Like many Americans of his era, Alexander McDonald sought adventure by traveling west. He was born in April 1832 in Pennsylvania and headed to the Kansas Territory in 1857 in search of his fortune. McDonald and his brother operated a sawmill and later got into banking. He was living at Fort Scott, Kan., when the Civil War broke out and quickly volunteered for the Union Army. Soon, he was making money by supplying Union troops.
McDonald arrived at Fort Smith in late 1863, where he was in charge of supplying the Union soldiers stationed there. He wasted no time organizing a bank in the city. Steven Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: "Under the reign of McDonald and his partner, Perry Fuller, corruption at the fort was rampant, to the extent that Gen. James Blunt was widely regarded as subservient to company directors. McDonald arrived in Little Rock not long after it had been taken by Union forces and, before the end of the war, McDonald had organized the Merchants National Bank in Little Rock, of which he was president. McDonald worked actively to rebuild the industry and economy of Little Rock and of the state of Arkansas after the Civil War. In addition to his banking efforts, he was also vice president of the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad and president of the Arkansas Bridge Co., which was organized to construct a bridge across the Arkansas River at Little Rock."
Some considered McDonald the richest man in Little Rock during the Reconstruction period, and he used his fortune in 1869 to build the ornate home now known as the Packet House. The houses erected during that period on the north side of Cantrell Road--then known as Lincoln Avenue--were built by men who had been Union supporters during the war. Because of that, the area was known as Carpetbaggers' Row and Robbers' Row. The Legislature named McDonald as a U.S. senator, and he was sworn in on June 22, 1868, for a term that ran through 1871.
"During his short term, McDonald's greatest contribution was probably his support for the impeached President Andrew Johnson," Teske writes. "Not only did McDonald vote against conviction, but he spoke to persuade other senators to do the same, allowing Johnson to complete his term."
McDonald died in 1903 and is buried in Pennsylvania. The Little Rock house lived on. It later was owned by William Wait, a president of Merchants National Bank, and Ann McHenry Reider, who moved in with her two daughters and their husbands. The husbands were twins, Tom and Robert Newton. The house would serve as the Newton family home for several decades. In the 1940s, the name was changed to the Packet House as a nod to the packet boats that once plied the Arkansas River. The house later was converted into apartments and began a long decline. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, rehabilitated and used for offices and a restaurant. It later became vacant and began deteriorating again, to the point that it was placed on Preserve Arkansas' list of the most endangered structures in the state in 2011.
In 2012, chef Wes Ellis began work to again place a restaurant in the house. What was known as the Packet House Grill opened that year. By spring 2014, Ellis was out, and it was announced that James Beard Award nominee Lee Richardson would take over as executive chef and owner. Richardson had become the state's most high-profile chef during his years at the Capital Hotel, and foodies rejoiced that the New Orleans native would be returning to a restaurant kitchen. Richardson said at the time: "For more than six years, I've driven by the Packet House almost daily, and I've always felt like it fit my vision for the ultimate in fine dining in Little Rock. I came to Little Rock and took over a well-known and well-respected restaurant at Ashley's, and that's exactly what I'm excited to be doing at the Packet House."
Despite the public announcement, the deal fell through and the building was put up for sale. To add insult to injury, the large wooden sign erected by a real estate firm misspelled the name of the landmark house, annoying those aware of its colorful history. Then came the announcement in January that local businessmen Mark Camp and Rod Damon joined forces with state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson to transform the Packet House into the private 1836 Club. The partners have been busy lining up the initial 300 charter members and attracted attention when they announced that they had hired a chef almost as well-known as Richardson. That would be Donnie Ferneau, who said he would close his Good Food Ferneau on Main Street in North Little Rock to devote full time to the 1836 Club.
"I became friends with Jeremy, and we would meet on a regular basis at the bar at Arthur's in west Little Rock," Camp says. "We've talked at least the past three years about how the state's largest city needs a private club where people can talk business, network and have a really good meal. It's something we don't have. Every city of significant size has something like this. I began searching online for a location. At first, they were asking too much for the Packet House for us to make it work. When they lowered the price, we got involved. They spent $1.3 million on renovations back in 2012 so we won't have to do much beyond some new flooring, painting, new art for the walls and leather furniture." In a nod to the house's history, that new art will include a painting of former Sen. Alexander McDonald.
Freelance columnist Rex Nelson is the director of corporate communications for Simmons First National Corp. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 03/02/2016
Print Headline: Along Carpetbaggers' Row