Past and present will come together at the site of Van Buren’s new elementary school. The future campus will be located on grounds that carry a rich Crawford County family legacy, dating back to before the Civil War.
The Van Buren School District announced in early June that Dr. William and Sharlene Gaither of Richardson, Texas, had donated 11 acres on Northridge Drive in Van Buren. Combined with an additional 10 acres purchased from North Park Baptist Church, VBSD will construct a new elementary school on the property. The addition of this campus will help accommodate the steady population growth in that part of the city.
Dr. Gaither and his wife have owned the property for several decades, but the region itself has been a part of his family for more than 175 years. The donated land sits directly across from what was the Gaither’s family farm, which was passed down through multiple generations. A part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the land was acquired by Gaither’s ancestors in 1840.
Gaither’s grandfather Harry Kilgore was born right across from the future school site and a large rock still marks the spot of the original structure there. A farmer by trade, he and his wife, Ida, raised their five children Marion Peter, James “Jim” Harvey, Lillie, Maggie Mae, and Gaither’s mother, Alice Elizabeth, better known as “Bess” on the property.
For many years, the family owned the furthest phone north of Van Buren and often found people at their doorstep needing to place a call. Husbands would come to phone the doctor because their wives were in labor. Ida, who served as both a homemaker and a midwife, would travel with visitors to their homes to assist and wait for the physician.
”Nine times out of 10, she would have already delivered the baby before the doctor even arrived,” Gaither said.
Each of the Kilgore children went on to attend school in the city.
“They are all Van Buren alumni,” Gaither said.
One relative also made a lasting impact on the district through her professional career.
“My Aunt Lillie taught in the Van Buren School District for 45 years, Gaither said.”
Now 105 and living in Texas, Gaither’s mother Bess met his father, Walter William, near the family’s farm in the 1920s. Originally from Searcy, Walter, nicknamed “Gait,” was working as part of the crew constructing Arkansas 59 in Crawford County. Bess contracted with the team’s foreman to provide food for the men each day. Gait and Bess were wed in 1927 and later gave birth to son William, along with his older sister Barbara, and younger sibling Judy.
In recent years, large portions of the land have been sold or used for civic projects. Just south of the new school site sits Walmart, Lowe’s, and the aptly named Legacy Park subdivision, all of which were at one point part of the Gaithers’ holdings. The family chose the name Legacy in honor of their family’s deep-rooted ties to the community. He sold the land to Walmart and Lowe’s in the early 2000s, which prompted significant growth along Arkansas 59 in the years that followed.
The recent donation is not the first time that the Gaithers have gifted land to support city and school endeavors. Their family previously gave acreage for the construction of Van Buren’s newest fire station, as well as a walking park. They also provided land for the city’s east Rena Road expansion.
Gaither said the family is proud to be able to help the growing city and school district.
“We feel so good about the community,” he said.
Now in his 80s and retired from his oral and maxillofacial surgery practice, he understands the value of quality schools and the positive impact they can have on children.
“We think a lot of education,” he said. “There were several teachers that made a tremendous difference in my life.”
Superintendent Dr. Harold Jeffcoat said VBSD is very grateful to the Gaither family and is excited to have such a historic piece of land as part of its district’s future.
“The land donated for our new elementary school is a beautiful piece of property,” Jeffcoat said. “We are very thankful for the generosity of Dr. Gaither and his wife Sharlene for allowing us the privilege of building the school on land that has been in their family for many years. We couldn’t be more pleased.”