Columns » Katherine Whitworth

Window on history

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As a bit of a history nerd and collector of local stories, I found the appeal of Van Buren’s annual “Living Windows” display — one evening last month when the storefronts of the city’s short Victorian Main Street would be filled with locals acting out scenes of local history — irresistible.

I get there early and have time to kill. At a used-book store, I pet a monstrous cat and am encouraged by the owner to visit another bookstore down the street. I eat a fried-egg sandwich and buy a pecan pie. At the visitor’s center, in the town’s carefully restored 1901 Frisco Depot, I learn that Native Americans passed through Van Buren on the Trail of Tears; that Bob “Bazooka” Burns, the Arkansas Traveler, grew up in Van Buren; and that the King Opera House where Jenny Lind has performed is rumored to be haunted.

I also learn that a short way down the river, Fort Smith’s Front Street was at the turn of the century an infamous red-light district, and that its busiest bordello, Miss Laura’s Social Club, was among the most celebrated in the Southwest. Van Buren’s Masonic Hall had been a brothel in its early days; ladies of the night received customers on the third floor of the building at 711 Main Street.

It’s getting dark and the storefronts are still full of merchandise. For a city with a population of 21,000, the streets don’t seem any busier than usual, though, never having been to Van Buren before, I don’t guess I’m qualified to make that assessment. I think about heading home.

At the other bookstore, an art teacher drinking coffee in a chair opposite me tells me that she’s come from Oklahoma at the urging of an artist friend who will be featured in one of the windows. She had lived in New York for several years. “This better be good,” she says.

I find the first display by accident, wandering into one of the bookstore’s many rooms. A woman in a plaid blouse and long skirt, a small hat balanced atop a bushy knot of hair, is arranging herself in the front window. I feel as if I’ve unwittingly opened the door to an occupied dressing room, and I hurry in needless embarrassment to my proper place, on the other side of the glass. A small sign identifies the woman, as well as her historical representation: quilting.

At the next window a woman holds in one hand a fine paint brush and in the other a delicate china cup. Nearby, an animatronic gentleman wearing a dark suit and a Santa hat swivels its head while its eyes dart back and forth. A woman in puffed sleeves and a vest works embroidery on a hoop, while a family of onlookers snaps pictures.

Several people in career-casual dress are milling inside the half-lit chamber of commerce, gesturing to each other with disposable cups. The windows are empty.

An older woman spinning wool on an antique wheel doesn’t move her head or any of its features for nearly two minutes. It’s creepy, and I wonder if she might be a robot. Then I notice that she has kicked off one modern shoe beneath her chair and is working the treadle barefoot.

I pass two women making candy, a man in jeans and suspenders laboring behind a sign that says “leather work,” a hat-maker, another quilter, and a woman absentmindedly plunging a butter churn while chatting with a friend. And a woman stringing popcorn.

It’s cold outside, and I haven’t yet reached the window depicting the Confederate troops who occupied Van Buren for two years during the Civil War, or the Battle of Van Buren, which left the city under Union control.

And I never will. The closest I get to Van Buren’s history is a group of exotically dressed girls who turn out not to be alluding to the nearby former red-light district, but advertising for the dance studio in whose windows they are performing.

Yes, it would be egregious to reference the old town’s two biggest plantations and the nearly 100 slaves they kept, but I do think it’s worth mentioning that Van Buren was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.

And where are Boyd and Martin, Van Buren’s first settlers, or Phillips, and Thompson and Drennan, its founders? What about the 38 men who in 1848 packed hundreds of pounds of bacon and flour and gunpowder and lead into covered wagons and trail-blazed six months westward, but left no record of whether they ever found gold? Or the Negro Women’s Labor Union, the wartime group of Riveting Rosies who abandoned domesticity to work on the railroads for 49¢ per hour? Where is Bob Burns (or even Matt Jones)? Maybe next year.

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