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Old-time cemeteries put history in perspective

By JACK SCHNEDLER SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

This article was published May 15, 2014 at 1:58 a.m.

historic-washington-state-park-gives-visitors-a-palpable-sense-of-life-in-arkansas-nearly-two-centuries-ago

Historic Washington State Park gives visitors a palpable sense of life in Arkansas nearly two centuries ago.

HISTORIC WASHINGTON STATE PARK -- There's a fascination about cemeteries, perhaps tied to the fact that they're the final destination for so many of us.

Early burial locations will be the focus next weekend at Historic Washington State Park, where an hour-long tour starting at 5 p.m. on May 24 will visit two historic grave sites: the Pioneer Cemetery dating to 1824 and the Presbyterian Cemetery that opened in 1860.

The guided tour will feature stops at historically important graves. Park interpreters who've researched those interred in the 19th century will portray moments from their lives while wearing period attire.

The tour will add to the sense of history at what formerly was known as Old Washington. The "old" has been dropped from the name, evidently because that adjective was seen as a turn-off for potential visitors. But this settlement in Hempstead County remains one of Arkansas' pioneering locales.

Founded in 1824 on the rugged Southwest Trail that led to present-day Texas, Washington was large and prosperous enough in 1860 to boast 16 doctors, 15 carpenters, nine teachers, nine blacksmiths, 17 lawyers, 13 merchants, six printing shops and three inns. The Confederacy located its Civil War state capital here after Union troops had captured Little Rock in September 1863.

Today Washington has fewer than 200 permanent residents. But the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation, created in 1958, worked to make the site a state park in 1973. Preservation efforts have continued since.

The sweep of Washington's history can be savored in the onetime Hempstead County courthouse, built in 1836 at a cost of $1,850. Before the Civil War, it was the venue for circuit court sessions and hosted meetings of the Freemasons.

Although little government business was conducted while the courthouse served as the Confederacy's state capitol, the rebel General Assembly did convene for several special sessions to show that the refugee regime still existed.

After the war, the building again became a courthouse until a new one was erected in 1874. Later it functioned as a schoolhouse, an office and residence for the justice of the peace, and eventually as a museum, thanks to the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The framed photographs of Confederate generals on the walls speak to that legacy.

The courthouse is featured on the guided tour of 10 or so restored or re-created buildings, priced at $8 for adults and $4 for children 6 to 12. That's also the cost of next week's cemetery tour.

Part of Historic Washington's charm lies in the varied architectural styles of the structures, including Southern Greek Revival, Federal, Gothic Revival and Italianate.

At the Trimble House, built in 1847, visitors are told about the several generations of that family who lived in the comfortably furnished residence before it was donated to the park.

At Morrison Tavern Inn, a reconstruction of a 19th-century hostelry, guides report that a lodging like this may have accommodated the likes of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and Sam Houston on their way to Texas.

Washington could have sustained its prosperity after the Civil War. But residents decided in 1874 to spurn the Cairo and Fulton Railroad, which located its station instead in Hope eight miles to the southeast. Devastating fires in 1875 and 1883 sealed Washington's decline. Now it survives as a haunt of history.

Historic Washington State Park is some 120 miles southwest of Little Rock, with all but the final eight miles on Interstate 30. The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The park's Williams Tavern Restaurant, open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, serves hearty plate lunches as well as sandwiches and salads.

Call (870) 983-2684 or visit historicwashingtontatepark.com.

Weekend on 05/15/2014

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