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How's Bayou?: Father knew best

 Not your usual check-in: A welcoming art piece in the 21C Museum Hotel in Bentonville, Ark.

Not your usual check-in: A welcoming art
piece in the 21C Museum Hotel in Bentonville, Ark. (Photo: Keith Marshall)

Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton and ex-wife of a Grade-A, Carnival-Credential-Carrying New Orleanian, probably would agree that her dad knew what he was doing when he launched his first Walmart store in a Rogers, Arkansas strip mall on a hot summer day in 1962. Folks in the nearby town of Bentonville — where the giant retailer’s previous venture, the ground-zero “Walton’s 5 - 10” store (now the entrance to the Walmart Museum) still dominates the manicured town square with its statue to Confederate heroes — certainly do.

It’s amazing what a gazillion dollars can do in a small, rural, at-one-time backwater town in the extreme northwest corner of Arkansas.

Alice Walton’s signature creation, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, winds through a woodland paradise, just outside the town, along tranquil ponds and gentle hills. Its connected, Shinto-shrine-like pavilions — whose roofs simultaneously evoke the shells of a tortoise and an armadillo above their sloped, crystal-clear walls — meander through the landscape as if they belong there. Residents, visitors and architecture critics alike agree that they do.

Bentonville's town square is a small-scale version of Paris's Rond-Point, Champs Élysées, at Christmas. (Photo: Keith Marshall)

Bentonville's town square is a small-scale version of Paris's Rond-Point, Champs Élysées, at Christmas.
(Photo: Keith Marshall)

Back in town, the modest but uber-trendy 21C Museum Hotel, trumpeted by TripAdvisor as “The #1 New Hotel in America,” features its own exceptional contemporary art collection, and is just a short walk from the town square.

We arrived at this seemingly out-of-place haven of sophistication looking like the Waltons — the other ones, on the TV show.

“I’m afraid we’re like a traveling circus,” I told the young man who asked if we’d like valet parking. Along with multiple shopping bags and suitcases, we had to bring in two “puppy palettes” for Clio and Pandora ($100 pet fee — only high-class dogs). “We’ll be coming on like Ma and Pa Kettle,” I told him.

But the sophistication faded the minute we walked in. It looks like New York, but it’s in the hills of Northern Arkansas —Soo—ee Pig!” — just half an hour from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and the Razorbacks. So there’s a down-home friendless that embellishes the minimalist spaces that feature fabulous art at every turn.

Did I mention that fluorescent-green, cocky-teenager-size penguin statues greet you in the hotel’s foyer? These haunting presences are moved around regularly, one even appearing outside our pet-friendly room in the early-morning hours.

 Where it all began, on the town square, Bentonville, Ark. (Photo: Keith Marshall)

Where it all began, on the town square, Bentonville, Ark. (Photo: Keith Marshall)

After greeting the penguin, we headed for the Station Cafe, on the Square since 1997, where conversation veered to "the will of 'The American People'," and the wisdom of the Iraq war is still considered. The foam coffee go-cups trumpet "Best Freedom Fry" (think France refusing to participate in the Iraq war), and at breakfast, the "Freedom Toast" is available grilled, or battered and deep fried, at the same price, a Freedom-preserving six bucks.

License plates line the walls -- all cleaned and polished to a high luster. Among them was a discordant note. A 1997 Arkansas plate, with a fierce red Razorback charging toward 1DEE, was too close to the French word for idea, IDEE, in this haven of denial of all things Gallic.

Outside the adjacent Walmart Museum, Brett, a Walmart maintenance employee for 23 years, spoke with pride of being a major contributor to the interior renovation of the original “Walton's 5 & 10” and the museum created inside. This day, in the slight drizzle, he was heading inside with rechargeable screwdriver poised for action.

"Like now," he said. "I'm goin' to take out a drawer, bring it to the shop and fix it." He confirmed that there are 37 hotels in the area, "mostly for the hundreds of people who come here each week to try to sell their products to Walmart. Most places around the square have something to do with Walmart,” he added with pride in his voice.

Louisiana artist Gina Phillips's striking fabric-and-paint wall hanging in the "State of the Art" exhibition at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. (Photo: Keith Marshall)

Louisiana artist Gina Phillips's striking fabric-and-paint wall hanging in the "State of the Art" exhibition at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. (Photo: Keith Marshall)

Just down the street, a retiree told me how “Miss Alice” just walks down to the yoga studio herself, with no security men following her.

“She still has a modest house near the hotel,” he continued. “Now, she walks a little funny. I wouldn't want to go on record about her driving — there's been a number of accidents.”

I asked him who lived in the big white house, nestled among modest houses like those off Jefferson Highway near Ochsner Hospital, on the way into town. Somebody highfalutin’?

“That was Mr. Bud’s — the younger brother’s — house,” my anonymous source continued. “Mr. Sam, he had the brains. Let's just say Mr. Bud was fortunate to be born Mr. Sam's brother. Mr. Sam set him up in business -- Bud's Club, where he sold all the returns — did real well with it!”

This was after the near-fatal opening of the first Walmart, when Mr. Sam brought in hundreds of watermelons to offer at dramatically-low prices, and donkeys for the kids to ride. It was like nothing Rogers and Bentonville had ever seen — especially when the watermelons began exploding in the late-summer heat and the donkeys felt the call of nature while sloshing around in the watermelon juice.

No one could have predicted Sam Walton’s future success that day. But one of his guiding principles was not to be afraid to swim against the current to become a success, a credo enshrined that sultry summer afternoon in a flood of murky watermelon juice.

How’s Bayou? the secrets of remaining sane while running an upscale B&B on Bayou Lafourche, is written weekly for NolaVie by Keith Marshall, a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale and Oxford universities who now runs Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville.