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Every time my dad comes to visit me, he reminds me of how small Conway was in the 1970s when he first started working for Arkansas Power and Light (which eventually became Entergy). It’s a much different community now. Universities, industry, and roundabouts have come to define this thriving town with upwards of 60,000 residents. But old Conway, the heart of the town, is a reminder of another era.
Asa P. Robinson founded Conway in 1871. He laid out plans for the town around the railway depot, and in the beginning, it consisted of just a few stores and a post office. The sounds of clanging railroad safety bars lowering and the horns of trains are still the familiar soundtrack in town over 150 years later. Conway’s courthouse, museum (a former jail), and downtown area harken back to a time when people knew their neighbors and walked more than they drove.
Historic houses are the lifeblood of any community, and Conway has a surplus. The Halter House is one of the “old guard” Conway homes, a stately Queen Anne Victorian situated within walking distance of St. Joseph’s school, and within earshot of all the trains coming and going. Frank Halter built this home in 1903 for his large family. He was a member of a prominent local Catholic family and a successful builder. With its gingerbread trim, large porch and haint blue ceiling, it’s easily the beauty queen of Conway’s historic district.
Another historic house, worlds away from the elaborate style of Halter House, is the log home located near the court square. While it isn’t one of the original Old Conway homes, it is by far the oldest structure. Built between 1820 to 1830, it was a private home for many years, then used as an inn on the Butterfield Overland Trail, and for almost 30 years, it was known as the Eight-Mile Store. It was moved and reassembled on the courthouse grounds in the 1960s. The original residents of this house are unknown, or at least disputed. Some say that Daniel Greathouse was the original builder. Greathouse (spelled Groethausen in German) was a famed pioneer who traveled with Daniel Boone. I stopped by this structure on a spring morning when people were scarce and bird song was plentiful, and it was easy to imagine how comfortable and welcoming it must have been to the early settlers who lived there.
Frauenthal House was built in 1913 and boasts an impressive 5,000 square feet. This home became the epicenter for Conway social events hosted by its owners, Jo and Ida Frauenthal. Their family was one of many esteemed German immigrants to become important businessmen in the area, notably for the Frauenthal and Schwartz retail store that remained in business for 80 years. With its Georgian Revival and Craftsman features, it was one of Conway’s most important homes. It is now the home of Conway Regional Health Foundation.
When I first drove past Clayton House, it reminded me of old houses in the New England area. However, despite appearances, it’s not a colonial-era house. Built in the late 1930s, it gives an excellent imitation of a much older home. Constructed for James Clayton, it is said to contain doors from his father’s house (the demolished original Clayton house), and other features from a historic home in the neighborhood. James Clayton played a prominent role in local broadcasting. His wife, Madge, earned a master’s degree from Columbia University. Was the house’s style inspired by her time in the Northeast? I don’t know the answer, but I do know it’s one of Conway’s most charming homes.
The Rueben Robins house is a beautiful 1928 Mission Revival home located in the center of town. Mediterranean/Mission Revival homes grew in popularity during that time, and this home is an excellent example. Besides its beautiful architectural features, this house is known for its owner, Reuben Robins. Robins, a famous and successful lawyer, served as a justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court and operated the Log Cabin Democrat newspaper for many years.
Daniel and Flora Harton built their lovely house in 1890 for their large family of 11 children. Harton’s wealth was diversified with cotton, land ownership and local businesses. The house is an amalgamation of many building styles, as is common with well-loved and maintained homes over the years. There were additions and porches added, taken off, and added again. Several of his children owned houses on the same block, with worn paths crossing between them as family members walked back and forth to visit and share meals.
Much like the Frauenthal House, the Little House has a striking Neoclassical style. It was built in 1919 by John Little, a prominent local landowner and cotton farmer. He moved to the area in 1885 and eventually owned 3200 acres of farmland. He donated the land for Hendrix College and what is now Conway Regional Medical Center. Ever the sentimentalist, he also ran a store named “The Lollie Plantation” after his wife. The house is rumored to have had the first walk-in shower in Conway and still has its original sleeping porch.
If I can editorialize a bit, this might be my favorite historic home in Conway. Perhaps it’s the cheerful lights shining through the arched window on rainy days, or its warm Tuscan-tiled roof, or the original trees and hedges framing it, but this home makes me smile every time I drive past. It was built in 1924 for the Smiths, who founded Conway’s first car dealership (Smith Ford Inc.). The Smith family, pillars of the community, were recipients of a wartime miracle. During World War I, they were sent notice that their son was killed in France. After the Smiths mourned and held a memorial service, the U.S. government notified them that their son was not dead, but still alive and recovering in France. Their son went on to lead a long and successful life here in Arkansas.
As the towns and cities of Arkansas grow, they continue to spread far from the original city centers, the original “old towns.” Our homes and neighborhoods are different now, and in some ways better, with new technology and building materials. Our new neighborhoods have wider streets and uncracked sidewalks, and with the push of a button, we can drive our cars into garages. But every community has historic neighborhoods and houses that shouldn’t be forgotten. These homes are filled with charm, character and history. Old Conway, and the historic homes in it, are still alive and well, no matter how large or new our hometown becomes.
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