The Baxter County boom

FIRST IN A SERIES

There has been a town of Mountain Home for decades. The city’s newspaper, The Baxter Bulletin, dates back to 1901.

For all practical purposes, however, the current version of Mountain Home is a youngster.

In the 1940 census, there were just 927 residents.

By 1960, the population had more than doubled to 2,105.

By 1980, there were 8,066 residents.

The current population is estimated at about 12,400 people.

“The fortunes of Mountain Home and the surrounding area dramatically changed in the 1940s and early 1950s with the building of the Norfork and Bull Shoals dams,” Clement Mulloy writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “These dams were part of a federal project to dam the White River basin to provide flood control and hydroelectric power. The project, a smaller version of the Tennessee Valley Authority, was also intended to stimulate commerce and industry throughout the region. Norfork Dam was completed in 1944. Bull Shoals Dam, one of the largest dams in the nation, was completed in 1951. Both were dedicated on July 2, 1952, with President Harry Truman as the keynote speaker of the event.

“The construction of the dams was the most important event in the history of Mountain Home. The town was ideally situated about midway between the two projects. Formerly an isolated rural community with few businesses or paved streets and fewer employment opportunities, Mountain Home suddenly became a boomtown with workers attracted by high-paying government jobs moving into the area. New businesses were established and houses built. Farms in the county that had been abandoned during the Great Depression were reoccupied, safe from the threat of future flooding.”

Suddenly this remote mountain town was a draw for visitors from across the country, especially trout fishermen.

“The building of one of the largest fish hatcheries in the world at the base of Norfork Dam in 1957 has produced millions of trout, attracting countless fishermen,” Mulloy writes. “The area soon became known as the trout capital of the world. Many people vacationed in the area, taking advantage of the excellent fishing, hiking, water sports and beautiful scenery of the Ozarks. … As the largest community in the county, Mountain Home became the main beneficiary and soon became a vacation resort. Beginning in the 1950s and continuing into the 1960s, Mountain Home found a new role as a retirement community.”

What’s now Mountain Home first was known as Rapp’s Barren or Talbert’s Barren. When a post office was established in 1857, the name Mountain Home was used. Orrin Dodd and John Howard founded the Male and Female Academy there in the late 1850s.

“It quickly became the centerpiece of Mountain Home, and the town essentially grew up around it,” Mulloy writes. “The academy attracted students from the surrounding area, including southern Missouri.”

Mountain Home was officially incorporated in 1888. It continued to be known as the education center for this part of the Ozarks.

“In the late 19th century, a number of small Baptist colleges were established throughout Arkansas,” Mulloy writes. “Among these was the Mountain Home Baptist College, sometimes called the Gem of the Ozarks. Under the sponsorship of the White River Baptist Association, the college aimed to provide a ‘healthful and Christian’ education. Land and buildings were donated by local residents, and the school opened in 1893. During the 40 years of its existence, the college offered a variety of courses including history, French, Greek and vocational classes such as shorthand and typing. Its main focus was on teacher training, particularly after the Arkansas General Assembly passed a teacher certification act in 1893. Funding collapsed during the Depression, and the college closed in 1933.”

The combination of the Great Depression and the Great Drought of 1930-31 had a devastating effect on this area of Arkansas.

“Many people lost their farms and moved in search of jobs,” Mulloy writes. “Hobos hitching a ride along the local railroad in search of work became a common sight. Federal intervention in the form of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal launched a number of programs that marked the first encounter many had with the national government. In particular, the Federal Emergency Relief Agency and the Civilian Conservation Corps saved many from starvation. One of the most important New Deal programs for Mountain Home was the Works Progress Administration. The WPA helped alleviate much of the unemployment in the area. Local WPA projects included the Henderson Bridge over the North Fork River, the Arkansas Highway 5 bridge at Norfork and the current courthouse in Mountain Home.”

What’s now Arkansas State University-Mountain Home, a two-year- college, can be tracked back to evening classes that were offered at Mountain Home High School in 1974 by the community college at Harrison.

“These classes were offered in the wake of the defeat of a five-mill tax for the construction of a community college in Mountain Home in 1973,” Mulloy writes. “As enrollment grew, permanent facilities were needed. With funds provided by the state and local community, the former First Baptist Church and adjoining McClure Chapel & Funeral Home were purchased in 1985. In the same year, the Baxter County Vocational-Technical Center was established as a satellite campus of North Arkansas College. The center later became the basis for the Mountain Home Technical College, founded as one of 13 two-year colleges created by the Arkansas General Assembly.”

The Mountain Home college became part of the ASU system on July 1, 1993.

“A special election was held on Oct. 19, 1993, to establish a tax district for the college,” Mulloy writes. “The two-mill property tax was passed with overwhelming support. ASU-Mountain Home was established on July 1, 1995, and Ed Coulter was hired as chancellor. The main question confronting the college was whether to remain in downtown Mountain Home or move to a different location. Although the interiors of the college buildings had been thoroughly renovated, the exteriors were unchanged. Due to congestion, a lack of parking and the difficulty of expansion, the decision was made to relocate the college.

“The search for a new location ended in 1996 with the purchase of 78 acres of pastureland on the edge of Mountain Home. This initial purchase was supplemented with adjoining property, and today’s campus sits on 135 contiguous acres. An official groundbreaking ceremony was held on April 8, 1998. Before construction began, a special committee composed of community leaders, faculty and students was formed to consider plans for the new campus. The committee visited about a dozen universities in the East, incorporating elements they liked into the campus master plan. The architectural design of the campus is modeled after the University of Virginia with the administration building, Roller Hall, taking its inspiration from the Rotunda.”

More than 1,000 people participated in a January 2000 march from the old campus to the new one. The first four campus buildings were fully endowed before construction began.

Baxter County was established in March 1873 and is named after Gov. Elisha Baxter. Its growth has paralleled that of the city of Mountain Home. The county’s population soared from 9,943 in the 1960 census to 41,513 in the 2010 census.

“Gov. Baxter formed Baxter County on March 24, 1873, in an election year when the outcome was in doubt because he wished to leave a lasting legacy,” Jane Andrewson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He chose a day when most of the legislators were at home. As a result, the representatives whose counties the new county would affect were unable to vote on the proposed new county or to veto the legislation. Baxter County was formed by taking a large part of Marion and Izard counties and smaller parts of Fulton and Searcy counties. The present-day boundary was fixed in 1881.

“Mountain Home was selected as the county seat at the time Baxter County was formed. Attempts to move the county seat to Cotter or Gassville in the early 1900s failed. An attempt was made again in the mid-1940s, but Cotter lost that battle too. The first attempt in 1910 was foiled by some missing ballot boxes. The city fathers in Mountain Home also found an Arkansas law stating that a courthouse with three floors cannot be moved. Mountain Home immediately added a third floor to its courthouse, though the building was torn down in the early 1940s and a new one was built by the WPA. When there was no longer a three-story courthouse in Mountain Home, another petition drive sought to move the county seat to Cotter, but it failed.”

The current courthouse, designed by Fayetteville architect T. Ewing Shelton, opened in August 1943. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1995. Baxter County taxpayers footed about $51,000 of the $105,000 cost of construction with the WPA picking up the rest.

The White River has long played a role in the county’s development.

“Several severe floods occurred in the 1910s and 1920s,” Andrewson writes. “Dams were suggested by the people in the county, and various legislators discussed them for years before Norfork Dam was begun in 1941.”

The 722-mile-long White River begins in the mountains of northwest Arkansas and flows east toward Fayetteville before turning north. It enters southern Missouri and then flows southeast back into Arkansas. It transforms from a mountain stream into a slow Delta stream at about Batesville.

“The river’s meandering course lends itself to a variety of environments — from the seasonal, fast-flowing headwaters of the upper White to the wide, slower-moving stretches farther down the river,” Aaron Rogers writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Trout aren’t native to the White River, of course. Those came with the construction of the dams, which release cold water.

“Private power companies had explored the possibility of building a dam at Wildcat Shoals above Cotter as early as 1902 but never began any work toward it,” Scott Branyan writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Congress approved the construction of six reservoirs in the White River basin in the Flood Control Act of 1938. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report in 1930 had recommended the Wildcat Shoals site along with seven others as being the most effective of 13 investigated. However, in a 1940 report, the Corps presented the Bull Shoals site as an alternative to Wildcat Shoals, where unsuitable foundation conditions had been found. This report recommended the construction of Table Rock and Bull Shoals as multipurpose reservoirs for flood control, hydropower generation and ‘other beneficial purposes,’ concluding that the reservoir projects were economically justifiable.

“After the wartime construction of Norfork Dam by the Corps of Engineers on the tributary North Fork River in southern Baxter County from 1941-45, the construction of Bull Shoals Dam began in 1947. The dam length is 2,256 feet with a maximum height of 256 feet above the streambed. The spillway length is 808 feet. The dam contains 2.1 million cubic yards of concrete. At the time of its construction, Bull Shoals Dam was the fifth largest in the country, and its powerhouse was the largest building in Arkansas. Along with its 17 spillway gates, which are 40 feet by 29 feet, there are 16 outlet conduits that can each discharge 3,375 cubic feet per second. The flow of one of these conduits is roughly equivalent to one of the powerhouse’s eight generators running at full capacity.”

Construction of the powerhouse began in September 1950, and generation started two years later. The final two generating units were installed in 1963.

During his July 1952 visit, Truman took a shot at the politically powerful Arkansas Power & Light Co. for its long opposition to the federally subsidized rural electrification project.

“The completion of the dam and reservoir immediately began to affect the local economy,” Branyan writes. “Media coverage attracted attention to the region and resulted in the quick growth of the tourist industry. In 1940, there were only 13 businesses that provided overnight accommodations. By 1970, 300 such establishments could be found. Assessed taxable real estate values, per capita income and manufacturing payroll rose dramatically in the following decades.

“The dam put an end to long, multi-day fishing floats from Branson, Mo., to Cotter. Jim Owen of the Owen Boat Line had operated a float trip business on the river for many years. Largely through Owen’s promotion, the White River garnered a reputation for excellent smallmouth bass fishing. But the new reservoir soon offered equally excellent lake fishing for a number of warm-water species as well as stocked trout below the dam. Marinas, boat businesses and fishing guide services sprang up rapidly to handle the influx of anglers.”

One of those early entrepreneurs was Al Gaston, who created Gaston’s White River Resort at Lakeview in 1958. His son Jim Gaston inherited the business at age 20 in 1961. There were 20 acres, six small cottages and six boats at the so-called resort at the time. Jim Gaston would go on to become a legendary figure in the state’s tourism industry.

“Gaston expanded the operation significantly until it covered 400 acres with two miles of river frontage,” writes Arkansas historian Nancy Hendricks. “The complex includes 70 boats, 79 cottages and a 3,200-foot airstrip as well as a nationally famous restaurant. Gaston’s White River Resort also operates a conference lodge that seats up to 125 people. There’s a duck pond, game room, gift shop, playground, private club, swimming pool, tennis court and two nature trails. The resort has been recognized nationally.

“Gaston was an early advocate of tourism as an economic engine for the state of Arkansas, as well as a champion of conservation. He was an early supporter of Dale Bumpers, who became a lifelong friend. After Bumpers was elected governor in 1970, Gaston was Bumpers’ first appointment to the Arkansas Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission. Gaston served on the commission for many years before being named commissioner emeritus. … Gaston served as president of the Arkansas Tourism Development Foundation and president of the Arkansas Hospitality Association.”

Gaston died in July 2015, but Gaston’s White River Resort is going strong.

On the other side of the White River from the resort, the James A. Gaston Visitors Center for the Bull-Shoals White River State Park is one of the finest facilities of its type in the country.

In 1955, the state leased property along the lake and river from the Corps. Little was done with the property until 1975 when a wastewater treatment plant, bathhouses, paved roads and campsites were added. A section along the lake has picnic tables, a playground and a trail. The main section along the White River below the dam has campsites for tents and recreational vehicles, bathhouses, picnic areas, pavilions, playgrounds, a boat ramp and a trout dock.

The Corps’ six-lake White River system consists of four dams in Arkansas — Beaver on the White River, Bull Shoals on the White River, Norfork on the North Fork River and Greers Ferry on the Little Red River. It also consists of two dams in Missouri — Table Rock and Clearwater. It’s safe to say that no county in the White River basin has benefited more from these investments than the once rural, poor Baxter County.

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