Spring on the Spring

It’s breakfast time at the Olde Stonehouse Bed & Breakfast Inn on Main Street in Hardy, and innkeeper Vickie Rice is talking about the town she fell in love with after moving to Arkansas from Ohio.

Indeed, Hardy has its charms.

The homemade biscuits are hot, the eggs are cooked perfectly and I listen intently as Rice talks. She serves on the Hardy City Council and the Hardy Advertising & Promotion Commission, and she’s determined to find replacements for several restaurants that have closed in recent years. As the summer tourism season nears in this historic community along the Spring River, Rice hopes to help fill the void with occasional dinners, brunches and even afternoon high teas in a house built during the 1920s at a time when visitors were flocking to the area.

“By 1920, two blocks of Main Street were filled with businesses, including a bank, two cafes, two drugstores, a Ford automobile dealership and a grocery,” Wayne Dowdy writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Town leaders — perhaps most notably drugstore owner William Johnston — tirelessly promoted Hardy as a place where city dwellers could find relaxation. In an interview with a Memphis Press-Scimitar reporter, Johnston boasted that Hardy had the ‘finest fishing in the world.’

“Although most residents welcomed tourists, some townspeople found it difficult to adjust as the average population increased by thousands during the summer months. In 1935, café owner Tennie Meeker exclaimed: ‘You take a big trainload of people and dump them down suddenly in a small town like Hardy, and it nearly works everybody to death.’

“As the 20th century progressed, tourists increasingly relied on automobiles to travel to the Spring River area. Resting near the intersection of national highways 62 and 63, Hardy was easily accessible for those who traveled by car. When large-scale federal highway construction began in the 1950s, the tourism population shifted from long-term visitors to those looking for a weekend getaway.

“The established tourism industry in Hardy was augmented in 1955 with the construction of retirement homes by West Memphis developer John Cooper. The founding of Cherokee Village increased tourism to the Ozark foothills, and within a decade, the Hardy area was recognized as an important retirement center. In 1968, the Arkansaw Traveller Folk Theater was established in Hardy to preserve the culture of the Ozarks.

“When the railroad depot closed in the 1970s, some Main Street businesses relocated. This relocation accelerated when the Spring River flooded in December 1982. In their place, shops specializing in antiques and crafts were opened, which along with the draw of the Ozarks’ natural beauty helped Hardy remain a popular tourist destination.”

Hardy, which was established in 1883, is a product of the Kansas City, Springfield & Memphis Railroad.

The Arkansas Legislature’s offer to pay companies $10,000 for every mile of track laid in the state led to a boom in railroad construction during the decades after the Civil War. The town was named for James Hardy, a railroad contractor from Batesville.

Hardy is in northern Sharp County, and the county seat was in the southern part of the county at Evening Shade. It was a long trip on poorly constructed mountain roads. In 1894, Hardy was named as a second county seat, serving the northern part of Sharp County (Ash Flat was made the sole county seat in 1963). By the 1900 census, there were 347 people living in the town.

A lucky break for Hardy came in 1908 when a train’s mechanical failure resulted in a wealthy Memphis physician named George Gillespie Buford being stranded in Hardy. He walked around the area with his wife while waiting for the train to be repaired, and the couple decided it would be a nice place for a summer cottage.

In 1909, Buford purchased 50 acres on Wahpeton Hill. He later purchased additional land and constructed 10 cottages in 1912 to house summer visitors.

In 1932, L.L. Ward of Blytheville opened a nearby resort known as Rio Vista.

The YWCA built Camp Miramichee in 1916, the Boy Scouts built Camp Kia Kima the same year and the Girl Scouts built Camp Kiwani in 1920.

Hardy was filled each summer with visitors from as far away as St. Louis, Memphis and Little Rock.

“In addition to the railroad, bus service also connected Hardy to the rest of the world,” Dowdy writes. “By 1930, the town held 508 permanent residents, but its visitor population swelled to 1,000 per day between July and September.”

There are still shops in the old brick and stone buildings on Main Street in downtown Hardy, and Saturdays downtown can resemble a large flea market. But the biggest draw remains the Spring River, which in late spring and summer attracts hordes of weekenders in their 20s and 30s to float the river and party along its banks.

Charles Crawford describes the river this way in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Flowing through northeastern Arkansas for about 75 miles in a southeastern direction, the Spring River empties into the Black River near Black Rock. Mammoth Spring, adjacent to the Arkansas-Missouri state line, serves as the headwater for the Spring River. It expels more than 9 million gallons of water each hour through a vent 80 feet below the surface of Spring Lake, a low-turbidity body of water created by a dam downstream from the spring in what’s now Mammoth Spring State Park. Although the water from the spring flows into the lake with great force, the vent’s depth prevents viewers on the surface from seeing the characteristic bubbling that springs typically produce. The consistent discharge at the lake’s bottom keeps the river above a minimum depth year-round.

“The Spring River is joined several miles downstream by the South Fork, which flows eastward from its origin. As it is not fed by Mammoth Spring, the South Fork of the Spring River carries a less consistent volume of water and sometimes isn’t suitable for canoeing during later summer and early fall. However, its extensive gravel bars provide good sites for camping and picnicking.

“The constant supply of cold, clear water provided by this river and its tributary creeks, along with the rich alluvial soil built by the regular flooding from heavy rainfall, attracted people to the area from the first human discovery. … Major development in the area began when the Kansas City, Springfield & Memphis Railroad was built through the valley from 1881-83.”

Mammoth Spring is the largest spring in Arkansas, the second largest in the Ozarks and the seventh largest in the country as it pumps out an average of 9.78 million gallons of water per hour at a constant temperature of 58 degrees.

“U.S. Highway 63 now provides rapid travel through a large part of the scenic landscape along the river,” Crawford writes. “Hardy has particularly benefited from this access, becoming one of the most popular areas in north Arkansas. The upper portion of the Spring River is especially popular for swimming and canoe trips. Fishing also draws many visitors to the river. In addition to fish native to the area, the cool water temperature allows the stocking of trout throughout the year. Fly-fishing for rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout has become a popular sport. Increased recreational use beginning in the 1970s resulted in elevated levels of water pollution, but effective environmental protection has managed to maintain water quality along the river.

“Two fish hatcheries are located on the Spring River. The first, Mammoth Spring National Fish Hatchery, is operated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and is adjacent to Mammoth Spring State Park. The second, the Jim Hinkle Spring River State Fish Hatchery, is operated by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and is located two miles downstream from Mammoth Spring.

“Two small dams are located on the Spring River, both near the origin of the stream at Mammoth Spring. They are too near the headwaters of the river to provide flood control, thus leaving much of the river in a fairly natural state. The upper part contains numerous rocky rapids, several waterfalls and pools containing drifts and underwater snags. Floods occur frequently.”

Like Hardy, the city of Mammoth Spring came about in 1883 due to the railroad.

A Memphis native named Napoleon Hill opened the first school at Mammoth Spring in 1888 and promoted the town as a summer retreat for Memphians.

In 1887, the Mammoth Spring Improvement Co. constructed a dam at the spring to power a gristmill, cotton mill and cotton gin. The 198-foot limestone dam created Spring Lake. The property was purchased by the Arkansas-Missouri Power Co. in 1925. The company constructed a hydroelectric facility that operated until 1972, when it was donated to the state.

“Only the dams on the Spring River remain as testimonies to industrialization as the enterprises failed to find long-term success,” Sarah Simers writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “From the 1880s to the 1920s, Mammoth Spring had a textile mill, a shoe manufacturing plant and a soda bottling factory. Calumet Cotton Factory was the major employer in 1889 and was described as a two-story brick textile mill with 120 looms, 5,000 spindles and 150 employees. According to historian Brook Blevins, this factory was ‘a rare representative of this Southern industry in the Ozarks.’ The Chanticleer Packing Co., a poultry processing plant, opened during the Great Depression and provided jobs for Mammoth Spring and Fulton County residents until 1956.

“The tourist industry also began in the 1880s. In 1889, the first large hotel, the Nettleton, was built, and the Culp Hotel and Charlton Hotel soon followed. Like Eureka Springs and Hot Springs, Mammoth Spring profited from the health crazes of the late 19th century, which recommended bathing in hot natural springs as a cure for a host of physical ailments. … Memphis residents often vacationed in the town during the summer months. Finding the climate of the Ozark town to be much cooler than the Delta, they built large homes on the bluffs overlooking the river.”

Railroad passenger service on the Frisco line ended in 1968, but Mammoth Spring was easily accessible by automobile since it’s on U.S. 63. The former Frisco depot, which was built in 1886, was converted to a state park visitors’ center in 1971.

The Arkansas Legislature had approved the establishment of Mammoth Spring State Park in 1957, but land purchases didn’t begin until the late 1960s. Most land purchases had been completed by 1975.

According to an Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism publication: “In the late 1990s, the depot received a complete restoration with murals, memorabilia, authentic furnishings and life-size figures that portray train crews, station workers and passengers from the early 1900s. Audiovisual programs and exhibits tell the story of Mammoth Spring and the effect of the railroad on the area. A vintage Frisco caboose is parked nearby. On March 16, 1987, the park opened the 10th Arkansas Welcome Center just off U.S. Highway 63 and within sight of Missouri. In addition to providing travel and tourism information, the center also houses a gift shop, exhibits and offices. Park facilities include a modular playground, pedal boat rentals on the lake, a pavilion, picnic sites, a baseball field, a walking trail and an overlook at the springhead. … The walking trail circles the lake and crosses the old mill dam that provided power for the flour mill and the hydroelectric plant. Visitors may also tour the old power plant.”

The Arkansas Welcome Center is on the site that long housed the Mammoth Spring cattle sales barn.

Like Hardy, Mammoth Spring has a downtown district filled with old buildings. On the Friday night I visited, Wood’s Riverbend Restaurant and Fred’s Fish House were crowded with diners.

I had been advised by a friend to try out the German food at a tiny place downtown called La Pastorella. It was good advice.

German food in Mammoth Spring. Who knew?

Rural Arkansas serves up surprises around every turn.

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