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Historical Plaques with a high-tech twist

Historical Plaques with a high-tech twist

We walk the same streets as the citizens who lived before us in downtown Fort Smith and do business in many of the same buildings as figures of our city's history.


A gift to the city of 12 historical plaques linked to online video will soon illustrate the past through devices early citizens could not have imagined - cell phones. Using a free downloadable application, smart phone users will be able to scan a symbol on the plaques that will open their browsers to online slide shows with audio narration.


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With the support of the Richard Griffin family of Fort Smith, a consortium of donors, historical researcher Joe Wasson and Williams/Crawford & Associates advertising agency, the dozen plaques share almost 200 years of interesting local history. 


The bronze plaques each have a photograph and printed captions that can be enjoyed without a cell phone, too. 


Rick Griffin of Griffin Properties, the company he operates with his father, Richard, said he was already a solid fan of historical plaques when Wasson proposed creating a walking tour of 12 historical markers with the added interactive feature.


"After the 1996 tornado, when our family had 13 downtown properties damaged or lost, we left all we could of the Reynolds-Davis building (300 Garrison Avenue)," he said. The Griffins placed a bronze historical plaque on the facade they preserved. 


The Griffins also installed historical pictures at Garrison Pointe convenience store to blend new construction with the old and to display history in a prominent place.


"We don't know our history well and when visitors come, it's hard for them to discover it," Griffin said, referring to the present-day town outside Fort Smith's National Historic Site and Fort Smith Museum of History.


Wasson proposed a long list of potential plaque locations and subjects. Griffin and an advisory committee chose the 12 locations. "We tried to choose some about people, some about places and events," Griffin explained, "and disperse them throughout downtown."


Wasson went to work last year to research, from original sources such as newspapers and historic documents, a brief but compelling account for each plaque.


"When I learned about QR (Quick Response)?codes and realized it was possible to present more words and pictures than could fit on a plaque, I was hooked," Wasson said. "Fort Smith will celebrate its 200th anniversary in five years. We have so many more interesting stories than can fit on a single bronze marker."


He proposed that the plaques be placed not at the historic addresses, but in the same place the photographer stood to take original photograph shown on the marker. Most of them are placed across the street from the building or site to which they refer.


"I like standing where the photographer stood, seeing the building now the way it looked then," he explained.


 "Showing as many images as I could get my hands on gave me a chance to tell what was there before the building was built or, in the case of the earliest part of town, what was once there but now is long gone."


An example is the plaque placed at the corner of Garrison Avenue and North 2nd Street, explaining 1860 Fort Smith, he said.


"John Rogers had laid his property in lots to make a proper town across from the main gate of the fort.  He was trying to organize streets, where there had been shacks and even tents selling to the soldiers and traders," Wasson explained. "For quite a while, North 2nd Street was the main street of Fort Smith, with Rogers'  hotel and stores lined up on it. It would be several decades before businesses began to grow east, up Garrison Avenue." 


To see a glimpse of that earliest town of Fort Smith, viewers with smart phones can scan a QR code on the plaque and see some of the rare and oldest images of town life before the Civil War, with wooden buildings and rutted dirt streets.


Fred Williams of Williams-Crawford quickly volunteered to help produce the online portions of the project as a donation. His interest in history and preservation are evident. The agency's office is a complex of historic buildings in the Belle Grove Historic District. Williams recently purchased the former Fort Smith Art Center's home, the Vaughn-Schaap house.


"I was really interested to hear about the connection between E.B. Bright, the builder of Marble Hall, and the Vaughn-Schaap house," he said. "Bright built it, according to Joe's research. I didn't know that."


His family has been in Fort Smith for more than 100 years. In one of the images concerning First National Bank, a Williams Dairy milk wagon is seen making a delivery.


Additional donors of funds and resources for the project include the Bennie Westphal family, the Bill Hanna family, Sam T. Sicard of First National Bank, the David McMahon Sr. family, Mike Shaw of the C.E. Davis & Evans Foundations and Mark Harper of the Richland Group. Support of the Central Business Improvement District and the City of Fort Smith was essential, Griffin noted.


The Griffins also are involved in the U.S. Marshals Museum campaign, the Bass Reeves statue initiative and significant downtown preservation of historic properties.


Wasson credited the Museum of History, the Fort Smith Historical Society, Fort Smith Public Library, Janie Glover and many local historians and collectors as invaluable resources.

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Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine, Online