Hot Springs to Ola

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.┬áIt 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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