Pine Bluff, Ark.--When one thinks of an Arkansas tourist destination, this small city on the bank of the Arkansas River hardly comes to mind. It's not in the scenic Ozarks, nor in the Ouachitas. It's not on a main route to anywhere.
Nor has it figured prominently in the life of a president.
So who goes to Pine Bluff and why?
Good questions, I'd say.
Not enough tourists, they say, as the powers-that-be go about creating a new image for Arkansas' fourth largest town (population, 54,734).
Arkansas' City of Murals is the goal.
What motivated me was an intriguing marketing letter about a bed-and-breakfast inn named Margland II, III and IV, a complex of three historic homes. The missive went on to say that the B&B; consists of 17 rooms, all with private bath, and such amenities as Jacuzzis, a swimming pool and an exercise room, not to mention VCRs and cable television. Conveniences include a complete telephone system with fax and conference rooms for all kinds of meetings.
All this at a B&B; in Pine Bluff?
It was a nice sunny morning when we stepped out onto the brick terrace behind Margland II for breakfast. A small round table had been laid with a pretty printed cloth and matching napkins and centered by fresh flowers; a fountain gurgled nearby. A server brought fresh orange juice, the first item of our breakfast order that we had written on a provided slip of paper the night before and hung on our door.
Guests are given carte blanche to request what they would like for breakfast, and the innkeepers promise to do their best to follow through. We asked for strawberries or bananas and got both. We asked for scrambled eggs, bacon or sausage and got them. We asked for toast or biscuits and got both -- so it went.
The next morning was on the damp side, calling for breakfast in the large, elegant dining room. This time we had requested hot cakes -- as good as any we could recall. (Coffee had been brought to our door earlier as requested, nicely laid out on a tray with cloth napkins and silverware.)
Margland (pronounced with a soft g) is an eclectic facility loaded with fine antiques and collectibles, but also including three contemporary suites with circular stairways leading to bedroom lofts. Other rooms have varied decor -- French, wicker, country and more; there's even a duck room. Twin, double and queen beds are available variously in the three buildings. Sitting areas, plenty of lamps, sprinkler systems, and efficient bathroom fixtures and temperature controls add to guests' comfort and ease.
Margland II (the original Margland was at another place, in another time) was the first house to be bought by Wanda Bateman and her husband, Ed Thompson, in 1985. The following year the property received the Historic Preservation Award for Arkansas.
Both innkeepers are heavily involved in Pine Bluff civic affairs and volunteer work -- busy, busy people. Ms. Bateman has a real-estate business and a consignment shop. She is a decorator, and she has served on the vestry of the landmark Trinity Episcopal Church. Generally known as "the hat lady," she's seldom seen without a fanciful creation atop her blond locks. Mr. Thompson heads a moving company.
Painted a light rose color with a green shingled roof, Margland II is on the corner, and it serves as the main inn. It's wheelchair-friendly with a ramp and elevator. Of Dutch colonial architecture, the house dates to 1903 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Next door is Margland III, a former duplex built in 1895, followed by Margland IV, which dates from 1905.
The brick connection
Landscaping is wonderful, with a jillion antique bricks connecting the three properties in the back by terraces, walls, walkways and swimming-pool decks. Tables and chairs of either black wrought iron or lacy white cast iron grace the terraces. A pretty gazebo provides a focal point for many weddings.
Lunch or dinner is served for eight or more persons on request, and many sizable tour groups arrange to enjoy a gourmet meal prepared and served by the staff. The inn also has a large business clientele in addition to attracting seminars, family reunions and other gatherings.
It would be hard to describe the city of Pine Bluff as pretty, what with railroad tracks running smack through the center of town and intersecting Main Street. But train buffs probably would term it picturesque.
And it does have its bright spots, such as the Convention Center, which is the largest meeting facility in the state, the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, numerous interesting old homes, Lake Pine Bluff on the northern edge of
downtown, and 17 public parks and playgrounds.
History in pictures
An organization called the Main Effort is currently reviving downtown, particularly through a series of 22 murals illustrating various facets of the city's history.
Three murals already are in place along Main Street; three more are due to be completed this year; others will follow later. So far they show early days on Main Street leading to the Jefferson County Courthouse, the Fire Station and City Hall circa 1892, and Chief Saracen, a Jefferson County hero. According to Montene McNulty, executive director of the Main Effort, the object is to make Pine Bluff the Arkansas City of Murals, following in the steps of Steubenville, Ohio, and Chemainus, British Columbia.
Another active group called CUSP (Citizens United to Save the Pines) is at work restoring the town's old hotel, closed since 1964.
Anyone interested in the past should visit two museums: the Arkansas Railroad Museum in the train yards and the Pine Bluff-Jefferson County Historical Museum in the old train station.
The railroad museum is filled with all sorts of equipment in varying stages of repair, including a snow plow, fire truck, red caboose, observation car, 1946 Yellow Rose Pullman and a three-bedroom club/lounge car from the Canadian National Railway.
But the highlight is the operative Cotton Belt Locomotive No. 815, which is scheduled to pull a Steam Train Excursion to the Texas Rose Festival in Tyler this fall. The museum is open from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday.
The historical museum is devoted to exhibits tracing the area's history from the time of the Quapaw Indians through Spanish and French explorers and boatmen from Tennessee and Virginia in search of fertile new farmland. Vast cotton plantations, the Civil War and reconstruction are illustrated through collections of tools, relics and other objects.
The depot itself dates to 1906; it was placed on the National Register in 1978. In 1991, the city and county joined forces to house the museum in the newly renovated landmark. "Shut most holidays," reads a sign outside; "Trains Run All the Time."
IF YOU GO . . .
Getting There: Pine Bluff is about 40 miles southeast of Little Rock, Ark., by way of U.S. Highway 65.
Margland: 703 W. Second, Pine Bluff, Ark. 71601; (501) 536-6000 or (501) 536-0201. Rates are $65 to $95.50 per night. Corporate, senior and military discounts are available. Children are welcome.
Information: Visit the Dexter Harding House (circa 1850), which serves as a visitor information center from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. It's on the Pine Street exit off U.S. Highway 65.
Or contact the Pine Bluff Convention & Visitors Bureau at the Pine Bluff Convention Center, One Convention Center Plaza, Pine Bluff, Ark. 71601; (501) 536-7600.