20 July 2009

Hangin' Judge Parker's Court

For those of you who think of Arkansas as a sleepy (read: boring) Southern state, think again! The Fort Smith area where I was born and now live in again has quite the colorful history.

This past weekend I had the perfect opportunity to show the kiddos some of that history. In case you weren't aware, the National Parks Service is hosting *Fee Free Weekends* throughout the summer. There is one left: August 15th & 16th. You can go here to see which National Parks & Historic Sites are participating. This past weekend was the free weekend for July and since the weather here was amazingly Fall-like, we headed over to the Fort Smith Historic Site.

I had not visited the site since high school and was impressed with the restoration work that had been done. It has become a wonderful local treasure! While the new museum has much information on the history of the fort, the site primarily focuses on Judge Parker's time there at the federal court. While Arkansas had become a state in 1836, Oklahoma did not become a state until 1907 and Fort Smith is right on the state border. In the late 1800's it was almost like the wild west. Since Indian territory (modern-day Oklahoma) had its own law enforcement which could not arrest non-Indians, it became a favorite of bandits and law-breakers of all kinds.

Judge Parker came here in 1875 to a very corrupt court and an increasing crime rate. Within four months he had sentenced six men to execution on the gallows. These were the first of 79 that would hang during the years that Judge Parker presided over the court. He helped to restore order to the area along with the help of many US Marshals and deputies.

The federal jail was not-so-affectionately called *Hell on the Border*. It was horrible jail. They have made it look nicer with the restorations, but I remember visiting it before the nice museum and restoration work was done. I think it was probably more realistic then.
The kiddos were not impressed with the jailhouse *restroom*, nor the sleeping accommodations.

Here's a look inside Judge Parker's courtroom. The kiddos were busy with their Junior Park Ranger booklets, doing a scavenger hunt as they looked at the displays. (That's a great educational program, by the way, for whenever you visit National Parks).
We also enjoyed walking around the grounds, especially since the temperature was so nice for summertime here. Below is the Commissary Storehouse. It is the oldest building in Fort Smith and was used as a warehouse.
We got to meet *Jack* the horse and his owner. The kids enjoyed the people in period clothing.

We had fun walking up to the river overlook and exploring some of remains from the first fort.
We had to take a break under a shade tree for them to work on their booklets. They wanted to earn their badges! If you live in the area, or are passing through, I would highly recommend spending some time here to learn some more about our nation's history. There are several other interesting historic sites nearby that are fun to visit also.

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