Experiencing the Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie may be an exercise in traveling back in time, but the guiding forces of the Stuttgart landmark are equally focused on the future.
“The museum opened in 1974; the ribbon-cutting ceremony was September 8, 1974,” said Gena Seidenschwarz, director. “It’s expanded on different occasions and it’s expanded more than once. We hope to continue to expand.”
In fact, the museum is about to add two important exhibits to its current displays.
“We’re working on expanding agriculture aviation exhibits looking at aviation in Stuttgart,” Seidenschwarz said. “Twenty-three planes were built in Stuttgart, Arkansas, before 1933. We feel obligated to share that story.”
The other addition will be the construction and enshrinement of the Arkansas Waterfowler Hall of Fame.
Presented by Greenhead magazine, the Hall inducted its inaugural class in 2016. The first-year honorees are George Dunklin, Jr., Rick Dunn, Larry Grisham and Marion McCollum, plus historical honorees the late Edgar Monsanto Queeny and Dr. Rex Hancock and Ducks Unlimited honoree, the late Roland “Rollie” Remmel.
“Housing the Arkansas Waterfowler Hall of Fame here at the museum is going to involve some expansion of our physical space,” Seidenschwarz said. “We have a really pleasing plan that we’re looking at executing that is going to be underway this year. We’re really pleased and gratified that they chose to locate [the Hall] here.”
Roots, War And Peace
The new projects join a collection of some 140,000 items housed over 20,000 SF of space and tended by a staff of two full- and one part-time employee. Items on display range in size from a duck call to a mammoth locomotive steam engine and an equally imposing steam-powered tractor, a particular gem of the collection.
“We have a 1917 Avery tractor that is truly ours; it’s touched the soil here on the Grand Prairie at Stuttgart,” Seidenschwarz said. “It is the most beautiful machine that I can see and I see it every day. It makes me excited every day.”
Other prized artifacts include two special duck decoys included in the museum’s Waterfowl Wing.
“Two decoys, a mallard hen and a mallard drake, were carved at the Stuttgart Army Airfield during World War II when German prisoners of war were housed there,” Seidenschwarz said. “Of course that was done with chisels and what they had at the prisoner of war camp here. I think those are just fascinating.”
The irony of German prisoners held at a town founded and named for a famous city in their homeland notwithstanding, the museum annually gets its share of international visitors, about half of whom are from Germany. Of these, Seidenschwarz said, about half come from the Stuttgart, Germany, region, the birthplace of Rev. George Buerkle who founded the Arkansas settlement in 1878.
“We want to be sure that we’re able to connect what’s going to happen in the future with what has happened in our past,” Seidenschwarz said. “We want to make that circle and that’s a large part of what we’re trying to do with the images that we have, certainly of agriculture and businesses. Kind of show a picture of the kind of commerce that was taking place.”
Ducks, Dioramas, Donations
The museum was founded by two lifelong Stuttgart citizens, Bennie Burkett and Jack Crum. The first museum was a 1,500-SF structure that has been expanded four times. Among the items, many of which were donated by ordinary citizens for archiving in the collections, are Native American pottery pieces dating to 1100 A.D. featuring duck effigies, a diorama of taxidermied specimens of native species and enough general artifacts to outfit a mock Main Street of shops and stores.
Seidenschwarz said the museum is a labor of love and source of civic pride that even after all of these years shows no sign of abating. Aside from sporadic grant money, the bulk of operating funds comes from private sources, much of it local, which allows the organization to exist without charging admission.
“Most of our funds are private donations,” she said. “Our community supports us generously; we have people that have been regularly donating money every year for 40 years. We love it when people who have never been part of that decide to make that choice, too.”