SILOAM SPRINGS — Having nearly tripled in population during the past half-century, Siloam Springs feels a lot more urban than during the many decades before Northwest Arkansas soared on the wings of Walmart's spectacular growth.
That makes the homespun Siloam Springs Museum a figurative time capsule that transports visitors to the long era before the economic boom burst onto Benton and Washington counties. Adding to the 21st-century spin is the Cherokee Casino just across the Oklahoma border in West Siloam Springs.
The first white settlers in Hico, an earlier name for Siloam Springs, were German immigrants Simon Sager and his family in 1839. A miniature version of the Sager home and pieces of their antique furniture can be seen at the museum. The original cabin sits on the John Brown University campus.
In 1881, the allure of purportedly medicinal spring water flowing into Sager Creek led to the incorporation of Siloam Springs. The name came from the healing Pool of Siloam mentioned in the New Testament book of John.
When the expected arrival of a railroad in western Benton County was delayed for a decade, the population fell to about 800 by 1890. A Sager Creek flood caused extensive damage in 1892. The flooding of the creek reocurred, as seen in museum photographs of the most recent inundation in 1974.
In 1893, the Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad finally extended a line to Siloam Springs. While convenient transportation brought more spa patrons, orchards provided the prime economic impetus in the period before World War I.
The main crop was apples, as pictured in the museum. A charming photograph from the turn of the 20th century shows about 20 apple pickers of various ages and both sexes posed on an enormous mound of harvested apples.
Two apple-preparing devices are displayed, with an explanation of how to use the apple peeler from the late 19th century: "The peeler would have been clamped to the side of a table. Three spokes hold the apple in place while a hand-turned crank spins the apple to peel it." More complicated is the press for making apple cider.
The General Assembly acknowledged the crop's importance in 1901 by making the apple blossom the official state flower, a status it maintains. Apple production across Northwest Arkansas peaked at more than 5 million bushels in 1919, before falling to 2 million bushels in 1935 and 250,000 bushels by the 1960s. Today, fewer than 150 Arkansas growers market apples.
Among businesses featured in the "Industries of Siloam Springs" exhibit space are Allen's Canning Co., Jetstream, Pet Milk, Simmons Food, Day Spring and La-Z-Boy. An eye-catching artifact, upholstered in lustrous tea-green, is the first recliner made when the local La-Z-Boy plant opened in May 1973. The facility, which still turns out the iconic loungers, created 120 new jobs in 2020.
One artifact serves to show that enticing novelties can soon enough become ho-hum standards. It's a lighted sign that hung outside the Ozark Hotel, probably in the early 1950s.
The perk it promised is spelled out in the way that hotels and motels more recently have advertised "Free Breakfasts" and "Free Wi-Fi." This post-World War II amenity was touted with a single word: "Television."
Siloam Springs Museum, 112. N. Maxwell St., Siloam Springs, is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Admission is free, with donations welcome. For information, visit siloamspringsmuseum.com or call (479) 524-4011.