SIXTH IN A SERIES
We roll through Highland on our trip east on U.S. Highway 412. We quickly enter Cherokee Village and then Hardy. The three communities are connected.
When the Hardy and Ash Flat school districts consolidated in 1962, they built a new high school between the two cities. The businesses and neighborhoods that sprang up around the school became the city of Highland, which had a population of 1,045 residents in the 2010 census.
“When Sharp County was created in 1868, much of it consisted of heavily forested hillsides,” Steven Teske writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The first official landowners in what would become Highland were Thomas Irvie, who bought his land in 1889, and Thomas J. Harris, who bought his land in 1895. By this time, the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway had been built through Hardy, facilitating shipping of the timber that was being cut in Sharp County and the crops grown on the cleared land. Already the area was being called Highland, presumably because it consists of a ridge between two lower areas.
“A post office was established in Highland in 1878, but it closed in 1901 because the area was so sparsely settled. The settlement’s postmaster, W.W. Hill, served a term as county surveyor and studied the natural features of Sharp County. The early history of the area is also remembered for the residency of the Porter family, who established a Baptist mission in which two-hour sermons were standard fare. … Until the consolidation of the Ash Flat and Hardy schools, few residents could have predicted the emergence of a city at Highland.”
Along with the school, the creation of Cherokee Village as a retirement community changed everything.
“Many restaurants and stores were built in Highland,” Teske writes. “Eventually, the citizens of the community voted to incorporate as a second-class city in 1998. On Feb. 5, 2008, a tornado tore through Sharp County, devastating Highland and other nearby communities. Although no lives were lost, many homes and businesses were destroyed. Some were rebuilt, but difficult economic times prevented complete recovery.”
Nearby Hardy, which had 772 residents in the 2010 census, is a much older city than either Highland or Cherokee Village.
Hardy was established in 1883 when the railroad came through this part of the Ozarks. The accessibility provided by the trains helped make the area a tourist destination.
In 1867, the Arkansas Legislature voted to pay companies $10,000 for every mile of railroad track they laid. That incentive created a boom in railroad construction.
“Named for railroad contractor James Hardy of Batesville, the town was developed on 600 acres by early settler Walker Clayton to serve the needs of travelers,” writes historian Wayne Dowdy of Memphis. “Clayton also donated the land for what’s now called the Hardy Cemetery Historic Section. Residents wanted to name the town Forty Islands after a nearby creek, but the U.S. Post Office insisted on Hardy because that designation was used to deliver mail to railroad workers in the area. This was not the last time an outsider influenced the direction of Hardy’s development.
“When Hardy was incorporated, it was far removed from the county seat in Evening Shade. Feeling isolated from their government, Hardy residents asked the General Assembly to come up with a solution to the problems of distance and poor roads. In 1894, the state divided Sharp County into two sections with Hardy named county seat of the Northern District. A court was established along with other government offices, which increased Hardy’s population to 347 people by 1900. As the 20th century progressed, better roads made the dual county seat structure unnecessary. Ash Flat was designated the county seat in 1963.”
A Memphis doctor named George Gillespie Buford was stranded along with his wife in Hardy in 1908 due to train problems.
“The couple climbed Wahpeton Hill on the south bank of the Spring River and was charmed by the area’s natural beauty,” Dowdy writes. “The following year, the Bufords purchased 50 acres on Wahpeton and built a summer cottage. During the next few years, Buford expanded his land holdings by purchasing the nearby Jordan and East Wahpeton hills. In 1912, the Memphis physician constructed 10 cottages for summer visitors on his newly acquired property, which he named Wahpeton Inn.”
Others from the Delta also viewed the area as a nice escape from the heat and mosquitoes in the lowlands during the summer.
L.L. Ward of Blytheville opened a resort known as Rio Vista in 1932. The Girl Scouts of Memphis established Camp Kiwani in 1922. The YWCA of Memphis built Miramichee in 1916. And the Boy Scouts of Memphis built Kia Kima in 1916.
“In addition to the railroad, bus service connected Hardy to the rest of the world,” Dowdy writes. “By 1930, the town had 508 permanent residents. The visitor population swelled to 1,000 per day between July and September. The tourism boom spawned by Wahpeton, Rio Vista and the summer camps led to economic growth. Two blocks of Main Street were filled with businesses, including a bank, two cafes, two drugstores, a Ford automobile dealership and a grocery.
“Town leaders — most notably drugstore owner William Johnston — tirelessly promoted Hardy as a place where city dwellers could find relaxation. In an interview with a Memphis Press-Scimitar reporter, Johnston boasted that Hardy had the ‘finest fishing in the world.’ Although most residents welcomed tourists, some townspeople found it difficult to adjust as the average population increased by thousands during the summer months. In 1935, cafe owner Tennie Meeker said: ‘You take a big trainload of people and dump them down suddenly in a small town like Hardy, and it nearly works everybody to death.'”
Later in the 20th century, tourists arrived in the Hardy area via automobile rather than train.
“Resting near the intersection of national highways 62 and 63, Hardy was easily accessible for those who traveled by car,” Dowdy writes. “When large-scale federal highway construction began in the 1950s, the tourism population shifted from long-term visitors to those looking for a weekend getaway. Recognizing this trend, the Wahpeton resort individually sold its cottages in 1953. The established tourism industry in Hardy was augmented with the construction of retirement homes by West Memphis developer John Cooper. The founding of Cherokee Village increased tourism to the Ozark foothills, and within a decade, the Hardy area was recognized as an important retirement center.
“In 1968, the Arkansaw Traveller Folk Theater was established in Hardy to preserve the culture of the Ozarks. When the railroad depot closed in the 1970s, some Main Street businesses relocated. This relocation accelerated when the Spring River flooded in December 1982. In their place, shops specializing in antiques and crafts were opened, which, along with the draw of the Ozarks’ natural beauty, has helped Hardy remain a popular tourist destination.”
Cooper had purchased 400 acres along the south bank of the Spring River near the mouth of Otter Creek in 1948. What became known as the Otter Creek Ranch was a place to entertain friends and family members.
“After purchasing additional land, Cooper formed the Cherokee Village Development Co. in 1953, divided the property into lots and constructed individual homes,” Dowdy writes. “When the property was formally opened in June 1955, Gov. Orval Faubus declared it to be ‘the coming Mecca of the Ozarks.’ By 1961, retirees from across the United States had relocated to the Spring River area, transforming Cherokee Village into a popular retirement center. Cooper’s development company opened Bella Vista in northwest Arkansas in 1967 and three years later opened Hot Springs Village. The introduction of these three communities established Arkansas as one of the most important retirement destinations in the United States. In addition to homes, the Cherokee Village Development Co. added two golf courses, seven lakes, three recreation centers, 350 miles of roads and a water system for its residents.”
In 1964, Cooper offered the Boy Scouts a larger tract of land on the South Fork of the Spring River in exchange for the land housing Kia Kima. Following negotiations, Cooper agreed to construct buildings for the Boy Scouts on the new property.
“The Kia Kima trade and other land purchases expanded Cherokee Village to 13,500 acres by 1980,” Dowdy writes. “When Cherokee Village was established, no provisions had been made for residents to share the costs of maintaining the roads and recreational facilities operated by the development corporation. Not wanting to fund these services exclusively, the corporation’s board of directors suggested the creation of a suburban improvement district in 1968. … About 1,100 property owners petitioned the circuit court for permission to establish the district, but not all Cherokee Village residents approved of the plan.”
Following court challenges, the Cherokee Village Suburban Improvement District was formed and a three-person board of commissioners was chosen to oversee it in 1975. The city of Cherokee Village was established in the late 1990s.
“In addition to a mayor and city council, a police force was created and a district court established,” Dowdy writes. “Although the improvement district remained a vital entity, the city of Cherokee Village took over some of its duties. For example, the city assumed responsibility for street maintenance in 2003.”
A few weeks after passing through Cherokee Village on the Highway 412 trek, I was back for the first Arkansas Pie Festival.
More than 700 people bought tickets to the festival on the day before Easter. The weather couldn’t have been better, and that helped. This obviously was an idea whose time had come. Not only did the festival bring people to the Cherokee Village town center to spend part of the day, it also attracted statewide media attention to a retirement community that many people had thought was past its prime.
Bella Vista has benefited from being part of the booming northwest Arkansas region. Hot Springs Village has benefited from its proximity to Hot Springs and Little Rock. The more rural retirement communities such as Cherokee Village — along with nearby Horseshoe Bend in Izard County, Holiday Island near Eureka Springs and Fairfield Bay on Greers Ferry Lake — have had a much tougher time redefining themselves in an era when retirees want to be close to major hospitals and cultural amenities.
Fortunately for this area of the state, there’s a group of talented young people determined to craft a future for a beautiful but isolated region.
One of them is Graycen Bigger, the executive director of the Spring River Innovation Hub. Bigger has worked in the arts and education sectors as a lecturer and researcher. She became what’s known as the director of placemaking for Cherokee Village, working to use the arts to spur economic development and improve the quality of life for residents of Sharp, Fulton and Izard counties.
Bigger has a master’s degree in art business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York and wants to help artisans throughout the Ozarks earn a living. She says her efforts are about “supporting small businesses, entrepreneurship, innovation and creative ideas. Part of that is thinking of the next generation.”
Proceeds from the Arkansas Pie Festival will go to science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (commonly known as STEAM) programs sponsored by the innovation hub.
Another of the people behind efforts to revitalize this part of the state is Jonathan Rhodes, whose father Ron has been involved in real estate development at Cherokee Village for 48 years. Ron Rhodes grew up at Corning and first came to this area on dirt roads to attend Boy Scout camp.
“My parents settled in Cherokee Village and raised their family here,” Jonathan Rhodes says. “This is home. … It’s our privilege to carry on what John Cooper started here more than 60 years ago.”
Rhodes graduated from Hendrix College at Conway in 1998. He worked for U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Washington for seven years and earned a master’s degree in urban and environmental planning from the University of Virginia in 2003. He later joined the United Nations World Food Program. Rhodes worked in its Rome headquarters and in Sudan on a two-year assignment.
In 2012, Rhodes moved back to Cherokee Village to join the family real estate and property management business. He also put his master’s degree to work as the director of community development for Cherokee Village.
In 2017, Rhodes, Bigger and others came up with the idea of the Spring River Innovation Hub. They received a grant from the Delta Regional Authority and launched a small business incubator in Cherokee Village last year. The organization’s mission statement notes that it will provide a “creative culture of innovation and entrepreneurship through an inclusive, collaborative network of diverse resources and opportunities.”
An unused portion of Cherokee Village’s town center was transformed into a co-working space.
Rhodes and Bigger hope the hub eventually will be viewed as a pacesetter for rural development in the South. There are professional development opportunities, networking events, business counseling, mentorships, community programs, high-speed Internet, video-conferencing capabilities and more.
Just as John Cooper was an innovator in the 20th century, Rhodes and Bigger want to be innovators for the 21st century by creating a model that struggling rural communities across the region can emulate.
In an era when most parts of rural Arkansas are losing population, it certainly beats wringing one’s hands and reminiscing about the good old days.