Bentonville has become a booming business town in an economically rich corner of the state. But the richness of Bentonville’s history and influence goes back as far as 1875 with the construction of the Peel Mansion Museum and Heritage Gardens. And it’s the stories etched into the walls of the mansion that continue to shape the legal, political and business sectors across Bentonville today.
Samuel West Peel had an unusual youth. From the original Carroll County seat of Carrollton, Peel lived with his grandparents after his mother died when he was young, though he went on to work in his father’s store and as a deputy court clerk. Peel married Mary Emaline Berry in 1853, and the couple had nine children.
Not much is known about Peel’s early life, but when he entered the Confederate Army in 1861, Private Peel finally found his niche, climbing the ranks of the South’s military.
As the war ended, Colonel Peel returned to his home in Carrollton to find the family home burned down, a war casualty.
Peel had no home, and the career he had launched before the war that had brought him joy had come to an end. More importantly, Peel still had a large family to care for.
Following his family’s urging, Peel decided to study law under his brother-in-law, Judge James Middleton Pittman. In 1865, Peel passed the bar and began practicing law in Carrollton before moving his family in 1867 to Bentonville, where he continued to practice law. In 1873, after successful legal work, Peel was appointed by then Gov. Elisha Baxter to be the prosecuting attorney of the Fourth Judicial District of Arkansas, a position he held until 1876.
In 1875, the construction of the Peel Mansion was complete.
The Peel Mansion, an extravagant display of architecture, was built for the large and growing family. Peel promised his wife that the mansion would be incredible and remind her of her childhood home in Alabama. He made good on his promise.
The 14-room-home has many interesting design features, including a central, hipped-roof tower, offset corner quoins, large arched windows and eight fireplaces. The house is adorned with a rare Anglo-Japanese mantel in the library, as well as a peculiar Greek Revival molded trim in the parlor. With high ceilings and dazzling chandeliers, the Peel Mansion boasts design and decor that are rich with Victorian Era extravagance.
Lucie Patton, the senior marketing manager at the Peel Compton Foundation, said records indicate that there was also a large apple orchard on the property.
“We still have apple trees on the property today,” Patton said.
In 1883, Peel was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, the first native Arkansan to be elected to the position. He would serve for the next decade. While in Congress, Peel chaired the “Committee on Indian Affairs.”
His home is believed to have served as the meeting place for many prominent politicians and lawmakers. Tribal councils frequently met on the front lawn of his mansion.
When his wife died in 1902, Peel moved out shortly after. For the next eight decades, the home struggled to find a steady owner, changing hands frequently. Several of the owners who acquired the mansion worked on restoring it. One was Mike Murphy. Murphy and his mother ran Peel Mansion Interiors, a local business, out of the house and spent much of their profit margin on restoration.
In 1991, Walmart bought the Peel Mansion, donating it to the Peel House Foundation in February 1992. The Peel House Foundation, now the Peel Compton Foundation, began to repair and restore the mansion. Since 1992, an outdoor museum of historic roses, perennials and native plants has been added. These native gardens, beautiful pathways and large shade trees recreate the 19th-century appearance of the property.
Now, the Peel Mansion serves as a location for parties, weddings, club meetings and fundraising events. The property displays a host of artifacts and historical touchstones from the Victorian Era.
Patton said the foundation’s mission is to connect the community through nature, preservation and communication. To reach this goal, the Peel Museum hosts a large fundraiser every year in early December, called “Christmas at the Peel Museum.”
“This fundraiser is a really immersive opportunity with a choir and different stations throughout the mansion. Dinner is provided; there are special cocktails, and it’s a great time of the year to see this space,” she said.
Patton said the fundraiser represents an excellent way to connect locally with Arkansans, grow the nonprofit and allow people to see the beauty of the Peel Mansion at Christmas time. The museum also is home to a store where locally made goods are sold.
The Peel Mansion’s history and beauty continue to attract Arkansans and diverse groups seeking to immerse themselves in Arkansas’ past while meeting with friends and coworkers and holding celebrations.
Samuel Peel, and the Peel Mansion Museum and Heritage Gardens that came after him, have seen a plethora of legal and political Arkansas history. From the front yard to the parlor, the Peel Museum and its inhabitants have shaped the faces of Northwest Arkansas as well as local and national politics, for more than a century.
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