Two Arkansas museums house an impressive scope of Arkansas history tied together by their connection to bauxite – The Gann Museum in Benton and the Bauxite Historical Association Museum in Bauxite.
The Gann Museum
“The Gann Museum was built in 1893 as a doctor’s office for Doctor Gann, Sr., and it was actually built by patients who couldn’t afford their medical care,” said museum director Lindsay Jordan. “It is the only known building in the world made out of bauxite, which is what is used to make aluminum.”
The soft stone used in the building, which is located in downtown Benton at 218 South Market Street, was dug from the grounds of a nearby farm, sawn via a handsaw into blocks, and allowed to harden for a month and a half. The building is a pastel color with chalky material, gingerbread construction and stained glass.
An architectural landmark, the building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975 and was made into a museum a few years later.
As you walk into the museum, what used to be the formal medical exam room is now used to house a collection of Niloak pottery.
“Niloak pottery was made right here in downtown Benton from around 1911 to 1944 and it is made from a special clay that is found here called kaolin which is actually Niloak spelled backwards,” said Jordan.
The unique form of pottery was created by local Charles Hyten and the distinct colors were made to resemble clays found in the state. The pottery was sold in department stores throughout the U.S. and overseas.
“He developed a specific way to throw the clay on the wheel and fire it in the kiln using a few chemicals to bring out these vibrant colors,” said Jordan. “They are very rare. He never told anyone his secret of how he did this and he tragically drowned in the Saline River in 1944 never having told this. And that is why it was only made until then.”
The museum houses a lot of history. In its former life, the building served at Dr. Gann Sr.’s doctor’s office, the first room being the waiting area and the second being the examination room. He delivered around 3,000 babies here and never lost a mother. He also organized the first Medical Society of Saline County in 1903. His son, Dr. Gann, Jr., followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the practice. He was a standout surgeon and in the 1920s was chosen as a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, an honor given to less than 10 men in the U.S. at the time.
Along with the story of the Gann family, you can learn about Native American history, the early settlers, and the history of bauxite in Saline County. Along with permanent exhibits there are rotating exhibits too.
Bauxite Historical Association Museum
First discovered in the state in the late 1880s, bauxite ore played an important role in Saline County and for the world. For a while, the town of Bauxite, which even took its name from this rock, produced most of the world’s aluminum. You can learn more about this history at the nearby Bauxite Historical Association Museum in Bauxite.
“If you want a history of how Bauxite came to be, it was all associated with the aluminum industry and it was a company owned town,” said Russell Burton, one of the curators of the museum. “The government, when it looked like we were going to get involved in World War II, contracted Alcoa to build the Hurricane Creek Plant and it was the largest aluminum plant in the world at that time and that’s what really made Bauxite what it was.” About 6,000 people lived at Bauxite during that time and the materials were used to build the airplanes that helped win the war.
According to Burton, who grew up in the company town, the workers and their families lived in a tight knit community that had churches, a community center, a barber shop, a movie theater, a hospital, a post office, a bank, a school, and more. Bauxite was even named the official state rock of Arkansas in 1967.
It eventually became more profitable to mine bauxite overseas and Burton said the year 1969 marked the end of the company-owned town. The town was able to incorporate on its own in the early 1970s and has survived to this day.
Most of the company town no longer exists except for the community center, which now houses the museum located at 6706 Benton Road. If you visit the museum, you will get a chance to learn more details about the history of the town. The museum has items like mining equipment, mining company memorabilia, and rare finds like a $25,000 dress made from woven aluminum thread, one of only two in existence.
The Gann Museum is open Thursday-Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and by appointment for group tours.
The Bauxite Historical Museum is open seasonally from February until the week of Thanksgiving. It is open on Sundays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. They are also available for tour groups on any given day with prior notice.