Earlier in this series, I introduced you to the stunning Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, situated in Northwest Arkansas approximately 110 miles from Tulsa, Oklahoma, 216 miles from Little Rock, Arkansas and 235 miles from Kansas City, Missouri.
The impetus was to explore the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, an architectural and artistic masterpiece that has already joined the echelons as among the most significant museums in the world. And although this new “Cinderella attraction” is what is drawing people who may never have heard of Bentonville here, once you arrive you realize that there is a fascinating history that makes it one of the most unique cities in the country.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with historian Monte Harris, a fifth generation denizen who is also the author of Images of America: Bentonville. She gave me a brief overview of the city’s history, starting with its establishment as a settlement in 1836, the same year that Arkansas achieved statehood. I think this snippet from the book sums up its early roots best:
“From the beginning, Bentonville was the center of county government, attracting an ever-increasing population of prosperous-minded merchants, attorneys, real estate speculators, and their families. They served as town and county officials and built Bentonville’s first homes, offices, commercial establishments, churches and schools. After suffering through the Civil War, several experienced merchants rebuilt, and once again, the businesses of the Bentonville Square flourished”.
Among those early citizens was African American Arthur “Rabbit” Dickerson, who was born here in 1897; earning his nickname from the speed in which he did his chores as a kid. Dickerson went on to own and operate his own shoe shine business, was highly respected for his worth ethic (he worked until age 81) and was known and loved around town. Sometime after his death in 1978, the city honored him with a plaque mounted outside of the building of his last business location on Main Street near the town square, and every year there is an award given in his name.
According to Harris, that early entrepreneurial spirit—of Dickerson and so many others of the day—has been the lifeblood of the city ever since, helping it to not only survive but thrive, including through the Civil and two world wars.
And then came Walmart, which changed everything.
Family, Country and Love of Others
The story of Walmart is really that of a family inextricably woven into the fabric of the culture here. To grasp how this all fits together be sure to visit the Walmart Visitor Center, situated befittingly inside Walton’s 5&10, the first business opened by Sam Walton in 1950, the same year he and his family moved here.
From the outside and just inside of the doors is looks somewhat like it did back in the day—as a quaint, classic five and dime offering a handful of retro souvenir items, a café selling beverages, candy and snacks, and a large photo mural of the town’s beloved “Sam.”
However, just beyond the counter is an expansive museum possessing a wealth of interactive displays and numerous historical memorabilia collections that chronicle the company (whose global headquarters is located here in town) and the people who live and have breathed it since its founding.
A good start here is the Sam Walton Theatre for a short film detailing Sam’s life, loves, work and philanthropy, which really provides a much more in-depth, behind-the-scenes look into this global phenomenon which, sadly, is often portrayed in a negative light in the media.
The multi-room gallery exhibits here are engaging and interactive, including artifact pull-out drawers (made with handles from old Walmart shopping carts!), timelines, newspaper and magazine features, Walmart products past and present, family history, the start of the Sam’s Club stores, their worldwide philanthropic efforts, and more.
Next time around, we’ll continue traversing through the Walmart Visitors Center to get more of a sense of the man behind the dynasty.
To start at Part 1, click here.