- Associated Press - Monday, May 29, 2017

PINE BLUFF, Ark. (AP) - The owner of the Martha Beall Mitchell Museum says he plans to sell it after 40 years, citing fatigue with keeping it up. Bob Abbott, a local businessman who purchased Mitchell’s childhood home in 1976 and turned it into a museum, said he’s soliciting buyers he hopes will continue to operate it as a museum.

“I’ve had (the house) all these years, we’ve had thousands of people to go through that thing,” Abbott told the Pine Bluff Commercial (https://bit.ly/2qU0KeB ). “But you know I’m just wore out. My intentions, I hope, will be to find someone to keep it as a museum.”

Born in 1918 in Pine Bluff, Mitchell was married to President Richard Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell. A well-known socialite in Washington, D.C., she rose to prominence during the Watergate scandal for her willingness to speak to the press about the administration’s corruption. Mitchell was dogged during the scandal by rumors in the media that she was in and out mental hospitals.

In a televised interview with British journalist David Frost, Nixon later identified Mitchell as one of the reasons for his downfall.

“If it hadn’t been for Martha, there’d have been no Watergate, because John (Mitchell) wasn’t mindin’ that store,” Nixon said. “He was practically out of his mind about Martha in the spring of 1972. He was letting (Jeb Stuart) Magruder and all these boys, these kids, these nuts run this thing. The point is that if John had been watchin’ that store, Watergate would never have happened.”

Abbott, an admirer of Mitchell’s and a longtime collector of historical artifacts, said he had made arrangements to purchase Mitchell’s childhood home at 902 West Fourth Avenue when she passed away over Memorial Day weekend in 1976.

“I didn’t buy the house to make a museum,” Abbott said. “But when she died and was buried here, every major newspaper swarmed (to town). ABC, NBC, CBS, educational TV, freelance people wanted to go through the house. And I hadn’t really even cleaned up the house.”

The house was formerly owned by Mitchell’s maternal grandparents Sallie Culp and Calvin McFadden Ferguson, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Bushes around the house, which dates to 1887, had grown up to the second floor at the time of Mitchell’s death, Abbott said. A local insurance agent Abbott knew asked if it would be alright if he sent someone over to mow the yard.

The Rev. Richie Hegwood plays guitar during a recent prayer event held at the PB Convention Center.

“Then I understood why,” Abbott said. “People were swarming the house the next day. Once I realized all these newspaper people were here, I thought I might as well just turn it into a museum.”

Abbott got the house placed on the National Register of Historic Places shortly after - “It was certainly old and historical,” he said - and operated it as a museum for the next four decades. Inside are artifacts from Mitchell’s life, including her wedding dress, two portraits of Mitchell by artist Gloria Schumann, who painted official portraits of Nixon and his cabinet, and national magazines and newspapers such as “Time” and “Life” that featured Mitchell.

During and after Watergate, Mitchell’s claims about the administration were publicly questioned, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. She claimed to have been drugged and imprisoned in a California hotel room to keep her quiet. Her estranged husband, John Mitchell, was later sentenced to 19 months in federal prison for his role in the scandal. Mental health professionals later coined the phrase, “The Martha Mitchell Effect,” for an experience in which a patient is accurately describing seemingly hallucinatory symptoms that are not believed by clinicians.

In 1978, a stretch of U.S. 65 crossing northern Pine Bluff was renamed the Martha Mitchell Expressway. In 1981 a bust of Mitchell was installed on the grounds of the Pine Bluff Civic Center with the inscription, “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”

Her childhood home has attracted schoolchildren, weddings and other events and organization, and Abbot said he’s never charged admission.

“I’ve always felt good about that,” he said. “I’ve seen as many as three tours pull up at one time. That’s pretty neat.”

Abbott said he’s asking $129,000 for the house. It’s cost him about $2,500 a year to maintain the yard, he said, and he expects that if it continues as a museum the new owners may charge. He’s been in contact with potential buyers from Savannah, Georgia, who have experience in operating historic properties. Some have suggested converting the home into a bed and breakfast, but he said that would be difficult with the frequency of passing trains.

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Information from: Pine Bluff Commercial, https://www.pbcommercial.com

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