Christmastime in Faulkner County: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

Conway always seems to celebrate Christmas in a grand way. I can’t remember not having a Christmas parade downtown. The stores downtown have also had Christmas Open House in November as long as I can remember. But there have also been some other special events that have occurred in Conway at Christmas over the past decades.

For several years during the 1940s, the Kiwanis Club sponsored a Christmas party for all children, sixth grade and under, in Faulkner County. The parties were held at the Grand and Conway theaters, and in some years the attendance exceeded 3,000 as school buses brought children in from the rural areas of the county. After the children watched a Christmas movie, as the children were leaving, a Santa Claus would give each child a paper sack with an orange, an apple and peppermint candy. Club members sacked fruit, candy, and nuts for the youngsters.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Arkansas National Guard Armory was located on the southwest corner of Locust and Caldwell where Central Fire Station is today. It was an integral part of the community and during many of those years Santa would visit at the armory at Christmas. Toys and candy were given to all Conway children under the age of 10.

As an elementary school child around 1970, I also remember Santa’s Rocket Ship, out of Tyler, Texas, coming to Conway during Christmas. This aluminum red rocket ship on wheels was 40 feet long, 12 ½ feet high and 8 feet long. It seated 65 children and was upholstered in royal Naugahyde with glittering colors of gold, silver and green trimmed out in bright red. Santa, accompanied by his ship captain, space hostess, pilot and co-pilot, gave rides to hundreds of children. The children also visited Santa and received free candy.

Conway was blessed in the 1970s with a group of talented individuals who joined forces to lead grand musical performances. The Community Arts Christmas Chorus put on a major production that included elementary and junior high children from all over the community. The production was a collaborative effort of First Church of the Nazarene, First Baptist Church, First United Methodist Church, Second Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and Conway Middle School.

My memories of Christmastime in Conway in the late 1970s are punctuated by the music. I joined the First Baptist Youth Choir of over 100 young people in early 1976. My teenage years were full of musical performances and great memories as part of this youth group.

In December, 1976, the First Baptist Church Adult Sanctuary Choir, led by Don Bingham, the church’s music minister, was joined by the First United Methodist Liberty Handbell Choir, led by Elise Shoemaker, to perform a Christmas Vesper Service and Candlelight Communion. Don Bingham, Helen Benafield and Denver Prince then collaborated a week later to lead 103 First Baptist youth in the Christmas musical, “My Christmas Gift.”

The next Christmas, the First Baptist Youth and College Choirs performed “His Love Reaching” and in 1978, the church orchestra and adult choir performed “Night of Miracles.”

In 1979, hundreds of Conway people traveled to Memphis to watch the Singing Christmas Tree at Bellevue Baptist Church. Bellevue, at that time pastored by Adrian Rogers, had been performing the Singing Christmas Tree since 1976 before crowds of over 23,000 every year.

The more recent Conway Christmases are remembered for the spectacular light shows. In 1997, Conway became part of the Trail of Holiday Lights sponsored by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. The first light displays focused on Simon Park, the Chamber of Commerce building on Parkway and the Faulkner County Courthouse. Over a million Christmas lights were on display nightly.

In 2006, the Quality of Life Council began hosting the Holiday Festival of Lights at the Centennial Bank Soccer Park. The mile-long drive-through light display also included a model train display as well as special groups performing Christmas music. The event was discontinued in 2009 after an unusual amount of rain flooded the park.

For many years, the lights at Tony Circle in Frederick’s Place subdivision were a main Conway Christmas attraction. This year marks their relocation to First Baptist Church on Robinson Avenue. This new light display, as well as the other Christmas attractions in Rogers Plaza, continues to make Conway a special place at Christmas.