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Herbert L. Thomas Sr. and the Red Apple Inn

Earlier this week, I found myself doing research on the history of Arkansas Capital Corp., which originally was known as First Arkansas Development Finance Corp. when it was formed in 1957 by some of the state’s top business leaders.

The company was created to provide a mechanism for financing the state’s transition from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy. The necessary enabling legislation to allow state funds to be invested in the private corporation was approved during the 1957 legislative session.

The business titans involved in forming the corporation included men such as Raymond Rebsamen, James Penick Sr., Harvey Couch Jr. and J.V. Satterfield.

The first chairman was Herbert Leon Thomas Sr., who had been born Feb. 14, 1899, in rural Ashley County in far south Arkansas. Early in life, Thomas became convinced that the insurance industry could withstand economic downturns. He formed the Mutual Assessment Co. in 1923. By 1925, there were more than 10,000 policyholders. Many of those policyholders were residents of rural Arkansas.

Thomas later incorporated the First Pyramid Life Insurance Co. of America and set up shop in the Southern Trust Building. 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 even though the company moved to a facility in west Little Rock in 1980.

Rachel Silva of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program wrote this about Herbert Thomas: “In addition to his work at First Pyramid, Herbert Thomas wore several other hats. Thomas was chairman of the Little Rock Municipal Water Commission from 1937-40 and chairman of the state Highway Audit Commission from 1951-53. He chaired the senior advisory committee of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and while in this position helped form First Arkansas Development Finance Corp., a nonprofit charged with financing industrial expansion in Arkansas. While serving on the advisory council for the Small Business Administration, Thomas appeared before the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking and Currency to promote passage of the Small Business Investment Act of 1958.

“Conscious of the importance of education for financial growth, Thomas served on the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees from 1943-51. He was instrumental in the admission of the first black student to the University of Arkansas School of Law in 1948 (Silas H. 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 himself, Thomas was heavily involved in politics. He had a close relationship with 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 President Kennedy’s 1963 visit to Heber Springs for the dedication of Greers Ferry Dam.”

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.

Thomas’ political connections paid off, according to Silva.

“The plans for Greers Ferry Dam had been in the works for years before the structure was built,” she wrote. “After the Flood Control Act was passed in 1938, engineers started surveying for the proposed dam. But the dam wasn’t actually completed until 1962. In the meantime, people had been buying up large chunks of bottomand 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 these 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 U.S. Army 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 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 initiated 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.

I have fond memories of going with my parents to the Red Apple Inn for meals as a child. My father would have his bird dogs trained by a Mr. Lester at Rose Bud. We would drop off a dog at Rose Bud and then head up the road to eat in the restaurant at the Red Apple Inn.

I married Melissa and moved back to Arkansas from Washington, D.C., in late 1989. During those first few years of marriage, with no kids to worry about, I would take Melissa to favorite spots around Arkansas on weekends.

In October 1991, we headed to the Red Apple Inn for our second anniversary. I raved about the beauty of the place on the drive to Heber Springs. Unfortunately, it was not a good experience. The door to the room was jammed, the commode was broken and there were numerous other problems.

As it turned out, the Red Apple Inn had earlier been purchased by Melvyn Bell, who made his early fortune with Enviornmental Systems Co. Bell, however, expanded his real estate holdings far too quickly and fell millions of dollars into debt. In the process, his properties fell into disrepair. The once grand Red Apple Inn was among those sad stories of decay.

Bell died at age 68 in July 2006 following a long battle with cancer.

Along came Dick Upton of Heber Springs 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 had to spend millions more on improvements to the facility, which by then even had a leaky roof. They didn’t buy the nearby marina on Greers Ferry Lake.

“I had so much money invested in the Red Apple Inn, I might have been in the middle of a divorce if I had invested any more than I already had invested,” Dick Upton once said in a deposition for a lawsuit involving the marina.

Herbert Thomas, who died in March 1982 at age 83, likely would be proud that the Uptons were able to bring his beloved Red Apple Inn back to life.

Thomas was 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,” Silva 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 homeowners.

“Herbert and his wife, Ruby, were very involved in the actual construction of homes and management of the restaurant at the Red Apple Inn. The Red Apple Inn 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. His home on Eden Isle, known as Northwinds, still stands.

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