From Norman to Lake Ouachita

THIRD IN A SERIES

What’s now Norman was known as Womble until 1925. It had just 378 residents in the 2010 census, down from a high of 552 people a century earlier.

“The town was created as a result of the building of the Gurdon & Fort Smith Railroad and grew because of the lumber mills that sprang up along its right of way,” Russell Baker writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “It was once the home of the Presbyterian Church’s Caddo Valley Academy. In 1905, plans were announced to extend the Gurdon & Fort Smith line from Glenwood, then its terminus, to Black Springs in Montgomery County. This announcement brought a large number of land speculators, including Walter E. Womble Sr., into the area.

“In 1907, a dispute over rights of way halted the project near the Caddo River, several miles short of its goal. The Black Springs Lumber Co. abandoned its plans to build a large lumber mill at Black Springs and chose a site at the railhead instead. It was soon joined by the Bear State Lumber Co. In 1907, Walter Womble, taking advantage of the situation, acquired land and staked out a new town in a corn field just north of the railhead. Its post office opened in July 1907 with Womble as postmaster.”

The town of Womble was incorporated in February 1910.

“In 1914, it became the location of the Ouachita National Forest’s Womble Ranger Station,” Baker writes. “In 1915, the citizens of Womble made the first of three unsuccessful attempts to have the county seat moved from Mount Ida to the new community. Walter Womble was the main backer of this proposal. In 1920, the Arkansas Presbyterian Church began an educational mission work, or mountain mission, at Womble under the care of a local minister, Dr. John T. Barr. The next year, a boarding school called Caddo Valley Academy opened to help educate the area’s ‘worthy but needy’ children. In 1924, the academy obtained a 37-acre site at Womble and began construction of a complex of buildings. For many years, the academy was a landmark in southern Montgomery County. During the 1930s, its operations were gradually consolidated with those of the Norman School District.”

Walter Womble was replaced as postmaster in 1922. Residents of the community voted to change the name of the town to Norman in 1925, and Walter Womble moved his family to Fort Smith.

“By the 1930s, most of the prime timber in the area had been cut, and the mills began to move elsewhere,” Baker writes. “A few small sawmills kept the town’s economy going on a reduced scale. Norman’s schools consolidated with those of nearby Caddo Gap in 1971, forming the Caddo Hills School District. In 1982, Norman lost its railroad connection, and its population dropped to 382 in 1990. Now it serves as a bedroom community for workers with employment in larger towns.”

The Norman Library once was listed in the “Guinness Book of World Records” for being the smallest freestanding public library in the country.

“A garden club was founded by a group of local women in 1936,” writes David Sesser of Henderson State University. “One of the first projects of the club was to replace the barbed-wire fence that surrounded the local park and town square with a native stone wall. By 1939, with the help of the Works Progress Administration, the wall was constructed. The club’s crowning achievement came to fruition in 1940 with the establishment of the library in the center of the park. The building was originally constructed to serve as the town’s pumping station, moving water from the Caddo River to the water tower on the other side of town. Measuring 170 square feet, the small building was rarely used. Even city workers infrequently entered the structure.

“Marie Pinkerton, the president and founder of the garden club, approached the city council to inquire about acquiring the use of the building for the establishment of a town library. The council agreed, and the club raised funds to furnish the building. Mission oak shelving was used to house the more than 500 books that the group gathered. Two librarians were hired, and the library opened to the public. It remained open intermittently during the next half century. During this time, it also served as a temporary office and jail. The building is a single-story masonry structure with a gabled roof. It is rectangular and features a Craftsman-style front porch over the northern entrance, while the southern entrance has a simple shed-roof porch. Two nine-paned windows are in both the eastern and western walls of the building.”

A group was organized to restore the structure in the 1990s. The park and the library were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.

“Throughout the 1990s, the library was open five days a week and served the community as the only point of internet access in the surrounding area,” Sesser writes. “Grant money was received to repair the stone wall around the park and to replace the roof of the library building. In 2006, the roof of the library was replaced, but it began leaking almost immediately. The library was closed.”

Near Norman is the CCC Company 741 Powder Magazine Historic District. It consists of two stone-and-concrete structures that were used to store powder and blasting caps used by the Civilian Conservation Corps during its work in the Ouachita National Forest.

“CCC Company 741, the oldest CCC company in the Arkansas District, was formed on May 1, 1933, at Camp Pike and moved to Crystal Springs Camp on May 17, 1933,” writes Arkansas historian Mark Christ. “Four side camps were established from the Crystal Springs Camp, including Crystal Valley Camp near Norman. The magazine structures were constructed to serve Crystal Valley, probably around 1936. The company constructed the powder magazine and blasting cap magazine to store explosives for use on projects such as road and bridge construction.

“The powder magazine is the larger of the two buildings. It sits just north of Forest Service Road 177M, about 370 feet southeast of the small blasting cap magazine, which is a 10-by-10 square building. Both buildings are about five feet high with four-inch-thick concrete tops and concrete floors. The cut-stone and concrete walls are about a foot thick. Though they are of simple, functional design, the structures are noteworthy for their association with the contributions of the CCC. They also are notable for their connection to Company 741.”

On the edge of Norman along the banks of the Caddo River is what’s known as the Caddo Indian Memorial. A quarter-mile path allows hikers to read signs explaining the Caddo culture. Unfortunately, several of the signs have been stolen and others are hard to read as maintenance at the memorial has been minimal through the years. The site was a Caddo burial ground where Huddleston Creek runs into the Caddo River.

“In October 1988, the city of Norman had begun excavation at this site for construction of a sewage treatment plant,” Mary Lysobey writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Digging was stopped when bones and artifacts were discovered. Subsequent archaeological excavations by Dr. Ann Early of the Arkansas Archeological Survey found evidence of significant Caddo Indian occupation from 1250-1500. Two burials and a small cluster of residential features and artifacts — including two small incised ceramic jars, a large chert biface and eight novaculite arrow points — were uncovered, indicating that Caddo Indians lived on this plot of ground. Earlier residential use of the site left the remains of a large circular house with a hearth and burned floor. Artifacts of the Archaic and Woodland Fourche Maline periods were also discovered.”

Leaders of the Caddo Indian Nation in Oklahoma asked the city of Norman to relocate the plant, and those wishes were followed. The remains and artifacts were reburied. Caddo Chairman Elmo Clark led a religious ceremony on the grounds in April 1989.

“The burial ground was then covered with a hard-to-dig material to thwart future pilfering and pot hunting,” Lysobey writes. “Grass was planted, and a wooden fence was added to keep vehicles off the premises. The city maintained the area, but nothing indicated that the fence encompassed a sacred place. In 2000, the Southern Montgomery County Development Council received a grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council to create and display interpretive historical signage at the Caddo burial ground. … SMCDC funded and provided the labor to construct a pathway, which was made of natural materials as requested by the Caddo Nation. The path and the signs were in place by the summer of 2002.”

We leave Norman and take Arkansas Highway 27 through the Ouachita National Forest to Mount Ida.

Life traditionally was rough in this mountain community. Writing for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas about the years during and immediately following the Civil War, Debbie Baldwin and Betty Prince note: “With so many men away from their farming duties, citizens of Mount Ida began to suffer from inadequate food supplies even in the early stages of the war. In addition to this hardship, Mount Ida had very little protection from renegades such as jayhawkers and bushwhackers.”

The original Montgomery County Courthouse was dismantled in 1873 and replaced with a two-story frame building. A two-story schoolhouse was built in 1893. A short silver mining boom had brought new people to the area in the 1880s.

By 1920, there were nine general stores, a drugstore, two hardware stores, two blacksmith shops, a garage, two sawmills, a cotton gin, a stave mill, a flour mill and three hotels at Mount Ida. The city received national media attention in 1931-32 when its city council consisted only of women.

Mount Ida’s population was only 566 in the 1950 census, but the construction of nearby Lake Ouachita brought new residents. By the 2010 census, the population had almost doubled to 1,076.

The 1923 Montgomery County Courthouse has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1976.

“The courthouse’s style is often described as Arkansas Adamesque,” Jared Craig writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Designed by Clyde Ferrel and built in 1923, the courthouse is constructed of random-patterned native stone. The structure’s restrained classical elements are reminiscent of courthouses across Arkansas, including pilasters and a stone arch over the principal entrance. The ceiling of the courtroom is made of pressed tin that has been painted white. As county demands grew, Montgomery County built an additional one-story building in 1975 as a courthouse annex.”

Much as is the case at the Stone County Courthouse in north-central Arkansas, music can be heard on the Montgomery Courthouse grounds on Saturday nights.

Craig writes: “In 2000, some Mount Ida residents started the Montgomery County Front Porch to showcase local musicians and others from around the state. A wooden stage, commonly known as the Front Porch Stage, stands on the outer edge of the square where concertgoers sit on the lawn and listen to music. Performances are free to the public. The music includes bluegrass, country and gospel. A concession stand, called the Back Porch Kitchen, serves refreshments. A sound system was donated by the Florida Power & Light Co. following the community’s warm reception to power crews working on downed lines in the area during an ice storm in December 2000.”

Lake Ouachita, which is the largest lake completely within the borders of Arkansas at more than 40,000 acres, changed this area of the state.

Congress had authorized surveys of the Ouachita River as early as 1870 to see if there were ways to prevent floods and improve navigability.

“Nothing was done until the 1920s when Harvey Couch and his company, Arkansas Power & Light Co., began searching for sites for hydroelectric dams along the Ouachita River,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “AP&L built Remmel Dam and Carpenter Dam, which were in place by the early 1930s. Plans for a third, larger dam were announced in 1938 for the Blakely Mountain area. It was to be a joint project of AP&L and the federal government, which would fund $6 million and $2 million of the costs respectively. The following year, AP&L sought federal permission to delay the dam’s construction, but the Federal Power Commission terminated the utility’s permit and proceeded by itself.

“Preliminary core drilling was soon carried out, financed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. However, Congress didn’t appropriate any funds until 1946 when $1 million was appropriated to begin construction. Residents of the area that was slated to be inundated had been leaving since the 1930s, and the exodus accelerated as work began. The town of Buckville in Garland County was relocated to high ground, though little remains of it today. The relocation of graves was completed in 1952, and the clearing of the area for the reservoir took place in 1951-52. By 1952, the dam portion of the project was complete and already serving flood-control purposes. Construction on an electric power plant began. The power plant went online, generating its first electric power on July 17, 1955.”

The official dedication of Blakely Mountain Dam occurred on July 4, 1956, with U.S. Sen. John L. McClellan and Congressman William F. Norrell on the program.

“Blakely Mountain Dam is composed of about 4 million cubic yards of earth drawn from the surrounding area,” Lancaster writes. “This material proved to be high in clay content and thus suitable for a dam. It was constructed by Groves, Lundin & Cox, contractors based in Minneapolis, at a final cost of $31 million. The dam is 231 feet tall and 1,100 feet long. The generators in the dam’s power plant are capable of producing 75,000 kilowatt hours of power. Blakely Mountain Dam’s position on the Ouachita River, higher than Remmel and Carpenter dams, lessens the likelihood of those dams facing flood stage.”

The creation of Lake Ouachita State Park as a legal entity occurred in 1955, but the park wasn’t officially established or staffed until 1965. Many of the structures at the park were built in the 1970s. Park improvements since the 1990s have included a visitors’ center, cabins and additional campsites. The park’s location once was known as Three Sisters Springs.

According to the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism: “In 1875, homesteader John McFadden claimed that three springs on his property about 12 miles north of Hot Springs possessed healing properties. The springs’ collective name, Three Sisters, reputedly was derived from the fact that McFadden had three daughters. In 1907, W.M. Cecil and his partners bought the property. Cecil later bought out his partners and began developing McFadden’s Three Sisters Springs Resort. By the mid-1930s, its facilities included cottages, a springhouse and a bottling plant. Claiming each spring could cure a different set of diseases, Cecil distributed his bottled World’s Wonder Waters across the country. Analyses have since shown waters from all three springs contain the same elements — such as iron, potassium and sodium — in slightly different proportions.

“After the site underwent another ownership change in 1939, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers acquired it in 1951 in conjunction with its Lake Ouachita construction project. The actual lake was completed in 1952 but wasn’t opened to the general public until 1955 when the nearby power plant was completed. The Corps approached the state that year about establishing the state park to preserve the Three Sisters springs and leased the state 360 acres, including the springs, for park development.”

There are a number of popular commercial ventures along the south side of the lake with access roads off U.S. Highway 270.

There’s Lake Ouachita Shores, the closest of the establishments to Mount Ida. It long was known as Denby Point Lodge & Marina. It offers motel rooms, cabins and a marina.

There’s Crystal Springs Resort, which the Tommy Trantham family (yes that Tommy Trantham, the former Razorback who was a three-time All-Southwest Conference selection at defensive back from 1965-67) operated for many years. Crystal Springs has a marina with a snack bar and gift shop, a restaurant that’s open during the summer months, a motel, several cabins overlooking the marina and a 14-bedroom lodge with meeting facilities.

There’s Brady Mountain Resort, which has a marina with more than 650 slips, a marina store, lakeside lodging and seasonal dining.

There’s Echo Canyon Resort, which long was known as the Spillway Resort & Marina. It also has a marina, lodging and a restaurant.

The largest and fanciest of the private developments along the lake is Mountain Harbor Resort & Spa. It has been owned and operated by the Barnes family since 1955 when Hal Barnes discovered a nice harbor near Hickory Nut Mountain. His son Bill Barnes, who earlier this year was inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame, later took over the operation. Bill is still active, but there’s also a third generation of the family involved in a development that offers not only what the other resorts along the lake offer (marina, lodging, restaurant) but also a full spa, three swimming pools, the most upscale condos on the lake and a large conference center.

The establishment on Lake Ouachita that really takes me back in time is Shangri-La Resort, where I would stay with my family when I was a boy. My father loved to fish for bass and crappie. DeGray Lake, near my hometown of Arkadelphia, had yet to fill up. So we would come to spend weekends at Shangri-La so my dad could fish and I could swim while my mother watched.

Longtime Arkansas food and travel writer Kat Robinson wrote in 2017: “Daniel Maurice and Louise Mowbray Hunter opened the Shangri-La Resort just after Blakely Dam was completed to hold in Lake Ouachita. They started out with six motel rooms and two cabins and expanded through the years. From what I’ve been told, Austin and Varine Carr came on about a month before the resort opened. Austin, as the carpenter, built many of the buildings at the resort. The Carrs became part owners of the resort in 1979 or 1980 and full owners in 2006.

“Varine Carr assisted in the kitchen, eventually taking over the cafe. Though Ida Todd and Rosemary Johnson started the legacy of making delectable pies at Shangri-La, it’s Mrs. Carr who has perfected them and become so well known for them. … It it wasn’t for the modern vehicles parked here and there, it would be hard to discern it from photos from long ago. Postcards from years past show the same idyllic scene — a series of small cabins and a long, single-story motor-court hotel spread along a peninsula into Lake Ouachita; a series of boat docks; lush vegetation of the forest separated from the deep blue waters of the lake by a tan strip of shoreline; the white-and-red aluminum awning that keeps the sun from shining directly into the cafe; the neon tubes over the red-and-white sign denoting the location of the cafe and office. … It’s a nostalgic wander down an asphalt lane to a different time when heading to the lake meant losing complete contact with civilization.”

I’m often asked who has the best homemade pie in Arkansas. The restaurant at Shangri-La gets my vote.

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