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story.lead_photo.caption While the traditional ice cream menu will not be available at the soda fountain counter due to covid-19 concerns, visitors to the Fort Smith Museum of History can still purchase water, cold Coke in a glass bottle, chips, candy or a pre-packaged ice cream cup. Seating in the soda fountain is limited to 16 or less at this time.

"We're 110 years old and to my knowledge, we had not closed for a pandemic in the museum's history," says Caroline Speir, executive director of the Fort Smith Museum of History. Of course, that changed in 2020. "It was a big decision, but in the long run, because of the unknowns of covid and the extenuating circumstances surrounding the virus, it made sense to pause and see where this was going to take us."

Like almost all businesses, the museum -- which Speir says is the oldest functioning museum in the state -- closed its doors in March. It reopened July 21, with some limitations.

"No one can ignore the economic impact of closing a business, and ours was no exception," Speir says. "As a nonprofit, our admissions, membership renewals, donations and funds raised from special events are our life blood. Without those funds supporting us, we chance a reduction of our mission and, historically speaking, we're of less service to the public as a museum and a tourist attraction.

"Implementing safety precautions and our ability to require our public to adhere to those recommendations were vital parts of the decision to reopen," she adds. "Not that anyone is comfortable living with covid-19, but to have safety precautions in place allows us to cautiously continue the work of our mission and the public to benefit from the museum opening."

Speir says face coverings are required inside the museum; hand sanitizer is available upon entry and throughout the museum; groups must be 10 or fewer at this time; and social distancing measures will be in place, including necessary directional signs.

Favorite exhibits support the museum's mission -- "to collect, preserve and share the history and culture of Fort Smith and the surrounding region." One tells the story of William O. Darby, the first commander of "Darby's Rangers" in World War II. Another, "On the Air," chronicles Fort Smith's broadcast history from 1922-1972.

"Visitors always love the soda fountain," Speir adds. "Unfortunately we are not serving ice cream right now, but it can still be viewed as the exhibition it is -- an old-fashioned pharmacy and soda fountain display."

-- Becca Martin-Brown

[email protected]

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Fort Smith Museum of History

WHEN — 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday

WHERE — 320 Rogers Ave. in Fort Smith

COST — $2-$7

INFO — 783-7841 or email [email protected]

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