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“What a Time We had on Garrison - Part 2”

Garrison Avenue has long been a hub of activity in Fort Smith

by Sue Robison

Strong citizen connection to the avenue in the early days contributed greatly to its growth. Long before automobiles crossed the Arkansas River, citizens met at the Grand Opera House at 424 Garrison in 1888 to establish a fund to assist in the construction of a railroad bridge to connect the city to the Indian Territory. They helped on the condition the Missouri Pacific Railroad would finish the railroad, wagon and foot bridge within one year of their assistance. The bridge opened to great festivities in 1891.23

Easier commuting meant more travelers to Fort Smith; more people needing a place to stay and a hot meal. Several establishments opened to fill those needs. The Fishback name over the doorway at 316 Garrison is a reminder of the man who constructed the building and opened the original Adelaide Hall in 1870.24 The LeFlore Hotel stood beside the Fishback building and was, in 1923, used by the government as a headquarters for transients. Due to its size, the LeFlore was able to hold 400 men at a time as they traveled the state looking for work.25

The McKibben Hotel, soon to be known as the LeGrand, opened in 1884. Shortly thereafter, the Board of Health declared the lot between the City Hotel at 410 Garrison and the LeGrand at 400 Garrison a public nuisance and recommended property owners in that block subscribe to the city’s water works for sanitary reasons.26 The city was quickly outgrowing the public well system.

The Hotel Main opened at 604 Garrison in 1888 and sent carriages to greet trains arriving in Fort Smith and solicit guests. By 1894, the hotel was in decline, and owners leased it to Lawrence Mivelaz and David Mayo. Fort Smith Mayor Fagan Bourland purchased Hotel Main

in 1919, and it became the permanent residence for the mayor and his wife, Julia. Bourland owned the hotel when it was suddenly overrun by rats arriving at such a rate they could not be handled by usual methods. To rid the building of the nasty creatures, it was decided to release opossums into the hotel, thinking the animals would handle the problem in a natural way. The plan made the local newspaper, but did little to solve the problem, and experts from Little Rock were eventually called in to send the little vermin back to the river from whence they came.27

The Stage Hotel hosted travelers at 607 Garrison. This small, popular hotel was raided by police in 1909 and relieved of a great deal of gambling paraphernalia, which was burned on Garrison in full view of passersby. Just two years later, two men were arrested at the LeFlore Hotel for putting chloroform through a hose into keyholes of guest’s rooms to drug the occupants and then rob them.28

In 1924, the Haglin Hotel at 609 Garrison was reopened under a new name, only to have the same hotel remodeled and reopened again in 1941. The buildings at 521 and 523 Garrison were demolished in 1929 to allow for the construction of the Ward Hotel.29

The pride of Garrison Avenue, the Goldman Hotel, opened its doors in 1910. The grand, brick building sat as a jewel at the head of the avenue, welcoming noteworthy guests, setting trends in design and art and hosting memorable events in Fort Smith’s history. The hotel called

itself “the house of comfort” because of the overstuffed furniture decorating its lobby. Doing a banner business, the Goldman expanded and opened a new annex and wing of apartments in 1928.30 The ballroom in the Goldman hosted the 1934 celebration of President Franklin Roosevelt’s fifty-second birthday.31 More than 1,000 guests attended the ball after marching by torch light up Garrison Avenue. When the ballroom could hold no more revelers, the overflow celebrants jammed into Café Royal across Garrison to continue the party. Eleanor Roosevelt made a visit to the Goldman in 1939 to promote the new March of Dimes effort to battle polio and sat for an interview with the highschool newspaper staff in the hotel’s lobby.32 The Goldman was the site of the “All Fort Smith Get Together and Fifty Cent Dinner” evening in 1921 organized to acquaint the town’s citizens with its tremendous possibilities. KFPW brought radio to Fort Smith from a studio inside the Goldman Hotel on July 9, 1930.33

Yet, not even the Goldman could withstand the economic and cultural changes of the late twentieth-century. After being reduced to an empty eye-sore, the Goldman was sold and demolished in 1994.34

While the ballroom at the Goldman was a favorite destination for couples looking for a good time, it was not the first popular night spot to grace Garrison Avenue. As early at 1823 there were reports of “saloons, gambling halls and places of entertainment catering to soldiers” in the Belle Point community near the first fort.35

Equal to the Goldman’s ballroom in elegance was Fort Smith’s Grand Opera House at 424 Garrison that opened in 1887. Live performances by touring companies filled the Opera House for years, but new venues lured patrons away and the Opera House was sold in 1909 for $75,000. The building was remodeled in 1913 to be used a wholesale house before eventually being demolished, leaving only its cornerstone visible in the existing structure to stand witness to its passing.36

Fort Smith’s New Theater originally opened with its entrance on North Tenth Street, but in 1921 added an entrance at 923 Garrison. This second entry created a long hallway quickly dubbed “the peacock walk” for the high fashion displayed by the theater’s patrons as they would promenade their way to the ticket window.37

The Imp Theater at 1018 Garrison made its mark on Fort Smith history in 1918 when the film being shown to patrons suddenly burst into flame.38 The popular Joie Theater was located at 808 Garrison, the Kinetoscope Theater stood at 1111 Garrison in 1909, and the Fort Theater welcomed guests at 501 Garrison in 1941.39 Through the years, other theaters came and went along the avenue. The upper, eastern end of Garrison never had the same rough-and-rowdy atmosphere that became almost a trademark of the lower end of the avenue. When the UTC club’s Winter Garden opened at 1116½ Garrison it quickly became the destination of choice for young couples and a gathering place as America approached a second world

war. On January 20, 1940, 700 guests attended a Winter Garden Military Ball.40 Later, as the war raged, Garrison Avenue welcomed troops from Camp Chaffee with music, dancing and good company. It has always been the people on Garrison who gave the avenue life, and at least a thousand of those people gathered in September 1912 to attend the third annual fall opening of the Boston Store. The event was so popular it grew into an annual style show hosted by the entire avenue in 1915 with doors and windows lighted from Fifth to

Twelfth Streets while “throngs of charmingly gowned women swept up and down Garrison.”

Fashion was often featured on Garrison, as it was when the remodeled Fair Shop at 313-315 Garrison opened in 1921 to a gala fashion show and live music outside the store.41 There was a free spirit about Garrison that moved its merchants to explore new possibilities and take risks. The Louis Weinstein Style Shop at 615 Garrison was so intent on promoting the luxury of washable men’s neckties in 1922 that they placed a washing machine on the sidewalk and demonstrated how to launder the new neck wear. They were fined five dollars by police for making a mess of soap and water on the walkway, and it is unclear if audience members were impressed enough to purchase a tie.42 The Weinstein display pales in comparison to the eleven- foot alligator skin displayed in a window to lure clients to John Kerwin’s Harness Store at 707 Garrison in 1920.43

Two gentlemen friends, a Mr. Johnson and a Mr. Matthews, took a chance and erected an oven to barbecue meat at Eleventh and Garrison on a cold January day in 1892. Mr. John Jones followed up their success by opening the city’s first sandwich shop, the Wayside Café, at 423½ Garrison in 1910 and the Kress Store at 810 Garrison perfected the idea of a public meeting place offering quick, popular food when they installed their soda fountain in 1912.44 This happened after the city declared outdoor lunch stands a dusty and dirty nuisance and forced their closure in 1908.45

Good ideas and generous actions sprinkle the history of the avenue, beginning when John Carnall opened the first elementary school in town at the corner of Garrison and third street in 1840. The first high school followed about four decades later, operating out of the second floor of a building at 913 Garrison.46

Children often benefited from Garrison Avenue activities. When Garrison Plaza, now known as Cisterna Plaza, opened with crushed stone walkways, swings and light fixtures donated by the Light and Traction Company, headquartered at the time at 301 Garrison, it was the perfect playground for families. The community Christmas tree stood in the Plaza for the first time in 1914, and 1,000 under-privileged children received Christmas gifts from Santa himself. Mayor Chester Holland turned on the Christmas lights while the Senior High band marched down Garrison in 1941, and the avenue drew national attention as one of the longest decorated streets in the country.47 Not bad for a main street that allowed stock animals to run

loose until 1907.48

Christmas wasn’t the only time children were the focus of all eyes on the avenue in 1913. Four hundred youngsters were treated to rides in more than sixty touring cars from Fifth Street to Thirteenth Street to allow them the opportunity to ride in an automobile. Garrison was closed

from Sixth Street to Towson in 1916 to allow for Halloween hilarity, and in 1941 the Joie Theater offered free movie admission to children who turned in ten tin cans as part of a city clean-up project.49

As natural disasters, depression and war moved through the country, Garrison adapted and found ways to help. During World War II, the owners of Hunts Department Store at 802 Garrison extended a helping hand to allies by collecting shoes to distribute in war-ravaged England. More than 600 pairs of shoes were collected and sent to Europe from downtown Fort Smith, but a German submarine sank the ship carrying the donation and the shoes never reached their destination.50

Checkered Cab drivers took their futures into their own hands in 1937 when they staged what was called a “riot” in front of their office at 1206 Garrison. The drivers demanded an increase in the speed limit to forty miles per hour to allow them to pick up more fares in a work day, but

a compromise of a five cents to each additional passenger they carried at one time quelled the uprising.51

Sinda Robinson, arrested in 1908 for roaming Garrison in men’s attire, may be the most interesting person to ever stroll the avenue.52 Sinda had a habit of dressing as a man

and visiting the bars on lower Garrison, but it was only illegal because of an 1891 ordinance in the Digest of CityOrdinances for Fort Smith that prohibited “the movement of any woman on the city streets after 9 pm.”53 The ordinance was meant to combat prostitution on the avenue,

but it could explain Sinda’s fondness for men’s clothing. Luckily, the ladies turning out in November 1990 to watch then Governor Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, dance at Sixth and Garrison in celebration of his carrying Fort Smith for the first time in a gubernatorial race were not bound by same laws as Sinda. Hundreds stood in great good humor in a light rain as Don Bailey’s Jazz Combo with Henry Rinne played “Satin Doll” while the future president and first lady danced in the soft glow of street lights.54

Garrison Avenue survived tornadoes, wars, the Great Depression, and the advent of shopping malls. As Fort Smith continues to grow and change, so does its avenue, and every step we take into the future is made in the shadow of those who first walked on Garrison.

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

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