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The beauty of Big Lake

The invitation was intriguing.

I was having lunch in Arkadelphia a couple of days before Thanksgiving with banker and philanthropist Ross Whipple, the chairman of Summit Bank.

He began telling me about the Big Lake Hunting Club, formed in 1886 by a group of Little Rock businessmen with prominent last names such as Worthen, Penick and Kavanaugh.

“One of the great things about Big Lake is you can almost see it from downtown Little Rock,” Whipple told me. “I would love for you to come duck hunting with me.”

Having lived in Little Rock since I moved back to my native Arkansas from Washington, D.C., in 1989, how could I have never heard of Big Lake?

It appears I have plenty of company since most other Arkansans have never heard of this natural treasure in southern Pulaski County, which covers almost 1,100 acres. There are areas of open water, but much of the lake is thick with cypress and tupelo.

The Big Lake Hunting Club — also known in various documents through the years as the Big Lake Club, the Big Lake Sportsman’s Club and the Big Lake Sportsmen’s Club — had 41 original members who paid $100 each and then were charged annual dues.

On the walls of the lodge that Whipple built overlooking the lake in 2004 are maps of the club and photos of the individual members from the late 1880s. In those photos, each man holds a shotgun and is accompanied by a dog. They hunted ducks and geese on Big Lake in those days while hunting deer in the woods surrounding the lake.

A wooden clubhouse was built on the spot where Whipple now has his lodge.

They also fished. The shallow lake, which now has maximum depths ranging from six to eight feet, is the home to mostly rough fish. There still are some crappie and bass.

“It was a place for them to get away,” Whipple says of those early Big Lake Hunting Club members.

The club gave free memberships to governors, members of the state’s congressional delegation, judges, legislators, county officials and others. Those memberships proved especially popular during Prohibition. I’ll let you speculate why.

Members could ride the train south from Little Rock and get off the train close to the clubhouse at what was known as Rottaken Station.

In 1943, the club disbanded after 57 years of operation. It seems that someone was putting arsenic in the sugar, and no one could determine the culprit. The members voted to dissolve the partnership.

World War II was in progress. Many males were away at war, and money was tight. There just wasn’t much time or money for hunting, fishing and playing cards in the country.

In 1946, the land was purchased by south Arkansas timber magnate Hugh Ross, who would take the train each Wednesday from Arkadelphia to Little Rock for an evening poker game at the Marion Hotel. That poker game included a number of the state’s top businessmen. Financier W.R. “Witt” Stephens, a Prattsville native, told Ross that there was property in Pulaski County he might want to buy.

Ross made the purchase, though he didn’t use Big Lake as a hunting club.

As an Arkadelphia native, I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the Ross and Clark families. J.G. Clark began buying timberland in Clark and surrounding counties in the 1880s. Ross married J.G. Clark’s daughter, Esther.

Jane Ross, the daughter of Hugh and Esther Clark Ross, was born in Arkadelphia in December 1920. She would go on to become one of the state’s best-known philanthropists. Jane Ross graduated from what’s now Henderson State University in 1942 and then worked as a Navy photographer in Washington. She joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1944 and had assignments in Delaware and New Hampshire.

Jane Ross studied color photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology after the war and then came home to open a studio, Photos by Ross.

In a large scrapbook, Whipple has a collection of photos taken by Ross after her father hired a group of men from south Louisiana to use pirogues to harvest cypress trees from Big Lake.

When Hugh Ross died in 1955, Jane Ross gave up her photography studio in order to manage the family timber operations.

Christin Northern picks up the story from there in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “In 1966, Ross established the Ross Foundation, a philanthropic organization, with her mother. The foundation’s financial backing came from Esther Ross’ timber holdings. Jane Ross became the executive director of the Ross Foundation after her mother’s death in 1967, while still operating the timber business. She remained chairman of the board of the Ross Foundation until her death in 1999. However, in 1979, she relinquished some control over daily operations of the Ross Foundation to her relative, Ross Whipple. The Ross Foundation, which continues to operate, focuses on education.”

The Ross Foundation manages more than 60,000 acres of timberland with the proceeds from that land going for charitable purposes. The initial endowment consisted of about 18,000 acres that had been part of the J.G. Clark estate. Smaller tracts were added through the years.

In 1993, the Ross Foundation acquired a major tract of land from International Paper Co. in Hot Spring and Garland counties. Following Jane Ross’ death in 1999, the foundation received additional acres from her estate.

The foundation has opened part of its land to the public. For example, much of the land in Clark County is operated in partnership with the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. Hiking trails are maintained in Hot Spring County.

Ross Whipple has followed in the footsteps of the Ross family, becoming one of Arkansas’ most noted conservationists.

In an interview with the Arkadelphia Regional Economic Development Alliance, Whipple laid out his activities: “I serve as chairman of the Ross Foundation, chairman of the board of Summit Bank and run a timber management company, Horizon Timber Services Inc. I am also the managing general partner of the Whipple Family Limited Partnership. This is a separate set of lands that are considered to be a charitable asset. We manage these lands like a mini-national forest. Since 1970, we’ve grown from 18,000 acres to about 65,000 acres through acquisitions. … I cut my teeth in the woods. Those trees don’t talk back to you.”

Big Lake isn’t open to the public, but the fact it is owned by Whipple is good news since that means that this natural wonder on Little Rock’s doorstep will remain pristine rather than ever being drained for row-crop agriculture or developed into a housing project.

Whipple established Horizon Bank. After selling it, he founded Summit Bank in 2000. The bank now has more than $1 billion in assets and has moved into the  Benton, Bryant, Conway, Hope, Hot Springs, Little Rock, Magnolia and Malvern markets in addition to Arkadelphia.

Whipple bought Big Lake from Jane Ross in 1996. He now owns almost 5,000 acres in the area. Hugh Ross tore down the original clubhouse in 1951, using part of the cypress timber to build a house on Lake Hamilton at Hot Springs.

When Whipple decided to build his hunting lodge, he determined the best location was the one that had been used by the founders.

If you were to search the corporation records in the Arkansas secretary of state’s office, you would find a nonprofit corporation with the interesting name of Clark’s Squirrel Head Hunting and Fishing Club. The club dates back to 1911, and the orginal bylaws allow 17 members. In its more than a century of existence, the club has included a number of well-known southwest Arkansas business figures. Arkadelphia attorney Ed McCorkle keeps the club’s records, but Whipple now hosts its meetings at Big Lake.

Several years ago, a man named David Gatzke contacted Whipple and said he had a box filled with Big Lake Hunting Club records. A descendent of J.W. Mons — an early officer in the club — knew that Gatzke hunted in the area and gave him the records.

Gatzke learned that Whipple owned Big Lake and turned the records over to him. Those records have since been preserved in scrapbooks and in frames on the walls of Whipple’s lodge, making it as much a museum as it is a hunting club.

A map from the 1880s showed that parts of Big Lake had names — the Frog Hole, the Pike Hole, the Big Opening, Holly Island.

The modern club also has names — the Grinnel Hole, the Round Pond, the Ash Hole, the Island Blind and the Beaver Pond Blind.

Whipple has a bound copy of the orginal articles of incorporation and club rules, done in beautiful calligraphy. Guest charges were $1 a visit for males age 10 and older, $1 a visit for females age 18 and older and 50 cents a visit for females from age 10 to 18. No females were allowed at the club from Sept. 1 until April 1 each year in the late 1800s.

The letterheads are fascinating. A few of the ones I looked at were:

— L. Muller & Co., which sold “liquors, cigars and tobacco.”

— The W.M. Kavanaugh Co. in the Southern Trust Building.

— The Little Rock Cooperage Co. with offices at the corner of Main and Markham in downtown Little Rock and a factory in Argenta. It listed its products as “oak barrels, whisky barrels and white oak staves.”

— Parker & Worthen Bankers, Brokers and General Real Estate Agents.

— Geyer & Adams Co., wholesale grocers and cotton factors.

— The American Delinter Co.

— F.B. Wells, the maker of the “Page” brand of boat oars with offices in Camden and DeValls Bluff.

— Cockrill & Cockrill Lawyers.

— Missouri Pacific Railroad Co.

 — The Little Rock Street Fair and Mardi Gras Celebration.

— Arkansas Rock Asphalt Co.

— Fones Brothers Hardware Co.

— St. Louis Cotton Compress Co. of Pine Bluff.

The club members made a concerted — and ultimately unsuccessful — attempt to raise wild rice in the lake to attract more ducks. There are numerous letters to a supplier of seeds in Wisconsin and to the U.S. Department of Agriculture concerning wild rice.

There also are letters to members of the Arkansas congressional delegation and to various federal agencies asking that crappie be stocked in Big Lake.

Many of the letters are signed by Mons, who headed the Little Rock operations of the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Co.

Among the most interesting things in Whipple’s collection of papers are the thank-you notes from politicians for their complimentary memberships. The roster represents a who’s who of leading Arkansas politicians from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

There are letters from Joe T. Robinson both when he was a governor (he only served for a short time in early 1913 before resigning on March 10, 1913, to enter the Senate) and when he was a U.S. senator.

There are letters from Jeff Davis both when he was a governor and a U.S. senator.

There are letters from Gov. George Donaghey and Gov. X.O. Pindall (the Arkansas City lawyer who became governor in 1907 after Gov. John S. Little resigned for health reasons).

Carl Bailey, who would serve as governor from 1937-41, was an early member of the Big Lake Hunting Club.

There’s even a letter from the Garland County judge asking that a constituent be allowed to trap on Big Lake (with promises that he would not hunt or fish).

For those who love Arkansas history, what Whipple has is a treasure trove. He’s preserving both the natural beauty of Big Lake and the history of the Big Lake Hunting Club.

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