RUSSELLVILLE — Russellville’s 150th anniversary, officially June 7, 2020, will be marked by a variety of commemorative activities and projects in the new year, said two members of the organizing committee tasked with promoting the historic milestone.
“I have a committee of 11 ladies within the city, and we put together a calendar each year for the city,” said Christie Graham, executive director of tourism with the city of Russellville’s Advertising and Promotion Commission. “As we were working over the summer on the 2020 calendar, it came up that it was the sesquicentennial year.
“I addressed [Mayor Richard Harris] and said, ‘Hey, have you thought about this?’ and he said, ‘No, but I really need your help with that.’ So we created another committee to start putting that all together, and I took the lead with it.”
The effort yielded some creative events and activities to provide lasting mementos of the anniversary, starting with a logo that will be used heavily in the new year, as well as mark special commemorative merchandise, said Danielle Housenick, executive director of Main Street Russellville and another member of the organizing committee.
“We have an amazing logo designed specifically for the sesquicentennial,” Housenick said. “We’re going to have that everywhere. That’s going to be on Christmas ornaments, coins, T-shirts.”
Graham predicted that the coin will be a particularly coveted memento, as only a limited number will be minted to mark the occasion. Some will be handed out to dignitaries, and the remainder will be sold to the public, she said.
A centerpiece event of the observance will be a June 5 public celebration at Russellville’s Depot Park, coinciding with the city’s regular downtown art walk. Musical performers for a free concert are being finalized, as are other attractions to take place throughout that weekend.
“The celebration is going to be a huge event,” Graham said. “We’ll have a live band downtown, we’ll have food, and all the merchants will stay open late with everybody walking around downtown. The mayor and the City Council members will be downtown for the celebration — cake-cutting, ribbon-cutting, that kind of event.”
Among other planned attractions for the weekend are various walking tours of the city’s historic neighborhoods and homes, plus a special photography exhibit that will provide a living “then and now” view of several streets in town.
“We have an Arkansas Tech University class this semester that’s going to help with the sesquicentennial,” Graham said. “They’re helping us look for artifacts and pictures. We will have tons of pictures on display that weekend of the downtown area.
“We will have those pictures stationed where they were taken. Through this blown-up picture, you can look up and see where the picture was taken from the photographer’s view.”
Housenick has a goal to plant 150 trees in 2020 to symbolize the town’s 150th birthday, with details for the project yet to be worked out. Other lasting tributes to the town’s longevity in the works include visual and documentary arts, including a mural to be completed by Brooklyn, New York, artist Tiffany Black.
“Arkansas Tech University received some grant money for an artist-in-residence program, and [Black] was chosen for that,” Housenick said. “We are going to work together on getting her to do a mural for downtown.”
The mural, which will be at 203 N. Commerce St., is set to be completed in time for the June anniversary date. Housenick said because the location of the piece is a historic building, extra steps have to be taken to preserve the architectural integrity of the structure.
“The way they’re doing it is very interesting,” she said. “We have a historic district downtown, so we have to be mindful of our buildings and preserve those. [Black] will be creating the mural on marine plywood panels, and those will be mounted to a grid or similar type of structure. They won’t be right on the building.”
The documentary project, to be shot by Little Rock documentary filmmaker Hans Stiritz, is also expected to be done in time for the anniversary celebration this summer. Graham said Stiritz intends to enter the finished documentary in film festivals, as well as having it shown in the city’s movie theater.
“[Stiritz] is doing a huge project, a $50,000 video project for the city of Russellville,” she said. “It will be based upon the history of the city. He’s going to talk to different people who have had longtime relatives here, who had businesses here. Dr. Thomas Russell, whom our city is named after, has living relatives, and [Stiritz is] going to talk to some of them as well.”
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Russell arrived in what is present-day Russellville from Illinois in 1835, just one year after P.C. Holledger became the first white settler in the valley. Russell purchased Holledger’s home in what was then called Chactas Prairie as other settlers, arriving with Russell, built homes in what is now the city’s downtown area.
One other early family was the Shinns, who rose to such prominence by the 1840s that residents were compelled to vote on which clan to name the settlement after. Graham said that honor went to Russell by a single vote.
The Shinns may have lost out on that distinction but have hardly faded from city lore. In fact, the oldest standing building in town is the Shinn Building, a general merchandise store built in 1875 and one of several, dating back to 1851, that were constructed by the family.
“It is one of the few downtown buildings that survived the fire of 1906,” Housenick said. “It was originally a wooden building, and J.L. Shinn later built the brick structure, the first brick building in Russellville, in 1875.”
The year 1870 was important on several levels for the town, including its incorporation, the establishment of its first newspaper and the creation of the Russellville Public School District. All of these, plus the arrival of the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad in 1873, combined to spur rapid growth and fuel a debate in favor of relocating the county seat there from Dover. An 1887 election settled that issue, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
In 1956, the construction of Interstate 40 provided a boost to the community on par with that of the railroad more than 80 years prior. Another milestone, a dam project completed in 1965 near the Arkansas River crossing between Dardanelle and Russellville, created the lake that led to Lake Dardanelle State Park, a major tourist attraction. In 1974, Arkansas’ only operational nuclear power plant went online west of the city. Arkansas Nuclear One produces millions of kilowatts of energy annually, according to Entergy, which owns the plant.
Russellville Mayor Richard Harris praised the efforts to mark the community’s landmark birthday and urged residents and visitors alike to join in the celebration. He said the sesquicentennial provides an ideal way to showcase the city’s future, as well as celebrate its past.
“As well as a major university and a good educational system in our community, there’s so many assets and so many things [in Russellville] that would attract someone that’s not from the area,” he said. “I think the thing that strikes me most about the community is the setting. While we are something like the 15th or 16th largest city in Arkansas, the topography in the area — the rivers, the streams the outdoor activities — you name it, we’ve got it right here.”
“We are fortunate to have all the amenities that we have in our community, and sometimes we take them for granted because we grew up here, or we’ve lived here long enough that we’re just used to them. But it’s really unique to have the opportunities that we have right here in Russellville.”
Graham, herself a Russellville native, said the celebration is also about preserving the heritage of the city within the oncoming generation. From the Trail of Tears to the Great Fire of 1906, which razed downtown, to recognizing some of Russellville’s famous citizens — among them, Graham noted, the late Jimmy Lile, creator of the iconic Rambo knife, and Corliss Williamson, NBA player, coach and member of the Arkansas Razorbacks 1994 NCAA champion basketball team — Russellville’s history is a rich one, she said.
“If we don’t teach this generation the history of Russellville, we’ll lose it,” she said. “There are key things that happened to make Russellville the city it is. If we don’t keep that history and that information passing on from generation to generation, we lose it.”
Print Headline: Commemorative mural, documentary to mark Russellville sesquicentennial