“What a Time We had on Garrison”
Avenue has long been a hub of activity in Fort Smith
by Sue Robison
Fort Smith Historical Society Journal, April, 2018, Volume 42, 1.
On a spring morning in 1865 in Fort Smith, Arkansas, a group of men gathered at the east
end of a wide dirt road they called Garrison. Some of the men wore military uniforms, but most were in their best suits as they stood in unison representing local service organizations. It was Wednesday, April 19, 1865, and when the clocks struck noon, the group marched forward to the drum beat of the 18th Iowa militaryband heading westward on Garrison to the parade ground at the Army fort where, in a solemn ceremony, they mourned the assassination a few days earlier of President Abraham Lincoln.(1)
“This organized parade on Garrison, began a long tradition of Fort Smith citizens pouring forth that street, a central gathering point, to express their shared grief, joy and hope. Fort Smith citizens celebrated the end of two world wars on the avenue, as well as countless holidays and rodeo celebrations. The road has witnessed the highest and lowest points of our history. In July 1922, just fifty-seven
years after the parade to mourn President Lincoln, Garrison sheltered silent onlookers hiding in the doorways of buildings at midnight to watch a stream of automobiles
brought to town by the Ku Klux Klan motoring the length of the avenue before proceeding to a rally point.(2)
When something important happened in America, it was reflected on Garrison.
John Rogers, a merchant credited with bringing business to a frontier army settlement, arrived from New Orleans in
1822 to a Fort Smith with no main thoroughfare. By 1837, the avenue was in place, but it was not until the town incorporated in 1842 that Garrison Avenue became its main
An 1840 government map shows Garrison extending seven blocks and ending at Eleventh Street. By 1870, Garrison was a straight line from the river to TexasRoad, much as it is today. 4 As the area grew, entrepreneurs from across the country flooded into Fort Smith hoping to prosper by serving a military population and travelers bound for points west. In the 1850s, a young man from Switzerland opened a cobbler’s shop just beyond the second fort’s walls at Third and Garrison. Felix Helbling quickly became a lucrative businessman, possessing more than 100 casts that allowed him to custom fit his shoes and boots to Army officers and
the elite of Fort Smith’s society. Like many early settlers, Mr. Helbling’s descendants remain in the Fort Smith area, continuing to frequent Garrison Avenue and retell the story
of its earlier days.(5)
In 1866, George Tilles told of his family’s arrival in Fort Smith from Saint Louis, saying Garrison Avenue was a sea of mud and he “got mired in the mud knee deep and had to be pulled out.” Tilles became one of Garrison’s most prolific businessmen, with dealings in cigars, real estate, and the Phoenix Bookstore and Bazaar at the east end of the avenue.(6)
As early as 1870, business boomed on the west end of Garrison. Well-known merchant, E.B. Bright, declared in a print advertisement for his Red Mill that, “Ye shall hear the sackbut, the psaltery, the dulcimer and the whandoodle” when you bring your grain to be “pulverized commensurate to the spirit of the age.”(7) E.B. Bright’s Marble Hall stands in the Garrison Avenue Historic District at 311 Garrison and is the oldest surviving building on the avenue.
The selling of alcoholic spirits has been part of life in downtown Fort Smith since the first settlers arrived. In 1875 the city recorded more than thirty saloons on Garrison.(8) Competition sprang up between the establishments, and merchants developed elaborate plans to lure customers to their bars. The John McNamee Saloon at 719 Garrison offered “chili concarne, wienerwurst, and ham and eggs neat and clean” so their 1897 patrons might have breakfast or lunch with their drinks.(9) When the Electric Saloon opened at 423 Garrison in 1900, its owner promised it would be the most popular establishment in town, and the Mint Saloon at 511 Garrison did a brisk business until fire destroyed the building in 1908.(10) A December fire in 1894 destroyed the Wyatt Saloon at 719 Garrison, and most of the Elevator
newspaper office above the bar.(11)
In 1908, Tom Taylor’s House of Lords at 501 Garrison was closed for keeping an illegal Jim Crow bar underneath the saloon. Things got so out of hand that A.J. Kunz, a saloon owner, hired an off-duty patrolman to look after his business and slow the fighting that often broke out between patrons. A 1907 newspaper article proclaimed that the block of Garrison next to the train depot turned in more ten-dollar fines than any other police beat in Fort Smith.(12)
Many saloons, however, were respectable establishments and catered to the wealthier citizens. The Palace Bar at 912 Garrison was an upper avenue establishment known for its fine service and genial atmosphere. The saloon’s owner, LaFayette E. Woodward, moved the Palace from 320 Garrison, opening its doors in 1907 in the new location. The Woodward family continues to live in Fort Smith, with L.E.’s grandson, Marcus Woodward, teaching in the city’s school system.(13)
Responding to requests to clean up Garrison, the city government acted against the saloons on August 1, 1914, by passing a no-license law that closed existing saloons on Garrison, prohibited licensing new establishments and moved more than $100,000 worth of alcohol off the avenue. However, by 1915 new liquor laws were in place and “the doors swung open” once more on Garrison Avenue’s legal saloons.(14)
Ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919 dried up Garrison Avenue’s liquor flow. Enthusiastic supporters of prohibition gathered in 1916 in such numbers they filled the entire floor and several balcony seats at the New Theater at 923 Garrison.(15) By the time prohibition ended in 1933, customers at local watering holes might have been discussing the dust bowl and an economic depression. Bars and private clubs have kept their doors open since 1933, continuing to offer gathering places for Fort Smith citizens.
The post-Prohibition avenue had not changed much since John Rogers opened its first hotel in the 1820s.16 The dirt road plagued merchants with so much dust in the dry season, but when their prayers for rain were answered, they cursed about mud so thick it bogged down wagons. These complaints were the constant bane of city government. When mule-drawn trolley cars made their first run up Garrison in 1883, they brought a sense of modernization to
town. Later, buggy drivers were warned to avoid damaging their wheels on trolley tracks, and men hired as street sprinklers beat back the constant dust blowing on the road
during dry seasons.(17) By 1884 Garrison Avenue had storm sewers. A few stores boasted of electric lights.(18)
To be Continued.
Sue Robison is a member of the Fort Smith Historical Society and has written articles for the Journal including an award-winning biography of Mary O’Toole Parker, the Judge’s wife, whom she portrays in re- enactments at the Museum of Fort Smith History and the National Historic Site.
1. Edwin Hicks, The Fort Smith Story, 1817-1896 (Eastern National Parks & Monument Association, 1988).
2. Stan Kujuwa, Fort Smith, Arkansas, Garrison Avenue Crime, Facts, Humor (Camelot 2K publisher, 2011).
3. Southwest Times Record, April 15, 1976, “John Rogers.”
4. Fort Smith National Historic Site map.
5. Dusty Helbing, personal interview, November 2017.
6. Mary Ellen Carver, Talk with Tillis (Mary Ellen Carver publisher, 2002).
7. Fort Smith Herald, April 16, 1897, “Merchants.”
8. Fort Smith Elevator, April 16, 1897.
9. Fort Smith Herald.
10. Southwest American, March 9, 1907.
11. The Weekly Elevator, January 4, 1885, “Fire.”
12. Southwest American, August 24, 1907, “Fines.”
13. Marcus Woodward, personal interview, December 2017.
14. Southwest American, August 1, 1914, “No License for liquor.”
15. Ibid., February 15,1916, “Meeting at Opera House.”
16. J. Fred Patton, The History of Fort Smith, (North Little Rock,Arkansas: Prestige Press, 1992).
17. Fort Smith Elevator, April 16, 1897, “Dust storms.”