Bauxite Teeth display.

Bauxite Museum and Teeth

Field review by the editors.

Bauxite, Arkansas

If not for the now-ghost town of Bauxite, America might have lost World War II, and it definitely would be smiling less without fluoride in its toothpaste.

Aluminum evening gown.
Aluminum evening gown.

Bauxite was a bounty-from-beneath-the-earth boomtown, similar in its rapid rise and fall to pop-up cities such as Tombstone and Pithole. But Bauxite differed from its predecessors in that it didn't have gunslingers, gamblers, and pleasure girls -- it had Scout troops, Shriners, and a high school sports teams named the Miners (This family-friendly ideal is captured in the Bauxite Miner Family Statue on the museum front lawn).

"I'm a lifelong resident of this community," said Melba Shepard, curator of the Bauxite Museum. "Bauxite was a great place to grow up. The perfect little mining town."

Bauxite was a company town of ALCOA, and by 1943 it had a population of over 20,000, most of them in some way involved in mining the town's namesake mineral -- six million tons of it that year alone. "Bauxite was the Aluminum Capital of the World," said Melba, and the only producer of pig aluminum on the North American continent. The aluminum smelted from Bauxite's bauxite was turned into the bombers and fighter planes that beat the Nazis and Imperial Japan.

That's where the fluoride comes in. The museum's most memorable display -- at least for us -- is its Bauxite Teeth,, a set of brown stained-and-streaked dentures and molars that Melba lamented as "a total turn-off." Smelting bauxite into aluminum requires adding fluoride, and apparently the excess found its way into the town's drinking water. Bauxite's citizens grew alarmed when their teeth began turning brown, but dentists quickly discovered that the ugly teeth were extremely strong -- far stronger than those of people who didn't drink Bauxite's water. This led to the addition of fluoride into toothpastes (in amounts too small to cause stains).

Bauxite beauties.
Bauxite beauties.

Another special item in the museum is its nearly unique -- there's only one other in the world -- aluminum evening gown. Bankrolled by ALCOA in 1956, designed by Jean Desses of Paris, its estimated value was over $20,000. It was not made for the girls of Bauxite (not even those in the museum's "Bauxite Beauties" display), but for national beauty queens, to be worn at events where it was sure to attract publicity. "The company had a thought to branch out into clothing," said Melba, but the women who modeled the dress condemned it as one of the hottest, heaviest, and most uncomfortable things they'd ever worn.

Much of the museum tries to convey what life was like in the heyday of Bauxite. The high school's first electric typewriter shares equal billing with a gaudy posters from the movie theater and handbills for the Lions Club's minstrel shows. There are helmets and lunch pails used by the miners, and a display on the town's three minority enclaves: Little Africa, Little Italy, and Mexico Camp. Sports trophies and photos of high school graduating classes make it seem as if Bauxite could have thrived forever....

But Bauxite was a company town, and when the company decided it had all the bauxite it needed, it simply tore the town down -- stores, churches, banks, and houses -- and sent most of the people away. Those few that remained took over the Community Hall and opened it as the Bauxite Museum in 1986. Today, Bauxite has lots of green space, a population of 432 (according to its welcome sign), and a core group of volunteers at the Bauxite Museum, happy to tell its story even if it means having to once again gaze upon the indestructible Bauxite Teeth. "I just think they're so ugly," said Melba. "They really are."

Bauxite Museum and Teeth

Bauxite Historical Association Museum

Address:
6707 Benton Rd, Bauxite, AR
Directions:
I-30 exit 123. Drive south on Hwy 183 for five miles to the Bauxite Post Office on the left. Turn left at the Museum sign onto School St. Drive one block and you'll see the museum on the right.
Hours:
W 10-2, Su 1:30-4, or by appt (Call to verify)
Phone:
501-557-9858
Admission:
Donations accepted.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Bauxite Miner Family StatueBauxite Miner Family Statue, Bauxite, AR - < 1 mi.
World's Only Building Made of BauxiteWorld's Only Building Made of Bauxite, Benton, AR - 4 mi.
Meals Served by Model TrainMeals Served by Model Train, Little Rock, AR - 17 mi.
In the region:
Bill Clinton Behind Bars, Little Rock, AR - 18 mi.

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August 23, 2019

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