McCollum Chidester House Museum
McCollum Chidester House
This home was built on land received by grant from the United States Government when James K. Polk was President. The rambling white colonial home was built in 1847 by Peter McCollum a local merchant a little ways west of town on a piece of property overlooking the well-traveled trade route to Washington, Arkansas. It is a house of many firsts for the area including the first one built of planed lumber, the first to be wallpapered and it's kitchen had the first iron cookstove and accoutrements - all imported from New York. It has twelve foot ceilings in the seven downstairs rooms and somewhat lower ceilings in the three upstairs rooms. The house has five fireplaces. One of the first sewing machines sold west of the Mississippi River still sits in a corner of the dining room and was used by Mrs. George Chidester in later years.
Mr. McCollum, known as a gracious host, entertained dignitaries, pastors, lawyers and steamboat captains the 15 years he lived in the home. When he relocated to a new plantation home further West of town, he sold the home in 1862 to Colonel John T. Chidester for $10,000 gold. When the home was purchased, Chidester added two large rooms onto both the east and west wings of the house.
Colonel Chidester, a government mail carrier, moved to Camden in 1857 hoping to expand into new frontier territory for operating stage lines in the Southwest United States. He formed Chidester, Rapley and Company, which provided passenger and mail service all across South Arkansas, North Louisiana and Texas. This company operated four horse - nine passenger coaches connecting Gaines Landing, Washington, AR., Hot Springs, Trenton, Louisiana, Homer via Magnolia, Lewisville, Pine Bluff, Arkadelphia and Antoine. Colonel Chidester saw the house and property as an excellent site for his home and stage coach business with plenty of room to keep the many horses his business needed. Col. Chidester loved horses and knew a great deal about them. This trait was inherited by his six sons, John, Will, Frank, Jim, George & Byrd. John, Frank and Will associated with their father in the operation of the stage line and Frank & Will later operated a livery stable. He also was a major cotton factor for the area
In the Spring of 1864 when Federal troops were occupying Camden, General Frederick Steele made the house his headquarters. Mrs. Chidester was able to hide her silverware,china, pewter and jewelry, having buried it under a chinaberry tree in the yard before their arrival. The family monies were hidden in a belt worn by a servant. The Confederates shelled the house forcing her to put her children under bed mattresses for protection. Shortly afterwards, General Steele moved closer into town for greater protection for him and his staff.
Because Colonel Chidester allegedly rifled federal mail to provide state secrets to the Confederacy, he was considered a spy by the Union. The Union troops returned to the home searching for him, he hid in a small attic room filled with trunks, the door covered by a large chest. The soldiers, unable to find access to the room, fired shots in the wall. The bulletholes remain there today. Colonel Chidester made his escape to Texas, where he remained until he was granted amnesty for his alleged war crimes.
The stagecoach business recovered after the war and in 1878, Colonel Chidester obtained what was at the time the country's longest single stage route - the run between Fort Worth, Texas and Yuma, Arizona - which required the employ of 300 men, 2,000 horses, 60 Concord coaches and a detachment of the U. S. Army. The Chidester House became the central mail station of the Butterfield Overland Stage Route. The horses and coaches used on this route were kept in a large two story barn on the west side of the house. The two upstairs rooms at the house were used for the stage drivers and any overnight passengers. The operation lasted for three years. By then the final rails were laid for the Texas & Pacific Railroad.
The Ouachita County Historical Society bought the house and furnishings from Dan Chidester and Tom Chidester in 1963 and turned the property into a museum.