Archive for February, 2018

The wilds of Newton County

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018

ELEVENTH IN A SERIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Russellville to Jasper

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

TENTH IN A SERIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the heart of the Arkansas Ozarks.

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

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

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

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

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

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Ola to Russellville

Friday, February 9th, 2018

NINTH IN A SERIES

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

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

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

We’re downstream from Danville on this day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what about that Free State of Yell?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fort Smith restaurant was at 711 Towson Ave.

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

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

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

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

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Hot Springs to Ola

Tuesday, February 6th, 2018

EIGHTH IN A SERIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ground was broken on Feb. 15, 1970.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most of the Arkansas projects were in national forests.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For now,” Connie Hawks replies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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