A Storehouse of History
Visitors can now step inside and learn about history in new ways at Fort Smith’s longest-surviving landmark – the Commissary Storehouse at the Fort Smith National Historic Site, regarded as one of the oldest structures in Fort Smith.
Built during the second military Fort Smith period, which began in 1838, it originally stood within the fort’s stone wall and served as a corner bastion protecting two officers quarters, a barracks and a quartermaster storehouse. Of that period, only the commissary and the barracks, later converted to the Federal Courthouse, still stand.
The park’s purpose is to put the past in the hands of visitors. The updated, interactive exhibits at the commissary will now do that well. The building previously reflected only its use as a supply warehouse during the fort’s military period. After months of painstakingly detailed work, the commissary now presents a more thorough depiction of all the ways the building was used.
“Originally, we only told one story, now we tell two – of it being a commissary for food and about it being turned into living quarters sometime during the Civil War, ” said Jeremy Lynch, an interpretive park ranger. “Food supplies were stored at the location and later transported to troops stationed farther west. Transcontinental railroad survey parties, ’49ers heading for California's goldfields and soldiers fighting in the U.S.-Mexican War drew rations from this building. It was modified for use as a barracks and hospital, and then converted into a residence for a time.”
Display cases hand built by Lynch hold food stores typical of a commissary’s inventory, including the occasional well-placed (plastic) mouse on a rafter or worms in hardtack and salt pork barrels. How’s that for authentic?
Shelves hold period-correct canned products such as potted beef and hominy. The cans are smooth edged and soldered according to the practices of the day. All the labeling and stenciling of bags, boxes and barrels are authentic to both the time and location of history it represents.
“I have always liked the small details, not just the large picture,” said Erik Creekmore, a park volunteer. “To me, that is what makes or breaks an impression for an exhibit.”
The floor is laid with stones that were pulled from the Arkansas River. The massive, aging beams can be seen leaking salt. More text panels and a smell display, where visitors can sniff vinegars and salt pork, eventually will be added.
The fortress of a building is hard to imagine as anyone’s home, but a few civilians lived there. That use is recognized in an exhibit of period furnishings, such as a writing desk that would have been owned by Florence Hammersley, court stenographer for Judge Parker, whose family lived in the building after a flood at their home in town. Parker himself used the second floor of the building as his chambers.
In 1910, after the Parker era was over, commercial buildings and streets crowded beside the commissary. Citizens with foresight succeeded in preserving it, using it as the Old Fort Museum, a forebear to today’s Fort Smith Museum of History. The military fort property was conveyed to the National Park Service in 1961.
As the commissary illustrates, the fort has played ever-changing roles in its almost 200 years. “Most people that come here are surprised because they don’t realize the large period of history that we cover,” said Lynch. “We start in 1817 and explain how this piece of land played such a huge part in politics, in law and order, and keeping the peace in Indian Territory.”
Addressing events from the establishment of the first Fort Smith on Dec. 25, 1817, to the final days of Judge Isaac C. Parker's jurisdiction over Indian Territory in 1896, the Fort Smith National Historic Site examines almost 80 years of richly varied state, national and cultural history, including one of the most difficult periods for Native Americans.
A passion for the past has drawn as many as 70,000 to 80,000 visitors, researchers and history buffs each year to learn Fort Smith and America’s past. Bringing this history to life is an ever-evolving aspiration for park staff and volunteers who willingly give their time to accomplish continual park upgrades.
“We try to present multi-perspectives and to look at both sides of the story, including the people that sometimes got caught in the middle,” Lynch said. “This is a place people can come and spend the day. In winter or summer, there are different pieces of history to explore.”
The park's grounds are open 365 days a year and include paved, handicapped-accessible walking trails along the Arkansas River and Belle Point, offering picnic tables and several outdoor exhibits, including a Trail of Tears overlook with interpretive panels. A visit to the historic site begins at the visitor center, located in the former barracks/courthouse/ jail building beside the replica gallows.
Fort Smith National Historic Site, 301 Parker Avenue, Fort Smith, Ark. For visitor information, call 479-783-3961. nps.gov/fosm