By Roger Allnutt, Travel Writer
LITTLE ROCK, AR — For many people their only knowledge of Arkansas is that Bill Clinton was Governor of the state before he became the President of the United States in 1992.
Sandwiched between more ‘trendy’ states of Tennessee (Memphis and Nashville) and Texas (Dallas and Houston) it has a surprising amount to offer albeit at a more relaxed pace.
Interstate Highway I30 crosses the state passing through the capital Little Rock while other areas include vast timber areas, hot springs, the Ozark Mountains and even a place where you can pan for diamonds (Crater of Diamonds State Park near Murfreesboro) and take home what you find.
Little Rock is a modest city of around 200,000 people straddling the Arkansas River. Dominating the western end of the downtown area is the imposing State Capitol while the newish (opened 2004) William J. Clinton Presidential Library anchors the eastern end.
Built to a design based on the Long Room at Trinity College in Dublin the library features a number of display areas focussing on the different aspects of his two terms as president including the economy, health, defence etc. For scholars a vast trove of material is available from White House records of that period, even Clinton’s daily diary.
One fascinating exhibit is a full scale ‘recreation’ of the Oval Office as it was for his eight years in the White House, a smallish room elegantly furnished and dominated by the desk at which he worked. The feminine touch of Hillary Clinton in the carpet and settee choices is evident. This also came through in a superb table setting for a dinner marking the 200th anniversary of the White House.
Bill Clinton was born William Blythe in the small town of Hope in southwestern Arkansas (his father was killed in a car accident before his birth and he later took on his stepfather’s name). You can visit his birth place as well as an intriguing collection of memorabilia housed in the old waiting room of the local Amtrak station and ‘managed by an old African American woman. There is so much memorabilia that even the restrooms are packed with material.
Adjacent to the Presidential Library complex is the Heifer International Headquarters which is housed in one of the ‘greenest’ buildings in the US. Touring Heifer Village gives insights on world hunger and how we can help.
As with most capital cities of US states the State Capitol building is imposing and in many cases seem to have been built to a common design with central domed area. Built in 1912 it replaced an older building opened in 1836 which remains the oldest surviving state capitol building west of the Mississippi River. Now called the Old State House this Greek looking building contains many interesting exhibits including a reconstruction of the House of Representatives chamber with seating looking like school desks. It is known best as the site of President Bill Clinton’s election night celebration in 1992.
In September 1957 Little Rock Central High School became a crucial battleground in the struggle for civil rights. The nation watched as nine African-American teenagers attempted to enter the all-white school only to be turned away by Arkansas National Guard troops. Eventually this action led to desegregation in schools across America.
Although the school is still an operating school you can visit the front campus and learn more about the events in the smallish historic site museum across the road. Some good features there although the short documentary shown is very dated. An old petrol station on the corner near the school is us not operating but retains the old pumps and façade. Interestingly eight of the nine students from that time are still alive.
The students have been remembered in many ways none more dramatically than the statues of them in the grounds outside the State Capitol building.
In the days post-Civil War Little Rock boomed and many of the newly affluent citizens built homes to provide comfort and show off their new status. Most of the fine homes are clustered together just south of the city centre. In the 1960s the Qawpaw Quarter was created to identify and protect significant historic structures. Covering about nine square miles the area showcases around 100 residences, 15 churches, three schools, a military arsenal and several hotels.
A booklet available from the visitors centre provides a driving tour route and descriptions of the places you are passing many very ornate or stately in design. I was particularly taken with the Holtzmann-Vinsonhaler House, the Terry-Jung House, Villa Marre and the Arkansa Governor’s Mansion where the Clinton’s resided during his five two year stints as Governor of Arkansas.
The area along the Arkansas River is attractive and there are many walking and cycling paths on both sides. Near the Clinton Presidential Library a high bridge over the river is reserved for non-motorised traffic.
North Little Rock is a business and residential area on the north side of the river. A wonderful find is the Old Mill about 10km out of town in the quiet residential area of Lakewood. Although only built in 1933 it is a replica of old water-powered grist mills it was designed to appear much older. Set in a park the whole place is very atmospheric, the wheel still turns after rain, there are sculptures of toadstools, tree stumps and a tree branch-entwined bridge, foot bridges and rustic seats.
The Old Mill is a popular place for weddings and picnics. It was featured in the opening scene of iconic film Gone with the Wind and is believed to be the only remaining structure from that film.
For more information on Arkansas check the website www.arkansas.com