Boulden: Fort Smith history is ‘underwritten’

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 149 views 

From early childhood, Ben Boulden has had a passion for the past. A few months shy of a year ago, The History Press approached him about writing a book on Fort Smith history and, as they say, the rest is history.

Boulden loved European history in grade school. He attended the University of Missouri at Columbia with the intent of earning a degree in journalism. That changed and he said he took every undergraduate course he could in medieval history and changed his major to graduate with a bachelor of arts in history in 1986. He moved to Boston thereafter but returned to the area and completed his graduate studies earning a master of arts in history from the University of Arkansas in 1992.

"While I was underemployed, right out of graduate school, I would just go down to the library and read microfilm just for fun," Boulden said of an uncommon activity for most people.

His first job was as assistant curator for the Old Fort Museum (now the Fort Smith Museum of History). He moved on to do a contract job of an architectural survey in Van Buren for the Arkansas Preservation Commission before taking a position at the Times Record newspaper in 1995.

His newspaper column, “Inquire Within,” began about seven years ago and answered readers' local interest questions primarily about streets and locations. A few questions concerning historical facts were submitted early on and readers, apparently realizing his penchant for local history, followed with more and more history questions.

The History Press took notice of his column on the newspaper's website and contacted him in the early summer months of 2011 with an offer to write a book.

"I've been thinking about and talking about writing a book on Fort Smith history for a long time and it was a real daunting proposition just to do it on spec[ulation]. To actually have a publisher show interest and say, 'Hey, if you will do this, we'd like to print it;' that was a big motivator knowing that when I'm done, I'm going to have a published book and not have to shop it around," Boulden said. "It's tough just diving in and doing all the work that a book takes and not knowing if anyone is ever going to even want to print it, much less buy it."

Writing on nights and weekends, the book came together in a few hundred hours and was delivered to the publisher in mid December as per his contract agreement. The first printed copies arrived on Feb. 14. Boulden emphasized the book is not a vanity publication, or one that is author-funded from start to finish. He does receive royalties from The History Press and gets to buy books at wholesale prices and resell them.

Hidden History of Fort Smith, Arkansas is 125 pages of interesting bits of local history primarily from the late 19th to the early 20th century but also includes some contemporary items and goes all the way back to the founding of the fort. Some of the stories are rewritten from the 'Inquire Within' column which the newspaper gave him permission to use.

"It's one of those books you can literally pick it up anywhere, there's no continuous narrative, you can open it up anywhere an go 'Oh I haven't read that before' and read three or four pages and you're done," said Boulden regarding the format.

Boulden will sell copies for $19.99 and sign them at the Fort Smith Public Library on March 15 at the Fort Smith Museum of History from 4 to 6 p.m. and March 17 at Belle Star Antiques from 2 to 4 p.m.

Copies are also available to purchase online from the publisher, and Barnes & He said he would gladly sign copies purchased elsewhere and brought to one of the signings. An additional signing at Books-A-Million is in the works.

When asked about his future as an author, Boulden said he he would like to continue writing and would consider the 'Wicked' series if History Press is interested.

When asked if he could write about anything, Boulden said Fort Smith labor and politics from the 1880s-1940s fascinates him. Fort Smith used to be highly unionized, socialistic of sorts, he said, and that runs counter to what we think we know about Fort Smith being conservative and very Republican nowadays.

"I feel like Arkansas history, in general, and Fort Smith history, specifically, are underwritten," Boulden said.