story and photos by Michael Tilley
The about 60 guests at the Fort Smith Museum of History received a brief overview of bordello financing around the turn of the 20th century.
There was $600 for the lot, a $3,000 loan from a local bank to build a structure and a few ladies with the skills to help madam and Vermont native Miss Laura make, well, ummm, to make ends meet.
“They had that loaned paid off in 17 months. Those girls were very busy,” Miss Laura explained to the gathered museum guests.
According to museum literature: “The exhibit is a glimpse into the lives of Fort Smith and Arkansas women who stepped outside society’s rules and lived their life — leaving behind legacies of good character, boundless strength and courage, and fearlessness in the face of change.”
The opening exhibit was held Saturday morning, and included an 11 a.m. presentation by re-enactors portraying Laura Ziegler, Mary O’Toole Parker and Verna Cook Garvin.
Fort Smith resident Carolyn Joyce portrayed Miss Laura, madam of the legendary house of ill repute located on “the row” along the Arkansas River. The structure, now home to the Fort Smith Convention & Visitors Bureau, was the first bordello placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
By the way, and after a “suspicious fire” in 1911, Miss Laura sold her business for $47,000. That’s a good return on investment even at today’s standards.
Sue Robison portrayed Mary O’Toole Parker, wife of Judge Isaac C. Parker.
“Robison brings to life the little known wife of the well-known judge and relates obscure details of her long life,” notes the museum website.
Susan Harper of Hot Springs portrayed Verna Cook Garvan. Garvan, in 1934 at the age of 24, managed her deceased father’s business.
“Following a scandalous divorce and time spent in an insane asylum, Garvan prevailed over her ‘rascal’ ex-husband and continued to prove herself as an excellent businesswoman,” according to the museum. “Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs celebrates the legacy of this intelligent and courageous woman.”
The “Divergent Path” exhibit includes information about many women with connections to the Fort Smith area. They include Betty Bumpers, U.S. Sen. Hattie Caraway, Virginia Maud Dunlap Duncan, Polly Crews, former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Woods Patterson, Arkansas Rep. Carolyn Pollan, Caroline Mary Scott, Melanie Hold Speer, Louise Thaden and Betsy Kelley Weeks.
At 1 p.m., Fort Smith native, wood artist and sculptor Robyn Horn talked about her art work that has resulted in regional, national and global recognition. Horn has art on display at the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian art gallery in Washington, D.C., and at overseas art galleries.
Horn was named an Arkansas Living Treasure by the Department of Arkansas Heritage in 2008.
She is best known for using wood to re-create the look of natural and formed stone. Horn told the more than 40 gathered for her presentation that she uses wood from around the world. She said the benefit of using wood is that it comes in many varieties and has many characteristics.
“It’s interesting to find all these nuances about wood,” Horn said.