It is so much easier to travel long distances today than it used to be. Even in my lifetime, travel has become much more convenient. In the 19th Century, a slightly cleared road cut the state of Arkansas in half diagonally from northeast to southwest. Known as the Southwest Trail, this route presented multiple challenges to the rugged travelers who braved it. Because it ran through lonely and remote places, it was sometimes a haven for thieves and cutthroats of every stripe.
Fortunately, though, some of those who had established homes along the trail were hospitable and, after mid-century a few taverns sprang up near villages like the one at the place where five trails met, today’s Washington, Arkansas. The restaurant at the Historic Washington State Park known as Williams Tavern was one of these, though that building was moved to its present site from the trail.
A friend of mine was looking through back issues of the Arkansas Gazette on microfilm the other day and found an interesting story about such places. I was imagining some “back-story” as he told it, so I hope I can stick to the facts as I recount what he said. In 1875 a man had established a large farm with a good sized house near Washington. Though his house was not technically a tavern, he was known for his hospitality to travelers. Well, one time a rowdy group had gotten ahold of some whiskey down on the Red River and was traveling through his part of the country. They stopped at his house one evening and asked, or rather, according to the tone of the newspaper story, demanded a place to stay the night.
Because the men were very drunk, the ordinarily hospitable home owner told them they couldn’t stay inside, but could camp in his yard. He said his boy would bring them some coals from their fireplace and give them some wood to burn. Despite this good faith generosity, the drunks were not satisfied. They wanted to stay inside and made their demands more violent. Then guns came out. As I recall, when the smoke cleared, some of the drunks were down and the home owner was back inside with the door bolted.
This event made the friends of the drunks mad and they came with revengeful intent. They were not counting on any opposition, though. A large group of hands that worked the place rode up and told those friends of the drunks to leave. In fact, they told them to leave the county or there would be deep trouble. The hands prevailed and the men left, never to return.
So, looking back through the years, we see that people found a way to travel and they found a way to keep their homes safe as well. Every time I eat at the Williams Tavern Restaurant in Washington, Arkansas, I think of the difficulties travelers had not many years ago. And I am thankful for the conveniences we now enjoy.