The tiny city that’s being transformed by America’s richest family

I grew up on the cusp of the Missouri-Arkansas border, the dividing line that separates the American Midwest from the South. My family’s weekend getaways were always taken by hopping on a northbound interstate to Kansas City or St Louis.

But that changed in 2011. When Alice Walton, billionaire heiress to the Walmart fortune, opened the region’s most iconic collection of American art in Northwest Arkansas, our attention was diverted south.

The ambitious Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art was just the beginning of a complete revitalisation of Bentonville. The Arkansas city’s modern history changed course in 1951 when Sam Walton, Alice’s father, opened Walton’s five-and-dime variety store on the town square. That empire grew to become Walmart, and the Waltons to become America’s richest family.

Crystal Bridges Art Museum (Photo: Elizabeth W. Kearley/Getty Images)
Crystal Bridges Art Museum (Photo: Elizabeth W. Kearley/Getty Images)

The retail giant’s presence is felt throughout the city. In addition to the modern art museum, it lays claim to 120 acres of surrounding Ozark forest, as well as countless buildings that constitute its corporate headquarters, alongside a Walmart Museum, and the Arvest bank on the town square.

Sam Walton’s empire was built on small town America, reflecting the values of the customers and communities he served. In a similar spirit, Alice Walton’s philanthropic foundation has donated millions to the Crystal Bridges Museum, which is free to visit, while her Art Bridges Foundation partners with small, regional cultural institutions to provide funding and artistic loans.

Sam Walton's first office, now part of the Bentonville Walmart Museum (Photo: Gilles Mingasson/Getty Images)
Sam Walton’s first office, now part of the Bentonville Walmart Museum (Photo: Gilles Mingasson/Getty Images)

While still tiny in stature, Bentonville is recognised as one of the country’s fastest-growing cities, attracting a more diverse population than surrounding urban areas; the proportion of foreign-born residents is comparable to that of Chicago and almost three times as high as the Arkansas average. It is also increasingly affluent, with the average household income double the state average. Walmart HQ employs more than one-quarter of the city’s 58,000 residents.

Coined “Waltonville”, in the past 25 years, Bentonville has been reimagined for walking and biking, with kilometres of trails that stitch together tidy neighbourhoods of family homes and swaths of manicured parks and sculpture gardens.

Two years ago, Walmart hired a director of workplace mobility, tasked with encouraging the city’s workforce to commute by bike, scooter or car pool, with a deadline of 2025.

The original five and dime store, now part of the Walton's Museum (Photo: Jb Reed/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
The original five and dime store is also part of the Walmart Museum (Photo: Jb Reed/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

It’s a city that oozes the long-forgotten American Dream, with an immaculate town square that speaks of patriotism. White picket fences and the original Walmart dime store – now part of the Walmart Museum, which will reopen later this year after extensive renovations – sit alongside hipster food trucks and contemporary art venues.

Soon after the Crystal Bridges Museum opened, our family became regular visitors to Bentonville. The city offered the kind of cultural exposure that’s hard to come by in this part of the country.

But it’s not just locals who gravitate to the vast museum. Since opening, more than 10m visitors have arrived from all over the world to see permanent works by Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell and Georgia O’Keeffe as well as temporary exhibits by emerging artists and even interactive outdoor artworks in the surrounding forest. A few years after it opened, the Bentonville Film Festival, which celebrates diversity, was launched by Geena Davis with Walmart as its founding sponsor. It now welcomes almost 100,000 visitors each June.

Alice Walton’s newest cultural venture is cheese factory-turned-contemporary and performing art space, The Momentary. It’s Crystal Bridges’ more experimental sister, hosting exhibitions on topical, hard-hitting themes by up-and-coming names in the art world. The space is multifunctional, with live music, film screenings, wellness classes, crafting workshops, lectures and more – almost all of which are free to the public.

Third-generation Waltons are shaking things up in town in a different way – Bentonville is emerging as a new hotspot for mountain bikers. Just off the town square is a branch of the upscale cycling apparel retailer, Rapha. The British brand was bought by a private equity firm belonging to Steuart and Tom Walton, grandsons of Sam, in 2017. Rapha recently entered the booming mountain biking market.

A downhill trail at Slaughter Pen mountain bike park in Bentonville (Photo: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
A downhill trail at Slaughter Pen mountain bike park in Bentonville (Photo: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

The brothers have helped fund the growing Oz Trails network of mountain biking trails that fan out from Bentonville in Ozark National Forest, a landscape of hundreds of species of trees covering more than one million acres of low-elevation rolling hills that are home to deer, armadillos, bobcats and black bears.

Out walking the nature trails one day, I stopped for a coffee at the cute, retro Meteor Cafe and was surprised to walk in on what felt like an exclusive party of butt-pad-wearing hardcore cyclists stopping for a pint after a long day on the road.

Bentonville now claims to be the “Mountain Biking Capital of the World”. In 2022, USA Cycling officially moved the Home of the US National Mountain Bike Team here from Colorado Springs.

Thousands of cyclists come to its celebrated bike trails, parks and racing events, and to the Meteor Cafe for pints on picnic benches under its green neon signage come sundown.

Despite the rapid change, Bentonville retains some of its 1950s America charm. On a hot summer night, you can nurse an old-fashioned root beer float from the 1950s ice cream parlour-inspired Spark Cafe Soda Fountain, with its inexpensive, locally made ice cream and old-fashioned jukebox.

Times move on at the Sweet Dream Creamery truck with scoops of honey goat cheese or salted Oreo ice cream overlooking children running wild in the city’s splash park. Nearby, a historic church has found a new lease of life serving New American cuisine as The Preacher’s Son restaurant. Ingredients are local and seasonal, and its chef puts a worldly spin on regional favourites – there’s grilled broccoli with tahini and peanut or a short rib with chorizo. The restaurant’s downstairs speakeasy serves local brews, such as the “Soul Shine” Kölsch from Bentonville Brewing Co. and a cream ale from the town’s Bike Rack brewery.

The Waltons’ philanthropic efforts to revitalise their hometown is a rare example of corporate promises kept. And while Bentonville doesn’t have the bright light-pull of Dallas or Memphis, this small city is one worth diverting for.

How to get there

Northwest Arkansas National Airport is around 13 miles away, and is served by flights from around the US. Connecting flights from the UK are available on airlines including Delta, American Airlines and United.

Where to stay

The 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville has doubles from £275.

More information

visitbentonville.com