formed in deeply weathered rocks. The ore was named after the French village of Les Baux de Provencewhere geologist Pierre Berthier discovered it 1821. The only place in the United States where it has been feasible to commercially mine the aluminum is Saline County in central Arkansas. The industry took hold in this area in 1899 with top output coming during World War II, when demand increased because German subs were sinking foreign ore ships. The mining thrived for many, many years before the high grade, low silica bauxite ore gave out.
In 1893, patients of Dr. Dewell Gann, Sr. who couldn’t afford to pay the doctor for his services, built the office.At the time, they didn’t know what the ore was – they thought it was some sort of clay plentiful in the area. All the blocks were cut with handsaws and had to air dry for six weeks before being used. The bricks are a colorful mix of tans, browns, rusts, yellows and oranges with a touch of pinkish-red.
After the building was completed, engineers determined the bauxite wasn’t a stable enough material for construction. The structure has defied the warnings, is still sturdy, and now houses the Gann Museum. Don’t miss the large exhibit of Niloak, a highly collectible art pottery made in the area from 1909 to 1946. Trivia tidbit: Niloak is “kaolin,” a type of clay, spelled backwards.
To learn more about this fascinating piece of construction history, visit the Gann Museum of Saline County at 218 Market Street in Benton. Call 501- 778-5513 for hours of operation and more information.