THERE’S VIRTUALLY nothing to buy in Canehill, Arkansas, populated by an estimated 200 souls, according to the locals. This unincorporated community along a slowly meandering stretch of two-lane a mere 20 miles southwest of Fayetteville somehow managed to escape suburban subdivisions and strip malls.
“There are literally are no businesses here,” explains 61-year-old Lawrence McElroy, Historic Cane Hill’s recently hired full-time museum director. “There’s not a restaurant, a gas station. There’s nothing. This is the closest thing to a business right here.”
Right here means the lobby of Historic Cane Hill’s Museum, formerly the Shaker-Yates Grocery and one-time community gathering place. Just about the only thing available for purchase is a $1 Cane Hill coffee mug.
That wasn’t always the case.
In 1827, Canehill became the first settlement in Washington County when a group of Cumberland Presbyterians, originally from Tennessee, grew tired of the flooding in Little Rock where they’d first settled. (The name of the community is typically written as one word, Canehill; the nonprofit is written as two words, Cane Hill.)After making their way northwest, they discovered fertile land, where clear springs folded into roly-poly hills reminiscent of their Tennessee home. In October 1834, the settlers opened Cane Hill School, which became, by an act of the Arkansas General Assembly, Cane Hill Collegiate Institute in 1850. (In December 1852, it was chartered as Cane Hill College.)
“They weren’t just subsisting,” Lawrence says of the settlers. “These guys were building nice houses. Education was a priority. Religion was a priority. They established a really first-rate community. This wasn’t just, We’re here and squatting. They were here to stay, and were doing first-class things.”
Despite a list of notable firsts—the state’s first public school and first library among them—and a 1.5-mile walking trail that includes 16 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, which the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program took on in the 1980s, the rich history was largely forgotten. Because modern exchanges through commerce never found a footing in Canehill—the community leaders fought railroad expansion—and the college couldn’t compete with the free tuition offered at the Arkansas Industrial University in nearby Fayetteville, the community was saved almost the way an ancient ant is preserved in amber resin. But more on that later.
“It’s such a well-kept secret,” Lawrence says of Canehill, his slate-blue eyes sparkling as he recounts learning about the place and what compelled him to relocate from Little Rock. “I had never heard about it. I had no idea what was here.”
Stars aligned in 2015 when he struck up a conversation with Historic Cane Hill’s executive director Bobby Braly at a Preserve Arkansas event in Hot Springs. Originally begun as an initiative to restore Cane Hill College (the project was completed this May), the nonprofit Historic Cane Hill was incorporated as a 501(c)3 in 2013, and, under Bobby’s direction and drive, its focus expanded to an ambitious community-wide preservation effort. A priority of Bobby’s was to improve Historic Cane Hill’s museum, which is something Lawrence knew a thing or two about.
Lawrence received a master of arts in museum studies degree from Johns Hopkins University in 2013, though he’d previously spent 30 years working in echocardiography to support his family. He’d always identified as an artist. He began oil painting lessons at age 12, describes his painting as figurative realism and has a bio on the Arkansas Arts Registry. Because of his interest in history, Lawrence also consulted rural museums as a hobby, something he did for Bobby under no obligation or expectation. Not long after sending in a massive point-by-point document outlining his thoughts for improvements on the museum, he got a phone call from Bobby, offering him a job as a curator of the museum, a historic home to live in and even an artist studio.
“He gave us the grand tour, drove us all over the place, showed us all the buildings,” Lawrence says. “I was sold.”
BOBBY EXTENDS THE grand tour to me on a scorching July day. “It’s a nice walk,” he says, showing me to his decadently air-conditioned Chevy Tahoe, “but it’s really hot today.”
We begin at the ruins of the Methodist Manse, winding up the hill to the cemetery, stopping by the newly renovated Cane Hill College building before coasting down a dirt road where we end the tour right next door to the museum. Although the entire guided jaunt lasts just over an hour, it feels as though time has stopped.
During the course of the tour, it becomes clear that Bobby’s knowledge of Canehill is virtually encyclopedic. He makes note of the mortar formula used to lay bricks for the Methodist Manse, as well as the exact color of the Greek Revival cottage, which he discovered by looking in every crevice of the structure, finally coming across a fleck of mustard yellow under a portico. But as we stand on the porch of the A. R. Carroll Drugstore, Historic Cane Hill’s first restoration project, completed in 2014—“I think we would have lost it within five years,” he says—it’s his passion for the community that is on full display.
At 35, this native of nearby Lincoln is younger than most area residents by at least a few decades, but the board recruited him because they wanted a local in charge. Plus, his background in archaeology—he’d just finished his dissertation at the University of Tennessee Knoxville—and personal connection were a great fit.
Funding for the nonprofit can be traced to an oil executive, Tim Leach, who grew up in the area before becoming CFO and president of Concho. His father, Jerry Leach, who calls the nearby community of Dutch Hills home, serves as director of the board. What began as a $1.4 million restoration project for the 1886 iteration of Cane Hill College—the original institution burned down to the ground from suspected arson in 1885—is now a project with hopes to at once breathe life into and preserve entirely a distinct community in the Boston Mountains. Since its formation, the organization has invested about $4.5 million into doing so.
“All those old structures are still here because they didn’t get bought out and bulldozed and something new put in its place. They’re still here. If the railroad had come through here there’d probably be an entirely different place. We’d have lost the story.” That’s Lawrence’s opinion, as well as Bobby’s, who thinks that, had the railroad come through, these 16 sites on the National Register of Historic Places would have been supplanted by subdivisions.
“The Cumberland Presbyterians were very progressive on the education front but very conservative on other fronts,” explains Bobby regarding why the community fought the expansion of the Ozark and Cherokee Central branch of the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway at the turn of the century. These teetotalers believed the train would bring along vices of gambling, drinking and prostitution. The tracks were laid, instead, in nearby Lincoln, now known as the apple town even though the Arkansas apple industry began in Canehill.
Unlike traditional downtown revitalization efforts that seek to attract entrepreneurs to open restaurants, bars and shops, this attempt is different. There’s no plan to bring businesses or hip restaurants in. The idea is to preserve the rich cultural history and put these historic buildings to use.
The restored Cane Hill College, for example, includes state-of-the-arts audio-visual components in hopes that the building will be rented out for conferences. The renovation of the Greek Revival two-story building includes amenities like a bathroom with huge mirrors and swiveling chairs that would be ideal for bridal parties. The idea for an artist colony is being tossed around.
With the average age of a Canehill resident between 70 and 80, Bobby actively recruits folks, such as Lawrence, so that the actual community doesn’t completely die out. Those who remain seem excited that such painstaking efforts are being made to preserve their heritage.
“We’ve got some ideas to try and get some young, fresh new minds in here,” says Lawrence.
“I’m not a young guy,” he adds with a laugh, “but that’s kind of why I’m here. They want some people who are professionals who are interested in history who understand the significance of this place.”
IT’S A RAINY day in late September for the 31st annual Cane Hill Harvest Festival. Staged in a large field near Cane Hill College, the perimeter is lined by concession stands and local booths. In the far corner there’s a covered area where sorghum is made on the spot, from the initial pressing of cane stalks to the purchasing of still-warm bottles. Lawrence is chatting with visitors checking out a painting competition that he’s judging inside Cane Hill College. I say hello to Bobby, who’s serving as a point person, coordinating when musicians go on stage.
A large tent shelters the music stage and audience, which becomes necessary as rain begins pouring down. The oldtime band Ozark Highballers—banjo, fiddle, guitar and vocals—are on stage, and they invite a friend up to perform traditional clogging. There’s face-painting and funnel cakes and attire ranging from khakis and polos to a T-shirt emblazoned with “Jesus. Everything.” Someone is cradling a soft white rabbit as though it’s a teacup dog.
Although much of the crowd are strangers, I notice a number of fellow Fayettevillians I know, like Abigale Rongey, a 21-year-old political science major studying at the University of Arkansas, who came to hear music headliner John Moreland. Although a Northwest Arkansas native, she hadn’t heard of Canehill until a recent drive to nearby Lincoln Lake with her boyfriend, who had pointed out the “Old Main type” building of the restored Cane Hill College.
“It feels like you go back in time,” Abigale says. “It has so much rich history, and it’s right in our backyard.”
Katy Henriksen is the classical music host and an arts producer for KUAF 91.3 NPR station in her hometown of Fayetteville, which she’s returned to after adventures in both New York City and Berlin. She files music and cultural journalism widely, frequently for the music site Bandcamp Daily and The Creative Independent.