Fort Smith, Arkansas

by D. G. Hatfield

     Fort Smith is a medium-sized city on the western border of Arkansas, right across the Arkansas River from Oklahoma. In the past it was the border between the cities of the United States and Indian Territory. The town itself has been pictured in several movies, including "True Grit" starring John Wayne. In that movie, however, they showed our courthouse as a small white frame building. Since the early days the building has actually been a three-story, red brick building, never a white one. The tornado on April 21, 1996, destroyed several historical buildings downtown as well as many homes on the north side of town. The historic courthouse is still standing as well as the city museum, both being missed by less than a block.

     Fort Smith now has a population of around 80,000 to 85,000. It is probably the most eastern part of the Southwest United States. In culture we more resemble the Southwest than the South, although Arkansas is considered a Southern state. We have a moderate climate, not as hot as some of the Southwest, nor as dry either. Our average temperature is 60.8 degrees Fahrenheit with winter highs usually around 40 degrees F, and summer highs around 85 degrees F. Our precipitation average is 39.9 inches of rain and 6.6 inches of snowfall a year.

     Fort Smith is right in the center of two major national freeways, Interstate 40 going east to west across the United States and U.S. Highway 71 going north to south. This makes us a nexus for traffic and also means that every day we have a transitory population of twice our local population. According to Sheriff Grimes, this is the largest transitory population for any city in the U.S except for Las Vegas, Nevada! In spite of this fact, Fort Smith has a crime rate substantially below national and regional averages.

     Fort Smith is a well integrated city with people of many colors, cultures, and beliefs living together. There are over 114 churches, temples, and other religious places covering a diverse range of religions. We don't tend to have the segregated neighborhoods I hear about in the larger cities, but are mingled in all together all over the city. Our schools are all well integrated and have achieved regional and national recognition for their constant high quality. The Fort Smith, Alma, Greenwood, and Van Buren schools fair comparatively with the better schools throughout the South Central U.S. and are rated best in the state. (Alma is a small town about 13 miles away to the east of Van Buren, and Greenwood is just to the south of Fort Smith.) Westark Community College offers two year, four year, and master's level degrees. Additionally, the University of Arkansas is only one hour away.

     Fort Smith is the major industrial city of Arkansas. National and international companies such as Beverly Enterprises, Whirlpool, Rheem, Trane, Hiram Walker, Gerber, Arkansas Best, USA Truck, Riverside, ABF Freight, Baldor Electric, OK Industries, Planters, Inland Container, Universal Packaging, Crain Industries, Donrey Media, and Coleman provide a stable economic anchor for the area. We have experienced explosive record growth for several years.

     Fort Smith is governed by a city council and also has a mayor, Ray Baker, for public functions. The city council consists of a six person group with two people being elected every two years, so it takes 6 years to change the whole council. There are additional support groups, study opportunities, trips, and youth and single adult activities offered by the city as well as by many other public and private groups.

     We enjoy our Southwestern heritage with the cultural activities of a large city. There is a panorama of recreational offerings convenient to Fort Smith. Fifteen minutes north or south lie breath-taking mountains. Hiking trails and lakes dot the nearby area. Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Branson, Missouri, are just a short drive away. New Orleans, Dallas, Nashville, St. Louis, Memphis, and Kansas City are less than a day away. Local attractions include historical sites, antique shops, riverboat and train rides, theater, two symphonies, ballet, many movie houses, a wide assortment of restaurants, various cultural events like choral, piano, and band concerts, a racing speedway, 15 local parks, and two public golf courses. Locally there are also yearly attractions such as Riverfest, Old Fort Days Rodeo, Arkansas-Oklahoma State Fair, and the Blues Festival.

     Van Buren, just north of Fort Smith has been featured in several movies including "The Blue and the Gray" and the recent movie about Wyatt Earp. Van Buren also suffered extensive damage in the recent tornado and lost many of the finer homes in the newer sections of town. However, the historic buildings that make it such a draw for the movies were undamaged.