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Russellville to Jasper


After breakfast at the Old South in Russellville, we head north on Arkansas Highway 7 to Dover.

If Arkansans think of Dover at all, it’s often to remember that awful week in December 1987 when Ronald Gene Simmons killed 14 members of his family before driving to Russellville and killing two more people.

I was the Washington correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat at the time but was back in Arkansas for the holidays, working out of the downtown newsroom. I have vivid memories of the phone ringing each time a new body was found. We kept a body count in the newsroom as we planned the next day’s edition. It was a dark day in Arkansas.

A later memory of Dover is much more benign. Our youngest son’s high school basketball team was in the same district as Dover. When we would play games there, a big ol’ country boy would scream out “Dover!” and the home crowd would answer “Pirates!”

Dover once was the county seat of Pope County. It became the county seat in 1841, and the county seat remained there until moving to Russellville in 1887.

We’re entering the Ozark Mountains now, and the sometimes rough history of this area isn’t always pretty.

“Following a series of murders of county officials after the Civil War, two federal companies were stationed in the area to reinstate order,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Arkansas Encyclopedia of History & Culture. “The troops left two years later. In 1872, however, violence once again flared up, and John H. Williams formed a militia to clamp down on the unrest. Ongoing murders and shootouts led to the entire county being placed under martial law. This period of Reconstruction-era violence, known today as the Pope County Militia War, did not end until early 1873.

“In the 1870s, Dover was home to 31 African-Americans. The following census showed only 11. Eventually the city became a sundown town — a place where African-Americans were prevented from residing, usually by threats of violence. According to one local history, a large part of Pope County went sundown after ‘a Negro tried to rape a white woman,’ following which ‘all Negroes were given an ultimatum to move south of the railroad or suffer the consequences.’ Some sources later reported a sign outside of Dover warning black people to stay away.”

We head north out of Dover and soon pass what remains of the Booger Hollow tourist trap, which has been closed for years. We stop at the U.S. Forest Service’s Rotary Ann overlook and rest area. It’s named for the Rotary Club women’s auxiliary in Russellville, whose members established the first roadside rest stop in the state at this location in the 1930s.

It’s cloudy and windy with temperatures in the 30s. It feels as if there could be snow flurries at any minute even though it’s still November.

Noted Arkansas food and travel expert Kat Robinson writes: “The term Rotary Ann comes from two women. One was Ann Brunier, who traveled with her husband from San Francisco to Houston for a Rotary Club convention in 1914. She was the only woman on the train headed to the conference, and by the time the couple disembarked, everyone was calling her Rotary Ann. Ann Gundaker of Philadelphia was also at the event with her husband, and by the time it was over, she too was known as Rotary Ann. The name stuck, and the ladies’ auxiliary membership for the Rotary Club went by the Rotary Anns up until the 1980s.

“The auxiliary members in Russellville saw a desperate need for a place to stop along the route, not only because of the need for sanitary bathroom facilities but also to give drivers a place to take in some of the amazing views of the Arkansas Ozarks. They encouraged development with the Rotary Club, and in the 1930s a scenic overlook with places to park was created along Highway 7. It was the first rest stop in the state, and it should be around a good, long time. In 2004, the stop was reopened after a year-long renovation and upgrade. Today it includes an unmanned restroom for men and women, interpretive panels, rail-guarded overlooks and picnic tables along with lanes allowing for small-vehicle and bus parking.

“Highway 7 received its Scenic Byway status in 1994 at one of the last high points of tourism in the area. That happened to be the last year Dogpatch USA was open, and new developments around the state were already drawing away travelers. Upgrades to U.S. Highway 65 to the east and plans to create an interstate through northwest Arkansas to the west were already under way. Traffic dwindled. Businesses faded. Yet Rotary Ann has been there through the decades.”

Kat is right. This part of Highway 7 is long past its peak as a draw for tourists. Booger Hollow isn’t the only former attraction that’s closed. You can spot old buildings all up and down this route that once catered to tourists.

We press on following a short stop, winding our way through the mountains and looking for snowflakes as we pass through the small communities of Pelsor, Lurton and Cowell. We’re in Newton County now. Though we’re still full from breakfast in Russellville, we determine that a stop for pie and coffee at the Cliff House Inn, which is six miles south of Jasper, is de rigueur for anyone traveling this stretch of Highway 7.

The restaurant and inn are open from March 15 until November 19.

Here’s how the Cliff House website describes the history of what has become a Highway 7 landmark: “In early 1960, Kenneth and Fern Carter were driving along Highway 7 on a Sunday afternoon. Kenneth stopped the truck, got out and walked through the tree line of the land that overlooked the valley that’s now known as Arkansas’ Grand Canyon. When Kenneth came back, he mumbled something as he was getting back in the truck.

“Fern asked him what he said. He repeated, ‘I’m going to build a motel right here on this spot.’

“Kenneth bought the land and in February 1964 started the process of building the Cliff House Inn. To prepare the land for building, Kenneth had to use dynamite to blast away part of the mountain to build the motel rooms. When he blasted, a section of Highway 7 had to be closed to traffic. His mother, known as Granny, stopped traffic by waving a red flag and yelling ‘fire in the hole!’ You can still see some of the holes down by the motel rooms that were drilled for dynamite but not used.

“The Cliff House Inn opened May 27, 1967, as a gift shop and five-unit motel. Ken and Fern’s son Jim and his wife Joyce managed the Cliff House for a short time. Kenneth sold the Cliff House to the McNutts about a year later. The McNutts owned it for a year and then sold it to Bob and Francis McDaniel. The McDaniels added a house, kitchen and small dining room to the building in the mid-1970s. Mrs. McDaniel wanted a signature pie to offer her dinners. She introduced the company’s comin’ pie, which is still served at the Cliff House today.

“The McDaniels sold the Cliff House to Jim Berry from New York. Jim expanded the size of the dining room. … Jim sold the Cliff House to Neal and Karen Heath from Monroe, La. During their ownership, a tornado hit the building in 2001. The dining room was destroyed. The Heaths rebuilt the dining room with the improvements you see today. In 2006, the Heaths sold the Cliff House to Mike and Becky McLaurin from Shreveport. The McLaurins added the lower redwood deck that motel guests now enjoy and remodeled the motel rooms. They also added seafood and steaks to the menu.”

Newton County is one of the least-populated counties in Arkansas with only 8,330 residents in the 2010 census. The county’s population peaked in the 1900 census with 12,538 residents. By 1960, it was down to just 5,963. It has rebounded some as tourism has increased due to the Buffalo River receiving the first national river designation from the National Park Service and the introduction of elk to the county by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission.

Writing for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, C.J. Miller describes Newton County as “mountainous, rural and isolated. The land, once respected and protected by Native Americans, has come full circle with a large portion being protected by the U.S. Department of the Interior. … The area, rich with game and timber, is watered by the Big and Little Buffalo rivers. Until 1808, the Osage claimed the region, and between 1818 and 1828 the land was part of a reservation granted to the Western Cherokee. The county was part of Carroll County when that county was created in 1833, and white settlers quickly moved in. A block of marble taken from a hillside near present-day Marble Falls was used to help build the Washington Monument. Although Jasper appeared on maps in 1840, it wasn’t incorporated until 1896.

“The Legislature created Newton County on Dec. 14, 1842, naming it after U.S. Marshal Thomas Willoughby Newton. After beginning his career as a mail carrier and serving as U.S. marshal for Arkansas, Newton was elected to serve in Congress after the resignation of Archibald Yell. John Belleh’s house on Shop Creek was designated the county seat until the designation was given to Jasper in 1843. The county had 10 post offices by 1856.

“The terrain made the area unattractive to land speculators, which was encouraging to people who couldn’t afford land in other parts of the state. … The difficulty in farming the rough terrain resulted in farms being located along the rivers. In 1850, there were 51 slaves in the county. By 1860, that number had decreased to 24.”

With so few slave owners, there were strong Union sympathies in the county.

“Farming changed little after Reconstruction,” Miller writes. “Smaller farms were prevalent while larger farms existed near the rivers. Potatoes, apples and peaches supplemented the main crop, corn. Cotton provided the cash crop for the Buffalo River valley. Lumber camps developed. Whether for added income or personal use, the production of moonshine made use of the surplus corn. A legend was born as Beaver Jim Villines became known for his trapping ability. Visitors went to Marble Falls and Tom Thumb Spring for the water’s healing power.”

The population decline began soon after the turn of the century, and isolated Newton County seemed to be a place stuck in the past. Population began to tick back up in the 1970s as the back-to-the-land movement brought new residents (locals simply referred to them as hippies) and Dogpatch USA, which had opened in 1968, increased in popularity. The Buffalo National River designation in 1972 brought thousands of new visitors. Elk were introduced in the early 1980s.

This is the heart of the Arkansas Ozarks.

“At up to 2,600 feet, the Boston Plateau, usually referred to as the Boston Mountains because of its ruggedness, is the highest of the Ozark Mountains,” Tom Foti writes for the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. “It extends as a belt across the southernmost Ozarks, generally parallel to and to the north of Interstate 40. Typical rock types are sandstone and shale. Although the elevation of the mountains is similar, the highest are in and near Newton County. The elevation there causes higher precipitation and lower temperatures than elsewhere in the Ozarks. Streams are generally small, and the headwaters of many of the well-known streams of the Ozarks occur in the Boston Mountains, including the White, Buffalo, Kings, Mulberry, Big Piney and Little Red.

“In most areas of the Boston Mountains, oak and hickory forest predominate while warm, south-facing slopes on sandstone have extensive areas dominated by shortleaf pines. The cool, moist conditions of protected ravines, particularly in the highest mountains, support forests with beech or sugar maple that are of limited extent elsewhere in the Ozarks. The ruggedness of the Boston Plateau has limited people’s ability to develop the region for agriculture, transportation, urbanization or other uses. Croplands and pastures are concentrated in wider valleys or on level mountaintops. Towns are few and generally small. … Roads typically are narrow, winding and steep. The Butterfield Overland Mail route once crossed the region, but this segment was notoriously difficult.”

Foti describes the area as the one that best typifies “the view of the Ozarks as rugged and beautiful but with little potential for economic development. Poor transportation and a limited economy fostered the isolated, self-sufficient mountaineer lifestyle often associated with the Ozarks. Much of the Boston Mountain region is forested today with a large part of the area in the Ozark National Forest. Highways such as Arkansas Highway 23 in Franklin and Madison counties and Arkansas Highway 7 in Pope and Newton counties still follow their traditional winding routes. They are, however, renowned for their scenic vistas.”

President Teddy Roosevelt signed a proclamation creating the Arkansas National Forest on Dec 18, 1907. On March 6, 1908, he signed a proclamation creating the Ozark National Forest from land north of the Arkansas River. The land south of the river became the Ouachita National Forest. The first Ozark National Forest headquarters was at Fort Smith. The headquarters later moved to Harrison, and then it moved to Russellville in 1918. The forest supervisor in Russellville now also must administer the St. Francis National Forest on Crowley’s Ridge in east Arkansas.

It might be small from a population standpoint, but Newton County is a special place. In fact, we’ll get off Highway 7 for a time on this day in order to view the elk in the Boxley Valley.

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