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Golfing on Crowley’s Ridge

The state Department of Parks and Tourism reopened the golf course at Village Creek State Park near Wynne earlier this month, providing a destination sure to attract visitors from the nearby Memphis metropolitan area and elsewhere.

The Ridges at Village Creek, a 27-hole public facility, covers about 470 acres within the 6,906-acre state park. The story of how we reached this point is a long, convoluted one.

In 1967, the Arkansas Legislature authorized a study to determine the need for a major state park in eastern Arkansas. Land acquisition for what’s now Village Creek State Park began in 1972 and continued until 1978. The park took in a particularly scenic part of Crowley’s Ridge and was easy to access from both Wynne and Forrest City. It is the second largest of the 52 state parks.

The park was dedicated on June 27, 1976, as Charlie Rich (a native of nearby Colt) entertained a crowd of almost 20,000 people.

“While Village Creek State Park, named for a stream that flows through the area, is classified as a natural state park, it also preserves part of the rich history of the region,” according to the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Early settlers named the area Old Cherokee Village, though there is little evidence of Cherokee occupation outside scattered camp remnants.

“A section of the 1820s Military Road that once linked Memphis to Little Rock is still visible in the park. Once called the Memphis to Little Rock Road, it became a major route of Indian removal for the Creek, Chickasaw and Cherokee between 1832 and 1839.

“In addition, part of William Strong’s Delta empire is preserved at Village Creek. The park contains part of Strong’s original Spanish land grants. He built his 20-room mansion within view of Crowley’s Ridge near the Military Road on land just east of the park boundary. Strong became one of the largest landowners and leading politicians in the region between 1820 and 1840. He became the first postmaster along the Military Road and served as county sheriff. He was a delegate to the Arkansas Constitutional Convention in 1836, the year of the state’s admission into the Union, and was a delegate to the Arkansas General Assembly in 1840. Strong was instrumental in bringing the Military Road to the area, thus ensuring that its population would grow.”

Initial development at Village Creek State Park in the 1970s included a vistors’ center and limited camping. Two lakes later were added. Lake Dunn was named after Poindexter Dunn, who organized the first company from St. Francis County in the Civil War and later represented the district in Congress for five terms. Lake Austell was named after Samuel Austell, the first county judge of Cross County.

Later additions to the park included picnic areas, more campgrounds, hiking trails, tennis and basketball courts, rental cabins, a special events room, a gift shop, a museum and horse trails and stables.

In January 2006, a company known as Village Creek Resort LLC entered into a partnership with the state to design, develop and operate a golf resort in the park. The state funded construction of a golf course through a $7 million loan from the Arkansas Development Finance Authority. The private company was expected to contribute $8 million.

The course was designed by Andy Dye’s company. Andy Dye’s grandfather, Paul Dye Sr., began designing courses in 1923. Andy’s father, Roy Dye, was also a noted designer.

The first nine holes at Village Creek opened for play in November 2008 just as the Great Recession fully took hold.

“He passed it on to me, and now I’ve passed it on to my sons,” Andy Dye says of his father’s passion for designing golf courses. “That’s four generations of passion for the game. Growing up, golf course design conversation was more common than breakfast.”

Andy Dye’s uncle, Pete Dye, is the most famous member of the Dye clan. After Pete Dye’s father built a nine-hole course on the family farm in Urbana, Ohio, Pete Dye grew up playing and working on the course. He won the Ohio high school championship and later left the life insurance business in Indiana to devote his time to designing and building golf courses.

Roy Dye was Pete’s younger brother. He graduated with a chemical engineering degree from Yale University. In 1969, after 20 years as a chemical engineer, Roy joined Pete in practicing golf course design. He adopted a Scottish style of golf architecture with deep pot bunkers, rolling fairways and undersized greens.

Andy is the oldest of Roy and Ann Dye’s eight children.

Almost 20 of the world’s top 100 golf courses are Dye family designs.

Back on Crowley’s Ridge, Village Creek Resort LLC defaulted on its loans. Through the loan foreclosure process, a bank acquired the leasehold interest in the planned golf resort in Feburary 2010. The state purchased the bank’s acquisitions and assumed management of the entire operation in June 2010.

It quickly was determined that it would be necessary to close the course for repairs and upgrades. The goal was to make the Ridges at Village Creek one of the best public courses in the state and get it on the Natural State Golf Trail.

Extensive enhancement work was done on the course. A mobile home serves as a temporary clubhouse until a permanent clubhouse can be built. The new clubhouse will cover 4,591 square feet and include a pro shop, offices, restrooms with dressing areas, a vending room, a dining room, a private meeting room and an outdoor terrace.

The state also plans to construct a restroom on the west nine and a golf cart storage facility that will house up to 72 carts. The clubhouse, cart storage facility and restrooms on the course should be completed by late summer 2013.

Hopefully, the state one day will move forward with its initial plans to build a lodge so golfers from the Memphis metro area, the Little Rock metro area and elsewhere can stay for several days adjacent to the course.

The renovated course should allow more people than ever to enjoy the charms of Crowley’s Ridge, which ranges in width from one to 12 miles and extends from southern Missouri to near Helena. Other state parks along or near Crowley’s Ridge include Crowley’s Ridge State Park in Greene County (which occupies the former homestead of Benjamin Crowley), Lake Poinsett State Park and Lake Frierson State Park.

Benjamin Crowley was the first European settler to reach what’s now Greene County in the 1820s. He had selected the site for his plantation home because of a spring that provided drinking water. Crowley was a veteran of the War of 1812 and strongly supported the 1833 creation of Greene County. He died in 1842 at age 84, and his gravesite is within Crowley’s Ridge State Park.

Neighbors named the 200-mile stretch of rolling hills “Crowley’s Ridge” as a way of honoring him. The rare geologic formation has served as a recreational retreat for those from the adjoining Delta for more than a century.

Because of the spring that provided fresh water and the many trees that provided shade, Crowley’s homestead became a traditional summer campground and gathering spot. Belle Hodges Wall, the secretary of the Paragould Chamber of Commerce, led the campaign to make Crowley’s Ridge the state’s fourth state park in July 1933.

In October 1933, Civilian Conservation Corps workers arrived. Most of them were young men from northern Missouri. A detachment of more than 200 workers built trails, bridges, cabins, picnic sites, campgrounds, roads, a bathhouse and a 300-foot earthen dam that formed a small lake. The CCC facilities were dedicated in June 1937.

In 1992, four CCC structures in the park were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“One of the unique features of Crowley’s Ridge is its natural vegetation,” Hubert Stroud writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Interestingly, many of the trees that make up the forest on Crowley’s Ridge are similar to those found in the western Appalachian Mountains. The ridge is covered with a lush mixed forest, including oak, hickory and uncommon hardwood trees such as American beech, sugar maple and the yellow poplar.

“Crowley’s Ridge also has areas of pasture. Although the soil is relatively fertile, row crops such as soybeans and wheat are limited almost entirely to small floodplains along and near streams that flow out of the region onto the alluvial plain. This is due to the highly erosive nature of the wind-blown soils of Crowley’s Ridge. These soils need a protective vegetative cover of some type such as pasture grasses or forests to combat severe soil erosion.”

Crowley’s Ridge Parkway, the state’s first National Scenic Byway, merges six U.S. highways, nine state highways and even 11.5 miles through the St. Francis National Forest. The parkway stretches 198 miles over more than 500,000 acres. Crowley’s Ridge Parkway is one of  more than 125 scenic byways (the other two in Arkansas are the Great River Road and Talimena Scenic Byway) designated by the National Scenic Byways Program.

Now, you can add a first-class golf course to Crowley’s Ridge’s other attractions.

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