I’M PRACTICALLY GIDDY as I wind my way down Interstate 49 toward Fort Smith. Having lived in Arkansas for only eight months, I’m eager to add another Natural State city to my growing collection. And Fort Smith is quite the score—not only is it the second-largest city in my new home state; it has a past. (I suppose, of course, when a town is known for having served as a gateway to the Wild West, that’s hard to avoid.) A shameless history geek, I’m already sold on the place, sight unseen.
Adding to my good fortune, my tour guides for the day are none other than the infamous Judge Isaac C. Parker, aka the “hanging judge,” and his wife, Mary. Or, rather, Floyd “Sonny” Robinson and Sue Robinson, two Fort Smith boosters who for the past nine years have gamely re-enacted the roles of the town’s most iconic historic couple.
I pull into a parking spot behind our designated meeting place—an old, massive, red-brick warehouse. Perched on the roof of the building, which is located in the city’s historic downtown district, is a large black-and-white sign trumpeting “The Fort Smith Museum of History.” Below the sign, painted directly onto the brick, is a faded reminder that the building once housed the Speer Hardware Co. Here, Sue and Sonny have graciously agreed to allow me to sit in on a couple of presentations they’re giving to grade-schoolers as Judge Parker and Mary. I make my way to the building’s entrance, more than a little bit curious about how they’re going to relate the tale of the hanging judge to first- and second-graders.
“So you all are from Oklahoma?” Sonny asks his attentive audience of first-graders. “You know what we called that during our time? Indian Territory. A lot of the bad men went on over to Indian Territory to try to escape justice, but we didn’t let that happen. We hired a lot of U.S. deputy marshals when I got here in 1875.”
“Have you heard of the U.S. deputy marshals?” he asks.
“Yes,” pipes up one little guy unconvincingly.
“They’re kind of like policemen on horseback,” Sonny continues.
My fellow audience members and I are seated cross-legged on the second floor of the museum in front of an exhibit of Judge Parker’s courtroom. The bench and much of the furniture are the originals. Completing the tableau, Sonny and Sue stand before us in full Judge and Mary Parker attire. Sonny, with his long white hair and wide goatee, sports a so-called “puff tie” and long frock coat and waves a walking stick for emphasis when he speaks. Sue is a picture in a big-sleeved lace-and-silk bodice and a full satin skirt topped off by a flat straw hat.
“I sat up on that bench right there,” Sonny says. “They came up there and stood before me, and I would pronounce a sentence on them. They might go to jail or I might give them a fine, and if they were really young, I might send them to reform school, where they would learn a trade.
“What they used to call me,” and here Sonny falters a bit, “I guess one thing was … I guess you all know. Anybody know what they used to call me? A lot of people called me the hanging judge. But when I would walk up and down the street going back and forth to work, I’d carry candy in my pockets, and the kids would come up …”
“And they would call you the candy man!” pipes up an excited fellow at the front.
“That’s exactly right!” replies Sonny, sounding relieved. “They’d call me ‘the candy man.’”
“Look how many people would show up,” Sue says as we stand in front of a grainy photograph. And she’s right—it’s remarkable to think that as many as 3,000 people would show up on “Hanging Day,” which happened once or twice a year, filling the town’s hotels and campgrounds to capacity.
“They would pack a picnic,” adds Sonny. “It was entertainment. It was a way to show that that person wasn’t going to commit that crime again. He was taken care of and justice was served, and the family got their vindication.”
“We have people in town who don’t want to talk about this,” Sue says, gesturing toward the photos. “But there it is, and you can’t just ignore what happened. It’s important to not sweep the history of a place under the rug because the history explains who you are.”
And for Sonny and Sue Robinson, that place, that history, has always been home. Both were born at St. Edward’s Hospital—Sonny in 1950 and Sue exactly one year and a day later. And both had fulfilling, successful careers in the city. Sonny put in more than three decades at ArcBest Corp, a multibillion-dollar freight transportation and logistics company, before retiring last year, and Sue, who began her career in media, ultimately retired last year from a job in the nonprofit sector.
But while they led parallel lives, their paths didn’t cross until 2001, when they met at a Scottish Club event. (They were married two years later.) In addition to their Scottish heritage, another thing the two have in common is a passion for history. When Sonny started to grow out his hair and beard for local Civil War re-enactments in 2004, folks began to take notice of his resemblance to the city’s most notorious citizen. With the encouragement of friends, he began dressing as the judge for an event here and there.
Eager to get in on the act and showcase the importance of women during the tumultuous frontier period, Sue began to team up with the judge at events as his wife, Mary. And the rest, as they say, is history.
“What is that?” I ask.
“I think it’s a branding iron,” Sonny answers. By now, we’ve made our way to the Fort Smith National Historic Site, a vast 37-acre landmark conveniently located mere steps from the museum. After taking in the original jail—a dank, tomblike chamber that lives up to its moniker “Hell on the Border”—we’ve wandered into the room that housed the first iteration of Judge Parker’s courtroom.
As we approach the bench, I notice it’s littered with books, official-looking documents and countless old-timey ink pens. “All these law books are from the 1880s,” Sonny says. “And the gavel is a reproduction. They try to get as accurate as they can with stuff,” he says. Suddenly, he picks up one of the pens and holds it up for my inspection. It takes me a second to realize that an offense has been committed. It’s a Bic. “Well, except for this!” he laughs. “I don’t know where this came from!”
Although Sonny laughs off the lapse, by now I’ve come to realize that authenticity is something both he and Sue take very seriously. After all, here’s a man who for years has sported a Victorian-era beard. And because the judge didn’t wear glasses, when Sonny speaks to audiences or participates in re-enactments, he removes his. For her part, when in character, Sue wears only rings with inlaid stones and minimal makeup in keeping with the fashion of the time. And she never wears nail polish. And when in costume, both are careful not to use words that weren’t around in the judge and Mary’s day.
Sue is torn. She can’t make up her mind between A.J.’s Oyster House or the Bricktown Brewery for lunch. She loves them both equally, she says. But when I begin to dance in place at the mere mention of Gulf oysters on the half shell and “the best banana pudding you ever tasted,” she takes the cue. A.J.’s it is. Bricktown Brewery will have to wait until happy hour.
“When you ask what’s important to us in Fort Smith, it’s the Avenue,” Sue says as we make our way down Garrison Avenue toward the restaurant. “We’re down on the Avenue at least five to six times a week for some reason or another. And Sonny and I were on this Avenue when we were kids.”
“When I was a kid, we’d come down here and walk down the Avenue in the evenings and window-shop,” Sonny adds. “And even though all the shops were closed, you couldn’t stir the crowd with a stick!”
In lieu of a square, Garrison Avenue serves as the heart of the downtown area. Spanning roughly 12 blocks beginning at the foot of the Arkansas River Bridge, the street runs eastward until it ends dramatically with the majestic Gothic Revival-style Church of the Immaculate Conception. The street’s broadness—it’s a whopping 120 feet wide—was inspired by Canal Street in New Orleans, the hometown of the man who designed Garrison Avenue. It enjoyed its heyday in the early 20th century, once the city had fully evolved into a bustling manufacturing town. But like so many “main streets” in downtowns across the country, after the manufacturing boom went bust and the proliferation of the car caused migration into the suburbs, the Avenue began to decline.
Fast-forward to today: Garrison Avenue, along with the rest of the downtown historic district, is caught up in a full-on revival. “The younger people are starting to come back and find things to do on Garrison,” Sue says. “There are several amazing restaurants. Some of them are offering live music. And there’s even a pub crawl that’s become really big.” Plus, more and more people are starting to live downtown, she points out.
“So people are starting to come back downtown, and they’re interested in the history,” she says. “So they aren’t just coming down for the drinking and the music; they’re coming down here to drink and enjoy live music in historic buildings—that’s part of it.”
Take A.J.’s Oyster House, for instance. Although the interior looks like any other modern seafood joint, it’s located in an old red-brick building off the Avenue. Even so, away from the historical backdrops of the museum and the historic site, I’m suddenly hyper aware that my companions are in full 19th-century garb. Surprisingly, this state of affairs doesn’t faze the eatery’s wait staff of 20-somethings one bit. They’ve seen it all before. Turns out, the downtown historic district is the stomping grounds of a lively band of re-enactors, from famous outlaws to marshals to brothel owners.
As I tuck into my oysters, I ask my two guides what exactly it is about Fort Smith that’s so special.
“Other than it just being home, I think it’s the history,” Sue says.
“But it’s also seeing the city progress,” Sonny adds. “It has to go forward.”
“Fort Smith fights,” Sue points out after giving Sonny’s comment a bit of thought. “It tries. It’s had to come back from so many things, and we did it without a Walton or a Simmons or anybody like that. We were a military town, then a manufacturing town for the longest time, and now we’re reinventing ourselves once again. Nothing really keeps us down for that long.”
“Can I take your picture? You guys look beautiful!” a woman asks from the sidewalk as we’re leaving the Creative Kitchen, a bakery and gift shop back on the Avenue where we’ve dipped in for a cupcake fix before heading across the street to Bricktown Brewery. It’s late afternoon, and we’ve spent the past few hours exploring various historic sites in and around downtown, including the Clayton House, an elegant Victorian in the Belle Grove Historic District, an enclave that lies north of Garrison Avenue and boasts more than 20 blocks of late-19th-century and early-20th-century houses; Miss Laura’s Social Club, an apple-green Victorian mansion near the river that once served as a brothel and now acts as the city’s official visitor’s center; and Belle Starr’s Antiques, an antique mall named for the town’s most notorious female outlaw. We even did a drive-by past the grounds of the much-anticipated U.S. Marshal’s Museum, a national museum slated to open on the riverfront in 2017.
After more than an hour of chewing the fat at Bricktown—an offshoot of an Oklahoma microbrewery that opened about six months ago in the Adelaide Hall building, the second-to-oldest building on Garrison Avenue—Sonny, Sue and I say our goodbyes. As it begins to get dark, I take in the scene along the Avenue.
All of the eateries are bursting with diners. Music and the general buzz of Friday-night revelry spill out of restaurants and bars. A line has formed on the sidewalk outside Bricktown. The old-fashioned Ferris wheel down by the river, which had been still all day long, is now lit up and has begun to churn out rides. Once I’ve walked the few blocks to the National Historic Site, I pause for one last look at the old courthouse; it, too, is lit up against the night sky. Compared to the Avenue, it’s quiet here. Still. As I look up, I notice a light-pole banner with the judge’s face on it. As I study his earnest gaze, I can’t help but wonder how he’d feel about the new brand of mayhem that’s taken over his town.
Sonny & Sue’s top picks for Fort Smith
Papa’s Pub and Pizzeria
Best banana pudding:
A.J.’s Oyster House
Best place to listen to live music outside:
Best place to take in a live theater performance:
The Fort Smith Little Theater
Best devil’s food cupcake:
Sake Sushi and Martini Bar
Best place to get a conversation piece for your mantel:
Belle Starr Antiques
21 West End
Best bed and breakfast:
Beland Manor Bed and Breakfast Inn
Best place to get a brew: