The Chaffee Barbershop Museum in Fort Smith, Arkansas, doesn’t look like very much from the outside.
In fact, it’s located inside the original Camp Chaffee Barbershop. But the locals know it - and they love it - as the place where Elvis Presley got his first Army buzz cut on March 25, 1958. Every year since, the museum has celebrated the anniversary of that moment.
It was on that day - Mach 25, 1958 - that Elvis, one of the most popular recording artists of all time, decided to join the Army and had his head shaved. It has been reported that the widow of the barber who cut Elvis’ hair, James Petersen, still has the pair of clippers that were used and that another barber from the area still owns the chair he sat in. Mr. Petersen’s son, Jimmy Don Petersen, is also a barber. He gives buzz cuts to patrons of the Elvis Haircut Day celebration held each year around March 25. Growing in popularity, members of Elvis fan clubs and Elvis fans from around the region trek to the museum for a 50’s style festival.
The museum has been restored over the years so that it now looks just like it did on the day that Elvis walked through its doors. The idea was inspired by a local 5th grade elementary class who were studying a unit on money. They held fundraisers and presented a check to the FCRA for more than $1500 because they believed the barbershop represented history worth preserving.
The museum’s curator has collected items authentic to the period and rare photographs from Elvis’ stay in the town and put all of these pieces on display using various themes exhibits. In addition to all of the Elvis-related materials, the Chaffee Barbershop Museum houses artifacts recording military and refugee history from 1941 to the present.
The barrack-style building that houses the Chaffee Barbershop Museum sits in the middle of the Camp Chaffee Tank Destroyer Battalion Historic District, which was added to the National Register of HIstoric Places in 2011. It’s a strange sort of museum district, with just about every structure being worthy of inclusion in Atlas Obscura, that includes an enchanted wedding chapel; an enchanted doll museum, displaying a privately-owned collection of more than 5,000 dolls from all over the world; the Fort Chaffee Barracks Museum, which is based in the building where Elvis slept during his time at Fort Chaffee; the Vietnam Veterans Museum; and the Maness School House, the only structure in the area that wasn’t moved or destroyed when the Department of Defense moved in. Signatures of German P.O.W.’s can be found written in the concrete of the Manness School House porch.
The latest addition to the historical attractions to be found in the Chaffee Crossing Historic District is the McClure Amphitheater. The amphitheater was built in 1953 under the direction of the Fort Chaffee commander, Gen. George McClure. Stories collected from newspaper clippings, Fort Chaffee newsletters and former military members stationed at Fort Chaffee indicate the amphitheater arose from interesting origins. As the story goes, Col. McClure wanted to “tame” an unruly unit so he had them construct the amphitheater to handle their idle time. An article in “The Crossroads” newsletter dated June 5, 1980, indicates the unit learned the intended lesson and was known as the most disciplined unit on the base after that exercise.
In late 2010, the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority uncovered the amphitheater and commissioned a complete renovation using the original native stones and other stones unearthed from Fort Chaffee property. The resurrected structure, which seats up to 300 people, was rebuilt as closely as possible to the original design, confirmed only by one existing photograph taken in the 1950’s. Positioned high on a hillside, it provides spectacular views overlooking Ben Geren Regional Park and the City of Fort Smith. Under the management of the City Parks Department, the amphitheater can be reserved for public events. A stage with lights and electricity, water and covered concrete areas provide excellent facilities for group gatherings.
Know Before You Go
Take I-540 until you get to exit 11. Drive east on Zero St., past Ben Geren Park. Turn right at the Fort Chaffee entrance, across from the radio station. At the stop sign turn left onto Fort Smith Blvd. Cross over the train tracks and turn right at the stop sign onto Fort Chaffee Blvd. Cross the tracks again and turn right onto Ward Ave., then drive three blocks and turn left onto Terry St. The museum will be located on the left.