130 is the best year ever at Clayton House
At the grand age of 130, the historic W.H.H. Clayton House of Fort Smith may be enjoying its best year ever
More than 1,000 students visited the historic homemuseum this spring, tripling Clayton House's guest list compared to the year before. A popular series of cultural lectures and other special programs are drawing record attendance. And an enthusiastic new executive director, Julie Moncrief, with the help of board members and many and diverse volunteers, has presented the most appealing agenda the Clayton House has ever offered.
“It really does take a village to run the Clayton House,” observed Genia Smith, the current board president. Many hands are needed. The Victorian mansion's saviors were a group of women who, in 1969, saw to the home’s preservation and total restoration. In 1977, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its supporters formed the Heritage Foundation and gathered its significant, period-correct furnishings from local donors, establishing it as a flagship of the Belle Grove Historic District, which the same members also supported.
Although the public and many years worth of visitors and tourists have appreciated Clayton House, its operation has been a continuing challenge to each volunteer board of directors that followed.
Period-appropriate repairs and maintenance to the rambling, clapboard mansion are labor-intensive – and expensive. When U.S. Attorney Clayton bought the property for his home, new and more ornate carpentry essentially surrounded an existing house that may date to the 1850s. Some structural elements are closer to 160 years old.
Clayton and his wife, Florence, raised six daughters and a son and were known to have entertained graciously, making the Clayton home a scene of socializing, discussion and music. In part, it was the cultural history of the home that helped convince Moncrief, the museum’s director of one year, to accept her job.
Board members Pollyanna Core and Robin Clegg recruited Moncrief, whose most recent work was as director of Leadership Fort Smith, a leadership development nonprofit organization, and a volunteer who also masterminded a city-wide Bass Reeves reading program where volunteers read a historical biography to students. Moncrief immediately saw a connection to both of her prior projects.
“I think the idea for ‘Clayton Conversations’ is actually what made me say yes and want to do this,” Moncrief said. “I learned at Leadership Fort Smith that there are so many gentle people who are humble but knowledgeable and really good speakers,” she said. “There are so many people who have something to teach.”
Much of Fort Smith’s development, not only its military, judicial and civic history, was influenced by the era in which the Claytons lived, she said. She had the idea that by inviting selected and surprising speakers, an engaging picture of the Claytons’ and other citizens’ daily lives could be vividly illustrated.
Herself the daughter of a physician, Moncrief first invited Dr. Taylor A. Prewitt, who told a fascinated audience about medical practices of the 1880s and onward. He explained how the Claytons and other Fort Smith residents would have been treated by a doctor who came to their home. Surgeries and first aid, such as the doctor was capable of providing, might have happened in the kitchen.
“I know I’ll never look at the kitchen table the same way!” Moncrief exclaimed. The series of Clayton Conversation speakers so far has also included a talk on Fort Smith’s furniture industry by Gene Rapley, a slideshow and information on Fort Smith landmarks by Chuck Girard and the direct recollections of Claude Reutzel, a 100-year-old Fort Smithian who also is a descendant of early settlers.
As the Claytons would have done, the Sunday afternoon talks are enhanced with refreshments and short musical performances.
“All those graces we teach about, we have to embody every day,” Moncrief believes. It’s a natural extension of the traditional hospitality the Claytons, all the previous Heritage Foundation boards and longtime volunteers have endeavored to practice.
Fortunately, there is a cadre of talented volunteers who make beautiful desserts, she said in praise. “For any occasion at the Clayton House, they see to it that we have delicious desserts we can serve on our tiered trays,” she said.
But in order to present true Victorian-era “high teas,” Moncrief has also held trainings for volunteers in the period etiquette of the tea service. The historic home may be rented for light tea or Victorian afternoon tea and also is available for weddings, showers or meetings. A trained staff is necessary to present these income-producing events. “We enjoy emphasizing manners,” Moncrief said, “and our trainings are also to increase our professionalism at being a wedding venue.”
Formal etiquette and related social customs have proved to fascinate schoolchildren, Moncrief has noted. Soon after taking the job, she developed, along with her counterparts at the National Historic Site, Fort Smith Museum of History and U.S. Marshals Museum, a curriculum to provide educational field trips to all four Fort Smith historical museums, called “Life and Law in 19th Century Arkansas.”
“Jessica Hayes of the Marshals Museum obtained a grant for this,” Moncrief explained. Cooperatively, the four museum directors created a toolkit for teachers so they may prepare students for the visit and connect classroom lessons to the experience.
When visiting Clayton House, the students hear “The 12 Golden Rules” for a child of the 1880s. They’re also shown items they may never have seen before, including a stereoscope, a petticoat mirror and the giggle-inducing hit of every tour, a porcelain chamber pot.
As they tour the house, the students are shown the fireplaces for heating and the washstands with pitchers and bowls used for bathing – a very big contrast to their own living conditions.
“We pick one child and say, ‘Would you look under the bed and carefully lift that pretty bowl?’ Then we ask them how they would like it if on a cold night, they had to go down a dark hallway, down the stairs and outside to the backyard to a smelly outhouse,” Moncrief explained.
After the expected reaction of “eeewww,” some of the children understand the reason a chamber pot might be useful. So far, no one has dropped one!
Children who visit on field trips and especially in workshops Clayton House offered last year got to learn the purpose of a calling card and made one of their own; folded and painted hand fans and learned to play the toss-and-catch game of “grace hoops.”
At “Balderdash,” an event featuring storyteller Janie Weber, kids shared Victorian pastimes such as “Jack Tales” told by Weber, learned to make hand shadow puppets and how to behave at tea. After each field trip, the Clayton House received proper thank-you notes (good lesson!).
Connecting more people to Clayton House’s future
Besides the field trips the Clayton House staff has hosted, Moncrief has made an effort to invite high school and college students to become volunteers. From Southside High School, orchestra students have entertained at several events. Southside drama students volunteered to learn to perform educational sketches, some penned by Dave Ross.
Saturday programs for youth volunteers are ongoing in which they’re taught some of the special methods of conserving and cleaning the home’s furnishings, such as waxing the wooden furniture.
Cooperation with students of historical interpretation at UA-Fort Smith has netted mutually helpful volunteers, interns and even employees of the historic home museum since the program was created there, Moncrief noted.
The board has been encouraged by generous support of skilled labor and maintenance, from wood refinishers to piano tuners, yard workers, discounted heat and air equipment work, pest control help and especially “Rick’s Crew,” organized by Rick Watson to do almost anything that requires strong backs or a tool belt.
Moncrief hopes each volunteer or participant will feel a little ownership of Clayton House and become a lifelong supporter.
It’s polite to say “Thank You”
A “September Serenade” party is planned for Sept. 20 for recognition and thanks to the many people who have helped the Clayton House this year.
“We hope to give all of them a delightful couple of hours – members, donors, volunteers, tour guides, re-actors, in-kind donors – all our Clayton House family,” Moncrief said. She is planning to screen a video she has been preparing, starring many people explaining their connection to the Clayton House. In the overabundance of courtesy the Clayton tradition calls for, she plans to thank the performing musicians first for performing – and then they will entertain.
The Clayton House is located at 514 North 6th Street, Fort Smith. Tours for Clayton House members are free and are $2.50 for guests and $1.50 for ages 12-18. Touring hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. The home may be rented for private events. Memberships, vital to the museum's operations, begin at $15 and include newsletters, rental discounts and more. Current information is published on the website claytonhouse.org and on Facebook.