The invitation proved irresistible.
Rhonda Watkins of Jasper asked me to judge the homemade pie competition to be held in conjunction with the 15th annual Buffalo River Elk Festival. The competition would take place on a Saturday morning with proceeds from the auction of the pies going to the Single Parent Scholarship Fund.
Coupled with a chance to spend the weekend at businessman Bubba Lloyd’s luxurious private retreat, the Black Bear Lodge, this was an invitation that went on my calendar many weeks ago.
I pulled off Interstate 40 in Russellville late Friday afternoon and began the climb north on Arkansas Highway 7 — past the empty buildings of what once was the tourist trap Booger Hollow, past the Rotary Ann overlook operated by the U.S. Forest Service and past the Cliff House just south of Jasper (which has a small inn, a restaurant and a gift shop), its parking lot crowded with diners.
As I rolled down the mountain into downtown Jasper, it was clear that the town was filled with visitors. Craftsmen and other vendors crowded the grounds of the Newton County Courthouse and music could be heard playing in the background.
With 8,330 residents in the 2010 census (down from 12,538 in 1900), Newton County is among the state’s smallest counties in terms of population.
Only six counties have fewer residents.
Three are in the pine woods of south Arkansas — Calhoun County with 5,368; Lafayette County with 7,645; and Dallas County with 8,116.
Two are in the Delta — Woodruff County with 7,260 and Monroe County with 8,149.
One is next door to Newton County in the Ozarks — Searcy County with 8,195.
Newton County is one of the state’s most isolated, scenic places. The area was made part of Carroll County in 1833, and white settlers began to move in as the Indians moved out. Jasper appeared on maps as early as 1840, though the city wasn’t incorporated until 1896.
The Legislature created Newton County in December 1842, naming it after Thomas Willoughby Newton, a U.S. marshal who was elected to Congress after the resignation of Archibald Yell. Jasper became the county seat in 1843.
In the 1860 census, there were just 24 slaves in the county (farming was limited to fields along the Buffalo and Little Buffalo rivers), and Union sentiment was strong, even after Arkansas joined the Confederacy.
James Vanderpool of Jasper was a Union hero. Meanwhile, former Newton County sheriff John Cecil was a guerrilla leader for the Confederacy. Cecil was known for his twin pearl-handled pistols.
“Farming changed little in the county after Reconstruction,” C.J. Miller writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “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.”
Villines remains a common name in the county. Yes, Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines comes from that stock of hearty mountain settlers.
Oak was harvested for stave bolts, and cedar was harvested for pencils. There was even zinc and lead mining in the early 1900s. Ponca, in fact, was established on land owned by Ponca City Mining Co. of Oklahoma.
Still, change was slow to come to Newton County. Highway 7 between Jasper and Harrison wasn’t paved until 1951. The current courthouse was built in 1942 as a Works Progress Administration project.
There were high hopes when the Dogpatch USA amusement park opened in 1968, but the isolated location resulted in the park’s ultimate demise. It closed for good in 1993. Its ruins can still be seen along Highway 7 north of Jasper.
The Buffalo became the country’s first national river on March 1, 1972. The signing of the bill by President Nixon followed decades of sometimes bitter debates and political battles.
The state earlier had operated two parks along the river, Buffalo River State Park (established in 1938 as a Civilian Conservation Corps project) and Lost Valley State Park (established in 1966).
Following congressional passage of the Flood Control Act of 1938, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers identified two sites for potential dams on the Buffalo — one near its mouth with the White River and one just upstream from Gilbert in Searcy County.
The pro-dam Buffalo River Improvement Association was led by James Tudor of Marshall in Searcy County. The anti-dam Ozark Society was led by Dr. Neil Compton of Bentonville. The battle for the Buffalo even received national media attention when Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas floated the river.
In December 1965, Gov. Orval Faubus, a Madison County native, informed the Corps that he wouldn’t support a dam on the river. Efforts to keep the river flowing freely received yet another boost when Republican John Paul Hammerschmidt of Harrison defeated Democratic Rep. James Trimble in 1966. Trimble had supported damming the Buffalo.
Hammerschmidt joined forces with the state’s two Democratic senators, John L. McClellan and J. William Fulbright, in pushing to make the Buffalo a national river.
A park superintendent, a chief ranger and a secretary set up temporary headquarters in Harrison in 1972. National Park Service staff members eventually were divided into three management districts. For years, federal employees have dealt with residents still angry about land they had to sell to the government.
The Buffalo National River, though, has become a tremendous success from a tourism standpoint with more than 800,000 visitors per year to its 94,293 acres. As Jimmy Driftwood sang, the Buffalo is “Arkansas’ gift to the nation, America’s gift to the world.”
Other attractions have developed in the county. From the spacious back deck of Bubba’s Black Bear Lodge, I can look down on the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, which draws visitors from across the country for its horseback riding, outdoor cookouts, rock climbing and other activities.
The owners of this well-known dude ranch, Barry and Amy Johnson, met when they were working at a Wyoming ranch while enrolled at Brigham Young University. The involvement of the couple’s four children — Cameron, Cody, Sierra and Creed — make it a true family operation.
In addition to its superb rock climbing opportunities, Horseshoe Canyon is adding one of the longest zip lines in the country.
Bubba and I were in downtown Jasper by 9 a.m. Saturday for the pie judging. I took bites of 24 homemade pies — blackberry, blueberry, pecan, plum, lemon, chocolate, apple, egg custard, strawberry, peach and more. It was tough work, but somebody had to do it.
After the pie auction, we headed west out of Jasper on Arkansas Highway 74. We stopped briefly at the commuity of Low Gap to visit with noted chef Nick Bottini, who now operates the Low Gap Cafe in an old general store along with his wife Marie. Bottini once operated an upscale restaurant in Harrison. He’s open at Low Gap from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. each Wednesday and Thursday, from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. each Friday and Saturday and from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. each Sunday.
We took a right on Arkansas Highway 43 and stepped into the beautiful new headquarters of Mike Mills’ Buffalo Outdoor Center at Ponca. Mills, who has long been among the state’s leading tourism entrepreneurs, offers everything from cabins to a lodge for family reunions and corporate retreats. Visitors can also book canoe trips and visit the zip line.
In May, Mills added what’s known as the Big Ol’ Swing. Built with 65-foot pine poles outfitted with a cable system, riders are secured into a harness and then launched.
Mills, a Hendrix College graduate, served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1969-71. He managed the Lost Valley Lodge in Ponca from 1974-76 and in 1976 began Buffalo Outdoor Center as a canoe rental operation on the upper Buffalo.
After leaving Ponca, we took a left onto Arkansas Highway 103 and followed it into Carroll County, where the road intersects with U.S. Highway 412 at Osage. In a building that was constructed in 1901, Newt Lale continues to operate Osage Clayworks. Lale has been a potter for three decades, and his pottery is in demand across the Ozarks.
We then drove east on Highway 412 for a late lunch at the Top Rock in Alpena. The evening was spent back on the Jasper square for the final night of the Elk Festival, including the much-anticipated 7 p.m. drawing by Arkansas Game & Fish Commission officials for elk hunting permits.
I visited with a college buddy from Ouachita Baptist University, Rodney Slinkard. The guy we called Slink was a heck of a college football player three decades ago. He now lives on the Buffalo River at Gilbert, where he paints Ozark Mountain scenes. Rodney had his art for sale both days of the festival.
The Ozark Cafe has been on the Jasper square since 1909. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. Last year, the website www.newyork.grubstreet.com did a feature called “50 State Dinners: Food Treks Worth Taking This Summer.” The Ozark was picked as the location in Arkansas.
On Saturday, the Ozark closed at 5 p.m. to allow its employees a chance to enjoy the Elk Festival. So we wandered down the street to the Boardwalk Cafe, known for using buffalo, elk, locally grown produce and locally baked bread.
Owners Joseph and Janet Morgan also operate the adjacent Arkansas House, which has two suites on the ground floor and three rooms on the second floor. The dinner menu Saturday at the Boardwalk featured a number of elk dishes. I had elk gumbo with locally grown okra. It was excellent.
The Buffalo River Elk Festival concluded with fireworks over the Jasper square, beginning at 10 p.m. Saturday. By then, I had returned to Bubba’s Black Bear Lodge and was prepared to turn in for the night. Full of homemade pie and elk, I slept well after a long day.
Sunday dawned clear and hot. Looking down through the mountains toward Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, I enjoyed ham, eggs and biscuits and coffee before heading south on Highway 7.
I have no doubt that Newton County will beckon again.