FIFTH IN A SERIES
In addition to being one of the best places in the country to experience the music and crafts of the Southern mountains, Stone County also became a hub for those who enjoy the outdoors thanks to the development of trout fishing in the White River (documented earlier in this series) and the opening to the public of Blanchard Springs Caverns by the U.S. Forest Service.
Near Mountain View, resorts such as Jack’s and Anglers serve those who come for trout.
Blanchard Springs, meanwhile, is about 15 miles northwest of Mountain View.
“The spring that formed the cavern emerges from the mountainside in a waterfall and flows into a pond called Mirror Lake,” writes Arkansas historian Nancy Hendricks. “The spring was named for John H. Blanchard, who left his family’s plantation in Kentucky and fought for the Confederacy, enlisting in the Kentucky Volunteers in 1861. Following bitter conflict at such battles as Chickamauga, where he was wounded, Blanchard sought peace after the war ended by homesteading 160 acres in the tranquil Ozarks. There he built a gristmill powered by the falling spring that now bears his name. Blanchard was also elected to two terms as Stone County treasurer.
“Though there is graffiti in the cave saying ‘John 1922,’ it was not John Blanchard since he died in 1914 at age 74. Local residents were aware of the cave in the 1930s, but the only entrances were a sheer 75-foot drop and underwater through the spring as it exited. Exploration was delayed until more modern technology and equipment could be developed.”
Civilian Conservation Corps planner Willard Hadley began visiting the cave in 1934.
“Amateur spelunkers in 1955 found a human cranium, footprints and other signs of exploration by Native Americans,” Hendricks writes. “Cane and wooden torch remains underwent radiocarbon dating and indicated that prehistoric human exploration of the cave occurred at least during AD 215-1155. The first professional exploration was in 1960 by Hugh Shell and Hail Bryant. In 1971, scuba divers entered through the spring entrance and followed its course. The divers followed 4,000 feet of underwater passages and also mapped five caverns filled with air but inaccessible at that time. They photographed the awesome cave formations and noted forms of cave life. They estimated that it takes about 24 hours for water to flow through the cave, a journey of less than a mile.”
Following almost a decade of planning and development, what’s known as the Dripstone Tour was opened to the public in 1973. The longer Discovery Tour was opened to the public in 1977.
“Blanchard Springs Caverns was almost recruited by the federal government as a fallout shelter during the Cold War, though the plan was abandoned,” Hendricks writes.
We head south out of Mountain View on Arkansas Highway 5 and soon find ourselves in Cleburne County. Tourism has had an even more dramatic effect on Cleburne County than on Stone County. By 1960, the county’s population had dropped to 9,059, lower than it was in 1900. It had almost tripled to 25,970 by the 2010 census.
Cleburne County was the last of Arkansas’ 75 counties to be formed.
“In August 1881, Max Frauenthal of Conway bought from John T. Jones of Helena a 40-acre tract, including several mineral springs, in a valley near the Little Red River,” Evalena Berry writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “A few weeks later, Frauenthal organized the Sugar Loaf Springs Land Co. and sold shares to 10 businessmen. The land company’s purpose was to build a town, Sugar Loaf Springs (later to be known as Heber Springs). Frauenthal was elected president of the land company, and Wesley Watkins was secretary. Lots were sold, houses erected and businesses established. The town began to grow.
“Because travel by horse and wagon to Clinton, the Van Buren County seat, was slow and inconvenient, area residents wanted to establish their own county government. Officers of the land company bonded themselves to pay $6,000 to build a courthouse and a county jail on condition that the county seat be located permanently at Sugar Loaf. It had been 10 years since a county had been formed in Arkansas, but a bill was introduced in the Legislature on Jan. 27, 1883, by Sen. Zachariah Bradford Jennings of Van Buren County. The bill passed, and the new county was formed from parts of Independence, Van Buren and White counties with Sugar Loaf as the county seat. The county was named for Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne, who had a brilliant military career before his death during the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee in 1864. He was memorialized at the request of men who fought under his leadership. In its first quarter of a century, Cleburne County lay quietly hidden among the hills.”
Things began to change in 1908 with construction of the Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad.
“Tourists flocked to the picturesque town of Heber Springs to drink water from the mineral springs,” Berry writes. “Doctors from the mosquito-ridden lowlands of southeast Arkansas sent their patients to drink the waters for their curative powers.”
The U.S. government had granted a land patent in 1835 to John Magness for a 40-acre tract that now includes Spring Park and its seven mineral springs. Magness sold the land in 1837 for $150 to Richard B. Lee, R.D.C Collins, William McKim and John T. Jones.
“Efforts were made by Jones and his partners to develop a place similar to Eureka Springs or Hot Springs,” Berry writes. “Jones took a proposal to the Legislature in 1837, and the following year, that body approved an act to incorporate the White Sulphur Springs Co. ‘for the purpose of making it a healthy resort for the citizens of Arkansas.’ The sulphur water didn’t attract tourists for bathing, but after the town was incorporated, the springs became known for their medicinal qualities.”
An 1886 booklet titled ‘The Famous Health Resort of Heber Springs and Cleburne County, stated: “The sulphur springs are a cure for dyspepsia, headache, biliousness and hundreds of other ailments.”
Infighting among the partners led to a judge ordering the land to be sold at auction in March 1851. No bids were received. The judge ordered a second auction in September of that year, and Jones bought the entire tract for $189.
“Jones held the tract undeveloped and unused for 30 years, during which time he acquired an additional 50 acres west of the original tract,” Berry writes.
Frauenthal, a Bavarian native, had the area surveyed and plotted.
“When the town applied for a post office, the U.S. Postal Service rejected the name Sugar Loaf Springs,” Berry writes. “The town fathers then agreed on the name Heber, honoring Dr. Heber Jones of Memphis, son of Judge John T. Jones, the early owner of the site. From 1882 until 1910, the post office was called Heber, and the town was called Sugar Loaf. At that time, in an effort to attract visitors to the springs, the names of both the post office and the town were changed to Heber Springs.”
Passengers were arriving via the Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad by late 1908.
“Tourists flocked to Sugar Loaf Springs and filled the 11 rooming houses and hotels that were built to serve them,” Berry writes. “Doctors sent patients to Heber Springs to drink the mineral water for relief from nervous disorders and stomach ailments. Main Street thrived with a movie house, an open-air skating rink, an ice cream parlor, a bowling alley and other diversions. Fishing and picnics on the Little Red River were popular among residents and summer visitors.”
My grandfather in Des Arc was among those the doctors sent to Heber Springs to drink the water. My mother, who was born in 1925, had memories of going to visit him there on Sundays as a child when he spent several months in one of the rooming houses.
Tourism declined during the Great Depression, and Cleburne County again needed a boost. That boost came in the form of Greers Ferry Dam.
Soon after passage of the Flood Control Act of 1938, engineers began to survey not only the White River but also its tributaries such as the Little Red River. The completion of Norfork Dam in Arkansas on the North Fork River was followed by the construction of Bull Shoals Dam in Arkansas and Table Rock Dam in Missouri along the White River. In 1960, construction began on Beaver Dam in Arkansas on the White River and Greers Ferry Dam on the Little Red River.
Greers Ferry was named after a ferry that had operated on the river.
Work was completed in 1962, and President John F. Kennedy dedicated the dam on Oct. 3, 1963. It was one of his final major trips before his assassination the following month in Dallas.
“The dam measures 1,704 feet in length and stands 243 feet above the Little Red,” Zackery Cothren writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “It cost $46.5 million and created a reservoir of between 30,000 and 40,000 acres in Cleburne and Van Buren counties. Construction of the dam required the relocation of families living on the bottomland along the river. Upon the dam’s completion, a number of communities were submerged, including Miller, Higden, Shiloh and Edgemont. While there were many who were opposed to the construction of the dam, no citizen protest had ever halted plans for a Corps of Engineers reservoir. Most viewed opposition as futile.
“Despite the inundation of the majority of the county’s most productive farmland, the positive economic impact of the dam and lake was immediate. … Popular tourist destinations associated with the lake include the William Carl Garner Visitor Center, 18 recreational areas and three nature trails. The Greers Ferry National Fish Hatchery, located below the dam, is another popular destination. The hatchery, operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, primarily raises rainbow trout.”
The area also was helped by the investment of one of the state’s business titans, Herbert L. Thomas Sr.
Thomas had been born in February 1899 in rural Ashley County in far south Arkansas. Early in life, he became convinced that the insurance industry was a sector of the economy that could withstand downturns. He formed the Mutual Assessment Co. in 1923. By 1925, there were more than 10,000 policyholders. Many of them were rural Arkansans.
Thomas later incorporated the First Pyramid Life Insurance Co. of America and set up shop in the Southern Trust Building in downtown Little Rock. He purchased the structure in 1937 and renamed it the Pyramid Life Building. That building still stands in downtown Little Rock and is known as Pyramid Place.
“Conscious of the importance of education for financial growth, Thomas served on the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees from 1943-51,” writes Arkansas historian Rachel Patton. “He was instrumental in the admission of the first black student to the University of Arkansas School of Law in 1948 (Silas Hunt). Thomas was also involved in banking. He acquired City National Bank of Fort Smith in the mid-1950s as well as Citizens Bank of Booneville in 1963.
“Although he never ran for political office, Thomas was heavily involved in politics. He had a close relationship with Sen. J. William Fulbright and headed his initial Senate campaign after convincing Fulbright to run for an office higher than Arkansas’ governorship. Furthermore, Thomas figured prominently in Kennedy’s 1963 visit to Heber Springs.”
Thomas and his wife Ruby had fallen in love with the Greers Ferry area. In 1961, Thomas purchased 500 acres near Heber Springs for a development that would become known as Eden Isle. His political connections paid off.
Patton writes: “People had been buying up large chunks of bottomland in hopes that they could sell it to the government at a profit or end up with lakefront property after the completion of a dam. After so many years, most individuals gave up on those notions and sold out. For those wanting lakefront property, it was a gamble to buy land around the proposed dam site because no one knew exactly where the lake would be or what the water level would be … until Herbert Thomas came along.
“Thomas knew Rep. Wilbur D. Mills and Sens. John L. McClellan and J. William Fulbright and was able to find out the location of the lake and its water level. He knew which land to purchase and when to purchase it. Thomas bought property historically owned by the Estes family and known as Estes Hill. It was also the first location of the Heber Springs airport so some people referred to it as the ‘old airport.'”
Islands in Corps of Engineers’ lakes cannot be privately owned. Knowing this, Thomas built a causeway that would be above lake level so what would become Eden Isle couldn’t be classified by the federal government as an island. Thomas also had to build the causeway before the lake was filled. Once the lake was filled, 400 of Thomas’ 500 acres were above water. Thomas began selling lots for homes and started construction on what he hoped would be the finest vacation destination in the state, the Red Apple Inn. The lodge and restaurant opened for business in 1963, burned in 1964 following a kitchen fire and reopened in 1965.
The Red Apple Inn fell into disrepair under the ownership of Melvyn Bell, who was millions of dollars in debt prior to his death at age 68 in July 2006 following a lengthy battle with cancer.
Along came Dick Upton and his wife Patti, the founder of Aromatique, the well-known manufacturer of home fragrance products. The Uptons spent $4.2 million in 1995 to buy the Red Apple Inn and then had to spend millions more on improvements to the facility. Within a few years, they had returned the Red Apple to its status as one of the premier resorts in the region.
Thomas had been a perfectionist when it came to Eden Isle.
“Planning and construction restrictions were to be enforced by a community corporation so that homes would blend into the landscape,” Patton wrote. “Houses were supposed to be relatively small and employ native stone, wood and glass construction with a tile roof. First Pyramid provided an architect and maintained a full-time engineer and construction force. The developers also hired full-time landscape architects to ensure that native trees and plants were protected and that yards were attractive yet low maintenance for individual landowners.
“Herbert and Ruby were very involved in the actual construction of homes and management of the restaurant at the Red Apple Inn. The Red Apple consistently enjoyed high national ratings for food, lodging and service. People knew the area because of the Red Apple Inn, not because of Greers Ferry Lake or Heber Springs. In 1978, the Red Apple executive conference center opened in a new addition to the Red Apple Inn and accommodated groups of up to 120 people.”
Thomas resigned as the First Pyramid chairman in 1980 and focused entirely on the development of Eden Isle during the final two years of his life. He was 83 when he died in March 1982.
Below the dam, the cold waters of the Little Red River became one of the South’s top trout fishing areas, attracting visitors from across the country. People no longer come to Heber Springs because their doctors sent them there to take the waters, though Spring Park in the center of town remains a nice place for a picnic. There are other reminders of when the town was a health spa.
“Heber Springs is one of the locations in the state where Depression-era post office art can be viewed,” Berry writes. “The Cleburne County Courthouse, built in 1914, is on the National Register of Historic Places, as is the Mike Disfarmer gravesite, the burial location of the well-known portrait photographer. The Women’s Community Club Band Shell, built in 1933, is also a landmark.”