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story.lead_photo.caption Oil Heritage Park in downtown El Dorado features a 12-foot-tall band wheel from the boom years of the 1920s. The sculpture honors the friendship between petroleum magnates Charles Murphy and Chesley Pruet. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette / MARCIA SCHNEDLER )

EL DORADO - Now boasting one of the liveliest downtowns in Arkansas, El Dorado also takes evident pride in its history - even the unseemly chapters that some cities might prefer to keep tucked away.

A plaque prominently displayed at Oil Heritage Park in the heart of the Union County seat describes in unvarnished terms what the petroleum boom town was like in the years after the first gusher came in just a mile southwest on Jan. 10, 1921:

“On street corners, young boys sold moonshine in six ounce Coca-Cola bottles for $1.25; prostitutes walked the streets and dope peddlers like Smiling Jack and Weasel tugged at people’s sleeves.Hamburger Row was filled with characters like Barrelhouse Sue, who had come up from Homer, La., following the boom and sang, danced and solicited in places like Dago Red’s, Pistol Hill and Shotgun Valley.”

Meanwhile, “Teams of oxen and mules, some as long as 20 pairs, pulled oil field equipment through the streets, and after a heavy rain, the iron-wheeled wagons turned most of the streets in town into quagmires so dangerous some mules actually drowned.”

That narrative would be unlikely to earn a spot on any list of The Best Places to Live in America. But El Dorado is happy to ’fess up to its rough edges of the past, even making the most of a long-ago downtown gunfight that left three people dead.

Adjoining plaques describe the Tucker-Parnell shootout of Oct. 9, 1902, and provide a play-by-play diagram of who shot whom from where during the altercation. Several times each summer, locals re-enact the gunfight, which involved the grandfather of future Gov. Jim Guy Tucker.

No more shootout replays are scheduled in 2013, but this weekend brings Music Fest El Dorado. Billed as “the biggest music festival in South Arkansas,” the event will showcase more than 30 acts on Friday and Saturday. Headliners include Bret Michaels, Justin Moore and Julie Roberts.

The festival takes place in Union Square, anchored by the fortress like Union County Courthouse. Built in 1927 in a blend of Classic Revival and Greek Revival styles, the four-story edifice’s smooth limestone exterior is set off by 40 Ionic columns.

Surrounding the courthouse are the 69 buildings of the El Dorado Commercial Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In contrast to many other Arkansas downtowns, there’s hardly an empty storefront.

There’s even a bookstore (Jefferson Street Books), a rarity in any small city these days. Another lovely literary touch, at one corner of the square, is Downtown Book Exchange. It’s a red British-style telephone booth, stocked with more than 100 donated books that can be swapped out on the honor system.

Among the several dozen downtown shops and restaurants, Johnny B’s Grill aims to win the hearts and minds of sweet-tooth types via gigantic waffles infused with chocolate chips (or other goodies)and topped with mounds of whipped cream. La Bella, a deli and gift shop with an array of sandwiches and coffees, could hold its own in a metropolis.

Having gone from a village of 4,000 in 1920 to a boom town of more than 30,000in just a couple of years, and then declining steadily after the oil boom faded in the late 1920s, the city began its renaissance in 1987 with the founding of Main Street El Dorado. The population is now about 19,000.

Led by downtown property owners Richard and Vertis Mason and other civic-minded residents, El Dorado became enough of a success story to have won a 2009 Great American Main Street Award. For visitors, there’s enough to do and see that an overnight stay makes sense, at the elegant Union Square Guest Quarters or a less expensive motel elsewhere in town.

For more information, call Main Street El Dorado at (870) 862-4747, or visit mainstreeteldorado.org.

Music Fest El Dorado takes place on Union Square from 5 p.m.-midnight Friday and 10 a.m.-midnight Saturday. Wristband admission prices run from $20 to $50.

On Nov. 9, Kenny Rogers is scheduled to perform at El Dorado Municipal Auditorium.

Weekend, Pages 38 on 10/03/2013

Print Headline: Exciting times live on in downtown El Dorado

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