County works to restore one of the oldest buildings in the state of Arkansas
Tucked away in an attractive corner of the Crawford County (Ark.) Courthouse grounds is a remarkable, tiny cabin, one of the oldest structures in Arkansas and perhaps the oldest schoolhouse.
Age, however, is not the only distinction that makes this structure remarkable. The second is the outstanding, multi-talented man who taught within during the 1830s. For both reasons, Albert Pike’s Schoolhouse is beginning its third restoration through the efforts of three people.
Crawford County Judge Dennis Gilstrap is charged with taking care of this structure. A little-known, but incredibly important reality is that if a structure is not standing on its original site, it is not eligible for grants and/or governmental funding. Therefore, the restoration must be funded by private donations, a process that is actively reaching to make this restoration possible.
“This small structure represents important parts of our Van Buren history,” Dennis said. “Restoration respects that history by providing citizens a glimpse into this part of our past which includes both pre-Civil War and Civil War eras.”
Further, the old schoolhouse serves two purposes. The first to serve an authentic historical backdrop for for school field trips, as well as a photographic site for tourists and locals alike. The second is to serve as an annual location for Santa Claus during the yearly Courthouse Christmas Open House.
To begin the process, Dennis appointed local historian and special projects manager Sheila Bell to investigate and oversee the restoration. Sheila first searched traditional historical restoration experts in Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and even a bit of Tennessee. Distance and financing were issues. After much searching and on a whim, she called Ironwood Log Home Restoration and Finishing in Little Rock even though it did not advertise historical restorations. To everyone’s delight, she found David Bankston to be exactly what she was seeking.
“He is dedicated to maintaining the historical integrity of the structure and has the knowledge and techniques to accomplish that,” Sheila said.
The 1820s structure presents several challenges. One is matching the old schoolhouse logs to the existing ones, including the rough sawn lumber marks. That means searching out logs over 100 years to hopefully find a good match.
“If a good match is not found, then lumber will need to be rough sawn and modified with tried and tested techniques so the lumber will match,” explained David.
As difficult as matching logs may be, the biggest challenge is matching the original chinking, sealant used to seal the joints of log homes, in terms of color and textures. The first restoration used chinking that was much too light while the second attempted to match the original color by painting. David believes the best method will be to incorporate color and texture into the product used rather than surface treating the new material. Restoration is expected to begin soon and will include removing the roof in order to add bracing, correcting log runs and replacing what is needed in the loft and floor to ensure soundness.
While the structure is thought to have been built in 1820, Albert did not teach at the schoolhouse’s original location near Van Buren until 1832. Albert was born in 1809 and raised in Massachusetts by working-class parents, cobbler Benjamin Pike and his wife Sarah. He attended public school and demonstrated his brilliance by passing the entrance examination for Harvard when only 16. Unable to pay that tuition, he began teaching school. However, he found New England society chafing and left in 1831 for what was then Mexico, where he joined an expedition into the headwater area of the Arkansas and Red rivers.
Albert began teaching again in 1832, this time in rural Arkansas and the Van Buren area. Children sat on long benches and used slates as they were taught reading, writing and mathematics. However, teaching did not fill his brilliant mind and he left for Fort Smith, where he published his first poem and letters in the local newspaper that earned him a reputation as a writer. He then became editor of Little Rock’s Arkansas Advocate and a clerk in the legislature. At the same time, he studied law and passed the bar only a few years later. Albert became very successful and even had a client before the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1849. He also served as the first reporter for the Arkansas Supreme Court and later became an Arkansas Supreme Court justice. While serving as an attorney, Albert represented many Native Americans, including winning payment for land taken from the Indians in 1814 as a location for Fort Jackson. These activities led to him learning several Indian dialects and eventually becoming commander of the troops of the Indian nations including being on the field at the battle of Pea Ridge, Ark.
During that same time, Albert became a Freemason and was elected Sovereign Grand Commander of the Scottish Rights Southern Jurisdiction. He was one of the most prominent Masons in the U.S. In his later years, he became interested in spiritualism, especially in the relationship between Indian thought and masonry while also learning Sanskrit and translating various literary works.
Albert Pike was a man of many accomplishments and is an important figure in history. The time he spent in the little schoolhouse near Van Buren was part of what led him to use his passion, brilliance and dedication for the good of those around him. The Albert Pike’s School House is open daily at no charge within interpretive markers explaining the story of the remarkable little building.