Site of Elvis’ haircut nominated to registry

Fort Chaffee building also was mess hall

Elvis Presley spent three days at Fort Chaffee during his induction into the U.S. Army before moving on to Fort Hood, Texas. He received his famous haircut in Building 803. The building is now a museum and is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Elvis Presley spent three days at Fort Chaffee during his induction into the U.S. Army before moving on to Fort Hood, Texas. He received his famous haircut in Building 803. The building is now a museum and is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

— Building 803 at Fort Chaffee is known as the place where rock idol Elvis Presley got his famous haircut during his induction into the U.S. Army more than 52 years ago.

In a few months, the building is expected to be recognized officially for its place in history with its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

Having the building, which is now the Chaffee Crossing Museum, on the national register “is definitely a plus,” Fort Chaffee RedevelopmentAuthority marketing director Stephanie Malone said.

The museum “helps draw visitors who then stay and drive around and see what’s going on,” she said. It also is a draw for businesses whose owners may like that there’s a historic barber shop just down the street, she said.

People come from all over the country to see the place where Presley got his hair cut, Malone said. The museum is out of the way, but fans still manage to find it, she said. Inclusion on the national register could lead to money for signs to the museum.

Officials with the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program nominated the building Dec. 1 for inclusion on the register. Program Director Mark Christ said the nomination went to the National Park Service, which is in charge of the register, and he expects a decision on Building 803 and a dozen other nominations in a few months.

While the building’s importance stems from that single event in March 1958, “It wasn’t just the place where Elvis got his hair cut, even though it was one of the mostawesome events ever,” museum coordinator and Presley fan Joey Chasteen said.

The historic preservation program based its nomination of Building 803 on its “association with military base construction in Arkansas” and “for its plain-traditional architecture.”

The building was not nominated because of Presley’s haircut, but the nominating documents mention the “Haircut Heard Around the World,” calling it one of the biggest popular-culture events of the time.

Presley spent three days at Fort Chaffee during his induction before moving on to Fort Hood, Texas.

The museum commemorates not only the famous hair cut but preserves and displays artifacts from the thousands of people who came through the fort during its 69-year history, Chasteen said.

“There’s a lot of Chaffee history we want to put on display,” Malone said.

The redevelopment authority is contacted constantly by aging veterans who want to donate their military possessions, such as medals and uniforms, to ensure they are preserved, Malone and Chasteen said.

Large and small artifacts turn up constantly on both the active and inactive portions of the fort and are turned over to the museum. Malone recalled that timber workers found a perfectly preserved letter from 1945 just sitting on the ground.

Chasteen said he has taken on the mission of scouring the old barracks and coming up with small items that soldiers hid and left behind decades ago. Also, the Fort Smith Museum of History has given the Chaffee Crossing Museum many artifacts it acquired from the fort over the years, he said.

With all those bits and pieces of history piling up, the Chaffee Crossing Museum is in need of more room. Chasteen said work will begin next year on restoring a two-story barracks building near the museum where Presley stayed during his three days at Chaffee.

The barracks will be restored to its 1958 appearance and will provide room to exhibit more collections, he said.

Chasteen also is working on putting together an exhibit on refugees who went through the fort.

Vietnamese and Laotian refugees were processed through the fort when Vietnam fell in 1975 and thousands of Cuban refugees were held at the fort in 1980 and 1981 after arriving in America.

Information about the more than 3,000 Gulf Coast residents who found refuge at Fort Chaffee after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 will be included in the exhibit, Chasteen said.

Building 803 fell into the possession of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority when 7,000 acres of the west portion of Fort Chaffee was declared surplus by the Department of Defense and turned over for civilian use in 1997.

The defense department still owns the remaining 65,000 acres and leases it to the Arkansas Military Department, which operates the Fort Chaffee Maneuver Training Center.

The single-story Building 803 was one of hundreds built in 1941 and 1942 on the new Camp Chaffee as America prepared for war. The design was kept simple, accordingto the historic preservation program’s nominating documents, because of the anticipated lack of skilled labor that would be building the structures at the camp.

Initially and throughout the war, Building 803 was a mess hall. After World War II, when Camp Chaffee underwent periods of activation and deactivation, the building remained a mess hall.

In 1952, Building 803 became a bowling alley for four years before part of the building was converted into the barber shop, which it remained until the military gave up the land in 1997.

When people gathered in the building to observe the famous haircut’s 50th anniversary in 2008, it was an aging, gutted shell. But efforts were underway to restore the building and open the museum. It opened in August 2008.

Jan Honeycutt, an economics teacher at Beard Elementary School in Fort Smith, started a drive with her classes in 1995 to raise money for restoring the building. Her classes raised $1,119.58 toward the project.

The redevelopment authority came up with the rest of the money needed, about $100,000, by selling salvaged material such as bricks, copper, porcelain toilets and other things around Chaffee Crossing, Malone said. They also borrowed parts of other buildings, such as windows, for the restoration and accepted donated items, like the barber chairs.

“We’re proud of our museum,” Malone said. “It’s really taken off.”

Malone said the redevelopment authority has applied for nonprofit status so it can accept donations for restoration of the barracks and for further work on the museum.

The museum is open on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, Chasteen said.

Northwest Arkansas, Pages 7 on 12/28/2010

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