Spring Break on US Highway 71: Day 4, Kopper Kettle Candies in Van Buren

Above: Snag road trip snacks at Kopper Kettle Kandies on Highway 64 between Van Buren and Alma.

This week, thousands of Arkansas students and their families will be spending time away from school as our schools let out for a well-deserved break. But what can you do with that sort of time?

Last year, my daughter Hunter and I set out along Scenic Arkansas Highway 7 and explored it from one end to the other to bring you all sorts of ideas on activities you can undertake with your family. This year we’re at it again, and we’re exploring US Highway 71, which runs from the Louisiana border to the Missouri State Line.

Each day this week, we’ll share an itinerary for adventure. You are welcome to follow along! And to share your experiences along the highway, please feel free to tag us with #SpringBreakOn71.

Wednesday morning’s breakfast of oatmeal and turkey sausages at the Hampton Inn in Fort Smith prepared us for a day’s exploration, which began in earnest in downtown Fort Smith.

There are several wonderful murals recently painted throughout the downtown area. And before we arrived at our first destination, we caught site of this mole on the side of one of the downtown buildings.

Spring Break on US Highway 71: Day 4, Mural of a mole in Fort Smith

Our first stop was to the Fort Smith National Historic Site. This is where Fort Smith began ages ago as a small military base at Belle Point. The National Historic Site preserves a lot of what remains, including an old commissary that’s the oldest building in the city.

It also shows not one jail but two inside its vast visitors center, along with a reconstruction of the courtroom and the gallows of famed “hanging judge” Isaac C. Parker. Hunter and I were both surprised to learn that the judge was actually opposed to the death penalty and never witnessed any of the hangings he ordered.

A block away, we found the Fort Smith Museum of History. This facility is truly underrated. We could have spent days exploring its depths. There are bits of history I’d never heard about within its walls, including that of the Hartford Music School, where shape-note singing was taught and performed.

Upstairs, I walked back into a piece of my own history. A gentleman has donated a lot of old radio and television equipment to the museum, and in one exhibit there’s an old radio station setup that’s almost identical to what I used when I started out in radio some 25 years ago.

There are displays on Boy Scouting in the area, the Civil War, the notorious Belle Starr, antique tools, the Hotel Goldman, telephones through the ages… truly, a diverse number of amazing pieces are on display on the first two floors, and I’m told there are an equal number of stored and archived exhibit pieces upstairs.

But Hunter’s favorite part is the recreated soda fountain, where we sat down once we were done touring and had a couple of old fashioned ice cream sodas.

We dropped in at Miss Laura’s Visitors Center before we left. Now, I don’t know this for 100 percent certain, but I’d be willing to bet there’s no other place in the United States where a city’s welcoming spot for travelers is located in an old bordello! We learned a little about the history of this place, and Hunter got “deputized” before we left.

I also showed her the Bass Reeves statue and talked with her about the amazing individual this US Marshal happened to be. For Hunter’s interpretation, Bass Reeves was the original Lone Ranger without Silver and without the silly mask and skin-tight outfit.

Concerned about the schedule, we opted for a quick snack rather than make a scheduled lunch stop. I had intended to take her over to Van Buren to visit and tour L. H. Brandenburg Bookseller, one of my favorite bookstores ever. For decades, the shop has been filled top to bottom with books and a family of adopted cats. I was utterly stunned then to find the doors closed and no books on the landing! As it turns out, the shop’s street-level entrance is being renovated to create a café, but a look through the glass showed that all the books below street-level were still there and still accessible. I’m eagerly anticipating a return visit.

We did wander the Van Buren depot for a few minute, but then took to the road. A few blocks from downtown, we stopped in at Paul’s Bakery to pick up breakfast for the next day. Paul’s has served Van Buren for generations, and was created by Paul Lehman, who just wanted the people in his area to have good doughnuts. He succeeded. Hunter ogled many sorts, but didn’t find a sprinkled doughnut she wanted. No worries—one of the ladies behind the camera heard her plea and presented her with two chocolate topped with pink sprinkled doughnuts.

Spring Break on US Highway 71: Day 4, donuts with chocolate frosting and pink sprinkles from Paul's Bakery in Van Buren

Our drive from Fort Smith to Alma on US Highway 64/71 would not have been complete without a stop at Kopper Kettle Candies. This old-fashioned candy store is part of the grand tradition of the M. L. Greer family, and the second, third and even fourth generations are involved with this store and its mate in Fort Smith today. Hunter selected half a dozen pieces of chocolate and a rainbow sucker to take along for snacking on our route. 

We made it to Lake Fort Smith State Park just after 5 p.m. and followed the instructions for entering our cabin, posted on the visitors center door. The little red one-bedroom cabin may look unassuming from the outside, but inside we found every convenience, from a fully-equipped kitchen to a jetted tub in the bathroom and a fireplace in the main room.

And that’s where we spent the evening, relaxing in front of a fire while I read a book and Hunter watched a little television. Outside, there were few sounds save the croaking of frogs and the wind, a perfect end to a busy day.

Thursday’s itinerary includes Artist Point, Winslow and Fayetteville. Stay tuned for more itineraries as we share our fun throughout the week.

Kat Robinson is a food and travel writer based in Little Rock. She travels Arkansas and the South searching for good stories, tall tales and the next great little restaurant. Read about more of her adventures at TieDyeTravels.com.