The Civil War Comes To Van Buren

Historic Downtown Van Buren is full 
of small stores now.
Arkansas' 19th largest city is Van Buren. Unless you are from Van Buren, or perhaps Sherwood, the state's 18th largest city, or Cabot, number 20, you probably didn't know that. And now that I've got the educational piece of this blog entry out of the way, I'll get on to more interesting stuff about Van Buren.

First settled in 1818 and known as Phillips Landing (Phillips being the last name of brothers who established a lumber yard in the area), the town acquired a post office and changed its name to Van Buren (after the Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren) in 1831. The town was incorporated on Christmas Eve, 1842. Almost exactly 20 years later, downtown Van Buren became the site of a rather strange Civil War battle.

Many of the buildings survive from the 1800's.
Three weeks before the Battle of Van Buren was fought, The Confederates suffered a loss in the battle of Prairie Grove, north of the town. Outnumbered 2 - 1, demoralized by the lack of adequate equipment, food, medicine, and clothes and having not been paid in many months, the Rebels retreated to the northern outskirts of Van Buren. Many of the men were without shoes and a large number had to sleep under makeshift lean-to's constructed of sticks in the woods due to a severe lack of tents. Winter weather set in and with the lack of proper shelter, warm clothing, medicine, and not enough food, almost half of the 4,000 troops soon fell ill. When the weather cleared enough for travel, over 7,000 Federals traversed a mountain pass over the Ozarks and ran into a small detachment of Texas cavalry. The Texans put up a fight, but were soon overwhelmed. The surviving few retreated toward the rest of the Confederate troops in the town, but those men were in no condition to put up an effective defense and the fighting withdrawal soon became a full-on retreat right down Main Street.

The battle raged straight down Main Street.
What made this battle unusual is that in the majority of fights in other towns, the citizens were warned beforehand by one side or the other or they were aware of a battle that was coming their way hours or even days before it got there. The Battle of Van Buren happened so quickly that the citizens were caught completely by surprise. As the troops rode and ran through town, shooting at each other and engaging in mortal hand-to-hand combat, civilian men were caught sitting on benches trading news in front of stores, women in their bonnets were caught shopping and children stopped playing in the streets to stare at the fighting soldiers. Amazingly, not one civilian was seriously hurt during the running fight through the town.

The Confederates made their way to the river where they jumped on board a ferry and a number of steam boats. The Yankees got to the river as the last few boats were starting to pull away from the pier. The Rebels set 2 of the boats on fire to keep them from being captured. One boat was stranded on a sand bar and when musket fire and artillery disabled another one, exactly 100 southern troops were captured.

Over 500 Confederate soldiers are 
buried in Fairview Cemetery.
A 2-hour cannon duel commenced when from a hill in Fairview Cemetery, Union cannons fired across the river at the Confederates who had made it safely across and the southerners who brought up their own cannon, fired about 100 shells at the Yanks. Only 1 Northern soldier was killed and five were wounded in the shelling, but a number of houses around the cemetery were damaged, a civilian was killed and several more wounded. As night fell, the Yanks gathered up their wounded and dead and both sides withdrew from the battle. Left to repair itself and bury the Confederate dead was a now stunned and very quiet Van Buren.

Over 500 Southern soldiers are buried in a large corner of Fairview Cemetery. In a sad statement to the way of that awful war, over 400 of the headstones are marked simply, "Unknown Confederate Soldier."

Mystery Grave in Arkansas

The Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto left Havana, Cuba in May, 1539, and his 9 ships, 620 men, 220 horses and a load of pigs came ashore in Charlotte Harbor, Florida (known today as Shaw's Point in Bradenton). And thus an epic 3-year journey began, becoming the first Europeans to cross the Mississippi River and exploring what would eventually be 9 of the southern states of America. Desoto and most of his men would not survive and the chronicles of the few survivors seem vague due to the passage of time and the disappearance of many of the cultures and native peoples they encountered.

Careful examination of the de Soto journals along with archaeological evidence indicate the expedition crossed into Arkansas in June, 1541 and made it at least as far west as present day Van Buren in northwest Arkansas. Historical note here - as de Soto traveled through Tennessee and Arkansas, a number of the swine escaped and made their way into the woods. These pigs went feral and became the ancestors of the razorback hogs which is now the symbol of Arkansas and the mascot of the University of Arkansas.

During their hunt for gold and other riches, a lot of the meetings between de Soto and the native Indians were peaceful, but he and his mean thought nothing of torturing and killing those who they considered were not cooperating. This led to numerous battles and after spending the second year of their journey in Arkansas, almost half of the men had been killed or died and most of the rest had been wounded at least once. Despondent and feeling the expedition had been a failure as no riches had been discovered, de Soto led his men back to the Mississippi River where they intended to build boats and float down to the Gulf of Mexico. After camping along the river, de Soto contract an illness and died. His death was a problem for his men as the hostile Indians in the area had been convinced to leave the Europeans alone by de Soto convincing them he was a god, the "Immortal Son of the Sun." His men buried him in the middle of the night, but the Indians noticed the disturbed ground and began to doubt their story that de Soto had risen in the sky and gone back home. To keep them from digging up the body and discovering the ruse, the men dug up his body first, again in the middle of the night, weighted it down with rocks, and dumped it in the river.

The entrance to Fairview Cemetery. Straight 
thru this gate a little to the left and all 
the way back lies The Mystery Grave.
A very intriguing legend in Arkansas is known locally simply as "The Mystery Grave." Located in the old section of an old town, the grave is rumored to be that of a de Soto Expedition member. In the oldest section of Fairview Cemetery in Van Buren, the very unusual grave is obviously very old, but could it be so old as to actually be one of de Soto's men?

It is clearly very old and its design is significantly different from the other early graves still preserved in the cemetery. Made of large slabs of stone which have weathered greatly over the years, it definitely looks mysterious. There are some who think it is even much older and may in fact be the grave of a Viking explorer who came through long before Christopher Columbus made his famous voyage.
Mystery Grave on the left next to 
several other old graves.

The actual history of this grave is probably much more sedate. First, it is oriented in a typical East-West alignment with the head of the grave facing east. This has been a traditional Christian burial pattern for many years. Second, the grave is part of and clearly aligned with other graves in the plot of the Thompson family, one of the pioneer families of Van Buren and Crawford County, Arkansas. Third, there is a crude inscription on the stone at the head of the grave that appears to be a Masonic symbol. And finally, this type of stone grave is not really all that unique. Other graves of almost the same construction can be found in old cemeteries in the south. These graves almost always date from the 1820's.

A modern plaque was attached telling the 
story, but vandals stole it. Note the 4 marks 
where it  was attached.
With these facts, it is most likely that the person buried in the Mystery Grave is actually a man who died on the frontier in the 1820s.  He was a Mason and most likely a member of Van Buren's pioneer Thompson family. But the stories continue to be told and who is to say for sure they are not true. Remember, truth is often behind a good story.

Lead Hill - On This Date

Downtown Lead Hill, Arkansas
Lead Hill was a small mining town in north-central Arkansas from the early 1900's until the town was covered by the waters of the newly created Bull Shoals Lake in the early 1950's. The residents packed up and moved to higher ground where the new Lead Hill community was built. 287 folks call it home today. It's a quiet little town. The most excitement lately has been the opening of the new post office building. Yes, a very quiet little town.

I was on the road driving Arkansas Scenic Highway 7 when I drove through Lead Hill. Thirsty, I stopped at a convenience store for a Dr. Pepper. I was the only customer. I brought my DP to the counter and thinking maybe there is an interesting story about the town, tried to begin a friendly conversation with the young lady who took my money. She wasn't friendly. That's OK. I'm rarely more than a day away from a shower and shave and I don't think I look like a serial killer, but I understand. I handed her a business card indicating I write this blog and told her I was thinking about writing a story about her town. Most people are friendly, especially folks in small towns, and the vast majority of the rest relax and are friendly once they see my card and understand why I'm talking to them. Not this young lady. Not only did she not get friendly, she got antagonistic. No problem. She was probably just having a bad day like everyone has now and then. I said thanks, took my cold drink and drove on down the road.

As far as I know, on October 29, 2011, in Lead Hill, Arkansas, nothing happened; nothing at all.

Beans, Music, & Outhouses

Festival goers on the courthouse lawn
watching a band.
Autumn chill in the air means it's about time for the almost world famous Bean Fest & Championship Outhouse Races! The last weekend of every October, Mountain View, Arkansas steals the title of "The Windy City" from Chicago as the population of this pretty little town nestled in the Ozark Mountains swells from 2,900 happy souls to over 50,000.

The festival celebrates pinto beans in a big way. Since the bean is a musical fruit, the festival starts with music concerts on Thursday and Friday with folk, bluegrass, Cajun, Ozark Mountain blues, and gospel as the main styles of music. Bands and individual performers take the main stage in front of the court house, but other musicians come from all around the state and many from out of state, unlimber their guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bass and spoons, meet up around the town square, in front of the local music store, at the Old Grey Hippie Corner, or in Washington Street Park and join together in always changing, impromptu groups to play and sing the whole 4-day weekend.

These are the groups I gravitate toward. A lot of these folk are getting on up there in years, dress in overalls and don't always have the newest instruments, but they can play as good or better than most professionals. Looking at some of them, I can't help but hear the theme to Deliverance in my head, but I doggies folks, those hillbillies can flat play their instruments!
Of course, any bean festival worth its salt has to have a "Beanie Weenie Dog Show." All dogs are welcome from the most pure pedigrees to the Heinz 57 pets. Some of the costumes are simply amazing and some are just simple, but a good time is always had by all.

Early Saturday morning, registered teams start cooking them beans to compete in the pinto bean cook-off. This year there were 36 bean teams competing with each group using their own secret blend of herbs and spices trying to win the title of Best Bean. Most teams have their own costumes and team name and many of them have been coming here to compete for years and years. The beans are cooked in large, old-fashioned cast-iron pots big enough that the beans have to be stirred by using large wooden oars. While the beans are simmering, many of the teams put on little shows or just meet and greet with the festival goers.

By mid-morning, the aroma from the beans cooking fills the air and your belly gets hungrier and hungrier as you amble around the Artisans Market On The Square, looking and purchasing handmade goods from local and regional crafters. About 11:30, when the beans are done, the judges, hidden away inside the courthouse, are served with samplings from each team. At noon, the judges emerge from hiding and announce the winners and the grand champion Best Bean. Soon, the dinner bell rings and everyone is served cups of beans and slices of cornbread. There was enough for everyone to have one or two cups this year before all 1,800 pounds of beans were gone. I had a cup from one of my favorite teams, the Jail Birds, and managed to score a 2nd cup from the 2nd place team, the L.A. Honey Bees (We put the sting in beans!) with peppers and onions to mix in. Yummy!

The Nerd Bean Masters team.
The Jail-Bird team preparing to serve.

Nothing follows a large meal of beans better than an outhouse, so after lunch, the Championship Outhouse Race gets underway, beginning with the Parade of Outhouses. Two contestants push each outhouse-on-wheels with one person sitting on the throne and steering. These are not real outhouses; more like people-powered-potties. Think about designing a vehicle, let your imagination go in the toilet, and you'll fit right in. Competition is up a paved, slight incline with teams competing head to head until the fastest "outhouse" has been determined. Second and third place wins silver and bronze toilet seats. The winner receives bragging rights for the year and the revered and coveted Gold Toilet Seat to proudly display.

There's a reason these guys are the champs
multiple times - they've "bean" at it for years!
Them's some good beans!
One bit of warning, there are not that many lodging places in Mountain View so rooms, especially the charming Bed and Breakfast homes around the square, are booked a year or more in advance. It's a great weekend full of fun, but if you decide to go at the last minute, plan to find a place to stay 30 minutes to an hour away. Parking is relatively plentiful; just follow the crowds once you get into town. And start lining up to get them beans from your favorite bean cooking team by about 11:30. You wouldn't want to be next in line when that last cup of beans gets handed out!

Outhouse racers lined up before the parade.

Guitar racer. Guitar pick top is a nice touch.
The Methane Machine - complete with roll
of toilet paper.

The "Silent Butt Deadly Racing" team's entry.
The local high school 's Strato-Gasser entry.

Even the senior citizen center get's involved with
they're "Old Farts Linger Here" entry.

And they're off!


Little Rock?

Tip of the "Little Rock" with the old 
railroad bridge behind.

How did Little Rock, Arkansas get its name? Glad you asked. The naming of Little Rock happened in 1722 when French explorer Bernard de la Harpe was leading a party of explorers up the Arkansas River from New Orleans and came upon two rock outcroppings, one large and one small, on opposite sides of the river. Indians had long used both rocks as landmarks so de la Harpe obviously spent a lot of time thinking about it and finally decided on the clever name "La Petite Roche" or "little rock" as a means of distinguishing the smaller outcropping from the larger bluff upstream, which he named "French Rock."

Over the next 100 years, control of the region alternated between the Spanish and the French, but few permanent settlements were established, so at the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Arkansas was almost uninhabited. Once the territory became part of the United States however, more and more Americans were willing to move west of the Mississippi River. The first white settler near the "little rock" was William Lewis, a hunter. In July, 1812, he built a small hut and planted a few pumpkin seeds so he could file a homestead claim. In 1819, a land speculator from St. Louis named William Russell bought Lewis' claim and by May 1820, he had staked out a town site. Later that same year, members of a rival group laid out a second town site that they named Arkopolis. In 1821, Russell's Little Rock settlement was chosen as the capital of the Arkansas Territory. When tensions between the two opposing groups touched off fears that the capital would be moved elsewhere, the speculators resolved their differences amicably, shook hands, and the site was officially named Little Rock.

Now a beautiful park, this used to be 
Hell's Half Acre.
In the early days of the settlement, the Arkansas River was the lifeblood of the town. The "little rock" extended into the river, forming a natural landing basin for boats to offload their commerce. The earliest ferry that crossed the river was at this point of rocks in 1819. In the Civil War, just before the city was captured, Confederate troops burned the CSS Pontchartrain at the landing to keep it from falling into the hands of the Yankees. Right after the Union forces captured it, to facilitate the movement of troops and equipment, a pontoon bridge was constructed across the river with one side anchored into the rocks at the landing. After the war, the area around the "little rock" became notorious due to the saloons, gambling establishments, and women of ill repute. It quickly became known as "Hell's Half Acre." It was many years later before the area was cleaned up and the less desirable individuals were strongly encouraged to ply their trade elsewhere.

What remains of the original little 
outcrop of rocks.
The original La Petite Roche was located at the present day north end of Rock Street overlooking the Arkansas River. In the late 1800s however, most of the rock was blown up to build a railroad bridge. But some forward thinking soul saved the tip of the rock and after sitting in a warehouse for a few years, it was hauled to the lawn of City Hall. A plaque with the title "Le Petite Roche" was bolted to it.

The change in location caused much confusion. Visitors to Little Rock who wanted to see "the little rock" would be given directions to the riverside where they would wander around fruitlessly looking for a rock with a plaque on it stating "here's the little rock." But the rock was sitting on the City Hall lawn with a French name bolted to it. Finally, in 2009, the problem was solved when the rock was moved back to it's original location on the riverbank. If you want to see it now, it stands in a very visible plaza in Riverfront Park, next to the old railroad bridge and has a plaque attached proclaiming it to be The "Little Rock."

Sculpture in Riverfront Park

Jogging track Riverfront Park with the famous 
Peabody Hotel in background.

Downtown Little Rock