The Jefferson County Historical Museum is often referred to as a hidden treasure. Located in the restored 1906 Union Station train depot in downtown Pine Bluff, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places.
John Mitchell has been the director for two years after being a volunteer for many.
“I wanted to be involved because of the history from around here,” Mitchell said.
“I was involved with doing research when Lynn Gaines was director here. I was asked to sit on the board, and our director left. There were some women who were scared to come down due to the area that the museum is in, and I told them I could help eliminate that fear. I could come down and sit with them when they come out here, and make sure they feel safe. That is how I got started. Eventually, we got another director, then she ended up getting another job. The whole time she was here I still volunteered to work. After that, I was appointed as director.”
Visitors will find numerous displays at the museum, including those that show Native American artifacts, an Honor's Gallery paying tribute to the men and women of Jefferson County who served in the armed services from the Civil War through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with African-American history of the county.
There are also displays showing the agricultural importance to the development of this area, including early transportation methods that people used to reach Pine Bluff.
The Native American room is one of the more popular displays, according to Mitchell.
“In our Native American room, you will find displays that are older than Jesus,” Mitchell said. “We have things that date back to 8000 B.C. from our native people who were here long before the Europeans came down the river. We also have displays showing the way settlers did hunting and fishing well before we got industrialized. I tell people there were only three reasons to come to Arkansas back in the day. You came here for the hunting and fishing, the virgin timber, and the fertile soil.”
Another popular display in the museum depicts cotton farming. It shows the tools used to plant, work and harvest the crops.
“Pine Bluff was in the cotton belt where cotton was king,” Mitchell said. “You cannot be a historical museum in this area without showing the success of cotton. We show cotton from the plant, to the scales they would weight it on, to the spinning wheel they would work the cotton on. We also have some of the old tools of the era.”
There are also various weapons displayed throughout the museum that show what early Jefferson County residents used to protect themselves and to hunt with, as well as items that would have been found in kitchens during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.
“The kids love learning about them,” Mitchell said of the weapons. “We have a gun called Ole Pete here that was used for killing an outlaw who was named Outlaw. They took off chasing him, and Old Pete was used to shoot him down. Old Pete was made here in Pine Bluff, and now he just sits in the display in one of the exhibits we have here.
“We also have a table here that will show everything you would find in an old kitchen. We have the mixing bowl, the churn, a three-legged stool and a flavor bottle. We have the coffee grinder and jelly presser – just things you don’t see every day.”
The museum also holds multiple displays showing items from the Civil War era. Everything from weapons, relics and other items that showed the time period in which Pine Bluff began to grow after the end of the war.
“Around the end of the Civil War, Pine Bluff only had around 1,000 citizens,” Mitchell said. “After the war, in a 20 year period, we had a streetcar line that were mule driven, and we had a city park. Then we (were) on our way. The streetcar line is unique because Pine Bluff had the only one that was operated by a former slave. His name was Wiley Jones, and he went on to become an entrepreneur and philanthropist. He was really unique. He started off after the Civil War as a barber, then went to waiting at hotels at night, to owning the street cars. Then he owned a mercantile store.
“He gave away a whole lot, too. St. Peters had the Colored Industrial Institute that was very prominent then. He wasn’t very religious, but he gave the land to St. Peters and to St. James United Methodist Church. He donated the land for them to get started there. He wasn’t a religious man, but his in-laws went to St. James, so he did what he did there. He also owned the first city park in Pine Bluff, which is where the Sunbeam Girl sign is now.”
The Victorian Room is another popular display room within the museum.
“In our Victorian Room, we like to show how the best-dressed ladies looked back 100 years ago,” Mitchell said. “What is amazing about these dresses is that they had to be some of the smallest ladies in the world. We also have a display showing what the best-dressed men of the era wore as well. We have knickerbockers, a white dinner jacket, and golf clubs – just a whole variety showing what the best-dressed men wore.”
The Honor's Gallery is one of the most popular rooms in the museum. It features weaponry, relics and honors veterans from every war since the Civil War.
“We like to honor all of our veterans from all of our wars,” Mitchell said. “We have everything from the Civil War to the war in Iraq displayed here. We have a map of Pine Bluff from 1864 that was drawn by the Army. We have weaponry from that era on display. We have a display on World War 1, we have a display from World War II to include the paper that came out for the end of the war. We have a Garland Gray uniform on display, and various uniforms from different eras.
“We have the only Civil War unit flag that is left from the war. It was a handmade flag for the Jefferson Guard from Pine Bluff. They carried the flag in the war until they got captured. They were in Tennessee when they lost their flag. It had been up in Indiana until 1986 when they allowed us to accept the flag back on a loan. It is the only Arkansas flag from the Confederacy that is remaining from the war. After the war, Arkansas took all of their flags to burn them. This one was saved because it was captured.”
The museum also features additional displays on world-renowned piano player Jimmy McKissic, displays on the Civil Rights movement in Pine Bluff, an NFL Hall of Fame display featuring game-worn jerseys from Willie Roaf and a Super Bowl game-worn jersey from Monte Coleman.
There are also displays featuring dolls and dollhouses, a wall dedicated to archery pioneer Ben Pearson, turn of the century school rooms, and a display featuring the Pine Bluff high school national championship football team.
Mitchell also noted that the museum is in need of members and funds to help them to continue to expand.
“The only money we really get is through donations and memberships,” Mitchell said. “We need to get as many members as possible. We have different levels, but if you just want to join as a member it is $35 per year. We always accept donations as well.”
The museum is located at 201 East 4th Avenue in Pine Bluff and is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday and. The museum is open to individuals, families, as well as school, church and other groups.