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From Elvis to Denzel

by Rex Nelson | November 5, 2017 at 1:05 a.m.

It was March 25, 1958, and Elvis Presley was being given a buzz cut at Fort Chaffee after having been inducted into the U.S. Army.

Asked by reporters what he thought about having to give up his famous sideburns, Presley said: "Hair today, gone tomorrow."

The quote was printed in newspapers across the country the next day. And the haircut is still celebrated at the Chaffee Barbershop Museum, which is open from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday and is an anchor of the Chaffee Crossing Historic District.

Ivy Owen, executive director of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority, said several people interested in history urged him to restore the building soon after he took the job in 2007. Some members of his board doubted that such a museum would be a success, but the doubters soon turned to believers as the guest book filled with names from across the country.

"We opened that museum in 2008 after restoring the room to look just like it did in March 1958, and since then we've had visitors from 40 states and 15 foreign countries," Owen says. "It has been a hit since the first day the doors were open."

Today's Perspective section cover story chronicles the success the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority has had in recent years as it develops almost 6,000 acres. New subdivisions and apartment complexes are springing up at every turn. Not all of the success story involves new construction, though. Part of it has to do with attracting tenants for old base structures that are being repurposed for commercial uses. Hundreds of buildings were demolished after the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended the permanent closure of Fort Chaffee in 1995. Several buildings that once were part of the fort are now being renovated, and businesses are taking notice.

Ivy told the publication America's Defense Communities: "One of the first requests I made of the authority's board after I was hired was for $40,000 to design a historic district around the Elvis building, which has became a major tourist attraction, drawing people from all over the world. I didn't think they would give me the money--and the project wound up costing three times what I asked for--but they let me go out on a limb. Fortunately, I didn't break it."

A second museum, the Museum of Chaffee History, attracts additional visitors. Displays chronicle the fort's role in five wars along with resettlement operations that have occurred there. More than 50,000 Vietnamese refugees were processed at Fort Chaffee in 1975-76. More than 20,000 Cuban refugees were processed there from 1980-82. In 2005, the fort was called back into duty to host evacuees following Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. More than 10,000 people from coastal areas of Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas were housed in empty barracks.

The Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority has created four small districts within the larger Historic District. The Legacy District houses the museums along with businesses in renovated barracks and administrative buildings. The Enterprise District will cater to businesses that require more parking spaces and greater visibility. The Warehouse District has a furniture store, a microbrewery, restaurants, a museum and commercial office space. The Memorial District includes plans for a historic bridge to be relocated from Arkansas 59 at Natural Dam in Crawford County. A walking path and interpretive panels will be added.

The Historic District is even home to the School of Irish Dance. Last year, the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority accepted bids from engineer Scott Archer and Diades Investments for a block of five warehouses. A pizza restaurant and a steakhouse will anchor the development. Fort Smith Brewing Co. at 7500 Fort Chaffee Blvd. brewed its first beers in August and opened to the public in September. It's the first commercially made beer in Fort Smith since the 1990s. Quentin Willard, the general manager, told the Times Record at Fort Smith: "We want people to come to Fort Smith and have the full Arkansas experience." Fort Smith Brewing Co. serves only beers from Arkansas so people can taste various craft beers being produced in the state without having to go to Little Rock, Hot Springs or Northwest Arkansas.

There also are attractions outside the Historic District that draw visitors to Chaffee Crossing. In 2006, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission put one of its four nature centers at Chaffee Crossing (the other three are in Little Rock, Jonesboro and Pine Bluff). The Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Nature Center is a 14,000-square-foot facility with 170 surrounding acres that are used to interpret the natural environment of the Arkansas River Valley. There's a 12-acre man-made lake and numerous trails. The center attracted more than 80,000 people during its first year of operation.

In 2011, the McClure Amphitheater, which was built by soldiers in the 1950s, was restored at a cost of $160,000. The amphitheater now hosts everything from family reunions to small entertainment productions.

Fort Chaffee has been used as a movie set, and those at Chaffee Crossing are hopeful it can be utilized again. A Soldier's Story, a 1984 movie starring Denzel Washington and Howard Rollins Jr., was filmed at Fort Chaffee along with Clarendon and Lamar Porter Field in Little Rock. It was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The film, which was about black soldiers in the South near the end of World War II, was directed by Norman Jewison. It earned more than four times what it cost to produce.

The 1988 production Biloxi Blues was also filmed in part at Fort Chaffee. Written by Neil Simon, the film was directed by Mike Nichols. It starred Matthew Broderick and Christopher Walken. The movie was about a 20-year-old Jewish boy from New York who was drafted near the end of World War II and sent to basic training in Biloxi, Miss.

From Elvis Presley to Denzel Washington, Fort Chaffee has hosted more than its share of interesting visitors through the decades.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 11/05/2017

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