Van Buren is recognized as one of Arkansas’ oldest cities, with its roots going back hundreds of years. The community began to take shape in 1818, when Thomas Phillips purchased land rights in current-day Van Buren. For a short time, the new settlement was known as Phillips Landing. With the area’s assigning of a post office and designation as county seat of Crawford County, it began to grow—both residentially and economically. It was renamed in honor of then Secretary of State Martin Van Buren and incorporated as a city in 1845.
Like much of Western Arkansas, the ravages of the Civil War devastated Van Buren and its neighbor, Fort Smith. The two young communities experienced slow growth following the war, until the coming of the railroad from Little Rock in the mid-1870s. The railroad’s presence established Van Buren as an important center for the shipment of farm products. The city continued to develop, and, together with Fort Smith, emerged as a manufacturing powerhouse in the late 1950s-early 1960s. Van Buren’s population reached more than 8,300 residents by 1970 and nearly 19,000 by 2000.
Today, Van Buren’s storied past can still be experienced through the many local sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places—including the Historic Downtown District, the Drennen-Scott House, the old train station and the King Opera House. The City’s Historic District commission works to maintain Van Buren’s historical gems and ultimately preserve the community’s rich heritage.
Native Son: Bob “Bazooka” Burns
Van Buren’s most well-known resident, Bob “Bazooka” Burns was born Robin Burn in 1890 in the nearby community of Greenwood. At age three, Bob and the Burn family relocated to Van Buren, where Bob honed his musical skills. Before the age of 12, Burns was already playing the trombone and cornet in Van Buren’s Queen City Silver Cornet Band, and, by 13, he was performing in his own string band. It was during this band’s practice that he discovered a new instrument. Burns blew into a length of gas pipe, which gave off a unique sound. A few modifications later and Burns invented the “bazooka”—a name that came from the word “bazoo,” meaning a windy fellow.
In 1909, Burns enrolled in engineering studies at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, but his love of performing proved too much and he soon dropped out. He joined a traveling vaudeville show in 1911, and over the next 19 years was employed in a number of odd jobs. Burns joined the U.S. Marine Corps during World War I, where he became the leader of the USMC Jazz Band in Europe.
In 1930, Burns went to Hollywood to audition for a low-budget movie, accepting a contract as a movie extra. He quickly switched gears when he auditioned with one of L.A.’s largest radio stations. A successful audition led to the creation of his character, “Soda Pop,” on an afternoon radio show called The Fun Factory.
A trip to New York proved to be life-changing, as Burns received a nod to audition on radio showman Paul Whiteman’s coast-to-coast radio show. The show put him on the map, and soon he was appearing as a regular guest star on Rudy Vallee’s well-known radio show as well.
After a one-year stint in New York, Burns returned to L.A. to join Bing Crosby on NBC’s Kraft Music Hall radio show. It didn’t take long for Burns to break into the movie industry, earning his first part in a full-length picture by 1936. Several more movies followed, and by 1947, Burns retired from show business, retreating to his 500-acre ranch in the San Fernando Valley. It was here that Burns lived out his last 10 years working his land. He died on February 2, 1956 and is commemorated in an exhibit located at the Old Frisco Depot.