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Old Washington State Park Conserves Town's Heyday

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Blacksmith demonstration at Old Washington
Blacksmith demonstration at Old Washington
    Living history program at Old Washington
Living history program at Old Washington
Printing press demonstration at Old Washington
Printing press demonstration at Old Washington
    Old Washington Historic State Park, courthouse
Old Washington Historic State Park, courthouse
A baking demonstration at Old Washington
A baking demonstration at Old Washington
September 3, 2002

Old Washington State Park
Conserves Town's Heyday

By Jim Taylor, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

At Arkansas's 34th state park, Old Washington, tours of splendidly furnished historic structures, museums and interpretive programs take visitors back to the glory days of one of the state's most prominent 19th-century settlements. The park, which was created to preserve and showcase the architecture, history and pioneer culture of the town of Washington, is located about nine miles north of Hope via U.S. 278. For more park information, including daily tours and upcoming events, phone (870) 983-2684 or visit

WASHINGTON, Ark. -- In one sense, the history of Old Washington Historic State Park in southwest Arkansas began in 1824 with the birth of the town of Washington. Existing within the still-viable community, the park was created to commemorate the settlement's prominent 19th-century history by conserving period architectural features and cultural ways.

The park's origins stem more directly, however, from the efforts of the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation. In 1958, the foundation began preserving and restoring the town's historic buildings, which now make up the state's largest collection of antebellum structures open for public tours.

Washington was founded 12 years before statehood on the Southwest Trail, a Native American trace that became Arkansas's first road. Beginning in St. Louis, the route ran diagonally across Arkansas Territory to Washington and then southwest another 15 miles to the Red River steamboat port of Fulton. The Red was then the border separating U.S. lands from the Mexican territory known as Texas.

Because of its border proximity, Washington played a role in Texas's 1835-36 war for independence. Evidence suggests that Sam Houston and others discussed plans for the revolt while Houston resided in one of the town's taverns in 1834. Volunteers passed through en route to the Texas battlefields, including frontiersman Davy Crockett, who stayed briefly in late 1835 on his way to his death at the Alamo in March 1836.

Another Alamo victim, Jim Bowie, most remembered for the knife that bears his name, also visited. A Washington blacksmith, James Black, is believed to have made the original, famed knife for Bowie in 1830 or 1831. While other locales claim creation of the Bowie knife, Washington's claim can be dated as far back as an 1841 item in the weekly Washington Telegraph.

When Union forces captured Little Rock in 1863 the state's Confederate government relocated and used Washington's 1836 Hempstead County Courthouse as its capitol. Washington remained in Confederate hands throughout the war, thus protecting the community's antebellum structures.

The town began to decline in 1873 when the area's first railroad was built eight miles to the south, and a new settlement named Hope -- the future birthplace of former President Bill Clinton -- was established beside the tracks. Disastrous fires in 1875 and 1883 devastated Washington's commercial district, and in 1939, its doom seemed certain when it lost to Hope its status as county seat.

Yet, a new chapter in Washington's life began in the late 1950s when some of its residents saw the potential spawned by a lack of 20th-Century progress: Washington still contained a remarkable number of 19th-century structures.

They formed the foundation and began saving the historic buildings. As a result of the Foundation's efforts to secure state assistance, Arkansas's legislature authorized creation of the Old Washington Historic State Park through Act 396 of 1965, but it wasn't until 1973 that the park opened to the public. The Foundation transferred ownership of numerous properties to the state, but retained others and continues to this day its own restoration efforts.

Present-day visitors to Washington are able, through the structural restorations and the park's interpretive programming, to gain a sense of what 19th-century life in Arkansas was like.

Among the park's longstanding attractions are the courthouse that served as the state's Confederate capitol (the only extant Arkansas capitol outside of Little Rock); the Edwards Weapons Museum, where more than 1,500 items include numerous pioneer-era rifles and pistols; the print museum, which includes 19th-century printing equipment like that used to print the Telegraph; a re-creation of Black's blacksmith shop; the Pioneer Cemetery; and historic houses dating from the mid-1830s to the 1850s.

The authentically and splendidly furnished homes provide a glimpse of domestic life from a century past and contain many items -- furniture and ceramics in particular -- considered 19th-century treasures.

The park emphasizes historical accuracy in its restorations and programs as evidenced by the "in-town farmstead" around the Sanders House (c. 1845). Based on period evidence, the park staff has re-created a barn, chicken house, grape arbor, garden plot, cold-frame, pigeon coop and privy as once located on the Sanders property. The garden plot is used to grow heirloom plant varieties, and live animals that would have been found on such a farmstead have been added.

Exhibits in the 1852 Crouch House explore 19th-century construction techniques, including glass-making, plaster work, peg joinery, window construction, fireplace installation and a painting technique known as graining, used to give pine the appearance of more expensive woods.

The park's annual visitation has approached 100,000 in recent years with many visitors attracted to annual events such as the Jonquil Festival in early March, Frontier Day in late September, Civil War Days in late October and Christmas and Candlelight in early December.

In early June, the recently restored 1874 Hempstead County Courthouse became the park's visitors center, where a map of the park can be obtained. By mid-July, the restoration tavern building that formerly housed the center and a gift shop is expected to become a tour site, its interior having been refurnished as a period tavern.

The park is open all year from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and is closed only on Thanksgiving, December 25 and January 1. Southern-style lunches are served daily from 11 to 3 p.m. in the park's Williams Tavern restaurant.


Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"

1 Capitol Mall, 4A-900 - Little Rock, Arkansas 72201 | 1-800-872-1259 or (501) 682-7777 (V/TT)
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