Drennen-Scott site in Van Buren to expand with funding from state grant

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 326 views 

The Drennen-Scott Historic Site in Van Buren has received a $367,000 grant from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council and will begin work on adding a second historic building for tours as well as creating new parking areas, offices and laboratories.

The Drennen-Scott Historical Site received notification the grant had been funded in May. The grant money will be used to start the projects and the group can re-apply annually for additional grants.

Plans include renovating a recently donated historic house, the Leonard Wilhauf house,  as well as adding 35 parking spaces to the property. The city of Van Buren will improve the site more with the addition of sidewalks to and from the two houses as well as providing access for pedestrian traffic from the downtown district.

Tom Wing, assistant professor of history and director of the Drennen-Scott effort, said he is excited about the potential this gives visitors to the site and the impact it will have on the educational value of the Drennen-Scott property.

The 1830s structure was donated to the society by John and Zoe Cobb. Wing believes the house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, is the second oldest in Van Buren. It originally belonged to Leonard Wilhauf, a German immigrant who was a baker in Van Buren. He was also well known for serving in the Mexican War. Wilhauf built the house on land he purchased from John Drennen.

Jackie Krutsch, executive director of the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce, said the expansion is an exciting addition to the growth and development of downtown Van Buren.

“The addition of the Wilhauf House will allow for extraordinary student opportunities. In addition, the improved property will coincide with the efforts to invigorate the downtown footprint,” she said.

According to a news brief from the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, the Wilhauf house will be renovated to provide student-created exhibits and student-led programming, similar to the Drennen-Scott House.

Caroline Bercher, a fifth generation descendent of John Drennen, is grateful for the grant and UAFS support of the historic property.

“I'm happy to see that another piece of Van Buren's history is going to be preserved and grateful to the University for seizing the opportunity to expand the Drennen-Scott historic site. These two properties together should provide a unique and amazing insight into the different life experiences of area settlers during the 1800s,” Bercher said.

Wing said when plans for adding a second home tour to the property were developing, the group knew there needed to be easy accessibility between the two structures. That is when he contacted Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman.

“Without hesitation, he was in on the project. The city agreed to build sidewalks to aid in pedestrian access to the site as well as to connect the structures,” said Wing.“He and other community leaders were instrumental in getting this project off the ground. This property is integral to the Van Buren history and we all wanted to do the renovation right.”

Along with the Mayor, Krutsch and Rusty Myers, representing Van Buren Original, were present during a recent meeting to review the project. Mayor Freeman said the city is willing to do whatever is needed to make the expansion successful.

“The Drennen-Scott house and the Wilhauf project are very important to our culture and history,” he said. “We will be providing funding for connecting the property together and making it more accessible.

Sidewalks will also be added from the historic downtown area in Van Buren to the Drennen-Scott properties, making it easier for pedestrians to travel to the site.

Wing estimated it would be two to three years before all projects were completed and the price tag could reach around $2 million, depending on the amount of rehabilitation it will take to bring the historic home to the codes needed for a public facility.

“Preserving the history of a building while giving it upgrades to match today’s needs is a very tricky process and can be slow-going at times,” he explained.

The first stage of renovation will be adding the additional parking on the northwest corner of the property which will be acquired through the grant funding.

“We have never had enough parking and this is not a place pedestrians can get to easily. Since we are adding another historic house it makes sense to expand the parking first,” he said.

The historic part of the Wilhauf house will be turned into student-led tour rooms and exhibits, while a newer addition on the back of the house will be converted to offices and a lab for the Arkansas Archeological Survey Research Station, now housed in the Echols Building of the main campus at UAFS. Wing said by adding the second home tour, it will give visitors a broader look at lifestyles in the 1800s.

“Wilhauf was a common man. By showcasing his working class home, it will help us contrast the different ways people lived,” he said. “The Drennen-Scott house is a wealthy man’s home. When this home was built, it was grandiose and the people who lived here were very well off. This is a great educational opportunity to contrast the different lifestyles.”

Wing said numerous artifacts found in the home are now being cataloged by students in the history program at University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, and will be kept in the archives there. When renovations on the Wilhauf home are completed, some of the archives may be used for exhibits. 

The Drennen-Scott Historic Society has two missions, said Wing. One is education through school group tours, lecture series and visiting classrooms offsite. The other is community outreach by providing tours and classes onsite at the Drennen-Scott house.

“Van Buren gains a lot by having this house and history here. It really is an asset to the community and it’s only going to get better with this new expansion,” Wing said.

Mayor Freeman said expansion at the Drennen-Scott house fits in well with other recent developments in the area.

“When you look at how the area is revitalizing their history with the Marshal’s Museum in Fort Smith and now this project, it really reflects how much we value the rich heritage of this area,” he said.