I was a checker at Wal-Mart the day Elvis died. That’s where I was 40 years ago today. It was the summer after my sophomore year in college that I spent some time working at Wal-Mart, which recently had opened in my hometown.A fellow employee, or I suppose an associate as we were called, came into work and told that Elvis had died. So it’s not so much Elvis that I am thinking about today but Wal-Mart.
A few days ago I spent some time in Northwest Arkansas, where it all began for Wal-Mart. Bentonville still is the corporate headquarters of the retail behemoth. I was struck by how much that Walton money has propelled a little-known place in the Ozark Mountains into such a vibrant business and tourist area. It’s one of the Top 25 fastest growing metro areas in the country.
Here’s three Wal-Mart inspired attractions you don’t want to miss.
Walmart Museum. In 1950, Sam Walton opened a Ben Franklin variety store called Walton 5 & 10 on the square of then-sleepy Bentonville. The facade is restored just as it looked in 1950. Inside, there’s a candy & souvenir shop, and it’s full of visitors close to 9 p.m. on a August weeknight. In the back, museum exhibits tell the story of Wal-Mart in an engaging timeline from the 1950s to today, including his 10 Rules for Building a Business.
Driving a humble pickup truck isn’t written in those rules, but his 1979 Ford F-150 is on display there as an endearing symbol of Walton’s humility.
“I just don’t think a showy lifestyle is appropriate. Why do I drive a pickup? What am I supposed to haul my dogs around in, a Rolls-Royce?” is the Sam Walton quote on the display.
The museum complex also includes a soda fountain. A few doors down is a newly-opened War-Mart Neighborhood Store. It fits into the quaint square look, resembling a Whole Foods more than a discounter.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. There’s no place outside a metropolitan area that has such a diverse collection of art, sculpture and architecture. And, there’s no prettier setting. Art pavilions are nestled around two-spring-fed ponds with forest trails winding through the 120-acre site, about a mile from the Bentonville square.
Original portraits of George Washington by famous artists Gilbert Stuart and Charles Willson Peale are there. So is Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter oil painting and a Frank Lloyd Wright house that was disassembled in New Jersey and reconstructed there. There’s several Andy Warhol originals including one pop art of the Coca-Cola bottle that museum founder Alice Walton (daughter of Sam) paid $57.3 million for at Christie’s Auction House. Walton outbid the Metropolitan Museum of Art and paid upwards of $35 million reportedly for Kindred Spirits, a famous Catskills Mountains landscape.
Opened in 2011 with $317 million from the Walton Foundation, Crystal Bridges is the first major art museum built since 1974 in America. Admission is free thanks to Wal-Mart although special exhibits have fees and may be booked so plan ahead. A gallery exhibition of acclaimed Dale Chihuly glass artist just closed, although there are some pieces in an outside setting on exhibit through mid-November. Upcoming 2018 special exhibitions include a Georgia O’Keefe show.
Razorback Regional Greenway. This 37-mile bicycle & jogging path may have a less obvious War-Mart footprint, but it’s there. A $15 grant from the Walton Family Foundation jumpstarted development of this path that connects the growing communities of the area from south Fayetteville to Bella Vista Lake north of Bentonville and near the Missouri state line.
I spent a little over an hour riding a section near Fayetteville, and it should be on the short list for anyone looking for the top places to ride in the South. The Fayetteville area was busy but not too congested and close to restaurants, coffee shops and micro breweries. Farther north, the path goes to quaint downtowns, through tunnels and over bridges. It connects with about 20 other trails and spurs to such places as Crystal Bridges, three Arkansas lakes and the University of Arkansas campus as well as to shopping and residential neighborhoods.
Those are three Wal-mart-connected reasons to visit Northwest Arkansas. There are many more, including the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, an entertainment venue, and Walmart AMP, a music pavilion in Rogers.
It’s not just Walton money that has made the area prosperous. Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt Transport are both headquartered there. In fact, J.B. Hunt founder Johnnie Bryan Hunt has an interesting entrepreneur story of his own as he was often carried a money clip of $100 bills around town, handing them out to people in need.
Sounds a little like Elvis to me.