How our two-story, native stone building came to be…
Long years ago, the Muxen family traveled from Iowa through our Boston Mountains range on their way to Hot Springs, Arkansas. Clara Muxen and her brother were taking their elderly and frail mother to Hot Springs to see whether the famous mineral baths would help improve her health.
They stopped on top of Mount Gayler across the highway from where our building is located to spend the night. It was here that Clara became entranced with the beautiful mountain scenery. And anyone seeing the sunrise or sunset in the Boston Mountains can easily understand Clara’s feelings. But, that was only the beginning.
The Muxens purchased acreage that was to be known later as Muxen Heights. Clara, who was a retired educator, and her brother each had their own home on the property and helped begin Catholic services in a converted service station on the property. Later they gave a portion of this land to the Catholic Church where a beautiful shrine was built. This shrine has an active parish and was also on the list of National Historic Shrine Pilgrimages last year.
While in Italy, Clara had found a little statue of the Virgin Mary that she loved. A group of businessmen from Fort Smith commissioned a sculptor from Chicago to make an enlarged edition of this statue, which was ultimately named Our Lady of the Ozarks, the Virgin of the Smile. Originally placed in a corner of the converted service station, this lovely statue now stands outdoors before the native stone shrine to welcome all who come to worship.
By the early 1940s, construction had begun next door to the shrine on what is, at the present time, the home of Ozark Folkways. But Clara Muxen had begun this as the Craft School of the Ozarks. We know this from her handwritten letterhead. To support her endeavors, she started a gift shop in the old service station. She also maintained a used clothing distribution program for needy hill people. Apparently Miss Muxen hoped to train these hill folk, locked in poverty, to value their traditional crafts and make the most of them. We have her hand drawn-plans for the building with individual rooms labeled according to what she envisioned as their purpose.
One primary example of her endeavors bearing fruit is seen today in a woodcarving studio upstairs in the building where Janet Denton Cordell teaches her techniques four or five times annually. Janet’s father sold his work to Miss Muxen early in his carving career and she coached him, encouraging him to sign his work and to put a finish on it that would bring out the beauty of the grain. You can read more about this woodcarving family in the National Geographic issue of June, 1975.
Clara was no stranger to hard work and did whatever was necessary to keep the construction going, even pouring cement. However, she did not live to complete the building and finish her mission, but Ms. Cordell of the famous woodcarving family says that her father, Ivan Denton, taught one woodcarving class for her before Miss Muxen died in 1966.
After her health failed, Clara Muxen gave the property to the order of Nuns that cared for her in her last days. According to what little information we can learn, the building was used briefly as a Nun’s retreat and parochial school. For whatever reason, the church did not finish what Clara had begun.
Our building became an orphan then, standing vacant for many years, until it was acquired in the early 70’s by a non-profit organization named The Ozark Native Craft Association.
The Birth of Ozark Folkways
Arkansas in the 1970’s was one of the poorest states in the union. These were the days before Sam Walton’s Walmart enterprise developed into a national and then an international mega-corporation, before Tyson’s chicken and pork industry gained national and international markets, and before an economy developed that would sustain the population with a reasonably comfortable level of income. Thanks to Winthrop Rockefeller, the philanthropist who brought industry into the state, Arkansas’s economic situation slowly began to improve.
Due to cultural and other mitigating factors, the majority of Arkansas citizens existed in an economically deprived climate. Survival was a daily challenge. In an effort to address this situation and improve their lot, a group comprised of artists and artisans met in the community of West Fork, Arkansas. Using seed money from the Office of Economic Opportunity, they organized as a non-profit 501C4 corporation and named it the Ozark Native Craft Association. The group was given the use of a building owned by a third generation white oak splint basket maker named Gibson, of the renowned Gibson basket making family. The association quickly opened a gift shop to show and sell their handmade wares.
It proved to be a very successful enterprise. Before long, the membership rolls swelled to more than 300 active participants. The association’s first showroom was fairly bursting at the seams. At this point, the members began to look around the area to see else what might be available to house the fledgling organization.
Less than ten miles to the south of the Gibson place, and at the highest point in the Boston Mountain range, they found their permanent home in Clara Muxen’s unfinished building. Sited on ten acres of mixed oak and maple trees, the huge building of Arkansas sandstone was perfect for their needs.
Members volunteered to remodel, repair, repaint, refurbish. They constructed a separate building used primarily for craft fairs, but use expanded to exhibits and fundraising events, consistent with the group’s mission. Also, a separate kitchen was constructed in the rear to serve meals during events.
Over the years, a variety of classes in the traditional crafts have been taught. It seemed Clara Muxen’s dream was finally coming true. In the early 90’s, Janet Denton Cordell, of the well-known woodcarving family, was given permission by the Board of Directors to remodel an upstairs room in the building to teach woodcarving on a regular basis. By the late 90’s, times had changed so much that people in the region had no difficulty finding well-paid work; they no longer needed the association to help them with their living expenses. It was time to devote the association’s resources to the teaching and preservation of cultural art, craft and traditions.
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