If you missed the play, written by Dr. Brandon Chase Goldsmith last year, The Western District rides again October 24 thru November 16, showing in four cities in four weekends: Poteau, Fayetteville, Fort Smith, and Van Buren.
This summer, Carl Albert State College History Instructor, Allexcia Rankin, was awarded the Julian J. Rothbaum Endowed Professorship and the Dean Worley Endowed Professorship. The funding from these professorships allowed Goldsmith to remount the play with rewrites and some new cast members in order to bring The Western District to CASC’s campus, the Poteau community, and beyond.
The play’s revival provides an opportunity to once again bring-to-life a portion of Arkansas history that has only recently been discovered. On May 8, 1871 the Western District Court of Arkansas was relocated from Van Buren to a site famously known throughout the River Valley as Fort Smith’s “Hole in the Wall” saloon, a site that is today occupied by the restaurant, 21 West End. The Western District of Arkansas was expanded to include Indian Territory, making it the largest jurisdiction in the United States. In a mere 14 months and 20 days, this new district was transformed into the most corrupt courthouse in the entire country.
The Western District tells a never-before-told story of court corruption that leads to the founding of the First National Bank of Fort Smith and reveals the real reasons Judge Isaac Parker comes to Arkansas’ Western District Court. Goldsmith spent three and half years thoroughly researching and digging into historical archives, museum backrooms, private collections, local historians and over 500 pages of Congressional Record in order to piece this long-lost story together.
Last year the show was performed across the River Valley in 7 locations in four weekends, and did something that doesn’t happen enough, compensated the cast, crew, and designers, 22 artists in total. Along with the play, Fort Smith Brewing made a batch of Western District Wit based on an 1872 news story about City Brewery bringing a new “white beer” to town. During his research, Goldsmith accidently found the Doc Post’s original recipe for wine and the Post Winery made a commemorative set of 4 Western District Wines. Additionally, he wrote The Western District book to accompany the play. The beer, wine, and book will again be available for this year’s run of the show.
A new 2019 development is the opening of The Rialto restaurant, which is featured in the play. Owned by two US Deputy Marshals, it was Fort Smith’s premier restaurant from 1859 till 1880.
Alexander Baretta immigrates to Fort Smith around 1856 from Italy and names his antebellum restaurant after Venice’s famous fish market, The Rialto. Specializing in seafood, he puts lobster and fresh oysters on his menu. A creative entrepreneur Baretta ships them into Fort Smith inside barrels of sea water from New Orleans, where during a visit he mysteriously dies in 1867.
His partner, US Deputy Marshal Charles Robinson, Susan Bonneville’s brother-in-law, takes over the restaurant and remodels it. Robinson adds a saloon with billiards, expanding the building to include “boarding rooms.” He puts a red lamp out front to advertise their new services. Charles Robinson moves to Albuquerque, New Mexico where he tragically dies of smallpox in 1883.
The show portrays the time period when Robinson’s bartender, US Deputy Marshal Charles Duval “C. D.” Mesler, as the owner has relocated the restaurant to Washington Street across from the federal court. Mesler travels the country bringing back the finest wines, Havana cigars, and introducing Fort Smith to the wonders of Guinness and Bass imported beers.
Mesler gets involved in the 1872 Western District Court corruption scandal as a ‘Returning Marshal.’ He makes thousands of dollars returning fraudulent arrest writs for prisoners captured by other deputies. Using his “profits,” he moves The Rialto aka The Circuit Court to the Fishback block on Garrison Avenue. As a fundraiser to benefit the US Marshals Museum, The Western District will be performed at The Rialto, which is once again located on Garrison, this time on the site of the old Boston Store.