SOMETIMES THINGS just don’t go the way you want them to. Sometimes, you just strike out. Notable Arkansan Albert Pike learned this in 1847 when he found himself in a duel with future governor John Selden Roane. Captaining the Little Rock Guards, a company incorporated into the Arkansas cavalry regiment during the Mexican War, Pike concluded that the senior officers of the regiment were incompetent, and he wrote a letter to the Arkansas Gazette saying as much. Roane, a lieutenant colonel in said regiment, took offense. History disputes who issued the challenge, but ultimately, both parties found themselves on a sandbank in the Arkansas River, just off the shore of Van Buren.
They shot once.
They shot a second time.
They missed again.
After some cajoling from their respective surgeons (so the legend goes), they shook hands and called it a day, both honors having been declared satisfied.
My day in Van Buren, so far, feels about as successful. It has been raining since I arrived. And not a piddling rain, either. Not a spitting rain. A streaming rain that makes an aimless stroll through a town to find all its hidden treasures all the less pleasurable.
I stopped at Thai Curry on the recommendation of a friend, but I arrived at high noon, and it was so busy I couldn’t figure out if I was supposed to join the line at the cash register or sit next to the lady who complained she hadn’t been waited on since walking in 15 minutes before. I chose a third option and went across the street to Frank’s Italian Restaurant.
Just a few years ago, I lived in Italy for four years, so when my waitress greets me with a distinctly European accent, I get excited. But when she corrects my pronunciation of both “bruschetta” and “bolognese,” I remember it’s Van Buren that I’m in, not Venice. She tells me she’s from Romania, and while Arkansas is indeed a lovely place to be, the relative proximity of her old country to mine causes me to yearn for la dolce vita, even with “Build Me Up Buttercup” on the speakers overhead instead of “Volare.”
A gaggle of ladies sits next to me at a long table. I’m feeling less confident about the places I thought I might visit today, so I stride right up to them and put my elbows on the table, trying to look charming and personable. “I’m gonna be weird. Do you all live here?”
They nod, almost in unison. I must have been charming and personable enough, or I scared the crap out of them so they’re now too shocked to refuse.
“Where do y’all think I should go before I leave town today?”
Answers leap like popping corn. “The Drennen-Scott house!” “Downtown!” “The train depot!” All places I’d had in mind. Then: “The cemetery on Log Town Hill has some pretty famous people buried there … if you know who they are.”
“Can you think of anyone in particular?” I ask.
“Well, actually, I live in Fort Smith.”
“So do I,” a second lady says.
“So do I,” says a third.
“Do any of you live in Van Buren?” I ask.
Turns out Frank’s Italian Restaurant is decidedly strike 1 for me. But maybe the ladies’ recommendations will work out. Might as well give it a go. I head to the Drennen-Scott House. It was one of those places that came up several times when I’d asked around about Van Buren, but I have to admit that I still don’t really know what it is. And when I arrive at the official visitor’s center, it looks like I won’t get the chance.
“CLOSED,” the sign says.
The Drennen-Scott Visitor’s Center is CLOSED.
Butbutbut luck has not abandoned me entirely! The sign also says, “The Historic House is open.” All I have to do is follow the sidewalk and enter the house at the third door on the porch and, reportedly, a tour guide will meet me inside.
This, thank Pike, works out. In fact, I don’t even have to trek to the third door. Scott Bullock, a fifth-generation descendant of John Drennen, stands right on the porch outside with a couple, gesturing to a tangle of mimosa trees in full bloom. Bullock informs us how his ancestor built the Fort Smith-Little Rock railroad (the tracks of which are below us and invisible because of summer foliage) and bought 500 acres that eventually made up the city of Van Buren (which Drennen also laid out). When he died, Drennen was worth—in today’s dollars—$18 million. But his descendants lost it all in the stock market crash of 1929. “I could’ve been rich,” Bullock laments.
Turns out the house is noteworthy for a number of reasons other than that an old rich guy lived here. The site is linked to the Civil War (Drennen fought for the Confederacy, and his second wife refused to sign a loyalty oath to the Union after its victory), the Trail of Tears (Drennen was also an Indian agent for the U.S. government; he built a separate door to his home office because he didn’t want his family mingling with the Native Americans) and the Underground Railroad (they stole one of his slaves). That’s some history, all right.
I don’t know whether to count this as a strike or some kind of crazy home run. Let’s call it a walk.
I have to admit, usually by this time in a Hometown mission, I’ve hit a grand slam. I eat well and visit often and dance like a football player in the end zone (uh-oh, I’ve mixed metaphors). So I’m starting to worry, just a little. I have to admit that I’ve come in the middle of the day on a Wednesday in a hot Arkansas summer, but I was just hoping for … more.
And then, in downtown Van Buren, I get it. I specifically get it at a store called Natural Treasures on Main Street. Owner Selena Lee has stocked her brick-walled, wood-planked store with natural soaps and bath bombs and travel cups that read “Coffee-Chaos-Wine-Bed-Repeat.” I grab a notebook that says “It is Well With My Soul” for my mom and throw it on the counter. I find Farmhouse Fresh hand lotion (the scent Whoopie Pie is my favorite) and throw it on the counter. I discover earrings made from lava rocks that can retain essential oils for my all-day sniffing pleasure, and I think, She opened this store just for me. But as I throw those on the counter, too, I holler “you’re evil!” and just hope she takes it the right way. She does.
There are other places Selena tells me to see. A resale shop called La Boutique is one. Across the street is Boomerang Diner (which is supposed to be haunted), and at the south end of the street, it looks like the Center for Art and Education—which has been providing outstanding art educational programming to area artists, children and adults for 40 years—is renovating the old storefronts adjacent to the historic King Opera House.
But, for now, my honor has been declared satisfied. I don’t dare go for a third strike.
MAIN & TRAINS
Your Van Buren to-do list
Arkansas & Missouri Railroad
See the Ozarks from a different perspective aboard this 1920s-era passenger train, which cuts a 3-hour path from Van Buren to Winslow and back. (813 E. Main St.; amtrainrides.com)
Stirred Catering & Coffee
This is a good place to fuel up (try the banana chocolate-chip muffins) before all those history lessons or to grab some lunch after antiquing (try the chicken-salad croissants). (710 Fayetteville Road; getstirred.net)
This family-owned strip-mall eatery is beloved by locals and Thai-restaurant-starved visitors alike. (518 N. Plaza Court, Suite 2; facebook.com/thaicurryVB)
Main Street National Historic District
This Victorian-era district is essentially six full blocks of galleries, antique shops, cafes and such. (Main Street, between Fourth and 10th streets)
Historic Drennen-Scott House
Dating back to 1938, this home, passed down through generations of the John Drennen family before landing in University of Arkansas-Fort Smith’s hands, has stories to tell. Lots of them. Check the home’s hours before visiting. (221 N. Third St.; vanburen.org/uafs-drennen-scott-house)
Lake Fort Smith State Park
A scenic 30-minute jaunt up Interstate 49 leads to this handsome state park tucked away in a Boston Mountain valley. The park is best experienced on the water, either in a rented kayak or aboard a ranger-led cruise. (Mountainburg; arkansasstateparks.com/lakefortsmith)
As of this printing, the restaurant has yet to open, but Van Burenites are anxiously awaiting this Italian-slash-steak bistro, which has already wowed spaghetti-slash-meat lovers at its locations in Conway and Russellville. The Pasta Grill will open soon on Main Street, super close to the Depot. (810 E. Main St.; pastagrillrestaurant.com)