Saunders Museum celebrating 65th anniversary

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

This week marks the end of the season for the Saunders Museum. It also marks a big milestone.

This year marks the museum’s 65th anniversary, and to celebrate, museum staff will be offering free admission through Friday.

“We’re going to have refreshments also,” said museum curator Joan Lasseter. “We’re going to have a bulletin board with some of the old newspaper clippings from where we had the dedication in 1956.”

The museum — named after its benefactor, Col. C. (Charles) Burton “Buck” Saunders, who willed the land the museum occupies to the city, along with his home, which now serves as Berryville’s City Hall — houses Saunders’ collection of firearms, furniture, housewares, art, jewelry, tapestries and stuffed animals gathered from all parts of the world.

“We also have an arrowhead table that’s on loan,” Lasseter said. “We have Geronimo’s scalp belt. We have a bear trap made by Daniel Boone. We have teak wood furniture that’s over 400 years old. It’s not just the guns. There’s a lot of other stuff besides guns in there.”

While the museum indeed houses many other items Saunders collected during his lifetime, the main draw for many is the museum’s extensive collection of historical firearms, including many that once belonged to famous — and infamous — historical figures, including Jesse James, Annie Oakley, Billy The Kid and Sam Houston.

The museum is also home to an original Bowie Knife, Chief Sitting Bull’s war bonnet, a knife owned by Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and spurs owned by Mexican Gen. Francisco “Pancho” Villa — one of the most prominent figures of the Mexican Revolution.

Some items, Lasseter said, are occasionally loaned out to other museums, but the museum’s exhibits are largely static. That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to see, Lasseter said.

“I think the community doesn’t really realize what they have in the museum because we have people that come in and they’ll say, ‘Well, I was here when I was in school. It’s been 40 years since I’ve been here,’ ” Lasseter said. “They don’t remember really anything about that museum. And we go to tell them about it and they’re just in awe because they had no clue that that’s what we really had there.”

Attendance at the museum — which opened its doors for the season in April — has been on the rise this year, partly because 2020’s opening was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s numbers, however, have been regularly topping 2019.

“It’s kind of surprised me,” Lasseter said. “We’ve been doing better on numbers now in this past month. Our numbers were down, but the money we deposited for everything was up from what it was two years ago. We didn’t really consider last year because we didn’t open until Aug. 17 because of the pandemic. That wasn’t a good year, but compared to the year before, we’re doing pretty good.”

Lasseter attributed some of that success to the merchandise on sale on the museum’s gift shop.

“Our merchandise is helping,” Lasseter said. “We have these little books we sell for $4 apiece that pretty much tells Mr. Saunders’ story on his travels and how he collected everything. We’ve been selling quite a few of those.”

Saunders, born in Texas in 1863, had deep ties to Carroll County.

Saunders and his family moved to Arkansas in 1865 after several run-ins with natives, including one in which his mother and sister were kidnapped. The family moved again in 1867 after the opening of the Berryville Male and Female Academy, but before the family moved, Saunders’ grandfather presented the 4-year-old boy a muzzle-loading rifle and taught him how to shoot it, sparking a lifelong love of marksmanship.

At the age of 17, Saunders built a rough cabin at what is now Basin Spring in Eureka Springs after a long-standing leg injury of his father’s started healing rapidly after the judge began bathing the wound in the spring’s water.

Word of the medicinal qualities of the water spread quickly, and tents began springing up in the area of the spring. Dr. Alvah Jackson, a Berryville physician, suggested the settlement should be named for Saunders’ father, who insisted it be named for Jackson. Saunders broke the deadlock by declaring its name should be Eureka.

By the age of 25, Saunders was a deputy U.S. marshal and in 1893 at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, his marksmanship came to the attention of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and for a time Saunders put on shooting exhibitions with Annie Oakley.

His time on the road with Cody’s Wild West show sparked a love of travel and afforded him a measure of fame. Before long, Saunders began traveling the world and collecting everything from firearms to works of art, antiques from the tombs of pharaohs, articles from the Holy Land, Persian rugs, Oriental furniture, lace, handwork, curios, silver, glass and ancient Egyptian jewelry.

In 1910, Saunders won the world championship in pistol shooting in Paris and returned to Berryville in 1919.

In 1936, for his 73rd birthday, the townspeople of Berryville honored him with a big celebration attended by Gov. Junius Marion Futrell and other dignitaries, as well as thousands of friends. It was at that time the governor commissioned him as a colonel on the governor’s staff. Hence, Saunders became known as Col. Saunders.

Two years later, he won the Southwestern Missouri pistol shooting competition at Neosho, Mo., and at 80 years of age, he could still hit a metal disc, such as a penny, tossed into the air. In 1952, he died of a heart attack at a hospital in Hot Springs, after having been in ill health for several months.

“I think we got quite a treasure in our museum and it would be nice if more people would come and see it and be proud of it like we are,” Lasseter said.

The Saunders Museum is scheduled to reopen on April 15, 2022.

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