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With their eyes on the future, the founders of the South Arkansas Historical Foundation in El Dorado followed their hearts into the past as they dedicated themselves to gathering documents, collecting and preserving local stories and artifacts that narrate the tales of the men and women of early south Arkansas.
Now known as the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society, the organization houses the collections in a 1,100 square-foot interactive exhibition space inside the Gallery of History located at 412 East Faulkner in El Dorado.
The Sports Hall of Fame Gallery is mere steps from the front door with its purpose of documenting the accomplishments of Union County’s athletes. In addition to its wall featuring the Hall of Fame inductees, there is a full baseball uniform and sports letterman jackets, among other items.
Wandering through the next gallery, the Hall of History, you will find collections particular to the area. The portrait of Racheal McKinney grabs your attention. You can see the sparkle in her eye, and for a brief moment, imagination makes her smile. You just know she had great charm and even greater stories to tell of her family’s time of philanthropy in the south. She is alone in her portrait, but her husband Henry is right next to her in his own portrait. He looks like he would be an avid reader and a conversation with him would be a learned event. There is also a rare portrait of Congressman Albert Russ. He was an important early political figure in southern Arkansas history.
For those drawn to the luxury and elegance of days gone by, The Michael G. Fitzgerald Collection Gallery will instantly fill that longing while proving just how southerners can impact the lives of others. He was raised in El Dorado but had a passion for the Golden Age of Hollywood sparking a love of memorabilia. His southern hospitality led him to host the “Jivin’ Jacks and Jills” reunion in Hollywood for 23 years. His extensive collection is only located at the Society’s Gallery. If you enjoy old movies, you will love this exhibit. There is also a traveling exhibit gallery as well, recently featuring antique quilts, including one of fabric yo-yos. A gift shop is available for purchasing reminders of your trip.
Organized in the 1970s, the original foundation was dedicated to educating the public about Arkansas’ rich history from the beginning. In 2009, the Society was created to act as the friends’ support organization for the SAHPS and its activities with the name change made at that time.
Members of today’s Society continue the support of the work started more than 40 years ago with regular offerings of educational programs that have included lectures on the de Soto Expedition, timber industry, the War Between the States, African-American genealogy, Colonial Natchez and regional archaeological discoveries. There is a display of early 1800 mapping of Ouachita River lining the hallway that will entice the cartographer in anyone.
But with all of its endeavors, the Society’s most important project is considered its restoration and preservation of the home of John and Penelope Newton, early settlers of Union County. The home was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on November 6, 1974. The original group purchased the rundown home in 1978 and began the restoration process using funds from grants, local fundraising, and input from local citizens.
Built around 1849 in the Greek Revival style of the antebellum era, the house features many of its original doors and has Victorian rosettes on the molding of the interior door frames. The outside restoration of the home was completed in 1983 with the interior finished a few years later.
It is believed the Newtons, originally from Alabama, built the house in El Dorado so that their young children could attend the schools in town. Their plantation was located several miles northeast of El Dorado. The house remained in the Newton family until John and Penelope’s daughter, Mary Alabama Wright, sold it in 1898. Originally the house had faced south on Peach Street but was moved to its present location on Jackson Street in 1910.
In August 2009, the home was dedicated as the Newton House Museum displaying period furnishings and artwork, including an oil portrait of Penelope. Today you can find interesting items such as a “mammy bench” and other everyday items from the era.
The museum plays host to community events, educational programs and the Society’s annual Mayhaw Festival held the first Saturday in May. The festival includes house tours, vendors and mayhaw jelly made by the society’s volunteers. The Newton House Museum is open to the public year-round and is available for special events.
The Newton House Museum is at 510 North Jackson Street, and the Gallery is at 415 E Faulkner in El Dorado. They are both open Monday through Thursday from 8 to 5, from 8 to noon on Fridays, and by appointment on Saturdays and Sundays by calling 870-862-9890.
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