Archive for July, 2014

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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Spa City visionaries

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

They packed the old house on Quapaw Avenue at Hot Springs on Saturday night. There was barely room to move.

They were there to provide financial support for the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, which has become the cornerstone of the fall arts calendar in the Spa City.

If you really want to get a feel for the days when Hot Springs was the Saratoga of the South, drive along Quapaw and Prospect and stare at the homes along those streets.

I parked about a block down the street and just happened to walk down the sidewalk with Courtney Crouch, who heads Selected Funeral and Life Insurance Co. of Hot Springs. In 1960, three leading Arkansas funeral directors met to discuss the formation of a company to market small funeral life insurance policies that would supplement burial association insurance. The group soon grew to 20 funeral directors who organized SFLIC with an investment of $40,000. SFLIC now conducts business in multiple states with almost 50 people in its home office, the city’s ornate old post office building on Convention Boulevard.

Crouch, who long has been interested in historic preservation, is part of a group that makes an annual trip to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, the famed resort that attracts rich people from New York City each August in search of cooler temperatures and thoroughbred racing.

“You know, Hot Springs has more to work with from an architectural standpoint than Saratoga Springs has,” Crouch told me.

He was talking about potential. And it is that untapped potential that has driven so much of my frustration with downtown Hot Springs, which has one of the greatest concentrations of architecturally significant historic structures of any city in the country. For more than four decades, I watched as we let the jewel that is downtown Hot Springs become more and more tarnished.

Crouch is a member of the Downtown Game Plan Task Force, the group appointed following the Majestic Hotel fire in late February to come up with recommendations for downtown Hot Springs.

“I encourage you to go out when you leave here and look at the buildings,” he told the Hot Springs National Park Rotary Club on July 2 during its weekly meeting at the Arlington Hotel. “The Thompson Building is one of the finest architectural treasures there is. The same thing can be said about the Medical Arts Building. And what a structure the old Army-Navy Hospital is. … We’re on a new path. We’re seeing a lot of things develop. We’re headed in a new direction. I hope we can see this become the great American spa it was back around the turn of the century.”

We all should be ashamed as Arkansans for what was allowed to happen in a city that once was among the nation’s top resort destinations. Some historic downtown structures fell into the hands of men who only can be described as slumlords. Scavengers ripped out valuable inside features and sold them.

I’ve written thousands of words about downtown since the winter fire that destroyed the oldest portion of the Majestic. Five months after the fire, on a delightful July day, I can write that there’s progress being made. Indeed, there seems to be new life in the ol’ gal that is Hot Springs, sort of like an aging movie star who has been offered the role of a lifetime after years out of the limelight.

You could sense the momentum at Saturday’s film festival fundraiser, not just for the festival but for all of Hot Springs.

And, yes, there were real movie stars there.

Tess Harper, the Golden Globe and Academy Award nominee who was born at Mammoth Spring in 1950, first came to Hot Springs in the late 1960s as a contestant in the Miss Arkansas Pageant. She was back last week, declaring her love for the city.

Golden Globe nominee Joey Lauren Adams, born in North Little Rock in 1968, also was there.

We toasted the city and its glorious past on Saturday. Then we raised our glasses to toast what so many of us hope is the impending rebirth of downtown Hot Springs.

For now, that rebirth is being driven by a small group of visionaries. If they experience success, even bigger investors are sure to follow.

The first domino fell in early June when Ken Wheatley announced he would sell two historic buildings across Central Avenue from Bathhouse Row to a partnership composed of Hot Springs financial adviser Robert Zunick and veteran architects Bob Kempkes and Anthony Taylor.

I joined Zunick for dinner last week at Park Avenue Bistro (the former Bohemia, which is now among the best fine-dining establishments in the state) to talk about the projects. The partners are still working on financing but are quietly optimistic that things will work out.

They hope to turn the Thompson Building into a 62-room boutique hotel that will be as fine as anything in this part of the country.

They hope to transform the Dugan-Stuart Building into either apartments or condominiums.

I took a tour of the Dugan-Stuart Building with Zunick after dinner and was amazed by the amount of marble still in the building along with its tile floors. Again, that word “potential” comes to mind.

If Zunick, Kempkes and Taylor are successful in attracting overnight guests to the Thompson Building and residents to the Dugan-Stuart Building, I have no doubt that those outside investors with deeper pockets will follow at the Medical Arts Building, the Howe Hotel, the First Federal Building, the Wade Building, the Velda Rose and the Vapors. All of those downtown buildings are largely empty and waiting on saviors.

Just three weeks after Zunick, Kempkes and Taylor announced their plans, Pat and Ellen McCabe announced that they’ve entered into lease negotiations with the National Park Service to open a boutique hotel and restaurant in the Hale Bathhouse. If the McCabes are successful, there will be activity in seven of the eight bathhouses (all except the Maurice, a large building with tremendous redevelopment potential). When Josie Fernandez, the superintendent of Hot Springs National Park, came to the city a decade ago, only two of the bathhouses were being used.

Speaking about a spacious back room in the Hale with a vaulted skylight, Ellen McCabe said: “I could see Sunday brunches in there and opening it up for fine dining.”

The McCabes hope to have nine rooms on the second level of the Hale available for overnight guests with dining on the main level.

“We’re thinking it would be good for a destination wedding,” Ellen McCabe told The Sentinel-Record at Hot Springs. “They can lock up the whole thing for the bridal party and have a reception down in the big hall.”

Fernandez said the National Park Service spent almost $18 million on renovations.

Incidentally, Pat McCabe, the president of the Levi Hospital at Hot Springs, is running for mayor.

Zunick said he doesn’t see the Hale as competition for the Thompson. He welcomes the additional upscale rooms, saying they will create critical mass downtown.

Pat McCabe feels the same way.

“We cannot be a successful downtown in a vacuum,” he said. “We’re only going to be successful if we’re all bringing in tons of traffic. I really think the downtown is going to blossom again. We’re getting to a point where there’s only one bathhouse that’s empty, and the buildings across the street are now being developed.”

One of those who serves with Crouch on the Downtown Game Plan Task Force is Mark Fleischner. He noted during that July 2 Rotary Club meeting that redevelopment of downtown Hot Springs buildings not only will bring in additional tourists but also will attract young, talented residents who like living in an urban environment.

“This is a wonderful place,” he said. “The problem I see is that our children don’t want to come back here. We don’t have what we need to offer them. You have to look to the future and leave things better than you found them.”

For almost a century, Hot Springs Rotarians have been leading advocates of downtown. Club president Les Warren urged his fellow Rotarians to become involved.

“It’s not an overnight process,” he said. “It’s going to take all of us working together, keeping the focus on downtown and realizing that with one victory at a time, over a period of years, it’s going to make for a great downtown.”

Earlier that morning, city officials had held a news conference atop the Exchange Street Parking Plaza (where parking is now free in order to encourage interest in downtown) and announced that building permit fees for new dwellings in the city limits will be waived until the end of the year. They hope the waiver will stimulate interest in residential construction, especially downtown. The waiver applies to single-family dwellings across the city. Downtown, it applies to family, duplex and multiple-family dwellings.

David Watkins, the Hot Springs city manager who has been instrumental in efforts to change the status quo, told those at the news conference: “We envision downtown as an attractive, vibrant place where more residents will live, enhancing the safety and economic vitality of the area. The permit holiday is designed to stimulate reinvestment in the center of the city, including reoccupying upper floors and filling downtown storefronts, creating a more livable downtown and energizing adjacent historic neighborhoods.”

Watkins and Jim Fram, the president of the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Hot Springs Metro Partnership, have brought new ideas to a city where the status quo ruled for too long.

“You never know what’s going to be the spark that causes a community to become the next economic development hotspot,” Fram recently wrote. “Maybe a local entrepreneur or industry catches a trend and skyrockets, attracting ancillary industries and suppliers, assisting the real estate market and increasing tax revenues. Sometimes a city will have a dramatic turnover in its elected leadership, which causes a contagious wave of excitement and activity. Maybe the spark is literally a fire, like the one in downtown Hot Springs in February that ignited city leadership and caused citizens to demand greater accountability and a coherent plan to protect, preserve and rebuild Arkansas’ favorite vacation destination.”

Suzanne Davidson, the city director whose district includes downtown, talked at the news conference about the importance of revitalizing the city’s historic core.

“I want to see it like it was when I was a little girl and came here to shop,” she said. “We’ve already seen a positive start. … It’s a moral issue to save these magnificent buildings and showcase their beauty. It will be the legacy of the leaders of this community.”

Crouch said that in his more than four decades in Hot Springs, he has watched “downtown take steps frontward and backward. Hopefully we’re at a point where we’ll see major efforts toward the restoration of downtown. These buildings possess architectural features that you’ll never see again if they are left to be destroyed. … It’s exciting to see the transformation taking place to revive the downtown culture. As a member of the task force, it’s our hope that we’re seeing the return of the great American spa to its original grandeur.”

Ellen McCabe. Pat McCabe. Robert Zunick. Bob Kempkes. Anthony Taylor. David Watkins. Jim Fram. Courtney Crouch.

Visionaries all.

Let’s hope that their vision for downtown Hot Springs is at last being transformed from a mere dream into a beautiful reality.

 

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My perfect summer meal

Monday, July 7th, 2014

A version of this story can be found in the July issue of Arkansas Life magazine.

Summer is upon us, and my thoughts turn back more than 40 years to long, lazy mornings fishing with my grandmother on the dock in front of her cabin at Lake Norrell in Saline County.

Lake Norrell was constructed in 1953 as a water supply reservoir for the city of Benton. It originally was known as Brushy Lake and later was named for William Frank Norrell, an Ashley County native who first was elected to the U.S. House in 1938 and represented part of south Arkansas in Congress until his death in 1961.

Lake Norrell covers just 280 acres, which is considered tiny in a state that boasts such huge U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundments as Bull Shoals, Ouachita and Greers Ferry. To a boy growing up in Arkansas in the 1960s, though, Lake Norrell might as well have been the Atlantic Ocean. It’s where I learned to swim, water ski, fish, run a trotline, catch crawdads and gig frogs.

More important than any of that, it’s where I learned that the finest summer meal is fried fish, fresh out of an Arkansas lake or stream, served with fried potatoes, cornbread and fresh peas cooked with fatback. The platter in the middle of the table must have tomatoes, bell peppers, banana peppers, cucumbers and green onions fresh from the garden.

A couple of years ago, a website owned by the giant Hearst Corp. featured a story headlined “All-American Eats: Must-Try Foods from the 50 States.” The editors chose one ingredient or dish to represent each state.

What did they choose that best represented Arkansas?

Would you believe chocolate gravy?

The website described it as a “breakfast staple in Arkansas.”

I had two grandmothers who were great Arkansas cooks. One lived on the Grand Prairie, and the other lived in central Arkansas. Both lived well into their 90s, and neither ever prepared chocolate gravy. That’s not to say it wasn’t served in some Arkansas families. I know. I’ve heard from some of you since I wrote on this subject for the July issue of Arkansas Life magazine. But it’s far from “a staple” in this state. Had the website said cream gravy or even redeye gravy, made with the drippings of a salty country ham and a bit of coffee, I might have given those editors a pass.

Far too often, writers and editors in places such as New York and Chicago list what they think those of us in Arkansas should be eating and drinking as opposed to what we’re actually eating and drinking. In addition to chocolate gravy, examples of this are sweet tea and fried green tomatoes. Both have become trendy in the state, but these aren’t things I was raised on.

When I was growing up, if you wanted your tea sweet, you took a spoon, put sugar in the glass and stirred. It wasn’t brewed that way. Tables at restaurants and tables at homes all had bowls filled with sugar.

And, yes, my grandmothers fried about everything — potatoes, okra, squash. Yet we were much more likely to have fried green apples than fried green tomatoes in the summer. If tomatoes fell off the vine early, you put them in the windowsill to ripen rather than battering them and putting them in a skillet.

Sweet tea and fried green tomatoes are more a staple in the Deep South than they are in Arkansas. Defining Arkansas, its habits and its customs long has been a problem for those who aren’t from here. Outsiders fail to understand that this is a fringe state, not solely a part of any one region. We’re mostly Southern but also a bit Midwestern and a tad Southwestern. Northwest Arkansas is far different from southeast Arkansas, and northeast Arkansas doesn’t have much in common with southwest Arkansas.

Once we’ve passed the age of 50, we’ve started to understand ourselves. But we still have a heck of a time explaining Arkansas to outsiders.

As for those younger than 50, well, let’s just say that for some reason they think chocolate gravy, sweet tea and fried green tomatoes are longtime Arkansas staples.

Just how difficult are we to define?

Consider the fact that people from outside Arkansas think Bill Clinton came of age in Hope. Granted, he was born at Hope but moved to Hot Springs as a child. He finished elementary school, junior high school and high school in the Spa City. Arkansans always considered him to be a Hot Springs product until that 1992 presidential campaign came along. Some political consultants evidently determined that “I still believe in a place called Hot Springs” just didn’t have the same ring to it. It’s another example of how this state of constant contradictions confounds outsiders.

I digress. Let’s get back to that wooden dock on Lake Norrell.

When the lake was built, the first lots were offered to Benton city employees. My paternal grandfather was the Benton street superintendent. He bought a lot and built a small wooden cabin that would in the next decade come to represent summer nirvana for a certain redheaded boy. His Christmas trees were tied to concrete blocks and sunk at the end of that dock each January. Bags of dry dog food with holes punched in the sides were submerged there. He would try anything he thought would attract fish.

Summer mornings at Lake Norrell with my grandmother were spent with cane poles in hand, sitting in metal chairs at the end of the dock. My grandmother would bait the tiny hooks with the red wigglers my grandfather had raised. Before dropping the worm into the water, she would spit on it for good luck and say, “Nelson sugar.”

It wasn’t uncommon for us to catch several dozen bream before lunch. We threw nothing back. My grandmother’s motto was, “If it’s big enough to bite, it’s big enough to eat.”

At about 11 a.m., we would end our fishing, go inside the cabin and ask for my grandfather’s help in cleaning the bream. You scaled them with a spoon. The smallest ones were fried to the point that you could eat them bones and all.

The vegetables from the garden were a necessary complement to the fried bream, fried potatoes, peas and cornbread. Together they formed the great Arkansas summer meal.

The sliced tomatoes were particularly essential.

Each summer on the editorial page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Paul Greenberg writes his ode to that finest of all tomatoes, the Bradley County Pink.

Arkansans are serious about their tomatoes.

Last month, Paul and I received this note from Bob Nolan of El Dorado: “The winter of my discontent ended precisely at 6:47 a.m. on June 6 when, with great care, I lovingly twisted the stem of this magnificent Cherokee Purple heirloom, separating it from its mother plant. As I was once told, ‘It ain’t braggin’ if it’s fact,’ but I’m not sure it’s true because I’m pretty darned puffed up.

“Being mindful of the supposed ‘art’ of photoshopping, I have, to the best of my ability, framed this beauty with, first, my cupped hands, then secondly, juxtaposed on the cover of my favorite food magazine, Cook’s Illustrated. I honored my forebears this year by planting on Good Friday and not before, and thank God for their guidance, because the Lord smote down all gardens planted in south Arkansas prior to Good Friday with killing frost – period — here endeth the lesson.

“Question: Am I to be discomfited by the fact that my first harvest was not an Early Girl, a Bradley Pink, Big Boy, Better Boy or Celebrity but was a Cherokee Purple heirloom, vis-a-vis the Trail of Tears and all that guilt? I leave it to you scribes to tell me whether I should be directed towards absolution.

“Now, four days later, my harvest has begun in earnest. Bush Goliaths are particularly impressive and tasty. These are a ‘determinant variety’ (how impressed are you with my knowledge?), and you all should try them, either in your garden or in containers — trust me on this one.

“I will be signing off now, before the inevitable ‘blossom end rot’ attacks my treasures as a result of the unusually heavy rains of the last several days. So for now, here from our patio on Calion Road, we praise our Lord for the bounty of the earth, we thank him for this deliciously cool spring evening and we wish you the blessings of this beautiful late Arkansas spring.”

I told you Arkansans were serious about their tomatoes.

So you have my perfect Arkansas summer meal.

Fried fish, caught just hours before with a red worm and a touch of “Nelson sugar.”

Tomatoes, bell peppers, banana peppers, cucumbers and green onions fresh from the garden.

Fried potatoes.

Fresh peas cooked with fatback.

Cornbread.

Maybe even a cobbler made from wild dewberries picked earlier in the week.

I’ve just defined what an Arkansas summer tastes like.

You can save the chocolate gravy for a visitor from up north.

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Dogpatch country: Circa 2014

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

For Arkansans of a certain age, Dogpatch USA comes to mind when Newton County is mentioned.

Dogpatch, some believed, was the thing that would turn this remote, lightly populated county into the center of tourism for Arkansas.

The online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture describes Newton County as “mountainous, rural and isolated. The land, once respected and protected by native Americans, has come full circle with a large portion being protected by the U.S. Department of the Interior as a wilderness area.”

The Buffalo River and Little Buffalo River flow through the county, which was part of Carroll County when that county was created in 1833 as part of the Arkansas Territory. Arkansas became a state three years later.

In late 1842, the Arkansas Legislature created a new county in the Ozarks and named it after a U.S. marshal, Thomas Willoughby Newton.

“After beginning his career as a mail carrier and serving as U.S. marshal for Arkansas, Newton was elected to serve in Congress after the resignation of Archibald Yell,” C.J. Miller writes for the state encyclopedia. “John Belleh’s house on Shop Creek was designated the county seat until the designation was given to Jasper in 1843. The county had 10 post offices by 1856. The terrain made the area unattractive to land speculators, which was encouraging to people who could not afford land in other parts of the state. A school opened at Mount Judea around 1860. Western Grove Academy opened in 1886. Hunting and small farms sustained the residents, and livestock grazed the rugged land. The difficulty in farming the rough terrain resulted in farms being located along the river.”

There were only 24 slaves in the county in the 1860 census. A strong Union sentiment was present in these hills, and that resulted in a base of ancestral Republicans who thrived in Newton County when there were few Republicans elsewhere in Arkansas. Indeed, when I attended the Newton County Elk Festival last month, I saw dozens of Republican lapel stickers being worn and none for Democratic candidates. Long before the rest of Arkansas began to go red politically, Newton County had plenty of people whose loyalties were with the GOP.

The Civil War split families. Guerrilla warfare was common, and some families lived in caves.

“The county produced two famous leaders, fighting for different causes,” Rose Lacy writes for the encyclopedia. “James Vanderpool was a Union hero who returned home in August 1865. John Cecil, the former sheriff of Newton County, was known for showing off his twin pearl-handled pistols he had worn as a guerrilla leader for the Confederacy. Newton County most supported the Union. However, while searching for Cecil in 1863, Union troops burned Jasper to the ground and moved their sympathizers to Springfield, Mo.”

By 1870, there were only seven black residents of Newton County.

Change came slowly.

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

Newton County hit its population peak in 1900 with 12,538 residents. There were 8,330 residents in the 2010 census.

Zinc and lead mining occurred in the county early in the 20th century. The community of Ponca was named after the Ponca City Mining Co. of Oklahoma. There wasn’t a paved road in the county until 1951, when Arkansas Highway 7 was paved from Harrison to Jasper.

Dogpatch would change everything, Newton County residents thought.

Businessman Oscar Snow of Harrison came up with the idea for a major amusement park and bought a trout farm at Marble Falls from Albert Raney Sr. to serve as the site of what would become known as Dogpatch USA.

“Snow and nine other investors formed Recreation Enterprises Inc. and approached Bostonian Al Capp with the idea,” Russell Johnson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Capp, who had rejected such offers in the past, agreed to be a partner in the enterprise. The partners acquired 1,000 acres. … Capp spoke at the groundbreaking on Oct. 3, 1967. The cost of the original construction was $1,332,000. The park originally featured the trout farm, buggy and horseback rides, an apiary, Ozark arts and crafts, gift shops, entertainment by Dogpatch characters and the park’s trademark railroad, the West Po’k Chop Speshul. Management added amusement rides in subsequent years.

“Many of the buildings in the park were authentic 19th-century log structures, purchased by board member James H. Schermerhorn. The logs in each building were numbered, cataloged, disassembled and reassembled at the park. In 1968, the first year of operation, general manager Schermerhorn reported that Dogpatch had 300,000 visitors. Admission was $1.50 for adults, half price for children. Al Capp’s son, Colin C. Capp, worked at the park that year and met and married Vicki Cox, the actress portraying Moonbeam McSwine.”

Real estate investor Jess Odom later bought controlling interest in the park. Odom added rides and campsites. He also hired former Gov. Orval Faubus as his general manager.

Odom’s financial downfall came in the early 1970s when he attempted to build a winter sports complex adjacent to the amusement park. There were warm winters, faulty snowmaking equipment, rising interest rates and a lack of interest in winter sports in the South.

“In order to keep the ski resort open, Odom used Dogpatch assets to secure loans at unfavorable interest rates,” Johnson writes. “Although Dogpatch made a profit in all but two years of operation, it could not overcome the burden of the Marble Falls debt. The city of Harrison rejected Odom’s proposals to refinance the debt with a bond issue, and plans to turn Dogpatch into a religious theme park called God’s Patch never advanced. … Dogpatch had its worst summer during the drought of 1980. Dogpatch declared bankruptcy in November 1980.”

A company headed by Wayne Thompson operated the park from 1981-87 before selling it to Melvyn Bell.

Bell, a Fort Smith native with an engineering degree from the University of Arkansas, was flying high in the 1980s. His company, Environmental Systems Co., generally was known as Ensco. It had a rare federal permit allowing it to destroy PCBs and other hazardous materials at an incinerator in El Dorado. The permit was obtained in 1981 after three years of public hearings. Only six commercial PCB incinerators were operating in the United States in the 1980s.

Bell had bought out his partners in the company in 1972. The company broke even or lost money until obtaining the federal permit. By 1986, there were revenues of $66.5 million at Ensco.

“I have no reason to do anything in the environment that’s wrong,” Bell told The Associated Press in early 1987. “In a state as small as Arkansas, or in a community as small as El Dorado, where 1 percent of that population works with me, it would be foolish to think that you could do anything wrong and not have that become immediately public.”

Bell gained widespread attention when he leased four of the bathhouses at Hot Springs from the National Park Service with plans to convert them into a restaurant, a bed-and-breakfast inn, a museum and a spa.

Other high-profile acquisitions by Bell included the Red Apple Inn near Heber Springs, a lodge on Lake Eufaula in Oklahoma, the Market Street Plaza shopping complex in west Little Rock, children’s radio station KPAL in Little Rock and Little Rock restaurants SOB, Alexander’s and the Heights Fish House.

He bought the Magic Springs amusement park at Hot Springs in addition to Dogpatch.

He even purchased the famed Belvedere Country Club at Hot Springs.

It all began going south for Bell following the stock market crash in October 1987. The value of his Ensco holdings fell from $42.3 million to $21.7 million in a two-month period. He had become highly leveraged with his myriad acquisitions. In a 1998 deposition, Bell said he was $5.6 million in debt.

I took my wife to the Red Apple Inn in 1990, remembering it as the grand resort that Little Rock insurance magnate Herbert Thomas had built. I was shocked to see it had fallen to Motel 6 status under Bell’s ownership. Fortunately, Dick and Patti Upton of Heber Springs later returned the Red Apple Inn to its past glory.

In November 2001, Bell was indicted by a federal grand jury for tax evasion. The trial was delayed repeatedly because of Bell’s health problems. The case was dismissed in May 2006. Bell died at age 68 in July 2006 of cancer.

The final summer season at Dogpatch had been in 1993.

Dogpatch briefly was back in the news in 2011 when Stewart Nance, Pruett Nance and Brent Baber (the Nances’ attorney) were awarded the Dogpatch property in circuit court. The Nances had brought a lawsuit following a 2001 accident in which Pruett Nance struck a steel cable while driving an ATV on the property.

Newton County’s hopes of attracting hundreds of thousands of people to an amusement park each year had ended. But something interesting has happened in a part of our state that some of us still think of as Dogpatch Country.

People ranging from Oklahoma oil and gas executives to Arkansas automobile moguls have built second homes there. Others with money rent cabins. There is, in fact, a bit of an upscale vibe.

Take the Floating Buffalo in Jasper, which can only be described as an upscale boutique. Or the adjacent Arkansas House, where one can purchase buffalo and elk burgers.

People with money to spend can be found in places such as the Nelms Gallery in downtown Jasper and Nick Bottini’s Low Gap Café, which is between Mount Sherman and Ponca.

Last Saturday night, folks crowded onto the large outdoor deck at the Low Cap Café, listening to live music.

“My grandfather and mother were full-blood Sicilian,” Bottini told Arkansas Living magazine. “I learned from them. … I studied five years at culinary school in New York. Then I went back to California, bounced around at various restaurants and resorts and eventually ended up in Arkansas after visiting relatives and falling in love with the state. Horseshoe Canyon Ranch is just up the road, and we are only a few miles from the Buffalo River.”

The restaurant is packed most weekends.

Horseshoe Canyon, the nationally recognized dude ranch operated by Barry and Amy Johnson, is one of those places that attract high-dollar tourists to the county. In addition to the families who spend the week there, the ranch has become a favorite spot for rock climbers from around the world.

Ponca-based Buffalo Outdoor Center also has gained a nationwide reputation. Mike Mills started Buffalo Outdoor Center as a canoe rental operation in 1976. The Buffalo River had been designated a national river just four years earlier. There are now modern log cabins and a lodge, zip lines and more.

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

“We operate only 100 hives,” Watkins says. “Our bees harvest nectar from wildflowers untouched by chemical pesticides. Each year our honey, like fine wine, varies according to the flower blooms and the impact of the seasons. One thing remains constant: The character of our honey is unlike any you have ever tasted. You’ve not tasted pure wild honey until you taste our honey.

“We honor and practice our ancient craft much as beekeepers have through the centuries. Our bees have bred with wild strains. We avoid chemicals and manage pests with essential oils. Tasting is believing. All natural, totally wild honey is a revelation. From the first explosion of the floral scents and tastes to the finishing notes of our honey, it’s an unparalleled experience of complexity and nuance. The key is staying all natural. That’s when the floral gifts of our pristine wilderness areas come through.”

No, tourists aren’t flocking to get on rides at an amusement park in Newton County. That effort couldn’t sustain itself. But wild, wonderful Newton County appears to have found its niche. For those who love mountain scenery, good music, great food and friendly people, there are few better places to spend a weekend or longer.

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