We see it all the time; it is nearly impossible to miss, that old house at the end of downtown Siloam Springs’ quaint main street. It looms on its knoll on the corner of University and Broadway, strange steps embedded in the hill leading up to its long unvisited door. The house is in decay, having been neglected for decades. Recently, one of its chimneys collapsed.
The dilapidation is sad because the house is beautiful—a mix of Queen Anne and Colonial Revival architecture, with a wraparound porch held aloft by Tuscan pillars. Its story and the stories of its occupants are woven in the fabric of Siloam Springs’ history. Many inquire about the forsaken place, and a fair few have expressed interest in owning it. Every town has a mysterious house, a relic of a time gone by, the cold shell of a forgotten legacy, the house spoken about in hushed tones by children at night. Haunted or simply haunting, the structure is the most visible specter in Siloam Springs.
Constructed in 1900 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Bratt-Smiley House is significant in Siloam Springs’ history, as were its first two owners.
“Banker J. E. Bratt built the house,” said local historian Mrs. Maggie Smith, great granddaughter of Simon Sager. Sager was the first pioneer settler of Hico Township, part of what is now know as Siloam Springs, and the man who in the 1830’s built the Sager cabin, which still stands today on the John Brown University campus. It is believed to be the first homestead constructed in the Siloam Springs area.
“Bratt also owned other businesses in town and according to Smith, because he and his wife had no children of their own, was remembered for spending much of his time helping the children of Siloam Springs,” according to a 1995 Herald Leader article. Bratt, the house’s first resident, was an Englishman who owned a produce company and established the Bratt-Wasson Bank on 109 E. University in the former Farmer’s Bank building, today’s downtown Arvest branch.
After Bratt’s death, the house was owned by Dr. J. L. Smiley, in his time one of the most prominent physicians and surgeons in Northwest Arkansas, considered to have few if any equals in the region and frequently called away from Siloam Springs to assist in difficult cases.
Smith said, “The Smileys entertained lavishly there,” and the house was a center for Siloam Springs’ early 20th century social scene. Dr. Smiley was socially and civically active, having been a World War I veteran and American Legion member, a Mason, an Odd Fellow and a member of the Knights of Pythias, the first secret society and fraternal organization to receive a charter under an act of U.S. Congress.
When Dr. Smiley passed in 1930, after years of poor health and occasional sinking spells, he was interred in the Mausoleum at Oak Hill Cemetery, next to John Brown University. The mausoleum’s burials have since been relocated elsewhere in the cemetery, after the structure deteriorated and subsequently was restored as a chapel.
After Dr. Smiley’s passing, his family kept the house for at least 30 years. Its story becomes foggy at best beyond that, though it was at times a venue for weddings and festivals. By 1995, however, the house had been neglected for some time by its owners and proceedings to condemn it due to disrepair elicited a response by local advocates for historical preservation.
Disposition of the house was discussed during a Siloam Springs City Council meeting, but it seems nothing tangible came of it. Today, the house has been vacant for over a decade. Many townsfolk await its restoration—its resurrection.
It is strange to walk in a cemetery, among weathered and weathering stones with little distinction, barely comprehending their gravity. Gravity has kept the Bratt-Smiley house from wafting away, keeping it rooted to its native soil so determinedly that it subsides into itself. Time is both kind and unkind, and human memory is fleeting. So even if the house’s story is not remembered, at least it inspires the imagination of those who pass it by—an enigmatic edifice ingrained in the psyche of Siloam Springs.
Photo: Bailey McKenzie, The Threefold Advocate