Christmas at the Saline County Courthouse
December 10-16, 2018
By Cody Berry
As far as I can remember, Christmas in Saline County has been marked by the same traditions. It all begins the week after Thanksgiving. Banners go up in Benton’s Commercial Historic District followed by lights and large displays, depicting scenes from Santa’s workshop, complete with elves and the big man himself – on the courthouse lawn. So, every night from late November through December into January, the courthouse lawn becomes an illuminated Southern masterpiece. Then once the lights go up, the streets are filled with excitement as the countywide Christmas parade begins.
The Saline County Courthouse is one of the county’s crown jewels because of its history and unique look. One of our greatest traditions is the annual Saline County Christmas parade and Courthouse lighting ceremony. Much like the State Capitol lighting in Little Rock, this marks the season for us. People come from all over the State to see the lights and enjoy the small-town atmosphere that historic downtown Benton offers.
Saline County was created before statehood on Nov. 2, 1835. William Woodruff of the Arkansas Gazette sold much of what is now downtown Benton to Saline County’s founding families the day after statehood on July 16, 1836. The current courthouse is the third of its kind and one of three courthouses designed by famous architect Charles L. Thompson in the Romanesque style.
The courthouse was finished by Thompson’s partner John Odum in 1902. Its cornerstone was laid by Dr. Dewell Gann, an influential doctor and Mason, whose Queen Anne manor sits just down the street next to his former medical practice, now the Gann Museum, built almost entirely from Bauxite. The courthouse’s most notable feature is its four-story clock tower which can be seen from miles away. The courthouse has been expanded over the years, but the original structure is untouched, and those tower bells chime every hour.
The courthouse lies on a perfect square bordered by streets named after Arkansas’s oldest political families. Those streets are home to buildings that house Saline County’s government and locally owned businesses. Immediately to the left of the courthouse on Market Street lies First United Methodist Church, whose roots were planted around 1815. Further down-Market Street, you’ll find local businesses, in early 20th century store fronts, an Art Deco Masonic Hall, and the Royal Theater, which dates to 1920.
This year, Christmas in Saline County began with the courthouse lighting ceremony led by Saline County Judge Jeff Arey, Channel 7 News, and a very lucky student. Every year fifth graders across the county participate in a Christmas themed essay contest. Each school selects a winner who receives a certificate and $50, while an overall winner gets a certificate, their story published countywide in the Saline Courier, $100, and the honor of throwing the switch. This year, the overall winner was Lillie Pike of Benton Middle School. She and all the other winners appeared in the Courier alongside Judge Arey and Justice of the Peace, J.R. Walters, on Sunday, Dec. 2.
After the lighting ceremony comes the annual countywide Christmas parade. The parade features dozens of homemade floats representing schools, businesses, politicians, and churches from all over the county. The Dixie Car Club shows off their rides, marching bands fill the air with music, but, for kids, the biggest thrill comes when Santa Clause appears atop a big red fire truck alongside the county’s finest. ‘Christmas at the Courthouse’ is very much a family affair. Carriage rides around the courthouse are provided by Jerry Applegarth of the Hot Springs Carriage Company and his 19-year old daughter for just $5. This year, their two 19th century style carriages are led by a pair of horses named Babe and Roxie.
Each ride begins at the Saline County Offices on Main Street then passes the new Main Street Station, where food trucks and venders like Koffee With a Kause serve sightseers. The excitement continues down to the old Gingles Building on Market Street and back. Altogether it’s a 12-minute ride. Buy a hot coffee or sandwich at the Main Street Station, pay your $5, and enjoy the ride. The first large displays on the courthouse lawn were donated a decade ago to the county by Benton residents Mike and Stephanie Duke so that everyone could enjoy them. These have become quite the attraction for little ones and their parents.
Benton’s Commercial Historic District lies on the original town plat dating back to 1836. Most of the buildings there are store fronts, residential buildings, a theater, and government buildings dating back to the turn of the 20th Century. The square’s atmosphere, especially at night, feels like a gentile Southern town circa 1900 with some modern touches. If you’re looking for a safe, family friendly way to celebrate the holidays – drop by the Main Street Station, get a Koffee, and enjoy a peaceful walk or carriage ride around the 116-year old courthouse in beautiful downtown Benton.
(Photos by Loran Lyle)