Reaching the finish line
On Sept. 24, 1789, President George Washington signed Senate Bill No. 1. A part of the bill known as the Judiciary Act created the U.S. Marshals Service. During the next several days, Washington appointed the first 13 U.S. marshals to enforce federal laws, serve warrants and protect judges and witnesses.
The first marshal for the Arkansas Territory, George Washington Scott, was appointed in May 1820 and served until Elias Rector was appointed in March 1831. Rector continued to serve in that position for another five years after Arkansas became a state in 1836. By the 1870s, the Western District of Arkansas was one of the largest (since it had jurisdiction over the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma) and wildest judicial districts in the country.
“Arkansas was divided into the two current districts in 1851, but the same federal judge presided over both districts,” Jessica Hayes writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “After the divide, on March 12, George Knox was appointed the first U.S. marshal for the Western District of Arkansas, then headquartered in Van Buren. The Eastern District headquarters remained in Little Rock. On March 3, 1871, the office for the Western District of Arkansas was moved to Fort Smith. With that move, the Western District received its own judge. From 1851-96, the Western District held jurisdiction over 13 counties and all or parts of the Indian Territory. The history of Fort Smith is intricately connected to the U.S. Marshals Service. The city, once known as Hell on the Border, is renowned for its connection to the era of Judge Isaac Parker and the U.S. and deputy marshals.
“Between 1871 and 1874, two U.S. marshals in western Arkansas were removed for being ineffective. Isaac Parker, known as the Hanging Judge, was appointed federal judge for the Western District of Arkansas in May 1875, and he almost immediately appointed 200 deputies in an effort to get a handle on the crime and violence that plagued the area. During his tenure, more than 65 deputies died in the line of duty. Famous outlaws and criminals sentenced by Judge Parker included the Cook Gang, Cherokee Bill and Belle Starr. Some of the most well-known deputy marshals served in the Western District of Arkansas—Bass Reeves, Heck Thomas, Zeke Proctor, Frank Dalton and Addison Beck.”
In 2007, it was announced that Fort Smith had been selected as the site of the U.S. Marshals Museum. Stacia Hylton, the former director of the Marshals Service, said of the marshals: “For all of us, Fort Smith is like sacred ground.”
Arkansans were told the museum would open in 2014. Then they were told it would be 2016. That date later was changed to 2017. A groundbreaking ceremony was held on Sept. 24, 2014, the 225th anniversary of the Marshals Service, but it was ceremonial in nature. Many people began to doubt that the facility would be built.
Enter Patrick Weeks. In one of his first interviews after being named last year as the museum’s president and CEO, Weeks stated flatly: “The reality is a museum is going to be built, and it will be the anchor of the riverfront.” Weeks brought together his executive committee in late October to lay out a timeline and budget. And then he set an opening date of Sept. 24, 2019, five years after the groundbreaking.
The hiring of Weeks allows Jim Dunn, the Booneville native who had headed the project, to focus on fundraising. Dunn had spent seven long years having to wear two hats— operations and fundraising—and can now concentrate on one area as head of the separate U.S. Marshals Museum Foundation.
The museum has a total budget of $58.6 million. The board voted in December to change the design as necessary to stay within that budget. There’s $24 million left to raise. The museum will be built on 15.9 acres along the Arkansas River that’s being donated by the Robbie Westphal family.
Weeks, 48, has worked on theme parks, science centers and museums around the world with a focus on creating memorable experiences for visitors. When Weeks was hired, Robert A. Young III, the chairman of the museum’s foundation, said Weeks had “played an integral role in the design and construction of several national entities. At the Arizona Science Center, he fostered relationships with corporate sponsors, individual donors and municipal government entities to complete a $24.5 million capital reinvestment project. I’m confident he and Jim Dunn will do the same for the U.S. Marshals Museum to bring this project over the finish line.”
That finish line is Weeks’ focus. “I couldn’t resist applying when I read about this museum,” says Weeks, who began work on July 1, 2016. “There already was a team in place that had done everything right to that point. It’s not as if I had to come in and begin retooling things. My focus has been on the budget and the operational aspects. Our board has made some tough decisions, and now it’s time to see the outcomes.”
Alice Alt, the museum’s vice president of development, calls the museum a catalyst in the current revitalization of downtown Fort Smith. Even though there’s no building, there’s already plenty of educational programming such as the Winthrop Paul Rockefeller Distinguished Lecture Series.
“When it was announced that the museum would be in Fort Smith, it led to other things,” Alt says. “We’re a catalyst for much more to come. It’s an exciting time.”