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JFK and the Greers Ferry water garden

Raised by his grandparents, Jerry Holmes grew up in rural Cleburne County, just north of Quitman.

It’s a scenic part of our state, and quite a draw for visitors from Memphis and Little Rock since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a dam on the Little Red River and created Greers Ferry Lake.

Discussions in Washington about building a series of dams along the White River and Little Red River for flood-control purposes began after the Great Flood of 1927. A year after another huge flood in 1937, Congress passed the Flood Control Act and began to move forward with plans for dams along tributaries of the Mississippi River.

American involvement in World War II delayed work on those dams.

In 1960 — following nine years of extensive planning — the first concrete was poured for Greers Ferry Dam on the Little Red River near Heber Springs. The dam contains 856,000 cubic yards of concrete and weighs 3.4668 billion pounds.

Two men lost their lives working on the project. Ed Phillips died on April 4, 1960, and Bill Killian was killed on March 10, 1961.

On Oct. 3, 1963, President John F. Kennedy came to Cleburne County for the dedication of Greers Ferry Dam.

Holmes was a young boy then and was probably not thinking much about the impact the project would have on the area where he lived.

Consider these facts: Cleburne County saw its population increase from 9,059 in 1960 to 10,349 in 1970; 16,909 in 1980; 19,411 in 1990; 24,046 in 2000 and 25,970 in 2010.

Heber Springs, the county seat, saw its population increase from 2,265 in 1960 to 7,165 in 2010.

Holmes, who owns a cattle ranch and a cattle auction operation, has started six businesses through the years. He realizes the importance of tourism to the Cleburne County economy. He was the county sheriff from 1985-91 and is in his first term as county judge.

Several months ago, Holmes put together a working group to discuss how to increase tourism in the region. Though Greers Ferry remains popular, Holmes says the summer weekend crowds aren’t as big as they once were. Greers Ferry, it seems, has lost a bit of its cachet among the Memphis crowd.

It was during one of the working group sessions that Billy Lindsey mentioned to Holmes that there had once been a plan for an ornate water garden on federal land just below Greers Ferry Dam.

In fact, Lindsey had color drawings from the 1960s of the proposed water garden. They had been under the front seat of his truck for years. He gave them to Holmes.

Lindsey, as you might know, is a legend in the world of Arkansas tourism. In the spring of 1965, Lindsey moved with his parents from Orange, Texas, to Heber Springs. His parents knew there were plans to stock trout in the cold water below Greers Ferry Dam, and they decided to build a trout fishing resort. Their initial land purchase was just more than eight acres. The resort now encompasses 62 acres.

“My dad had a vision,” Billy Lindsey told the Three Rivers edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2010. “He could stand on that hill and see what’s here today. Mom was questioning his sanity. We had a trout dock and a couple of cabins. We went two years with a trout-fishing business with no trout.

“Dad and Jim Collins, a trout biologist for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, went to the Spring River to harvest moss. They brought it home in a flatbed truck and sprigged it up and down the river like sprig grass in a yard.”

The needed aquatic vegetation took hold, and the river was fully stocked with trout in 1967. A state record rainbow trout was caught the next year, and business began to take off.

That bit of history takes us to the man whose idea it was to build a water garden, the late Herbert L. Thomas Sr. I’ve written about Thomas on this blog before. He was among the top Arkansas business leaders of the 20th century.

Born in rural Ashley County in 1899, Thomas had started an insurance company by the age of 24. Within a year, there were more than 10,000 policyholders, many of whom lived in rural Arkansas.

Thomas later incorporated the First Pyramid Life Insurance Co. of America and set up shop in 1937 in the Southern Trust Building in downtown Little Rock. He renamed it the Pyramid Life Building. The building is now known as Pyramid Place.

Thomas and his wife Ruby loved to travel to Europe and had become entranced by the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, Italy. The elaborate water gardens there had been built by monks in the 1500s. In addition to loving Europe, Herbert and Ruby Thomas loved the Ozark foothills near Heber Springs.

With plans for Greers Ferry moving forward, Thomas decided to build a resort and a housing development unlike anything Arkansas had seen before.

The resort would become the Red Apple Inn.

The housing development would become Eden Isle.

In 1961, two years before the dam was dedicated, Thomas purchased 500 acres. No one was supposed to know exactly what the water level of the lake would be. That would prevent profiteering by those buying up lakefront property. Thomas, a close friend of Sen. J. William Fulbright (he was also friendly with Sen. John L. McClellan and Congressman Wilbur D. Mills), had inside connections. He was able to find out what the level would be long before the water started to rise.

With that piece of information in hand, Thomas bought an area known as Estes Hill. He knew that islands in Corps of Engineers’ lakes cannot be privately owned. So, before the lake filled, he built a causeway that would be above the water level. What would become Eden Isle no longer could be called an island.

Once the lake filled, 400 of Thomas’ 500 acres were above water. The lodge and restaurant opened for business in 1963, burned in 1964 following a kitchen fire and reopened in 1965.

While developing Eden Isle, Thomas began trying to convince the federal government to build the water garden just below Greers Ferry dam. He figured such an attraction would draw tens of thousands of additional visitors to Cleburne County each year.

Thomas arranged for a group of architecture students at the University of Arkansas to come up with plans. When the drawings were complete, Thomas sent them to Fulbright and urged the senator to make the project happen.

Jerol Garrison picked up the story from there in a 1964 article in the Arkansas Gazette: “Last fall, when President Kennedy accepted an invitation to speak at the dedication of Greers Ferry Dam on Oct. 3, Fulbright decided it would be a good time to broach the subject of the water garden to him.

“The two men sat together in the president’s airplane on the trip to Arkansas, and Fulbright showed Mr. Kennedy the drawings the UA students had made. The president expressed an interest and suggested that Fulbright talk to the Army Engineers about it.

“Fulbright replied that he had and that the Engineers had turned him down on the ground that a water garden was outside the scope of their authority.

“At that point a general in the Army Engineers who was participating in the conversation told Fulbright, ‘You are now talking to the man (the president) that could reopen it.’

“Mr. Kennedy then told the general to have the Army Engineers prepare a preliminary plan and cost estimate.

“After speaking at the dedication of the dam, Mr. Kennedy and his party left in a fleet of five helicopters for Little Rock. As his helicopter took off, the president arranged for it to separate from the others and fly over the site of the proposed water garden so he could get a better look at it.”

In a letter sent 11 days after the Greers Ferry dedication to Kenneth O’Donnell, a key White House aide, Fulbright wrote: “I am sure I need not tell you that matters of aesthetics, especially a new idea in this field, rather startle the Engineers, and they will probably have to be reminded from time to time in order to get this project under way. The more I think of it, the more exciting I believe this project is, as it could have application in many places in the country if we could prove its value by a pilot project.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the trip to Arkansas. I have heard many favorable reports from many constituents, and I feel the president should consider the energy and time spent as thoroughly justified by the results.”

Then came the fateful November trip to Texas.

Despite Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas the following month, neither Thomas nor Fulbright gave up.

In a Dec. 26, 1963, letter to McClellan, Thomas wrote: “I have recently seen the Engineers’ rendering of this proposed project. It was excellent, and I found their attitude entirely changed. They are now strongly for it. It is now back in the Engineers’ Washington office, and I am confident Bill Fulbright will be working with President Johnson on it, as Bill agrees with me that it is not only a cultural spectacular but an economic one.

“It would bring to Heber Springs many people other than just fishermen and sightseers. It would raise the economic level of the visitors to the community. Both Bill and I have visited the Gardens of Tivoli out of Rome, which are on the same order, and we personally know that they draw visitors from all over the world. Personally, I would consider this more valuable to the town and to Eden Isle, as well as to the property all around Heber Springs, than any other one accomplishment that has been mentioned since the construction of the dam.

“If you would get with Bill, and then bring Wilbur Mills in on it, I haven’t the least doubt but that you could get it done. Ed Stone’s firm in New York has offered to work on it with us without compensation. He likewise has seen the Gardens of Tivoli and knows their value, and said if he could see this accomplished in his own state of Arkansas he would consider that ample compensation for whatever he was called upon to do. This and good roads around the lake are all we need to make it one of the most talked-about places in America. I hope by now you have absorbed some of my enthusiasm for it.”

The Ed Stone mentioned is, of course, Edward Durell Stone, one of the most famous architects of the 20th century. Stone was born in Fayetteville in 1902 and attended the University of Arkansas from 1920-23 before moving to Boston, where his brother was an architect.

Stone was later a visiting professor at the UA’s architecture school. He helped the school obtain accreditation and employed a number of UA students in his New York office.

After Stone agreed to work on the water garden project, Fulbright wrote to him: “I am delighted about your reaction as this is a pet project of mine. I have been kicking it around for nearly a year with Herbert and others.”

In 1965, the project was assigned by the Johnson administration to the National Park Service. True to the promise he had made to Fulbright and Thomas, Stone submitted plans for the Greers Ferry water garden to the Park Service on June 13, 1966.

In 1972, the Park Service declared that the project was outside its jurisdiction. That likely would have been the end of the story had Billy Lindsey not said something to Jerry Holmes four decades later.

The new Cleburne County judge took on the project as a personal mission, contacting the governor and members of the Arkansas congressional delegation.

Chris Caldwell, a talented and enthusiastic aide to Sen. John Boozman, went to work on Holmes’ behalf and somehow found the Stone plans. For decades, they had been gathering dust at a Park Service storage facility in Colorado.

Those plans now sit on Holmes’ desk in downtown Heber Springs. They’re titled “Greers Ferry National Garden Park.”

Holmes is convinced that had Kennedy lived, the project would have been completed and been a “Crystal Bridges-type attraction” for Arkansas long before Crystal Bridges.

He says, “You could find the money in the Interior Department budget to do this if we could get the right people pushing for it in Washington.”

Holmes wants to name the water garden the President John F. Kennedy Memorial Water Garden.

In a letter to the late president’s daughter, Caroline, the county judge wrote: “I am determined, 50 years later, to see this project through and let the people of Arkansas and the United States have a moment to relive a part of a president’s dream.”

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