|View single post by David White|
|Posted: Mon Oct 20th, 2008 08:43 pm||
Today was my one day break from the Civil War and an occasion for Déjà vu twice in one day. Most of the attractions I wanted to see in Ft. Smith did not open until 10 a.m., so my first stop was determined for me. It was the boyhood home of General William O. Darby the man, who started, or if you prefer, resurrected the U.S. Army Rangers. The front yard of the modest little house in the Belle Grove Historic House district of Ft. Smith, was a memorial to the rangers. The unit tabs of every ranger battalion was etched into the sidewalk in front of the house and little marble stones leading to the front porch had important engagements of the rangers from World War II until the present. A memorial stone also sat in the middle of the yard to Darby himself.
I was knocking at the door promptly at 8 a.m. but the place looked closed despite a sign that indicated it should be opened. I knocked several times and peered through the front door window and it only looked like there were night lights on and the only living thing that seemed to respond to my knocks was a black and white Persian that walked down the main hall to see who was there. I left and walked around the block to where I parked my car (there was no parking on General Darby Street). I called the phone number for the house, but only got an answering machine. I left a message indicating I was only in town for the day and if they did open up, please call me as I wished to see the house. My next stop, Miss Laura’s, which was the former high class house of ill repute in town, did not open until 9 a.m. So I read from my new biography of Ben McCullough for 30 minutes and then drove to the river front. Across the street from Miss Laura’s (which doubles as the Chamber of Commerce today) There is a park by the river, so I went to it to observe the wide Arkansas River and watch some turtles in the river for a few minutes. As I drove to the parking lot to Miss Laura’s at opening time, I forgot that what I had been driving on was a one way street. So, I made a left turn into Miss Laura’s from the right lane. The poor lady that was just behind me in the left lane had to slam on her brakes to keep form hitting me. Boy did I feel like a dope.
Miss Laura’s was much better than I expected it to be. A cute little grandmother gave me a personal tour along with frank talk about Victorian sexual mores in the skin trade. Duncan will appreciate that the business model for Miss Laura’s was identical to Miss Hattie in San Angelo (but no tunnel from the bank like Miss Hattie). The house operated for 45 years from about 1880 to 1925. It is the only remaining building in what used to be a row of five houses of ill repute on Ft. Smith’s water front, each with a varying class and clientele. Miss Laura’s was abandoned a few years later when the Madame died just before World War II. After World War II, they moved the house about 300 feet due to a need to locate the railroad tracks on the original site of the house. When they moved it, they recovered many interesting artifacts. Of note, were some drawings possibly made by one of the girls who actually had a legitimate talent too. There were several medical clearance forms from the local doctor who had examined the girls for STDs. Numerous bible tracts were also found; were the girls feeling guilty or was the basement a dumping ground for what they considered trash? But the most interesting item was the photo album of one of the girl’s form the time just before the house was shut down. The pictures were exclusively young flapper girls, no men included, smiling and having fun together. Some were risqué with them flashing legs and garters or skinny dipping, so my guess is they were all former working girls. If they were, just based on looks, Miss Laura’s must have been a successful enterprise.
My guide made sure to tell me about the Belle Starr connection to Miss Laura’s. Outside of “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker and General Darby, Belle is the next biggest historic celebrity of Ft. Smith. Now I must confess that Belle is a distant cousin of mine, as there is Shirley blood in my line and Belle’s full name at birth was Myra Belle Shirley. Belle as we all know was the “Queen of the Bandits.” But when she gave birth to her first child, Pearl Reed, she determined early that she did not want her child to be involved in the criminal life, so she sent her east to boarding schools to bring her up right. But when Pearl returned from the east and her mom was murdered, she changed her last name to Starr and began working at Miss Laura’s. Eventually she opened up a house of her own, two doors down that was the only house of ill-repute to try to compete with Miss Laura’s clientele. Pearl’s house had a big wooden star carved into the facade above the door and the star was lit up with a red lantern behind it.
When I got back to my car there was a message on my phone from the gentleman at the Darby House telling me he was there. So I drove back. When I got back to the house, I was greeted at the door by the Persian I saw earlier and the President of the Darby Foundation, “Bob.” He ushered me into the house past the little museum in the front left room and back into his office behind the museum. I soon found out that the cat is a dog trapped in a cat’s body. He loved having his belly rubbed and actually did tricks. Whenever Bob “shot” him with his finger, he would roll over and play dead.
Above Bob’s desk was a gaping hole in the sheetrock of the ceiling. Last April, every roof in Ft. Smith was damaged by a hail storm. All over town were signs of roofing companies fixing roofs. My bed and breakfast had their roof replaced, as did Miss Laura’s (it was the second roof in the last 10 years for that house as previously the entire roof, literally the entire roof, was ripped off in a tornado). So too, the Darby House needed a new roof. But the roofers had not done a good job, as the roof in the family room and Bob’s office leaked. About two months ago Bob first noted it in his office as the sheetrock where the now gaping hole to the attic was visible, first became wet from the rains. One morning, about two weeks after noticing the wet spot, Bob came into the office and there was the big hole in the ceiling and everything on his desk was knocked over and in disarray. Bob just thought the cat had gotten up in the attic and stepped on the wet spot and it gave way and he fell on the desk and panicked. But after the next night, he came in and things in the museum room were knocked over and scattered about. Bob knew he had some sort of unwelcome visitor. He called animal control and they looked around but could not find anything. A few nights later, things in the back room were scattered about and knocked over. Another call to animal control and this time they found behind the kitchen door, the possum responsible for all the mess and took him away.
For the next four hours, long after I intended to leave, I was still there. Part of my stay was due to my interest and part due to Bob’s lack of visitors, if I surmise correctly. Bob is a retired AF guy too, so we swapped war stories for much of that time. He said my career was more impressive than his but that is BS just for what he did during his tour in Vietnam. He had many interesting stories involving crashes, blue panties and Bill Clinton than I have time to relate here. Every time I’d get up to go, he’d say let me show you this and he’d proceed to bring out some other memento from World War II like the note signed by Patton, asking a subordinate to help Darby find men for the rangers; Darby’s wife’s scrap book; the photo album and overseas locker with gear of a Ft. Smith resident who flew P-51s and P-47s in World War II. If it was not a memento, it was a Darby story, believe me I can tell you the dirt on the whole Darby clan now.
Visitors are normally only allowed in the hall, the museum and he living room. The hall is a memorial area where rangers leave their berets in honor of Darby. The museum contains memento and artifacts that belonged to Darby and his family. The living room is preserved with the family’s furniture that was in the room the day the family got the word that Darby died in Italy. The calendar on the wall even says May 1, 1945, the date German artillery fire killed him as the assistant division commander of the 10th Mountain Division.
From the Darby House, I went to the Ft. Smith Historic Site. I spent about 2.5 hours here viewing the history of the site. It started as a frontier outpost on the Arkansas River in 1817. The original fort is outlined in concrete as are the limits of the second fort about 200 yards further inland. The second fort was one of the only frontier forts with a masonry wall around it but it is all gone now as people took the bricks to build the town. The first major operation of the fort was to serve as the end of the waterborne Trail of Tears. After that they had to preserve the peace between the imported Cherokee and the Osage who had always lived in the eastern Indian Territory. Soon afterward, other forts like Ft. Gibson, Towson and Arbuckle became the operational forts replacing Ft. Smith and it instead became the supply depot that supported those forts. When that happened, the original fort by the river disappeared and the more permanent buildings were erected for the second fort. Several still exist today. After the Civil War, the barracks building became the jail, prison and courtroom of Judge Isaac Parker. Parker was the only judge with jurisdiction in the Indian Territory and his team of marshals were the only ones who could arrest fugitives or Indian offenders from the Indian Territory. Actually, this part of Ft. Smith’s history gets some pretty good historical coverage, for Hollywood standards, in a couple of novels and films—think True Grit and Hang ‘em High. In fact some of the dialogue of the people hanged in the latter movie is taken directly from the historical record and last words of men hanged at Ft. Smith.
The Visitor Center in the old barracks building has a nice film that covers the Indian, military, outlaw and legal history of Ft. Smith. In the north end of the barrack’s first floor they have recreated the jail area, which looks like an old dungeon as it is dark and partially underground. The second floor on the south side is the prison with a few of the iron cells visible. Most of these describe the outlaws that operated in the Indian Territory the Starrs, the Love Brothers, the Daltons, Ned Christie and Cherokee Bill. Cherokee Bill sounds like an interesting character and I almost picked up his biography, but reluctantly did not get it. There is a huge picture of Bill at the top of the stairs in the barracks taken shortly after his capture by a marshal. OId Bill has a big smile on his face as he has his arm around the marshal who captured him (reminded me of the more famous photo of John Dillinger with his captors). Bill admitted he was reaching for the marshal’s gun but due to the marshal’s long duster he was not able to reach it. That did not stop Bill. He had a gun smuggled into him and attempted a breakout from the prison floor killing a guard Larry Keating with two shots. A bullet he probably fired is one of the artifacts recovered when the building was renovated by the NPS. Bill was hanged on St. Patrick’s Day and thousands came to witness the event, including his mother. Bill supposedly whistled on the way to the gallows saying, "This is about as good a day to die as any." When he saw his mom he said, “Mother, you ought not to have come up here." She replied, "I can go wherever you go." His last words to the crowd gathered there was, “"Good-bye, all you chums down that way." After his death, many people noted the significance of the unlucky number 13 in Bill's life. A $1300 reward was offered for his capture; his first death sentence was pronounced on April 13; he killed Larry Keating the jailer on July 26 (two times thirteen); Judge Parker took 13 minutes to charge the jury in the Keating case; the actual hours used in the trial numbered 13; there were 13 witnesses for the prosecution; the jury took 13 minutes to find him guilty; and he fell though the trap of the gallows at 2:13 p.m. Also in the old prison area they had some artifacts from Cousin Belle and the other Starrs.
The middle room on the second floor chronicles the Trail of Tears and the fighting between the Osage and Cherokee. It also has some military displays. The third and most northern room is the recreation of Judge Parker’s courtroom and chronicles his career.
The walking tour takes you throughout the post including the site of the guard house where Cousin Belle and other women prisoners were housed. Cousin Belle’s only stayed there a few weeks, before she was convicted and shipped to a Detroit Prison by Judge Parker for horse thievery. It was the only time she would serve time for any of her crimes. The last thing I visited at the NPS site was the reconstructed gallows on the original gallows site. One neat things the park service does there is to have a ranger talk based on eye-witness accounts of the 65 hangings Judge Parker ordered in Ft. Smith. These talks are given on any anniversary of a hanging, unfortunately, no one was hanged on the date I was there.
From the National Park I went to the Ft. Smith history museum next door. It has a few gems. There is a huge display on Ft. Chaffee, a room on General Darby, many Civil War items and some terrific photographs of local events. One thing that caught my attention was someone who must have been the town comedienne. He dressed like a bum and rode a tiny donkey in just about every parade between 1880 and 1920. This museum also had Judge Parker’s real court room chair and Belle Starr’s side saddle that she is sitting on in her most famous photograph. My first moment of déjà vu was to see in that museum across form the side saddle, my exact bicycle from my youth. Mine was stolen at college (although this one in the museum was in near pristine condition, mine was not). It was a green five speed Schwinn with a metal sidesaddle basket. I can remember I did not want that basket but my mom insisted I have it so I could ride to the grocery store and buy things for her if she unexpectedly needed something or ran out of something like carrots for making her spicy Irish Stew.
My second moment of Déjà vu was when I ate at the Calico County Restaurant and ordered their Irish Stew, which tasted exactly like my mom’s. Here is the food critic portion of my narrative. I ate at this restaurant both nights, the food is outstanding and as an appetizer every patron gets one of their “famous” cinnamon roll. The food was so good after my first night; I went back the next night, even thought the service was about the worst I have experienced in years. It is run by a little old grandmother and her servers are young teenage kids that are too busy flirting with each other than to take care of the customers. But the food was so good I overlooked the horrible service and went back for the great Irish Stew. The food was heaven, the service was hell.
Although I ended this day earlier than any of the others, I was more tired. Standing in museums is much tougher and tiring than walking miles on a battlefield. I returned to my great little Bed and Breakfast, Beland Manor, for one last night.
Last installment to come…
Last edited on Mon Oct 20th, 2008 09:15 pm by David White