Arkansas butt of 'hillbilly' humor may have the last laugh

"To get to Van Buren, Arkansas," radio humorist Bob Burns used to say in the 1940s, "you started by taking a train to Fort Smith. Then you'd go by wagon until the ruts kind of faded away. Then you got on a mule an' rode as far as he could go, and from there you'd swing on a vine."

You can take the Interstate to Van Buren now. But for an entire generation of listeners, Van Buren will always be an Ozark hillbilly town, the home of "Bazooka Bob" Burns.

Burn's internationally popular radio series, "The Arkansaw Traveler," made Van Buren a household word and the symbolic residence of the American hillbilly.

While the town never really resemble Burn's descriptions, it did suffer from the poverty at the heart of so much of the period's hillbilly humor.

Van Buren remained poor throughout the 1960s when, like many other small towns, its Main Street -- the backbone of an American city of Van Buren's size -- began to deteriorate. Businesses moved away.

Within the past few years, however, a new self-image has emerged in Van Buren that would have astonished old Bazooka Bob. The rustic history that provided material for so many of his jokes has become the foundation for Van Buren's future.

People are now engaged in a project to revitalize their Main Street, considered by experts to be one of the finest preservation efforts in the country. Armed with historic- preservation grants from the Department of the Interior, urban-renewal grants, Arkansas Arts Council grants, federal small-cities and urban-development-action grants, a land- and-water-conservation grant, and leadership enlightened enough to put it all together, Van Buren may finally have the last laugh.

Its exceptional historic-preservation program is already serving as a model for hundreds of communities nationwide interested in reviving their central business districts. Van Buren may very well become a household word again, only this time as a symbol for the 1980s of the positive steps that small communities can take to keep themselves alive.

This city of 14,000 has been fortunate in several areas. Physically, its beautiful late- 19th-century Main Street has remained intact. None of Main Street's 1 1/2-story brick structures have been demolished; there was simply no money for elaborate urban-renewal projects.

In fact, the local urban-renewal policy, the villain in so many other streetscape scenarios, has been a hero in Van Buren's case. Under the directorship of Dr. Louis Peer, a native of Van Buren, and Susan Guthrie, the urban-renewal agency and Ms. Guthrie's five- member Community Development office have consistently advocated preservation, not alteration, of Van Buren's historic Main Street.

Dr. Peer, an optometrist whose offices are on Main Street right next door to those of two of his sons, credits the decision to go with preservation, rather than more traditional forms of urban renewal, to a lack of money, an abundance of common sense, and the widespread belief here that, Bob Burns or no Bob Burns, Van Buren's history was something special.

Most of the community's buildings were built between 1880 and 1890. At that time, Van Buren was still being used as a trading outpost by settlers on their way west, and as a refueling point for steamers traveling up the Arkansas River.

"We're the same age as Chicago," Dr. Peer says, "but they kind of outgrew us."

The city lies between the flat Oklahoma plains and Bob Burn's hillbilly Ozarks. Like the state of Arkansas itself, Main Street's buildings reflect this blend of Southern and Western cultures. The nearby Scott House, for example, is a Southern antebellum mansion, while No. 503 Main Street still boasts the false front of a frontier border town.

For the most part, Van Buren's intimate Main Street is composed of compact, commercial brick structures, embellished with occasional hints of Victorian trim , that line up evenly along the narrow street as it eases down from the old Frisco Depot (1900) to the Arkansas River.

Among the exceptions are the more flamboyant Queen Anne-style Crawford County Bank (1889) and the Italianate Crawford County Courthouse.

Until the mid-1960s, Van Buren, so named because the real-estate promoters who founded it were adherents of that particular presidential candidate, was a thriving, although not overly affluent, community.

Dewitt Bates, owner of Bates Hardware, one of the Main Street's oldest establishments, remembers those days well.

"They'd come in from out of the hills," he recalls. "By 9 o'clock on a Saturday night there were lots of people in the street. You had to be careful walking up and down the street so as not to bump into people."

Mr. Bates, who likes to wear a tattered straw boater and hands out chestnut "buckeyes" to his customers, has had his Main Street store since 1933. The place looks more like a museum than a hardware store, because Mr. Bates's collection of handsome, though dusty, vintage wares.

There was an immediate change, he says, after Interstate 71 and the accompanying Cloverleaf Plaza shopping mall were built in the mid-60s.

"First thing you know, Main Street wasn't booming anymore," he says. Some businesses went to the plaza and others moved to nearby Fort Smith, the main metropolitan center for northwestern Arkansas. Half of Main Street's 72 buildings were abandoned and remained so until last year. The place became, in Mr. Bates's words, "disreputable-looking." Even in the face of such abandonment, however, the townpeople didn't really recognize the trouble Main Street was in.

"Our first consultants had pie-in-the-sky ideas of escalators descending from the rear of the buildings and fancy modern faces," Ms. Guthrie says with a laugh.

"But from the start, the urban-renewal commission recognized the architectural integrity of Main Street," she adds. "Dr. Peer had traveled extensively and had seen preservation in other areas. He decided Van Buren had as much history as any place."

Dr. Peer asserts: "We knew we had something worth preserving here. The depression might have been a blessing in disguise, because there wasn't much change in Van Buren. Besides some aluminum and glass put up to cover the buildings in the '50s, we had a typical turn-of-the-century town. Most people in Van Buren had never seen urban renewal in other cities, so they accepted our plan."

The "plan," now in full swing, is to bring bustle back to Main Street by giving local merchants and property owners economic incentives to upgrade their historic buildings. To accomplish this, Susan Guthrie sought federal funds to match money pumped into the buildings by local property owners.

The Van Buren Community development Office, directed by Ms. Guthrie since 1974, also applied for grants to restore Main Street's public structures, such as the Frisco Depot and the King Opera House.

To date, Van Buren has managed to obtain more than $7 million in federal funds for historic preservation and improvement of public amenities, such as sidewalks and open space, making it one of the most well-endowed small-town preservation efforts in the country.

Van Buren's fairy-tale success, heartening news for the thousands of Main Streets all over the country, is a reflection of the architectural quality of Van Buren's Main Street, but of something more human as well. That so much financial assistance has come Van Buren's way is in many ways due to Susan Guthrie heself, one of those preservation spark plugs whose energy and imagination have allowed her both to master the intricacies of the many federal grants now available to preservationists and to inspire the people around her.

"It's a large-scale effort by a small organization," is how one federal official sees it.

Ms. Guthrie estimates that the Main Street revival will generate an initial $ 1.25 million in private investment. Commercial real-estate values are already going up. A year ago, many Main Street buildings could have been bought for $10 ,000. Today the same properties would be worth $30,000 -- if they were for sale.

As of last January, not a single building on Main Street was vacant.

The face of Main Street is changing. More than 60 property owners, most of whom both live and work in their buildings, have applied for grants to spruce up their facades. Grants of up to $10,000 must be matched by their own invesment.

Reds, roses and pinks are being slathered over peeling white paint every day. Aluminum siding is being removed to reveal stained-glass windows that were long since forgotten.

The Frisco Depot, dilapidated a year ago, has been shored up, tuckpointed, and cleaned back to life as a combination chamber of commerce headquarters and railway museum. The old Crawford County Bank has become the Palace Drugstore, and the King Opera House is being readied to receive musicals once again.

Van Buren's gung-ho attitude and careful restoration work have certainly impressed officials in Washington. The Interior Department's division of technical preservation services thinks the effort is so good that it is putting together a how-to manual based on Van Buren, as a service to other communities interested in reviving their own Main Streets.

Washington is finally recognizing the work of towns such as this. From Ogden , Utah, to Newton, Mass., hundreds of communities have set about to revitalize their central busi ness districts in much the same way as Van Buren. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the number is growing as such a rate that it's impossible to say exactly how many such communities there are.

The trust itself has received so many inquiries from municipal leaders confronted with endangered downtowns that, in 1976, it launched a demonstration program called "the Main Street Project" to explore smalltown economic development within the context of historic preservation.

The trust is trying to show that preservation pays; that reviving architecturally distinctive central business districts can result in economic, as well as visual, improvements -- using three Midwestern communities as its models.

Back in Van Buren, Ms. Guthrie's office is making a movie of the Main Street rebirth, using Van Buren's historic buildings as the stars.

"The real fringe benefit will be a sense of pride and belonging," says Bob Carter, one of the new arrivals. Mr. Carter and his wife, Mary, moved to Van Buren from Denver last year because of what they saw as Van Buren's great natural resources: "Main Street and the friendliness of its people."

"It's picking up a little since the rejuvenation started," admits Dewitt Bates, who has noticed a steady stream of tourists this year. "It's true that in towns that are booming, preservation might be a waste of money, but I think we're going about this in the right way," he continues.

Tourism would be a welcome byproduct, says Ms. Guthrie, although the main goal is to attract traditional businesses back to Main Street. With Fort Smith only eight miles away, and the modern shopping center within walking distance, Van Buren's merchants have had to adopt some of the mall's strategies, including joint promotions and the creation of an "Old Town Merchants Association," as part of the preservation effort.

Despite the general acceptance of the Main Street revival, not everyone in town is entirely happy with the city's seeming preoccupation with the past.

At Charlie and Bill Ball's freight salvage place just off Main Street, they're arguing about the impact of preservation the same way they argued, and still do argue, about Bazooka Bob's influence on Van Buren: vociferously.

"Van Buren'll never be a town again," Bill Ball, who has seen many of his friends' businesses fold over the years, contends. "The town will be in the malls where there's plenty of parking."

Mr. Ball, a man who bears a stunning resemblance to Walter Matthau, the actor , took off his feed cap and gloves recently and settled into a discussion with his brother Charlie and his friend Olin Dodd about the supposed benefits of the Main Street revival.

"We need national defense more than the restoration of old towns," argued Mr. Dodd, who is convinced that the government will soon change its mind and build high-rises on Main Street. He is against "handouts," referring to Van Buren's plethora of grants, "even if the money's coming here." He resents his tax dollars being spent on such old buildings.

"They're shabby," he complained. "If you build moderns, they'll last for 200 years," he adds.

Charlie Ball is also perplexed when he walks up the block each morning and sees all the hammering and painting and stripping going on.

"These buildings are just plain out of date," he insists. He says he prefers shopping at the malls. "Do preservation in Old Sturbridge Village and Mystic Seaport, where they've got 150-year-old buildings," he continues. "We don't have anything of significance to restore here.

"Why," he says, shaking his head, "these buildings are just a little bit older than I am."

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