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Old Washington State Park Giving Life to a Century Past

Article follows the photos:
  • Old Washington Historic State Park

  • Living history at Old Washington

  • Surrey rides are offered at Old Washington

  • Living history at Old Washington

April 1, 2000

Old Washington State Park
Giving Life to a Century Past

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

WASHINGTON, Ark. -- The gear-shifting tractor-trailer rig on U.S. 278 contrasted sharply with the clip-clop of the horse-drawn surrey on Conway Street as Carey Walker said, "The first impression I hear from many of our visitors is: 'Where's the park?'"

While Walker, superintendent of Arkansas's Old Washington Historic State Park, understands that confusion, he also sees in the park "something very unique, not just for Arkansas but for this whole part of the country."

Alone among the state's more than 50 parks, Old Washington exists within a still-viable town the history and pioneer culture of which the park was created to preserve and showcase. Thus, appreciating the park's significance requires a comprehension of the town of Washington's place in American history.

In 1818, the Missouri territorial government (Arkansas did not become a separate territory until the following year) created Hempstead County, which covered the area of several present-day counties in southwest Arkansas.

Washington was founded six years later as county leaders established a new seat of government on the Southwest Trail, a path long used by Native Americans that became the first road through wilderness Arkansas.

The route ran from St. Louis through Batesville, Little Rock and Washington, then southwest another 15 miles to the steamboat port of Fulton on the Red River. The Red was then the border separating American territory from the Mexican territory known as Texas.

Because of its Southwest Trail location and proximity to the border, the town played a role in Texas's 1835-36 fight for independence from Mexico. Evidence suggests that Sam Houston and others discussed plans for the revolt while Houston resided for a time in one of the town's taverns in 1834.

Volunteers from Arkansas and other states passed through Washington en route to the Texas battlefields. Among them was the legendary frontiersman, Davy Crockett, who stayed briefly in late 1835 on his way to his death at the Alamo on March 6, 1836.

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

When the Mexican-American War began in 1846, Washington became a major rendezvous for volunteers. The First Regiment of Arkansas Cavalry formed at Washington and was commanded by former governor Archibald Yell, who left his seat in Congress to do so. Yell died in early 1847 at the Battle of Buena Vista.

After Little Rock fell to Union forces in 1863, the state's Confederate government relocated to Washington and used the 1836 Hempstead County Courthouse as its capitol. The town's pre-Civil War population of 480 was swelled by soldiers, government workers and others. Union forces neared the town during their 1864 Red River campaign but it remained in Confederate hands throughout the war.

Washington also produced for its size a remarkable number of important politicians. Included were four Confederate congressmen, two governors, a U.S. attorney general, a speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the president of Arkansas's 1876 Constitutional Convention.

As sometimes happened with once-prominent towns created as the new American civilization spread across the continent, a change in transportation sent Washington into decline. In 1873, the area's first railroad, the Cairo and Fulton, bypassed the town eight miles to the south and a new settlement named Hope -- the future birthplace of President Bill Clinton -- was established beside the tracks.

Revitalized briefly when a railroad reached the town from Hope in 1879, Washington reached its peacetime peak population of 730 in 1880. However, disastrous fires, first in 1875 and again in 1883, devastated its commercial district. In 1939, the town's doom seemed certain when it lost to Hope its status as a county seat. The Telegraph, founded in 1840 and the only Arkansas newspaper to publish throughout the Civil War, printed its last issue in 1947.

However, another chapter in Washington's long life -- one that would take the town away from oblivion -- began in the 1950s. That's when some of its residents realized that their community, because of its lack of 20th Century progress, still contained a substantial number of 19th Century structures.

In 1958, they formed the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation and began preserving and restoring the historic buildings. Their efforts led to the park's creation in 1973.

Despite distractions like the big trucks passing through and some modern houses, 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, in one of the state's most illustrious towns from that era.

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, in which burials of early settlers include three veterans of the American Revolution; and historic houses dating from the mid-1830s to the 1850s, with the later ones built in the Greek Revival style.

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

Walker, who has been at Old Washington for more than six years, describes the park as "in kind of its young adulthood," adding: "It has a sense of where it is going now."

Two aspects of the park's more focused mission, Walker said, have been to emphasize historical accuracy in its restorations and programs and to "give visitors more of a sense of the community that was here."

The "in-town farmstead" around the Sanders House (c. 1845) provides an example of those efforts. Based on the work of historical archeologists and a 1907 photograph taken from the top of the town's 1874 Hempstead County Courthouse, which is itself currently being restored, 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 property.

The staff has used the garden plot to grow heirloom plant varieties and Walker hopes that soon the animals that would have been found on such a farmstead can be added as well.

The horse-drawn surrey rides, which began last year, have recreated another facet of life in the historic community.

Work is in progress on developing the 1852 Crouch House as a demonstration of 19th Century construction techniques. According to John Spencer, the park's assistant superintendent, exhibit topics will include 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 is also making an effort to be more accommodating to its visitors, Walker said, and is in the process of replacing hourly, guided walking tours of the town's structures with self-guided tours in which visitors will find park personnel in period costumes at various sites.

The park's yearly 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.

Included among the park's special interpretive events are the reenactment of an 1844 murder trial in the 1836 courthouse and intensive sessions designed to acquaint students with 19th Century history and culture. One-day and two-day programs are offered for schools.

The park is open all year from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., being closed only on Thanksgiving, December 25 and January 1. Visitors can obtain a map of the park at its visitors center located in a restored tavern building on U.S. 278. Southern-style lunches are served daily from 11 to 3 p.m. in the park's Williams Tavern restaurant.

More information on the park and its special events and programs can be obtained by phone at (870) 983-2684, by mail at P.O. Box 98, Washington AR 71862 or by e-mail at

The only lodging available in Washington is in a bed-and-breakfast located in the former (and now remodeled) Hempstead County Jail (1918). Information on lodging in nearby Hope, including an RV campground in Hope's Fair Park, is available from the Hope Chamber of Commerce at (870) 777-3640.

Millwood State Park, located about 20 miles southwest of Washington, has numerous campsites. Phone the park at (870) 898-2800 for more information.


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"