A guide to Bentonville, Arkansas, using Arkansas: A Guide to the State (WPA, 1941) as your map.
Before Sam Walton opened a 5 & 10 store in 1950, Bentonville was a quiet poultry and dairy-producing center. Or, as the WPA guide put it, “The town’s shipments of broilers and dairy products now overshadow apples in cash importance. Two hatcheries and several feed mills serve poultry and stock raisers. Much of the poultry and dairystuff goes directly to the Chicago market.”
Years later, while the town is now the headquarters of Walmart, there are still a lot of farms. A sense of the old Bentonville lingers. When you land at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, your route to town is so rural you can’t believe you’re about to drive into a city of 35,000 people. And as you arrive downtown, you’ll find a town square still home to a statue of a Confederate soldier, a courthouse and small, friendly shops.
The Waltons may now be more famous residents, but the Benton family name permeates the place. Named for Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton, who helped create the original territory of Arkansas, Bentonville is also the county seat—of Benton County, of course.
The senator’s nephew, also Thomas Hart Benton, was a painter. In the 1920s, he was one of the first proponents of the school of Regionalism, which celebrated rural American life during a time of uneasy technological change.
And why is this important to our story? Because in 2005 the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art was opened in Bentonville (with free admission, courtesy of Walmart). And hanging on its walls—amidst Charles Wilson Peale’s portrait of George Washington and Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter—are two of Thomas Hart Benton’s paintings: “Ploughing It Under” (1934) and “The Steel Mill” (1930).
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Editor’s note: ”Ploughing It Under” (Thomas Hart Benton, 1934) and “The Steel Mill” (Thomas Hart Benton, 1930) are courtesy of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.
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Lynn Downey is an At-large Guide to the West for The American Guide. She’s a writer and archivist based in Sonoma, California. Follow on her website, LynnDowney.com.