A gem in Fordyce, the Dallas County Museum is a repository of regional and geologic history containing artifact collections not found in much larger, better known museums.
Volunteer docents conduct regular educational programs on arts, science and culture for students of all grades while three museum locations provide a place for touring Smithsonian displays and community activities.
Agnes Wynne Phillips and her late husband, retired U.S. Army Col. James Phillips, helped find the facility 28 years ago. She serves as museum director along with associate director Melrose Bagwell.
"In the early '90s, we began trying to get a museum off the ground," she said. "Paul 'Bear' Bryant was the winningest college football coach and a nationally recognized native son who we believed was worthy of recognition and celebration.
"In 1993, then Dallas County Judge Troy Bradley was looking for ways to promote Fordyce. He called a town-hall meeting in the courthouse. People came from all over the county. A museum was proposed and voted for unanimously but no one was sure how to kick it off."
Chamber of Commerce Director Barbara Finley began brainstorming with Peggy Works, Bobby Hall and Phillips about the endeavor.
"The idea of the museum came up. We had contents from the Brewster/Overstreet house in storage in rear of the Chamber office. It being one of the first homes built in Fordyce, we thought there's our beginning. Barbara printed out a sign that read, 'Museum' and we hung it over the back door of the Chamber," Agnes Phillips said.
"Pretty soon after that," she continued, "Citizens Bank decided to build a new structure. When they moved in their new facility, they offered us the old bank building downtown at Third and Main which was the McGee Building designed by world-renowned architect Charles Thompson. It is a beautiful structure and actually quite a treasure. Erected in 1907, it was the first office building in Fordyce and contains 26 rooms with bank security windows, alarm system, good lighting, restrooms, conference room and kitchen. We thought we had more space than we could ever occupy, but that turned out not to be so."
"Gene Barrow offered us his big game trophy collection including a full-body polar bear mount," Phillips said. "Marine veteran Bill Higgs gave us a number of Japanese artifacts he'd captured on Saipan, Iwo Jima, Tinian and Okinawa, and Bill Davis had an Ecuadorian shrunken head. So, there we were, with a historic building, a few dozen artifacts and $500."
"The fire marshal informed us we couldn't use the upstairs because it only had one exit. We applied for a grant with the Roy and Christine Sturgis Charitable and Educational Trust and were awarded $75,000. The city pitched in and we were able to install an elevator. Anthony Timberlands and Bill Higgs donated hardwood lumber to build the grand staircase making the upper floor safe and accessible. By then we'd stirred up a lot of interest and it filled up quickly," she said.
Phillips recounted how the museum then expanded into two other historic structures.
"In 2000, Bill Trussell gave us the old People's Store at Second and Main. Upon researching its history, we discovered it was probably the most historic building in town. It was one of the first four, adjoining, masonry structures built in 1884 (the same year Fordyce was founded) on what was then still called 'Chief' Street. It began as a general mercantile store with the original Masonic Lodge housed in the large, upstairs front hall.
"We applied and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. We sought another Sturgis Grant and again received $75,000. Dr. Bill Nutt put the museum in his will and left us $140,000, which allowed us to complete the restoration. We named it the Nutt/Trussell Building and made it the Dallas County Sports Hall of Fame and Fordyce Hall of Honor. It also contains multiple large, nicely appointed rooms that serve as a music venue and display hall. In addition, we rent it out for weddings, receptions and reunions.
"Next," she said, "we launched a campaign to buy the dilapidated, fallen-down store front next door because its roof leaked and we could never prevent weather damage to our building without addressing that issue. The city bought the building for $10,000 and gave it to the museum. We said, 'Thank you,' once again wondering what the heck we'd do with it.
"In Fordyce there is always a clamor for stories regarding our many famous athletes. It didn't take long to decide here is where we'll expand our Sports Hall of Fame to more appropriately remember Bear Bryant, Larry Lacewell, Big Jim Benton (Bears and Rams), Convoy Leslie, Red Parker, Houston Nutt, Kevin Williams (Vikings and Saints) and many more," she said.
Phillips concluded, "This is probably the most unique small museum in Arkansas. It's a treasure trove of unusual artifacts you won't see elsewhere. Our town has produced a lot of famous and influential people, including two admirals and a general. Ken Tanner left Fordyce to study for his geology degree in Houston. He was commissioned by the government to find artesian wells in Wyoming. He and a partner bought 3,000 acres out there and he found dinosaur bones on the property. He brought in Dinosaurs International from Germany and they recovered numerous complete fossil skeletons. After Ken died the agency gave us a full-size casting of an Allosaurus skull and an actual 150 million-year-old Allosaurus tooth."
She described a few other pieces the museum boasts.
"When the Museum of Discovery in Fayetteville closed their doors, they gave us a selection of their science exhibits. We also have the fifth cookie cross-section of the World Champion pine tree that blew down in a storm in Cleveland County," Phillips said. "Capt. Thomas Wynne (father of Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Robin Wynne) was a B-17 bombardier who led 28 missions over Nazi Germany. A British friend told Thomas how the Queen of England donated one of her children's christening gowns for a Red Cross auction. Wynne bid and bought it in London for 125 guineas to take home to his newborn daughter Westy. It is on display next to his leather bomber's jacket."
Other exhibits include Dr. T.E. Rhine's early 20th century medical office, the most extensive collection of telephones anywhere and numerous native American artifacts.
During the pandemic, the museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at 210 N. Main St.
Tax deductible donations are payable to the Dallas County Museum, P.O. Box 703, Fordyce, AR, 71742.Details: (870) 352-5262 or the museum newsletter on Facebook.com.