Bentonville, Arkansaswords: Marla Cantrell
images Marla Cantrell and courtesy Emily McArthur Photography, The Pressroom, The Walmart Museum, The Peel Mansion and Heritage Gardens, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Bentonville, Arkansas sits in the northwest corner of the state. It’s as complex a city as you’re bound to find: part corporate America due to the impact of Sam Walton’s Walmart (headquartered there); part small town America, as evidenced in its town square where local musicians gather almost every Friday for Pickin’ in the Park, an event that’s free to attend.
Also in this city of 41,000 is the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which is there because of the philanthropy of Sam and Helen Walton’s daughter Alice Walton and the Walmart Foundation. The world-class museum brings in 220,000 visitors a year from across the globe.
To get the full effect of this great town, you’ll want to seek out some of its newest offerings and visit some of its oldest sites.
Head directly downtown. It’s going to be busy, so scope out the public parking areas and find your spot near the square. Tip: If you travel on a Saturday morning, you’ll also get to enjoy the farmers’ market.
121 West Central Avenue
The Pressroom (great coffee, full bar, deliciously fresh food) is a popular place, and today diners are filling the tables and spilling out onto the sidewalk where there’s extra seating. Bea Apple, an electrical engineer by training, who owns this eatery, along with her husband, moved here eight years ago, knowing that when Crystal Bridges opened in 2011, opportunity would come with it.
Start with a Vanilla Honey Latte ($3.40) and the Avocado Breakfast Sandwich ($4.00): whole wheat bread, avocado, fried egg, cheddar cheese and mayo. Not in the mood for avocado? Try the French Baguette ($5.00) with Prosciutto and butter, drizzled with scallion oil.
The Walmart Museum
105 North Main
An easy walk from The Pressroom leads you to an old dime store, complete with red and white awning. Step inside and you’re in the Walton 5&10, a working store with reproductions of old toys for sale, bins of taffy, a stack of aprons your grandmother might have worn. Sam Walton opened this shop in 1950, well before he launched his first Walmart store.
Wind your way through the dime store and you’re in the self-guided museum that walks you through Sam’s life using displays, videos, and even the 1979 Ford pickup he drove year after year. A must-see is Sam’s office, just as it was when he was building the Walmart empire.
Stop at the display that shows items returned to Walmart stores. The policy that the customer is always right is showcased in the hand mixer one unhappy customer claimed was possessed, a Stanley thermos made in 1954 and returned to Walmart in 1983 because it leaked, and an outdoor thermometer that was returned because “it never had the correct time.”
Exit through The Spark Café, an old-fashioned soda fountain.
Bonus: During the month of September, there will be three concerts at the Walmart Museum, with tickets selling for only $5 each, with proceeds benefitting local organizations. September 6, An Evening With Sarah Hughes; September 13, Jazz with 4Tet; and September 27, Memphis blues artist Mark Stuart will be performing songs from his debut album. Details at downtownbentonville.org.
You have time before lunch, so you might as well throw down a little cash. There are great boutiques on the square.
T-shirts with Arkansas logos, jewelry shaped like the state, dish towels and glasses with Arkansas locations, even a locally made beer bottle opener fashioned from a hand-finished piece of wood and a really big bent nail. All this plus candles, everything mustache, purses, and great gift ideas.
Posh Alley Boutique
112 West Central Avenue
Local art, hand-painted furniture, super-cool women’s clothing, housewares with major personality. (Check out the deer wearing the hat!) Great selection of jewelry, accessories, tons of fun pillows.
Blue Moon Market
113 North Main
This is the place where vintage meets trendy and shabby meets chic. Lots of great jewelry, accessories, and clothing for the fashion conscious and those who want something with a little extra pizzaz.
Table Mesa Bistro’s menu is “modern Latin,” featuring flavors from Central and South America.A bestseller is the fish tacos ($12), made with mahi-mahi, flown in from Seattle, where the owners, Chris Garrett and his wife, lived before moving to Bentonville, again, in anticipation of Crystal Bridges.
Besides the fish tacos, the other favorites are: Cheap Dates ($7): Medjoohl dates stuffed with gorgonzola, cream cheese and wrapped in hardwood smoked bacon; Steak Madagascar ($25): ribeye steak with a port cream reduction.
The Curry Chicken Burrito ($12), is what I finally chose. It’s a Thai style yellow curry burrito with slow roasted (fall-off-your-fork tender) chicken, avocado, aged jack cheese, roasted corn topped with guajillo sauces. It’s served with Cuban black beans and Latin rice, and could have easily fed two. The spices were part sweet/part spicy, and the dish was phenomenal. This meal alone is worth the trip.
You’ve likely eaten too much, but you can walk it off by going to these two nearby places:
Museum of Native American History
202 Southwest O Street
Not far from downtown sits the Museum of Native American History. You’ll know you’re there when you see the Teepee outside. Go into the building, nod to the mammoth and the black bear that greet you, and make your way to the gift shop. That’s where you’ll pick up your audio device that’s used to explain the exhibits. The museum is organized in chronological order, starting with the Paleo period.
The Peel Mansion Museum & Heritage Gardens sit near a Walmart store on a piece of ground that’s steeped in history. And no one knows the story of how this place came to be better than Volunteer Coordinator Carol Harris, who just happens to be one of the best storytellers you’ll ever meet.
“The Peel Mansion Museum [built in 1875] was a gift of love from Colonel Samuel West Peel to his wife, Mary Emaline,” Carol says. “He asked her to marry him several times, but she was a Southern belle. She was holding out for a gentleman who would build her a big old house like she was accustomed to, being born in the state of Alabama.
“He finally said he would, so they got married, and a passel of children and a Civil War later, he kept his promise.”
The Peel Mansion is 6,000 square feet, built in the Italianate Villa style in 1875. In its glory it was a working farm surrounded by 180 acres of apple orchards.
On your tour you’ll hear the story of the Peels and their nine children, and you’ll see this beautifully restored piece of history, complete with furnishings and even the original china the family used. The Peel Mansion can be rented for special occasions, such as weddings, as well.
Bonus: During the holidays, The Peel Mansion Museum and Heritage Gardens will be decked out for Christmas and there will be an open house.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art sits on 120 acres of forested land that is home to urban bike and walking trails that connect the site to downtown. The building itself, designed by world-renowned architect Moshie Safdie, is a work of art. The museum’s permanent collection spans five centuries of American masterworks, including Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter and Andy Warhol’s Dolly Parton, and also includes greats such as Winslow Homer, Jackson Pollock, John Singer Sargent, and Maxfield Parrish.
Find time to stop by the museum’s restaurant, Eleven, for coffee, wine, a light snack or a full meal. They even have chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, and beans and cornbread.
Remember, the museum is closed on Tuesdays.
Fred’s Hickory Inn
1502 North Walton Boulevard
Fred’s Hickory Inn, which was once a youth camp with an 1890 log cabin on site, changed hands in 1969 and opened as a restaurant in 1970. The food here has attracted celebrities like Paula Abdul and Toby Keith. And Bill Clinton informally announced his run for the presidency at one of the tables.
General Manager Greg Cockrum points to a table in the back. “Sam Walton was a real humble guy,” Greg says, “always sat at that table. Had that F150 truck, always had trouble with the battery. He had jumper cables hanging in the kitchen.”
Fred’s has not varied from their original 1970s menu, and one of the original dishwashers from that era is now one of the cooks.
The smoked sirloin served with Au Jus ($12.50 – 7 oz.) was perfect, fork-tender. If you’re still hungry, order the no-bake cheesecake. Nothing pretentious. Perfectly delicious.
Fred’s Hickory Inn holds approximately 250 people but don’t let that stop you from making reservations. You’ll likely need them.
There you have it, one fun-filled day in Bentonville. If you need even more reasons to go, consider this: Lawrence Park, just off the square, hosts free First Friday Flicks, which begin around eight in the evening. On September 5, you can see The Little Giants, and on October 3, The Corpse Bride.
The Walmart Museum also hosts Sidewalk Sundays from 2 – 5PM, free family events that include everything from planting fall flowers (September 7) to making pottery (September 14) to a demonstration by IBM (September 21) on how to make ice cream in minutes using liquid nitrogen.