(Article from Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism, Jill Rohrbach, travel writer)
If trees could talk, the towering Bur oak in Cane Hill would have some mighty stories to tell.
Estimated to be at least 150 years old, the oak likely grew up among the early settlers of Cane Hill and witnessed the town’s heyday, decline, and re-emergence as a historic district with unique hiking trails.
“We call this our witness tree,” Vanessa McKuin, executive director of Historic Cane Hill, said. She added that it’s possible that this tree “witnessed” the Trail of Tears in 1837 and the Civil War Battle of Cane Hill in 1862.
Today, the tree stands about 85 feet tall, overseeing the current grounds of Historic Cane Hill, Inc. This non-profit was established in 2013 and owns a majority of the unincorporated Cane Hill Township with a goal of preservation for future generations to enjoy.
Visitors can take advantage of walking trails, historic buildings, exhibits, tours, and event space.
Trails and outdoors
Four marked trails run through the 150 acres owned by Historic Cane Hill.
The 1.2-mile Heritage Trail takes hikers past most of the historic properties and up to Cane Hill Cemetery. The Welch Trail is a mere .25-mile stroll by Jordan Creek and the ruins of the former Dr. Welch home. Leading past limestone rock faces, the Earle homestead, and up to the college is the 1.1-mile Earle Trail. The 1-mile McCullough Trail is a steep hike to an overlook.
The trails show signs of early settlers. Today’s hikers enjoying leisurely walks can appreciate the work it would have taken to carry and stack the rocks for the walls and structure remnants that can be seen on some of the paths.
Outside of the official trails, visitors can also enjoy strolling the grounds, which include the witness tree and a wildflower meadow full of prairie coreopsis, swamp milkweed, and plenty of pollinators such as bees and butterflies.
This rural community is a great place for bird watching, hiking, and exploring. The property has several picnic tables. The surrounding Ozark Mountains are excellent terrain for road and gravel cycling.
Established in 1827 by a group of Cumberland Presbyterians, Cane Hill was the first permanent settlement in Washington County. The community was home to one of the state’s first colleges and first co-ed college.
While the early leaders were progressive in regard to education, religion, and commercial ventures, they were short-sighted in regard to the railroad. “Part of the decline of Cane Hill was that they didn’t want the railroad to come through here,” McKuin said. They thought it would bring disreputable people with it, she explained.
Cane Hill was also impacted by the Civil War and struggled to compete with the nearby Arkansas Industrial University, which is now the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Eventually, the Cane Hill College charter was moved to Clarksville, where it became the University of the Ozarks.
A dense collection of this history still stands today in the form of architecture. Cane Hill is home to 17 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The buildings range from the mid-1800s to the 1940s. Since 2013, Historic Cane Hill has restored or stabilized nine historic buildings. Its current project is to turn the 1898 Queen Anne home on the property into a bed and breakfast inn.
Historic Cane Hill also operates a local history museum and art gallery in the former Shaker Yates Grocery (1940s) building.
“It’s really interesting history and I think it’s fascinating that so much of the historical fabric is still here,” McKuin said.
Exhibits and tours
Numerous historic buildings are available for tours and events. Pick up a self-guided walking tour and trail map at the Historic Cane Hill office or make an appointment for a staff-guided tour.
Historic Cane Hill regularly hosts programs, events, and special exhibitions. The unique Smithsonian “Habitat” exhibition is now on display on one of the trails through November 2022.
The community-led, annual Cane Hill Harvest Festival takes place during the third weekend in September.
Special event rentals
Some of the iconic buildings offer modern uses for weddings, reunions, showers, retreats, anniversary celebrations, and conferences.
The restored 1886 Cane Hill College building boasts 6,000 square feet and includes an auditorium with A/V equipment that seats 180, a commercial kitchen, a bridal suite, and three spacious meeting rooms.
The 1891 Cane Hill Presbyterian Church, seating 100 guests, is available for weddings and other events. Also available for rent are the beautiful grounds and outdoor venues like the Pyeatte stage and the church pavilion.
A trip to Cane Hill is a pleasant drive through the countryside to see nature, architecture, and history.
The historic community is located 20 miles southwest of Fayetteville, 17 miles northwest of Devil’s Den State Park, and three miles south of Lincoln.
For more information, visit historiccanehillar.org, call the office at 479-824-4455, or call the museum at 479-824-5339.