ARKANSAS SIGHTSEEING: Building history — Benton’s Gann Museum offers historic artifacts, a bit of drama

Gann Museum of Saline County in Benton was built of bauxite ore. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Jack Schnedler)

BENTON — Visitors to the world's only known building made of bauxite also can learn about a brutal double murder that led to the sole legal execution in Saline County's 188-year history.

Gann Museum of Saline County's structure, in downtown Benton, was erected in 1893 by patients of Dr. Dewell Gann Sr. who couldn't afford to pay for his medical services. They built it from the pastel-colored bauxite, which in later decades became the valuable source of aluminum. The soft stone was dug from a nearby farm, sawed into blocks and hardened for six weeks.

Until 1946, the site served as the medical office for Gann and his son, also a doctor. It was added in 1975 to the National Register of Historic Places, the 138th property in Arkansas to gain that honor. Today it operates as a museum under the auspices of Saline County's library system.

Just inside the entrance, visitors encounter an exhibit with artifacts and details about the slaying of two women inside a farmhouse in the county's Kentucky Township on Jan. 24, 1877. The most telling object is the fireplace poker that Tom Staner wielded to murder his aunt, Hattie Staner, and her visiting neighbor, Mrs. Purcell Taylor. A family Bible is among other displayed items.

The killer fled after stealing about $225 and some jewelry. Once captured, he broke down and confessed. He was tried and sentenced to death. Ten days before the scheduled hanging, he set fire to the county jail, which burned to the ground. He injured a leg fleeing and was shot three times while being recaptured.

The execution took place Nov. 2 on the courthouse square in Benton before an estimated 2,000 spectators. Hattie Staner's father claimed the right to pull the lever that opened the trap door on the gallows.

There is a lot less drama but much more local history in exhibits about the building's medical history. The structure with its five-gabled roof has two front doors, one meant for men and the other for women. That arrangement allowed a female patient to enter without risking an encounter with any rough-mannered railroad or factory worker who might be arriving at the same time.

On one inside wall, visitors see the indented silhouette for one of the senior Gann's feet. The impression was made slowly over the years as he sat in a rocker with the foot propped while waiting for patients. On a desk that the doctor used for many years, a note reports that he delivered more than 3,000 babies without ever losing a mother during childbirth. He is pictured in a three-piece suit.

An invention of the younger Gann is advertised on a poster. The Gann Resuscitator "is efficient in assisting in restoring suspended breathing by drowning, asphyxiation, electrical shock and other causes." It "works on the principle of suction" and "aids nature in nature's own way."

Another room displays examples of swirl-patterned Niloak pottery, made from kaolin clay found in Saline County. The company produced many thousands of vases, urns, jugs and other designs each year before falling victim like so many others to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Gann Museum of Saline County

  • 218 S. Market St., Benton
  • Open 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday-Saturday.
  • Admission is free, with donations welcome.
  • Visit or call (501) 778-5513.