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Historic Washington takes visitors back to 1800s

BLACKSMITH SHOP. Jerry Ligon works in the blacksmith shop at Historic Washington State Park.

By Don Hall

News-Leader staff

The year was 1821, and the newly formed government of Mexico needed settlers. Fewer than 4,000 people lived in the entire province of Texas, and the word was spread that Texas would welcome immigrants. Within 10 years, more than 30,000 United States citizens had moved there, most of them passing through Washington, Ark., on the Southwest Trail.

Leading from St. Louis to the Red River crossing at Fulton, the Southwest Trail was the main road through the wilderness of Arkansas for those traveling from the U.S. to Texas. Among those who passed through Washington were Texas Revolution hero Sam Houston and Alamo fighters William Travis, Davie Crockett and Jim Bowie. The legendary Bowie knife was created by blacksmith James Black in Washington.

Those of us in Howard County know where “Old Washington” is located. We drive through it whenever we go to Hope. What you may not know is that Historic Washington State Park (the full name) is a good representation of how frontier towns appeared in the 1800s.

Established in 1973, the park contains 54 buildings on 101 acres and is the largest collection of 19th century buildings in Arkansas. A stop at the Hempstead County Courthouse in Washington (built in 1874) will get you information on the history of the town from long-time employees Sheila Ballard and Cynthia Wallace, as well as a map of the park for your self-guided tour.

In 1863, Union forces captured Little Rock. The Confederacy then made Washington the state capital. The original County Court House, built in 1836 and still standing, became the seat of the Confederate government in Arkansas until the end of the Confederacy in 1865.

Just down the street from the old courthouse, the smell of woodsmoke fills the air around the blacksmith shop. Jerry Ligon has been the blacksmith for the park for two years, and on most days he can be found there, heating iron in the forge and working it into items needed by the park. Visitors are welcome and questions are answered about frontier blacksmithing as the hammer rings and the hot metal is bent and formed on the anvils.

The aroma of Southern cooking flows from Williams’ Tavern, a historic frontier public house that dates from 1832. Open daily from 11:00-3:00, the restaurant serves traditional Southern comfort food in a dining area that makes you feel that you have stepped back to the mid-1800s.

Josh Williams is the curator of Historic Washington State Park. Williams is the local expert on the park, having been a full-time employee for 15 years and a volunteer in the park for 15 years prior to that. Growing up in Hope, his connection to the park began when, as a 10 year-old, he began taking part in Civil War re-enactments during the park’s annual Jonquil Festival, held each year in mid-March. 

Early frontiersmen would gather regularly in Southwest Arkansas at the point where five Indian trails met. It was at that location that the town of Washington began. Frontier Days at the Hill of Five Trails Rendezvous in mid-February at Historic Washington State Park is an opportunity to walk back in time as you go through a re-created frontier encampment, with campers dressed and living as they would have two centuries ago. Visitors can view living history and learn pioneer survival skills, including demonstrations of tomahawk throwing and firing flintlock rifles.

Having out-of-town guests? Put them in jail at the Jailhouse Bed and Breakfast in the restored Washington jailhouse. Check https://www.arkansasstateparks.com/parks/historic-washington-state-park for available dates and prices.

Historic Washington State Park is another of the gems available to us within easy driving distance of Nashville. For more information, call 870-983-2684.

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