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— There are six National Park sites in Arkansas, and we have made it a point this year to include a visit to each one. Pea Ridge National Military Park, Arkansas Post National Memorial, Fort Smith National Historic Site and Buffalo National River have all been mentioned in previous columns, so I will complete coverage by discussing our trips to the two remaining national park sites we visited more recently.

Earlier in the fall, we spent a morning at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. Our visit did not fall on a school day; however, the famous historical landmark still serves as high school for over 2,000 students. Although visitors can mull around the grounds in front of the beautiful old historical school building anytime, it is only open to tour groups organized ahead of time with park officials. Central High is an impressive place, but even more extraordinary, I think, is the visitor center located in a separate building nearby.

This location contains many very interesting and informative exhibits focusing on the story of “The Little Rock Nine.” This group of African American students became the center of crisis in 1957 when they attempted to attendclasses at Central High School following the passage of desegregation laws. By order of Arkansas’ governor at the time, the National Guard was assigned to block entrances and keep the nine from entering the school. The fallout gained national and even international attention.

In the visitor center, many old photographs, video clips and other records, including recorded personal accounts, thoroughly present the challenges faced by these students, their families and others during this turbulent period. There is no admission charge to the visitor center, and it is certainly well worth the couple of hours it takes to review these significant events of Arkansas’ past.

A more recent trip took us to Hot Springs National Park. I have been to Hot Springs several times in the past. I have felt the warm mineral water that bubbles up from underground and have strolled down bathhouse row. But this time, I focused on learning more about the city, and especially the section included in the national park. However, spending a few hours there was barely enough to skim the area’s historic surface.

In 1832 Congress established Hot Springs Reservation to protect the hot springs on one side of Hot Springs Mountain. The name was changed to Hot Springs National Park in 1921. Eight bathhouses, remnants of the “Spa City” days, are protected by the park, along with 47 hot springs and their watersheds. The bathhouses, build in the late 1800s and early 1900s demonstrate various, and in some cases, very ornate architectural styles.

The Fordyce Bathhouse is the current park visitor center and has been restored with period furnishings. It canbe toured at no cost to get a first hand look at how the spas operated back in the day when people flocked from all over to be pampered and treated for ailments.

The Buckstaff is the only bathhouse currently operating as a spa.

Our visit was enhanced by a personal tour provided by my friend Patty, who now lives near Hot Springs. Patty learned a lot about the area when she took a class taught by a man who published books on the town’s history, and she was willing to meet on a cold morning and pass along some of that knowledge to us. As we drove around the city, she pointed out many old buildings (Bill Clinton’s high school, for instance, and the Arlington Hotel where Al Capone is said to have stayed on the fourth floor) and other land marks and gave a brief history of each. Patty also included information about more current happenings in the city. We braved the cold and finished our tour on foot, again walking down bathhouse row, reading the Arkansas Walk of Fame - a sidewalk with plaques honoring many famous Arkansans - touring the visitor center and sticking our cold hands in the 143 degree fountain water. We even bought a half gallon jug and filled it full of the hot mineral water to bring home with us. It is said to be perfectly safe for drinking, but I plan instead to use it for cleansing my face. I figure this will be a good way to really test its wonders.

(Congratulations to the Gentry Library for being featured in an article in a recent edition of Rural Arkansas and for the building award received from the American Institute of Architects and the American Library Association.)

News, Pages 5 on 12/16/2009

Print Headline: A Walk in the Park A Visit to Two More National Park Sites

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