It was cloudy on the Wednesday that Paul Austin, the former head of the Arkansas Humanities Council, and I parked the car at Cane Hill in rural Washington County. Yes, there are still rural areas in this rapidly growing part of the state.
The weekend crowds were gone. On this quiet morning, we stood and watched men working on a house built in the 1870s.
Cane Hill was the earliest settlement in the county. Settled in 1827, it had Arkansas' first public school, library and Sunday School. Cumberland Presbyterians had traveled from eastern Tennessee and Kentucky to Arkansas. The first college in the state to admit women was at Cane Hill. There was even a Civil War skirmish here in the days before the Battle of Prairie Grove in late 1862.
For those of us who love Arkansas history, there are few better places to spend part of a day. Since 2013, millions of dollars have been spent to save and renovate structures such as the 1886 Cane Hill College building, the 1859 Methodist Manse, the 1900 Carroll Drug Store and the 1940s Shaker Yates Grocery.
Tim Leach, a west Texas oil magnate, had grandparents who lived in this area. He visited often as a child and fell in love with Cane Hill. Leach has kept a low profile through the years, but he led the fundraising efforts that have made Cane Hill one of the best places to visit in Arkansas. Leach is chairman of the board of regents of the Texas A&M University System. He earned a bachelor of science in petroleum engineering from Texas A&M in 1982.
Leach was chairman of Concho Resources Inc. from its formation in February 2006 until its acquisition by ConocoPhillips in January 2021. He's now a member of the ConocoPhillips board and an adviser to the CEO.
In June 2020, Vanessa McKuin began work as executive director of Historic Cane Hill Inc. In previous jobs in Little Rock at Preserve Arkansas (formerly the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas) and public radio station KUAR-FM, McKuin made valuable contacts across the state. With the pandemic subsiding, she's now putting Cane Hill on the map.
Today is the Cane Hill Harvest Festival, which returns after a two-year hiatus. Cane Hill is on Arkansas 45, about 20 miles southwest of Fayetteville and just six miles east of the Oklahoma border.
"We're excited to bring back this community tradition for what will be the 36th anniversary of the first festival," McKuin says.
Austin and I walked the entire community, marveling at the progress that has been made since I first visited Cane Hill a decade earlier. There are 18 properties on the National Register of Historic Places, with plans to develop more walking trails and exhibits. Those associated with Cane Hill hope to use nature and the arts as an economic engine for this rural part of Washington County.
"The museum opened to the public for the first time in a long time this spring once the omicron variant subsided," McKuin says. "We're also rolling out a new brand and an increased social media presence. The really big deal we worked on for well over a year was the opening of a Smithsonian exhibit known as Habitat."
Habitat is free to the public and will be on display each day from sunrise to sunset through Nov. 26. Outdoor exhibit areas are sprinkled along Cane Hill's forested trail system. Those walking the trails can experience Jordan Creek, limestone bluffs and huge trees. The Habitat exhibit was developed by Smithsonian Gardens and made available by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. There are colorful sculptures of grasshoppers, caterpillars and more.
"We've had trails and lovely outdoor spaces here for a long time," McKuin says. "This was the perfect opportunity to enhance them at a time when outdoor recreation is on the rise. People are longing to be outdoors."
There are 12 outdoor exhibits and five exhibits in the visitors' center. There's information about everything from dead wood and insects to creeks and compost. A heritage garden was even planted with vegetables that would have been grown here in the late 19th century.
"We've added a bridge across Jordan Creek for better access and also added areas of native plantings," McKuin says. "Historic Cane Hill is the only site in Arkansas to host the Habitat exhibit, which was originally installed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. We're now into what we consider Phase 2 of the Cane Hill restoration. We've pretty much stabilized the buildings we needed to stabilize and can now turn our attention to additional programming."
In recent years, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission has chosen Cane Hill as the place to unveil its annual quail stamp. The conservation stamp was the brainchild of Steve Cook of Malvern, a former commission member. Proceeds from the voluntary stamp are earmarked for quail habitat enhancements taking place across the state. These efforts also have proved beneficial for pollinators that are essential to Arkansas agriculture.
On the Historic Cane Hill website is a list of fun things to do while exploring the community. They include ringing the bell in the college bell tower, standing in the middle of the Jordan Creek bridge and taking in the view, watching for eagles and hawks, having a picnic on the grounds, hugging the giant bur oak tree, looking for apples in orchards and finding the names of graduates from Cane Hill High School. Austin and I try to do as many of these activities as possible.
I'll be back soon. I'm captivated by Cane Hill.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.