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— The arrival of autumn is a crisp reminder that 2009 will soon be over. With this in mind, Earl and I chose to use last Saturday to continue our year-long quest to visit all state parks and national historic sites here in the Natural State.

With only five parks left to see by year’s end, it looks as though our mission will be accomplished.

Our morning stop at Prairie Grove Battlefield began like all other state park visits, by first stopping to snap a couple of quick photos at the park’s entrance.

Virtually every state park entrance is marked by a large colorful wooden sign that tells the park’s name and depicts its unique features. Most of these carved markers are quite attractive and make good backdrops for photos.

Like the other military parks honoring major civil war battles, Prairie Grove is a nice, peaceful place to visit if you don’t dwell too much on what happened there years ago. The admission price of $4 allows you wander through the small but interesting museum and watch the video that tells the history of the battlefield. The park offers two selfguided tours - one walking, one driving - at no cost, with scenic stops, historical information and replicas of Civil War era buildings.

After watching the video and touring the museum, we then took the 30-minute driving tour before headingsouth to Fort Smith National Historic Site for our next stop of the day.

I have heard some things about “Hanging Judge Parker,” but this was my first visit to the place that tells his real story.

The Fort Smith historic site includes what remains of two forts built during the frontier days, as well as the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas. Fort Smith was a very important place during the westward expansion, and Judge Parker and a few others were laden with the heavy task of enforcing peace between U.S. citizens and American Indian tribes. Although the judge’s reputation is overshadowed by the fact that he sentenced over a hundred to be hanged, he is said to have also contributed in a positive manner to causes such as the rehabilitation of offenders, advocating rights for Indian nations and making the criminal justice system operate more fairly.

Among other things of historic interest on the grounds is a reproduction of the 1886 gallows where 79 people were hanged after being convicted in Judge Parker’s court. Because it was an anniversary date of a hanging, two nooses appeared on the gallows the day we visited.

The Barracks Courthouse Jail, a large building built in 1846 and modified significantly over the years, is the prominent structure on the site. The ground floor houses the visitor center, bookstore, orientation film room, as well as the “dismal basement jail” used to house prisoners from 1872 through 1888. The jail has a nickname, but I won’t print it here.

On the building’s second floor are many additional exhibits providing more background to significant historical events and conditions of the time. Among other topics, exhibits include the struggles experienced by American Indian tribes during post Civil War years, dangers faced by the U.S. Deputy Marshals who went after the “wanted,” and the story of the Trail of Tears.

At the end of the building, sitting above the basement jail, is a restored version of Judge Parker’s courtroom. Part of the room has exhibits on the famous defender of justice and other information that sheds light on court accomplishments. The portion of the room where court proceedings took place is separated by a railing that runs across the room so visitors have a full view but do not actually enter.

With camera in hand, I studied the historic courtroom furnishings, including the early American flag, with only 38 stars, on the wall. I tried to imagine what the place might have looked like over a hundred years ago with seats filled with jurors, attorneys with accused criminals seated at the dark tables, and Judge Parker presiding on the bench. I snapped several pictures and was ready to put my camera away. Suddenly, the spring-loaded lens cap popped off my camera and shot right over the railing into Judge Parker’s courtroom. It hit the floor and rolled like a hubcap, finally stopping significantly out of reach and near the sign that warned visitors to stay out. I stood for several seconds staring at the black lens cap that looked so conspicuously out of place on the courtroom floor. It took a minute for me to decide what to do. I won’t reveal how I got the lens cap back, but I can assure you, Your Honor, that I am not the guilty party.

(In reference to last week’s question about the first national park, Hot Springs, Ark., was the first federally protected area in the nation, set aside 40 years before Yosemite.)

Opinion, Pages 5 on 10/21/2009

Print Headline: A Walk in the Park: A visit to Prairie Grove’s battlefield and to Judge Parker’s courtroom

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