Larger-than-life personalities left their marks on Arkansas

Sam Walton’s first 5&10 in Bentonville, Ark., is the Walmart Visitors Center now. Inside is Walton’s office, re-created as it looked when he died in 1992, a 74-year-old billionaire.
Sam Walton’s first 5&10 in Bentonville, Ark., is the Walmart Visitors Center now. Inside is Walton’s office, re-created as it looked when he died in 1992, a 74-year-old billionaire.

BENTONVILLE, Ark. — Everyone seems to be on a first-name basis in Arkansas, and two names loom larger than most: “Sam” and “Bill.” One has passed on, and the other has moved along to become a citizen of the world (or at least New York). But each left his mark on the state and continues to fill an outsize space in the hearts and minds of Arkansans.

Sam (better known as “Mr. Sam”) is Sam Walton, who parlayed his modest 5&10 in Bentonville into the international merchandising juggernaut Walmart. The original store (complete with folksy red pickup truck out front) is now the Walmart Visitors Center. It sits across from the Civil War monument on a pocket-size plaza in this small northwest Arkansas town.

Patricia Harris for The Boston Globe
Sam Walton's office is recreated at the Walmart Visitor Center in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Visitors enter into a tiny working storefront crammed with retro toys, candy, and Walmart memorabilia and eventually exit through a re-created 1950s soda fountain. In between lies the exhibit gallery, which was greatly expanded during a 2011 building renovation. Ralph Appelbaum Associates of New York, exhibit designers for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., were enlisted to detail the rise of the retail empire that radiates from the site. Amid the busy visuals of photos, videos, time lines, and interactive displays, Sam’s office remains a still point — the center of gravity in the Walmart universe. It was painstakingly re-created in the exact state of disarray that he left it before he died on April 5, 1992 , at 74. Piles of magazines on the floor and a picture hanging crooked on the wall capture a snapshot of a guy too busy to be neat.


Walton’s daughter, Alice, inherited her father’s capacity for big thinking. A few miles outside town, she created the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened in 2011. Her purchase of “Kindred Spirits” by Asher B. Durand from the New York Public Library in 2005 “outed her idea of creating a museum,” said guide Linda Deberry. It also threw the art world into a tizzy. The Wall Street Journal (which noted that the Durand sold for a reported $35 million) went so far as to describe Alice as a “hovering culture vulture, poised to swoop down and seize tasty masterpieces from weak hands.” The powers that be apparently could not fathom that a landscape painting of artist Thomas Cole and poet William Cullen Bryant in the Catskill Mountains could find a simpatico home in the wilds of Arkansas. Deberry just shrugged. “It looks like Arkansas,” she said.

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Fortunately, Somerville-based architect Moshe Safdie (whose projects include the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem) took a more open-minded view. After walking the Walton family property with Alice, Safdie decided to let the contours of a “holler,” the colloquial Southern term for a mountain valley, dictate the design of the museum. From that geographical imperative a masterpiece was born.

At first glance, the much-lauded building looks a bit like an overgrown bus shelter. The unassuming entry doesn’t even hint at the series of graceful pavilions and pools that follow the contours of the landscape — as if the site was waiting for the museum to bring it to life. “Kindred Spirits” and hundreds of other works of art have indeed found themselves a nice home.

The curved walls of the galleries require special hardware for hanging artwork, but allow long views of the collection that ranges from Colonial portraits to contemporary assemblages. Bridges between the pavilions blur the distinctions between indoors and out and lure visitors to inspect the outdoor sculpture and six hiking trails that skirt wild hydrangeas, dogwood trees, and a natural spring on the 120-acre property. Two trails link up to bring visitors back to downtown Bentonville. Free admission to the museum’s permanent collection, by the way, is sponsored by Walmart.

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Bill really needs no introduction. And if Arkansans were disappointed when the Clintons decided to make their post-presidency home in New York, no one will admit it. They do, however, confess to missing the fun of watching Air Force One land at Little Rock’s airport. In 2012, the airport commission renamed the airport after the jet-setting couple. Fittingly enough, the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport is dubbed the “Gateway to the World.”

Little Rock Convention
The William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Clinton may be part of that larger world now, but by all accounts he has not lost his common touch or his affection for the city that launched him. “A friend of my cousin talked to him just last week,” locals are apt to tell visitors, and more than a few cellphones store a photo of the owner standing next to a smiling Clinton. It’s common knowledge that open blinds on the upper floor of the presidential library in Little Rock signal that the Clintons are in residence.

A replica of the Oval Office is the centerpiece of the exhibits at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. It’s a vision of order and control in red, white, blue, and gold. Unlike Walton, Clinton had the luxury of tidying up for posterity. The museum, which was dedicated in 2004 with interpretive design by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, traces Clinton’s political journey from Arkansas attorney general and five-term governor to 42d POTUS. The fabled Clinton personal touch is evident in such exhibits as photos of high-schooler Clinton with the Hot Springs band or the impossibly young-looking Clintons on their wedding day in 1975. In a series of video clips on Clintonian humor, the president and first lady gamely channel Forrest Gump.

In a symbolic gesture of hope, Clinton located his museum in a derelict industrial area along the Arkansas River to bolster the city’s revitalization efforts. New parklands reshaped the site and linked the museum to the river that plays such a big part in local life. Even the cantilevered building itself echoes the lines of the city’s six bridges. Candidate Clinton famously proposed to build a bridge to the future. Post-presidential Clinton took on the conversion of an 1899 railroad bridge into a pedestrian walkway. The Clinton Presidential Park Bridge connects Little Rock and North Little Rock and forms a vital link for the Arkansas River Trail of walking and biking paths.

A block from the river on the Little Rock side the revitalized River Market dining, arts, and entertainment district has taken hold, especially along the main drag — President Clinton Avenue. Perhaps Clinton will show up one night with his saxophone in hand. There are plenty of people who wouldn’t be surprised.

Patricia Harris can be reached at