Archive for the ‘Building Arkansas’ Category

AICU: Locking the door

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

I locked the door at the North Little Rock office of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities for the final time Tuesday night.

Having had the opportunity to serve as the AICU president since January 2011 was a blessing. In fact, I enjoyed working for the state’s 11 private colleges and universities so much that I thought it was the job I would still be in when I retired.

But life is full of surprises, and the good folks here at Simmons First National Corp. offered me the chance to build something from scratch. It’s the kind of challenge I like.

June was one of the busiest months of my life. I had told the folks at Simmons that I would start work on June 1. I also had promised the 11 college presidents for whom I worked that I would get AICU to the June 30 end of its fiscal year. So I worked at Simmons until about 5:30 p.m. each day and then headed across the Arkansas River to the AICU offices for another three hours or so.

It was a relief to say so long to June. Yet it also was a bit sad to say so long to the organization that represents the state’s private institutions of higher education.

Of course, AICU traded up in the “Rex trade” since the new AICU president will be Dr. Rex Horne, who is leaving Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia after nine years as its president. Rex Horne is among the most talented men I know.

In addition to Ouachita, the current AICU members are Arkansas Baptist College at Little Rock, Central Baptist College at Conway, Crowley’s Ridge College at Paragould, Harding University at Searcy, Hendrix College at Conway, John Brown University at Siloam Springs, Lyon College at Batesville, Philander Smith College at Little Rock, the University of the Ozarks at Clarksville and Williams Baptist College at Walnut Ridge.

The organization has an interesting history. What’s now AICU was founded in the spring of 1954 as a sort of United Way for private colleges. Charter members of what was known at the time as the Arkansas Foundation of Associated Colleges were Arkansas College (now Lyon), College of the Ozarks (now a university), Harding College (now a university), Hendrix College, John Brown University, Ouachita Baptist College (now a university) and Southern Baptist College (now Williams Baptist).

The stated mission of the organization was to:

– Interpret the aims, functions and needs of the member colleges to the public

– Solicit funds for the benefit of the operating budgets of member colleges

In 1974, the Independent Colleges of Arkansas was organized as a related organization. It was charged with representing private colleges and universities in the area of public policy. Meanwhile, AFAC continued its fundraising role. ICA and AFAC operated out of the same offices.

In addition to the seven members of AFAC, ICA member institutions were Central Baptist, Crowley’s Ridge, Arkansas Baptist, Philander Smith and Shorter College at North Little Rock.

AFAC changed its name to the Independent College Fund of Arkansas in 1983.

In 1993, Central Baptist became the eighth ICFA member.

In 1998, ICA and ICFA merged and became AICU. By then, Shorter had lost its accreditation and thus was not eligible for AICU membership.

During the organization’s more than five decades of existence, more than $20 million has been raised and distributed to member institutions. In the early years, the funds distributed to members were unrestricted and used for a variety of purposes. Now, all money raised is for student scholarships.

Retired military officers served as the paid executives of the association during its first two decades.

Gen. Hugh Cort led the organization from 1954-58 and was succeeded by Col. Cletus Bennett from 1958-68 and Col. Maurice Radcliffe from 1968-74. They traveled the state seeking support from businesses.

Even into the late 1980s, some annual gifts were as small as $50. In its formative years, the association’s budget was augmented by large gifts from Winthrop Rockefeller, who moved to Arkansas from New York in 1953.

The organization’s executive director now carries the title of president. There were four presidents in a 14-year period:

– Max Jones from 1974-77

– William Patterson from 1977-79

– Frank Ivey from 1980-82

– Ben Elrod from 1983-88

When Elrod resigned to accept the presidency of Ouachita, central Arkansas businessman Kearney Dietz was hired as president. He served for almost 24 years before retiring in January 2011. When we renovated our office, we named it the Kearny Dietz Office Suite in honor of his many years of service.

In the early years of ICA’s policy efforts, there were repeated attempts to pass legislation to provide a college tuition equalization grant to Arkansas students who chose to enroll in the state’s private institutions. Those efforts were unsuccessful.

When the achievement-based Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship was created by the Arkansas Legislature in 1991, students were allowed to use the scholarship money at either public or private institutions in the state. This represented a major policy victory for AICU.

In November 2008, Arkansas voters passed a lottery amendment that provides additional funds for the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship program. Those funds still may be used by students at either public or private in-state institutions.

Though raising money for scholarships is still a part of what AICU does, governmental affairs and public affairs have become increasingly important through the years. The AICU president serves as the liaison between the 11 member institutions and the governor’s office, the Legislature, the Arkansas Department of Higher Education and the state’s congressional delegation. In the area of public affairs, the AICU president is expected to give speeches statewide and write articles to educate business and civic leaders about the importance of private higher education to the state’s economy.

My replacement grew up at Camden. Rex Horne was the 15th president in the history of Ouachita, which was founded in 1886. Prior to becoming Ouachita’s president, he was the senior pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church at Little Rock for 16 years. Before he became pastor at Immanuel, Dr. Horne was a pastor in Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma. He was the president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention from 1995-97.

Dr. Horne completed his freshman year at Ouachita before finishing his bachelor’s degree at what’s now Lyon . He later earned a master of divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary at Fort Worth and a doctor of ministry degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He also was a weekly columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for 10 years while at Immanuel and is the author of three books. Under Horne’s leadership, Ouachita has significantly enhanced and expanded campus facilities.

AICU is in good hands with Rex Horne.

I could lock the door on that last night in June with a smile on my face, thankful that the time as AICU president had been a part of my life’s journey.

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Ben Elrod: Part 4

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

It didn’t take Ben Elrod long to learn that there were major differences between being the vice president for development and being the president of Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia.

“The main difference was having the ultimate responsibility and the weight of that,” Elrod said in a 2005 interview that looked back on his tenure as president. “I didn’t deal with that much as a vice president. The president is really the one who bears the brunt of that pressure. This was difficult because I had been a pastor. I had told Dan Grant way back there in the 1970s: ‘I don’t think I could be president because I would want to be pastor to all the people, and you can’t be pastor and administrator at the same time. You can’t be very objective if you’re going to be the pastor.’

“I had difficulty firing people when they needed to be fired. Delivering bad news was difficult for me. I had some doubts that I should serve as president. But between the time I left Ouachita and came back, I had the experience of being a president and felt that it went well.

“There is a sense in which you can’t be too close to anybody because of the danger of being partial. You’ve got to think in terms of everybody in the organization and the ways of properly communicating with them. I think the main duty of the president is to interpret the mission of the institution for the inner family and for the outside publics and then represent the institution. I got a great deal of personal satisfaction out of doing it and felt that it was a worthwhile investment for my life. I’ve loved Ouachita since I was a student there, so it was a labor of love. I felt good that it turned out the way it did and that we were able to accomplish the things that we did.

“I was conscious of the fact that I depended on a lot of people to get things done. I tried to give credit to others for the things that we accomplished. But I also knew that I had to carry the ball on interpreting the mission, providing the vision and setting the direction.”

The roughest waters that Elrod had to navigate as president came during the period when many Baptist institutions of higher education felt that the fundamentalist movement in the Southern Baptist Convention constituted a threat to academic freedom.

Baylor University in Waco, Texas, which was chartered in 1845, is the largest Baptist university in the country. In 1990, Baylor President Herbert H. Reynolds engineered a change in the university’s charter, a move that allowed the Baptist General Convention of Texas to elect only a quarter of the school’s trustees rather than all of them. Reynolds said at the time that he would not allow the university to be taken over by fundamentalists who were “more interested in indoctrination than education and enlightenment.”

The shock waves were felt in neighboring Arkansas.

Elrod issued a statement in October 1990 that said: “While it’s strictly their business, I’m saddened by the fact that the Baylor University trustees felt it necessary to take such action. Fortunately, the relationship between Ouachita and the Arkansas Baptist State Convention could not be stronger than it has been in recent years. We have excellent leadership in Dr. Don Moore as executive director and Rev. Mike Huckabee as president. They have provided rock-solid stability. For the record, I want to state that Ouachita will continue to be an institution of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. Ouachita owes its very existence to the Baptist churches of the state. They have loved and nurtured Ouachita for more than 100 years.”

Huckabee, a Ouachita graduate from Hope who later would serve for more than a decade as Arkansas’ governor, had helped keep the Arkansas Baptist State Convention from fracturing during his two terms as convention president.

“My prayer and my commitment will be that, long after the controversies that divide Southern Baptists have subsided, Ouachita Baptist University will still be dedicated to the principles on which it was founded in 1886,” Elrod said in that 1990 statement. “We will continue to adhere to the mission statement adopted by our faculty, staff and board of trustees: ‘To provide students the opportunity to experience growth in Christian ideals and character, to develop their intellectual and physical abilities, to think critically and creatively, to mature in their understanding and appreciation of the world, to communicate effectively and to accept their obligation to be of service to God and mankind.”

Under Elrod’s leadership, Ouachita would revert to its original charter, which called for a self-perpetuating board in which board members elected their successors.

“It was the most difficult thing I dealt with as president,” Elrod said in the 2005 interview. “It became apparent to me that the nominating committee of the state convention was not communicating about the appointment of trustees. With the denominational situation divided, I could read that and knew what was happening. We were about to be taken over. It was an organized group that wanted power, and they wanted Ouachita. They had no business with Ouachita.

“I insisted that we had to minister to all Arkansas Baptists, not just a few and not just those of a particular persuasion. To do this, we were going to take back the authority we gave the convention soon after Ouachita was chartered to nominate and elect our trustees. We later did what we could to get the convention to agree to go ahead with the process. That system has worked quite well.

“The convention sequestered our money for two to three months and threatened not to support us further, but that was soon settled. The forces of reason won the battle. Ouachita people came out of the woodwork from all over the state. It was just an overwhelming show of support. A majority of Arkansas Baptists won that battle. It was a battle that had been lost in some other states.”

For Elrod, it might have been easier at the time if Ouachita had simply separated itself entirely from the Arkansas Baptist State Convention rather than crafting a compromise. Elrod, though, was determined to keep the relationship intact.

“It was difficult to decide how to do it,” he says. “I decided that the best way to interpret our actions was to say very little but to say the same thing every time we addressed the matter. What I said was: ‘We want Ouachita to be out of the line of fire when it comes to denominational warfare.’ I was determined that we would not be swallowed up by a fight that didn’t involve us. That’s what I said over and over.

“At schools in other states where that group had succeeded in taking over the trustees, there were just unbelievable problems. The matter of academic freedom just went out the window. The trustees would interview every prospective staff and faculty member. These people were required to sign certain things. There were all sorts of goofy restrictions. We were determined to avoid that. I’ve never had such a groundswell of support for anything I did.”

Of course, Elrod had a track record in Arkansas that dated back decades. It wasn’t as if he were new to the state, to Ouachita or to the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.

“I’m sure it helped,” he says. “Trust is so important in a leader. Once you lose trust, there’s not much that you can accomplish. I felt I did have the trust of Arkansas Baptists. I had been a pastor in Arkansas. I had been very supportive of the convention and its work. I was pretty well a theological fundamentalist, but I was not a warring fundamentalist. I didn’t want a warring faction to take over the institution. I had many friends among fundamentalists, but they were not part of the group that wanted to go to war and take over the school. So they supported us. I really appreciated them for doing what they did because it made them very unpopular in that group.”

Though there have been tough times and will be more hard times, Elrod is an optimist when it comes to the future of Christian higher education.

“It’s by the grace of God that these institutions have survived for as long as they have,” he says. “I have a feeling they will survive a long time yet to come by the grace of God. I’m not sure that those who abandoned their Christian commitment will do as well as those who have stuck by it. I think there’s a strong support structure out there for institutions that maintain their dedication to Christian values and to the lordship of Christ. I have great hope that this will be the case for Ouachita. I have confidence in the Ouachita family.”

Elrod says he could always feel “the presence of God” at Ouachita.

“When I walk across this campus, I’m as convinced as I can be that his presence is here and that it brings about all sorts of miracles,” Elrod says. “That confidence is what keeps me optimistic about Ouachita’s future.”

In a September 1989 address to the Ouachita student body, Elrod said: “The nicest tradition going at Ouachita since its founding in 1886 is what thousands have agreed is a sense of the presence of God. Of all the ways in which Ouachita has influenced those who have been a part of the family, nothing has compared to the impact of the unmistakable presence of God in the lives of students, faculty and staff.”

In a speech titled “Why I Believe in Baptist Higher Education,” Elrod said: “I believe in Baptist colleges because they are conservative institutions in the best sense of that term. Conservative in its best sense refers to the preservation of things of value. Our Baptist colleges have through the years been conservative in that sense. They had laid heavy emphasis on basic honesty, the sanctity of marriage and the home, the orderly process of government, the worth and dignity of every human being and the key role of the church in the life of our nation.

“We need some institutions of great strength serving that function in America. Such values have held us together as a people. The society will disintegrate just as slowly or as quickly as those values become no longer held by our people. We are not bound together in America, as are the people of many nations, by the overshadowing guns of an army. We are not held together by racial singleness. Our cohesiveness is not to be found in our government as such. America is bound together by commonly held values, and our little hilltop colleges have been staunch defenders of those values.”

In 1997, Elrod announced that he would retire as president of Ouachita, taking the title of chancellor of the university. He had accomplished what he set out to do.

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Ben Elrod: Part 3

Monday, June 29th, 2015

When Ben Elrod arrived as the young president of Oakland City College in rural southwestern Indiana in 1968, the school had 670 students and an operating budget of $1.2 million.

“Gifts and grants in 1967-68 were $78,000, practically all from the denomination,” Elrod says. “The college had never been regionally accredited. The denomination (General Baptists) was small, consisting of about 60,000 people. The total denominational budget was less than $300,000 for all causes. The 800 churches were primarily small rural churches, most of which were barely able to finance the local ministry without regard to other denominational causes. There were 4,000 alumni and friends on the mailing list. There had never been an alumni fund as such, although alumni had been solicited for various capital campaigns.

“The college had operated with a deficit for four consecutive years and had drawn upon its meager reserve funds to bail it out. The reserves were depleted, and there were scarcely any uncommitted assets. There was one person with a doctorate on the faculty, the rest holding master’s degrees. The denomination was suspicious of the college but was giving practically all the outside support the college was receiving.”

Under Elrod’s leadership, 600 additional contributors were recruited, and student applications increased by 10 percent.

“In about February of my second year there, just as I was finishing up at Indiana University, a committee from William Jewell College in Missouri called and wanted me to come over and talk to them about the presidency,” Elrod says. ”I did. I dealt with them during a period of four to five months. Then Dan Grant called and told me he was coming to Ouachita as president. He wanted me to come back to my old job of vice president for development. I had the pain of that decision to make. I could stay at Oakland City, I could go to William Jewel or I could come to Ouachita.”

Grant’s father, Dr. J.R. Grant, had been Ouachita’s eighth president from 1934-49. The elder Grant was able to keep the doors open during the Great Depression while overseeing the construction of a gymnasium, student center, auditorium and dormitory. Student enrollment numbers increased after World War II. The administration building known as Old Main was destroyed by fire in 1949, but Grant Memorial Building was dedicated in 1953 to honor the former president’s accomplishments.

At the time of his hiring at Ouachita, Dan Grant was on the faculty at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and was recognized as one of the nation’s leading political scientists. The Ouachita board of trustees asked him to move to the town where he had grown up — Arkadelphia — and become Ouachita’s 12th president.

“It was the toughest decision I ever made,” Elrod says of his decision to follow Grant to Ouachita. “William Jewell College called on a Saturday night. The fellow who had been my contact there said the committee was ready to unanimously recommend me the next afternoon as president and that he had no doubt the board would accept the recommendation. I said, ‘When do you have to have an answer?’ He said, ‘By 8 p.m.’ This was after I had been thinking about it and praying about it for a month. So he had every right to put a deadline on it. Well, we did some more driving around, talking, praying and thinking. Finally, I called him at 8 p.m. and said: ‘Bill, I can’t say yes. So I guess that means no.’ At the time, I really didn’t know why. I just knew I couldn’t do it. I turned around and called Dan Grant. I told him I was coming back to Ouachita. I never looked back or regretted the decision to come back. I had eight of the most pleasant years of my life with Dan Grant as president and with me as vice president for development. We just had a wonderful relationship.”

Elrod says he hadn’t considered the possibility of coming back to Ouachita when he left for Indiana.

“I knew of Dan Grant’s reputation, and it was very tempting to me to come back to work with him,” Elrod says. “When I had been at Ouachita the first time, I had corresponded with him and talked to him on the phone, enlisting him to take part in the alumni campaign. I got him to help with his classmates so they would give to the annual fund. That was our only acquaintance up to that point.

“When he accepted the presidency at Ouachita, he said the first thing he did was call me. He thought he could administer a college, but he didn’t think he could raise money. He thought I could, so he called me. We had eight wonderful years. Ouachita prospered during those years, and we raised a lot of money. We added to the endowment. I thought I would be here for a lifetime.”

Those eight years saw the establishment of international exchange programs, an expanded honors program and endowed chairs of instruction. Elrod also raised millions of dollars for construction of the Evans Student Center and Lile Hall in 1973, the Mabee Fine Arts Center in 1975, a new campus drive and pedestrian bridge over the ravine in 1976, the Blackmon Field House in 1977 and McClellan Hall in 1978.

While on the platform for the dedication of McClellan Hall, Dr. W.O. Vaught, the legendary pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church at Little Rock, leaned over and asked Elrod if he would be willing to talk to the presidential search committee from Georgetown College in Kentucky.

Elrod responded bluntly: “No.”

“We went ahead with the dedication, and I thought about it some more,” Elrod says. “I decided I ought to at least give it a look.”

Vaught’s brother-in-law was on the Georgetown board and had inquired about Elrod. Georgetown was an old school, having been chartered in 1829 as the first Baptist college west of the Allegheny Mountains. There was tradition, but there also were financial problems. The school is in the bluegrass region of Kentucky, about 12 miles north of Lexington. Elrod accepted the board’s offer at Georgetown.

At age 47, Ben Elrod found himself leaving Ouachita again in the summer of 1978 to become a college president for the second time.

“We look upon this move as a closing to a wonderful chapter of our lives,” Elrod said at the time. “One of the things that has made the experience such a delight has been the pleasure of working with Dr. Grant. He’s one of those unusual administrators who makes it a pleasure to work for him. It’s highly probable that we will retire in Arkadelphia. We’ve lived here longer than any other place other than the towns where we grew up.”

Grant said at the time: “It’s hardly enough to say that Ouachita’s loss is Georgetown’s gain or that we will miss Ben Elrod very much. We can only be grateful that he has shared the past eight years of his energy, dedication and wisdom with Ouachita and contributed in such a strategic way to this period of unparalleled progress.”

Elrod served as president of Georgetown College for the next five years. Then, he and Betty Lou came home to Arkansas.

“I felt I had done at Georgetown what I went there to do,” he says. “At the time I went to Georgetown, the relationship between Georgetown and the denomination was in a bad state of repair. They were financially strapped, all of their reserves were drained and they had been accumulating an operating deficit. I knew that I could help them in those areas and went there to do that. I did accomplish those things and felt good about it. I never thought of it as a lifetime proposition. When the call came to come back to Arkansas, that was the call to come home, and we did.”

Grant had helped convince the presidents of the other private colleges and universities in the state to hire Elrod to head what’s now known as Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities. The organization operates from offices in North Little Rock, specializing in governmental affairs and public affairs for private higher education while also raising money for scholarships at the 11 member institutions. What’s now AICU had been founded in the spring of 1954 as a sort of United Way for private colleges. During the organization’s more than five decades of existence, more than $20 million has been raised and distributed to member institutions.

Elrod served as the president of AICU from 1983-88 while also doing outside fundraising consulting for other institutions of higher education.

Then, Ouachita called once more.

Returning to Ouachita as the university’s president wasn’t on Elrod’s radar in early 1988.

“I came back to Arkansas with the idea that the last expression of my ministry would probably be the position of president of the Independent Colleges of Arkansas and the Independent College Fund of Arkansas,” Elrod said in an August 1988 interview. “I was comfortable in feeling that my last contribution would be to the overall field of independent higher education in Arkansas. … I also was given permission to do consulting on a part-time basis in the area of fundraising for colleges and universities. I’ve been keeping at least one out-of-state client. I had thought about doing more of that and perhaps easing out of this job in later years.

“When Dr. Grant retired when he did, which was earlier than I had expected, I was contacted by a number of Ouachita people on and off the campus. I didn’t apply. … I found that my background of having had a call from the Lord at age 16 and having been fully employed in one place or another in the work of the Lord ever since without ever applying for a job, that background wouldn’t let me apply for this or any other job. So I didn’t. I did respond to the committee’s inquiry by saying that I would suggest they look for a younger man who could give them 20 years perhaps and that if they didn’t find that person, they could come back and we would talk later. That’s what happened. Through my personal prayer and questioning, I had come to the position that if they asked me, I would be willing to serve.”

Elrod, who was 57 at the time, said he had “no illusions about being a long-term president” but that things had “come together in a rather nice way. It feels right to me. You know, some decisions you make feel a bit uncomfortable, sort of like a new pair of shoes. Others feel comfortable from the moment you make them, and this one has.”

“I would be hard-pressed to turn down an opportunity at this point just because I’m 57 years old,” he said at the time. “I still want to serve. And if I’m capable and judged capable by the people who are making the decision, I will have a hard time saying no to them.”

Several months after beginning his tenure as Ouachita’s president, Ben Elrod was formally inaugurated in the spring of 1989.

He said in his inaugural address on April 13, 1989: “As a university, we accept the challenge of the 1990s. We understand that the challenge is not that we simply exist, but that we excel. We intend to do just that, building on the strong foundation provided by those who have served before. One can readily envision a great decade of progress in the 1990s. Alumni, Arkansas Baptists and friends comprise a loving constituency. They share the burden of the challenge. They are strong and steady allies. They have witnessed dramatic progress. They like the feeling. They take pride in the results. They are ready to join us in further victories.”

In his charge to the new president that day, Grant urged Elrod to hold people’s feet to the fire.

“This doesn’t always bring the praise of people, but it will bring appreciation from more than you might expect,” Grant said. “Your life in the fiery furnace or, to change the metaphor, your life in the lions’ den may be worrisome during the long, hot summers and even in the cold of winter, but take the world of Daniel. It will be worth every minute of it.”

Elrod later said, “I didn’t realize how much I had missed being on a college campus, especially Ouachita’s campus. The call of alma mater is the call to come home, and it evokes all kinds of good feelings, just as going home had done through the years.”

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Ben Elrod: Part 2

Friday, June 26th, 2015

As vice president of development and later president of Ouachita Baptist University, Dr. Ben Elrod earned a reputation as a master fundraiser.

He got his start as a Ouachita student, helping save the school’s athletic program.

“During my sophomore year, the decision was made to stop subsidizing athletics,” Elrod says. “So there would be no more scholarships, no more books furnished for athletes. A group of us got together as students and formed a club that we called IPSAY. That stood for I Pay Six A Year. We asked the students to give $6 a year — $3 per semester — to help support the athletic program. We also created a library so athletes would have books. We built a pretty complete library and gave the athletes their books. That helped preserve some kind of athletic program. It was a good little organization.”

Life as a student in Arkadelphia centered on the campus.

“The options for going into town were the picture show and the church,” Elrod says. “We could also go out on the town and eat. There were a couple of good eating places. The girls could go out on Wednesday nights to church. On weekends, they had to be in at 11 p.m. They were very restricted, and that kept the boys in line.”

It was during Elrod’s time as a student at Ouachita that the Battle of the Ravine football game with neighboring Henderson ceased following the 1951 game. The rivalry wouldn’t resume until 1963 due to excessive vandalism and violence. One memorable confrontation took place adjacent to the well-known Tiger statue at the center of the Ouachita campus.

“We actually had a brawl out here around the Tiger,” Elrod says. “Every year there was a pot of Reddie stew cooked the week before the game beside the Tiger. There was a big pot. I have no idea what was in it, but we kept it boiling for a week. We would take turns staying out there all night guarding the Tiger. The Henderson students would find some way to get to the Tiger nearly every year, including throwing balloons full of paint from a distance.

“We had a fence erected to protect the Tiger from the back. There were flanks of students in front of the Tiger to protect it from the other direction. The Henderson students came marching over in ROTC formation, some with ROTC helmets on. Our scouts down in the ravine notified us that they were coming. They just came up to our lines, and we stood there toe-to-toe and fought. It was the silliest thing in the world, and people were injured. One of our guys broke his hand. It was just one of the most stupid things I ever saw in my life, but we thought it had to be done.

“Some people had socks full of rocks that they were using to hit with. It should have never gotten that way. I don’t remember the police coming. I guess we just got tired of fighting.”

Female students watched from the windows of their rooms at Cone Bottoms Hall, which Elrod said made the Ouachita men even more determined to fight. One of the female students was from Smackover and later would become Betty Elrod, Ben Elrod’s wife.

“She was an outstanding basketball player in high school,” Ben Elrod says. “Smackover came up to Rison for a tournament, and I met her there. We had a double date. I was with another girl, and she was with my best friend. I was pretty impressed with her from watching her play basketball and meeting her. That was the last contact we had in high school. We knew each other as freshmen at Ouachita but did not date. She had two or three boyfriends on the line, and I wasn’t one of them.

“I had a girlfriend back home in Rison, and I dated a girl over here at Ouachita most of my freshman year. But we started dating our sophomore year and got married the summer after our junior year. She dropped out of school to teach at Donaldson. She brought in $107 a month. We lived on that the first three months, and then I was called to pastor an Atkins church. We were rolling in money. I was making $200 a month, and she was making $107.”

Elrod’s first church as a pastor had been the Cedar Creek Church near Waldron in west Arkansas. He would drive to Scott County only once a month since four churches were using an old school building on alternating Sundays. Elrod was paid on Sunday nights after church members had come to the front of the church and put money in a collection plate.

“Sometimes it paid my expenses there and back, and sometimes it didn’t,” Elrod said. “If I could, I hitchhiked up there so it didn’t cost so much.”

Then came the call from Atkins, where Elrod had filled in as a guest preacher.

“It was a wonderful experience for us,” he says. “We were 20 years old, and they took us in as their kids.”

In 1953, Elrod enrolled at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

“While I was in seminary, I was a pastor at Tioga, Texas, which was Gene Autry’s hometown,” he says. “I had a tremendous ministry there and made dear friends.”

Elrod later was the pastor of the First Baptist Church at Marlow, Okla. He would commute from Fort Worth to Marlow and back several times a week.

“That was a pretty stressful time due to the necessity of traveling so much,” Elrod says. “I got to where I could sleep standing up pretty well.”

The next stop for Elrod was back home in south Arkansas at South Side Baptist Church at Pine Bluff.

“I was there for three years,” he says. “During those three years, I was elected to the Ouachita board. I was in the second year of my tenure on the board and was elected vice chairman. It seemed that every time we would meet, we would talk about a lot of needs. The upshot would be that we decided it was a good thing but that we didn’t have the money to do it. So the president, Ralph Phelps, started talking to me about coming as vice president for development. Ouachita had never had a vice president for development, nor had it had an organized fundraising program.”

Phelps, who had replaced Haswell as president in 1953, loved to hunt and fish. He talked to Elrod about the idea of a vice president of development when the two men were fishing.

“I had interpreted my call to be a call to the pastorate, and it was very difficult for me to think about doing anything else,” Elrod says. “I loved the pastorate, but he was pretty insistent on this. One of my problems was that when he talked about fundraising, I sort of equated that to riverboat gamblers. The only fundraisers I had ever seen were people who came down South and fleeced other people. But I had this pressure of seeing the needs of Ouachita from the inside as a member of the board.”

Elrod later learned that Birkett Williams, the school’s largest benefactor, had told Phelps that he would quit giving money to Ouachita if a professional development program wasn’t started. Williams, a 1910 Ouachita graduate, had become one of the nation’s largest Ford dealers at Cleveland. He was president of the National Automobile Dealers Association in 1960 and later was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.

“That was Ralph Phelps’ motivation to get a vice president for development,” Elrod says.

The decision weighed on him. It was 1963, and he had served as a pastor for a dozen years. But Ouachita had been good to Elrod, and he wanted to be good back to Ouachita.

In a speech a quarter of a century later, Elrod would say: “I left the pulpit of one of the finest churches in my home state of Arkansas to enter the field of Baptist higher education. When anyone asked why, I found myself telling the same story over again. It was the story of a young country boy who went to college at Ouachita in 1948 with little to his credit except an unusually large number of rough edges; the story of his surprise at finding young people his own age who were firmly committed to the Lord and to high ideals of honesty, upright loving and service to God and fellow man; the story of the boy’s growing admiration for brilliant men and women on the faculty who were also humble and devoted servants of God; the story of the boy’s own vision of service and submission to the will of God for his life.

“In brief, it was the story of a boy remade by the transforming grace of God through a Christian institution. It was that story that I told repeatedly. It was my story. Since that time 25 years ago, I have lived with a fierce determination that what God did for me then would be available to every young man and woman who will accept it. I continue in that determination.”

Elrod says he “reached the decision to accept the position after about a year of praying and trying to decide what to do.”

He had enjoyed the ministry, having served at First Baptist Church in Atkins from 1953-55; First Baptist Church in Tioga, Texas, from 1955-57; First Baptist Church in Marlow, Okla., from 1957-60; and South Side Baptist Church in Pine Bluff from 1960-63.

Elrod quickly discovered that raising funds for Ouachita in the 1960s was a challenge.

“When I called upon donor prospects, they were more interested in conflict than in giving,” Elrod says. “That environment was not conducive to raising funds from private sources. So I turned to the new federal sources of funds available to higher education through the Great Society legislation.”

As part of the Higher Education Act of 1965, Congress created what’s known as the Title III program, a federal grant program designed to improve education. The federal TRIO programs were an outgrowth of that effort. They were designed to identify and provide services for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. TRIO would grow to include eight programs serving low-income individuals, first-generation college students and those with disabilities. Ouachita became a host site for several of the programs.

Elrod says it was a “great boost to Ouachita’s growth. While it was onerous for me to do that and not be able to raise a lot of private money, I realize now it was a good thing for thousands of southwest Arkansas young people who benefited from those programs.”

When Elrod left Ouachita after almost five years on the staff, it was to go to Indiana University and obtain his doctorate in educational administration.

“Dr. Raymond Gibson and one of his cohorts came to Ouachita to consult with us on the Title III program in educational administration,” Elrod says. “Dr. Gibson got me to thinking about obtaining the doctorate. He was very insistent. He was at the time the chairman of the higher education department of the graduate school at Indiana. He just insisted that I give it some thought. I had come to realize that I was prepared academically to be a pastor, not a college administrator. But it looked as if I was going to be in this field the rest of the way. Ultimately, I decided to take the plunge and go. It was a hard decision to leave Ouachita and leave Arkadelphia because we loved it there.”

Before the Elrod family could make the move to Indiana, Gibson called to ask if Elrod would consider serving as the president of a small college in the southwest part of the state, Oakland City College, while doing the work on his doctorate at Indiana University. Now known as Oakland City University, the school was founded by the General Baptists and opened its doors for classes in 1891. In addition to liberal arts and religion classes, an industrial and agricultural department was added to meet the needs of rural areas in southwestern Indiana.

“The two schools were 90 miles apart, and we already had rented a townhouse in Bloomington, so we decided that we would talk to these folks,” Elrod says. ”We needed some income while we were in school. Oakland City College hired me as its president. We moved to Bloomington, and I commuted to Oakland City.”

For the first time, Ben Elrod was a college president.

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Ben Elrod: Son of south Arkansas

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

I usually have far too many projects on my plate.

But how was I to say “no” when my friend Ian Cosh, the vice president for community and international engagement at Ouachita Baptist University, called last year and asked me to join him as the co-author of a small book on the life of Dr. Ben Elrod, the former Ouachita president?

When I was growing up in the Ouachita Hills neighborhood of Arkadelphia, the Elrod family lived just two doors down during Ben Elrod’s time as Ouachita’s vice president for development. After I moved away from Arkadelphia, Elrod served as Ouachita’s president from 1988-97. The task of working on the book proved to be a blessing for me, giving me a greater appreciation than ever for this dear family friend who had been a fishing and quail hunting partner of my late father.

Elrod, one of Arkansas’ most respected leaders in the 20th century, learned much about leadership as a high school student at Rison.

“I injured my knee in a football game during the 1947 season, which was my junior year,” he says. “The knee surgery procedures weren’t as refined back then. My surgery at the Campbell Clinic in Memphis didn’t restore full use of my knee. The decision by the doctors was that I should not play contact sports anymore. That was a disappointing development for me, especially as it related to my favorite sport, which was football.

“As the 1948 season neared, the school superintendent and the high school football coach approached me with a request that I coach a newly formed junior high team in the fall. When I arrived at their office, I was really shaken to see both the coach and the superintendent waiting on me. What they had to say was one of the greatest surprises of my life. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I was frightened but excited about the offer. I thought about it for about two minutes and said I’d like nothing better. I eagerly accepted the task and coached the first junior high football team that Rison had fielded.”

Elrod says the high school coach had promised to help, but his focus (as one might expect) was on the senior high team once the season began.

“I was pretty well on my own,” Elrod says. “I was fortunate in that the 40 or so boys who reported for practice were above-average athletes, and a few of them were exceptional. They had played sandlot games together most of their lives. They blended into a good team. We had fun, especially the coach.”

Elrod says coaching helped fill the void that had been created by the doctors’ decision not to let him play football as a high school senior.

“I found that I really liked coaching,” he says. “I had a great group of boys, and they loved the game. If it ever bothered them that they had a high school senior with no coaching experience as their coach, they never gave any indication of their concern. How did we do? We played seven games, and we won four and lost three. The same group as seniors won the state championship in their division.”

In the state playoffs as seniors, those Rison athletes beat Atkins. Elrod was a Baptist minister at Atkins at the time.

“One would assume that I had mixed emotions,” he says. “That would be wrong. Where those kids were concerned, I was still a Rison Wildcat fan. I still am and follow the team closely in the news. That early exposure to such heavy responsibility was one of the formative experiences in my life. Do I think my coaching made them state champions? No. In fact, they may have won that honor in spite of my coaching. But what I’m certain about is that they made my senior year the most enjoyable year of my high school experience and among the most enjoyable of my life.

“I still have great admiration for the two men, superintendent Bill Hobgood and coach Boyd Arnold, for the gamble they took on a high school senior. The boys? The surviving ones are retired now. I’ve attended some of their reunions and take pride in their accomplishments as men. I could have gladly gone into the coaching field as a vocation.”

Instead, Elrod became a pastor, a college administrator, a college president and a master fundraiser.

In all of his roles, he was having an influence on young people, just as he did when he was coaching during his senior year of high school.

In August 1988, Elrod conducted a lengthy interview with Erwin McDonald, the well-known editor of the Arkansas Baptist, a widely circulated magazine. Elrod had experienced heart problems, and McDonald asked him if he worried about the stress of being Ouachita’s president.

Elrod answered: “I could check out right now and feel that the Lord has given me far more than I ever deserved in a lifetime. I have often wished that I could live three lifetimes because there are so many things I want to do. God has filled my life with activity and rewarded me with seeing to it that those activities are worthwhile. I’m not sure that a person could ask for a lot more than that. I have had more than I deserved and much more opportunity than most people have. This makes me want to give the Lord all I have as long as he lets me live.

“If the curtain comes down during my Ouachita days, the only thing that would bother me would be the inconvenience that would cause Ouachita. I would much rather be doing something worthwhile for the Lord and feeling good about it than to live longer by not being busy. However, I plan to live to a ripe old age and may even have a challenge or two beyond Ouachita waiting on me. Those matters are in God’s hands, and I’m pleased to leave them there.”

Fortunately for all of us, Ben Elrod has lived to that ripe old age he talked about. Arkansas is a better place because he walks among us.

Elrod’s family had roots deep in south Arkansas.

“My mother was a member of the Sadler family,” he says. “She was one of five children, all of whom lived in Rison. Both sets of grandparents lived in Rison. … I had enough aunts and uncles and grandparents that if my mother and father were gone for a day or a week or a month, I had plenty of places to stay. I never had a minute’s insecurity because I knew I was loved and accepted.”

Elrod’s mother was less than five feet tall and wore a size 3 1/2 shoe. She almost died in childbirth when John Elrod was born four years before Ben.

Ben Elrod says: “When she became pregnant with me, the doctor advised an abortion and asked for a decision on the matter with a one-week deadline for the decision to be made.”

Elrod says his mother didn’t tell him the story until he was an adult. She decided to have the baby despite the chance she would die during childbirth, something Ben Elrod now calls “a pretty brave response from a little 25-year-old woman.”

One thing that was a given in the Elrod family was that Sundays would be spent at the local Baptist church.

“When I was 12 years old, I made a profession of faith,” Elrod says. “We had a revival meeting, and all of my buddies had made a profession of faith, and I had not. Two or three weeks later, I realized the preacher was preaching to me. I realized my need for Christ and made my profession of faith. The church we attended was a strong church for a little country town. We had some good pastors. We had one very fine pastor in my later years as a teenager.”

For parts of two years, Elrod served as a page for the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I was in Washington at 16 years old when I felt called into the ministry,” he says. “I hadn’t been to church in quite a while. I was living with three roommates, two from New Mexico and one from Little Rock. I don’t know when we had been to church. We went to the Smithsonian Institution. I had always planned on being a doctor. We went through the medical section of the Smithsonian. As I walked through that, the thought came to me: ‘Hey, who are you fooling? You’re not interested in this stuff.’ I really wasn’t. I spent a restless night in which I prayed and asked God to direct me. I felt strongly that his answer was that I was to be a minister. I never wavered from that. My father was not very favorable toward it. He had looked forward to my being in the family business with him and my brother. He didn’t know that my decision was a mature decision, so he challenged it a bit. But I didn’t have a more enthusiastic supporter once I went into the ministry. My mother, of course, was supportive of whatever I did.”

During his senior year at Rison High School, Elrod considered attending the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, the school from which his older brother had graduated. He was concerned, however, about the lack of religion courses. After a visit with Dr. J.R. Grant, Ouachita’s president at the time, Elrod decided to attend Ouachita. Many years later, Elrod would find a letter that Grant had written years earlier to Elrod’s older brother following a visit to Rison. He still has the letter.

Grant was president during Elrod’s freshman year. When Grant retired (he had been president since 1934), he was replaced by S. William Eubanks, who served as president for two years. Harold A. Haswell served as president during Elrod’s senior year.

“We got into deep financial trouble,” Elrod says. “We got into problems with the North Central Association and lost our accreditation. Dr. Haswell has never been given proper credit for what he did for Ouachita in two years’ time. He turned it around with North Central and recovered our accreditation. He was a brilliant man. I was the president of student government during my senior year, and he gave me a voting spot on the administrative council as a student. I thought he was way ahead of his time on that. He was ahead of his time on most everything. He was the world’s poorest speaker. He would bore you to death as a public speaker, but he was a tremendous administrator and did a great job for Ouachita.”

Elrod majored in history and minored in political science. He had been advised that if he planned on attending seminary he should major in something other than religion at Ouachita.

“That was good advice,” Elrod says. “I got a good liberal arts education here and then built on that in seminary with specialized education there.”

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The retirement state

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

It was 1948 and World War II veterans were starting families and buying homes after having attended college on the G.I. Bill.

In the flat cotton country of east Arkansas, a West Memphis businessman named John A. Cooper Sr. had an idea.

Cooper looked to the west — to the Ozark foothills to be exact — and purchased 400 acres near where Otter Creek runs into the Spring River. At first, he used his Otter Creek Ranch as a family retreat. But Cooper had a bigger plan in mind. He began to buy up other land in Sharp and Fulton counties, and in 1953 he formed the Cherokee Village Development Co. with the idea of selling lots to people in Midwestern states such as Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Gov. Orval Faubus attended the dedication of Cherokee Village in June 1955 (it was Faubus’ first year in office) and declared it to be the “coming mecca of the Ozarks.”

Cooper eventually built two golf courses, seven lakes, 350 miles of roads, a water system and three recreation centers.

“Less than 10 years after the town’s founding, Cherokee Village had grown so much that additional land was necessary to satisfy the demand for new homes,” Wayne Dowdy of Memphis writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “However, adjoining land was occupied by the Memphis Boy Scout Council’s summer camp, Kia Kima. In 1964, Cooper approached the Boy Scouts and offered to give them a larger tract of land on the South Fork of the Spring River in exchange for their property. The Memphis youth organization relented after Cooper agreed to construct several new buildings on the Boy Scouts’ new property. The Kia Kima trade and other land purchases expanded Cherokee Village to 13,500 acres by 1980.”

Dowdy writes that the development of Cherokee Village “had a profound impact on Arkansas. The retirement community industry became an integral part of the state’s economy as the older Americans who flocked to Cherokee Village transformed the state into one of the most innovative and popular retirement destinations in the United States.”

In the 1960s, Cooper set his sights on Bella Vista in northwest Arkansas, which had a long history as a resort.

John Spurgeon writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “William S. Baker, a Benton County Presbyterian minister, and his wife Mary decided in 1915 to develop a summer recreation area in Benton County. Damming Sugar Creek created a large lake suitable for swimming. The Bakers’ plans called for adjacent tennis courts, golf links and nearly 400 lots selling at $100 each. A contest was used to select the resort’s name with the winning entry being Bella Vista. Business was not lucrative, however, and by 1917 the resort was offered for sale.

“Samuel and Mary Linebarger and their three sons moved in 1900 to Bentonville for a change in climate following Mary’s diagnosis with tuberculosis. After she died two years later, the family left Arkansas. The Linebarger Brothers Realty Co., founded by Samuel’s three sons, returned to purchase Bella Vista along with adjoining acreage, seeking a new investment. Initial expansion plans called for a pavilion suitable for dancing, a 30-room lodge and a dining hall. A nine-hole golf course was added in 1922, a large swimming pool in 1924 and the 65-room Sunset Hotel in 1929. In 1930, the brothers developed a cave into a nightclub, calling it Wonderland.

“The resort retained the Bella Vista name and opened from June to Labor Day, renting rooms by the day or the week, selling lots and building cottages. Bella Vista amenities included swimming, golf, tennis, fishing, camping, horse rides, rowing, games and dances with orchestral music. The Linebargers catered to wealthy, urban families who could spend the entire summer on vacation. Under the leadership of Clarence A. Linebarger, the youngest Linebarger brother, summer business progressively improved. The Great Depression, World War II and changing vacation concepts — with automobiles and highways allowing people to venture to new and distant places — resulted in the resort’s decline.

“Elzy Lloyd Keith, who operated the Lake Keith Resort in Cave Springs, purchased Bella Vista in 1952, billing it as ‘Bella Vista the Family Resort, the Beauty Spot of the Ozarks.’ Keith transitioned Bella Vista into a family resort, substituting roller skating for dancing, and added a restaurant, grocery and motel. … Keith closed the Sunset Hotel after one year, giving it to a Baptist minister to start a school. Within five years, the school also closed.”

Cooper moved in, quickly buying up land and dividing it into lots. During the next 35 years, more than 37,000 lots were sold. Almost 13,000 of them have been developed. A study in 1987 showed that 16.5 percent of all Benton County tax revenues and 45 percent of the property tax revenues for the Bentonville School District were coming from Bella Vista. The Bank of Bentonville reported in 1992 that 34 percent of its deposits came from Bella Vista residents.

The population of Bella Vista soared from 2,589 in the 1980 census to 9,093 in the 1990 census to 16,582 in the 2000 census to 26,461 in the 2010 census.

On Nov. 7, 2006, residents voted by a two-to-one margin to incorporate it as Arkansas’ newest city. With the explosive growth of northwest Arkansas, Bella Vista can no longer be considered a retirement community. It’s instead a growing municipality.

In 1970, Cooper set his sights on southwest Arkansas as he began to develop a 20,000-acre tract in Saline and Garland counties into Hot Springs Village.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture notes: “Cooper had been approached separately by two people with the idea of creating a retirement community, state Sen. Bud Canada and Peter D. Joers, the president of the Dierks Coal & Lumber Co. After touring the property by air, Cooper realized the potential of the land and immediately bought 20,000 acres from Dierks Forests Inc. 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 an urbanized 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.”

The population grew from 2,083 in 1980 to 6,361 in 1990 to 8,397 in 2000 to 12,807 in 2010.

There were smaller retirement communities in the Arkansas hills built by developers other than Cooper.

Horseshoe Bend — located in parts of Izard, Sharp and Fulton counties — was developed along the Strawberry River.

“In the late 1950s, Bill and Dick Pratt sold 200 acres of land to a group of developers from Texas,” writes Steven Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “The brothers — businessmen from Little Rock and Newport respectively — had purchased abandoned land for a retirement community. The Texas developers began selling lots, but they then defaulted on their business loans, and the Pratts regained control of the community. Purchasing additional land, they continued selling lots, as well as creating streets and utilities for the new houses. Where the woods reportedly once hid a whiskey still, an airport was built.

“Creeks that flowed into the Strawberry River were dammed to create several lakes. Cedar Glade Lake failed to fill with water as was intended; engineers discovered that the water was emptying into a previously unknown cave. They spent more than $100,000 plugging holes in the bottom of the lakebed. … A feature called Gobbler’s Knob, frequented by local hunters, was converted into the Turkey Mountain Golf Course. Construction began in 1961, and the first nine holes were open to the public in 1963; the remaining nine holes were finished in 1971.

“The Pratts employed a sales team that at one time had 100 employees. In all, they created 56 subdivisions on 14,000 acres, and by 1974, they had sold 12,000 lots. Many of the houses were prefabricated. More than half of the new residents were from Illinois (which accounted for a quarter of the residents), Missouri, Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin. The city was incorporated in 1969, creating a city government and a police force, as well as guaranteeing oversight of the city’s utilities. Various new churches were formed, including Lutheran, Episcopal and Roman Catholic. Each was the first of its denomination in Izard County.”

A film and television producer named Albert Gannaway came to town in the late 1960s with the idea of creating a theme park to be known as Ozarkland. A replica frontier homestead at Ozarkland was to be the set for a televised music program known as “Ozarkland Jamboree.” The park and the television program were both financial failures. East Arkansas music promoter and developer Gene Williams bought Ozarkland in the early 1970s with the idea of creating an amusement park to be called Frontierland. That effort also failed.

“In spite of these failures, the development of Horseshoe Bend provided jobs for residents of the area,” Teske writes. “Retired farmers and business professionals opened shops and restaurants, and roughly half the sales staff of the development hailed from Arkansas. Construction jobs also employed workers whose previous income from farming had been considerably less. Not only did Horseshoe Bend bring the first golf course and first public swimming pool into the region, it also introduced the first Kiwanis Club and the first legal drinking establishments.”

The Pratts decided to sell their holdings in 1974 to a group known as Gulf South Advisors. It turned out to be a corporation involved in questionable activities. Millions of dollars intended for the further development of Horseshoe Bend were lost. A lengthy bankruptcy case put a halt to growth. Former salesmen for the Pratts became independent real estate agents, and a municipal improvement district took over the golf course and lakes.

Meanwhile, just north of Eureka Springs along Table Rock Lake, Robert McCulloch (a Missouri entrepreneur known for McCulloch chainsaws and for purchasing the London Bridge and reassembling it in Arizona) began work on a 4,500-acre retirement community known as Holiday Island in 1970.

“The developers donated one acre of land to Grace Lutheran Church, which was formed in 1972 by 26 Lutherans,” Teske writes. “A Presbyterian church was formed in Holiday Island in the 1990s. There are also two Baptist churches and a community church. In addition to building homes, the developers created two golf courses, a marina, a shopping center and a recreation center. … The area also has two assisted living facilities, a campground and motels and rental properties.”

In Van Buren and Cleburne counties, three Fort Smith businessmen — Randolph Warner, Neal Simonson and George Jacobus — decided in the early 1960s to buy land on the north shore of what would become Greers Ferry Lake for a retirement community.

“They hired a retired cotton broker named C.M. Owen to find a suitable location,” James White writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In his Jeep, Owen followed the logging roads to a high point overlooking the green valley that was being filled to form the lake. A new corporation — Fairfield Communities Land Co. — formed by Jacobus, Simonson and Warner (later to become Fairfield Communities Inc.) began the purchase of land from the Nebraska Tie & Lumber Co., which owned the timberlands on the north shore of the lake. By 1965, the first 3,500 acres had been purchased by Jacobus and his partners. Lots were sold, and the price included a small annual amenities fee for the recreation facilities.

“All early activities centered near the marina, which was built in 1966. In 1967, more than 300 mobile homes were brought in to house the prospective lot buyers. The Wild Boar restaurant was built in 1967 on Highway 330. The second floor of this restaurant became the offices of FCI. The Civic Center building was built in 1972 and was where many of the social and community meetings were held. … Before and after the Wild Board restaurant burned in early 1980, the FCI offices and other businesses began moving to the present Indian Hills Country Club and the mall area.”

In addition to selling lots, the company began pushing timeshares in vacation homes in 1979. By 2006, about 7,800 lots had been sold (only 1,200 of them have houses on them). The number of residents was about 2,400, but there were an estimated 20,000 annual timeshare visitors. FCI later filed for bankruptcy, and the property owners association known as the Community Club assumed control. The city of Fairfield Bay was incorporated in 1993.

The development of these retirement communities established Arkansas as one of the most important retirement destinations in the country. Cooper, who was born at Earle in 1906 and received a law degree from the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., had a keen understanding of people who had been raised poor during the Great Depression before climbing into the middle class. He guessed correctly that some of them would want to retire in places where the cost of living was low and the winters weren’t as harsh.

The 1960s and 1970s were the boom period. Arkansas retirement developments advertised free vacations in markets across the Midwest. Couples would come to the state and spend a few days enjoying the amenities in exchange for participating in a “tour” with a real estate agent that was actually an intense sales pitch like something out of the David Mamet play “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Male high school teachers and coaches often would spend their summers as salesmen. The good ones could earn more money in three months of selling lots than they had earned in nine months of teaching.

The problem for the rural Arkansas retirement communities (Bella Vista is an exception since it’s now part of an urban area) is that the Baby Boomers are different from their parents. Fewer of them want to live by a golf course in a rural area during their retirement years. They tend to prefer urban areas with amenities such as fine dining, live theater, symphony orchestras and sports events.

College towns also have proved to be popular retirement spots due to the number of events they offer.

In our next installment, we’ll take a look at how these Arkansas retirement communities are now trying to reinvent themselves.

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The preservationists

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

Earlier this month, people from across the state gathered in Little Rock as the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas presented its annual Arkansas Preservation Awards.

These are my kind of people: Architects, academicians, lawyers, you name it. What they have in common is a love for this state, an appreciation of its history and a determination to preserve those things that have made us who we are as Arkansans.

For decades, Arkansas did a poor job of preserving its past. There’s no need to pretend otherwise.

When you’re one of the poorest states in the country, historic preservation becomes a luxury rather than a necessity.

During the past couple of decades, as the state has become wealthier, Arkansans have done a better job protecting and celebrating their colorful heritage.

The highlight of the awards ceremony each year is the presentation of the Parker Westbrook Award for Lifetime Achievement, named after the alliance’s founding president. No one loves Arkansas and its history more than Parker Westbrook, who has devoted much of his life to preserving the community of Washington in Hempstead County.

Past winners of the award include such well-known Arkansas figures as Richard Mason, David Pryor, Jane Ross, Dorothy Moore and her son Robert Moore Jr., Charles and Becky Witsell, Theodosia Murphy Nolan, Bobby Roberts and Bill Worthen.

This year’s honoree was my friend Ruth Hawkins of Arkansas State University, who has done more to preserve important sites in the Arkansas Delta than anyone I know.

Here’s how the event’s program described Ruth: “For Dr. Ruth A. Hawkins, historic sites are the key to the future of the Arkansas Delta. The list of historic landmarks and preservation projects in which Ruth has played a significant role in the Arkansas Delta is unparalleled.

“Ruth knows that distinctive history draws people and dollars. Years ago she began working to protect and preserve the natural beauty of the east Arkansas landscape through the National Scenic Byways program. Under the federal byways designation received in 1998, Crowley’s Ridge Parkway became eligible for interpretive markers and other improvements. A segment of the Great River Road in Arkansas was also designated a National Scenic Byway in 2002 through Ruth’s efforts.

“ASU’s Arkansas Heritage Sites program was developed beginning in 1999. Under Ruth’s leadership, the program has grown to encompass seven historic sites that illustrate many facets of Arkansas’s rich history and culture, including the Hemingway-Pfeiffer House in Piggott, the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, the Arkansas State University Museum and the historic V.C. Kays House in Jonesboro, Lakeport Plantation in Lake Village, the Rohwer Japanese-American Relocation Center near McGehee and the historic Dyess Colony and boyhood home of Johnny Cash in Dyess. Ruth also serves as the executive director for Arkansas Delta Byways, the regional tourism promotion association for the 15-county Delta region. Dr. Hawkins and the Arkansas Heritage Sites program gained national recognition in 2008 with an honor award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.”

Ruth worked closely with the Sam Epstein Angel family of Lake Village and secured the 1859 Lakeport Plantation home as a gift to ASU. Six years and more than $9 million later, the state’s only remaining antebellum plantation home on the banks of the Mississippi River was opened to the public.

Ruth wasn’t finished, though.

“Everyone thought that the Lakeport project would be Ruth’s crowning achievement, but it’s the Johnny Cash boyhood home and the Dyess Colony that now take the cake,” the program said. “The Cash home and the Dyess Colony administration building opened to the public in August. Dyess city offices are now in the administration building, the center of a redevelopment plan for the town of Dyess.

“Ruth sees preservation as not just a tool through which to teach history but as an economic development catalyst as well. Since 1999, the Hemingway-Pfeiffer House in Piggott has served not just as a museum but as a draw to the community. Piggott has seen nearly a 75 percent increase in state tax revenues from travel and tourism expenditures. Similar growth is projected for Dyess. The Cash boyhood home is expected to bring 50,000 visitors annually who spend about $10 million in the region and create more than 100 tourism-related jobs.”

Ruth is not shy about approaching famous people for help.

She brought in George Takei, who was interned in Arkansas as a child, to record the audio tours for Rohwer.

She has attracted the likes of Rosanne Cash, Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson, George Jones, Reba McEntire and Willie Nelson to the annual Johnny Cash Music Festival in Jonesboro.

She teaches courses in ASU’s doctoral program for heritage studies and is the author of one of the best Hemingway books out there, “Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway Pfeiffer Marriage.”

Throw in her work for the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Arkansas History Commission, and you get a sense of how busy she is.

Among this year’s other honorees were:

– The William F. Laman Public Library System of North Little Rock, which received the Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation Award in the public sector for its work to restore the vacant post office on Main Street in downtown North Little Rock. The 1931 Georgian Revival structure was designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles Thompson.

– Paula Dempsey and the folks at Dempsey Bakery in downtown Little Rock, who received the Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation Award in the private sector for turning a building built in 1948 as an automobile dealership into a modern bakery.

– The Delta Cultural Center at Helena, which received the Excellence in Preservation through Restoration Award for turning Helena’s Temple Beth El into a public events center. The Delta has a strong Jewish heritage, though the number of Jews in the region has declined significantly. Temple Beth El was constructed in 1915 with an imposing stained class dome. The building was designed by Mann & Stern, the same architectural partnership that designed the state Capitol, Little Rock Central High School, the Arlington Hotel, the Fordyce Bath House and other buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. The congregation deconsecrated the temple in 2005 and donated the building to the Delta Cultural Center for public use.

– Charles Witsell and Gordon Wittenberg, who received the Ned Shank Award for Outstanding Preservation Publication for their book “Architects of Little Rock: 1833-1950.” This book from the University of Arkansas Press provides biographical sketches of the architects at work in Little Rock during that period. The authors, both noted architects, profile 35 architects including such key figures in Arkansas architectural history as George Mann, Thomas Harding, Charles Thompson, Max Mayer, Edwin Cromwell, George Wittenberg and Lawson Delony.

– ASU emeritus professor Scott Darwin, who received the Outstanding Achievement in Preservation Advocacy Award for his work to save the V.C. Kays House on the ASU campus. The Tudor-style home was built in 1936 by the school’s founding father and one of its most influential presidents. After Kays’ presidency ended in 1943, he continued working as the school’s business manager. The home faced demolition before Darwin got involved.

– Visit Hot Springs and all of those involved in the creation of the Hot Springs Baseball Trail. They received the Outstanding Achievement in Preservation Education Award for creating a trail of historic markers to celebrate the fact that Hot Springs is the birthplace of spring training for professional baseball. Players ranging from Babe Ruth to Jackie Robinson trained in Hot Springs.

– Jennifer Carman and Donna Thomas of Little Rock, who received the Outstanding Service in Neighborhood Preservation Award for their work restoring homes in the Central High School Neighborhood Historic District. Since 2010, they have completed more than 10 rehabilitation projects and have encouraged others to do the same. In the words of Carman: “If you had asked me 10 years ago why I thought these sorts of preservation projects were important, I might have waxed poetic about architectural styles and beautification and cultural heritage. Today, however, I will tell you that my dedication stems from seeing firsthand the positive changes that rehabilitation can spark within a city or a neighborhood, or even a single residential block. Ultimately, I’ve learned that preservation isn’t really about improving buildings. It’s about improving lives and nurturing communities.”

– Clancy McMahon, who received the Outstanding Work by a Craftsperson Award for his efforts to restore the A.R. Carroll Drugstore in the Washington County community of Canehill. The building was constructed in 1900 and is the last remaining example of the stone buildings that once made up Canehill’s commercial district. McMahon was able to re-create the composition and form of historic soft mortar in the building, which will serve as a community center.

Honorable mentions in various categories went to:

– CareLink, the architectural firm Polk Stanley Wilcox and East Harding Inc. for taking an abandoned building along Pike Avenue in North Little Rock, which had once been a Safeway grocery store, and turning it into a headquarters for the nonprofit organization.

– The state of Arkansas, the architectural firm Hight-Jackson Associates and Baldwin & Shell Construction Co. for their work restoring the inside of the dome at the state Capitol.

– The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, WER Architects/Planners and Kinco Constructors for their work restoring the cemetery at the Rohwer Relocation Camp in Desha County.

– Keith Newton for his craftsmanship in the restoration of the Frank Gibb House in Little Rock. Gibb was an architect, and the home was constructed in the 1890s.

In a state that needs more preservationists and more of a preservation ethos, these people, companies and other entities are all heroes in my eyes.

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To St. Francis and back

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

I’ve traveled a lot of Arkansas roads through the decades, but a recent trip into northeast Arkansas took me onto roads I’ve never traversed.

The day trip (albeit a long day) was the idea of Mark Christ, perhaps the foremost expert on the Civil War in Arkansas, and Paul Austin, who heads the Arkansas Humanities Council. Two other men with deep knowledge of our state — Center Ridge native and UCA professor Ken Barnes and community development expert Freeman McKindra — joined a trip that would take us to the most northeast spot on an Arkansas map, the Clay County community of St. Francis.

During the day, we drove the back roads of Lawrence, Randolph and Clay counties with Paul, an Imboden native, at the wheel. Lunch was on the front porch of a Mennonite store at Dalton, just south of the Missouri border in Randolph County. Supper (a reward for the hundreds of miles covered) was in Bald Knob at Who Dat’s, a longtime favorite. We saw the big raven at Ravenden, walked down to the spring at Ravenden Springs and even passed the road to Success (Success being a community in Clay County).

The first stop of the day was at Jacksonport in Jackson County on the White River. By late afternoon, we were walking through the thick Crowley’s Ridge hardwoods to Chalk Bluff on the St. Francis River. A town developed here in the 1820s with the name derived from a white clay bluff that’s still visible. Abraham Seitz operated a ferry crossing and general store from the 1830s until the Civil War. In May 1863, this was the site of the Battle of Chalk Bluff as Union Gen. William Vandever failed in his efforts to prevent troops commanded by Confederate Gen. John Marmaduke from crossing the St. Francis River.

Marmaduke, after suffering heavy casualties, had abandoned a second expedition into the Missouri Bootheel and was trying to get back to Arkansas.

Marmaduke, accompanied by 5,000 men, headed for the Bootheel in the spring of 1863. He was defeated at Cape Girardeau and began withdrawing toward Arkansas with the crossing of the St. Francis River planned for Chalk Bluff. Fighting began there on May 1 and lasted until the next day. Marmaduke’s rear guard was able to hold off the Union forces long enough for his engineers to complete a bridge across the river.

Minor skirmishes would occur at Chalk Bluff on and off for the remainder of the war.

I noted that we began our day on the banks of the White River and found ourselves by late afternoon on the banks of the St. Francis River. So while this day was supposed to be about the Civil War, it was really about rivers — the rivers that have so shaped the eastern half of our state through the decades.

The St. Francis River originates in Missouri. It’s a mountain stream until it slows down near Poplar Bluff. It forms the boundary between the Missouri Bootheel and Arkansas before continuing its path in east Arkansas between Crowley’s Ridge and the Mississippi River. The St. Francis flows into the Mississippi north of Helena in the St. Francis National Forest.

During the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, parts of northeast Arkansas dropped by six to eight feet, leading to a huge swampy area that slowed development for decades. That area is now known as the St. Francis Sunken Lands, and much of it is managed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission as a wildlife management area.

“The St. Francis River was not navigable in its natural state, having numerous snags and rafts,” Jodi Morris writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1836-37, W. Bowling Buion surveyed the river under the auspices of the federal government with an eye toward improving navigation, but nothing came of it. Only after the Civil War did Congress begin funding the clearing of the river. Numerous clearing and dredging operations made the St. Francis navigable from its mouth up to Wappapello, Mo. Because the swampy Sunken Lands impeded progress on railroad construction until the land began to be drained in the late 1890s and early 1900s, steamboats continued to operate on the river until well into the early 20th century.

“The St. Francis Levee District was created in 1893 and began constructing levees and drainage canals to control flooding. These measures were strengthened and increased after the catastrophic flood of 1927 and the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1928. This greatly affected the natural course of the river and included a number of diversion ditches that run somewhat parallel to the river along its course from southeastern Craighead County down through Lee County, thus providing an outlet for excess water.”

The law establishing the St. Francis Levee District was Act 19 of the Arkansas General Assembly of 1893. It was the first improvement district in Arkansas. It addressed flood control in Craighead, Crittenden, Cross, Lee, Mississippi, Phillips, Poinsett and St. Francis counties. Gov. W.N. Fishback made the first appointments to the levee board with three representatives from each county.

Previous efforts at flood control through the federal Swamp Land Grant of 1850 and state organizations had been ineffective. The levee district initially was funded by an appropriation from the Mississippi River Commission and a tax levy on the increased land values that were anticipated.

The St. Francis Levee District ended up draining a large portion of east Arkansas with hardwood forests replaced by row crops.

Take the Little River of northeast Arkansas (not to be confused with the Little River of southwest Arkansas) as an example of what the levee district did. The Little River starts west of Cape Girardeau and flows into northeast Arkansas, where it enters what’s now the Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge and the state’s Big Lake Wildlife Management Area near Manila in Mississippi County. It joins the St. Francis River at Marked Tree. Before the New Madrid earthquakes, the Little River was a clear, swift stream. It’s now described by the state encyclopedia as “not much more than a series of stagnant mud holes due to channeling and ditching.”

After leaving the Big Lake area, the Little River is part of a floodway that’s about a mile wide and enclosed by levees. The floodway includes Ditch No. 1, Ditch No. 9, Left Hand Chute of the Little River, Right Hand Chute of the Little River and the Little River itself.

“These waterways run together, separate and join again,” Norman Vickers writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The dominant channel is the Right Hand Chute of the Little River. Near the southern end of the St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management area, the floodway enters the St. Francis River.”

The L’Anguille River, another tributary of the St. Francis River, begins west of Harrisburg and flows down the west side of Crowley’s Ridge before crossing the ridge near Marianna and flowing into the St. Francis. The L’Anguille River and the Cache River to its west were major obstacles to the construction of the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad. The east Arkansas gap in the line existed until 1871.

The Cache begins near the Arkansas-Missouri border and flows south until emptying into the White River near Clarendon. Flood-control efforts during the 1920s and 1930s split the river into two ditches between Bono and Egypt in Craighead County. The Flood Control Act of 1950 authorized the Cache River-Bayou DeView Project, which was designed to dredge 140 miles of the river upstream from Clarendon while also dredging 77 miles of the Bayou DeView. Initial funds for the project weren’t approved until 1969.

Congressman Bill Alexander, a Mississippi County native who owed allegiance to the big planters, was a strong supporter of the dredging but was opposed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, the Arkansas Wildlife Federation and others entities across the state. Federal Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in favor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May 1972, but a federal appeals court sent the case back to Henley, saying the Corps had not properly prepared its environmental impact statement. That statement wasn’t approved until 1977. By then, support in Congress had waned. The Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was established from Grubbs to Clarendon in 1986 to protect the stream.

The St. Francis, Little, Cache and L’Anguille rivers are lowland streams. A bit to the west — but still in northeast Arkansas — are the many streams of the Ozark foothills. The flat Delta quickly gives way to the rolling foothills after you cross the Black River at Black Rock. Most of these streams are fed by springs in Missouri before flowing south into Arkansas.

There’s the Eleven Point River, which flows into the Spring River.

To the west, Myatt Creek and the South Fork also empty into the Spring.

The Spring River, which flows through Arkansas for almost 75 miles, then empties into the Black River near Black Rock.

The Little Black River comes out of Missouri and flows into the Current River just northwest of Datto.

The Current River then merges with the Black River near Pocahontas.

The Fourche River (not to be confused with the Fourche La Fave River in west-central Arkansas) comes out of Missouri and flows through Randolph County for about 20 miles before emptying into the Black River.

The Strawberry River flows for 90 miles to the southeast before emptying into the Black River in Independence County.

The eastern half of the state truly is a land of rivers, both swift and slow.

Three rivers come together in southeast Missouri to form the Black River. The Black crosses the Arkansas border northeast of Corning and then passes the Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area, Pocahontas, Davidsonville Historic State Park, Black Rock and Powhatan.

From there, the river flows through the Shirey Bay-Rainey Brake Wildlife Management Area before turning toward the southeast and entering the White River at Jacksonport. The sharp bends in the Black River have colorful names such as Deadman, Hole in the Wall, Box Factory, Battle Axe and Dead Mule. The first steamboat to go up the Black River to Pocahontas was the Laurel in 1829.

Jacksonport, Powhatan, Davidsonville and Pocahontas all prospered as steamboat ports. More than 40 steamboats were traveling the Black River in 1900. The first train had reached Pocahontas in 1896, however, and river traffic declined.

Jacksonport, where we started our day, thrived until the railroad bypassed the town in 1872, leading to the rise of Newport. For decades prior to that, boats bound for Memphis, New Orleans and St. Louis had offloaded goods at Jacksonport. Confident that river traffic would reign supreme, Jacksonport officials voted against giving the Iron Mountain, St. Louis & Southern Railroad the land grant and $25,000 that railroad officials had requested to pass through the city. It was a big mistake. Newport grew after completion of the railroad and was incorporated in 1875.

“Businesses and residents began drifting away from Jacksonport for the upstart Newport,” Adam Miller writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Newport marginally edged out Jacksonport in population by 1880, but the growth momentum was thereafter permanently in Newport’s favor. In 1882, construction of a narrow-gauge railway began in an effort to stem the loss of business. The railway ran from Jacksonport to Brinkley via Newport and was utilized by lumber businesses for a few decades. In February 1882, a devastating flood and fire that consumed most of the town — both within the span of a week — further accelerated the depopulation of Jacksonport. Hotly contested elections to move the county government to Newport first arose when Jacksonport was surpassed in population in the 1880s. Jacksonport rallied and won the first two elections, managing to postpone removal of the county seat until 1891, when Newport won a third election.

“By 1900, the population of Jacksonport had dwindled to 265, and the schools at Jacksonport were consolidated with Newport in 1944. Apart from a levee built in 1909, there were few infrastructure improvements at Jacksonport until the old courthouse was saved from demolition in 1962 by the Jackson County Historical Society, which purchased the derelict building and adjacent lands. The old courthouse was renovated to its former grandeur and became part of Jacksonport State Park in 1965.”

It was quiet at Jacksonport near the banks of the White River on a Thursday morning, just as it would be quiet more than eight hours later at Chalk Bluff on the banks of the St. Francis River in the northeast corner of the state. In both places, though, you could almost feel the rich history. Like so much of Arkansas, these places were shaped by rivers.

 

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The Dierks family and south Arkansas timber

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

My longtime friend Len Pitcock of Hot Springs sent me a note today about the home in which he lives, the 1955 Peter Dierks Joers house. Joers died in March 2006, and the home was purchased by Pitcock the following year.

Being a native of south Arkansas, I’ve long been fascinated with the old timber families who owned so much of the southern part of our state in the 20th century. The story of the Dierks family is especially interesting.

Peter Henry Dierks was a German immigrant who became a successful banker and farmer in Iowa. His sons Peter, Hans, Henry and Herman founded the Dierks Coal & Lumber Co. in Lincoln, Neb., in 1895.

Peter Dierks Joers, by the way, was the great-grandson of Peter Henry Dierks.

Peter Henry Dierks married a Danish immigrant named Margaretha Dorothea Tauk. Herman Dierks, who became the brother most associated with Arkansas, was the couple’s seventh child.

In 1897, the Dierks family moved the company headquarters to Kansas City since that city was becoming a center of the timber industry. By the turn of the century, the brothers owned 24 lumberyards. They had made the jump in 1897 from simply selling lumber to manufacturing it following the purchase of a sawmill at Petros, Okla., for $15,000. Because of the lack of large timber reserves in the area, the sawmill closed after three years. The brothers had better luck with their purchase of the Williamson Brothers mill at De Queen. Herman moved to De Queen to manage that mill, starting the Dierks family’s involvement in the state.

Herman began purchasing timberland across southwest Arkansas, beginning with a major tract in northern Howard County.

Herman had been born in Iowa in 1863 and had joined his brother Hans in Nebraska after Hans purchased land along the newly constructed Burlington Railroad. In addition to heading up the family’s Arkansas operations, Herman Dierks served as president of the Florien Lumber Co. in northwest Louisiana, which the brothers purchased in 1906. When Hans died, Herman took over as president of the company and remained in that position until his death in 1946.

The next generation of the family joined the company and spread out to manage mills across Arkansas and Oklahoma. In Oklahoma, there were big lumber mills at Broken Bow and Wright City. The De Queen mill burned in 1909 and was replaced by operations in the Howard County company town of Dierks.

That area of Howard County had been settled by Henry Block, James Wallen and John Cesterson in 1848. A wagon trail connected a settlement known as Hardscrabble to the town of Center Point, which was 10 miles to the south. The area was covered by dense forests of hickory, oak and pine. In the early 1900s, the Dierks family established the De Queen & Eastern Railroad to move workers and supplies into the region while carrying the timber out. Hardscrabble grew rapidly and changed its name to Dierks in honor of oldest brother Hans Dierks.

The Holman Hotel opened there in 1903, a bottling company was opened by John William Pate to produce fruit-flavored sodas in 1907 and many area families gave up their attempts to grow cotton, instead choosing to move into Dierks to work in the mill.

“Hardwood was harvested first and was used largely for barrel staves,” Steven Teske writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Around 1917, the hardwood had been exhausted, and interest turned to the softer pine wood. The Dierks company built a sawmill in the city, and the population continued to grow. The racial composition of the community also began to change. At the time of the 1910 census, Dierks had been home to only one African-American resident. In 1917, with the new sawmill — and with many men joining the armed forces during World War I — the company created a segregated neighborhood for black workers and their families. The neighborhood included a hotel, two churches, a school and stores. The Dierks company also operated a large store, which they called the Big Store, for white residents of the area.”

In October 1925, the company made a huge land acquisition in the Ouachita Mountains when it bought the Yell Lumber Co. Almost 88,000 acres of timberland came with that purchase. The timber was used to supply a massive mill built at Mountain Pine in 1928.

It’s safe to say that the cities of Mountain Pine and Dierks owe their existence to the company. At one point, the family holdings grew to 1.8 million acres of timberland, making the Dierks family one of the largest landowners in the country.

The Dierks Lumber & Coal Co. changed its name to Dierks Forests Inc. in 1954.

According to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program: “The company, always family owned, had undertaken a number of innovative projects to capitalize their investments and maintain profits, including the construction of box factories, facilities for the production of pressure-treated wood products, facilities to make fiberboard and a small paper mill. By the late 1960s, these operations were still managed by the grandsons and one great-grandson, Peter Dierks Joers. The family stockholders, now numbering in the hundreds, had diverse interests and small share holdings. When approached by Weyerhaeuser, the offer of $317 million in cash and preferred stock was too much to pass up. In September 1969, Dierks Forests Inc.’s 1.8 million acres of land, three sawmills, paper mill, treating plant, wood fiber plant, gypsum wallboard plant, two railroads and smaller facilities were sold to Weyerhaeuser.”

As for the town of Dierks, the Big Store closed in 1970. A plywood mill built by Weyerhaeuser replaced the old Afraican-American community. By the late 1980s, there were no black residents of Dierks. The Dierks population in the 2010 census was 1,133 residents, down from a high of 1,544 residents in the 1930 census.

Peter Dierks Joers continued to live in Arkansas after the company was sold. He had been born in Kansas City in 1919, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and went to work for the Dierks Lumber & Coal Co. in 1946. He became the board chairman in 1965.

The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program notes: “Joers was considered one of the state’s most prominent businessmen. In addition to holding a number of high-level positions in family-owned businesses, Joers also served on various boards and commissions including the Arkansas Forestry Commission, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, the Arkansas Wood Products Association, Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield and Keep Arkansas Green. He twice was elected president of the Associated  Industries of Arkansas and served on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s natural resources council. In 1970, Joers was appointed by President Nixon to the U.S. Government Procurement Commission.

“Joers consistently worked to improve the community, attempting at one point in the 1970s to attract a branch of the Smithsonian Institution to Hot Springs. He offered to donate 100 acres for the construction of a museum. Joers died March 23, 2006, in Hot Springs, where he is buried. The home remained vacant yet cared for by a full-time staff until it was purchased by Kathleen and Len Pitcock in June 2007.”

Joers purchased the 10 acres where the home sits from Mose Klyman in 1954 at a cost of $10,000. A Dallas builder named Hal Anderson oversaw the $138,000 home project in 1954-55. Joers spared no expense. A pool was added at a cost of $10,522. The family company supplied premium-grade wood for the interior of the home. Texas limestone was brought in by Texas Quarries Inc. of Austin. A company known as Scandinavian Art Metal of California did custom copper work. The Dunbar Furniture Co. of Indiana was hired to provide the dining room table and its matching sideboard.

Another architecturally significant structure in Hot Springs with a connection to the Dierks family is the company’s former headquarters building, which was designed in 1956 by the father-son architectural team of Irvin McDaniel Sr. and Irvin McDaniel Jr.

McDaniel Jr. had dropped out of school when he was a high school senior in 1941 to join the Canadian Air Force. His plane was shot down by the Germans over the North Sea. He floated in a raft for four days before being rescused by a Danish fisherman, who took him to Denmark and turned him over to the Germans. McDaniel was a prisoner of war for more than two years before being part of the great escape from Stalag III. He studied architecture for eight to 14 hours a day in prison because there was nothing else to do. The younger McDaniel later practiced in Hot Springs and died in 1978.

The Dierks family moved the company headquarters from Kansas City to Hot Springs when the building at 810 Whittington Ave. was completed. People’s Ice Manufacturing Co. had been at the site.

A streetcar barn was just to the west of the building. Just past that was Whittington Park, a baseball field that opened in 1894 and was used by many professional baseball teams for spring training. The field also was used for high school football games and other events. It was torn down in 1942.

Weyerhaeuser now uses the Dierks building for offices. The site of the baseball field is a parking lot these days.

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Along Park Avenue

Monday, July 21st, 2014

When former President Clinton visited Hot Springs in early April, a small group of the city’s leaders met with him to obtain his feedback on the possibility of a performing arts center, a gateway plaza and thermal pools being built at the site of the Majestic Hotel, the oldest portion of which had burned in late February.

A document presented to Clinton that day read: “On the spot where Hot Springs Creek turns toward the Ouachita River, where Hiram Abiff Whittington opened Hot Springs’ first general store in 1832, there’s a fountain, a flagpole, an abandoned hotel, a charred pile of rubble and a dream. The intersection of Central, Park and Whittington avenues is the anchor of the city of Hot Springs. At the north end of storied Bathhouse Row, the junction has literally been the visual, economic and social hub of the community.”

Clinton grew up in the Park Avenue neighborhood.

While most of the talk about downtown revitalization in the Spa City has focused on empty buildings up and down Central Avenue, the foundation is there for the possible redevelopment of Park Avenue.

Three of the city’s best restaurants — Central Park Fusion, Park Avenue Bistro (formerly The Bohemia) and Deluca’s Pizzeria — are on Park.

There are several beautiful old homes, some fading tourist courts ripe for renovation and memories of places like Smitty’s Barber Shop, Stubby’s Barbecue, the Polar Bar and the Public Drug Store, all of which were in the neighborhood in the days when the street was hopping.

The old Velda Rose Hotel and the Vapors Club are for sale, presenting fascinating opportunities for redevelopment.

The Velda Rose, built by Garland Anthony of Bearden in 1960, appears to be structurally sound and could be turned into a combination boutique hotel-condominium complex. Anthony built things to last. And the name is one you don’t forget.

Anthony named the hotel for his daughter, who would go to become Velda Rose Walters of Oklahoma following her March 1948 marriage to wildcat oilman, lumberman, strip miner and cattleman Mannon Lafayette Walters. With the support of his father-in-law, Walters became a pioneer in the lumber business in Mexico, constructing and managing sawmills in the Sierra Madre.

The Anthony family also opened the Anthony Island Motel on Lake Hamilton and the Avanelle Motor Lodge at the intersection of Central and Grand. The Avanelle took its name from two of Garland Anthony’s other daughters, Avalene and Nell. When we would travel from Arkadelphia to downtown Hot Springs when I was a child, I always thought the name of the Avanelle’s restaurant – the Sirloin Room — sounded extra fancy. I dreamed of the day when I could dine there.

After Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller shut down casino gambling in Hot Springs in 1967, the Velda Rose fell on hard times. Its name later changed to the Ramada Inn Tower Resort before an owner named Kenny Edmondson changed it back to the Velda Rose in 2001. The condition of the facility continued to deteriorate, however.

Garland Anthony would never have let that happen. He was a proud man and one of south Arkansas’ most interesting business leaders.

“The Anthony family first settled in southern Arkansas in the 1840s,” George Balogh writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1907, Garland Anthony started a small sawmill near Bearden. Other members of the family, along with outside partners, started similar operations in southern Arkansas, eastern Texas and northern Louisiana. Between 1910 and 1930, Garland and his brothers Frank, William and Oliver formed Anthony Brothers Lumber and built their first permanent mill at Hopeville in Calhoun County, accumulating 2,000 acres of cutover timberland in the process.

“The brothers built their mills in areas that large companies had harvested and left behind. They discovered that a cutover pine forest in southern Arkansas could renew itself in 20 to 30 years and could become self-sustaining if properly managed. The company became a leader in the techniques of selective harvesting, giving smaller trees time to mature so the forest could be harvested repeatedly over the long term.

“During the 1930s, Anthony Brothers Lumber was reputed to be the largest private lumber manufacturer in the world, operating 20 to 30 mills in partnership with others. In time, Garland Anthony’s son Edwin joined him in the operation of mills located in various small communities in southern Arkansas and eastern Texas. By the 1950s, Bearden had become the focus of family operations.”

There remains a strong Anthony family tradition in Hot Springs. In December 2003, Hot Springs residents John Ed and Isabel Anthony announced a $1 million contribution to Garvan Woodland Gardens for construction of the Anthony Chapel. In 2006, it was announced that the children of Garland Anthony had made a gift so that the Anthony Carillon — a 55-foot-tall structure with 16 copper-clad columns — could be built. The Anthony Carillon is supported by pillars of steel weighing 2,200 pounds each.

Verna Cook Garvan donated the 210-acre Garvan Woodland Gardens to the University of Arkansas School of Architecture in 1985. The gardens are along the shores of Lake Hamilton.

An enterprising developer renovating the Velda Rose would be wise to also purchase the Vapors and transform it into a dinner theater. Dane Harris, who had a stake in the Belvedere Country Club and casino a few miles to the north, partnered with famed New York gangster Owney Madden, who spent his later years in Hot Springs, to build the Vapors where the Phillips Drive-In had been at 315 Park Ave. Construction began in 1959 and was completed the following year.

The club brought a touch of Las Vegas to Hot Springs. There was a 24-hour coffee shop, a dance floor, a dinner theater, the Monte Carlo Room for meetings and, of course, the casino. Entertainers ranging from the Smothers Brothers to Tony Bennett were booked.

Bennett first sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which became his signature song, at the Vapors.

He was rehearsing it one afternoon when a bartender cried out, “If you guys record that song, I’ll buy the first copy.”

An explosion at the club in January 1963 caused 12 injuries and extensive damage. The Vapors was renovated and continued to operate as a nightclub and restaurant after Rockefeller shut down gambling. In 1977, Harris added the Cockeyed Cowboy country and western club and the Apollo Disco to the mix in an effort to attract a younger crowd. Harris died in 1981. The building was sold in October 1998 to Tower of Strength Ministries to be used as a church (some irony there) and was put up for sale last November.

Just how famous is this stretch of street?

Consider this timeline:

1830 — Hiram Whittington settles the area with the first store, post office and library.

1876 — Hot Springs is incorporated as a city with this the center of the town.

1878 — 150 buildings are destroyed in the area by a fire.

1880 — The Hotel Adams is built on Cedar Street. It will become St. Joseph’s Infirmary a few years later.

1882 — The Avenue Hotel is built on the future site of the Majestic.

1886 — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes the construction of the arch over Hot Springs Creek, making Central Avenue a street rather than a creek bed.

1888 — The Avenue Hotel is renamed the Majestic Hotel after the Majestic Stove Co. of St. Louis.

1892 — The Majestic Hotel is remodeled, including the installation of elevators.

1896 — The Majestic Hotel contracts with the federal government for water and begins offering in-house thermal baths.

1899 — Sam Fordyce completes the Little Rock Hot Springs & Western Railroad from Little Rock, leading to a dramatic increase in visitor numbers.

1902 — The original Majestic is raised and a domed brick building is erected on the same site.

1905 — A fire destroys much of downtown.

1910 — Teddy Roosevelt stays at the Majestic.

1913 — Fire destroys parts of 50 city blocks.

1926 — The Majestic’s eight-story, red-brick annex is built with 140 rooms at a cost of $650,000.

1929 — Southwest Hotels Inc. purchases the Majestic.

1940 — The Majestic accounts for 56,000 of the 750,000 thermal baths given in Hot Springs.

1944 — The U.S. Army uses the Majestic to house soldiers returning from combat.

1954 — Southwest Hotels adds the Arlington Hotel and the Hot Springs Country Club to its Spa City holdings.

1955 — August Busch of St. Louis is married at the Majestic and celebrates with a team of Clydesdale horses that are housed in the Majestic garage.

1958 — The Lanai Suites are added to the Majestic complex. The three-story building has 48 suites.

1963 — A 10-story structure known as the Lanai Towers is added to the Majestic complex.

1995 — A major renovation begins at the Majestic.

2006 — It is announced that the Majestic will close.

2007 — The ARC Arkansas says it will transform the Majestic into a residential facility, but nothing ever happens as the Great Recession begins.

2009 — Garrison Hassenflu of Kansas City acquires the Majestic property. Still, nothing happens.

2014 — The 1902 portion of the Majestic is destroyed in a massive fire. Up to 75 firefighters work for 22 hours to contain the blaze.

So now what?

The Majestic property.

The Velda Rose.

The Vapors.

With a renewed interest in downtown Hot Springs, the prospects are tantalizing.

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