Historic Wilhauf home in Van Buren to soon open to the public

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,893 views 

Arkansas and University of Arkansas at Fort Smith officials gathered March 9 for a ribbon cutting at the historic Wilhauf home in Van Buren. (photo courtesy of UAFS)

The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith’s Wilhauf House in Van Buren is near completion and university officials believe it will open to the public in April. The re-opening of the Drennen-Scott house will be coordinated for the same time, said Tom Wing, UAFS assistant professor and director of the Drennen-Scott Historic Site.

Members of the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resource Council along with Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism Stacy Hurst toured the research and teaching facility Wednesday (March 9) prior to a ribbon cutting ceremony.

“The work you have done here and continued to do is incredible,” Hurst said of the site Wednesday. “It is a huge asset to your area because it tells a compelling story of Arkansas. It contributes to the quality of life. It tells a memory, and it draws visitors.”

Wing told members of the council they were “seeing a true work in progress.” He said he had anticipated the renovation process on the site to be completed by now, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed some work.

“We are not quite finished. We still have some landscaping to do here. We have to finish a punch list. We are just almost complete,” Wing said.

The Wilhauf House was initially owned by Leonard Wilhauf, a German immigrant and veteran of the Mexican War. He ran a bakery on Main Street and sold food provisions to settlers moving west, Wing Said.

Historic photo of the Wilhauf house.

“The story of Leonard Wilhauf is America’s story. He was an immigrant from Germany who came to Arkansas,” Wing said.

Built in 1838 and restyled in 1847, the house is a single story, dog-trot structure. The Wilhauf House’s last owners were the late John Cobb and his late wife, Zoe Cobb, Wing said. The couple’s daughters inherited the property before donating it to UAFS, he said.

The addition of the Wilhauf House to the Drennen-Scott historic site will allow visitors a glimpse into a working-class home, illustrating the stark disparities between the daily lives of the elite and those on the lower end of the economic scale in the 1800s.

“We have a story here of a tale of two sides of the tracks. The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith already owned John Drennen’s home. He was the proverbial rich man on the hill and very influential in Arkansas in a lot of different circles. Leonard Wilhauf was a working class man. But his story is equally significant,” Wing said.

Boasting 10-feet-tall ceilings, “four original rooms and a couple other rooms,” the one-story Wilhauf House has been renovated to bring the look and feel of the original home’s interior back for the public, as well as to provide additional space for student-created exhibits, student-led programming and various other community events and projects, Wing has previously said.

Much of the restoration work on the home dealt with termite and weather damage to the wood home, repairing leaks and the necessary steps of turning a former home into a museum. The building needed to be made ADA compliant and heat and air-conditioning, burglar alarms and fire protection had to be installed, Wing said.

Work has been ongoing at the site since 2012, he added.

“We worked in pieces, the grants came in a little here and there over time, unlike the Drennen-Scott house, where we had a big chunk at one time,” Wing said.

The ANCRC grants council has provided upwards of $8 million in financial support for renovations of the university’s Wilhauf and Drennen-Scott historic sites, both of which serve as hands-on laboratories for museum professionals, archaeologists, and historians, a UAFS news release said.

Since acquiring the Drennen-Scott site in 2005, and opening it to the public in 2011, visitors from across the world have joined the thousands of area students who have learned about Van Buren, Crawford County, Arkansas, and their role in American History. Wing said he is making plans for area students to visit the Wilhauf site in May.

The Drennen-Scott House has been closed to visitors since March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Staff took advantage of that time to handle some repairs and maintenance in the house, a news release said. Once opened in April, both sites will be open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday to November.