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Who was Marie Harris?

Who was Marie Harris?

Who was Marie Harris? 
A small sidewalk marker in Fort Smith leads a team to research the story of a beloved little girl.

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We associate the phrase “gone but not forgotten” with gravestones. Occasionally, people, places and events become both gone and forgotten, at least until the more curious among us notice their memorials hiding right under our feet.

This was the case when photographer Glenn Gilley’s daily walk led him to notice a monument at perhaps one of the most unlikely spots in Fort Smith.

At the narrow, pie-shaped traffic island where North 19th and A Streets and Rogers Avenue converge, Glenn looked down and saw the words “Marie Harris Park” inscribed in the sidewalk. He mentioned it to historical researcher and writer Joe Wasson. 

Who was Marie and why did someone long ago create perhaps the smallest park in Arkansas in her honor, there on an itsy-bitsy wedge of land at a busy intersection? Glenn’s question inspired me to try to find out.

The good news is the mystery of Marie Harris Park has been solved. Several people contributed their knowledge to give a human story to this little marker – historical researcher Rena Westbrook and Harris family relatives Thomas Pryor III and Arthur Widder II.

Almost 122 years ago, Marie Harris was born into a family of “doers” in the tiny town of Leflore, Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory, 25 miles southwest of Poteau. It was 12 years before Oklahoma statehood.

Marie’s grandfather Matthew Handy Harris Jr. and her father, Robert Perry Harris, had moved there from Hartford, Ark., to establish a country store and a sawmill as white people began to flood across the Arkansas River into the territory west of Fort Smith.

The Harris family took in a boarder, Miss Lula Ward of Fort Smith, who had been hired to teach at a local Indian school. It didn’t take Cupid long to launch his arrow and on May 17, 1892, Lula Ward married Robert Perry Harris.

Their first two children were born in LeFlore County: Lucile in 1893 and Marie in 1895. By 1898, the R.P. Harris family was living in a rented house at 108 North 16th Street, Fort Smith.

Harris had opened a thriving lumber business. The family grew with the births of Bess in 1898; Robert Perry Jr. in 1900; Dorothy in 1903 and William K. in 1906. R.P. and Lula quickly became so well-known in business and society that it was mentioned in the newspaper when R.P. had a case of measles in February 1899.

Around 1900, the Harris family settled into a new home at 101 North 19th Street. It resembled the new brick home their former neighbor T.J. Smith had built at 120 North 16th Street. As a lumber man, R.P. built his new house of wood. Life was good and the family prospered. R.P. joined his former neighbor, Smith, on the board of the American National Bank. It was the original occupant of the Garrison Avenue building where R. Landry’s New Orleans Cafe is today.

Lula’s brothers Joseph Napoleon and Frank Ward Jr. were overseeing a successful livestock operation. The Wards would subsequently buy Border City Ice & Coal Co., which would soon make Joe the king of the ice business. Ward Ice Co. spread across Arkansas and Oklahoma. Ward Ice Industries, as it was renamed, employed six other members of the Ward family.

In 1920, the family launched Ward’s Ice Cream Co., which would last into the 1980s with the advertising slogan “It’s A Food Not A Fad.” Joe N. Ward’s 1889 home is still standing at 323 North 19th. His family later built a new mansion around 1912. That beautiful red brick house is at 904 Adelaide.

All was well for both families until February 1905, when 9-year-old Marie Harris was injured when she fell from the top of a neighbor’s picket fence.

As Marie struggled along, using a crutch, her condition worsened. At 5 a.m. Feb. 24, she died of meningitis, at home. 

Her funeral was conducted by the Rev. F.F. Gibson at the Harris home, according to her obituary in the Fort Smith Times. Marie was buried at Oak Cemetery.

A look at that era’s newspapers shows the grieving Harris family trying to resume normal life after Marie’s death. In 1907, the newspaper reported a traffic accident between an automobile and a buggy on North Greenwood Road. Local automobile pioneer Gus Boehmer was teaching R.P. Harris the fine art of driving a motorcar. The clatter of the car caused the horse pulling a buggy to bolt. The buggy driver, a Mrs. Buggs, was holding a baby in her arms. The buggy turned over. Fortunately, no one was killed.

Despite this accident, R.P. and his brother in-law Joe Ward invested $28,000 ($600,000 today) to form the Ward-Harris Automobile Co. in 1908. They built a large new showroom and full-service garage at the corner of North 10th and B Streets, part of today’s Brunwick Place complex.

They were authorized dealers of Cleveland White Steam cars and gasoline-powered Thomas Flyers and Oldsmobiles. They kept their garage open 24-7 to service the “crippled machines” of their customers. A few years later, Harris’ driving instructor, Boehmer, would move his Ford and Buick dealership into the building that is the new location of Rolando’s Restaurante, 917 North A Street.

Tragedy came to the Harris and Ward families again. Lula Ward Harris, Marie’s mother, died March 17, 1917, at the age of 46, due to “acute distillation of the stomach.”

North A Street where Marie Harris Park was inscribed in the sidewalk would have been visible from the windows and wrap-around front porch of the Harris home.

By 1920, the Harrises sold that home. The children were grown and married. R.P., now 54, and his 19-year-old son, R.P. Jr., were living in Eagle Township, Polk County, operating their lumber company. 

R.P., who never remarried, died in 1938, at 73, in Caddo Parish near Shreveport, La., while operating an oil and gas business.

During World War II, the Harris house was divided into four apartments. It was torn down in 1960 for the new office of Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. Today, that building is the headquarters of TEC Staffing Services.

All but one of the surviving Harris children moved away. Lucile, the oldest, lived to age 98. She was the wife of Dr. William Rogers Klingensmith and lived in Texas. Bess married John Arthur Widder and lived in New York. She moved back in the 1950s after her husband died. John Arthur Widder II, her son, is living and shared family stories, photos and letters concerning Marie with his cousin Tom Pryor III.

R.P. Jr. left in the 1920s. He married Edith Berquist in Connecticut and lived many years in Massachusetts.

Dorothy Harris married Thomas Brady Pryor Jr., in 1929 and lived here. She died of pneumonia at the age of 39 in 1942, leaving three young children. She is the mother of Tom Pryor III, who contributed to this story. He recently gave the Pryor family history in a “Clayton Conversation” talk. He did not know of the Marie Harris Park inscription until the time of this article.

William K. “Bill” Harris became a lawyer. He married Dawn Atkins and practiced in Fort Smith before joining his sister Lucile in Amarillo, Texas, for the remainder of his life.

Marie Harris Park wasn’t gone, but until recently it was forgotten. A photographer’s curiosity brought to light a great deal of information from Rena Westbrook, who had noticed the park a few years ago, prompting her research. With the help of Marie’s nephew, (Dorothy’s son) Tom Pryor III, the mystery of Marie Harris Park is solved.

The author of this article, Joe Wasson, added a personal thought after spending many hours talking with the others involved and thinking of Marie Harris:

“Those who knew Marie have been gone for decades. But love for her is reflected in that small memorial even though she lived more than 100 years ago. It is heartbreaking and yet, heart-warming. Perhaps the marker and tiny ‘park’, that someone who loved her put there, has the power to lend some comfort to anyone who has experienced such a loss. Marie Harris is remembered.”

This article appears in the August 2017 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.

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