22 Oct Pioneer Village: ‘Searcy’s best kept secret’
Story and photos
by Megan Ledbetter
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to walk into the lifestyle of Thomas Edison, Clara Barton, Booker T. Washington, the Wright Brothers or your own grandparents or great-grandparents?
Driving down Higginson Street in Searcy and turning into Pioneer Village is like being transported from 2017 to the 1880s.
Pioneer Village, a preservation project of the White County Historical Society, is home to 12 buildings and structures representing the lifestyle of White County from the 1880s to the 1920s. All but three of the buildings are restored originals; three have been reconstructed with materials from the period.
The buildings include a train depot, school house, fruit house, blacksmithing shop, woodworking shop, mill, store, strawberry shed, jail, post office, cabin, barns and the Gordon House. There are a variety of items, including machinery, a windmill and a salt kettle.
The Village grounds are open every day, but the fully furnished, accessorized buildings are only open for events, field trips, special occasions and on Saturdays during the summer.
All the items seen in Pioneer Village have been donated. All donations pertaining to White County and the appropriated period are accepted as long as they do not already have an identical object.
The idea of Pioneer Village began in the 1960s. It was a dream of Searcy businessman Oran Vaughn, who had fond childhood memories of his grandparents’ home and wanted to preserve the way of life that would soon be forgotten otherwise.
He started gathering the buildings at the White County fairgrounds for future generations to see, and, although he did not know it, started what would become the Pioneer Village. The buildings remained at the fairgrounds until 2000, when the White County Fair Board offered them to the White County Historical Society to make room for more parking.
After two years of working out the legalities, the first building was moved to the current location in 2002.
The Village has continued to grow and expand since then. Organizers have built a few buildings, like the Trapper Cabin, which was reconstructed from logs found in an old house on Moore Street. They also added the Garner Train Depot in 2006 as the only original building that was not taken from the fairgrounds. The most modern thing in the Village is the new restrooms with hot running water.
“Every building has its own story, has a purpose and each one is different from the others,” said Elizabeth Heard, chairman of the volunteers at the Pioneer Village.
Besides constant restoration and growth, the main focus of the Village today is the three major events during which they open all the buildings and invite countless vendors and volunteers.
These events take place annually during the first weekend in May (the Spring Open House), the first weekend in November (Fall Fest) and the first Saturday in December (the Christmas Open House).
The Christmas Open House event replicates an old-fashioned Christmas complete with cider, cookies, holiday singing and Santa.
The items brought by vendors for all the events include soap, jewelry, woodworking, leather, sewn materials, food prepared fresh from a Dutch oven in a covered chuck wagon, rag rugs, yarn made from a spinning wheel, farm animals and kettle corn. There is also live music, clogging, square dancing, a village sheriff and professional Civil War re-enactors who bring their tents and cannon. Items from the vendors can be purchased, but there is no parking or admission charge for visitors. Donations are accepted.
“A lot of people have lived this or their grandparents lived this way, so adults are more acclimated to the fact that life was like this, but it is a real eye-opening experience for children to come out here and see,” Heard said. “I always say, regardless of where you grew up, who you are today, however much money your family has or doesn’t have today, everyone came from this environment at some point in their lineage.”
Friends of Pioneer Village
Heard is the chairman of the volunteers, or the “Friends of the Pioneer Village.” Although there are no paid positions, the Village has about 40 volunteers with a core group of about 20 who meet monthly and additional volunteers who show up for big events wanting to help.
Heard has been the chairman of these volunteers since 2010 when she was nominated and elected by the other volunteers.
“Elizabeth is the glue that holds us together,” said Berta Spencer, a dedicated volunteer at the Village. “She works constantly on the village, and her goal each time we have an open house is to have something new. And I don’t think we have had one in these years since she has been chairman that there wasn’t something new at our events.”
Heard got involved with the Village through the White County Master Gardeners program. After becoming a certified master gardener, she started working at the village to maintain the flower beds.
She volunteered at an open house, attended a volunteers’ meeting and “got hooked.”
The preservation of the lifestyle reflected in the Village is a passion of all the volunteers. They strive to keep history alive for the next generation by empowering visitors and future volunteers to continue preserving the memories of this lifestyle.
“The Village is the binding element for all the volunteers. We all have different interests. We come from all different backgrounds, but yet we all share a love of the Village,” Heard said. “There is something here for anybody, any age; there is a point of interest here.”
Tom Dunn, the master woodworker, has served as the blacksmith for the Village as well, but is especially fond of the woodworking tools at the Village, one of which is a wood lathe controlled manually by a pedal. Dunn is also a re-enactor for the American Mountain Men and teaches a wood-turning class at the Folk Center in Mountain View. He has crafted many tools and toys for the Village.
Dewey and Berta Spencer have played a major role in the Pioneer Village resurrecting the windmill that now stands at the entrance to the Village. The windmill was at the fairgrounds but was not moved with the other buildings in 2002. When the other buildings were moved, the windmill began to rot and fall apart from lack of care.
The Spencers, who have windmills on their property as well, noticed the dilapidating windmill. After inquiring about what was to be done with it, they ended up reaching an agreement with the Fair Board and the White County Historical Society to sponsor moving it, restoring it and putting it back up. A couple years later, it is now fully functional and circulates water although it is not connected to a well.
Berta Spencer serves as the greeter during big events and works as a volunteer during small events and field trips. Dewey Spencer was parking chairman, but now demonstrates and explains the water pumping system in the windmill to visitors. He is also a professional cowboy action shooter and civil war re-enactor. Boy Scout Troops 345 Searcy and 157 Judsonia now volunteer to help with parking for open house events.
The Pioneer Village, which they like to refer to as “Searcy’s best kept secret,” is an ongoing work in progress of restoration. They are currently concentrating on the newest building, the Garner Train Depot, in phases as donations and funding are available. Their passion for the restoration of this time in history is undeniable and inspiring.