Urban Exploration Unearths Forgotten Stories

Abandoned Arkansas Photo

PHOTO | Submitted

Every town has a story to tell, but all too often, these stories go to die on a forgotten map.

Living in Arkansas, it does not take long to spot a neglected building or town. However, urban exploring has found its way to Arkansas in recent years, and people have been working toward documenting and preserving abandoned buildings in the state.

The preservation and documentation of deserted buildings are like finding a time capsule. Often these places are left with everything still inside, and when wear and tear become too much, the buildings get exposed to nature, trespassers and decay. If left alone too long, the building becomes condemned. There is no salvation, and history is lost forever.

One organization that is in the process of bringing awareness and new life into these forgotten places is Abandoned Arkansas.

Michael Schwarz is one of the leading people behind Abandoned Arkansas. He is also a co-author of “Abandoned Arkansas: An Echo From the Past” and president of the Abandoned Atlas Foundation.

“I turned a hobby into a website, and that is where it began for Abandoned Arkansas. I wanted to find the history and tell the stories of these buildings left for nature to retake. The goal is to educate people and maybe save some of these buildings,” Schwarz said.

Some of the most famous abandoned places in the state include Dogpatch USA, Rush, Monte Ne and East Calico Rock. While these places are well known and receive recognition for their dereliction, many other sites are left to the dust.

“It is not just the well-known places that require help. It is easier to focus on those because they are on the bigger side, but you can find history in small towns. Driving back roads and looking for these hidden jewels is vital in this process,” Schwarz said.

Abandoned Arkansas is also working toward the possibility of connecting developers with these lost buildings. When looking into developers, they reach out to people that want to salvage as much as possible.

They are also actively working toward helping with cleanup, preventing trespassers, and finding owners who genuinely need help with their buildings.

“If you are going to be an explorer, you have to respect the owners and their buildings. Do not go in and spray paint or break windows; there is no point in that, and that is not what we do. It is all about the respect code,” Schwarz said.

Arkansas is not a small state to explore, so it takes a team of photographers and reporters to make up the Abandoned Arkansas foundation. The one thing they all have in common is the passion and joy of exploring forgotten sites.

Ginger Beck is a photographer for Abandoned Arkansas and co-author of the “Abandoned Arkansas” book and has been part of the team since 2017.

“When it physically hurts to go in and see that a building is dying, that is when you know it is something more than a hobby. I do not think of myself as a photographer. I was nosey and mentioned that I had an interest, so I worked a few gigs and was hooked,” Beck said.

By taking photos, the foundation has shown the conditions of these buildings and brought a younger generation into the past while helping a town remember its roots.

When taking photos, Beck looks for the minor details of the sites.

“I want people to notice more. I think that ties into the whole idea of Abandoned Arkansas. If people took notice and care just a bit more, we would not see the rate of decay that we have.”

Abandoned Arkansas has documented around 300 sites and explores more every day. Every location they visit has a photo gallery on the website with an article explaining the site.

“With this type of work, you go anywhere and everywhere, but one of my favorite buildings has been in Pine Bluff at the Saenger Theatre – it was this really cool building with a lot of history and forgotten memorabilia. The old popcorn bags, movie posters and seats made that place stand out,” Beck said.

Typically, buildings like schools, hospitals, and shops are left with everything still inside due to the outdated equipment and the lack of use for it, which preserves the history for someone to discover.

“Right now, urban exploring is not huge here. So you do not have to fight the crowds, and you can really take your time and look for these remote places. Take as many photos as you can while these places still exist,” Beck said.

Editor of Abandoned Arkansas and photographer Gage Fears started after sharing his photos on the site’s Facebook page.

“A lot of hours go into this type of work. Writing and sifting through the research takes time and effort. It can be hard to find information on places, but it’s out there if you look for it,” Fears said.

When the buildings were in their prime life, documentation was not as necessary because people knew their stories. “History usually stays with the older generation, and it’s key to make sure it does not become lost on younger generations,” Fears said.

The foundation realizes that saving every neglected building is not always possible. Everyone on the team noted the most challenging part is seeing these buildings waste away due to a lack of funds, interest, or awareness.

Photographer and co-author of “Abandoned Arkansas” Edward Sisson has built his career in Arkansas because of the state’s rich history.

“Photography was not an interest initially. I just wanted to explore abandoned places, and carrying a camera around would [at least to me] be some sort of evidence that I wasn’t there to loot or destroy,” Sisson said.

Unfortunately, like his co-authors, Sisson has dealt with the loss of sites before.

“I spent many years at Dogpatch and wrote a book on my experiences there, and it was a piece of history that I adored. I mowed, painted and cleaned up. But I wouldn’t go back now that Dogpatch has been resold and being burned down. I do not want to see it without its lush historical structures.”

This is just one example of the sites that are all too often torn down or forgotten about before their history is told. Documentation and preservation are not the only steps one can take to help these buildings. Buying older houses, donating to the foundation, or volunteering are ways that someone can help the future of these buildings.

Arkansas has many abandoned buildings that often get overlooked and unappreciated. Abandoned Arkansas is a foundation that is trying to rewrite the story.

For more information about Abandoned Arkansas, visit the website www.abandonedar.com.