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Northwest Van Buren
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Northwest Travel 2

Exploring Van Buren

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Like her neighboring town Fort Smith, Van Buren is a vital river valley community fighting hard to protect her history and move forward as a great community to raise a family and invest in growth. A Welcome Home concert on New Year’s Eve for a rising Nashville star, Gabrielle Mooney, drew new attention to a town always celebrating its western heritage and proximity to Oklahoma. Still, Van Buren is best known as the town where Main Street greets the Arkansas River.

David Boyd, a log raiser, was the first recorded visitor to Van Buren in 1818, and his arrival brought a discovery of open land and effortless commerce through access to water. In 1830, a wood yard was established to fuel flat-bottomed steamboats driving the river. From its beginning, even as Phillips Landing, this town established on the higher ground became the main street for wagons, stagecoach routes and trains. The town’s growth hinged on being the hub of commerce and connection in Western Arkansas.

Exploring Van Buren is an easy day outing for a local staycation, a stopover on the way to Northwest Arkansas cities, or quick motivation for an excursion on the Arkansas-Missouri railway.

Others have written and shared about Van Buren’s preservation of the past and what makes it a great hometown, but I thought I’d offer a few highlights to consider as an easy winter outing.

History 0f Van Buren

  • Crawford County Courthouse – with an original construction in 1842, this is believed to be the oldest active county courthouse west of the Mississippi River. The original clock tower stands over the courthouse square, and a marker reminds visitors of the significance of this location along the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach route connecting St. Louis and San Francisco along this main street and through the Arkansas River.
  • The Hebe Statue – while it’s not the original statute standing today from 1908, the women’s league preserves the history of a story of a Greek Goddess committed to maintaining youth and happiness.
  • Frisco Train Station – this historic property serves as the Welcome Center, Historical Museum, and an active train depot for the Arkansas Missouri excursion train.
  • Drennen-Scott Historic Site – this home is a public museum and working laboratory for students at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. Built in 1893 and overlooking the Arkansas River, the house tells the story of the Drennen family through many original family heirlooms. In addition, it serves as a historical museum of a lifestyle 150 years ago. Priceless artifacts and ongoing preservation, along with the location, make this a must-see stop for visitors.
  • Albert Pike Schoolhouse – a one-room schoolhouse where the Confederate General and Freemason taught before traveling to Little Rock to practice law and publish a newspaper. It is one of the oldest standing buildings in Arkansas.
  • Fairview Cemetery – the oldest cemetery in the county, original gravestones date back to 1818, including some of the town’s first settlers. The Nationally Registered Historic Site is ethnically diverse, includes a significant confederate section, and serves as a great example of early funerary practices.

Main Street Van Buren

  • Veteran’s Memorial and Flag Plaza – a newly-renovated park welcomes visitors to town by honoring veterans and community first responders.
  • Freedom Park and Splash Pad – with considerable investment from the city, the downtown park area expanded beyond the Veteran’s memorial with a splash pad for children and families and two pavilions that serve as a farmers market and event gathering space.
  • Arts on Main – an educational and cultural hub for artists and art-interested children and adults
  • Downtown – six blocks of art galleries and boutiques listed on the National Register of Historic Places, some dating back over 100 years.
  • Main Street Mercantile – a boutique committed to sharing the story and products of multiple small businesses under one roof.
  • Trolley – an 1800s classic trolley car that operates Wednesday – Saturday as it shares historical information at downtown stops and historic sites.

Attractions in Van Buren

  • King Opera House – a cornerstone of the Main Street Historic District, the King Opera House offers year-round performances in an intimate, historic setting.
  • Crawford County Quilt Trail – Van Buren hosts four stops on the Crawford County Quilt Trail. This experience is excellent “from the car” travel exploring Arkansas backroads, local food and hidden art.
  • Thor Elite Firing Range – a shooting range and gun club offering memberships and classes
  • Colley Park – a 60-acre public park trails system connecting Van Buren neighborhoods to regional public recreation highlights near the OZ trails.
  • Lake Lou Emma Park – an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission small lake filled with catfish, largemouth, smallmouth and spotted catfish. The park provides bike and walking paths and picking areas.

Eating in Van Buren

  • Kopper Kettle Candies – a fourth-generation family tradition of hand-making chocolates since 1925. See it made through the glass windows in the candy store.
  • Frank’s Italian – an upscale, fine-dining restaurant perfect for date nights and events
  • Chapters on Main – an independent bookstore with an incredible coffee shop hidden inside. A perfect book and a perfect cup of coffee sound like a perfect day!
  • The Vault – serving American classics inside the 1909 bank building
  • Whistle Stop 5 & 10 – an old-fashioned mercantile-style candy shop with snacks and treats of all kinds
  • Sweet Boutique – home to giant cookies, cupcakes and made-to-order custom cakes. Just go in person and pick out what you want!

If you discover something fun and new in Van Buren, let us know so we can get out and explore more!

Images used with permission from Arkansas Parks, Tourism and Heritage.

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Keisha (Pittman) McKinney lives in South Arkansas with her husband and sweet Boxer, Bailey and one-year-old son! Keisha is passionate about connecting people and building community, seeking solutions to the everyday big and small things, and encouraging others through the mundane, hard, and typical that life often brings. She put her communications background to work as a former Non-profit Executive Director, college recruiter and fundraiser, and Digital Media Director at a large church in Northwest Arkansas. Now she is using all of those experiences through McKinney Media Solutions and her blog @bigpittstop which includes daily adventures, cooking escapades, #bigsisterchats, the social justice cases on her heart, and all that she is learning as a #boymom!

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2 responses to “Exploring Van Buren”

  1. Dave Duke says:

    I lived in VB from 1982 to 1988. I really liked it there. That where I found love and got Married a lake Ft.Smith Park in Mountainberg.
    Her daughters lived here in Kc. so we ended up moving to kc.I had 30
    wonderfull years with her.She passed away in 2012 and I was
    thinking about going back to VB. But her daughters wanted me to stay he in Kc. so I did. I lived at Dechard st.I miss the time I was there
    my life was so much less stress.

  2. William dinwiddie says:

    I was born in Van Buren in the hospital in the hill it’s best city n the world if u ask me I’m 47 an still live here

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