Clinton Tourism in Arkansas: Go Along for the Ride on a 'Billgrimage'

Bill Clinton's childhood friend shows us around.

ByLiz Kreutz
November 18, 2014, 12:01 PM

— -- The first Billgrims came 10 years ago.

After the opening of the Clinton Presidential Library Nov. 18, 2004, travelers descended on Arkansas like never before. Suddenly, the state was welcoming people from all around the world who came to tour Bill Clinton’s library and, along the way, visit other historic landmarks related to the former president.

The trip became known as a “Billgrimage.”

A classic Billgrimage includes a visit to four cities in Arkansas: Hope, to see Clinton’s birthplace; Hot Springs, were he graduated high school; Fayetteville, where he and Hillary Clinton taught law; and Little Rock, the state’s capital where he was governor and that served as the launch pad for his political career.

PHOTO: Bill and Hillary Clinton are pictured on their wedding day on Oct. 11, 1975 in Fayetteville, Ark.
Bill and Hillary Clinton are pictured on their wedding day on Oct. 11, 1975 in Fayetteville, Ark.
clintonlibrary.gov

Originally, visitors were given a small “passport” by Arkansas’ tourism bureau and could get stamps at each destination they visited in the state. The passport has since been discontinued and, these days, fewer people make the entire four-stop trail. But Little Rock continues to see a huge tourism boost, largely to the presidential library, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary today.

In the past decade, its economic impact on the local community has totaled an estimated $3.3 billion, according to a new study released Monday, and longtime residents talk incredulously about the transformation they’ve seen.

PHOTO: Pictured is the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Ark.
Pictured is the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Ark.
U.S. National Archives

“Oh gosh, it’s huge,” Paul Leopoulos, a friend of Bill Clinton’s since elementary school, who had just reunited with the former president to celebrate the library’s anniversary, recalled Saturday morning at the sunlit office of his arts education foundation in North Little Rock.

“When they finally announced they were going to build it everything started to change. Businesses and hotels opened up immediately, and this was two years before the thing was even built.”

And for Richard Davies, the executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, the library was the “shot in the arm” the city needed.

PHOTO: U.S. President-elect Bill Clinton greets the crowd after his victory speech in front of the Old State House in Little Rock, Ark. on Nov. 4, 1992.
U.S. President-elect Bill Clinton greets the crowd after his victory speech in front of the Old State House in Little Rock, Ark. on Nov. 4, 1992.
Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images

For those on the Billgrimage in Little Rock, there are five must-see historic sites. These are the Governor’s Mansion, a former house of Bill and Hillary Clinton, the Capitol Building, the Old State House Museum where Clinton gave his election night speeches and, lastly, the library, which looks like a big box (or as one Billgrimage blogger described it, a trailer house), that sits prominently along the Arkansas River and houses nearly 100,000 archival documents from Clinton’s eight years in the White House.

For Joe Purvis, another childhood FOB (“Friend of Bill’s”), a Billgrimage is not complete without indulging in the local cuisine.

“I love to eat,” Purvis said, looking down upon his belly from the high-rise of his law practice in downtown Little Rock, “And I can ensure that before his heart attack, the president liked to eat as well.”

The spot to go is Doe’s Eat Place, a local favorite known for its tamales and 3-pound steaks.

“Bill Clinton, in his prime, would certainly go to Doe’s,” Purvis quipped, but questioned whether his new diet would allow him to make the visit.

A waitress there, however, said Clinton still comes in to the restaurant roughly once a year, but did concede that now as a vegan, there’s little on the menu that he can eat.

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