Archive for the ‘Ozarks’ Category

A (Natural State) river runs through it

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

“There are places along the rivers of the Ozarks where large numbers of cattle have the banks eroded, muddy and bare, and every time the river floods, a load of soil and silt is carried from those places to fill the eddies below,” Larry Dablemont wrote last year. “It goes back a hundred years to a time when there was no other way to water stock, when cattle and pigs roamed and then, as their numbers increased, timber was cut and bulldozed along the streams to make more room for grazing.”

Dablemont, who writes lovingly about the Ozarks, is based out of Bolivar, Mo. According to his website, his grandfather “was an old-time river man who trapped, fished, built johnboats and ran a fishing camp. Following in the footsteps of his father and uncles, Larry began guiding fishermen in his grandfather’s johnboats when he was only 13 years old. He loved the outdoors from his early boyhood and began writing about the world he knew when he was in high school.”

Dablemont’s past includes stints as the outdoors editor of the Arkansas Democrat, as a naturalist for the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism and as a naturalist for the National Park Service along the Buffalo National River.

While living in north Arkansas in 1975, he decided to become a freelance writer and has turned out thousands of pieces since then.

Dablemont wrote about a landowner named Jim Hacker who owns about two miles of river frontage along the Pomme de Terre River in southwest Missouri. He described Hacker as a “cattleman who saw there was a better way.”

Dablemont said that because of the steps Hacker took, his “river bottomland, in trees and grasses, is filled with wildlife, not only deer and turkey, but furbearers and rabbits and quail.”

Hacker said: “I have always loved to fish, and my wife and I float the Pomme de Terre as much as possible. I want to see it saved, and I believe it can be because nature is quick to heal itself. The river can recover from much of what we have done if we let it.”

Dablemont noted that there are “hundreds of us who love the rivers who would talk to landowners about conservation programs, and there are landowners like Jim Hacker who will testify to the wisdom and economics in doing what he has done. There are canoe clubs and fishing groups who would join me, I believe, in talking to landowners along our streams about stopping erosion caused by cattle and improving their land.”

Dablemont was writing about Missouri, but he could have been talking about Arkansas, a state blessed with thousands of miles of streams.

It’s an unseasonably warm late February (a welcome relief after the harsh winter of 2011), and our thoughts turn to an early spring. For many Arkansans that means being on the rivers, creeks, bayous and sloughs of the Natural State.

In thinking about north Arkansas, I think of trips along the Kings River, the Buffalo, the Eleven Point, the Strawberry, the Spring, the South Fork of the Spring, the Current and the Little Black.

And then there are the floatable creeks in the Arkansas Ozarks — the War Eagle, Crooked, Osage, Long, Myatt and more.

Coming out of the Ozarks and headed south into the Arkansas River Valley are the Mulberry River, Big Piney Creek and the Illinois Bayou.

There’s the magnificent White River as it transforms itself from a mountain stream in northwest Arkansas to a wide, slow Delta artery in southeast Arkansas.

In southwest Arkansas, there’s the Caddo, the Ouachita, the Little Missouri, the Cossatot, the Mountain Fork and more.

There’s Cadron Creek in central Arkansas and the Little Red River with its upper forks — the South Fork, the Middle Fork and the Archeys Fork. Big Creek flows into the Little Red.

There’s the Saline River and its upper forks — the North Fork, the Alum Fork and the Middle Fork.

There are the dozens of other streams I know nothing about but would love to experience.

Arkansans have been given so much that it’s incumbent on them to give something back.

One way to do so is through participation in the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission’s Stream Team initiative. The program began in 1996, and there are now more than 500 stream teams across the state.

You should consider joining an existing team or forming your own while adopting part of a favorite river or creek.

According to the Game & Fish Commission: “These teams conduct litter pickups, repair eroding streambanks on willing owners’ land, plant trees to restore degraded riparian areas, work with local leaders to better manage their watersheds and conduct a variety of other activities aimed at conserving one of the most valuable of Arkansas’ natural resources, its water.”

Those interested in participating should email Steve Filipek at or call him at (501) 223-6371.

“Stream Team members can adopt a stream, determine its current situation and plan a project based on the initial survey,” according to the Game & Fish Commission. “This is done with the landowner’s approval and technical assistance from program sponsors. Your imagination is the only limitation.”

Another way to give back is by becoming involved with the Nature Conservancy. The Conservancy has several stream restoration and protection programs across the state.

I had written earlier on the Southern Fried blog about the Nature Conservancy’s purchase of land along the Kings River in March 2010. In April 2011, the Conservancy added a 28.9-acre tract that includes a quarter mile of river frontage with bluffs, a sandy beach and a gravel bar. This tract connects two other parts of the Kings River Nature Preserve, forming an unbroken area along the river.

“The Kings River is a recreational paradise offering excellent floating and fishing with deep pools, overhanging trees, occasional rapids and towering bluffs,” the Conservancy noted in its 2011 year-end report. “Attesting to the stream’s beauty is the fact that in 1971 the General Assembly passed legislation to protect the portion of the river in Madison County, noting that it ‘possesses unique scenic, recreational and other characteristics in a natural, unpolluted and wild state.’

“The Conservancy’s primary purpose in acquiring the preserve, which spans more than seven miles on both sides of the Kings River, is to maintain the health and water quality of this Ozark gem.

“The river fosters a rich aquatic community, including 18 species of fish, crayfish, mussels, turtles and insects found only in the Ozarks, as well as one species of stonefly found only in the Kings watershed. Besides being a recreational treasure, the river is also an important drinking water source as it flows into Table Rock Lake to join the White River.”

Another important part of the Nature Conservancy’s work in Arkansas involves gravel road repairs that are used as demonstration projects.

“You may find it hard to believe that gravel roads are one of the biggest threats to stream health in Arkansas and around the United States, but it’s true,” the year-end report stated. “Unpaved roads, combined with heavy rainfall, can dump huge amounts of sediment into our rivers.”

In one 2011 effort, the Nature Conservancy partnered with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service and the Arkansas Forestry Commission to hold a best management practices workshop at Clinton. The Conservancy has been involved in restoration projects along the Little Red River near Clinton.

The workshop drew more than 60 participants. There were foresters, private contractors, county road department employees, natural gas company employees and representatives of state and federal agencies.

The floods of last spring brought additional challenges. The Nature Conservancy worked in the aftermath of those floods to protect eroding banks and remove downed trees on streams ranging from the South Fork of the Little Red River to the Middle Fork of the Saline River.

As spring begins, enjoy our state’s streams.

But please remember to give back.

According to the Game and Fish Commission: “We’ve lost thousands of miles of free-flowing natural streams to damming, industrial and agricultural pollution and other activities. Recent studies indicate we’ve lost more than 25 percent of the state’s smallmouth bass streams this century.”

And as Larry Dablemont noted, “If we don’t do something soon, it will someday be too late.”

The Arkansas wine country

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Researching the column that ran in last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I found myself intrigued by the rich history of the Arkansas wine country.

I also found myself looking at how much other states have capitalized on the allure of their wineries, attracting prosperous baby boomer couples in the process.

I asked these questions:

1. Why do we not more actively promote an Arkansas Wine Trail that winds from Altus to Paris?

2. Why don’t we have large brown signs (the kind you would see for a state park) with perhaps a bunch of purple grapes on them at the Altus exit on Interstate 40 to better promote this unique part of our state?

3. Why hasn’t some investor built a small but upscale boutique hotel near Altus to take advantage of the Arkansas wine country?

Far too often, we take fascinating parts of our Arkansas heritage for granted.

“It has always been here,” we tell each other about this or that attraction. “Why should we go out of our way to promote it?”

Sometimes, it takes outsiders to tell us that the things we take for granted are truly special.

Returning from a speaking engagement in Fort Smith last Thursday, I stopped at the beautiful tasting room for Chateau Aux Arc near Altus. It’s the newest of the area’s wineries, born in 1998 when young Audrey House bought 20 acres from Al Wiederkehr, and it has the nicest tasting room, a 5,400-square-foot facility built in 2005. I listened as a couple on their way from Oklahoma back to their home along the Mississippi Gulf coast in Jackson County raved about the beauty of the area.

If they knew its history, they would be even more enchanted. And if that boutique hotel existed, they might have even spent the night.

Altus was incorporated as a city in August 1888. Railroad officials had named their railhead Altus, the Latin word for high, since this was the highest point on the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad.

A Frenchman named Jean Baptiste Dardenne had first claimed the area in June 1814. Five years later, the U.S. government ordered white settlers out of the region so the Cherokee tribe could have title to the land. An 1828 treaty, however, removed members of the tribe from Arkansas to what’s now Oklahoma. Franklin County was carved out of Crawford County in 1837, and the courthouse was placed at Ozark.

“The Altus area, like the rest of the state, was devastated by the Civil War, especially the depredations of guerilla warfare,” Lola Shropshire writes on the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “It took years for the population to overcome the hunger and poverty. Farming was not productive enough to keep families wholly fed and clothed. When large-scale coal mining began in the area in 1873, the mine owners found many willing workers in the Altus area. The major coal-producing mines were not within the Altus city limits but were important to the economy of the area.”

So coal mining began in a big way in 1873. A year later, the original Altus passenger train depot was built. Between railroad jobs and jobs in the mines, there was plenty of work. That demand for labor, in turn, attracted Swiss and German immigrants.

Jacob Post, a German who first had tried to grow grapes in Illinois, showed up in Arkansas in 1880.

That same year, Johann Andreas Wiederkehr came from Switzerland and carved a wine cellar from a hillside.

Post and Wiederkehr found an outlet for their wine — the Swiss and German immigrants who were were accustomed to having wine with their meals. They sold the wine to these coal miners, railroad workers and other immigrants.

Things would change in the 20th century. The last passenger train departed Altus in May 1936. In 1940, the last major coal mine closed. There are no longer railroad and mining jobs. But the descendants of Jacob Post and Johann Andreas Wiederkehr continue to produce wine. And therein lies the present and hopefully an even brighter future for this slice of Arkansas.

Heritage tourists tend to spend more than other tourists, which is why we need to exploit the Swiss-German heritage and give these visitors a reason to stay in Altus a night or two. The bank in Altus was even known as the German American Bank in the early 1900s before anti-German sentiment during World War I forced the name to be changed to the Bank of Altus. The building that housed the bank is now a museum.

In 1927-28, Chicago millionaire J.H. Jacobson bought seven farms on Pond Creek Mountain to build cabins that he hoped would attract other wealthy Chicago residents each summer. The Great Depression, however, put an end to those efforts.

Altus received some nationwide publicity in 2001 when Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie showed up to film the reality television show “The Simple Life.” But rather than a charming wine-growing region with a Swiss-German heritage, the area was pretty much portrayed as backwoods Arkansas on that show.

As I stated in the newspaper column, I thought House’s arrival in 1998 following her graduation from the University of Oklahoma was far more significant than the short stay of the spoiled rich girls, Hilton and Ritchie. The three existing wineries in 1998 — Wiederkehr Wine Cellars, Post Familie Vineyards & Winery and Mount Bethel Winery — have tradition on their side. House, though, brought new blood, new energy and some new ways of doing things.

The website tells this story: “Along the way, Audrey met and worked closely with members of the other local wineries. One of those people was Thomas Post, who runs the farm and vineyards for Post Familie and who offered Audrey invaluable advice as she learned the ins and outs of vineyard cultivation. It soon became apparent that Audrey and Thomas shared more than just an interest in grapes when their respect and admiration for one another bloomed into a romance and then ultimately into their November 2002 marriage.

“Audrey’s personal and professional growth has continued on a steady course since that day. Once wed, she turned the building that served as her house into a new tasting room with space for a gift shop and began gaining notoriety for being the youngest vintner in the country as well as the newest winemaker in Altus. In 2004, two more significant changes occurred: the first, the birth of Thomas and Audrey’s first child, Trinity, in June, followed by the September groundbreaking of a new, more spacial tasting room at Dragonfly Ranch.

“One year later, Audrey unveiled her current tasting room — a European-style building, accented by stacked rock columns, fit to be called by the name chateau. A dry moat, stone walkways and flowerbeds galore surround the impressive structure on the edge of Dragonfly Ranch’s manicured vineyards. Picnic tables scattered throughout the grounds complement the experience, beckoning visitors to soak in the atmosphere.”

Chateau Aux Arc even markets the facility for weddings.

Another part of the website tells the story this way: “Born in 1976, Audrey is the oldest daughter of Byron House III. She is one of the youngest winery owners in the United States, as well as the only female winemaker in Arkansas. Dividing her childhood between Arkansas and Oklahoma, Audrey came to appreciate the scenic beauty of Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas River Valley. Audrey is part Tom Sawyer. Who else could convince their friends that it would be fun living in tents in the middle of a vineyard during the summer of 1998.”

We should be glad they did just that.

Just west of Paris, meanwhile, Robert Cowie and his children carry on the tradition at Cowie Wine Cellars, which originally was bonded in 1967. It’s also the home of the Arkansas Historic Wine Museum, which contains a number of winemaking artifacts. There’s also a two-unit bed and breakfast facility with rates of $90 for the Cynthiana Suite and $125 for Robert’s Port Suite.

Cynthiana, also known as Norton, is a native American grapevine that is more disease resistant and adaptable to the climate in the Ozarks than many of the imported grapevines.

And if you’re wondering about Robert’s Port, it’s the port wine that is one of the items for which Cowie Wine Cellars is known.

The Cowie website at states: “Arkansas has a rich heritge of winemaking dating from the time of the earliest settlers. Though the present, there have been 150 wineries bonded in Arkansas by the federal government since the repeal of Prohibition and more than 1,000 Arkansas permits issued for winemaking.”

Can’t we do more to attract visitors to the scenic, historic Arkansas wine country and its five commercial wineries?

From “Coin” Harvey to Anita Bryant

Friday, August 13th, 2010

It has been fun researching the colorful characters attracted to the Arkansas Ozarks through the years.

What is it about the hills of north Arkansas that attract the Norman Bakers and the Gerald L.K. Smiths of the world?

William Hope “Coin” Harvey has always been one of my favorite characters from Arkansas’ past. Harvey, the 1932 presidential nominee for something called the Liberty Party, was born in Virginia in 1851 and admitted to the bar at age 19. He practiced law in West Virginia, Ohio and Illinois before heading to Colorado in 1884, where he operated a silver mine that made him a wealthy man.

Gaye Bland picks up the story in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “When the price of silver fell, Harvey abandoned mining and in 1888 moved his family to Pueblo, Colo., where he practiced law, sold real estate and helped develop the Mineral Palace, an ornate exposition hall. By 1891, the family moved to Ogden, Utah, where Harvey led the organization of an extravagant carnival that ended in financial failure.

“In the early 1890s, as the nation entered a period of deflation, bank failures, bankruptcies and farm foreclosures, Harvey turned his attention to the free silver issue. Like other Western business leaders, he believed that abandoning the gold standard and returning to the free coinage of silver would restore prosperity. In 1893, Harvey moved his family to Chicago to devote his time to the cause. He began writing and lecturing, arguing that the U.S. treasury should buy all silver offered at a set price and issue silver certificates backed by the deposits.”

Harvey wrote an extremely successful book called “Coin’s Financial School” in 1894. That book gave him his nickname. Harvey campaigned hard in the 1896 presidential race for William Jennings Bryan. That campaign brought him to the Arkansas Ozarks. In 1900, Harvey began purchasing land southeast of Rogers and announced that he would build a major resort. He named the area Monte Ne, which he said were Spanish and Native American words for “mountain” and “water.”

The Hotel Monte Ne opened in 1901. The state’s first indoor swimming pool, a tennis court and two additional hotels were added in the years that followed.

“In 1913, Harvey formed the Ozark Trails Association,” Bland writes. “Although the association’s stated purpose was the promotion of better roads, Harvey’s goal was the promotion of Monte Ne. The OTA marked routes, published route books and erected obelisks that were lettered with the distance and direction to Monte Ne at major junctions. Despite the efforts, the association did little to increase business at the resort. Like many resorts, Monte Ne suffered with the growth of automobile travel and in the 1920s most of the resort was closed or foreclosed.”

Harvey continued to write books and became convinced that the end of civilization was near. He decided to build a 130-foot pyramid before civilization ended. The project was never completed. Its ruins are now under the waters of Beaver Lake and can be seen when water levels are low. Harvey began the Liberty Party in 1931 as an alternative to the two major parties. He was 80 years old when the party’s delegates came to Monte Ne and nominated him for president.

“The party platform was based on Harvey’s writing and called for government ownership of utilities and industry, limits on land holdings and personal wealth and, of course, free silver,” Bland writes. “When the votes were tallied, he was in sixth place.”

Harvey received only about 53,000 votes nationwide. Arkansas produced 1,049 of those votes.

Harvey died at Monte Ne in February 1936. He was buried beside his son in a concrete tomb, which had to be moved up the hill before Beaver Lake was filled.

A sidelight: Though most of Harvey’s former resort is under water, the name Monte Ne lives on in a small community by the lake that’s home to one of my favorite restaurants. At the Monte Ne Inn on Arkansas Highway 94, the family-style menu consists of bean soup, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, green beans, fried chicken and homemade bread with apple butter. There’s no menu. If you go, this is what you’ll get. And it’s all you can eat.

Decades after the death of “Coin” Harvey, Anita Bryant found her way to Eureka Springs. Bryant, now 70, became an entertainment sensation in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Her song “Paper Roses” reached No. 5 on the Billboard charts.

Bryant was named Miss Oklahoma in 1958 and was the second runner-up in the Miss America pageant. After her singing career took off, she was voted for three consecutive years by the readers of Good Housekeeping magazine as the most admired woman in America. Florida citrus growers hired her in 1968 as their spokesman, a job she would hold for a dozen years. Those of us of a certain age remember the television ads in which she proclaimed, “Breakfast without orange juice is like a day without sunshine.”

In 1973, Bryant even sang at Lyndon Johnson’s funeral. She also appeared in ads for Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Holiday Inn and Tupperware. Her success led Florida Gov. Reubin Askew to quip, “People connect orange juice, Florida and Anita Bryant so much that it becomes difficult to decide which to visit, which to listen to and which to squeeze.”

Her career faltered, however, after she became a spokesman for anti-gay rights efforts in the late 1970s. Her citrus contract was not renewed, she divorced her husband Bob Green and then she moved from Florida back to Oklahoma.

In 1990, Bryant married Charlie Hobson Dry, a former test crewman for NASA. She moved to the Arkansas Ozarks in the early 1990s and opened her Eureka Springs theater. In 1997, however, Bryant and Dry filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in Arkansas. There were more than $172,000 in unpaid state and federal taxes at the time. She also performed during the 1990s in Branson, where government liens were filed claiming more than $116,000 in unpaid taxes.

A 2002 story in the St. Petersburg Times described her as someone who spent her later years in “small entertainment capitals across the Bible Belt, gamely attempting a comeback but leaving backruptcy and ill will in her wake.”

By 1998, Bryant and her husband had made their way to Pigeon Forge, Tenn., where they bought the 2,040-seat Music Mansion.

The 2002 St. Petersburg Times story told of “dozens” who “labored, often for weeks or months without pay, to produce Bryant’s jaunty, top-tapping show, ‘Anita With Love.'”

“They were always telling us God’s going to come through,” one former dancer said. “They would attach his name to everything and if we didn’t believe them, we didn’t have faith. It didn’t have anything to do with God. We knew their track record.”

The newspaper reported in 2002, “Among the jilted employees is a woman who appears on Bryant’s website as the president of her fan club. She is owed about $3,000. The Music Mansion — once the gem of the folksy Pigeon Forge theater scene — was auctioned off this month. Only eight years old, its facade is showing wear from poor maintenance. The landscaped islands on its vast, empty parking lot are overrun with dandelions.”

Bryant’s official biography on the website for Anita Bryant Ministries International (the biography appears to have last been updated in 2006) notes: “Anita is now sharing an office in the historic Oklahoma City’s Bricktown with Charlie. The offices house the new Anita Bryant Ministries International Inc. along with Charlie’s Space Camps and other business ventures. Anita is excited about being back home in Oklahoma and believes her latter days will be greater than in the beginning.”

Just like “Coin” Harvey, her road show made its way at one point to the Arkansas Ozarks.

More eccentrics of the Ozarks — Gerald L.K. Smith

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Glen Jeansonne, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since 1978, begins a profile on Gerald L.K. Smith for the Wisconsin Magazine of History this way: “In August 1936, Gerald L.K. Smith addressed a packed Cleveland stadium at the convention of Father Charles E. Coughlin’s National Union of Social Justice. The afternoon was hot, and the audience sweltered. Smith, sweating profusely, stripped off his coat and tie and gulped directly from a pitcher of water without bothering to use a glass.

“The theme of his speech was the iniquity of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Smith claimed that the policies of FDR’s administration represented ‘the most historic and contemptible betrayal ever put over on the American people. … Our people were starving and they burned the wheat, hungry and they killed the pigs, led by Mr. Henry Wallace, secretary of the Swine Assassination and by a slimy group of men culled from the pink campuses of America with friendly gaze fixed on Russia.’ The audience roared.”

Yes, Gerald L.K. Smith.

The same Gerald L.K. Smith who built the seven-story Christ of the Ozarks in Eureka Springs back in the 1960s (why do I always think of George Fisher’s classic editorial cartoon of Frank Broyles — Frank of the Ozarks?).

Jeansonne goes on to write that during the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, Smith “addressed more and bigger live audiences than any speaker of his generation. They rarely left disappointed. With his beak-shaped nose and piercing blue eyes, standing 6 feet tall and weighing over 200 pounds, he was a dynamo, an extraordinary demagogue who swayed thousands and infuriated millions. His crisp voice, his spontaneous gestures, his transparent zealotry fixated audiences. Routinely, Smith was mesmerizing, though often vacuous. His oratory impressed crowds, raised emotions, thrilled the masses.”

William Bradford Huie wrote this about Smith: “The man has the passion of Billy Sunday. He has the fire of Adolf Hitler. … He is the stuff of which Fuehrers are made.”

Huey P. Long called him “the only man I ever saw who is a better rabble-rouser than I am.”

H.L. Mencken wrote: “Gerald L.K. Smith is the greatest orator of them all, not the greatest by an inch or a foot or a yard or a mile, but the greatest by at least two light years. He begins where the best leaves off.”

It was little wonder that Smith was asked to deliver Long’s funeral oration in Baton Rouge before a crowd of more than 150,000 people in September 1935 following Long’s assassination.

“This tragedy fires the souls of us who adored him,” Smith said that day. “He has been the wounded victim of the green goddess; to use the figure, he was the Stradivarius whose notes rose in competition with jealous drums, envious tomtoms. He was the unfinished symphony.”

Smith, who was just 37 at the time of Long’s death, first had come Louisiana as the pastor of the Kings Highway Disciples of Christ Church in Shreveport in 1929. Smith resigned from the church after seven months and hooked up with Long, eventually becoming a key national organizer for Long’s Share-Our-Wealth Society. That wealth redistribution group was to have been the launching pad for Long’s planned 1936 presidential campaign.

After Long’s assassination, Smith hooked up with retired physician Francis Townsend and Father Coughlin to create the Union Party. Smith later would run unsuccessfully several times for the U.S. Senate and the presidency. His final bid for the presidency was in 1956 as the Christian Nationalist Party candidate. By then, Smith was primarily supported by those on the far right extreme of the political spectrum — anti-Semitic and fascist activists.

Back in 1933, Smith had written the following to a man named Hugo Fack, who had journeyed to Germany and met with Nazi leaders: “I am anxious to get in touch with his Honor, Adolf Hitler, but knowing that you are recently removed from Germany, before doing so I desire your opinion on conditions in that country. They look good to me. Can you give me a code for getting in touch with Herr Hitler or one of his representatives in America?”

Soon after quitting his job as a pastor in Shreveport, Smith also had been attracted to American Nazi William Dudley Pelley and his paramilitary Silver Shirts. Many years later, Smith would settle in Detroit and become friends with Henry Ford, who financed a series of Smith’s radio broadcasts. Smith began a monthly publication called The Cross and the Flag in 1942 and continued to publish it until his death in 1976.

In the early 1960s, the Arkansas Ozarks remained mired in poverty. Eureka Springs was a mere shadow of the grand resort it had been in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Anyone looking to invest money was welcome. It was this world that Smith entered in 1964.

“Smith came to Arkansas and bought Penn Castle, a Victorian mansion in Eureka Springs, an Ozark Mountain spa town that had lapsed into economic stagnation,” Jeansonne wrote for the University of Arkansas Press. “He remodeled it lavishly, turning it into his retirement home. Two years later, he built the first of his Sacred Projects, a seven-story statue of Jesus, the Christ of the Ozarks, on Magnetic Mountain. Smith proclaimed that it was more beautiful than Michelangelo’s art. Disagreeing, an art critic likened it to a milk carton with a tennis ball stuffed on its top.

“Soon Smith added the Christ Only Art Gallery, a Bible museum and a passion play staged in an outdoor amphitheater. The play was performed on a 400-foot reproduction of a street in old Jerusalem and included live animals. By 1975, the theater was expanded from 3,000 seats to 6,000 seats, and more than 188,000 had watched the play, making it the largest outdoor pageant in the United States. Jews denounced the play as anti-Semitic, but Smith called it ‘the only presentation of its kind in the world which has not diluted its content to flatter the Christ-hating Jews.’ The Sacred Projects helped revitalize the Eureka Springs area.”

The first performance of what was known as The Great Passion Play was on July 15, 1968. That first season attracted 28,000 people.

Smith announced that he would build a $100 million replica of the Holy Land, including a model of the River Jordan in which people could be baptized. Before that project could be completed, he died of pneumonia in April 1976 at his winter home in California.

“The Sacred Projects gave Smith some respectability but could not obscure the anti-Semitism and hatred for which he was most known,” Jeansonne writes. “He maintained that Jesus was a Gentile whom Jews crucified; that Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower were Jews; that Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler was a Bolshevik and a Jewish foil; that Jews invented communism; and that Jews prodded African-Americans to begin the civil rights movement to jolt a tranquil American society. Smith lamented that he was castigated only becuase he was emboldened to air such issues.”

The play he started in Eureka Springs continues, though it now markets itself as The New Great Passion Play. The nonprofit organization that produces the play, now governed by a board of directors, says the efforts to build a model of the Holy Land are ongoing.

At the website, it’s noted that the “New Holy Land Tour includes one of the world’s only complete life-size reproductions of Moses’ Tabernacle in the Wilderness, as well as 37 other authentic exhibits. In 1976, the Smith Memorial Chapel was built in honor of Gerald L.K. and Elna M Smith. Many other unique attractions, such as the Sacred Arts Center, a piece of the Berlin Wall, performances of the Parable of the Potter and more have been added throughout the years. Be sure and visit the Bible Museum and its remarkable collection of historical Bibles and documents.”

Following Smith’s death in 1976, the Arkansas Gazette editorialized: “To have the power to touch men’s hearts with glory or with bigotry, and to choose the latter, is a saddening thing.”

Eccentrics of the Ozarks

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

It’s good that the Crescent Hotel & Spa at Eureka Springs recalls the tainted legacy of that old con man Norman Baker by naming its fourth-floor restaurant and lounge after him.

After all, it wouldn’t be the Ozarks without the eccentrics and the con men.

Baker, a charlatan if ever there were one, operated a “hospital” out of the Crescent Hotel during the final years of the Great Depression.

There were plenty of other colorful characters who later were lured into the Arkansas Ozarks.

Jew hater Gerald L.K. Smith showed up in Eureka Springs in 1964 to begin building what he referred to as his Sacred Projects.

And even Anita Bryant — she of orange juice and anti-gay fame — made an appearance in the 1990s to operate a music theater that was bankrupt by 1997 while owning thousands of dollars in back taxes.

Of course, just down the road in Benton County, William H. “Coin” Harvey developed Monte Ne (complete with a gondola from Italy to ferry tourists across a spring-fed lagoon from a depot to the hotel he had built). Harvey announced plans in the 1920s to build a 130-foot-tall pyramid. He never completed that project, but he did build an amphitheater that was to have been the pyramid’s foyer. Most of Monte Ne is now below the waters of Beaver Lake.

As for Norman Baker, he was a fixture on the vaudeville circuit in the early 1900s. He later built a radio station in Iowa in 1925 with the call letters KTNT. Those letters stood for Know The Naked Truth. He also published something called TNT Magazine. Baker used the radio station and the magazine to attack established medical procedures and the American Medical Association.

President Hoover helped launch Baker’s tabloid newspaper in 1930 by participating in a publicity stunt in which the president pushed a “golden key” from Washington to “start” Baker’s printing press in Iowa.

Baker had no formal education but called himself Dr. Baker. He opened a hospital in Iowa where he claimed he could cure cancer. When the federal government shut down his radio station, Baker headed to Mexico to operate a station known as XENT just across the U.S. border.

Baker finally was convicted of federal mail fraud in 1940 three years after buying the Crescent Hotel. His promises to cure cancer had been sent through the mail, and that constituted mail fraud. He died in 1958 in Miami.

The website describes the Baker years in Arkansas this way: “When the popularity of bathing in mineral springs faded, hard times came to the beautiful hotel. It fell into disrepair during the years of the Great Depression and ultimately fell into the hands of an eccentric character named Norman Baker. … A radio station owner and former manager of a mind reading show, Baker came to Eureka Springs from his home in Iowa to promote his secret cancer cure. Converting the Crescent Hotel, which he called his Castle in the Air, into a dubious medical facility, he brought in patients and, for the right price, subjected them to a variety of strange procedures.

“Attracted by Baker’s claims of a cancer cure, desperate patients flocked to the facility. In fact, federal investigators later determined that he made more than $4 million peddling his fake cure during the darkest days of the Great Depression.”

Baker was the youngest of 10 children. He quit high school at age 16 in 1898 to take a job as a machinist. Baker decided to change professions one night after watching a magic show featuring a performer who went by the name of Professor Flint.

Baker had his own performance troupe by 1904. The show starred a mind reader called Madame Pearl Tangley. Madame Tangley quit the show in 1909 and was replaced by Theresa Pinder, who married Baker a year later.

During the summer of 1914, Baker was tinkering in his brother’s machine shop in Iowa when he came up with an organ that played with air rather than steam. He called it the Air Calliaphone and sold the first one for $500. He quickly sold two more and soon was wealthy. By 1915, Baker had closed his vaudeville show, divorced his wife and become a full-time manufacturer of organs. He was making more than $200,000 a year. In 1920, he opened an art correspondence school that earned him more than $75,000 in three years.

KTNT went on the air on Thanksgiving Day 1925. In 1928, the station received permission to broadcast at 10,000 watts rather than its original 500 watts. KTNT soon became one of the most popular radio stations in the Midwest.

In his well-researched history called “Pure Hoax: The Norman Baker Story,” Stephen Spence writes: “On weekends and holidays thousands would gather at the station to hear Norman’s broadcasts. Baker welcomed the crowds with live entertainment as well as souvenirs, food and cheap gasoline. All for a fair price, of course. As KTNT’s popularity grew, Norman’s attacks on his usual targets became more vitriolic and personal. He made baseless personal attacks on prominent men he considered enemies, accusing them over the airwaves of everything from adultery to drunkenness. This behavior began to turn people against him and there was a backlash of complaints against KTNT.”

Baker opened his first cancer center, the Baker Institute of Muscatine, Iowa, in 1930. He used his radio station to promote his so-called miracle treatments.

Spence tells this sad story: “In the spring of 1930, John Tunis’ wife Lula was dying of cancer. In his private moments, he must have alternately begged God not to take his wife and cursed him for letting her suffer such a cruel end. By the end of May, Lula was running out of time. John placed her and their dwindling hopes in the hands of a man named Norman Baker. They prayed he could provide the cure that the medical establishment could not.

“And by all appearances they had reason to hope. Norman Baker was the founder of the Baker Institute in Muscatine, Iowa. He was a flamboyant medical maverick with a new cure for cancer. Always dressed in a white suit and a lavender tie, he owned a radio station in Muscatine with the call letters KTNT. … He took to the airwaves and declared war on big business and the American Medical Association. He believed that organized medicine was corrupt and chose profits over patients. He preached the gospel of alternative medicine. He was the self-proclaimed champion of the common man against the ownership class. He was on the Tunis’ side, and he had a cure.

“It is doubtful that John and Lula could have known much about the background of their ostensible savior. That he was a former vaudeville magician, turned inventor, turned millionaire businessman, turned populist radio host, turned cancer doctor without a day of medical training in his life. They couldn’t have known that Norman’s magic elixir was nothing more than a useless mix of watermelon seed, brown corn silk, alcohol and carbolic acid. They clearly didn’t know that all Norman Baker had to offer was an excruciating, pseudo-treatment and a betrayal of their last hope.”

John Tunis would later testify in a trial against Baker that his wife “took the needle treatments. She told me it was awful, that five or seven needles a day were stuck into her and they would hold them there until the medicine ran out. She said it didn’t do much good; said she wanted to go home; that she was getting worse.”

The American Medical Association led the fight against Baker, and the government refused to renew his radio license in May 1931. An arrest warrant was filed for practicing medicine without a license, and Baker fled to Nuevo Larado, where he remained until 1937, operating his Mexican radio station there at 100,000 watts. He returned to Muscatine in 1937, pled guilty to the old charge and served a one-day sentence. That’s when he moved to Eureka Springs, bought the Crescent and took up where he had left off in Iowa.

Baker was arrested in 1939. His trial was held in January 1940 in Little Rock, and he was found guilty on all seven counts. His appeal was denied, and Baker was sent to Leavenworth in Kansas to serve out his term. He was released from prison in July 1944, moving to Florida and living comfortably until his death in 1958.

Spence writes: “What made Norman Baker’s cancer cure charade so despicable is the human cost of his fraud. Hundreds of people who might have lived if they received legitimate medical care died because they put their trust in his cure. The common grifter swindles people out of their money. But only a monster would do so at the cost of their last chance of survival.”

Eureka’s historic hotels

Monday, August 9th, 2010

While writing last week about the Crescent and the Basin Park hotels in Eureka Springs, I was struck by the fact that, more than ever, that city’s future rests on preserving its past.

There likely will always be a place for the motels, restaurants and the pair of music theaters out on U.S. Highway 62, but Eureka Springs’ primary draw must be its preserved homes and buildings from the golden era of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Think about it.

Branson now has a lock on the region’s live music and outlet mall sectors.

Eureka Springs is too far removed from major roads for a large amusement park.

But in this day and time when aging baby boomers are looking for that which is real — not manufactured like some Disney creation — the historic districts of Eureka Springs are as real as it gets. As heritage tourism accounts for more of the overall tourism spending in this country, Eureka Springs must continue to improve its historic hotels and its bed and breakfast inns. The key is to provide all of the modern amenities travelers expect without destroying the historic texture. It’s not always an easy thing to accomplish.

Next, Eureka Springs has to market these facilities effectively. The marketing must be highly targeted.

Eureka Springs is blessed with not only the Crescent and the Basin Park but also the smaller Palace Hotel & Bath House, the New Orleans Hotel and the Grand Central Hotel.

The Palace, in fact, boasts the city’s only remaining bath house (though there are numerous modern spas). A man named George Williams reportedly bought the lots where the hotel sits for $500 in 1900, built the hotel for $1,000 and sold it in May 1901 for $2,500. Limestone was quarried just outside of town, and Irish stonemasons constructed the hotel.

“George was fascinated with European castles and designed the Palace exterior in similar fashion,” the hotel’s website at notes. “Eureka Springs drew travelers from both coasts and Europe. In the early ’20s, mobsters were often seen here. The most known notable celebrity frequenting the Palace was W.C. Fields. Can you just see him sitting in that wooden steam cabinet, a stogie in his mouth, a bulbous red nose, saying “keep those children out of here.”’

Baths were 50 cents and what was listed simply as “steam” was $1.

“Each bath stall had a numbered electric button (at the head of the tub) connected to a control board (near the entry) that was visible to the staff,” the website states. “When pushed, the button rang a bell and tripped a brass arrow on the control board. The bath attendant, when summoned, brought soap, toiletries, towels or whatever the patron required. There were only two W.C.s (water closets) on each floor. The double door, manually operated wire cage elevator was one of the first electric elevators in the city.

“Spring water from the Harding Spring was piped under the street, about 200 feet into a cistern in the basement. It was then heated and pumped into two (hot and cold) steel vessels mounted on steel beams between the rear wings of the building. The tanks were two feet above bath house floor level, and water pressure was aided by gravity flow to the baths.”

These days, a mineral bath at the Palace will cost you $16. A eucalyptus steam treatment will cost $16. So will a clay mask treatment. You can get all three of these along with a 30-minute massage for $72 and all three of these along with a one-hour massage for $92. The bath house operates from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. each Monday through Thursday, from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. each Friday and Saturday and from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. each Sunday.

One of my favorite things in Eureka Springs is that neon sign out front. They claim that it was the first neon sign installed west of the Mississippi River. It’s also said that the sign was painted by a popular area painter whose name was Golly. So, of course, he signed all of this works “By Golly.”

The sign looks great at night.

If you’re interested in the history of the city’s historic hotels, you should check out the website Dan Ellis lived in one of the best spots on the Gulf Coast — Pass Christian, Miss. — prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Ellis, who has written a series of local histories of communities in Mississippi and Louisiana, lost almost everything in that storm.

He headed north to Eureka Springs to start over and has been there ever since.

“Upon arriving in Eureka Springs, I was spellbound by the extant hotels that I found in superb condition due to the many former owners who realized that it took considerable money to maintain such jewels,” he writes. “I became enchanted by the magnificent stonework structure and glorious fourth-floor views from the Crescent Hotel. The odors and rickety narrow stairway of the Basin Park Hotel in climbing to the top. The aged glory of the below-ground nightclub and restaurant at the New Orleans Hotel. The wonderful elegance and refurbishment to the Grand Central Hotel. The cleanliness and wholesomeness of the suites in the Palace Bath House Hotel.

“These are overwhelming edifices each with stories to be told. Countless visitors have stayed at these hostelries, enjoying their honeymoons or anniversaries or for their joyful occasion.”

Check out his website. The history he has uncovered is fascinating.

What’s now the New Orleans Hotel originally was called the Wadsworth Hotel. W.S. Wadsworth owned the facility, which was completed in December 1901. His wife Jennie was a former circus bareback rider and served as the hostess. There were wrought iron balconies on the top three floors, and the popular Wellington Bar was housed in the hotel prior to Prohibition. The name of the hotel was changed to the Allred Hotel in 1908. It became the Springs Hotel in 1948.

The name was changed yet again to the New Orleans Hotel when Gale Reeves purchased it in 1954. The building on Spring Street was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. The hotel now has 21 guest units with 18 of them being suites. Each suite features the work of a local artist. The hotel is the home of the Suchness Spa.

Down on Main Street, the Grand Central Hotel has 14 large guest suites, the Grand Taverne restaurant and the Spa at Grand Central.

The history posted on the hotel’s website at reports that by 1881, the population of Eureka Springs had grown to 10,000 and “Eureka Springs had become Arkansas’ fourth-largest city. The Grand Central Hotel was built in 1880 as the stagecoach terminal for passengers coming to Eureka Springs from the north. The nine-hour line reached from the railhead at Pierce City in Missouri to the front door of the Grand Central Hotel. As many as 100 persons a day would come through the hotel seeking the healing waters of Eureka Springs. Many of these new arrivals were well-to-do Easterners. They brought with them discriminating tastes in all manner of living, especially in the architecture of the fine houses that were built soon after arrival.”

It was called the Connor Hotel at the time. The original wooden building burned in 1890 and was replaced with a brick facility. The Grand Central was the first brick hotel in town (the 1886 Crescent was built of limestone) and the first to have running water on every floor. It received its water supply from Onyx Spring on East Mountain.

By the 1970s, the upper floors had been closed and the roof was leaking badly. Restoration began in 1985. By 1987, the top two floors had been redone to produce 14 suites.

The hotel’s website gives a good description of what had happened in Eureka Springs: “By the turn of the 20th century, science and technology had dealt a deadly blow to the magical waters of Eureka Springs. As was the case with most spa towns all across America, their attractiveness waned among the sophisticated visitors that once came. … Next it was the Great Depression. Once magnificent Victorian-era structures went neglected or were torn down simply for the materials that could be recovered.

“In the 1970s, teetering on the brink of disaster, the town’s civic leaders decided to consult with theme park experts to see if some grand attraction could be lured to the area. To their surprise, they came to understand that Eureka Springs is a theme park. Efforts began immediately to preserve what was left of the Victorian village that had been built nearly a century earlier.”

That’s it.

Eureka Springs is a theme park. We don’t need to build one.

The Crescent. The Basin Park. The Palace. The New Orleans. The Grand Central.

They are Arkansas treasures that should be preserved, continually improved and marketed to those aging baby boomers who are now looking to experience that which is authentic.

The ghosts of Eureka Springs

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

Having bailed out of our plans to visit the Redneck Riviera in this summer of the oil spill (perhaps we can call it the Year 2010 BP), we chose to shorten our family vacation and head north rather than south.

I’ve been in Eureka Springs for various conferences and seminars in recent years (I also went on an annual search for smallmouth bass in the Kings River for several consecutive summers), but this was the first time in six years that we had spent multiple nights there as a family.

Our destination was the Crescent Hotel & Spa, and it was nice to see that things were hopping atop the mountain.

There were large weddings and receptions on both Thursday night and Friday night. Meanwhile, at $18 apiece, tickets were selling briskly for the nightly ghost tours, which begin at 8 p.m.

“Some hotels, such as the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, are proud of their reputation for being haunted,” Gary Stoller wrote in USA Today back in March. “The Crescent advertises it in hopes of attracting the curious. Other hoteliers dismiss guests’ tales and would just as soon the notion that they’re harboring ghosts be exorcised for fear of scaring guests away.”

In a place as quirky as Eureka Springs, I’m glad the hotel has fully embraced its reputation for being haunted. There also are ghost tours at the Basin Park Hotel.

Stoller wrote: “At the Crescent, paranormal researchers Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, stars of the ‘Ghost Hunters’ show, say they caught on a thermal-imaging camera ‘the Holy Grail’ of paranormal investigation: ‘a full-body apparition’ wearing a hat and nodding. In 20 years of investigating paranormal activity at all locales, a full-body apparition has been captured on the camera only eight to 10 times, Hawes says.”

Bill Ott, the hotel’s director of marketing and communications, told the newspaper that the reports of ghosts have been good for business.

“The haunted reputation gives us awareness,” he said.

I’m not into the ghost fad, but the tour was fun in a kitschy sort of way. Why bother visiting this most eccentric Arkansas town if you’re not going to do something kitschy?

Glen Couvillion, who heads the team of Crescent ghost tour guides, moved to Eureka Springs from New Orleans.

“The response to the new Crescent Hotel ghost tour has been overwhelming,” according to the July issue of the Lovely County Visitor. “The guides will lead three to four tours a night to meet this increased demand. The multiple tours, open to hotel guests as well as visitors to Eureka Springs, allow the size of the tour to be effectively managed, offering a better, more enhanced experience for participants.”

“I have been exposed to the paranormal both in New Orleans and here in Eureka,” Couvillion said. “I have literally been touched by the unexplained and am quite excited to be giving ghost tours here in the Crescent, a very active, very famous resort hotel with many bizarre stories to tell.”

Interestingly, the same issue of the Lovely County Visitor features an ad for the business Eureka Springs Ghost Tours, making sure people realize that particular business is no longer associated with the hotel.

“We are no longer doing ghost tours at the Crescent Hotel and wish to thank the thousands of patrons who have participated in our tours for the past 11 years,” the ad states. “Watch our website for evocative information and future developments.”

What’s Eureka Springs without a squabble?

While not into the paranormal, I do consider myself a preservationist. Thus I was interested to learn that the Crescent is one of three Arkansas hotels included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Hotels of America list. The other two are the Inn at Carnall Hall on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and Little Rock’s Capital Hotel.

In many ways, the 1886 Crescent Hotel remains a work in progress. On our first night, the door jammed and we couldn’t get out of the room (maybe a ghost did it). We called the front desk, and the bellman couldn’t get it open from the outside, either. While visions of firemen kicking in the door rattled around my brain, I finally forced it open. We asked to be moved to another room.

Showers throughout our stay led to wild dances as the water went from very hot to very cold. A couple with whom we visited at the pool complained that their room did not cool well (which was not a problem for us during that sultry final week of July).

I also had to avoid staff members who were smoking in public areas — on the back porch and by the pool.

But the hotel has its charms. The water in the pool is clean and cool. The grounds are beautiful with well-maintained flower gardens. The staff is friendly. The couple from Oklahoma City who complained about the hot room also raved about the massages they received at the hotel’s New Moon Spa. And the food was much better than I remember six years ago. Two breakfasts per morning come with each room, and the made-to-order omelets in the Crystal Dining Room left me satisfied. We went elsewhere for dinner on each of our three nights there (Rogue’s Manor the first night, DeVito’s the second night and Gaskin’s Cabin the third night), but lunches at Dr. Baker’s Extraordinary Bistro & Sky Bar on the fourth floor were good (especially the pizzas).

To truly appreciate the hotel, you must consider how far it has come since it was purchased by Marty and Elise Roenigk on May 5, 1997, just two months after they had purchased the Basin Park.

Jack Moyer, the hotel’s general manager, told the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal in a story published last week that the aging resort was in “dangerous disrepair” at the time. He said a bellman named Boyd Pyle developed a routine to attract guests.

“He would walk them room to room, literally, until they found one they were willing to stay in,” Moyer said. “That was how this hotel stayed afloat.”

The Roenigks moved into a penthouse on the top floor and began pouring millions of dollars into renovations.

Richard Davies, who heads the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, told the business publication: “I think the Crescent is a symbol of the resurgence of tourism in Eureka, a sign that people were willing to come in and make an investment — and hang in there — when times were no so great.”

As I said, the Crescent remains a work in progress. Don’t go expecting the Four Seasons. But Moyer told the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal that Marty Roenigk was “totally oppposed to taking a historic shell and putting a new building inside it. He wanted to freeze a period in history.”

Marty Roenigk was killed in June of last year in an automobile accident in Iowa. Elise Roenigk continues to own the Crescent and the 1905 Basin Park.

While many of his dreams were achieved, much remains to be done. In 2006, the Roenigks announced plans for an $11 million condominium project in the woods adjacent to the hotel. The Crescent Park project was to consist of 38 condos in 19 buildings covering 11 acres. David McKee of Fayetteville, who studied under Fay Jones, was hired as the architect.

“It’s very much in the spirit of Fay Jones and started before Fay Jones passed away,” Moyer said at the time. “He makes a point that you build and develop with quality. That’s part of the sizzle here.”

With the real estate market booming in 2006, it was said that condos ranging from 975 square feet to 1,325 square feet would go for $300,000 to $350,000. Moyer told Arkansas Business in October 2006 that he expected to have most of the condos under contract within six months to a year from the opening of a sales office on Nov. 1, 2006.

The first two buildings, which are nestled in the woods at the back of the hotel parking lot, were built in 2007. Incorporating wood, stone and glass exteriors with multiple balconies, they blend in nicely with the surrounding landscape and can be rented as two-bedroom cottages with rates beginning at $399 a night.

“It will be an intrinsic part of the hotel forever,” Marty Roenigk said in 2006. “It will be a very mixed thing, a hotel suite and a second home. The owner can utilize the condo on weekends or on vacations. Then he has the opportunity to put it back into the hotel rental pool when not using it. The hotel and the owner will split the rent 50-50 so the owner has an income from the property to help meet the mortgage or pay the taxes or whatever.”

As we said earlier, though, it’s just not Eureka Springs without a squabble. The Roenigks wrangled for months with the City Council, the Historic District Commission, the Board of Zoning Adjustment and the Planning Commission. In a compromise announced in March 2007, they eliminated most of the planned roads through the development, established a permanent green space easement next to streets and moved several of the proposed structures. The proposed tree cut was reduced from 27 percent to 18 percent.

“We wanted to do it right,” Marty Roenigk said at the time. “We did everything asked of us. One thing people lose sight of is that this property is zoned for development. If someone else came in and bought this, they could build many more buildings than we are. … We’ve done everything we feel we’re supposed to do. We would prefer not to go to court. The people who oppose it because they think it should remain a vacant lot, I respect their opinion, but it’s impractical.”

The first two buildings were constructed.

Then the bottom fell out of the real estate market.

Then the Great Recession took hold.

Then Marty was killed.

No additional construction has taken place.

But the Crescent Hotel plugs on, ghosts and all.

A Saturday in Branson

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

It was almost 4 p.m. Saturday when we walked into Dick’s Old-Time 5 & 10 on Main Street in Branson, Mo.

As usual, the store was crowded. We could barely move up and down the narrow aisles. By the dozens, tourists pushed their way through the glass doors. It was stuffy inside.

Those who know me will be quick to tell you that I’m not one to go into stores. But I was here to see a friend from my college days, Steve Hartley, whose father began the business half a century ago.

Wedging myself between the tourists, I looked for Steve. He wasn’t there. But I knew he was working on this summer Saturday. Heck, he’s always working.

Finally, I asked an employee: “Is Steve in today?”

“He’s gone to lunch,” the employee replied. “He should be back in the next 30 minutes.”

So Melissa, Evan and I crossed Main Street (our older son, Austin, was back at the Hilton Promenade working out in the fitness room) to have homemade limeades at Mr. B’s.

We returned to Dick’s shortly before 5 p.m., and I still didn’t see Steve. But then I saw his mom, June, hard at work at age 80.

“Welcome to Dick’s,” she said with a smile as people walked in.

Every other year during the 1990s, when the Ouachita Baptist University football team would play Southwest Baptist University in nearby Bolivar, I would spend a weekend with Steve. On a couple of those occasions, I was honored to have Saturday lunch at the home of Dick and June Hartley.

I went over, said hello to Mrs. Hartley and immediately received a big hug. Then, she went to the back room to retrieve Steve, whose day had become even busier than usual when the air conditioner in the building had given out.

Steve and I attended Ouachita at the same time. He was an excellent baseball player, and I covered the team as part of my job as sports editor of Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald. Following college, Steve began a career with Dillard’s Inc. Because he was smart and a hard worker, he quickly rose through the ranks, eventually managing one of the chain’s largest stores in Nashville, Tenn.

I have no doubt that Steve would now be a top executive had he remained with the company.

In 1993, however, he had to make a life-changing decision. Branson was booming, and his father asked him if he would come home to help run the family business. Steve chose at that point to give up his Dillard’s career and has never looked back. He has a closet filled with the suits he wore as a Dillard’s store manager. They’re rarely used. In Branson, the dress is casual. But the hours are long.

The Hartley family was in Branson before Branson was cool. Now an anchor of Main Street in the old downtown section of town, Dick’s has become somewhat of a landmark in a place where so much of what now exists is less than 20 years old.

My father, who was a downtown businessman in Arkadelphia for decades and a salesman at heart, would stop in to say hello to Dick Hartley whenever my parents would visit Branson. That’s because Red Nelson and Dick Hartley were kindred spirits — both born in the 1920s, both veterans, both hard workers who built businesses from scratch. Dick, who died in December 2006 at age 80, was a natural-born retailer.

Dick was born in 1926 in Springfield. He joined the U.S. Army upon graduation from high school and was stationed in Tokyo following the conclusion of World War II. He went to college at Drury in Springfield and graduated with a degree in economics. In 1950, he moved to Chicago to work for the S.S. Kresge Co. (later Kmart), renting a room at a YMCA and learning the five-and-dime business.

In 1956, Dick accepted a management position with TG&Y and moved to Midwest City, Okla. He and June, also a Springfield native, were married in 1959.

“After being transferred to Norman, Okla., Dick developed a desire to own his own five and dime,” says the store’s website at “Dick and June agreed together that they wanted to take on this challenge. The next big decision, ultimately one of the biggest decisions of their lives, was where to locate their business. There was talk of Abilene, Kan., because of an available building with a favorable lease opportunity. There was also talk of the communities surrounding their hometown of Springfield.”

There was, however, something about Branson on the banks of the White River that felt right. That’s where they decided to open their business. At first, Dick and June were the only employees. Dick even built many of the counters used in the store. The folks in Branson said no one could outwork Dick Hartley. It’s an attribute inherited by his son.

In the 1970s, a competitor closed down and Dick Hartley bought the building that now houses the store. On Dec. 9, 2006, he closed the store at 9 p.m., went home and passed away.

Steve had the pleasure of working daily with his father for 13 years. Following his father’s death, my friend began to work even harder. His brother-in-law, Dave Montgomery, joined the thriving business in 2008.

There are more than 50,000 items in stock at the store.

“My father would have a fit if he knew how much inventory I have,” Steve says. “But it’s moving.”

There also are the collections on the walls — the autographed aviation prints, sports memorabilia, arrowheads, train memorabilia and more. Many of the more than 100 aviation prints are autographed by pilots and crew members. There’s the Memphis Belle, the Enola Gray and more.

In the collection of autographed sports prints, one can find Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Dizzy Dean and many others.

The walls are covered.

Unlike most Branson visitors, I do my best to stay off Missouri Highway 76 west of U.S. Highway 65. I hate traffic, and I don’t really have any desire to attend the shows. We made one futile attempt to drive through that area Sunday morning but turned around in the face of bumper-to-bumper traffic. I prefer to remain downtown.

Steve says the $500 million Branson Landing development has helped his business. More than 7,000 cars go up and down Main Street on an average day. People now flock to the development along Lake Taneycomo, which boasts two Hilton hotels, condominiums, more than 20 restaurants, more than 100 specialty shops, a Bass Pro Shop, a Belk’s department store, a marina and the $7.5 million water fountain show that’s synchronized to music with lights and fire.

Partners Rick Huffman, Sam Catanese and Marc Williams of HCW Development Co. are the men behind Branson Landing, which opened in 2006. In December 2008, the development was given a design award by the International Council of Shopping Centers.

As the economy continues to struggle, the overall tourism numbers in Branson are relatively flat. But east of U.S. 65, in the old downtown and at Branson Landing, the crowds are heavy. Steve said business at Dick’s has been good — very good.

If you’re like me and don’t care to fight the traffic on Highway 76 West, stay east of U.S. 65, visit Steve and June at Dick’s and eat at one of the old-style restaurants downtown — the Branson Cafe, the Farmhouse, Clockers or The Shack.

Had he lived, Dick Hartley might have been amazed at the size of the Saturday night crowds that show up these days down the street at Branson Landing. But he wouldn’t have been surprised by the crowds at his store or the work ethic of his son. Like father, like son, no one outworks a Hartley.