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Three Museums Capture Epics in Arkansas History

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Delta Cultural Center, Helena
Delta Cultural Center, Helena
    Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources, Smackover
Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources, Smackover
Museum of Arkansas Grand Prairie, Stuttgart
Museum of Arkansas Grand Prairie, Stuttgart
    Delta Cultural Center, Helena
Delta Cultural Center, Helena
May 6, 2005

Three Museums Capture
Epics in Arkansas History

Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

While any museum that tells its stories well is worthy of a visit, others succeed at a grander level by sweeping across time to capture the coalescent spirit of geographic features, landmark events and the lives and culture of human beings. No matter if in literature or film or history, the difference between a story and an epic is a matter of scale.

Eastern Arkansas once contained about 15,000 square miles of lowlands and swamps, rich in virgin timber and wildlife. Some two centuries after the influx of pioneers of European descent, the region produces voluminous crops of soybeans, rice, cotton and wheat, and only remnants of the original wetlands remain. It is a land with a rich musical heritage and a persistence of poverty, both resulting in part from a bygone era of slavery.

The pioneers who came to the state also encountered an area -- most of present-day Arkansas and Prairie counties and small parts of Monroe and Lonoke counties -- where prairie chickens flourished among tall grasses and native wildflowers. Now that territory is one of the most productive rice growing regions in the U.S. and is well-known for waterfowl hunting, while its largest town bears a name of German origin. Only small, scattered tracts of the native vegetation are left and the prairie chickens have vanished with their habitat.

Under forested terrain in southern Arkansas lay a mineral resource, its existence originating from environmental circumstances of many millions of years ago. Even had they known it was there, the state's early pioneers would not have appreciated it. Times and technologies changed, however, and a crowd cheered with joy on Jan. 10, 1921 when a mile west of El Dorado a geyser of "black gold" began spewing from the state's first productive oil well. The ensuing "oil boom," which would eventually spread to 10 counties, quickly changed the landscape, bringing a frenzied rise of population, a gush of wealth and unfortunate waste.

Those are the makings of three epics from Arkansas's history, and each has been captured in a museum. The Delta Cultural Center in Helena, the Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie in Stuttgart and the Museum of Natural Resources in Smackover do more than tell their stories well, they allow the curious visitor to become immersed in a spirit of place and time.

Delta Cultural Center

The Mississippi River became an American legend because its size and unruly power enabled it to wield a mighty influence on the history and culture of the people along its path. In the Delta of eastern Arkansas, as elsewhere, the river shaped people's lives by determining the geographical character of the land, by defining its economic uses and thereby contributing to social practices such as human slavery and sharecropping, by bringing disastrous floods, and by providing a transportation link to the world beyond.

At the Delta Cultural Center in the river port of Helena, the stream's thorough reach into natural and human affairs can be seen, in one way or another, in virtually every exhibit. The center is housed in a restored 1912 railroad depot at 95 Missouri St. in downtown Helena, and, about a block away, in two restored storefronts at 141-43 Cherry St.

Exhibits in the depot cover such topics as the region's Native Americans, the first European explorers, early pioneers who hunted and trapped the abundant wildlife, the lumbering that cleared land, the region's agricultural history, the growth of Delta towns and the steamboat and railroad eras.

Exhibits on the Civil War, located on the depot's second floor, reveal that control of navigation on the Mississippi and the importance of the Delta's cotton to the South's economic fortunes were major factors bringing the conflict to the region. Visitors can also learn about the July 4, 1863 Battle of Helena.

In the storefronts, permanent exhibits trace the Delta's many contributions to blues, gospel, rockabilly and country music, including information on blues figures such as Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf and B.B. and Albert King. A 10-minute film takes visitors to Helena's yearly King Biscuit Blues Festival, held in October, and individual listening stations allow them to hear recordings that relate stories about and include the music of various performers.

The center, a museum of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and on federal Monday holidays throughout the year. Admission is free. More information can be obtained by visiting and phoning toll-free 1-800-358-0922.

Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie

As eastern Arkansas developed in the 19th century, settlement on the Grand Prairie lagged behind because the area had relatively few trees and soil inhospitable to cotton. One group that did settle the prairie gave Stuttgart, now the area's largest town, its name, though not its pronunciation. In 1878-79, Rev. George Adam Buerkle, born near Stuttgart, Germany, came from Ohio and settled with 27 other families on a large tract just south of the present-day town. He hoped to start a German colony and a new Lutheran synod.

The late 1800s brought newcomers with broader agricultural backgrounds than the cotton-oriented early settlers. In 1904, W. H. Fuller, an Ohio native who came to Arkansas by way of Nebraska, grew Arkansas's first successful commercial rice crop near Hazen. His harvest spurred the onset of "rice fever," and within 40 years, the native prairie had all but vanished and Arkansas was on its way to leading the U.S. in rice production.

The Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie in Stuttgart reveals how natural and human history entwined on the prairie. It is home to an impressive collection of tools that span the history and crops of the region, from plows used to bust the virgin prairie's sod to the massive steam traction engines, binders and threshers used in early rice harvests and the combines that replaced them. Displayed wagons, surreys and antique cars cover the evolution of transportation.

The museum excels at using its more than 10,000 artifacts to tell the story of human existence on the prairie. Businesses such as were found in Stuttgart's early years have been re-created. Cultural exhibits include a vast array of domestic items and photographs of early settlers. A wing devoted to waterfowl hunting turns another page of Grand Prairie history.

Authentically furnished buildings located on the museum's grounds include a one-room prairie school house moved to its present site, a re-created prairie home and a reproduction (two-thirds scale) of Stuttgart's first Lutheran church.

Owned by the city of Stuttgart, the museum is located at East Fourth Street and Park Avenue (U.S. 167) east of downtown. Hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. Admission is free, with donations welcomed. For more information, visit or phone (870) 673-7001.

Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources

When southern Arkansas's oil was tapped in 1921, El Dorado's population grew within a few weeks from about 4,000 to more than 25,000, straining the town's ability to provide food, lodging and adequate law enforcement. The boom spread across the area as the 1922 discovery of oil near Smackover rapidly turned it from a quiet town of 100 people into a roaring boomtown of 20,000.

Meanwhile, the oil fields were unleashing a flood of wealth unparalleled in Arkansas history. In the boom's first 10 months alone, some 460 wells on about 5,000 acres produced 10 million barrels of oil. Millions more barrels were wasted because of over-drilling, fires and inefficient extraction, storage and transportation of the oil.

Dangerous oil-field jobs drew rowdy "roughnecks" and houses of prostitution soon sprang up. The new riches attracted gamblers, bootleggers, pickpockets and robbers.

Located on Ark. 7 about two miles south of Smackover and 10 miles north of El Dorado, the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources focuses primarily on the South Arkansas oil boom. Among the displays in its 26,000-square-foot exhibition center are many vintage photographs; a "Center of the Earth" exhibit depicting rock strata; a geologic time scale and fossils explaining the formation of oil; metal-cast and life-sized "roughnecks" working an oil derrick; vintage gasoline-station pumps and petroleum company signs; and exhibits on pre-boom life in the area, family life in the oil fields and modern drilling techniques.

An elevator ride becomes a narrated trip in which dioramas depict the depths of an ancient sea and scenes from the Industrial Revolution, after which an exhibit provides details on the evolution of oil consumption from 1922 to modern times.

Visitors can watch a video on the boom in the museum's theater and walk down a re-created street from Smackover's oil boom years, complete with numerous storefronts, vintage autos and mannequins in period dress.

Outside, the museum's Oilfield Park features examples of oil-producing equipment dating from the 1920s through modern times. A 112-foot wooden derrick is similar to the one used at the boom's first well near El Dorado.

Admission to the museum, which is operated by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, is free. It is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. More information is available at and by phone at (870) 725-2877.


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"

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