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OLD LOVES WE CALL HOME

BY LARRY WILLIAMS // Times Record

The phrase, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” readily comes to mind when one strolls through the Belle Grove Historic District of Fort Smith. Some might describe many of the houses in this neighborhood as “old” or, if they want to soften the blow, they might say “older”. If they dig deep, they might even find their inner Realtor, and describe them as “turn-of- the-century,” because that is exactly what many of these home actually are.

Located two city blocks northwest of Fort Smith’s commercial downtown area, with Garrison Avenue filling the role of “Main Street”, Belle Grove contains 22 square blocks, and within those blocks, there’s a lot of history.“It’s really fun having people stand in the front yard, and to tell them about all of the history in this house and this area,” said Julie Moncrief, executive director of the Clayton House Museum, of the walking tours given by Clayton House.

The neighborhood was home to many early Fort Smith politicians, merchants, lawyers and bankers.Most famously, District Attorney William H. H. Clayton (b. 1840-d. 1920), who served 14 years in the court of Judge Isaac C. Parker, lived there. The Clayton House still stands today as a landmark and museum near the southern border of Belle Grove.“For many people, it is the highlight of the district,” said Moncrief.

The number of Victorian-era and Victorian-style homes left standing across the country is small, Moncrief says. Fortunately, Clayton House can count itself among that number. In fact, the entire Belle Grove area has one of the highest.

One of the other famous homes in the neighborhood is Bonneville House, with a marble plaque on the porch that details the names of its famous owners.The McKibben-Bonneville House (circa 1870), is located in the 300 block of North 7th Street, and its most notable owner was Sue Neis Bonneville, widow of General Benjamin Eulalie de Bonneville.
 
General Bonneville was known for his expeditions to the West.It’s easy to forget, but at the turn of the last century, Arkansas was one of the western-most states in the union. To go beyond the borders of what was then a “frontier town” was to truly go into the American “Wild West”.
 
“There’s a story of a house owned by a railroad conductor whose job it was to take marshals into Indian Territory,” said Moncrief. “He’d have to take the train into an area where they were going to possibly arrest someone, and bullets would be flying, and he’d have a bowie knife in one boot, and a gun in the other."But it’s not just the famous homes, the homes with names and with plaques on their porches, that make Belle Grove a glimpse into the city’s past. Every house, and virtually every building, within the historic neighborhood follows the same Victorian-era style that has almost vanished completely in modern architecture.


There’s no such thing as a “cookie- cutter” home in Belle Grove, with minor variations to differentiate between residences. Instead, each one was crafted with a distinct owner in mind.


 

The Belle Grove School, now Schoolhouse Apartments, is the 600 block of North 6th Street, and is the largest single structure in the neighborhood, acting as the centerpiece for the eclectic collection of homes.“During the Civil War, Union soldiers entered Fort Smith in 1863,” said Moncrief. “They occupied the school, and turned it into a hospital for wounded soldiers.”

Schoolhouse Apartments once served as the longest-standing public school in the city, serving a total of 90 years. In 1870, the city purchased the building that would become the city’s first public school for $10,000.

“A lot of homes in this area have so much history because so many of the city’s first leaders lived here,” said Moncrief.

While Belle Grove is no longer as high-profile as it was in its heyday, it’s a testament to the neighborhood and its residents that so many of the homes — especially in their original forms, with original materials — are left standing. It’s also a testament to the city of Fort Smith that its residents, even today, respect the past and want to preserve its history—and the unique flavor of one of its first neighborhoods.