Every year, the Drew County Historical Society hosts a tour of the Drew County Museum and serves hot cider and cookies in the log cabin behind the museum following the annual Carols of Christmas Parade in downtown Monticello.
The museum is housed in the historic Cavaness House, a Southern Colonial Revival mansion on South Main in Monticello. The mansion was built in stages from 1906 until 1916 by Monticello businessman Garvin Cavaness. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Cavaness, according to local folklore, contracted to clean up train car wreckage from a derailment on the Iron Mountain Railroad line outside Monticello. The clean up involved removing cement that had spilled from the derailed cars. Cavaness reportedly used that cement to make the concrete used in the construction of his mansion.
The Drew County Historical Society acquired the mansion in 1970, largely through the efforts of Mr. and Mrs. Eric Hardy.
Among the items on display at the museum is this pair of earrings. They may look like ordinary earrings but they are anything but ordinary. They once belonged to the great-grandmother of African-American educator Sadie Johnson.
According to oral history passed down through the family, the earrings were brought from Africa while she was aboard one of the last slave ships to America.
Another impressive display is the Taylor china. Pictured here is one of the place settings in the 164-piece set on loan to the museum.
The 164 pieces are only a small portion of the set of china ordered by Dr. John Martin Taylor (a cousin of Zachary Taylor) and his wealthy bride, Mary Elizabeth Robertson Taylor while honeymooning in New Orleans in 1843. The 170-year-old tableware was handpainted in France and each piece is unique.
Each piece, which is trimmed in cobalt blue and edged in gold leaf, features a different flower. The Taylors owned the Hollywood Plantation in Drew County.
One of the newest exhibits is Our Past: Arkansas Indians in Drew County, an exhibit featuring Drew County’s Native American history. The Drew County Historical Society partnered with the Tunican Chapter of the Arkansas Archeological Society members to create the exhibit. The exhibit opened in September 2017.
The museum also has a number of musical instruments on display, including a 1700s Cremona violin made by Josef Guarneri and a violin that provided a source of entertainment for Confederate troops during the Civil War.
Also on display is a portrait painted by an Italian Prisoner of War held at the Italian Prisoner of War Camp in Monticello during World War II. The portrait (the late Drew County physician Dr. Price) is one of the many items in the medical display featuring Drew County physicians.
One of the most impressive items in the museum is Dr. James Smith’s 1876 “Election Day” oil painting of the town square featuring the 1870 French castle-style Drew County courthouse. The courthouse was razed in 1932 and all that remains is the courthouse bell (now located at Weevil Pond on the University of Arkansas Monticello campus), photographs and Smith’s painting. Read more about Dr. Smith, an African-American dentist who left Chicago when his dental practice was destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871.
Though the linked article doesn’t mention it, Smith served as postmaster in Drew County before relocating to Little Rock.
Smith was a dentist, artist, inventor, author and one of Arkansas’ most prominent African American citizens. He was also the father of Florence Beatrice Smith Price who became the first African-American female composer to have a symphonic composition performed by a major American Symphony Orchestra.
There are two log cabins located on the museum grounds, a smokehouse which was converted into a cabin and the Rives cabin, constructed in the early 1800s. Peter Rives was the stepfather of the previously mentioned Mary Elizabeth Robertson Taylor. The cabin was once located on the Taylor Plantation.
Also on the grounds are the country store, barn and stables, and a time capsule buried in 1976 by the Drew County Bicentennial Committee. It will be opened in 2076.
Located behind the Drew County Museum, on College Street, is the Southeast Arkansas Research and Archives Center. It holds photographs, school records, family histories, maps, business records, scrapbooks, and an extensive vertical file on Drew County history.