‘Up Among the Hills’ notes Fayetteville history, John Lewis

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 619 views 

FAYETTEVILLE – Banker John Lewis will be one of many memorable Fayetteville characters brought to mind Friday when a documentary film about the town premieres at the Fayetteville Public Library.

The children’s library and media/magazine section will be closed tomorrow (Oct. 18) and the entire library will be closed Friday (Oct. 19) as officials prepare for the gala film debut that night of “Up Among the Hills: The Story of Fayetteville.”

The hourlong documentary details the history and culture of the town and is narrated by former resident Bill Clinton, who went on to some notoriety of his own beyond the town’s borders.

Some $38,000 worth of tickets have been sold. For their $75 ticket, 507 patrons will get the chance to bid at a silent auction and have cocktails and dinner before the film. The event is the culmination of a two-year fundraising effort that coincides with the completion of the documentary.

Fayetteville, widely known as home of the state’s flagship land-grant university, also has a reputation as a diverse, progressive, eclectic community that seems in sync with the oft-seen “Keep Fayetteville Funky” slogan. The town also promotes its community venues and communitywide collaborations. And it’s the pairing of those two components that led to the making of the film.

The film, written and directed by Emmy award-winning filmmaker and University of Arkansas journalism professor Larry Foley, was funded by the Fayetteville Public Library Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was inspired by Fayetteville native Lewis, known as "Mr. Fayetteville" for his knowledge of the city's history and his desire get the community involved in its' development.

Lewis died in June 2007.

“His family and friends were looking for ways to commemorate him. He was unassuming and wouldn’t have wanted a bust or statue. They decided he would have most liked a film on Fayetteville,” said Susan Foley, the library’s development director.

She also is Larry Foley’s wife.

“We decided this would be a great spend of our monies,” she added.

The film will be given to all Fayetteville schools and other Northwest Arkansas libraries.

Lewis founded the Bank of Fayetteville in 1987 on the principle of “treating customers the way we would want to be treated,” according to the bank’s historical information.

The main branch is a 1904 building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, site of the former Lewis Bros. Hardware. Lewis was a longtime businessman in Fayetteville before he started the bank and was active in community affairs, including reinvigorating the Fayetteville square in the 1970s and serving as co-chair to finance the new library building, which opened in 2005.

“He wanted us to be able to offer a top-notch library to the community,” Susan Foley said.

The film is dedicated to Lewis and it was a little nugget from his collections that Larry Foley chose as a springboard for the film.

“When I was hired to do the film, I went to see (Lewis’ widow) Helen Lewis and collected some boxes of his stuff, things John had written,” Foley said.

Among the finds was a 1990 Bank of Fayetteville newsletter in which Lewis wrote about the specialness of the town and referred to an 1858 news report by Waterman L. Ormsby, a reporter who toured the western states as the sole through passenger of the Butterfield Overland Mail coach. Ormsby’s firsthand account described it as a difficult-to-get-to-yet-flourishing little town in the Boston Mountains. Part of Ormsby’s description, “up among the hills,” became the film’s title.

The film goes back to the early 1800s and highlights major events in its history. But Foley said the story is character driven, showing Fayetteville’s reputation as an eclectic mix of people is long standing and well deserved.

There’s Charles L. von Berg – an Indian scout, Rockies mountain guide, and wild west companion of Gen. George Custer and William F. “Wild Bill” Cody – who settled here in the late 1800s and started the town’s first Boy Scouts troop. He was known for his nightly playing of “Taps” from his front porch, a signal to fellow citizens that the “old scout” was retiring for the night.

Former Fayetteville Daily Democrat (now Northwest Arkansas Times) publisher Roberta Fulbright – a fiery personality who owned several businesses and was influential among the town’s citizens, not the least of whom was her son, J. William Fulbright, who grew up to be the well-respected United States senator – is also featured. The former Arkansas “mother of the year” wasn’t “all sweetness and sunshine,” according to writings from Walter Lemke, after whom the University of Arkansas’ journalism department is named.

In researching the film, Foley said he found so many documents about Fayetteville and its uniqueness that he let more of those local voices “speak” than he typically does in his documentaries. In addition to Clinton’s narration, he features about 20 character voices.

“Early on, we kept finding these things people have written about Fayetteville. They’re passionate about the town,” Foley said. “To read what they’ve said is emotional.”

While the film is dedicated to Lewis, it is not about him, although he is featured as one of several investors responsible for the renovation of the downtown square when it fell into disrepair.

“It was an infusion of support and energy that still goes on,” Foley said.

The square, again a thriving social and business center, is a character of Fayetteville itself and plays prominently at the film’s end, Foley said.

Narrator Clinton is, of course, former President Clinton, who also is a former Arkansas governor,  former UA law professor, and famously owned his first home in Fayetteville with new bride Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Getting the script to Clinton – a challenge met by Woody Bassett, Clinton’s friend and a Fayetteville lawyer – and coordinating with Clinton’s schedule was well worth the effort, Foley said.

“He thanked me when we finished recording and said, ‘I really wanted to do this.’ I believe he really did want to do it,” Foley said.

“It was never easy to get on his dance card,” Susan Foley said. “He’s the president of the world. We had to fall in the pecking order.”

Any hopes Clinton himself will show for the event?

“We don’t believe he can,” Susan Foley said, due to an active schedule with President Obama’s re-election campaign. “But his aides say if there’s any way … ”