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After two hectic days in booming Northwest Arkansas, the stillness at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park and at Cane Hill is welcome. I exit Interstate 49 at Fayetteville on a warm weekday afternoon and head southwest for two stops that will allow me to soak up Arkansas history.

The first stop is at Prairie Grove, where a Civil War battle was fought on Dec. 7, 1862. Confederate troops withdrew from Prairie Grove that night, leaving Northwest Arkansas and Missouri in Union hands. The battle was named after the Prairie Grove Church, where wounded soldiers were taken during the fighting. The town of Prairie Grove didn't exist then. It was established in 1888.

I'm one of the few visitors on this afternoon. I take my time, reading about how the United Daughters of the Confederacy purchased nine acres here to create a park in 1908. Annual reunions of Confederate veterans were held with political speeches, games and dinner on the grounds. Reunions after World War I also included veterans of that conflict. The reunions ended with the start of World War II.

In 1957, local residents formed the Prairie Grove Battlefield Memorial Foundation and agreed to take over the park from the UDC. The group also lobbied the Legislature to form the Prairie Grove Battlefield Park Commission and appropriate $50,000 for development. That money allowed the commission to purchase 50 additional acres and move several historic structures in the area to the park. The next big development came in 1965 when Biscoe Hindman, the son of Confederate Maj. Gen. Thomas Hindman, left the commission $100,000 from his estate. Thomas Hindman had commanded Confederate troops during the Battle of Prairie Grove. The money funded construction of Hindman Hall, which still serves as the park's visitors' center. Hindman Hall opened in 1965, and the park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.

During his first year in office in 1971, Gov. Dale Bumpers made it a priority to expand and improve the state parks system, which had been neglected for years. The Legislature passed a bill that year establishing Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park. Nine years later, the state acquired the Borden House property, where some of the heaviest fighting had taken place. That brought the park's size up to 130 acres.

A new effort to expand the park began in 1992. State officials wanted to take advantage of the American Battlefield Protection Program, which provides federal funds for land purchases. The park now covers almost 840 acres, and Civil War experts tell me that it's one of the best preserved battlefields in the country. With the steady growth of Northwest Arkansas, it's fortunate that the additional acreage was purchased. Walking around the park provides a respite from the urban bustle that has overtaken much of Washington and Benton counties.

I leave Prairie Grove and head farther to the southwest to Cane Hill, which is among this state's most historic communities. Cane Hill was the earliest settlement in what's now Washington County. It was established in 1827 by Cumberland Presbyterians from the Little Rock area and Tennessee. They planted apple orchards and started businesses.

Cane Hill had the state's first college that admitted women, one of the first public schools and one of the first libraries. The school was established in 1834 and became a college for men in 1852. Women could attend the Cane Hill Female Seminary a mile to the south in the community of Clyde. The men's school closed during the Civil War, and three of the four buildings were burned in 1864. The surviving building was used as a hospital for wounded Union soldiers. Cane Hill College admitted women in 1875, and five women graduated in 1877. The college moved to Clarksville in 1891 and became Arkansas Cumberland College. It was renamed College of the Ozarks in 1920 and University of the Ozarks in 1987.

More than $4 million has been spent at Cane Hill since 2013 restoring historic structures. Tim Leach is a Midland, Texas, oilman who heads Concho Resources Inc. He holds a degree in petroleum engineering from Texas A&M University and earlier this year was appointed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to the powerful Texas A&M University System Board of Regents. Leach's grandparents lived in the area. He visited often as a child and fell in love with Cane Hill.

Leach is funding the massive restoration efforts but has kept a low profile, preferring the past few years to let Bobby Braly of Historic Cane Hill Inc. take the lead. Braly, a Lincoln native, moved back from Knoxville, Tenn., and put his background in archaeology, anthropology and education to work.

There are 16 properties at Cane Hill on the National Register of Historic Places. Historic Cane Hill has renovated the Cane Hill College building, which was constructed in 1886, remodeled in 1931 and used as a public school until the 1950s. Other structures that have been restored include the Methodist Manse (built in 1859), the A.R. Carroll Building (built in 1900 to house Carroll's drugstore on the first floor and the Masonic Lodge on the second floor) and the Shaker Yates Grocery Building.

Shaker Yates, which was built in the 1940s, now houses a museum that's open each Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. The museum has extensive exhibits that tell the history of Cane Hill, a rural gem in the southwest part of Washington County.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 10/18/2017

Print Headline: In Washington County

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