Tracy Winchell is Economic Development Coordinator in Fort Smith

By Tracy Winchell

We Arkansans and Oklahomans are beside ourselves about the upcoming release of the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Charles Portis’ classic novel, True Grit, which is set in Fort Smith, Arkansas, an All-America City finalist in 2009. The Rooster Cogburn character, famously played by John Wayne in an earlier film version, was a U.S. deputy marshal.

In the mid to late 1800s, the federal courthouse here in Fort Smith was responsible for law and order in a vast, unsettled land we now call Oklahoma. More U.S. deputy marshals were killed in the line of duty than anywhere else in the United States, and the U.S. Marshals Service was established in 1789.

As you might expect, the enthusiasm and anticipation here in Fort Smith, is off the charts. As Jennifer Boulden of the Fort Smith Advertising & Promotion Commission points out in a recent piece for Awards Daily, when the 1969 film that earned John Wayne his only Academy Award, True Grit played continuously in Fort Smith for more than a year.

Today, because of our capacities for – and addictions to – instant and constant connectivity, Jennifer Boulden (who has a passion for Fort Smith, films, and the True Grit story by Portis) has managed to harness the grass roots enthusiasm for the new film’s release.

True Gritapalooza is a Facebook group where True Grit fans across the country are sharing haikus, links and reviews about the film, old photographs, and some novel approaches for celebrating the film’s release. (We will be happy to share images and reports next week).

The Fort Smith Advertising & Promotion Commission, the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, and many other public and private entities are helping with the festivities. Perhaps the most historically significant collaboration, though, comes from the Fort Smith National Historic Site – location of the ”Hell on the Border” jail, where notorious criminals awaited trial in Judge Isaac C. Parker’s courtroom above the jail, and the gallows where 79 men and women were hanged for their crimes.

Incidentally, Judge Parker, although he sentenced more criminals to death than any other judge in American history, was actually personally opposed to the death penalty. In Judge Parker’s 21 years on the federal bench in Fort Smith, he heard almost 14,000 cases. He held court six days a week, often for 10 hours a day. Juries, he said, decided the verdicts, and federal law determined the penalty. By looking at the numbers beyond the shocking number of executions, we may see a more accurate – and less inflammatory – picture of just how violent the Old West really was, especially once a criminal escaped across the Arkansas River, just a few hundred yards away from Judge Parker’s court.

Because many, many Fort Smith area residents are descendants of U.S. Deputy Marshals from the Judge Parker era, and because a few are descendants of some of the outlaws of the day, the people in this region have amazing stories to tell, and artifacts to share. In 2003, business and community leaders became aware that the U.S. Marshals Service was shuttering its museum in Wyoming. Almost immediately, a grass roots effort began to attract the attention of the U.S. Marshals Service. After a rigorous four-year site selection process, the Director of the U.S. Marshals Service, John Clark, called our mayor to announce that, indeed, Fort Smith would be the home to the next U.S. Marshals Service Museum.

Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe – in part, because of the tremendous public response to become the honorary custodians of the stories of the U.S. Marshals Service – kicked off the newly organized museum board of directors with a $2 million investment in the project, explaining that emphasizing education and tourism in the state would be an important part of Arkansas’ economic development philosophy.

The museum staff is in the process of a national fundraising campaign for construction of a $50 million destination facility, which will become a geographic centerpiece of a diverse collection of heritage and cultural attractions across mid-America, including the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, and the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Fort Smith has learned somewhat by accident that our passion for our past is a tremendous opportunity for economic growth. The quest for the U.S. Marshals Museum taught us that.

The upcoming release of the new True Grit is reminding us that our past presents an excellent opportunity to talk about our future.