Spring at Couchwood

It’s time for lunch, but Elizabeth Dober is in no hurry to eat.

She’s pointing to framed black-and-white photos on the walls of the main lodge at Couchwood, the retreat built by Arkansas Power & Light Co. founder Harvey Couch on the shores of Lake Catherine.

Dober is particularly fascinated by a photo of Herbert Hoover that was taken in September 1927 when Couchwood was new.

The Great Flood of 1927 was ongoing, and Arkansas was one of the states hit the hardest. Hoover had run unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920. President Warren G. Harding later appointed him commerce secretary, and President Calvin Coolidge asked him to lead the federal response to the 1927 flood.

“In 1927, the Mississippi reclaimed three-quarters of its flood plain, devastating Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana,” writes historian John Barry. “The statistics recounting the damage are staggering. At its widest, the river created a vast inland sea more than 75 miles across. One could travel the normally dry 70 miles from Vicksburg to Monroe, La., by boat. Not counting the flooding of parts of cities as large as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, just along the lower river alone, the homes of more than 920,000 people were damaged. The nation’s population at the time was only 120 million.

“Roughly 1 percent — perhaps more — of the entire population of the country was flooded out of their homes; 330,000 were rescued by boat from rooftops, trees, levee crowns and second stories. Hundreds of thousands of homes and commercial buildings were destroyed. No one knows the death toll — the Red Cross claimed it was only 246 but the Weather Bureau said 500, while a professional disaster expert estimated the dead in Mississippi alone at 1,000.

“But the biggest impact of the flood was less on individual communities that were inundated than on America itself. Far more than any other natural disaster, the 1927 Mississippi River flood altered the course of American history. It did this in four chief ways: It revised environmental management, propelled a dark horse to the presidency, altered the political landscape for African-Americans and expanded the role of government in crises.”

Barry writes that the 1927 flood “made Herbert Hoover president of the United States. An enormously wealthy engineer, Hoover developed and owned mines and oilfields in America, Russia, China, Australia, South America and Africa. But for all his wealth, he had no political base. How could he? Hoover had left the United States after graduating Stanford and did not return until the United States entered World War I. He had not even voted in a presidential election until 1920. Nonetheless he wanted to be president. A logistical genius, he had organized American food production and distribution during World War I and fed much of Europe in the immediate aftermath of the war. John Maynard Keynes said he was ‘the only man who emerged from the ordeal (of the peace conference) with an enhanced reputation.’

“He became known as the Great Humanitarian. Using his own wealth, he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1920. His campaign was mocked, and he received no support. But President Warren G. Harding named him secretary of commerce, and in 1927, President Calvin Coolidge put him in charge of the response to the flood.

“The flood was the biggest story of the year and it lasted for weeks, through several crests, the rescue of populations and recovery planning. Hoover and his staff worked diligently to exploit the coverage; no newspaper was too small. Hoover personally communicated with weekly papers from Arizona and Texas to Washington state, Nebraska and Indiana. In evaluating his strategy, the present-day political commentator James Carville concluded that ‘Hoover had a better press operation than any politician I know today.’ Routinely, the press hailed Hoover as a hero and a savior; a California paper proclaimed, ‘He is the ablest and most efficient American in public life. … In personal fitness for the presidency there is no other American, even remotely, in Mr. Hoover’s class.’

“Coverage like that prompted Hoover to confide to a friend, ‘I shall be the nominee, probably. It is practically inevitable.'”

Hoover indeed captured the presidency in 1928.

Those who are familiar with Arkansas history won’t be surprised to learn that Harvey Couch was among Hoover’s confidants.

Born in 1877 near the Arkansas-Louisiana border in the Columbia County community of Calhoun, Couch took a job at age 21 as a mail clerk for the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway and quickly moved up the ladder.

Writing for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Patricia Laster described Couch as the man who “helped bring Arkansas from an agricultural economy in the early 20th century to more of a balance between agriculture and industry. His persuasiveness with investors from New York and his ingenuity, initiative and energy had a positive effect on Arkansas’ national reputation among businessmen. He ultimately owned several railroad lines and a telephone company and was responsible for what became the state’s largest utility, AP&L.”

Laster wrote that Couch’s first job away from the family farm was “to fire the boiler of a local cotton gin’s gas steam engine and bring it up to the required pressure. He earned 50 cents a day. While waiting to hear about his application to the Railway Mail Service, he became a drugstore clerk. His hard work and honesty prompted his boss to assign him the additional task of collecting overdue accounts.

“At age 21, he was hired as a mail clerk on the St. Louis-Texarkana route of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway and was soon transferred to head clerk on the St. Louis Southwestern Railway. At a water stop, Couch noticed a construction crew raising a pole — not for the telegraph line but as part of a long-distance telephone system. After questioning the linemen, he saw a chance to help bring phone service to places like Magnolia. He paid a colleague $50 to exchange routes so he could clerk the Magnolia-north Louisiana route. Enlisting his brother Pete as crew leader to move and set up poles and a postmaster in Louisiana to become a partner, Couch began the North Louisiana Telephone Co. The line expanded, and Couch bought his partner’s share of the business.

“Couch’s expanding telephone system took him to Athens, La., where he met Jessie Johnson. They married on Oct. 4, 1904. The couple had five children. In 1911, Couch sold NLTC, which had 1,500 miles of line and 50 exchanges in four states, to Southwestern Bell for more than $1 million. Too young to retire, he was determined to build another company. In 1914, at the age of 35, he bought from Jack Wilson the only electric transmission line in the state, which ran 22 miles between Malvern and Arkadelphia. The system ran only at night.

“Sixteen years later, bolstered by hydroelectric dams on the Ouachita River, the company that Couch named Arkansas Power & Light had 3,000 miles of line serving cities and towns in 63 of the state’s 75 counties as well as 3,000 farmers. The company, now called Entergy, serves 2.4 million customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.”

Couch went on to create Louisiana Power & Light Co. and Mississippi Power & Light Co. He built the country’s first modern gas-fueled power plant near Monroe, La.

On the Ouachita River, he built Remmel and Carpenter dams, forming Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine (which was named after his only daughter).

His main home and business offices were in Pine Bluff. Laster wrote that the only luxury he allowed himself was Couchwood.

The famous humorist Will Rogers was among those who visited Couchwood. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dropped by in 1936 while he was in Arkansas to help the state celebrate its centennial.

The compound covers 170 acres and remains in the Couch family. Elizabeth Dober is the granddaughter of Harvey Couch. Her father was Harvey Jr., who went by Don. She lives in Little Rock and has helped manage Couchwood for the past couple of decades.

Dober’s mother was from a prominent old south Louisiana sugar-growing family, the Levert family. The Levert Cos., established in 1915, still own a planation mansion near St. Martinville, La., known as the St. John House. The house, constructed of Louisiana cypress and surrounded by giant live oak trees, was built about 1828 by a wealthy planter named Alexandre DeClouet. Jean Batiste Levert and Louis Bush of New Orleans acquired the plantation and the home in July 1885. In February 1887, Bush sold his interest to Levert. The plantation has been owned by the Levert interests since that date.

After graduating from Virginia Military Institute and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Don Couch went to work for a bank in New Orleans and met his wife in the Crescent City.

In a 2014 story in the Levert family newsletter, Dober said: “I sometimes do feel I am married to Couchwood. … I arrange for repairmen such as plumbers and electricians, but a caretaker nearby meets with them. … I pay all the bills, fill out tax forms and get the paperwork ready for the CPA. I really enjoy the work at Couchwood because I feel like I am helping to preserve it.”

When Arkansas Business devoted much of a 2013 issue to Entergy’s 100th birthday, Dober told the publication: “Electric lights, bridges and promoting Arkansas were among grandfather’s favorite things.”

Dober refers to her grandfather as Daddy Couch, though she doesn’t remember him. Couch died of heart disease in 1941 — two years before Dober was born — in a house named Little Pine Bluff at Couchwood. Following funeral services in the city of Pine Bluff, a special train took his body to Magnolia to be buried adjacent to his parents. Couch’s private train car — named Magnolia — is now on the Couchwood grounds.

Hoover was meeting with Couch in 1927 because Gov. John Martineau had appointed Couch as the flood relief director for Arkansas. The Great Flood of 1927 was followed by the drought of 1930-31. Couch was appointed state relief chairman for that event and worked in Washington to help Arkansas obtain more than $20 million in federal loans for farmers.

“Hoover appointed Couch to the seven-member board for the president’s newly formed Reconstruction Finance Corp., which operated from 1931-56,” Laster wrote. “The RFC was the president’s way of getting the government involved. The new program’s mission was to strengthen confidence, facilitate exports, protect and aid agriculture, make temporary advances to industries and stimulate employment. Couch was one of seven directors of the RFC, and he moved to Washington, D.C., for three years. He served as supervisor of the public works section, overseeing budgets and encouraging the building of water and sewage systems, bridges and electric lines. He and Jesse Jones were the only Hoover appointees to stay on after Roosevelt was elected.”

“Look at Hoover with that tie on,” Dober says while admiring the 1927 photo. “They say he would go fishing in a coat and tie. Daddy Couch offered to take him fishing when he was here, but it was a Sunday and Hoover said, ‘The Hoovers don’t fish on Sundays.'”

There also are framed photos in the main lodge at Couchwood of well-known figures who have visited the compound in the decades since Couch’s death, including former U.S. Sens. Dale Bumpers and David Pryor.

During the 1930s, Harvey Couch would host what he called the Annual Round-Up, bringing together business and government leaders from across the region. A framed program from the March 1938 event gives these directions: “When you come in the big gate, forget all your troubles. Be sure to sign the register. Couchwood is proud of its guests. Go to bed when you like and arise when you please. At meals, take as many helpings as you desire. If you don’t see what you want, ask for it. Stay as long as you like and return soon. Everything is off the record.”

The main lodge has eight rooms and can sleep more than 20 people. A second house named Calhoun was built soon afterward. Its claim to fame is that visitors can fish off the porch. Little Pine Bluff was the next to be constructed, and Remmelwood (Couch’s only daughter, Catherine, married Pratt Remmel) was built after that.

The other four Couch children were boys — Johnson Olin Couch, Don Couch, Kirke Couch and Bill Couch. Catherine Couch Remmel died in January 2006 at age 87, the last of her generation. A fifth generation of the Couch family now enjoys Couchwood with the largest crowds traditionally turning up for the Fourth of July.

When Harvey Couch was presiding over the compound, rumors would spread about the identities of important figures visiting Couchwood. Time magazine reported one year that two visitors had arrived in a plane that landed on Lake Catherine.

The main lodge was designed by John Parks Almand of Little Rock, who was part of the team that designed Little Rock Central High School. Following the school’s completion in 1927, the American Institute of Architects described it as “the most beautiful high school in America.” Almand also designed the Medical Arts Building in downtown Hot Springs, which was the tallest building in the state for almost 30 years after opening in 1930.

“Almand worked in a variety of architectural styles during his 50-year career, including Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, Gothic Revival and California Mission,” the Encyclopedia of Arkansas said of the architect. “A stickler for detail, Almand recommended the finest materials to his clients and required a high level of workmanship from builders. On more than one occasion, he told a contractor to tear out and replace work that he deemed inferior.”

At Couchwood, Almand used red cedar logs shipped in by train from Oregon.

Harvey Couch later hired sculptor Dionicio Rodriguez to design planters, outdoor seating and even a drink cooler disguised as a tree stump. Rodriguez, a Mexican native, is probably best known for his work on the Old Mill in North Little Rock. Developer Justin Matthews brought Rodriguez to Arkansas in 1932 to work in Matthews’ Lakewood housing development.

“Couchwood offers the best collection of his work in the domestic sculpture category,” said the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Helpers built concrete footings for his sculptures, and the underpinnings were made with reinforcing bars, rods, mesh screen wire and rubble, held together with a rough coat of concrete. Metal materials were bound together with wire, not welded. Working outdoors, the sculptor himself applied the surface coat of smooth concrete or ‘neat’ cement, a term for pure Portland cement. To imitate nature, varied textures were created using his hands, forks, spoons or handmade tools. Secretive about his methodology, the nomadic Rodriguez made no preliminary sketches or drawings and did not record the ingredients of the chemical washes used to tint his sculptures.”

Dober delights in showing off Couchwood and talking about “Daddy Couch.”

On display are Indian artifacts uncovered when Lake Catherine was constructed in the 1920s, a wall devoted to AP&L history and even the plaque presented on Harvey Couch Day in Pine Bluff in 1923.

Massachusetts may have the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod, but Arkansas has Couchwood on Lake Catherine.

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