The Interpretive Perspective: Bringing Arkansas's Past to Life

Article follows the photos:
Don Simons
Don Simons
Don Simons
Don Simons
Don Simons
Don Simons
Don Simons
Don Simons
February 28, 2003


The Interpretive Perspective: Bringing Arkansas's Past to Life
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By Jay Harrod and Craig Ogilvie
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

If hikers along one of Mount Magazine's secluded hiking trails were to see Don Simons step out of the woods clad in a bearskin robe and buckskin pants, carrying a tomahawk and armed with an authentic flintlock rifle, they might think they'd wandered back in time to the 1820s. Simons, who himself manufactured his attire, can be quite convincing.

In reality, what the hikers would be encountering is a living history character fashioned by Simons, an interpreter at Mount Magazine State Park, after he'd researched historical records of bear hunters who lived in the area during the early 19th century.

Simons, a 20-year state park veteran, began working at Mount Magazine in 2000. Upon his arrival he became interested in developing a character that would help interpret the mountain's history. And, like the characters he'd created at other parks, authenticity was paramount.

"I thought a bear hunter from the 1820-1830 period would be appropriate," he explains, adding that the character also wears a bead necklace adorned with bear claws.

Though known for its scenic beauty, Simons said the mountain's rich past makes the living history program a natural fit. Rising 2,753 feet from the Arkansas River Valley, Mount Magazine is the highest point in Arkansas. From the peak, sweeping vistas offer views of broad valleys and distant mountain ranges that first attracted settlers of European descent during the early 19th century. Its history reveals farmsteads, mountaintop resorts and an entire town that faded when the resorts closed. In the 20th century, the Works Progress Administration built a lodge and restaurant -- that burned in 1971 -- and the Civilian Conservation Corps built cabins, campgrounds and picnic areas.

Simons also provides interpretive programs covering topics that range from colorful wildflowers and butterflies to the wildlife that inhabits the area. And Simons oftentimes incorporates this knowledge into his living history programs. For instance, while portraying the bear hunter, he provides tips for campers and hikers should they encounter a bear, because, he says, "bears do populate this region of the state."

Simons says the bear hunter character, as well as other living history characters he's developed over the years, usually make appearances at special events at Mount Magazine and at many regularly scheduled, ongoing interpretive programs.

Interest in Civil War Prompted Start in Living History

A native of southwestern Louisiana, Simons graduated from McNeese State University at Lake Charles in 1982. While working toward his wildlife management degree, he spent a summer as a seasonal interpreter at Daisy State Park north of Murfreesboro. After graduating, he worked at Lake Catherine State Park for a year before moving to Lake Chicot State Park in southeastern Arkansas where he stayed for 17 years.

"That's where I became interested in living history," Simons says.

Upon his arrival at Lake Chicot, Simons began taking part in Civil War reenactments. "I researched and attempted to be as accurate as possible," he says. "Weaponry can be the most expensive part of a Civil War outfit."

Eventually, Simons had uniforms to portray infantry and cavalry soldiers for both the Blue and Gray. He also joined the 37th Illinois Volunteer Infantry reenactors, based in Little Rock.

"The 37th Illinois was very active in Arkansas during the Civil War," according to Simons. In 1999, Simons authored a book called "In Their Own Words," which interprets how the war affected those living in the Chicot County region.

Lake Chicot, an oxbow lake that was once the main channel of the Mississippi and is steeped in colorful legends, was the perfect place to develop a "river man" character, says Simons. Using buckskin he tanned and fashioned himself, he developed a character that attracted attention from across the state.

After attending an area Audubon Society meeting, Simons decided to add to his river man character.

"Knowing that naturalist John James Audubon had visited the territory -- including Arkansas Post during the 1820s -- made me want to incorporate this into the role," he recalls. Before long, the character became Jacob Aumack, the guide who helped Audubon explore the natural wonders along Arkansas's delta rivers.

Simons has taken the "river man" program to events across the state and aboard the famous Delta Queen riverboat. Along the way, he served as president of the Arkansas Audubon Society and became a member of the Early Arkansaw Reenactors Association. This group portrays characters from Arkansas's territorial years and was involved in filming an Arkansas Educational Television Network/Ouachita Baptist University documentary on the 1803 expedition to Hot Springs by explorers William Dunbar and George Hunter.

No matter what the living history character, though, Simons' ultimate goal is simple -- "to provide a taste of what life was like during the past."

Simons in Character and in Action

Simons will participate in a Civil War encampment at Mount Magazine State Park on April 11 and 12. He will make an appearance at the Louisiana Purchase State Park near Brinkley on May 10 during the park's bicentennial celebration of the 1803 purchase. Simons will also help host a program called "Frontier Explorers" at Mount Magazine on May 17 and is scheduled to present "Traveling with Audubon" at Hot Springs National Park on Aug. 23. He will also coordinate the Highpoint Rendezvous on Mount Magazine on Oct. 3-4, and assist with a Civil War-related event at DeGray Lake Resort State Park on Oct. 24-26.

Living History at Other State Parks

Several state parks offer living history programs throughout the year at events and during regularly scheduled interpretive programs. Some of these parks include: Old Davidsonville, Petit Jean, DeGray Lake Resort, the Museum of Natural Resources, Lake Ouachita, Lake Catherine, Logoly, the Ozark Folk Center and Old Washington.

At the Ozark Folk Center and Old Washington, teams of "living history" performers often recreate the past for special groups and large events.

For more information, visit www.ArkansasStateParks.com.

Visiting Mount Magazine

Arkansas's newest state park, Mount Magazine has modern campsites and a visitors center that includes a gift shop and a gallery with exhibits interpreting the area's history and plants and wildlife. Hiking trails, overlooks, a pavilion and picnic sites with restrooms are available at the 2,200-acre park, and funding was recently approved for the construction of a 90,000-square-foot lodge and 15 cabins. The rustic-style lodge, scheduled for completion in 2005, will feature 60 rooms, a conference center, a restaurant, an enclosed pool and several balconies that would take advantage of the scenic vistas.

Mount Magazine State Park is located on Ark. Scenic Highway 309, 17 miles south of Paris. For more information phone the park at (479) 963-8502.

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Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
E-mail: info@arkansas.com

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