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Newspapers, they say, are the first rough draft of history,

Want to get lost in time? Sure, you could pull out a smart phone and scroll through some social media app and you'll lose plenty of time. But I'm talking about getting lost in a good way, as in material so fascinating that time just slips away as you comb through it.

Go to the library and look at the microfilm of your local paper from years ago. It will be a fascinating journey.

For years, I've had opportunities to comb through old newspapers on microfilm and I'm never disappointed in the stories told about the younger days of Northwest Arkansas. Newspapers have been covering the region as far back as the 1800s.

Recently, my church observed a major tragedy in its history. Central United Methodist Church on Fayetteville's famed Dickson Street is a beautiful structure originally built in 1953 at a cost of about $300,000.

The tragedy came in the form of fire. In the early morning of Dec. 14, 1969, flames took their toll on the 16-year-old structure.

Last week, the church marked the 50th anniversary of the event, which was chronicled in the pages of the Northwest Arkansas Times in a Monday edition. When our pastor revealed plans for the observance, it naturally sent me into the microfilm to see how the event was covered.

"A fire which raged out of control for more than four hours Sunday virtually destroyed the interior of the Central Methodist Church. There were no injuries in the fire," the front-page story recalled.

"The blaze was first spotted by a police patrol 4:20 a.m. and within minutes some 49 firefighters from the Fayetteville Fire Department responded to the scene at Dickson Street and Highland Avenue."

Fire crews remained on the scene nearly nine hours. That Sunday afternoon, the church's board met on Mount Sequoyah and took little time deciding to rebuild. The fact the steeple was undamaged served as an inspiration, even as it was shown in photos looming over the large, soot-covered holes in the sanctuary's roof.

The pages offered other news: Nixon announces a new round of troop withdrawals from Vietnam. A letter to the editor from U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright lamented the Hogs' loss to the Longhorns in the "Game of the Century" a week earlier. In true Razorback spirit, he nonetheless noted it as proof the University of Arkansas can match up against anyone in the Southwestern Conference.

A large advertisement in that Christmas shopping season proclaimed "There's plenty of safe, controlled parking in downtown Fayetteville -- with a big total of 1,000 parking spaces." Even then, it took some effort to convince people parking downtown wasn't troublesome.

As for the church blaze, the fire chief a day later said it started in two different places, with areas of the sanctuary in between undamaged. Still, by Dec. 17, the state fire marshal ruled out arson, although suspicion remained. Two other large structures had burned in as many months -- Hill Hall on the University of Arkansas campus and a meat processing building on the UA's university farm.

In 1971, astonishingly, a second fire struck the rebuilt church, undoubtedly arson. The Times reported then that, despite the 1969 finding by the state of no arson, "city firemen said it was a clear case of arson."

The 1971 edition of the newspaper included other stories: installation of the "first push-button telephones in the area" at the First National Bank in Fayetteville.; the Jaycees' door-to-door program to distribute poison across the city to fend off a rat infestation; and a strong debate of the Springdale School board over whether teachers should be permitted to wear pant suits in the classroom.

Commentary on 01/12/2020

Print Headline: Newspapers tell 1st draft of history

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