When Sam Walton opened his 5- & 10-cent variety store on the square in downtown Bentonville, Ark., in 1950, the town had a population of 2,900.
That store was the seed of the worldwide Walmart retail empire, and the headquarters of Walmart are still in Bentonville.
Today’s population: 38,000.
My wife Joyce and I recently visited northwest Arkansas, and one of our destinations was Bentonville, one of the fastest growing cities in America.
Among other things, we were attracted to Bentonville by three museums there — the Walmart Museum (naturally), the two-year-old Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the comfortable Museum of Native American History — all three fascinating…and free.
We covered the Walmart Museum and the Native American Museum in one afternoon. Crystal Bridges, with 217,000 square feet of galleries and several miles of outdoor, sculpture-studded hiking trails, occupied us for a whole day.
The Native American Museum provides “a glimpse into what life was like for America’s first inhabitants.” The museum’s displays are arranged chronologically, from the earliest known period of native American activity to more modern times, and are packed with artifacts, some dating back at least 14,000 years.
Visitors are handed electronic “wands,” which work kind of like telephones, on which they can listen to commentary about the exhibits. This is great for people like me who have only a sketchy knowledge of native American history. But Joyce, who is much more versed in Indian lore, also enjoyed listening and learning more.
The self-sustaining museum was founded by a local businessman named David Bogle, an artifact enthusiast and collector. Bogle’s collection is the basis for the displays, which also contain pieces loaned by other collectors and the University of Arkansas. Though the museum doesn’t charge admission, there is a donation box, and the facility relies on contributions to stay afloat.
The Walmart Museum is presented in three parts, beginning with a small “five and dime” store (in Walton’s original building) selling toys and treats, from Lincoln Logs to Black Jack gum, popular in an earlier era but still manufactured today.
The museum itself offers an amazing trip through the history of Walmart and the Walton family. There’s Sam’s office, as he left it when he died (although it’s noted that Sam was hardly ever at his desk — he was always visiting his stores). And there’s the zillionaire’s old Ford pickup (“Why do I drive a pickup truck? What am I supposed to haul my (hunting) dogs around in, a Rolls-Royce?”).
Finally, as folks leave the museum, they can stop for a sweet concoction at the visitor center’s ice cream parlor.
Sure, the museum is an extended commercial for Walmart, but the company’s story is incredible and offers a real-life lesson in how to achieve the American dream.
Walmart covers admission to the Crystal Bridges art museum, founded by Alice Walton, daughter of Sam and his wife Helen. The first major art museum to open in the U.S. since 1974, Crystal Bridges got its name from its spectacular design, which features several glass-enclosed pavilions grouped around two sparkling ponds.
The galleries are filled with American masterpieces from the colonial era to the present day. Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, John Singleton Copley and Samuel F.B. Morse (yep, the telegraph guy) are among artists whose works are on display.
Being from Wamego, I was particularly enthralled by Theodore Robinson’s 19th century painting “World’s Columbian Exposition,” which shows a panorama of the grounds of that glorious world’s fair. (Artwork in Wamego’s Columbian Theatre came from the 1893 exposition.) I think ol’ Sam would approve of the bustling burg his town has become. “Keep everybody guessing,” he once said, “as to what your next trick is going to be.”
Bentonville is doing that.