Into the Ozarks

Leaving the annual Johnson County Peach Festival, we headed up Arkansas Highway 103 toward Oark.

That road, which winds from the Arkansas River Valley into the Ozarks, can be an adventure. It contains some of the state’s most daunting switchback curves. I can’t imagine trying to drive it when it’s starting to snow or sleet in the winter.

Looking at the covered hillsides along this route, it’s hard to visualize a landscape here that once was denuded by timber companies that would cut the trees and move on, not bothering to replant.

“Throughout the Arkansas River Valley, Johnson County has the largest amount of timber,” Jennifer Koenig Johnson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “However, the timber industry provided only a temporary respite of prosperity, eventually declining in the 1930s and leaving many people to seek better opportunities elsewhere. In some cases, towns disappeared because they functioned based on the prosperity and success of the lumber industry. Starting in the 1930s, the U.S. Forest Service began buying up land that had been cleared and repopulating it in hopes of returning what was lumbered away.”

Johnson County’s population declined from 21,062 residents in the 1920 census to just 12,421 people by 1960.

Thousands of trees were planted during the Great Depression by the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps who were stationed at Camp Ozone, which was established in 1933. About 200 men lived at the camp.

On Dec. 18, 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt had signed a proclamation creating the Arkansas National Forest (now the Ouachita National Forest) on land south of the Arkansas River.

On March 6, 1908, he signed a proclamation creating the Ozark National Forest north of the Arkansas River, including large parts of Johnson County.

“The Ozark National Forest was the only major hardwood timberland under governmental protection at that time, and the forest would assist the furniture industry in northwest Arkansas as a renewable source of valuable hardwood,” Mary Wood writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The first forest headquarters was in Fort Smith. Samuel J. Record was the first forest supervisor, administering both the Arkansas (Ouachita) and Ozark national forests. Late in 1908, the Ozark National Forest received its own supervisor, David Fitton, who moved the headquarters to Harrison. In 1918, the headquarters moved to Russellville.

“Presidential proclamations increasing and decreasing the area of the Ozark National Forest occurred frequently during the early years. Three of the more significant changes were the executive order of President Franklin Roosevelt transferring the Magazine Ranger District from the Ouachita National Forest to the Ozark; the addition of the Henry R. Koen Experimental Forest on June 14, 1950; and the proclamation of President Dwight Eisenhower on Nov. 8, 1960, creating the St. Francis National Forest.”

We continued north on Highway 103 to where the Mulberry River flows. This tributary of the Arkansas River is one of our state’s most beautiful mountain streams.

“It flows generally southwest from its source and empties into the Arkansas River south of the city of Mulberry in Crawford County for a total length of approximately 70 miles,” Guy Lancaster writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Reportedly named for the number of mulberry trees growing in its vicinity, it is today well known among canoeists. The area around the Mulbery River has been the site of human habitation as far back as about 10,000 B.C. In historic times, the Osage Indians claimed much of this part of Arkansas, including the area drained by the Mulberry River, as their hunting grounds.

“The Cherokee settled in the area after leaving northeastern Arkansas and were formally given land in much of northwestern Arkansas in 1817, though they were later pressured to cede these lands in 1828. Permanent white settlement in the Mulberry River Valley began soon thereafter, mostly along the lower reaches of the river, near where it empties into the Arkansas River. The largest of these settlements was the community of Mulberry, which got its start after the completion of the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad in 1876.”

Canoeists and kayakers are drawn to the Mulberry when the water is right like bugs to a lamp. Margaret and Harold Hedges once wrote in a magazine story: “It offers an infinite variety of faster water, slow water, roaring rapids, rock gardens, choppy chutes, twisty channels — all sandwiched between pools of deep milky water that is serene and beautiful.”

Paul Austin, his son Josh and I even crossed the footbridge across the upper Mulberry between Oark and Catalpa. A group of children who had been swimming there were headed back to the highway on the hot summer day. It was an idyllic scene, like something out of a movie.

At that point, we were in the middle of seeing if we could finish the huge burgers at both the Oark General Store and the Catalpa Café & General Store.

Josh and I succeeded. Paul was the wimp in the group, unable to finish the second burger.

Oark is the best known of the two establishments. But the food is just as good — maybe even better — at Catalpa. Highway 103 ends at Oark, but the pavement continues near the banks of Mulberry on what’s now a Johnson County road to Catalpa. You’ll see signs so you’ll know when to turn down a short gravel road to the Catalpa Café.

The breakfast menu there features everything from homemade biscuits to pancakes to a breakfast burrito. Eggs benedict is served on Sundays. Coffee is free with any order.

The burgers for lunch and dinner all contain a half of pound of beef. The Catalpa Burger has barbecue sauce, sautéed onions and pepper jack cheese. Dad’s Burger has fried jalapenos, pepper jack cheese and Sriracha sauce. The Bubblehead comes with bacon, pepper jack cheese and jalapenos. The Juicy Lucy, which I had, is a cheese-stuffed burger with sautéed mushrooms and onions.

There’s also pulled pork, smoked brisket, turkey and several daily specials. There are always several kinds of homemade pies, and they’ll sell you whole pies if you order them in advance.

The Oark General Store, which is popular with bikers, opened in 1890. Its menu also has a selection of half-pound burgers (such as the Angry Hornet with grilled jalapenos, bell pepper, pepper jack cheese and chipotle mayonnaise).

Here’s how Michael Tilley described the place in a 2013 story for The City Wire: “Reagan and Brian Eisele are not who you would expect to find mixing up a special hushpuppy recipe or applying an egg wash to the top of a homemade pie. The couple, who married in April 2012, bought the historic Oark General Store on May 18, 2012. With little to no restaurant experience, they dug their entrepreneurial hooks into an unforgiving, low-margin business. The store first opened in 1890 to provide supplies for those intrepid souls who chose to scrap out a living in Oark, a town connected to the world then by a few rugged and often impassable logging trails. The building purchased by the Eiseles includes some of the original furnishings from that 1890 building. Today the store is a restaurant but does sell fuel and several food items.”

Tilley went on to tell how the couple met: “Reagan was a staffer for then-U.S. Rep. John Boozman, and Brian was a staffer with U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina. They were part of a tour to learn about the emerging energy industry in Azerbaijan. Although the energy reserves were abundant, the fledgling country had little in the way of modern pipeline and storage infrastructure when it became an independent country. The first major pipeline — the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan — opened in July 2006. Brian and Reagan and other congressional staffers ventured into the important geopolitical crossroads — the country is located between Russia and Iran — during February 2010. The tour period included Valentine’s Day. … The love blossomed, and Brian and Reagan visited each other’s families.

“Brian grew up in Aiken, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina in December 2005. Reagan grew up in Hartman in Johnson County and graduated from Arkansas Tech University in May 2006. During an April 2012 visit, Brian proposed to Reagan, and the wedding was planned for a site near Ponca in the scenic Boxley Valley. While Reagan was in Arkansas planning the wedding, she noticed a blurb about the Oark General Store.”

She had taken Brian there once for pie and coffee. She let him know it was for sale.

Brian told Tilley: “When I worked in Congress, I worked under and alongside some of the most hardworking and intelligent people. But at the end of the day, just because I was a lowly peon in the scheme of things, I never really felt any concrete achievement for myself. It was always for others.”

He wanted a business of his own. And he didn’t want to raise a family in the nation’s capital.

Brian’s parents helped finance the $170,000 purchase a few weeks after the couple was married in 2012.

Well-known Arkansas food writer Kat Robinson described the store this way: “The fantastic burgers from past incarnations are still there, great pies of half a dozen varieties are always in the case and there’s always a conversation going on within the walls, just like with those gentlemen of old who came to warm themselves around the stove with gossip and coffee.”

After eating at Catalpa and Oark, we took Arkansas Highway 215 from Oark until the road intersects with Arkansas Highway 23 (the Pig Trail) at Cass. If there’s a more scenic stretch of road in Arkansas, I don’t know what it is.

Highway 215 runs along the Mulberry for 18 miles between Oark and Cass and is more like a national parkway than a state highway with its scenic overlooks and interpretive panels.

In the November 2014 issue of Arkansas Highways magazine, Marilyn Collins wrote: “The flowing water of the Mulberry River offers an Ozark view not experienced by many. The river twists and turns around rock ledges, beneath scenic overlooks, and reveals the geological history and cultural heritage of Johnson and Franklin counties. … During the spring, water levels are high and challenge the most adventurous. Water calms during the summer months, providing a playground for visitors to swim, float, skip rocks and fish.”

Black bears often are seen in the area.

“People have strong attachments to the Mulberry River Valley landscape,” said Mary Brennan of the U.S. Forest Service. “While many people visit here to participate in recreational opportunities, others return as descendants of the pioneer families who settled here 100 years or more ago. Many people who live and work in this area today are third- and fourth-generation residents. People’s attachments to this landscape are very strong.”

Matt Pfeifler of the U.S. Forest Service is a third-generation Oark resident. He said: “The Mulberry River was an important part of my childhood and my family’s lives. … It’s important that people have opportunities to appreciate and experience this place.”

What’s known as the Mulberry River Interpretive Driving Trail is a partnership between the Forest Service, the Federal Highway Administration, the Arkansas State Highway & Transportation Department, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and the Cass Job Corps Center.

Spots along the route include:

— The Redding Recreation Area and Spy Rock Trailhead: There’s a canoe launch on the river here. The Spy Rock Trail, which can be accessed from the Redding campground, is an eight-mile loop that connects with the Ozark Highlands Trail. Signage at the Redding campground interprets historic settlements along the Mulberry River and the nearby Hill Cemetery.

— Indian Creek canoe launch: Signage at this site interprets the impact of the Civil War on the area.

— High Bank canoe launch — Signage here interprets prehistoric occupation of the region.

— Yale Store site — The store was located at the confluence of the Mulberry River and Little Mulberry Creek. Signage interprets the schools, churches and social life along the Mulberry River.

— Wolf Pen Recreation Area — There are campgrounds and picnic areas. Signage interprets the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Forest Service.

The road was busy on the day we made the trip from Oark to Cass since an event known as the Homegrown Music Festival was being held at Byrd’s Adventure Center on the banks of the river. Hundreds of people were camping at Byrd’s, which has an 800-acre area for camping and an extensive trail network for ATVs and motorcycles. There’s a heated shower house, covered picnic areas, stages, a general store and even a 2,500-foot grass airstrip for those wanting to travel to the area in small private planes.

Byrd’s offers canoe, kayak, raft and tube rentals on the Mulberry.

Once we hit Highway 23, we headed south toward Ozark. No trip along the Pig Trail, of course, would be complete without a stop at Turner Bend.

The first Turners moved to the area from Tennessee in about 1830. Elias Turner arrived in 1848, served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and was a member of the Arkansas Legislature in the 1870s.

In 1900, the first bridge across the Mulberry River at this point was constructed. Eleven years later, William Eli Turner built a store at the south end of the original bridge. The years 1935-36 saw a new bridge built and the original store burn. The Turner family built another store just south of the current location. In 1939, Champ Turner (the son of William Eli Turner) married Flora Coleman and took over operation of the store. The store closed during World War II while Champ served in the Army. In 1946, Champ and Flora reopened the store. They continued to operate it until 1978 when Champ died of cancer.

Enter Brad Wimberly.

Wimberly bought the store from the Turner family in 1981, moved into the back and started renting canoes. He built the current facility in 1986-87 and expanded his operations through the years with campgrounds, cabin rentals and other improvements.

In August 2011, Wimberly threw a big celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of the store and his 30th year of ownership.

Beth Turner, a granddaughter of Champ and Flora, told the state Department of Parks & Tourism in 2011: “Turner Bend for 100 years has kept that valley going. Grandma and Grandpa, they made that area a family. They were always there, and the light was always on.”

Beth Turner produced a documentary on the area titled “Ties That Bind.” She said her grandparents did everything from bandaging cuts to pulling cars out of ditches.

“The Turners raised three sons in half of their building while conducting business out of the other half,” Wimberly said in 2011. “In those days, the store was known as the home of Bubbles the myna bird. Apparently, Bubbles had a large vocabulary, some of it X-rated. Champ was something of a trader and had lots of old guns hanging from the wall inside the store. The public restroom was an outhouse sitting over a creek.”

Jill Rohrbach wrote in 2011: “Turner Bend was more than an outfitter or supply source. It was a social center, like an office water cooler. State politicians, including a young Bill Clinton, stopped by to shake hands and explain their positions to Champ, who would then pass the information on to people in the valley who visited the store. People, mostly from outside the region, began flocking to the Mulberry to canoe in the later 1960s after the guide book ‘The Mighty Mulberry’ was published.”

Wimberly said: “Champ did not have a gauge as such but could tell you how many steps were covered and whether the river was rising or falling.”

No all of the natives welcomed the visitors.

“Wimberly and his friends canoed the Mulberry often,” Rohrbach wrote. “He particularly remembers conversations with Champ during the 1976 and 1977 spring float seasons. ‘When we returned for a float trip in 1978, the store was closed,’ he says. ‘Champ was soon to pass on.’ The Turner family leased the store out for a couple of years before selling it.”

Wimberly said: “As the saying goes, fools rush in. I purchased the store in May 1981. Good thing I was only 26 since there were hardships and problems at every turn. I lived in the back of the old store like the Turners before me. The wiring was faulty, the water well was suspect, the roof was leaky and there was no insulation. It was so hot inside the store that I would step outside and hose myself down and then step in the cooler just to be able to stand it.”

Wimberly built a rock landing on the river in the fall of 1981. He married his wife Vien on the banks of the river.

“University of Arkansas students flew down the trail on Fridays and back up on Sundays,” Wimberly said. “Businessmen traveling to and from Little Rock would stop, going and coming back. Hog fans with their flags flying stopped on their way to games. Canoeing on the Mulberry grew in popularity.”

A new store was built adjacent to the old building in 1986.

“We had to build part of the new building, tear part of the old one down, build some more, tear the rest of the old building down, then complete the construction,” Wimberly told Rohrbach. “The whole process took about a year, and we never closed a day.”

When what’s now Interstate 49 opened in 1999, traffic slowed on Highway 23.

“I had naively thought that a lot of the regulars would continue to travel the Pig Trail since it is so much shorter than the interstate route, but I was wrong,” Wimberly said. “We lost all of the regular traffic. Students now attend the University of Arkansas and don’t even know what the Pig Trail is.”

Turner Bend lives on, though. The Mulberry has continued to increase in popularity as a float stream, and motorcyclists discovered the Pig Trail. There were several dozen motorcycles in the parking lot the day we were there. It remains an Arkansas classic.

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