Archive for the ‘Traveling Arkansas’ Category

Food Hall of Fame: Take two

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

Another Arkansas Food Hall of Fame induction ceremony is in the books.

Our state has a diverse food culture that always has been a bit in the shadow of surrounding states. Thankfully, the Department of Arkansas Heritage last year chose to start the Hall of Fame to recognize restaurants, proprietors and even food-themed events.

I’m honored to be on the selection committee and to have been the master of ceremonies for the annual event the past two years. There were 450 nominations submitted this year to our website in all categories. That’s 150 more than last year, a good sign that this effort is growing.

We will induct three restaurants each year into the Hall of Fame.

The choices in our inaugural year were Jones Bar-B-Que Diner of Marianna, the Lassis Inn of Little Rock and Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales of Lake Village. I don’t think anyone on the selection committee realized it at the time, but all three of those restaurants are owned by African-Americans. I thought that was justified since blacks have contributed so much to the Arkansas food culture through the years.

The three restaurants chosen this year were Franke’s Cafeteria of Little Rock, the Venesian Inn of Tontitown and McClard’s Bar-B-Q of Hot Springs.

In 1919, C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop on Capitol Avenue in Little Rock. He built a large bakery on Third Street in 1922 and deployed a fleet of trucks nicknamed “wife-savers” that made home deliveries across the capital city. In 1924, he opened Franke’s Cafeteria near major downtown department stores. Franke’s later expanded to multiple locations across the state. There are two remaining locations, both in Little Rock. One is downtown in the Regions Bank Building and the other is on Rodney Parham Road.

The Venesian Inn is in a community that was settled by Italian immigrants who were escaping the mosquitoes and malaria of the Sunnyside Plantation in southeast Arkansas. Germano Gasparotto opened a restaurant in 1947 and later sold it to fellow Italian-Americans John and Mary Granata. The restaurant and its recipes stayed in the family through the years. The signature dish is fried chicken and spaghetti. I consider that a perfect combination of Arkansas and Italy. Visits to the Venesian Inn have been a tradition for decades of fans attending University of Arkansas football and basketball games in nearby Fayetteville. The restaurant still uses the original wooden tables installed by Gasparotto.

McClard’s history of fine barbecue dates back to 1928 when Alex and Alice McClard were running a motor court and gas station in Hot Springs. A man who had spent the night at the motor court was unable to pay his bill but offered to pay with what he claimed was the recipe for the world’s greatest barbecue sauce. The McClards had no choice but to take him up on his offer. They secured the recipe and began serving it on the goat they were selling to travelers. The goat is long gone, but the sauce is still there for beef and pork. So are fourth-generation family members.

There were nine other finalists this year. I predict that all of them will be inducted at some point. They were:

Bruno’s Little Italy of Little Rock: Italian immigrant brothers Nicola, Gennaro, Vincenzo and Giovanni Bruno all immigrated to this country from Naples through New York’s Ellis Island. They brought with them Italian recipes and cooking skills. Giovanni’s son Vince — who was known as Jimmy — was stationed at Camp Robinson during World War II and returned soon after the war ended to open his first restaurant in the Levy neighborhood of North Little Rock. He was known for spinning pizza dough in view of his customers while singing loudly. His sons Jay, Vince and Gio grew up watching their father work. There have been numerous locations through the decades, but the original recipes still are used at the current location on Main Street in downtown Little Rock.

DeVito’s of Eureka Springs: Since opening the restaurant in 1988, James DeVito has been attracting area residents and tourists with Italian cuisine, fresh trout and locally sourced ingredients. Those who go to Eureka Springs year after year tend to put DeVito’s on their list of must-visit restaurants. I know that’s the case in our family.

Dixie Pig of Blytheville: Since 1923, the Halsell family has been serving up pork barbecue with its famous “pig sandwiches” as they’re called in Blytheville. I’ve previously declared Blytheville as the barbecue capital of Arkansas, and the Dixie Pig is one of the reasons why. Ernest Halsell opened the Rustic Inn in 1923, and the Dixie Pig is a direct descendant of that restaurant. It draws barbecue enthusiasts from Arkansas, Tennessee and the Missouri Bootheel.

Doe’s Eat Place of Little Rock: George Eldridge was a pilot who frequently would fly business clients to Greenville, Miss., to eat at the original Doe’s Eat Place on Nelson Street. In 1988, he convinced the Signa family of Greenville to let him open a downtown Little Rock restaurant using the same name and concept. When Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign staff and the national media began hanging out in Eldridge’s restaurant during the 1992 campaign, the Little Rock location became more famous than the original. The private room behind the kitchen at Doe’s is the place to be for political fundraisers and meetings in the capital city.

Feltner’s Whatta-Burger of Russellville: Please don’t confuse this with that chain that’s based in Corpus Christi, Texas. Bob Feltner opened the doors of this restaurant on Thanksgiving Day in 1967. He earlier had operated other restaurants in the city, including one called the Wonder Burger. But the Whatta-Burger had staying power. Generations of Arkansas Tech University students, along with Razorback fans driving to and from Fayetteville, have kept the lines long at this classic.

Kream Kastle of Blytheville: In 1952, Steven Johns kept the menu simple. He sold hot dogs, hot dogs with chili and hot dogs with chili and onions. By 1955, however, he had added a barbecue pit and was soon serving his own “pig sandwiches.” In fact, it’s those sandwiches that put the restaurant on the map. The debate over which sandwich is better — the one at the Dixie Pig or the one at the Kream Kastle — has gone on for years. Steven’s daughter Suzanne and husband Jeff Wallace now operate the drive-in.

Neal’s Cafe of Springdale: Housed in a landmark pink building, Neal’s has become more than just a restaurant through the years. It’s a center of the community; a place that draws people together and engages them in conversation. The restaurant was opened by Toy and Bertha Neal in 1944, and the Neal family has owned the business through four generations. Local business owners meet for breakfast and discuss community issues there. At lunch and dinner, people drive from throughout northwest Arkansas for entrees such a chicken fried steak with gravy and chicken and dumplings.

Ed Walkers Drive In of Fort Smith: Anyone who grew up in Fort Smith can tell you about Ed Walker’s. It opened in 1946 and was soon thriving thanks to the car-crazy culture of the 1950s. Even the sign out front that advertises “French dipped sandwiches” is a classic. Visitors also can’t go wrong with burgers and pie in a place that harkens back to Fort Smith’s roots as a tough, blue-collar town where the food was simple and served in large portions.

White House Cafe of Camden: This is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the state. A Greek immigrant named Hristos Hodjopulas opened the White House near the railroad depot in 1907. Camden was booming in those days, and the restaurant was soon operating 24 hours a day. It just serves lunch and dinner these days. There’s everything on the menu from Southern classics to Tex-Mex food. Original furnishings remain. It’s like stepping back in time.

A new category this year was the Gone But Not Forgotten category.

The winner was Cotham’s Mercantile of Scott. Cotham’s long run ended when a fire broke out early on a Tuesday morning in May of last year. It destroyed the century-old building that hung out over Horseshoe Lake. The structure had once housed a general store that served farmers in a thriving area of cotton plantations and pecan orchards.

In 1984, the store began serving lunch and became a favorite of then-U.S. Sen. David Pryor. It was Pryor who first told me about Cotham’s in the late 1980s when I was covering Washington for the Arkansas Democrat. I made the trip to Scott for the famous hubcap burger on my next visit to Arkansas. I instantly was hooked by the place that used the motto “where the elite meet to eat.”

In 1999, Cotham’s in the City opened at the corner of Third and Victory streets near the state Capitol. The building once had housed the capital city’s first fern bar (yes, they were all the rage in the 1970s), a TGI Friday’s. During the years I spent working in the governor’s office, I made frequent walks down the hill for lunch at the Little Rock location. The menu was the same, but there’s nothing quite like sitting near farmers on the banks of an oxbow lake at Scott. There are no plans to rebuild the Scott location.

The other three finalists in the Gone But Not Forgotten category were Coy’s of Hot Springs, Jacques & Suzanne of Little Rock and Klappenbach Bakery of Fordyce.

As soon as I looked down from the podium and saw the tears in Coy Theobalt’s eyes, I knew this new category meant a great deal. Coy’s burned down in January 2009 on the eve of the thoroughbred race meet at Oaklawn Park. Theobalt grew up watching his parents operate the restaurant, which opened in 1945.

“It was seven days a week for them with no vacations,” he said. “It convinced me that I didn’t want to do it. It means a lot to our family to see that so many people have fond memories of the restaurant.”

Family members came from multiple states to see Coy’s honored. Growing up in Arkadelphia, Hot Springs was the place my family went to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and the like. My late father’s three favorite Hot Springs restaurants — Coy’s, Mrs. Miller’s and Mollie’s — are all gone.

I sometimes was allowed to tag along with my parents for anniversary dinners. When I think of Coy’s, I remember valet parking, Mountain Valley Water in big green bottles, booths with the names of certain families attached to them (I aspired to have a booth named after me one day, a goal I never achieved) and warm crackers dipped in house dressing. If it were during the Oaklawn race meet, you could expect a long wait before being seated in the restaurant at 300 Coy St., just off Grand Avenue.

With the opening of Jacques & Suzanne in 1975 atop what’s now the Regions Bank Building in downtown Little Rock, the Continental Cuisine team of Paul Bash, Ed Moore, Louis Petit and Denis Seyer set the stage for other quality restaurants such as Graffiti’s, Restaurant 1620, the Purple Cow and Alouette’s. Their former employees opened additional establishments such as Andre’s and Cafe St. Moritz.

It’s fair to say that Jacques & Suzanne took dining out in Arkansas to a new level. Arkansans accustomed to pork barbecue and fried catfish learned about escargot, caviar and souffles. The dishes were prepared by classically trained chefs, and the kitchen served as a sort of graduate school for those working there. It wasn’t an accident that Bash, Moore, Petit and Seyer won the Proprietor of the Year award during the first Arkansas Food Hall of Fame induction ceremony last year. Jacques & Suzanne closed in 1986, but its influence remains strong more than three decades later.

Often when a place that I consider an Arkansas classic closes, it’s because the owners are tired. As Theobalt noted, it’s a tough business. Klappenbach Bakery is an example of that. The bakery and restaurant, which for 36 years graced the downtown of the Dallas County seat, closed in September 2011. After iconic college football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, it was one of the best-known things to come out of Fordyce.

There are certain places that come to define a town. Klappenbach was one of those places. Norman Klappenbach was 80 and his wife Lee was 77 at the time of the closure. Son Paul, who was 47 at the time, grew up in the business and spent the seven years prior to the closure working full time there. He came in at 3 a.m. and said the 65-hour workweeks had depleted his energy. He had been unable to find an assistant baker.

When the hard-working owners of such establishments die or retire, there’s often no one to take their place. The children have no interest in long hours and limited revenues. Buyers can be hard to find, especially in rural areas that are losing population. Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.

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The end of the road

Thursday, February 22nd, 2018


We exit Newton County just north of Marble Falls on Arkansas Highway 7 and enter Boone County. It will be the final county on our Highway 7 trek.

Unlike some of the rural counties around it, Boone County has seen its population more than double since the 1960 census. There were 16,116 residents in 1960 and 36,903 in the 2010 census.

Following the Civil War, those who lived in the area asked the Arkansas Legislature to split up sprawling Carroll County. Boone County was created in April 1869 from pieces of Marion and Carroll counties. It was determined that the Missouri border would mark the county’s northern boundary.

“Although no documentation supports it, the most widely quoted belief is that the county was named for frontiersman Daniel Boone,” C.J. Miller writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “But some say the name is a misspelling of ‘boon’ because it was thought that the creation of a county would be a boon to residents. Lines drawn between residents during the Civil War often resurfaced in the new county. When the county seat was selected, it was not in the established town of Bellefonte but in the new town of Harrison, where Confederate beliefs were not as strong.

“Towns developed. Lead Hill grew up near the site of what had been Dubuque. Smelters were built to process lead from the area. With the popularity of the healing waters in Eureka Springs in Carroll County, Boone County’s Elixir Springs was promoted. The post-Reconstruction era began with the resurgence of conflict between the former Confederates and the Republicans who controlled Boone County. The ex-Confederates attempted to move the county seat from Republican-controlled Harrison to Bellefonte. After a countywide vote, it remained at Harrison.

“Lead and zinc mines began to appear. Fruit crops of peaches, pears, plums and the popular Boone County apples were grown. Cotton was a big cash crop until declining prices cut production in half.”

The coming of the Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad and the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad in the early 1900s helped open up the county to new arrivals. Lumber mills and dairy farms opened.

Meanwhile, the small black population disappeared.

Miller writes: “The African-American population, which had shown limited growth in each census since 1870, decreased from 142 in 1900 to seven in 1910. The sudden change was attributed to race riots that occurred in Harrison, which were thought to have been caused by the arrival of workers constructing the new rail line. Also, the quick conviction of a young black man for the assault of an elderly white woman brought a rapid decline in the black population of the county. Soon establishments providing higher wages for black workers closed. By the time the convicted man was hanged, most black citizens had fled the county. No black residents were listed on the 1940 census.”

The race issue has continued to plague Boone County as Thom Robb, the head of one wing of the Ku Klux Klan, calls it home.

Harrison grew from 6,580 residents in the 1960 census to 12,943 in the 2010 census. J.E. Dunlap, the publisher of the Harrison Daily Times, declared the city the “hub of the Ozarks” and relentlessly promoted it across the state.

“Harrison today is far different from how it was in the past,” Miller writes. “A levee along Crooked Creek protects downtown from flooding. The old high school houses the Boone County Historical & Railroad Society, which displays three floors of city and county history. The Brandon Burlsworth Youth Center serves children and adults. The Ozark Arts Council purchased the 1929 Lyric Theatre in 1999. Plays, classic movies, art shows and concerts are presented in the historic building. In 2011, the first liquor store to operate in Harrison since 1941 opened its doors following an election that turned the county wet.”

We take a few minutes to get out of the car and walk around the Harrison town square. We read the monuments on the grounds of the Boone County Courthouse, which was built in 1909.

The trip is nearing its end as we leave Harrison and drive north through Bergman, South Lead Hill, Lead Hill and finally Diamond City. These are all places whose fortunes changed with the construction of Bull Shoals Lake.

Bull Shoals Dam is to the east of us, at the point where the White River divides Marion and Baxter counties. But the lake has played a key role in helping Boone County grow.

“Private power companies had explored the possibility of building a dam at Wildcat Shoals above Cotter as early as 1902 but never began any work toward it,” Scott Branyan writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Congress approved the construction of six reservoirs in the White River basin in the Flood Control Act of 1938. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report in 1930 had recommended the Wildcat Shoals site along with seven others as being the most effective of 13 investigated. However, in a 1940 report, the Corps presented the Bull Shoals site as an alternative to Wildcat Shoals, where unsuitable foundation conditions had been found. This report recommended the construction of Table Rock and Bull Shoals as multipurpose reservoirs for flood control, hydropower generation and ‘other beneficial purposes,’ concluding the reservoir projects to be economically justifiable.”

The Corps of Engineers completed the construction of Norfork Dam on the North Fork River, a tributary of the White, in 1945. Many of the same workers were involved in the construction of Bull Shoals, which began in 1947.

“The dam contains 2.1 million cubic yards of concrete,” Branyan writes. “At the time of its construction, Bull Shoals Dam was the fifth largest in the country, and its powerhouse was the largest building in Arkansas. Along with its 17 spillway gates, which are 40 feet by 29 feet, there are also 16 outlet conduits that can each discharge 3,375 cubic feet per second. The flow of one of these conduits is roughly equivalent to one of the powerhouses’s eight generators running at full capacity.”

Construction of the powerhouse began in September 1950. Generation started two years later. The final two generating units were installed in 1963.

Widespread media coverage accompanied President Harry Truman’s visit to Arkansas to dedicate Bull Shoals on July 2, 1952.

“The completion of the dam and reservoir immediately began to affect the local economy,” Branyan writes. “The media coverage attracted attention to the region and resulted in the quick growth of the tourism industry. In 1940, there were only 13 businesses that provided overnight accommodations. By 1970, 300 such establishments could be found. Assessed taxable real estate values, per capita income and manufacturing payroll rose dramatically in the following decades. The area also now supports a retirement community.

“The dam put an end to long, multiday fishing floats from Branson, Mo., to Cotter. Jim Owen of the Owen Boat Line had operated a float trip business on the river for many years. Largely through Owen’s promotion, the White River garnered a reputation for excellent smallmouth bass fishing. But the new reservoir soon offered equally excellent lake fishing for a number of species as well as stocked trout below the dam. Marinas, boat businesses and fishing guide services sprang up rapidly to handle the influx of anglers.”

Before we reach the shores of the lake on Highway 7, we must pass through Lead Hill. Though it only had a population of 271 people in the 2010 census, it has a colorful history. It began as a mining town on the White River and had to be relocated to its current location when it was flooded by the lake.

“Several small smelters were established in the late 1860s, although the immediate surroundings of Lead Hill had only small deposits of lead and zinc that offered a modest return,” Steven Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “A store was established in 1868, and a water-powered mill and cotton gin were erected the same year. A second store was opened in 1869, the same year in which Boone County was established. A Masonic lodge was built in 1870 with school classes held on the first floor. Citizens filed papers to incorporate the town in 1873.”

In 1857, the Arkansas Legislature had authorized a geological survey of the state.

“Newly appointed state geologist David Dale Owen conducted a reconnaissance of north Arkansas in 1857-58, which located numerous indications of lead and zinc,” Robert Myers writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Owen found that the Independence Mining Co. of St. Louis was mining smithsonite for zinc ore at what’s now Calamine in Sharp County, making Calamine one of America’s early zinc mines. The company suspended operations during the Civil War.

“At the outbreak of the war, Confederate troops seized the rich Granby lead mines of southwest Missouri, then touted as able to provide all the lead needed for the Confederate cause. In 1861, 75,000 pounds of pig lead a month were being hauled overland to Van Buren to be shipped to the Memphis ordnance works. The loss of Missouri to the Union following the Battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas effectively meant losing this important source. The Confederate Nitre and Mining Bureau mined lead and saltpeter (an ingredient in gunpowder) in Newton, Marion, Pulaski and Sevier counties. However, these operations proved too close to enemy lines and were soon abandoned for more secure sources in Texas.

“Under Reconstruction, the development of Arkansas’ lead and zinc resources rebounded but later faltered. The American Zinc Co. renewed mining at Calamine in 1871 but soon closed. In 1882, the Carthage & Arkansas Mining Co. erected a smelter and platted the town of Boxley in Newton County. The company shipped lead from Eureka Springs, the nearest railroad point, to St. Louis. But the 95-mile wagon haul made mining cost prohibitive. The Morning Star Mine in Marion County, discovered on Rush Creek in 1880, provided a bonanza of remarkably pure zinc. … The Morning Star Mine produced a huge zinc carbonate boulder weighing 12,750 pounds that was appropriately named Jumbo. When exhibited at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Jumbo won the highest awards.”

Demand for both lead and zinc rose during World War I. Arkansas, however, didn’t benefit as much as some other states.

“Arkansas’ lead and zinc deposits were simply too limited and irregular to warrant significant industrial and infrastructure investments,” Myers writes. “Once the railroads finally extended through north Arkansas, companies experienced a series of bankruptcies and bailouts. Although lead mining ceased statewide by 1959, geologists now believe significant potential exists in north Arkansas for the discovery of deep (more than 1,500 feet) deposits of lead and zinc as the southern extension of the New Viburnum lead district in southern Missouri. The cultural legacy of lead and zinc mining includes place names such as the towns of Calamine in Sharp County, Galena in Howard County, Lead Hill in Boone County and Zinc in Boone County.”

The Kellogg Mine north of Little Rock had the state’s deepest mine shaft at 1,125 feet in 1940 when mining ended there.

Back to Lead Hill: Crippled by the Great Depression, the Bank of Lead Hill closed in 1931. Several stores, a flour mill, a cotton gin and a canning factory survived. Then came Bull Shoals.

“Some buildings were moved to higher ground, but many historic structures were abandoned and destroyed,” Teske writes. “The move occupied three years from 1949-51. The location of the new town was a hill northwest of the old town site, which was locally known as Ku Klux Hill because the Ku Klux Klan had burned a cross on that hill around 1930. Not all the relocated families and businesses chose to live at the new location of Lead Hill. South Lead Hill and Diamond City were also created at this time.”

Teske adds: “A few families chose a location a bit south of the relocated Lead Hill, and they named their town South Lead Hill. A dedication ceremony was held on March 9, 1950 to promote South Lead Hill. Free lots were offered to churches. Stores, theaters and residential areas were planned. The Baptist congregation of Lead Hill divided into two churches, one of which was built in South Lead Hill. A Pentecostal congregation built a church building between Lead Hill and South Lead Hill. The town of South Lead Hill was incorporated in 1970. The town has never had a post office. At the time of the 2010 census, the population of South Lead Hill was 102, all of whom were white.”

The last city as we head north on Highway 7 is Diamond City, which had a population of 782 in the 2010 census.

As Bull Shoals Lake began to fill, a community named Sugarloaf was formed on the site of a former settlement that had been known as Dubuque.

“Developer Henry Dietz converted the town of Sugarloaf into a second-class city in the 1960s,” Teske writes. “He succeeded in incorporating Diamond City on June 7, 1960, although Diamond City and Sugarloaf weren’t officially consolidated until May 5, 1966. Surrounded by Bull Shoals Lake on three sides (with Lead Hill to the south), Diamond City is best known from its many fishing spots. Several lakeside resorts draw tourists to the city, and the population is said to swell significantly during the fishing season.”

We stop the vehicle at the park where Highway 7 ends, walk to the shore of Bull Shoals and throw a few rocks in. We look north across the water toward Missouri and contemplate all we’ve seen on the trip up Highway 7.

Highway 7 has taken us through four of the state’s six distinct geographic areas — the Gulf Coastal Plain, the Ouachita Mountains, the Arkansas River Valley and the Ozark Mountains; everything but Crowley’s Ridge and the Delta.

From Hartwell Smith Jr. at Smith’s Liquor Store in the pine woods of Ouachita County in south Arkansas to Connie Hawks at the Hollis Country Store in the Ouachita Mountains of Perry County, we’ve visited with the type of rural Arkansans who give this state its soul. This trip has reminded us what a varied, fascinating place Arkansas is.

Reluctantly, we point our vehicle south and begin the trip home to Little Rock.

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The wilds of Newton County

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018


The business leaders of tiny Newton County thought Dogpatch USA would change everything.

Albert Raney Sr. listed his trout farm for sale in 1966. A real estate investor in Harrison named Oscar Snow found nine additional investors and went to Al Capp with the idea of a theme park based on Capp’s “Li’l Abner” comic strip. The town of Marble Falls just north of Jasper even changed its name to Dogpatch.

“Capp, who had rejected such offers in the past, agreed to be a partner in the enterprise, ” Russell Johnson writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The partners acquired 1,000 acres. … Capp spoke at the groundbreaking on Oct. 3, 1967. The cost of construction was $1,332,000. The park originally featured the trout farm, buggy and horseback rides, an apiary, Ozark arts and crafts, gift shops, entertainment by Dogpatch characters and the park’s trademark railroad. Management added amusement rides in subsequent years.

“Many of the buildings in the park were authentic 19th-century log structures purchased by board member James Schemerhorn. The logs in each building were numbered, catalogued, disassembled and reassembled at the park. In 1968, the first year of operation, general manager Schemerhorn reported that Dogpatch had 300,000 visitors. Admission was $1.50 for adults, half price for children.”

Arkansas businessman Jess Odom purchased a controlling interest in the company in 1968 and hired former Gov. Orval Faubus as the general manager.

“By 1972, Odom had bought out most of the remaining partners and built a winter sports complex called Marble Falls on the hill overlooking Dogpatch in hopes of operating the park year round,” Johnson writes. “A series of unusually warm winters, delays in delivery of snowmaking equipment, rising interest rates, the Arab oil embargo and the end of the ‘Li’l Abner’ comic strip due to Capp’s retirement in 1977 combined to drive expenses up and revenues down. In order to keep the ski resort open, Odom used Dogpatch assets to secure loans at unfavorable interest rates. Although Dogpatch made a profit in all but two years of operation, it could not overcome the burden of the Marble Falls debt.”

Dogpatch declared bankruptcy in November 1980. Wayne Thompson’s Ozark Entertainment Inc. purchased the theme park but not Marble Falls and operated Dogpatch from 1981-87 before selling it to Melvin Bell. The high-flying Bell, who died in 2006 at age 68, was buying up properties across the state at the time — everything from Magic Springs at Hot Springs to the Red Apple Inn at Heber Springs. In November 2001, Bell was indicted by a federal grand jury for tax evasion. The trial was delayed repeatedly because of Bell’s health problems. The case was dismissed two months before Bell died.

Business at Dogpatch continued to decline as more and more people elected to go to nearby Branson, Mo. The park’s final season was 1993.

It has since become a ghost town covered with weeds, bushes and trees. In December, an owner of the property, Charles “Bud” Pelsor, said it had been leased to a new group headed by David Hare, who announced in a video posted on social media outlets that he would create the Heritage USA Ozarks Resort.

Pelsor told The Associated Press: “They don’t want to destroy the image of Dogpatch and piss people off. It will be a theme park. It will not be a thrill park. And it will be family friendly.”

Pelsor and a business partner had hoped to turn the site into what they termed an “ecotourism village” with artists, restaurants and a creek stocked with trout.

The new Heritage USA isn’t connected with the theme park of the same name that televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker once operated at Fort Mill, S.C., just south of Charlotte, N.C.

In the video, Hare said: “We’re your conservative entertainment company. Really, we’re your American entertainment company.”

With the park having been closed for so long, locals understandably are wary. But the Heritage USA Facebook page is filled with photos of improvements that have taken place lately.

Dogpatch faded from the scene, but the designation of the Buffalo National River and the reintroduction of elk to the county did more than the continued existence of the theme park could have ever done. Neither the national river designation nor the reintroduction of elk came without lots of criticism in a county where private property rights are considered sacred.

The Civilian Conservation Corps constructed what became known as Buffalo River State Park along the river in 1938, and Lost Valley State Park was added in 1966. The National Park Service later would take over those areas.

“The river’s hydroelectric potential was also appreciated,” Suzie Rogers of the National Park Service writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “With the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers included the Buffalo River in its planning for a system of dams on the White River. Two potential dam sites eventually were selected on the Buffalo, one on the lower portion of the river near its mouth and one at its middle just upstream from the town of Gilbert in Searcy County.

“The continual threat of a dam on the Buffalo caught the attention of Arkansas conservation groups and those who had begun using the river for recreation or simply appreciated the free-flowing river as a spectacular natural resource for the state. In the early 1960s, advocates for the dams and advocates for a free-flowing stream formed opposing organizations. The pro-dam Buffalo River Improvement Association, established by James Tudor of Marshall, and the anti-dam Ozark Society, which included environmentalist Neil Compton, emerged as the leading players in the drama.

“The dam proponents worked with the Corps of Engineers and 3rd District Congressman James Trimble. The free-flowing stream advocates made overtures to the Department of the Interior. In 1961, a National Park Service planning team undertook a site survey of the Buffalo River area. The team was favorably impressed and recommended the establishment of a park on the Buffalo River to be called a ‘national river.’ A decade of political maneuverings, speeches and media attention — including a canoe trip on the Buffalo by Supreme Court Justice William O Douglas — came to a head in December 1965 when Gov. Orval Faubus wrote the Corps of Engineers that he could not support the idea of a dam on the Buffalo River. The Corps withdrew its proposal for a dam.”

Proponents of obtaining a National Park Service designation received an unexpected gift in the fall of 1966 when John Paul Hammerschmidt, a Republican business owner from Harrison, defeated Trimble. Hammerschmidt joined forces with the state’s two Democratic senators, J. William Fulbright and John L. McClellan, to introduce legislation in 1967. Final legislation was introduced in 1971, and hearings took place that fall. Congress approved the bill in February 1972, and the Buffalo National River became a reality.

“Park acreage, boundaries and special considerations were written into the legislation,” Rogers writes. “Total acreage could not exceed 95,730 acres. Hunting and fishing were allowed as a traditional use. Many permanent residents had an option of use and occupancy up to 25 years. Landowners in the three private-use zones of Boxley Valley, Richland Valley and the Boy Scout camp at Camp Orr could choose to sell easements to the government instead of selling the land outright.

“The first park management staff — the park superintendent, a chief ranger and a secretary — arrived in 1972 and took up temporary office quarters in Harrison. Eventually the park was divided into three management districts with staff in each district. Besides setting up park facilities and developing programs, the staff also had to face the emotional turmoil in the community regarding the disruption of life for the Buffalo River residents, whether they were willing or unwilling sellers.”

Land use battles continue along the river to this day. In April of last year, an organization known as American National Rivers ranked the Buffalo among the country’s 10 most endangered rivers due to the threat of pollution from hog farms in the Buffalo River watershed.

People ranging from Oklahoma oil and gas executives to Arkansas automobile moguls now build second homes in Newton County. Others rent cabins.

Horseshoe Canyon, a nationally recognized dude ranch operated by Barry and Amy Johnson, has become a favorite spot for rock climbers from around the world.

Ponca-based Buffalo Outdoor Center also has gained a reputation. Mike Mills started BOC as a canoe rental operation in 1976, just four years after the national river designation. That business now also has a large store, modern log cabins, a lodge, zip lines and more.

There’s fine dining in the form of Nick Bottini’s Low Gap Cafe, which is between Mount Sherman and Ponca. The restaurant is packed on weekends in the spring, summer and fall.

“My grandfather and mother were full-blood Sicilian,” Bottini told Arkansas Living magazine. “I learned from them. … I studied five years at culinary school in New York. Then I went back to California, bounced around at various restaurants and resorts and eventually ended up in Arkansas after visiting relatives and falling in love with the state.”

There also are the various artisanal products that come from Newton County. One example is the honey harvested by Eddie Watkins for his Buffalo River Honey Co. I don’t claim to be a honey connoisseur, but it’s the best I’ve tasted.

As far as the elk, the U.S. Forest Service brought Rocky Mountain elk to Franklin County’s Black Mountain Refuge in 1933. Three bulls and eight cows were transported from the Wichita National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. These elk were themselves transplants, having come to Oklahoma from Wyoming. The Arkansas herd increased to almost 200 elk by 1950s and then disappeared. Poaching, no doubt, played a role in the herd’s demise.

Elk were native to Arkansas, though the eastern subspecies that roamed the region already was dwindling by the time Arkansas became a state in 1836. There were reminders that Arkansas once had been a state where elk roamed freely. The Elkhorn Tavern was a landmark during the Civil War battle at Pea Ridge. One of the oldest banks in the state was Elk Horn Bank & Trust Co. in my hometown of Arkadelphia.

In the late 1700s, elk could be found as far south and east as northern Alabama.

Too much hunting and the loss of habitat meant the end of the Arkansas elk herd by the 1840s. The eastern elk is now extinct.

During his first year in the governor’s office in 1979, Bill Clinton named Hilary Jones of Newton County to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. Jones, an avid elk hunter who made regular trips to Colorado, thought elk could survive along the Buffalo River. In 1971, the state of Arkansas entered into an agreement with the state of Colorado to trade elk for Arkansas fish. Jones recruited friends to take trailers to Colorado and bring the Rocky Mountain elk back.

In the years that followed, seven elk from Nebraska’s Sand Hills also were brought to Arkansas. The first elk calf was born in the state in 1982. In the winter of 1985, local volunteers raced winter storms to bring back seven loads containing 74 additional elk. They were transported in cattle trailers lined with sheets of plywood.

The elk brought to Arkansas in the early 1980s were released in the Pruitt area near Highway 7. Much of the herd migrated through the years to the Boxley Valley near Ponca.

In 2002, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission established the Ponca Elk Education Center just across the road from the Buffalo Outdoor Center headquarters. Housed in a log building, the center has displays of elk and other wildlife, photographs, a meeting room and a gift shop. There are also picnic tables and restrooms. On Highway 7 in Jasper, just north of the bridge over the Little Buffalo River, the Hilary Jones Wildlife Museum and Elk Information Center also offers a place for visitors to stop.

Arkansas elk now range over about 225,000 acres. In addition to Newton and Searcy counties, elk have been reported through the years in Washington, Carroll, Boone, Marion, Stone, Conway, Pope and even Faulkner counties. Efforts to improve elk habitat have included prescribed burns and the establishment of native grass openings. Unlike the 1950s, the Arkansas elk herd appears here to stay.

Only six Arkansas counties have fewer residents than Newton County. Three are in the pine woods of south Arkansas — Calhoun, Lafayette and Dallas counties. Two are in the Delta — Woodruff and Monroe counties. One is next door in the Ozarks — Searcy County.

The Newton County seat of Jasper had only 466 residents in the 2010 census. Jasper has been the county seat since 1843. Sawmills there employed hundreds of men in the late 1800s and early 1900s as oak was harvested in the surrounding mountains to be used in stave mills and cedar was harvested for pencil mills.

The current courthouse on the Jasper square was completed in 1942 as a Works Progress Administration project. Highway 7 from Harrison to Jasper was finally paved in the 1950s.

The locals still gather for breakfast and lunch at the Ozark Cafe on the square, which has been around since 1909. It’s part of the Jasper Commercial Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The restaurant has expanded through the years to include parts of three buildings.

“This is the kind of place where regulars have their own tables and waitresses know what some patrons are going to order before the customer even sits down,” Julianna Goodwin wrote last year for The News-Leader at Springfield Mo. “The menus are printed on newsprint, and the restaurant is decked out in vintage signs and black-and-white photos. There are photos from all over Newton County representing different founding families and different moments in the town’s history.”

The restaurant has had 14 sets of owners during its 109 years. There’s often live music on Saturday nights. The Ozark Cafe is open from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. seven days a week.


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Russellville to Jasper

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018


After breakfast at the Old South in Russellville, we head north on Arkansas Highway 7 to Dover.

If Arkansans think of Dover at all, it’s often to remember that awful week in December 1987 when Ronald Gene Simmons killed 14 members of his family before driving to Russellville and killing two more people.

I was the Washington correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat at the time but was back in Arkansas for the holidays, working out of the downtown newsroom. I have vivid memories of the phone ringing each time a new body was found. We kept a body count in the newsroom as we planned the next day’s edition. It was a dark day in Arkansas.

A later memory of Dover is much more benign. Our youngest son’s high school basketball team was in the same district as Dover. When we would play games there, a big ol’ country boy would scream out “Dover!” and the home crowd would answer “Pirates!”

Dover once was the county seat of Pope County. It became the county seat in 1841, and the county seat remained there until moving to Russellville in 1887.

We’re entering the Ozark Mountains now, and the sometimes rough history of this area isn’t always pretty.

“Following a series of murders of county officials after the Civil War, two federal companies were stationed in the area to reinstate order,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Arkansas Encyclopedia of History & Culture. “The troops left two years later. In 1872, however, violence once again flared up, and John H. Williams formed a militia to clamp down on the unrest. Ongoing murders and shootouts led to the entire county being placed under martial law. This period of Reconstruction-era violence, known today as the Pope County Militia War, did not end until early 1873.

“In the 1870s, Dover was home to 31 African-Americans. The following census showed only 11. Eventually the city became a sundown town — a place where African-Americans were prevented from residing, usually by threats of violence. According to one local history, a large part of Pope County went sundown after ‘a Negro tried to rape a white woman,’ following which ‘all Negroes were given an ultimatum to move south of the railroad or suffer the consequences.’ Some sources later reported a sign outside of Dover warning black people to stay away.”

We head north out of Dover and soon pass what remains of the Booger Hollow tourist trap, which has been closed for years. We stop at the U.S. Forest Service’s Rotary Ann overlook and rest area. It’s named for the Rotary Club women’s auxiliary in Russellville, whose members established the first roadside rest stop in the state at this location in the 1930s.

It’s cloudy and windy with temperatures in the 30s. It feels as if there could be snow flurries at any minute even though it’s still November.

Noted Arkansas food and travel expert Kat Robinson writes: “The term Rotary Ann comes from two women. One was Ann Brunier, who traveled with her husband from San Francisco to Houston for a Rotary Club convention in 1914. She was the only woman on the train headed to the conference, and by the time the couple disembarked, everyone was calling her Rotary Ann. Ann Gundaker of Philadelphia was also at the event with her husband, and by the time it was over, she too was known as Rotary Ann. The name stuck, and the ladies’ auxiliary membership for the Rotary Club went by the Rotary Anns up until the 1980s.

“The auxiliary members in Russellville saw a desperate need for a place to stop along the route, not only because of the need for sanitary bathroom facilities but also to give drivers a place to take in some of the amazing views of the Arkansas Ozarks. They encouraged development with the Rotary Club, and in the 1930s a scenic overlook with places to park was created along Highway 7. It was the first rest stop in the state, and it should be around a good, long time. In 2004, the stop was reopened after a year-long renovation and upgrade. Today it includes an unmanned restroom for men and women, interpretive panels, rail-guarded overlooks and picnic tables along with lanes allowing for small-vehicle and bus parking.

“Highway 7 received its Scenic Byway status in 1994 at one of the last high points of tourism in the area. That happened to be the last year Dogpatch USA was open, and new developments around the state were already drawing away travelers. Upgrades to U.S. Highway 65 to the east and plans to create an interstate through northwest Arkansas to the west were already under way. Traffic dwindled. Businesses faded. Yet Rotary Ann has been there through the decades.”

Kat is right. This part of Highway 7 is long past its peak as a draw for tourists. Booger Hollow isn’t the only former attraction that’s closed. You can spot old buildings all up and down this route that once catered to tourists.

We press on following a short stop, winding our way through the mountains and looking for snowflakes as we pass through the small communities of Pelsor, Lurton and Cowell. We’re in Newton County now. Though we’re still full from breakfast in Russellville, we determine that a stop for pie and coffee at the Cliff House Inn, which is six miles south of Jasper, is de rigueur for anyone traveling this stretch of Highway 7.

The restaurant and inn are open from March 15 until November 19.

Here’s how the Cliff House website describes the history of what has become a Highway 7 landmark: “In early 1960, Kenneth and Fern Carter were driving along Highway 7 on a Sunday afternoon. Kenneth stopped the truck, got out and walked through the tree line of the land that overlooked the valley that’s now known as Arkansas’ Grand Canyon. When Kenneth came back, he mumbled something as he was getting back in the truck.

“Fern asked him what he said. He repeated, ‘I’m going to build a motel right here on this spot.’

“Kenneth bought the land and in February 1964 started the process of building the Cliff House Inn. To prepare the land for building, Kenneth had to use dynamite to blast away part of the mountain to build the motel rooms. When he blasted, a section of Highway 7 had to be closed to traffic. His mother, known as Granny, stopped traffic by waving a red flag and yelling ‘fire in the hole!’ You can still see some of the holes down by the motel rooms that were drilled for dynamite but not used.

“The Cliff House Inn opened May 27, 1967, as a gift shop and five-unit motel. Ken and Fern’s son Jim and his wife Joyce managed the Cliff House for a short time. Kenneth sold the Cliff House to the McNutts about a year later. The McNutts owned it for a year and then sold it to Bob and Francis McDaniel. The McDaniels added a house, kitchen and small dining room to the building in the mid-1970s. Mrs. McDaniel wanted a signature pie to offer her dinners. She introduced the company’s comin’ pie, which is still served at the Cliff House today.

“The McDaniels sold the Cliff House to Jim Berry from New York. Jim expanded the size of the dining room. … Jim sold the Cliff House to Neal and Karen Heath from Monroe, La. During their ownership, a tornado hit the building in 2001. The dining room was destroyed. The Heaths rebuilt the dining room with the improvements you see today. In 2006, the Heaths sold the Cliff House to Mike and Becky McLaurin from Shreveport. The McLaurins added the lower redwood deck that motel guests now enjoy and remodeled the motel rooms. They also added seafood and steaks to the menu.”

Newton County is one of the least-populated counties in Arkansas with only 8,330 residents in the 2010 census. The county’s population peaked in the 1900 census with 12,538 residents. By 1960, it was down to just 5,963. It has rebounded some as tourism has increased due to the Buffalo River receiving the first national river designation from the National Park Service and the introduction of elk to the county by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission.

Writing for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, C.J. Miller describes Newton County as “mountainous, rural and isolated. The land, once respected and protected by Native Americans, has come full circle with a large portion being protected by the U.S. Department of the Interior. … The area, rich with game and timber, is watered by the Big and Little Buffalo rivers. Until 1808, the Osage claimed the region, and between 1818 and 1828 the land was part of a reservation granted to the Western Cherokee. The county was part of Carroll County when that county was created in 1833, and white settlers quickly moved in. A block of marble taken from a hillside near present-day Marble Falls was used to help build the Washington Monument. Although Jasper appeared on maps in 1840, it wasn’t incorporated until 1896.

“The Legislature created Newton County on Dec. 14, 1842, naming it after U.S. Marshal Thomas Willoughby Newton. After beginning his career as a mail carrier and serving as U.S. marshal for Arkansas, Newton was elected to serve in Congress after the resignation of Archibald Yell. John Belleh’s house on Shop Creek was designated the county seat until the designation was given to Jasper in 1843. The county had 10 post offices by 1856.

“The terrain made the area unattractive to land speculators, which was encouraging to people who couldn’t afford land in other parts of the state. … The difficulty in farming the rough terrain resulted in farms being located along the rivers. In 1850, there were 51 slaves in the county. By 1860, that number had decreased to 24.”

With so few slave owners, there were strong Union sympathies in the county.

“Farming changed little after Reconstruction,” Miller writes. “Smaller farms were prevalent while larger farms existed near the rivers. Potatoes, apples and peaches supplemented the main crop, corn. Cotton provided the cash crop for the Buffalo River valley. Lumber camps developed. Whether for added income or personal use, the production of moonshine made use of the surplus corn. A legend was born as Beaver Jim Villines became known for his trapping ability. Visitors went to Marble Falls and Tom Thumb Spring for the water’s healing power.”

The population decline began soon after the turn of the century, and isolated Newton County seemed to be a place stuck in the past. Population began to tick back up in the 1970s as the back-to-the-land movement brought new residents (locals simply referred to them as hippies) and Dogpatch USA, which had opened in 1968, increased in popularity. The Buffalo National River designation in 1972 brought thousands of new visitors. Elk were introduced in the early 1980s.

This is the heart of the Arkansas Ozarks.

“At up to 2,600 feet, the Boston Plateau, usually referred to as the Boston Mountains because of its ruggedness, is the highest of the Ozark Mountains,” Tom Foti writes for the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. “It extends as a belt across the southernmost Ozarks, generally parallel to and to the north of Interstate 40. Typical rock types are sandstone and shale. Although the elevation of the mountains is similar, the highest are in and near Newton County. The elevation there causes higher precipitation and lower temperatures than elsewhere in the Ozarks. Streams are generally small, and the headwaters of many of the well-known streams of the Ozarks occur in the Boston Mountains, including the White, Buffalo, Kings, Mulberry, Big Piney and Little Red.

“In most areas of the Boston Mountains, oak and hickory forest predominate while warm, south-facing slopes on sandstone have extensive areas dominated by shortleaf pines. The cool, moist conditions of protected ravines, particularly in the highest mountains, support forests with beech or sugar maple that are of limited extent elsewhere in the Ozarks. The ruggedness of the Boston Plateau has limited people’s ability to develop the region for agriculture, transportation, urbanization or other uses. Croplands and pastures are concentrated in wider valleys or on level mountaintops. Towns are few and generally small. … Roads typically are narrow, winding and steep. The Butterfield Overland Mail route once crossed the region, but this segment was notoriously difficult.”

Foti describes the area as the one that best typifies “the view of the Ozarks as rugged and beautiful but with little potential for economic development. Poor transportation and a limited economy fostered the isolated, self-sufficient mountaineer lifestyle often associated with the Ozarks. Much of the Boston Mountain region is forested today with a large part of the area in the Ozark National Forest. Highways such as Arkansas Highway 23 in Franklin and Madison counties and Arkansas Highway 7 in Pope and Newton counties still follow their traditional winding routes. They are, however, renowned for their scenic vistas.”

President Teddy Roosevelt signed a proclamation creating the Arkansas National Forest on Dec 18, 1907. On March 6, 1908, he signed a proclamation creating the Ozark National Forest from land north of the Arkansas River. The land south of the river became the Ouachita National Forest. The first Ozark National Forest headquarters was at Fort Smith. The headquarters later moved to Harrison, and then it moved to Russellville in 1918. The forest supervisor in Russellville now also must administer the St. Francis National Forest on Crowley’s Ridge in east Arkansas.

It might be small from a population standpoint, but Newton County is a special place. In fact, we’ll get off Highway 7 for a time on this day in order to view the elk in the Boxley Valley.

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Ola to Russellville

Friday, February 9th, 2018


We cross the Petit Jean River just north of Ola as we make our way north on Arkansas Highway 7.

Several creeks come together in Scott County to form this river, which eventually empties into the Arkansas River about 115 miles east of where it starts.

“The Petit Jean River has never developed into a major transportation corridor, though the steamship Danville did progress up it in 1840, lending its name to the city of Danville, which was laid out the following year,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Danville remains the largest community established along the river. In 1879, a 100-foot bridge over the Petit Jean River was constructed at Danville. During the 1890s, the Choctaw Railroad constructed a line linking Little Rock with the town of Howe in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). This line crossed the Petit Jean River at Danville. The development of the railroad led to the growth of the timber industry along the river.”

We’re downstream from Danville on this day.

Upstream from Danville, work began in 1940 on a dam constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Work halted in 1942 as World War II drew government resources away from civilian projects,” Lancaster writes. “Work picked up again after the war, and the dam was completed in June 1947. The resulting reservoir is known as Blue Mountain Lake and is a popular local attraction.”

We’ve left the Ouachita Mountains now and entered the Arkansas River Valley, one of the six natural divisions in the state.

“The broad bottomlands along the Arkansas River, sometimes more than 10 miles wide, add to its distinctiveness,” Thomas Foti once wrote for the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. “The streams that flow through these Arkansas Valley plains reflect their character. They flow gently, are bordered by bottomlands and are often muddy. The Petit Jean River is the largest river to flow entirely within the valley from its head to its mouth at the base of Petit Jean Mountain. People found the Arkansas Valley to be a practical travel route and a hospitable environment to live in from the time it was populated by Native Americans, who had large villages in some areas such as Carden Bottom along the lower Petit Jean River in Yell County. … Thomas Nuttall traveled by boat up and then back down the Arkansas River in 1819, soon after the creation of Arkansas Territory, and kept a journal that described the region at that time. He provided vivid descriptions of the prairies and wooded ridges in the vicinity of Fort Smith.”

The Arkansas River Valley is filled these days with cattle pastures and chicken houses.

We’re now in Yell County, a distinctive place that the natives like to refer to as the Free State of Yell. The county was formed in December 1840 from parts of Scott and Pope counties. It was named for Gov. Archibald Yell.

“Immigrants from Tennessee and North Carolina were prominent in its early development,” Mildred Diane Gleason writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “By 1860, the population reached 6,333, of which 3.9 percent were slaves. Slavery was concentrated near Dardanelle in the bottomlands adjacent to the Arkansas River. Only three slave owners were certified as planters in 1860. Most slave owners were small farmers. The first cotton gin opened in 1838 in Riley Township near Belleville.”

And what about that Free State of Yell?

Gleason explains: “Politics has always been serious business and a form of Yell County entertainment. The county’s political mystique was enriched in 1915 during a circuit judgeship special election. The Yell County candidate, A.B. Priddy, carried the county and barely lost in the other two counties involved, and yet he won the election by 2,500 votes. It was reported that names taken from tombstones and bird dogs were recorded as voters in Yell County. Thus was born the phrase the Free State of Yell, signifying a tendency of the county to act as an independent nation.”

The sun is beginning to set as we enter Dardanelle, so we get off Highway 7 to make our way to the top of Mount Nebo. The state park store is about to close as we get the keys to our cabin, and it’s starting to rain. We don’t want to go back down the mountain so we buy canned chili and crackers. Along with the parched peanuts purchased earlier in the day at Hollis, that will be our supper on a cold, rainy Tuesday night as we start a fire in the fireplace.

The rain has stopped by the time we awake early the next morning. Paul Austin, who packed his own coffee beans and grinder, makes coffee.

After a short drive around the top of the mountain, we head down, reconnect with Highway 7 and make our way into Dardanelle.

This historic river port is one of Arkansas’ oldest towns. It was platted in 1847 and incorporated in 1855.

“The origin of the town’s name is open to conjecture,” Gleason writes. “Perhaps the 300-foot-high rock face at the river’s edge reminded early explorers of the Dardanelles in Turkey or perhaps the early French coureur de bois and holder of a 600-acre Spanish land grant in the area, Jean Baptiste Dardenne, is the source of the town’s name. … Dardanelle became an important river town and emerging trade center during the antebellum era, receiving weekly steamboat visits from New Orleans, Memphis and Little Rock. Dardanelle’s boomtown reputation was aided by its trade in rum, gin and cotton. By 1860, the town had three taverns, several mercantile businesses and cotton gins, three churches (Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian), a weekly newspaper, a doctor, a school, several attorneys and a Masonic lodge.”

By 1860, Dardanelle was connected by telegraph to Little Rock and Fort Smith. Union troops had taken over Dardanelle by the fall of 1862 and skirmishes in the years that followed left part of the community destroyed. As Reconstruction began to wind down, Dardanelle grew again. The courthouse for the northern district of Yell County was built in 1878. The first ice plant in Arkansas opened in 1888.

“From 1873 through the late 1880s, Dardanelle experienced new immigration as numerous Slovak, Moravian, Bohemian and Czech families arrived,” Gleason writes. “Mainly farmers and coal miners, these new immigrants expanded ethnic diversity into the town’s primarily Scotch-Irish and English residents, introducing new languages and religions. In October 1890, Dardanelle’s pontoon bridge, the longest in the world at the time, opened. The floating bridge was financed by tolls of five cents per foot passenger round trip and 25 cents per loaded wagon round trip.”

Diversity these days is supplied by Hispanic families. The city’s Hispanic population had soared to 36.1 percent by the 2010 census as these workers showed up for jobs in the poultry industry.

“By the 1960s, a fundamental agricultural transition was under way involving a decline in row-crop production (especially cotton) and a shift to livestock production,” Gleason writes. “The poultry industry soon became the primary agricultural activity and employment source.”

Dardanelle Lock & Dam is a key part of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. At the time it opened, the system was the largest civil works project ever undertaken by the Corps of Engineers. The project provides a minimum nine-foot-deep channel from the mouth of the river to Catoosa, Okla., which is near Tulsa. President Richard M. Nixon was the keynote speaker when dedication ceremonies took place at Catoosa on June 5, 1971.

Construction began in the Dardanelle area in 1958. Navigation was opened to Little Rock in October 1968 and a postage stamp was issued with the words “Arkansas River Navigation” to mark the occasion. The first commercial barges docked at the Port of Little Rock on Jan. 4, 1969. The system — covering 443 miles and consisting of 17 locks and dams — was ready for full use on Dec. 30, 1970.

We cross the Arkansas River into Pope County and Russellville. Nearby is the state’s only nuclear power plant, Arkansas Nuclear One.

The last census in which Dardanelle was larger than Russellville was the 1890 census when Dardanelle had a population of 1,456 and Russellville had 1,321 residents. From the 1970 census to the 2010 census, Dardanelle grew from 3,297 to 4,745. Russellville, meanwhile, soared from 11,750 to 27,920.

Russellville’s growth was spurred soon after the Civil War by the construction of the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad.

“After the line came through Russellville in 1873, the town grew rapidly,” David Vance writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Russellville’s first newspaper, the Herald, was founded in 1870. By 1876, the town boasted a population of about 800 people who were serviced by 15 stores, two cotton gins and six doctors. The town’s growth prompted a debate on moving the county seat, which had been located in Dover since 1841, to one of the growing business centers adjacent to the new tracks. On March 19, 1887, an election was held in which Russellville beat out all competing towns, though Atkins finished a close second on the ballot.”

Growth later was spurred by the construction of Interstate 40 in the late 1950s. Arkansas Nuclear One began operations in 1974. The biggest driver of economic activity, however, has been the explosive growth of the student population at Arkansas Tech University in the past decade.

In 1909, the Arkansas Legislature passed an act to establish agricultural schools in four districts across the state. Legislators had been lobbied for years by the Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union to create such schools in an attempt to reverse what the leaders of the organization viewed as the decline of rural life in Arkansas. Competition was particularly stiff for the Second District Agricultural School. Russellville was chosen following a spirited competition with Fort Smith, Morrilton and Ozark.

Cities interested in landing the school were required to pledge at least $40,000 and 200 acres. Russellville threw in free water and electricity for three years. The district school, which initially served high school-age students, opened in the fall of 1910 with 186 students. It grew to 350 students by the fall of 1913.

In February 1925, the Legislature changed the name of the Second District Agricultural School to Arkansas Polytechnic College. The other three district agricultural schools went on to become Arkansas State University at Jonesboro, Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia and the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

Life wasn’t always easy at Arkansas Tech. The Great Depression led to budget shortfalls and legislative discussions about closing the four district schools. More problems came at the onset of World War II when most males joined the armed services. Tech’s enrollment dropped to 133 students in the fall of 1943. Empty dorm space was utilized by members of the Women’s Army Corps and naval air personnel who trained on the campus.

In recent years, Tech has been among the fastest-growing colleges in the region with almost 12,000 students now enrolled on campuses in Russellville and Ozark.

Breakfast on this Wednesday is at that Arkansas classic known as the Old South, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1999. The Art Moderne modular diner was built in six days in 1947 out of manufactured parts produced by the National Glass & Manufacturing Co. of Fort Smith. A similar Old South restaurant earlier had opened at Fort Smith but is long gone. The Russellville restaurant serves one of my favorite breakfasts in the state. I like to get things I can’t often find on menus elsewhere, and so corned beef hash is the choice on this chilly day.

William E. Stell, the owner of the Fort Smith manufacturing company, built the restaurant for Russellville businessman Woody Mays. At one time, the restaurant was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The National Register nomination states: “When it was constructed, the Old South was located in an undeveloped stretch of Highway 64, at that time the main travel route from Tennessee to Oklahoma.”

The restaurant’s website says that the Old South still “looks virtually the same on the exterior and interior as it did when constructed in 1947. Its streamlined design, round windows, soft metal skin, neon lights, aluminum fixtures and padded booths typify its Art Moderne design. Even the menu offers many of the same items that were originally served, including the famous cream soups and salad dressing developed by R.C. Strub for the prototype Old South in Fort Smith.”

The Fort Smith restaurant was at 711 Towson Ave.

Noted Arkansas food writer Kat Robinson says that Stell, who was born in Oklahoma, formed his company at Fort Smith in 1929.

“The company created fixtures, furniture and metalwork for restaurants and department stores,” she writes. “It wasn’t a far jump for Stell to develop a modular diner system to take advantage of the new automobile culture developing. Unlike the Streamliner design (which was a contained prefab unit), Stell’s idea was for a modular build-on-site system that could be adapted to the location. He employed the help of architect Glenn Pendergrass (who designed the El Chico restaurants around Dallas) to design the concept he envisioned.

“The first, that Fort Smith store, was an experiment. Stell brought in a guy from New York City to form a menu — that man was none other than Schwab’s R.C. Strub. The style of a Kansas City-style steakhouse menu was adopted for use in what would be a series of roadside diners. The idea was to create a restaurant quickly. And it did catch on.  No one knows for certain how many Old South restaurants were built, but the last other restaurant (in Camden, S.C.) apparently closed in 2005. The original location in Fort Smith was demolished in the 1970s.”

We take our time at breakfast before heading north through Dover and into the Ozark Mountains.

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Hot Springs to Ola

Tuesday, February 6th, 2018


We head north on Central Avenue at Hot Springs. We pass the now-vacant site that long was home to the Majestic Hotel and turn right onto Park Avenue, following the route of Arkansas Highway 7.

There’s plenty of traffic and commercial activity as we drive north out of Hot Springs, pass the gate to Hot Springs Village and continue through Jessieville.

Hot Springs Village once promoted itself as the nation’s largest gated community. As the popularity of golf declines and more of the Baby Boomers choose to retire in cities with cultural amenities rather than retiring in rural golf communities, the place that locals simply call the Village is now promoting additional activities such as fishing, hiking and boating. Hot Springs Village is in parts of Garland and Saline counties and had a population of 12,807 people in the 2010 census, more than double the 1990 population of 6,361.

John Cooper, who earlier had success developing Cherokee Village and Bella Vista in the Arkansas Ozarks, purchased 20,000 acres of pine forests that later became Hot Springs Village.

“By 1969, Cooper had been approached separately by two people with the idea of creating a retirement community,” Kayla Laxton writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.

Those people were state Sen. Bud Canada of Hot Springs and Peter D. Joers, president of Dierks Forests Inc.

“After touring the property by air, Cooper realized the potential of the land and immediately bought 20,000 acres from Dierks,” Laxton writes. “His plan was to create a peaceful retirement community in a natural setting that would offer all modern-day conveniences without the hassle of living in a city. Unlike his other two communities, Hot Springs Village was created as a gated community in order to provide security for its residents and as an experiment to see if the gated community would result in more residents than the non-gated communities.”

Ground was broken on Feb. 15, 1970.

“Cooper’s plans for the progression of Hot Springs Village were to provide for paved streets, electricity, water supply, trash service, sewage disposal and police and fire security,” Laxton writes. “Along with police protection, Cooper implemented gate security at the five gated entrances surrounding Hot Springs Village. However, the five gates — Front Gate, Highway 5 East Gate, Balboa Gate, Cortez Gate and Glazier Peau Gate — were not approved until 1995. Secondary gates were added as a measure of security when more roads began to be constructed throughout the village.”

Jessieville is a busy place on this day. The growth of Hot Springs Village led to new businesses at Jessieville as that community’s population grew from 1,412 in the 1990 census to 2,467 in the 2010 census.

Once we leave Jessieville, we won’t see much in the way of businesses until we reach Ola in Yell County. The mountainous stretch of Highway 7 from Jessieville to Ola is as close as it comes in Arkansas to the parts of the Skyline Drive in Virginia and the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina that I enjoyed traversing when I lived in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s.

We’re in the Ouachita National Forest as we travel from Garland County into Perry County. It originally was known as the Arkansas National Forest and was created when President Teddy Roosevelt issued an executive order on Dec. 18, 1907. Gifford Pinchot, who was the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service from 1905-10, noted that it was the only shortleaf pine forest under the protection of the federal government.

“At first, the Arkansas National Forest consisted solely of reserved public domain lands south of the Arkansas River,” Debbie Ugbade writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The 1911 Weeks Law, which authorized federal purchase of forest lands in the eastern part of the United States, was later used to add thousands of acres of cutover or farmed-out lands to the national forest. The largest increases in national forest ownership occurred from 1933-41.

“On April 29, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge changed the name of the Arkansas National Forest to the Ouachita National Forest. He also proposed extending the national forest into eastern Oklahoma. President Herbert Hoover fulfilled this proposal on Dec. 3, 1930, by extending the Ouachita National Forest into Le Flore County in Oklahoma.”

The Ouachita National Forest now consists of almost 1.8 million acres in 12 Arkansas counties and two Oklahoma counties. It’s the largest and oldest national forest in the South with 60 recreation areas, six wilderness areas, two national wild and scenic rivers, several scenic byways (we’re on one) and almost 700 miles of trails.

The Ouachita Mountains are one of the state’s six natural divisions.

The Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission notes that the Ouachitas are “unusual in North America in that the ridges are generally aligned east to west, unlike the Rocky Mountains or the Appalachian Mountains, where the ridges usually run north to south. The most striking result of this orientation is that there is an extensive south-facing slope on each ridge that’s exposed to the heat and light of the sun, as well as a north-facing slope that’s protected from direct solar radiation and is consequently cooler and moister. The dry south-facing slopes are often covered with pine forests or woodlands, or even drier oak woodlands, while the moister north-facing slopes are covered with diverse hardwood forests. This results in distinct east-to-west bands of vegetation that can be seen from an airplane or by satellite. The bands usually shift repeatedly from pine forest to hardwoods and back, moving from north to south. This is particularly apparent in the winter when the green color of evergreen pines contrasts dramatically with the brown of the leafless deciduous hardwoods.”

We stop briefly at what was the site of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp during the 1930s. U.S. Forest Service budget cuts are evident from the condition of the signs here, which are difficult to read. They need to be fixed. The CCC played such an important role in Arkansas history during the Great Depression that we should take every opportunity to celebrate its successes.

“A brainchild of newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Civilian Conservation Corps began in 1933 with two purposes — to provide outdoor employment to Depression-idled young men and to accomplish badly needed work in the protection, improvement and development of the country’s natural resources,” Patricia Laster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Camps housing 200 men each were established in every state — 1,468 in September 1933; 2,635 in September 1935; and, because of the improving economy, down to 800 by January 1942. During this period, 77 companies undertook 106 projects in Arkansas. … Enrollees could volunteer for a six-month period and re-enroll each six months for up to two years. Later in 1933, separate camps were authorized for veterans of the Spanish-American War and World War I. Their duties were assigned according to their age and physical condition without restrictions on marital status or age. Arkansas had four veteran camps.”

Most of the Arkansas projects were in national forests.

“CCC companies were housed in 40-man barracks,” Laster writes. “Camps resembled small villages and included bathhouses, electric lighting plants, kitchens, storage, infirmaries, recreation halls (later, educational buildings), a softball or baseball diamond and sometimes a football field. Cash allowances were $30 a month, and mandatory allotment checks of $25 were sent back to families of the men.”

The camps were a blessing for men from poor Arkansas families. One CCC member from Blytheville later wrote: “I learned more during those two years in the CCC than I learned in the next 10. I went in a boy, came out a man. Went in ragged, hungry, ashamed and defeated; came out filled with confidence and ready to challenge the world.”

Laster writes: “The ones who stayed in the CCC gained weight and enjoyed improved health and morale. They learned good work habits, skills and attitudes. Many rose through the ranks of business and industry. As the economy picked up, more men were able to find jobs in their local areas. As the war threatened, many enlisted. Enrollments dipped, and many camps disbanded.”

The day’s most interesting stop on our trip up Highway 7 proves to be the Hollis Country Store on the west side of the highway just north of the South Fourche La Fave River bridge. The original portion of the store was built in 1931-32, while other parts were added in the 1950s. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.

There are few stores like this one remaining in Arkansas. The business has been operated by the Crain and Hawks families since 1940. Berl Hawks and his wife Connie bought the store in 1989. Berl died in 1999. Connie has operated the store ever since.

“You still going strong?” I ask as we walk in.

“For now,” Connie Hawks replies.

We’re still full from lunch at Hot Springs so we don’t order the store’s famous bologna sandwiches. I do, however, buy a brown paper sack filled with parched peanuts that we’ll munch on later that evening while staying in a cabin atop Mount Nebo.

“The original building was constructed not long after Arkansas renumbered its state highways to comply with the then-new Federal Highway Administration regulations back in 1926,” Kat Robinson writes on her Tie Dye Travels blog. “The store was opened to serve the residents of Hollis, a mountain community named after Hollis Britt Aikens, a Union soldier who served in the Civil War. A year after it first started serving residents, construction began on the structure we see today — a sturdy and everlasting single-story structure created from layers of mismatched rocks and mortar with an overhang porch.

“It was built by Mike Gross and William ‘Bill’ Furr. Gross, a country doctor, operated the store and the local post office, which was south of the grocery. Electricity came from a Delco generator housed in a shed behind the building. The store was sold to Dennis and Lillie Crain in 1940. They lived in the back of the building, and their children grew up there. Their daughter Gulelma and her husband Loyd Hawks took over in the 1950s, and the store was expanded with frame additions.

“When Dennis Crain died in 1980, Lillie Crain sold the store to their son Harold and his wife Louise. In 1989, they sold it to Loyd and Gulelma Hawks’ son Berl and his wife Connie.”

When I was a boy, my parents liked to stop at Hollis on our trips from Arkadelphia to Russellville and eat at a restaurant called Sam-Ann’s, which was established by Sam and Anna Herbert in 1951.

John Egerton wrote in his classic 1987 book “Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History:” “It was closed for a time in the 1970s, but Sharon Nugent and Tony Montgomery reopened it with the old name and the same purpose: ‘Continuing Miss Anna’s tradition of excellence.’ Sam-Ann’s calls itself the ‘premier country restaurant’ in Arkansas. Its features include large breakfasts, soup-and-sandwich lunches and dinners built around Arkansas catfish, chicken, pork chops and fried steak with gravy. Fresh vegetables grown on the place or produced by local farmers are served when available, and the iced tea is freshly brewed.

“The greatest asset, however, is Sharon Nugent’s bakery. It provides the whole-wheat dinner rolls, the breakfast cinnamon rolls and pancakes, the brownies and cookies, and the delicious cream and fruit pies. Many of Sam-Ann’s patrons drive from Little Rock — a three-hour round trip — and the baked goods are a major motivation.”

Sam-Ann’s later burned and was never rebuilt.

The South Fourche La Fave River, which we crossed before stopping at the store, begins in the Ouachita Mountains near Onyx in Yell County and empties into the Fourche La Fave River near Deberrie in Perry County. We cross the main Fourche La Fave, which begins in Scott County and empties into the Arkansas River in Perry County, just below Nimrod Dam.

“In 1841-42, German writer Friedrich Gerstacker resided and hunted in Arkansas, mostly along the Fourche La Fave River,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The experience provided background for some of an 1844 book as well as his 1845 novel, which describes vigilantism along the river. On another trip to the United States in 1867, he returned to Arkansas specifically to hunt along the Fourche La Fave River and visit with his friend Gustavus Klingelhoffer.

“Early transportation along the river was conducted by keelboat, but even this was challenging, given the numerous shoals along the course of the waterway. On March 3, 1879, Congress passed an act to improve the river. This included dynamiting some of the rocky shoals to create a deeper channel for transportation. By 1889, the river was navigable up to either Perryville or Aplin depending on the level of the water.

“In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Fourche La Fave River valley was the site of tremendous development based upon the coming of the railroads and the timber industry. In 1898, the Choctaw & Memphis Railroad Co. (later Rock Island) built a train bridge over the river at the foot of Kenney Mountain. The Fourche River Lumber Co. located a mill along the river in 1907 at the town of Bigelow. Other lumber companies came, though they had largely cut and run by the time of the Great Depression.”

Flooding once was common in Yell and Perry counties, and the federal Flood Control Act of 1938 authorized construction of a dam. Engineers began testing in 1938, and a flood in April 1939 washed out two bridges and gave the project political momentum. The dam was completed in March 1942, and Nimrod Lake remains a popular fishing spot in this part of Arkansas.

“Damming the Fourche La Fave was considered an economical means of protecting communities and valuable cropland in Yell and Perry counties, as well as lessening spring flooding of the Arkansas River, into which the Fourche La Fave drains,” Lancaster writes. “The Department of War announced in January 1939 that the Nimrod site would be one of the seven Arkansas River Basin sites chosen for the construction of a dam.”

Nimrod was the first of the big Corps of Engineers projects in Arkansas.

The next stop is Ola in Yell County, which had a population of 1,281 in the 2010 census. The community name was changed from Petit Jean to Ola in December 1880. Deltic Timber is a major employer these days, though a number of Ola residents drive to Danville, Dardanelle and Russellville for work. Because of jobs in the poultry industry, there has been a large Hispanic influx into the area. The Hispanic population grew from 27 in the 1990 census to 231 in the 2010 census and likely will be even higher when the 2020 census is conducted.

We cross the Petit Jean River north of Ola as we leave the Ouachita Mountains and enter the Arkansas River Valley. The land flattens out here and consists of cattle pastures and chicken houses — lots of chicken houses.

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The Spa City

Monday, January 22nd, 2018


We cross the bridges over Lake Hamilton as we enter Hot Springs from the south on Arkansas Highway 7.

Following the instructions of Arkansas Power & Light Co. founder Harvey Couch, a former riverboat captain named Flave Carpenter led the site-selection efforts for what would become Carpenter Dam on the Ouachita River. It was 10 miles upstream from Remmel Dam, the first of the two dams that Couch built on the river to generate electricity for his growing company.

Work on Carpenter Dam began in February 1929. Construction was completed in December 1931. The lake created by the dam was named in honor of Little Rock attorney C. Hamilton Moses, who represented all of Couch’s business enterprises.

Guy Lancaster writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture that the construction and engineering firm of Ford, Bacon & Davis built a rail spur to the main Missouri Pacific Railroad line so materials for the dam could be transported easily.

“Gravel was mined from the river bank while wood was taken from the future lake bed area,” he writes. “In the end, more than 156,000 cubic yards of concrete were used for a dam that measures 115 feet high and 1,165 feet long. . . . A work camp, at one time housing 1,000 people, was established adjacent to the construction site. Construction was completed in December 1931 at a cost of $6.5 million. Carpenter Dam features two generators, which together produce an output of 56 megawatts. The dam was built to provide electricity to the AP&L system during hours of peak energy consumption; as such, it is credited with helping AP&L survive the Great Depression, the full impact of which Arkansas was experiencing as the dam was being completed.”

In addition to being an electricity producer, Lake Hamilton soon would become one of the most popular recreational sites in the state. It simply added to the allure of Hot Springs, which was booming in the late 1920s under the leadership of dictatorial mayor Leo McLaughlin.

“McLaughlin was elected mayor in 1926 and fulfilled a campaign promise to run Hot Springs as an open town, one where gambling was permitted by local authorities,” Lancaster writes. “Illegal gambling had long been a staple of life in Hot Springs, but the McLaughlin administration carried this to a new level. McLaughlin also oversaw an extensive political machine in Hot Springs that employed rampant voter fraud in order to deliver support to favored candidates.

“During his 20-year reign, the city became a haven for numerous underworld figures, including Owen Vincent ‘Owney’ Madden and Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano. Even Al Capone was a regular visitor to the city. The Southern Club was one of the favored hangouts for many of these gangsters. The relationship local authorities had with these mob figures occasionally put it at odds with the state and federal governments.”

Hot Springs had been an attraction long before the mobsters discovered it. As outlined in the earlier part of this series that described the Hunter-Dunbar Expedition, Native Americans had been using the hot springs for hundreds of years. Early European settlers also visited.

“By the early 1830s, the springs were proving a major attraction,” Lancaster writes. “In 1832, Congress reserved the area now known as Hot Springs National Park for federal use, exempting it from settlement. When the town of Hot Springs incorporated in 1851, it was home to two rows of hotels along with the bathhouses and the usual concomitant businesses. The city attracted not only seekers of leisure but also numerous invalids hoping to find relief in the area’s thermal waters.”

The first Hot Springs Reservation superintendent was Benjamin Kelley, who was appointed by Congress in 1877. Under his leadership, Hot Springs grew as a resort.

Lancaster writes that Kelley “initiated a number of engineering projects, allowing private owners to convert the previously ramshackle downtown bathhouses into a row of attractive buildings built in the Victorian style. This, combined with the city receiving a rail connection from what would eventually become the Rock Island Railroad in 1875, transformed Hot Springs into a cosmopolitan spa that would attract visitors from across the nation. The luxurious Arlington Hotel was also completed in 1875 and was, at the time of its completion, the largest hotel in the state. It was built by businessman Samuel W. Fordyce and others who invested heavily in Hot Springs.”

Hot Springs also was helped by the fact that it had bathhouses for blacks, who had few other places where they could vacation comfortably in the South in those days.

“Not only did African-Americans have access to employment in Hot Springs, they also had access to the same sort of bathing facilities that attracted wealthy whites to the area,” Lancaster writes. “In 1878, the federal government established a simple frame building over what was popularly known as the mud hole spring in order to service the poor, who could bathe there for free. Initially the site was open to all regardless of gender or race. A new brick building was erected in 1891, but it was remodeled in 1898 to provide for racial and gender segregation, though all still had equal access. Until the bathhouses were desegregated in 1965, a number of bathhouses operated that were devoted to a black clientele.”

In the late 1800s, Hot Springs became the first home of baseball spring training, a fact that the city has only recently begun to celebrate again.

Thoroughbred racing came to the city with Essex Park and Oaklawn Park. These days, Oaklawn is flourishing thanks to the revenue provided by hundreds of electronic games in its large gaming area.

Louis Cella, whose family has been involved with the track for more than a century, was named in December as Oaklawn’s president. He succeeds his father, Charles J. Cella, who died Dec . 6 at age 81.

Charles Cella took over Oaklawn in 1968 following the death of his father, John G. Cella. In 2005, the Cella family and Oaklawn received an Eclipse Award of Merit for their contributions to racing.

Louis Cella had, in essence, been running the track in recent years as his father’s health declined.

Family-owned thoroughbred tracks are rare these days. Conglomerates such as Churchill Downs Inc. and the Stronach Group own multiple tracks. It’s also uncommon in an era of declining interest in thoroughbred racing to find an ownership group that’s raising purses on a regular basis. In that respect, those in Arkansas who love racing are fortunate.

In another respect, the Cella family is fortunate. That’s because Arkansas remains one of the few places in the country where a day at the races is considered a major social event — a reason to get dressed up and invite friends to come along for the day. We’re a throwback.

“Racing has been part of the Cella family DNA for generations, and we’re committed to keeping Oaklawn one of the premier racetracks in the country for generations to come,” Louis Cella said on the day he was named president.

Oaklawn was formed in 1904, but racing ceased in 1907.

Michael Hodge writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Anti-gambling sentiments, driven by former Essex Park owner and former state legislator William McGuigan, rose in the form of a bill titled ‘an act to prevent betting in any manner in this state on any horse race.’ The bill was approved on Feb. 27, 1907, and necessitated the closing of Oaklawn at the end of the 1907 season and for a decade after that. The infield of the track continued to be used for other purposes and was the site of the Arkansas State Fair from 1907-14, including a 1910 fair that was attended by former President Theodore Roosevelt.”

The Legislature passed a bill in 1915 to reopen the track, but that legislation was vetoed by Gov. George Washington Hays.

Large fires in downtown Hot Springs hurt the tourism industry and led business leaders to begin efforts to resume racing, which joined boxing and baseball as the most popular sports in the country.

“In 1916, the Hot Springs Men’s Business League reopened Oaklawn Park by setting a short racing schedule beginning on March 11 under the guise of a nonprofit civic enterprise,” Hodge writes. “Pari-mutuel betting was not allowed, but this did not preclude any unofficial wagering. This 30-day season was a success and led to the reopening of both Oaklawn Park and Essex Park the following year with plans for the two tracks to split a full season. Unfortunately, the newly refurbished Essex Park burned the day after its grand reopening in 1917, thus moving the entire season to Oaklawn and marking the permanent end of racing at Essex.”

Racing would become an on again-off again affair for years in Hot Springs.

Circuit Judge Scott Wood ruled in 1919 that the races were illegal, and the track was closed again. A bill legalizing racing was approved by the Legislature in 1929 and vetoed by Gov. Harvey Parnell.

Mayor McLaughlin helped create the Business Men’s Racing Association in 1934 and announced that there would be races that spring regardless of what anyone said. More than 8,000 people turned out on March 1, 1934.

In 1935, legislation permitting racing with pari-mutuel wagering cleared the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Junius Futrell. The first Arkansas Derby was held in 1936 with a purse of $5,000. By 1961, what had been a 30-day meet was extended to 43 days. By the early 1980s, the track was hosting races for 60 days per year.

“The 1980s were great for Oaklawn,” says Eric Jackson, the track’s former general manager. “At the time, we didn’t fully appreciate just how great they were. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we began to face competition from new tracks in Oklahoma and Texas. We responded by instituting simulcasting, becoming the first track to offer full cards from other tracks. But while we were looking west toward Texas and Oklahoma, the casinos were being built to the east in Mississippi and to the south in Louisiana.”

An initiative that would have allowed several casinos in Arkansas — including one at Oaklawn — was tossed off the ballot by the Arkansas Supreme Court just before the November 1994 election. Oaklawn made another casino run in 1996 that failed 61-39 percent.

“We got sucker punched about a month before the election,” Jackson says. “We had gone into it with the idea that the companies operating casinos in Mississippi would not oppose us. .. Then they came after us. The ads were brutal.”

In 2005, the Legislature passed an act permitting Oaklawn and Southland Park, a greyhound track at West Memphis, to install electronic forms of gaming if approved by the city or county. The result at Oaklawn has been a decade of growing purses.

Thus Hot Springs had thoroughbred racing, the baths, Lake Hamilton, wide-open gambling and even baseball spring training for a time in those first decades of the 1900s. No wonder the gangsters from Chicago loved to vacation there.

The current Arlington Hotel opened in late 1924. The Park Hotel and the Marquette Hotel opened in 1930. The oldest of the eight existing bathhouses, the Hale, was built in 1892-93. The others were added in those boom years of the early 1900s.

The Army and Navy Hospital opened in 1887 as the first combined hospital to serve soldiers from both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy. It treated tens of thousands of soldiers before being turned over to the state in 1960. The Levi Hospital, which opened in 1914 to offer mental and physical therapy, continues to operate.

The Arkansas Alligator Farm, founded in 1902, also still operates. Attractions that once were popular but have closed include the IQ Zoo, which opened in 1955, and Thomas Cockburn’s Ostrich Farm, which operated from 1900-53.

The decline of downtown Hot Springs began in 1967, the first year that Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller was in office. Rockefeller was from one of the world’s richest families, of course, and didn’t need the payoffs that had gone to other elected officials for decades.

“So notorious was the city’s reputation that closing down gambling in Hot Springs became a major issue in the 1962 gubernatorial race,” Lancaster writes. “The explosion of a bomb in the Vapors casino in January 1963 made the problem of organized crime in the city a widespread concern. Soon after Rockefeller took office as governor in 1967, he ordered the Arkansas State Police to crack down on gambling in the Spa City. State troopers were able to put an end to illegal gambling in Hot Springs, though it brought them into conflict with local power brokers and even law enforcement officers. The well-known Hot Springs brothel owner Maxine Temple Jones, in prison at the time, disclosed a great deal of information on illegal gambling in return for a full pardon.”

With casino gambling having ended, businesses began to leave downtown. Many relocated south on Highway 7 (which doubles as Central Avenue in the city) toward Lake Hamilton. We pass many of those businesses on our way downtown. Overall, Hot Springs has been largely stagnant for the past 50 years. In the 1970 census, the city had a population of 35,631. Forty years later when the 2010 census was released, the number was almost the same — 35,193 to be exact.

In the past several years, however, an amazing rebirth has begun downtown.

According to the Hot Springs Metro Partnership, 2017 saw:

— A record number of downtown commercial properties sold downtown. There were 30 commercial properties sold for sales of more than $9 million.

— More than $23 million in capital investments that went into downtown properties.

— The Downtown Association grow from 35 to 55 businesses.

The fire that destroyed much of the Majestic Hotel in the winter of 2014 was a wake-up call for Hot Springs. In the four years since the fire, downtown has seen:

— 86 businesses open or expand.

— 84 commercial properties sold at a total value of more than $50 million.

— More than $80 million invested in capital improvements.

As we drive up Central Avenue, the progress downtown is evident.

There’s no time to stop downtown on this day, however. It’s time to continue north through what I consider the most beautiful part of the entire trip, the stretch from Jessieville to Ola through the Ouachita Mountains.



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Arkadelphia to Hot Springs

Monday, January 15th, 2018


As we head north out of Arkadelphia, we stop at what the signs on Arkansas Highway 7 proclaim to be “DeSoto Bluff.”

Historians will tell you that there’s no evidence that the Spanish explorer ever reached this point on the Ouachita River, but the name stuck locally.

When I was growing up just a short walk through the woods from this location, we simply called it The Bluff.

There wasn’t an easy way to get there in those days.

Now, there’s a paved parking lot adjacent to the highway, a paved trail and informative interpretive markers along the way.

Since the director of the Arkansas Humanities Council, Paul Austin, is with us, it seems only fitting that we park the car and walk the trail. After all, the Humanities Council paid for the signage. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the Department of Arkansas Heritage also contributed funds that make it easy to enjoy one of the best views in the southern half of the state.

The trail was dedicated in July 2013.

The interpretive signage tells the story of the Caddo Indians who once lived here and also the Hunter-Dunbar expedition, which did indeed pass this bluff.

The expert on that expedition is the president of Southern Arkansas University, Trey Berry, an Arkadelphia native and a lifelong friend.

“The Hunter-Dunbar expedition was one of only four ventures into the Louisiana Purchase commissioned by Thomas Jefferson,” Berry writes. “Between 1804 and 1807, President Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark into the northern regions of the Louisiana Purchase; Zebulon Pike into the Rocky Mountains, the southwestern areas and two smaller forays; Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis along the Red River; and William Dunbar and Dr. George Hunter to explore the ‘Washita River’ and ‘the hot springs’ in what is now Arkansas and Louisiana.

“While the Ouachita River expedition was not as vast as and did not provide the expanse of geographic and environmental information collected by Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, the exploration of Dunbar and Hunter remains significant for several reasons. It provided Americans with the first scientific study of the varied landscapes as well as the animal and plant life of early southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana. In fact, the expedition resulted in arguably the most purely scientific collection of data among all of the Louisiana Purchase explorations.

“The explorers described an extremely active and vibrant interaction between the European and the Native American population. Hunter and Dunbar also reported many encounters with European trappers, hunters, planters and settlers as well as fellow river travelers plying the waters of the Red, Black and Ouachita rivers. Their copious notes also portray a region in which these European and Indian inhabitants harvested the abundant natural resources along the rivers and in the lands beyond.”

Berry says that the detailed reports showed that the hot springs already had “become an important site for people seeking relief from ailments and infirmities. The expedition met several individuals who had either been to the springs or were on their way to bathe in its waters. When the explorers arrived at the hot springs, they found evidence that people had lived there for periods of time to take advantage of the location’s medicinal virtues. A cabin and several small shacks had been built by people coming to the springs. The explorers used these dwellings during their visit.”

More than 200 years later, people are still coming to Hot Springs. We will be there by lunch on this day.

Dunbar was born to an aristocratic family in Scotland. He studied astronomy and mathematics in Glasgow and London before moving to Philadelphia at age 22. He later moved to Natchez, Miss.

“The president relied on Dunbar’s advice and his propensity for getting things done in the frontier of the southern Mississippi Valley,” Berry writes.

Hunter, a chemist and druggist, also was a Scottish immigrant. He lived in Philadelphia but liked to explore areas of rural Ohio and Indiana.

Near what’s now Monroe, La., the explorers obtained a flatboat with a cabin on its deck and hired an experienced guide named Samuel Blazier. They headed north up the river and crossed into what’s now Arkansas on Nov. 15, 1804.

“The landscape began to change from mainly pine forests to bottomlands with various hardwoods,” Berry writes. “When the team reached Ecore a Fabri (now Camden), the former site of a French settlement, two significant events occurred. First, the explorers found a tree with curious Indian hieroglyphs carved onto its trunk. The carvings portrayed two men holding hands and may have been the site of trade between Europeans and Native Americans. Second, on Nov. 22, as Hunter cleaned his pistol on the flatboat, the gun discharged. The bullet ripped through his thumb and lacerated two fingers. It continued through the brim of his hat, missing his head by only fractions of an inch. Hunter remained in severe pain and danger of infection for more than two weeks. His eyes were burned, and he could not see to record entries in his journals and was little help to the expedition.

“Near the current site of Arkadelphia, they met a man of Dutch descent named Paltz. The Dutch hunter knew the area well, and he informed the explorers of a salt spring located nearby, as well as other natural features. Paltz told them that he had ‘resided 40 years on the Ouachita and before that on the Arkansas.’ Hunter, Paltz and a small team investigated a salt pit and reported it to be of a substantial nature. The chemist conducted specific gravity experiments on the saline water and discovered it to be a high concentration of what he called ‘marine salt.’

“On Dec. 3, 1804, Dunbar and Hunter confronted the greatest potential obstacle to their journey. Near what is today Malvern or Rockport, an enormous series of rocky rapids, called the Chutes by the two men, stretched almost one mile before them. Dunbar described the formations as looking like ‘ancient fortifications and castles.’ Through strenuous efforts of cordelling, rocking the vessel from side to side and essentially dragging the flatboat between and over rocks, the team finally traversed the maze of boulders. Dunbar compared the roar made by the Chutes to the sound of a hurricane he had experienced in New Orleans in 1779.”

After making it to what’s now Hot Springs, the explorers begin their return trip on Jan. 8, 1805. The expedition arrived back in Natchez on Jan. 27, 1805.

Berry writes: “During the following weeks, Dunbar and Hunter settled their accounts and began to work on their reports to Jefferson. Dunbar’s journals arrived on the president’s desk more than a year before Lewis and Clark returned from their trip to the northwest. The Dunbar journals and later the Hunter journals provided Jefferson his first glimpse into the new territory from a commissioned exploration team. … Their voyage did not rival Lewis and Clark’s, but their journey up the Red, Black and Ouachita rivers — along with the explorations and journals of Freeman, Custis and Zebulon Pike — are important accounts that complete the story of Louisiana Purchase exploration.”

We walk back down the trail from DeSoto Bluff, get in the car and head north. We pass the Clark Ranch and cross the Caddo River just above its confluence with the Ouachita River.

The Buffalo River gets all of the attention in Arkansas, but the Caddo is one of the finest float streams in the state.

“For centuries, this unique waterway has carved its way through sedimentary rock formations, creating a broad shallow river valley and leaving miles of gravel along its path,” writes Brian Westfall of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “In some places, the nearly vertical beds of sandstone and novaculite create rapids and water gaps. The Caddo, known for extremely clear water, originates from cold-water springs southeast of Mena. In this region, the springs flow from the Bigfork Chert Ridge, which sits atop the Ouachita Mountains Aquifer, known for its high-quality water.”

Much of the upper Caddo flows east through the Ouachita National Forest. The most popular section to float is from Caddo Gap to Glenwood in Pike County.

“In the early 1900s, Glenwood was a thriving sawmill town that used the Caddo for pine log transport, storage and milling,” Westfall writes. “At Glenwood, the Caddo leaves the Ouachita Mountains behind. As the Caddo leaves the Athens Piedmont Plateau, the gradient drops dramatically, and the river holes become longer and deeper. This section covers about eight miles and ends near Arkansas Highway 182, about one mile north of Amity.”

DeGray Lake begins soon after this point.

After crossing the lower Caddo River at Caddo Valley, we pass the many motels and fast-food restaurants that make up that community. We cross under Interstate 30.

From DeSoto Bluff back in Arkadelphia, we could look to the north and see where the Gulf Coastal Plain ends and the Ouachita Mountains begin.

We enter the Ouachita foothills and can see DeGray Lake with the Ouachita Mountains in the background as we drive through the blasted-out rocks of what my father called Grindstone Ridge. This is one of the best views in the state and was once the cover of the official state highway map.

DeGray Dam across the Caddo River forms 13,400-acre DeGray Lake. A smaller dam below the main dam creates a 400-acre impoundment known as the Lower Lake. It was built so water could be pumped back into DeGray during times of drought and used again for hydropower generation.

“The site where DeGray Dam stands had been considered for a dam since 1909 when Harvey Couch, founder of Arkansas Power & Light Co., reportedly visited the area to consider it for one of his projects,” Guy Lancaster writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In the 1930s, the federal government carried out geological studies in the area, though nothing came of it. Congress finally authorized a dam there in the 1950 Rivers and Harbors Act, though the Korean War delayed the funding of the project. In November 1955, the Corps of Engineers held a hearing in Arkadelphia attended by Sen. John L. McClellan and Congressman Oren Harris, both proponents of the project. Congress included the dam in the 1959 Water Supply Act but failed to attach any funding to it. Finally, in 1961, money was appropriated.”

Rather than the cold-water release used on nearby Narrows Dam on the Little Missouri River, the Corps of Engineers decided to have a warm-water release to protect native fish populations downstream.

Highway 7 now runs atop a three-mile earthen dike that was a key part of the project.

The gate was closed at the dam on Aug. 8, 1969, and the lake began to fill. I was about to turn 10 at the time. I can remember that my father would drive our family out to the area each Sunday afternoon to watch the construction and the filling of the reservoir.

DeGray Dam and DeGray Lake were dedicated on May 20, 1972. My Boy Scout troop — Troop 24 — helped direct traffic that day at the dedication site.

Support had built through the years for the establishment of a state park on the lake that would rival anything in surrounding states. The state Department of Parks & Tourism reached an agreement with the Corps of Engineers in November 1971 to lease a 938-acre site. Construction began in early 1973 on an 18-hole golf course. By 1974, a large marina and campsites were open. By 1975, the 96-room DeGray Lodge had become a reality. What’s now known as DeGray Lake Resort State Park remains the only state park with both an 18-hole golf course and a lodge.

The 30-mile trip from Caddo Valley to Hot Springs is a familiar one for me. Hot Springs was the “big city” when I was a boy, and we went there often to shop and eat out. The worst of the Highway 7 curves of my boyhood — including one that was known as Dead Man’s Curve just north of Bismarck — have been removed through the years. Still, it’s a curvy route as we make our way into the mountains.

The cypress bottoms we had experienced outside Camden earlier in the morning seem like a distant memory now.

Just before leaving the DeGray dike as we head north, we pass from Clark County into Hot Spring County. Hot Spring County was established in 1829 by the Arkansas Territorial Legislature with land taken from Clark County.

“Ironically, the spring for which Hot Spring County is named is no longer within the county limits,” Jennifer Atkins-Gordeeva writes from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Garland County was created in April 1873 in response to complaints from the citizens of the city of Hot Springs about the difficult trip to the county seat, which was then Rockport. As a result, both the city of Hot Springs and the springs themselves (except for one near Magnet Cove) are no longer found in Hot Spring County.

“The county’s mineral resources include iron, novaculite, titanium, barite, clay and lignite. Magnet Cove got its name from the magnetic iron ore deposits that sent compasses spinning in the 1880s. There are 42 distinct mineral species and mineral combinations in Magnet Cove, some of which are found only in Magnet Cove, the Ural Mountains and the Tyrolean Alps.”

We next cross from Hot Spring County into Garland County. There used to be a liquor store — the Ship & Shore — that was on the county line, but it went out of business soon after Clark County voted to go wet in November 2010. When I worked in college at the Arkadelphia radio stations, Ship & Shore was the sponsor during the Oaklawn race meet for Jim Elder’s “Morning Line” program on the Arkansas Radio Network. Elder, one of the best sportscasters in Arkansas history, would work his way through the entries for each race on that program.

An advantage to the year-round gambling now at Oaklawn is that one no longer has to wait until thoroughbred racing season — the period from January until April that marketers once promoted as the Fifth Season — to get Oaklawn’s famous corned beef. We make plans to park at the track and walk through rows of what Oaklawn officials like to call “games of skill” so we can get our corned beef fix at a sports bar known as Silks.

It will be good to get out of the car for an hour.

Ahead of us on Highway 7 loom two mountain ranges that are separated by the Arkansas River Valley. We have many miles of Arkansas highway still ahead.

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Arkadelphia: Athens of Arkansas

Friday, December 29th, 2017


We cross the Ouachita River at Arkadelphia as our trip north on Arkansas Highway 7 continues.

To our left, a larger bridge is being built to handle the log trucks that one day might head to the giant $1.3 billion pulp mill that a Chinese company hopes to build just south of Arkadelphia at Gum Springs.

We detour a couple of blocks off the highway so we can read the historic markers on the grounds of the 1899 Clark County Courthouse, which was designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles Thompson.

The courthouse was damaged in the March 1, 1997, tornado that destroyed all or parts of 60 city blocks in Arkadelphia. It was repaired over the objections of some county officials who wanted to build a new courthouse. Fortunately, the historic preservationists won this battle.

Clark County was one of five counties in existence when the Arkansas Territory began in 1819. Arkadelphia became the county seat in 1842, and a courthouse was built two years later. It would serve the county for the next 55 years.

“The 1844 building was torn down in 1899 in advance of construction of a new structure at the same location,” writes Ouachita Baptist University archivist Wendy Richter. “In May of that year, Arkadelphia’s Southern Standard newspaper noted that the old courthouse was ‘the best known landmark of this section, dear to the memory of all old citizens. There is now but a hole in the ground.’ But the construction process moved quickly, and by July, the cornerstone was laid for the ‘new, magnificent $40,000 courthouse.’ Officials began operating from the building before the end of 1899. The two-and-a-half-story structure at Fourth and Clay streets was built by R.S. O’Neal from a Charles Thompson design. At the time of its construction, the Clark County Courthouse was arguably the county’s most impressive structure. The large, brick, Romanesque-style building dominated the area surrounding it. A six-story conical clock tower gave the courthouse a distinctive appearance.”

Like Camden, Arkadelphia is an old river town oozing with history. There’s a key difference, however. Since 1960, Camden has lost about 3,600 residents. Arkadelphia has gained almost 2,600 residents during that same period. The difference is that Arkadelphia is a college town.

Arkadelphia has long promoted itself as a center of education, and college towns are poised to do better in the modern economy. For many years, in fact, the city billed itself as the Athens of Arkansas.

“With a newspaper, several churches and a saloon, Arkadelphia was one of the larger settlements along the Ouachita River in 1850,” writes David Sesser of Henderson State University. “Early efforts to open a school in the town began in 1843. That year, an election was held in Arkadelphia to select three trustees to create a school and sell part of the 16th section on the west side of the Ouachita River. Three trustees were elected, but one died before taking office, and little progress was made toward opening a school.

“A Baptist minister, Samuel Stevenson, arrived in Arkadelphia as a representative of the American Bible Society. Stevenson was a native of Philadelphia and a graduate of Georgetown College in Kentucky. Arriving in Clark County around 1848, he first operated a school at Oakland, eight miles from Arkadelphia. He constructed a two-story frame building with a cupola and opened the Arkadelphia Institute in 1850 with help from his nephew, James Gilkey. Gilkey served as the principal for male students, and Elizabeth Ann Webb took a similar role over the female students. By 1852, the school had an enrollment of 97. The school was known by a variety of names during its operations, including Arkadelphia Institute, Arkadelphia Male and Female Institute and Arkadelphia Female Seminary.”

The school closed during the Civil War. Stevenson reopened it after the war and sold it to Mary Connelly in 1869. She renamed the school Arkadelphia Female College.

“Classical language courses and art courses were popular offerings,” Sesser writes. “The students also held concerts at the local Baptist church to raise money to establish a library at the school. Enrollment numbers for the institution do not survive, but numerous girls from the local community attended the school. The organization of Arkadelphia High School by local Republicans as a free institution open to members of the community signaled the end of the private, tuition-driven school. Connelly closed what by then was known Arkadelphia Female Academy in June 1874. The building was later used to house Arkadelphia Female High School, which was organized along with Arkadelphia Male High School in 1875.”

During Reconstruction, Arkadelphia became a popular spot for freed slaves from surrounding plantations to live. A school for black children that had begun in 1882 was taken over in 1889 by the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen, an arm of the Northern Presbyterian Church. What became known as Arkadelphia Presbyterian Academy had 127 students by 1908. In 1910, a new building was constructed at a cost of $5,000, and attendance was nearing 300 students by 1913. In 1920, C.W. Black of Iowa gave the academy $25,000 to build another building that became known as Black Memorial Hall. Both Black Memorial Hall and the main building were destroyed by a fire in 1931.

“The Board of Missions felt it had only two choices — to close the school or move it,” Nancy Snell Griffith writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1933, they decided to merge it with another Presbyterian school, Cotton Plant Academy. The new, stronger institution in Cotton Plant was named the Arkadelphia-Cotton Plant Academy.”

Meanwhile, what was known as Arkansas Industrial College at 18th and Caddo streets in Arkadelphia was organized in August 1890. The school for black students changed its name to Arkadelphia Baptist Academy in 1892 and became associated with Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock. In 1893, there were 27 male and 60 female students. Fifteen of them were boarders. The American Baptist Home Mission Society, which was based in New York, helped support the school. The academy’s main building was destroyed by a fire in 1930, but the school continued to exist for several more years.

Arkadelphia also was the original home for what’s now the Arkansas School for the Blind at Little Rock.

“In 1859, the Arkansas General Assembly incorporated the Arkansas Institute for the Blind, which remained in Arkadelphia until 1868,” writes Ouachita Baptist University historian Ray Granade. “After the Legislature created the first statewide common school system in 1866, Arkadelphians designed a citywide segregated system, which became operational in 1871 and coexisted with private schools. Arkadelphia became an educational center between 1886 and 1896 with the opening of two colleges for white people (Ouachita Baptist College in 1886 and Arkadelphia Methodist College in 1890), two schools for African-Americans (Bethel AME College in 1891 and Colored Presbyterian Industrial School in 1896) and the first of a series of business colleges (Draughon’s in 1891).”

Bethel College was renamed in 1892 in honor of AME Bishop James A. Shorter and moved all operations to Argenta (now North Little Rock) in 1898. Draughon’s Business College moved to Little Rock.

Granade says that “Arkadelphia’s greatest asset” has been “an enduring commitment to education that began with general private and denominational efforts, as well as what’s now the Arkansas School for the Blind prior to the Civil War, and blossomed with public education, a business college and denominational colleges for black and white Arkansans in the 1880s and 1890s.”

The citizens of Arkadelphia put up 13 acres of land overlooking the Ouachita River, offered the building that had once housed the Arkansas Institute for the Blind and threw in $10,000 to land the state’s Baptist college in April 1886.

“Founding president John William Conger and his wife made up a third of the initial faculty,” Granade writes. “OBC began with instruction at all levels — primary, preparatory and collegiate — though primary disappeared by about 1900. Enrollment grew from the original 166 to averaging in the 300s under Conger, and the school maintained a low student-teacher ratio, 18-1 in 1907. Initially, women lived on campus while men boarded in town. Student life centered on literary clubs (two for females and two for males) while sports stirred deep passions. The hotly contested Battle of the Ravine with cross-street rival Henderson began in 1895, making it one of the nation’s oldest college football rivalries. The curriculum, standard for colleges of its day, contained a few surprises (like bookkeeping) and featured compulsory military training consistently until 1991.

“Continuing financial difficulties led Arkadelphia citizens to pay the institution’s debt in 1914 and again in 1936 in return for the promise to keep OBC in Arkadelphia permanently. Presidents and supporters began endowment drives several times, but the institution accumulated little until World War I. Since 1925, the institution has been a regular part of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention annual budget, which has helped stabilize its finances.”

Granade says the founding of the school “capped longstanding Arkansas Baptist interest in making higher learning more readily available to more people, in providing an educated ministry and educated lay leadership, in strengthening denominational loyalty and in extending denominational influence. It gained university status in 1965 and has been rated by U.S. News and World Report as the No. 1 Baccalaureate College in the South and included in its list of Great Schools, Great Prices.”

Four years after the founding of Ouachita, Arkansas Methodist College opened in Arkadelphia. It became the third Methodist college in the state along with Hendrix College in Conway and Galloway Female College in Searcy.

“Methodist citizens in Arkadelphia originally tried to secure Hendrix College for Arkadelphia when its location was moved in 1889 from Altus to Conway but were unsuccessful in their efforts,” Sesser writes. “With $30,000 and a location already pledged to the school, the citizens of Arkadelphia set out to create their own school. After receiving the blessing of the board of education of the Little Rock Conference of the Methodist Church, a 15-member board of trustees was selected and immediately set out to create a school. On April 19, 1890, a nine-acre campus, located north of Arkadelphia, was purchased from Harriet Barkman. The new campus was separated from Ouachita Baptist College by two ravines and several blocks. Architect Thomas Harding was contracted to build a structure to house the college. The first term was scheduled to begin the first Wednesday of September 1890.”

About 110 students showed up on that first day.

“By 1909, the school was debt free, largely due to the work of prominent Arkadelphia citizens and, to a lesser extent, the Little Rock Conference of the Methodist Church,” Sesser writes. “In 1904, the name of the institution was changed for the first time. In honor of Captain Charles Christopher Henderson’s service on the board of trustees and his continued financial support of the college, the name of Arkadelphia Methodist College was changed to Henderson College at the annual commencement. In 1911, the name of Henderson College was expanded to Henderson-Brown College in honor of Walter William Brown, business partner of Henderson and a member of the board of trustees.”

A huge fire early on the morning of Feb. 3, 1914, destroyed the college’s main building. There were almost 300 students in school at the time, and all but seven decided to stay following a meeting in a nearby pine grove. Classes were held in tents and at Ouachita.

“By 1929, enrollment stood at 153, a drop of 50 from just the year before,” Sesser writes. “The Little Rock Conference decided after much debate to consolidate Henderson-Brown College and Hendrix College and create one co-educational institution of higher learning. … The student body of Henderson-Brown strongly opposed the merger, as did most of the administration and the public. After negotiations with state lawmakers, it was decided to turn control of Henderson-Brown over to the state rather than close its doors. Thus in 1929 the institution became known as Henderson State Teachers College.”

There was rapid growth once Henderson became a state school. Six major buildings were constructed during the Great Depression. By the end of World War II, enrollment had doubled from what it had been before the war with more than 500 students. The name was changed to Henderson State College in 1967 and Henderson State University in 1975.

It’s Battle of the Ravine week in Arkadelphia, so signs are covered at both schools to prevent vandalism by students in advance of Saturday’s big football game. My travel companions enjoy seeing that.

The football stadiums of the two schools are just across Highway 7 from each other. It’s the only college rivalry in the country for which the visiting team walks rather than flies or takes a bus to a road contest.

The first game in the series was played in 1895 with Ouachita winning 8-0 on Thanksgiving Day. The two schools began playing on an annual basis in 1907. Henderson controlled the series in the early years, winning six consecutive games from 1907-12. The 1914 Ouachita team, which earlier had defeated Arkansas at Fayetteville and Ole Miss in a game played at Memphis, could manage only a tie against the Reddies.

The series was interrupted by World War II and later was suspended from 1951-63 because of excessive vandalism by students at the neighboring schools. School officials began leaving the lights on at both stadiums the week of the game to discourage pranks.

As we drive between the campuses, we pass two of the most beautiful old homes in the state.

On one side of the highway, the Charles Christopher Henderson House is now home to a bed-and-breakfast inn operated by Henderson State University. Captain Henderson, a native of Scott County, made his fortune in banking, timber and railroads.

“On July 16, 1892, Henderson bought a lot at the corner of president-day 10th and Henderson streets, directly opposite the campus of Arkadelphia Methodist College,” Sesser writes. “Two small cottages built in 1876 on the property faced the campus. Henderson and his family lived in one of these homes before the family moved to Ruston, La., for several years. Returning to Arkadelphia in 1903, Henderson moved one cottage to a new location and began an extensive expansion project on the second cottage.”

On the other side of the highway is the home that James Barkman built in 1860. He was the son of early Clark County planter Jacob Barkman, who owned almost 22,000 acres by the time of his death in 1852, operated salt works on the Ouachita River and owned a steamboat known as the Dime. Henderson State purchased the home in 1968, and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

I point out the famous ravine, which is covered in kudzu.

The time has come to depart the Athens of Arkansas and head north to Hot Springs.

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Camden to Arkadelphia

Thursday, December 28th, 2017


We cross the Ouachita River at Camden and continue our trek to the north on Arkansas Highway 7.

There will be no more rural four-lane stretches of Highway 7, as was the case between El Dorado and Camden. The road here is narrow as we enter the heavily forested bottomlands near the river. The hardwoods form a canopy over the highway with railroad tracks to our right and the river to our left.

This section of Highway 7 is sometimes closed due to flooding, though that’s not a problem in this dry autumn of 2017. Huge cypress trees have turned golden, and we comment on the number of cypress knees we can see as we peer through the woods, hoping to spot an alligator.

It’s beautiful here, in a Deep South sort of way.

The Ouachita River originates near the Oklahoma border in the Ouachita Mountains. It passes through the dams that form three lakes (Ouachita, Hamilton and Catherine), transitions from a mountain stream to a lowland stream at Rockport in Hot Spring County, flows into Louisiana and finally joins forces with the Tensas River near Jonesville, La., to form the Black River. The Black, in turn, joins the Red River near Simmesport, La., to form the Atchafalaya River.

I was raised just a few hundred yards from this river at Arkadelphia. I thus consider it my “home river.”

“The Ouachita is a river of diverse beauty,” writes Glenn Gore of the Ouachita River Foundation. “It begins as a small mountain stream at Eagleton in Polk County and flows eastward about 120 miles. It winds through lush mountain valleys, steadily building as its flows between huge boulders beneath mountain bluffs. It flows onward on its 600-mile course amid banks of moss-covered oaks and cypress trees in the swampy bottoms of Louisiana.

“The Ouachita is noted for its great fishing. … Wildlife is abundant along the banks of the river. Whitetail deer, turkeys and even an occasional bear can be seen in secluded areas. Alligators and bald eagles have also recently returned to the area after having been driven out in the early 1900s. The Ouachita is also a major flyway for ducks and geese feeding and resting in the river’s oak-laden backwater flats and cypress swamps as well as in the rice and soybean fields along its banks.”

Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned inventor William Dunbar and scientist George Hunter to lead an expedition up the river by boat in 1804-05. The party covered almost 450 miles from the mouth of the Ouachita River to Hot Springs.

“In 1819, the first steamboat came up the Ouachita, making such a strange sound and presenting such a monstrous sight that it was described as ‘a puffing dragon,'” Gore writes. “After that frightful debut, steamboats began to play an integral part in the colorful history connected with the Ouachita. From 1819-1910, the Ouachita was the great highway of commerce and transportation for the entire river valley. Steamboats came from as far as New Orleans up the Ouachita River, reaching even Camden and Arkadelphia during times of high water.”

On this part of the drive, we’re still in Ouachita County, which was carved out of Union County in 1842.

“The county was already heavily settled by the time of the Louisiana Purchase,” Debbie Fenwick Ponder writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The French had traveled upriver from New Orleans and settled the community of Frenchport. In the late 1820s and early 1830s, the population of the area consisted of about 150 Choctaw along with white settlers and slaves. As more white settlers came to the area, the French left, returning to New Orleans or moving farther west.

“The Tates and Nunns were some of the first American settlers. They built homes and started farming and using the river for trade. By 1844, Camden was a substantial town with planned streets, lawyers and doctors, a courthouse, schools and churches. Records indicate that Dr. James H. Ponder was the first physician in the county. The first newspaper, the Ouachita Herald, was published in 1845 with Joshua Ruth as editor.”

Because this area north of Camden floods so easily, it has always been sparsely populated. Deer seemingly outnumber people along this stretch of Highway 7.

We reach the community of Amy and stop at Smith’s Liquor Store, not because we need to buy beer, wine or spirits; we don’t. We stop because it looks like the kind of place where one might meet a colorful character, and that’s the case. Hartwell Smith Jr. has run this store for more than four decades. He has seen it all.

With a dog to keep him company and no morning customers, Smith has plenty of time to tell us stories — stories such as the beer joint down the road that Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller obtained a liquor license for in the late 1960s once the owner had delivered him the black vote in Ouachita County. Back when Clark County was still dry, college students from Arkadelphia sometimes would make the drive to Amy to hang out in a small place they called the Tulip Country Club. Smith remembers those days fondly.

We finally tell Hartwell Smith goodbye and continue our trip north through the forest.

We enter Dallas County, a place where the timber industry is dominant. The population of Dallas County dropped from a high of 14,671 in the 1930 census to just 8,116 residents in the 2010 census.

“Very little settlement was in the area now known as Dallas County until 1840,” Michael Hodge writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Those settlers were mostly farmers and their slaves. While agriculture has always been the primary concern of the county’s citizens, industry such as sawmills, gristmills, flour mills, cotton gins, tanyards, blacksmith shops and pottery producers was also evident before the Civil War. … The first community to gain prominence in the area that is now Dallas County was Tulip. Previously named Brownville and then Smithville after prominent early settlers, Tulip was on the Chidester Stage route from Camden to Little Rock and boasted three collegiate schools and a literary magazine during its heyday. By the time the county was created in 1845, Tulip was well established, but it was never incorporated and was never the seat of the county’s government.”

Dallas County was carved from Clark and Bradley counties and named for George Mifflin Dallas, the 11th vice president of the United States.

“The town of Princeton was platted as the county seat of the newly formed county and by 1850 rivaled Tulip as the economic and cultural center of the county with its own academy and a prominent inn,” Hodge writes. “The first courthouse was a log structure built in 1846 on the east side of Princeton’s town square. Previous county business had been conducted in the home of a Mr. Watts, presumably Presley Watts, the first county clerk.

“By 1850, the county had 256 slaveholders owning 2,542 slaves, mostly farming cotton and other crops. In 1852, the original log courthouse was replaced and paid for by a member of the Smith family. In 1855, Princeton was incorporated. By 1859, a map of Arkansas marked the communities of Tulip, Princeton, Fairview, Red Bird and Chappell in Dallas County. The communities of Holly Springs and Pine Grove, both settled around 1840, had been mentioned elsewhere. Roughly 500 farmsteads, houses, churches and schools dotted a Civil War map of Dallas County, most disappearing during or shortly after the war. Few structures were actually destroyed because of fighting during the Civil War. They were lost because of neglect. About a third of the population left the area for Texas and Louisiana to avoid the fighting during the war. Many never returned.”

The era of the timber industry and the railroads led to population growth after Reconstruction.

“During the 1920s, many county farms were sold to lumber companies,” Hodge writes. “Farming, aside from the timber industry, is mostly confined to the southwest area of the county in the 21st century. The railroads began to lose their significance in the 1920s as the versatility of gas-powered vehicles changed the way logging was done, eliminating the need to build tracks and maintain infrastructure to support them for logging. … In 1940, the last trainload of logs pulled into the Fordyce station, signaling the end of an era.”

We pass through the community of Ouachita and then come to Sparkman, a once-thriving lumber town whose population fell by more than half from 964 in 1950 to 427 in the 2010 census.

“Present-day Sparkman is about a quarter of a mile southwest of the original settlement, which local residents today refer to as Old Sparkman,” Mike Polston writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Lemil Pete Sparkman, who established a lumber mill near the 17-mile trunk line Ultima Thule, Arkadelphia & Mississippi Railway, founded the settlement in 1892. On Sept. 19, 1893, a post office was opened with Sparkman as the postmaster. By 1899, the town was home to about 150 citizens and had three blacksmiths, a cotton gin, two general stores, a sawmill, a church and a depot.

“Once all of the profitable timber was cut out about 1910, the railroad shut down, and Sparkman moved his operation. The town began a decline. Earlier, a few unsuccessful oil wells were sunk, resulting in some of the surrounding land being polluted by the brine that was brought to the surface. Some used these waters for medicinal purposes, but they were never successfully exploited.”

As for the interesting name of that railroad, it was designed to run west from Arkadelphia all the way to a logging community in Sevier County known as Ultima Thule. However, it only made it west as far as a Clark County logging community known as Daleville, and it only made it east as far as Sparkman.

The Malvern & Camden Railroad came to Sparkman in 1913.

“Anticipating growth, the Dallas Town Co., organized by the Moore & Martin Real Estate Co. in Prescott, began to market lots to promote a new town platted near these tracks on Aug. 1, 1913,” Polston writes. “The new Sparkman began to grow slowly, and by the end of the year had a population of about 30 and a business district that included a general store, mill, gin and blacksmith. The opening of the Rucker Lumber Co. and the Arkadelphia Milling Co. at about the same time sparked the settlement’s transformation into a trade center supported by area lumber operations and farmers.”

The year 1915 saw the opening of the Hotel Sparkman, the addition of an electric power plant and the founding of a newspaper.

“By 1916, the city included five general stores, a barber, a gin, a hotel, a bakery, a restaurant, a hardware store and the Merchant & Planters Bank,” Polston writes. “By 1920, the population was approaching 600. … The 1920s were rocky years for the town. By 1926, both the Arkadelphia Milling Co. and the Hardwood Lumber Co. had closed their operations. Much of that business loss was recouped by the opening of the Garland Gaston Lumber Co. in 1927.”

The Dixie Theater opened in 1933. Sparkman area residents often ate at the Big Elephant Cafe before or after shows at the Dixie. And Sparkman received national publicity from 1927-30 due to the national success of its women’s basketball team, the Sparkman Sparklers. Called the “Wonder Girls of Basketball,” the team was led by the likes of Quinnie Hamm, Irene Hamm, Cozie Fite and Majorie Leonard. Some writers proclaimed Quinnie Hamm to be the best player in the country. She made 53 field goals and three foul shots in one game for 109 points. People came from miles around to see her play.

One article about the team noted: “J.R. North, general manager of a Sparkman lumber company, discovered the girls and launched them on the road to national prominence. Through his own activity in collegiate athletics, North readily recognized ability in the girls as they administered a decisive trimming to another girls’ team on an outdoor court. He sought the coach, Maxie Brown, graduate of Henderson-Brown College, and suggested that the Sparklers be paraded against sterner competition.”

Most members of the team were offered basketball scholarships to Crescent College in Eureka Springs, which held classes in the Crescent Hotel.

Some of the final scores for the Sparklers were 164-9 over Malvern, 124-5 over Tomberlin, 106-5 over Cabot and 105-19 over El Dorado.

When former Sparkler Vyra Mae Mann died in 2007, Pryor Jordan wrote for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “The Sparklers began playing on a dirt court outside the high school, but as the girls’ talent began to show, larger crowds began attending the games. Admission to Sparkman games was $2.50, about double the standard admission price for high school games in that era, but they sold out anyway, helping to finance the construction of an 800-seat gymnasium at Sparkman for the 1927-28 season. By 1929, the Sparklers had become a household name throughout most of the state and had attracted national publicity as the Arkansas Democrat and Arkansas Gazette chronicled the Sparklers’ season.”

Mann said in a 2003 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette interview: “With all the publicity, everyone in Arkansas heard of us. We used to get fan mail and telegrams from all over.”

In the national AAU tournament, the Sparklers were third in 1929 and second in 1930, losing 27-24 to the Sun Oilers of Dallas in the championship game.

In 1960, the boys’ basketball team at Sparkman Training School — the school for black students in the era of segregation — won the state championship for all-black teams, 51-43, over McGehee in a game played on the campus of what then was called Arkansas AM&N in Pine Bluff.

Along with basketball players, other famous residents of Sparkman were country music stars Jim Ed Brown and Bonnie Brown, who were born in the city.

We turn our vehicle toward the west for a couple of miles as we leave Sparkman before heading north again. We cross into Clark County at Dalark. This was our quail hunting zone when I was a boy, and I show my travel companions where the two country stores were at Dalark. My father and I would stop at those stores for bologna sandwiches for lunch when we were hunting. One served mostly whites; the other served mostly blacks. My father actually preferred the store for blacks, which was run by the overall-wearing “Sugar” Jones and later his son, Danny Jones.

A few miles from Dalark, we turn left onto Palmetto Road. This was another area where I once hunted. I want to show the others in our vehicle an area where the forest floor is covered with saw palmetto. It looks more like south Georgia or Florida here than it does Arkansas.

We then cross L’eau Frais Creek and Tupelo Creek east of Arkadelphia. The quail are gone now. The small cotton and soybean fields that once marked this area have been replaced by pine plantations.

We emerge from the pine forest and experience our first and only large row-crop fields of the trip several miles east of Arkadelphia. This land in the Ouachita River bottoms was cleared decades ago for rice and soybean fields. For a short distance, it’s like being in the Delta. We’ve pretty much followed the Ouachita River north from Camden. We cross the river for a second time this day and enter Arkadelphia.

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