Van Buren, Arkansas (population 20,200) is one of the oldest cities in Arkansas, originally called Phillips Landing after its first settler, Thomas Phillips, who arrived in 1818. The town incorporated in 1842, taking the name of President Andrew Jackson’s secretary of state, Martin Van Buren. The community flourished as a landing for steamboat traffic on the Arkansas River and an outfitting post for wagon trains heading south and west.
When the railroad made its way from Little Rock in 1873, Van Buren became a thriving shipping hub for farm products. But in the late 1950s, the economic focus shifted to manufacturing, and the town’s Victorian-era main street succumbed to neglect and economic depression as businesses moved to other parts of town.
The town began a rehabilitation/restoration program in 1972, and by 1980, the Van Buren Historic District was once more attracting businesses and commerce.
The Main Street Historic District is anchored at one end by the beautifully restored 1901 Frisco Train Depot, home of the Van Buren Visitor’s Center and terminus of the Arkansas-Missouri 1920s vintage excursion train. At the other end stands the oldest continuously operating courthouse west of the Mississippi, built in 1877. Main Street’s crown jewel is the circa-1890 King Opera House, which hosts local events and community theatre performances.
Van Buren’s most recent preservation effort is the Drennen/Scott home, built in 1836 by one of the town’s founding fathers. The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, in cooperation with the city, purchased the home in 2005. It has become a classroom for the nation’s only historic interpretation degree program and offers a living history lesson to local schoolchildren and tourists.
Today, Van Buren’s history is an integral part of its everyday life, as successful commercial and retail businesses occupy beautifully restored buildings and thousands of tourists visit each year to explore the Historic District and participate in the town’s two annual heritage festivals.
Designated a Preserve America Community in May 2006.
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