Our Rich History

With a history that includes explorations by European explorer Hernando DeSoto, a rich tradition of Native American culture and an occupation during the Civil War, Benton has not been at a loss for an interesting heritage.

Most of the events, significant dates and key players can be studied and researched in books or through online searches. However, residents of Benton will soon have another way to experience their history through a new outdoor mural slated for completion this fall.

The mural is planned for Benton’s Bell Building, currently owned by John Young, and has been a group effort led by artist Dianne Roberts and fundraiser Freddy Burton.

The inspiration for the project, though, came from a casual conversation between Burton and a member of one of Benton’s legacy families, 97-year-old Arlene Rainey.

“We were together at an event at Herzfeld Library,” Burton said. “And she told me, ‘Every time I leave the bank, (the Bell Building wall) just speaks to me. It’s saying, ‘Put something on me.’”

Rainey refuses to take credit for the idea, but the mural project took off from that one conversation. Burton would handle the fundraising for the mural’s completion, and Roberts would illustrate Benton’s history for all to experience.

“I’ve been working on the mural for about year, in between my own work,” Roberts said. “We started with only an idea. I’ve put things in and taken things out because it can’t cover everything. It would just be too big.”

The owner of her own art studio and gallery, Roberts understands how important history is to the people of Benton. A high school art teacher in the 1970’s, she’s remained heavily involved in community projects both through her work and her time volunteering at the Gann Museum. So, for her, getting the mural correct is of utmost importance.

“It’s a story of the Saline River and how it affected the early people who lived here from about 1500 to 1900,” she said. “The River runs through the back of the mural, showing how everyone lived close to it. Businesses were close because that’s how you transported things. The Native Americans and early settlers also started there.”

Roberts includes the agricultural base for the region that includes cotton and timber. She also chose to pay special attention to the pottery industry. “We had 13 potteries here. Pottery was the main industry for a long time till the time we end the mural.”

With a project spanning 400 years, Roberts also includes transportation, beginning with the Saline River, expanding through the railroad and concluding with roads. However, with so many topics from which to choose, she was forced to make difficult decisions about which parts of Benton’s history to remove from her design.

“I did have some buildings but took them out because it’s all about transportation in the early years,” she said. “There are no buildings, no court house and no Civil War.  Both sides were here in Benton at the same time, but I decided not to get into the Wars or slavery or the Trail of Tears when Native Americans were forced in 1835 to leave.

“I didn’t want to remember the bad things,” she added. “It’s like when you take pictures of your family – you don’t want to remember the bad times. You take pictures of the good times, and this is everyday working people living off the land.”

The “good times” are certainly what Arlene Rainey remembers about her life in Benton and in Saline County. Born in Benton in 1916, Rainey grew up the daughter of Charles Hyten, founder of Niloak Pottery.

Rainey spent much of her time traveling throughout Arkansas, enjoying the natural beauty of the state and seeing how other communities chose to commemorate their histories. It was a homage she wanted brought to her hometown of Benton.

“I’m not an artistic person,” she said. “My remark at the library was made with the thought that someone else would be interested and do it.

“I think it will bring a greater focus on the history of the area and will draw people off the highway to come see and experience it,” she added. “I believe it will enhance the interest of local people in their history and in art.”

While Roberts is putting the finishing touches on Rainey’s idea, Freddy Burton is managing fundraising for the mural. He says the project is a natural fit for Benton, both in its location and in how it will depict the town’s history.

“It fits Benton like a glove,” he said. “Fundraising has been the easiest part because people are so ready to give to it. The hardest thing for me is to get to everyone because they’re so willing to give. They can see the potential of it and how wonderful it will be for the downtown area.”

Burton says current fundraising has exceeded $37,000.

Artist Mark Davey will take on bringing the mural to life. “He’s currently working on a project in Memphis with Bass Pro,” said Roberts. “It’s something he was very excited about, so he’ll be coming to us when that’s completed.”

Davey is expected to arrive in Benton to begin work on the Bell Building in early fall. The artwork is expected to take eight to ten weeks to complete.