A momentous event in the history of Bentonville, Arkansas, took place March 9, 1950. On the west side of the little downtown square, a man named Sam Walton opened a variety store he named Walton’s 5&10. It was the beginning of what would become the world’s largest retailer, Walmart. Today the company remains headquartered in Bentonville, in the northwest corner of Arkansas, and Walmart remains its largest employer. But where the town once was a destination only for Walmart vendors, it’s now a world-class art mecca. In 2011, the Walton Family Foundation made Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art an $800 million reality. The museum has attracted high-quality hotels, boutiques, galleries, and restaurants. Now, Bentonville finds itself transformed. Tourism officials call it “A new American town.”
Bentonville’s Thaden Field is named for famed aviatrix Louise M. Thaden. Born in Bentonville in 1905, she earned her pilot’s certificate in 1928 and then set aviation records on her way to co-founding The Ninety-Nines international organization for female pilots. The full-service fixed-base operation provides fuel, and courtesy and rental cars.
The hotel’s location on the northeast corner of the square puts you just a mile’s bike ride or walk down the art trail to an entrance for the Moshe Safdie-designed Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Yes, the museum is surrounded by thick woods traversed by art trails, worth exploring for their sculptures and bridges that cross babbling brooks. A natural spring fills the ponds that surround the museum. You’ll walk across the water inside bridges with floor-to-ceiling glass walls. The museum’s astounding permanent collection showcases five centuries of art that tells the history of America in chronological order. There are also free and fee-based educational activities for all ages, free drop-in tours on the architecture and art collection, and the fabulous Eleven restaurant overlooking the water.
Back at the city square, there’s more to see. The original Walton’s 5&10 store is now occupied by the Walmart Museum, easy to spot with its retro red-and-white striped awning and a replica of Sam Walton’s pickup truck out front. Inside, you can see the original truck along with Sam Walton’s pilot logbook and read how he used an airplane to scout new store locations—and count the cars in competitor’s parking lots. (Several of the Walton family are pilots who have quietly contributed to aviation projects around the country.) Beyond the exhibits you’ll find Walton’s 5&10, now selling retro toys and candy, plus locally crafted gift items. Pick up a hand-mixed soda or a scoop of Arkansas-made Yarnell’s Ice Cream at the Spark Café. Espresso, microbrews, and light meals can be had at Pressroom. Have at least one “High South Cuisine” meal at the award-winning Tusk & Trotter American Brasserie; you’ll probably want to eat there again the next day.
A few miles west of downtown you’ll find the Museum of Native American History, with its gigantic woolly mammoth skeleton outside and a comprehensive collection of Native American displays and artifacts inside that date back over 14,000 years. One of some 140 Civil War sites in Benton County, Pea Ridge National Military Park is five miles northeast of Bentonville. The 4,300-acre battlefield is one of the most intact in the United States.
Bentonville has become a mountain biking destination too, with bike shops and over 35 miles of interconnected trails that are a pleasure to ride. The surrounding area offers plenty more in warmer months, including fishing, lake water sports, golf, hiking, and camping. As the seasons change and museum’s exhibits rotate, you’ll want to visit this New American Town again.
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