Following another successful User Conference in July of 2003, I embarked on my annual post-conference vacation. This year I decided to combine a visit to Arkansas, a state which I had only seen on the map, with a trip back to one of my favorite places in the country, southwestern Montana. My journey began with a 5:00 am limo ride to Ontario Airport for a 6:30 am flight to Salt Lake City. My driver, Keith, drove the almost empty freeway at 85 – 90 mph, and he was very proud of the fact that his 1998 Lincoln Town Car had over 533,000 miles on it, with no major breakdowns. Despite the fact, that I arrived at the airport over an hour before departure, the lines for baggage check and security were incredibly long and slow, due mainly to a large tour group traveling to Seattle to join an Alaskan cruise. I ended up getting to the gate with only five minutes to spare! From Salt Lake, I flew to Dallas and along the way, enjoyed a delicious cold plate lunch of grilled chicken, Portobello mushroom, eggplant, and pasta. I spent four hours in the Delta Airlines Crown Room at DFW before boarding the flight to Little Rock. As it turned out, the flight was seriously overbooked, so I volunteered to take an American Airlines flight an hour later for $200 in compensation. (Ironically, the American flight was also overbooked, but this time I did not volunteer!)
After arriving in Little Rock, I picked up a rental car and headed downtown to find the historic “Capitol Hotel”. After searching high and low along the full length of West Markham Street, I was surprised to discover that the street suddenly became 3rd Street for 2 blocks, before returning to West Markham Street a block further north! But when I finally arrived at the hotel, I found it to be a beautiful, old late 1800’s pink granite building – classic splendor!
By this time, dinner called and I went to the Capitol Bar and Grill, wonderfully preserved in the elegant style of 1880. My server highly recommended the grilled pork tenderloin au poivre, served with a brandy demi-glaze, garlic mashed potatoes, and fresh steamed local vegetables. Dinner was absolutely excellent, along with a cold pint of local “Boulevard Pale Ale”!
I was up early the next morning to visit the Arkansas State Historical Museum, which included a guided tour of three original houses from the early 1800’s.
The first house had also been the first printing shop west of the Mississippi. As we entered the old house, we encountered a large, young black slave, bound in chains. He asked why we had come, since his master was not at home. Then he told us the story of his escape and subsequent capture, following the printing of a notice offering a $50 reward for his return. (He also read the notice to us!) In reality, he turned out to be a local actor who had just received an invitation to join the company of the musical “Chicago” – in Chicago! He was very excited – it was a role far removed from that of his “living history” role in the museum. Then he explained that in the old print shop, the “capitol” letters were stored in the upper wooden cases and the small letters were stored in the lower wooden cases – hence, the origin of “uppercase” and “lowercase” on our computers today! In the merchant’s house next door, our guide explained the origin of the traditional children’s game called “Pop goes the Weasel”. In the past, the task of rolling up a skein of wool on the spinning wheel was given to the children. It took 40 revolutions of the wheel to make one skein. But since the children often lost track of counting as the wheel spun, a wooden “counter” was installed that made a popping sound when the wheel had turned 40 times. And being that the spinning wheel was known as the “weasel”, the sound of the counter became “Pop goes the Weasel”! As we entered the third house, our guide pointed out a large mirror built into an old wooden coat rack in the hallway. The bottom of the mirror sat just 6 inches above the floor. Then she explained the purpose of the mirror, which enabled women to check their feet before leaving the house, to ensure that their petticoats were long enough to cover their ankles – hence the origin of the phrase “Mind your P’s and Q’s”! Later in the afternoon, I encountered the ban on sales of alcohol on Sundays in Arkansas, even though the supermarket shelves were fully stocked! And to make the issue even more strange, exceptions were made for restaurants and hotel room service, but not bars! That evening, I dined in the Capitol Hotel, and once again enjoyed a fantastic dinner. I began with a bowl of delicious “five onion soup” topped with melted Gouda cheese, followed by the “Asian Special” – thin strips of beef, grilled shrimp, and filet of Grouper in a light, flaky pastry shell, along with a savory Teriyaki ginger sauce, white rice, and steamed vegetables. It was fabulous, and not what I expected to find in Arkansas ! Back in my hotel room, as I watched the local TV channel, an advertisement aired for a furniture store in Fort Smith. The store owner came on the screen to promote his special deals and ended with the line “… and you’ll have more fun here than a fat man locked in a donut shop!” Doesn’t get much more “local” than that.
The next day I checked out of the hotel and drove southeast to Pine Bluff where I discovered the Arkansas State Railroad Museum and the “Gilford Wheel Services Company” that repaired and resurfaced railroad car wheels for many private railroad car owners across the country. The large museum occupied the former “Cotton Belt” railroad (St Louis & Southwestern Railroad) yard and maintenance shops, which had closed in 1992. The museum was most famous for having the last steam locomotive built by the “Cotton Belt” in 1943 and restored to operation in 1986. The old repair shops had preserved the massive overhead cranes and tools used for servicing heavy railroad cars and equipment, including a huge transfer table that was used to move the massive steam locomotives around the shops.
In addition to more than 50 vintage locomotives and railroad cars, there was a very interesting exhibit about the origin of the Cotton Belt Railroad. It had begun as a small short line railroad in Tyler, Texas in 1877, and eventually gobbled up over 17 other small railroads in eastern Texas, northern Arkansas and southern Missouri before being taken over by the Southern Pacific Railroad. From the railroad museum, I drove downtown and discovered a fascinating collection of 12 huge murals depicting the history of the town and the surrounding region. There were beautiful, colorful painted scenes of activity on the riverfront during the late 1800’s, a view of the Main Street from 1888, and a scene from the history of the timber industry. But the most unusual and fascinating mural was that of native son and filmmaker Freeman Owens, who changed the movie making industry forever when he perfected the process of putting sound on film for the Eastman Kodak company.
A historical monument near the Jefferson County Courthouse detailed the story of the old town when it was a thriving port on the Arkansas River, which saw large steamships transporting cotton and rice downriver to New Orleans. But today, those shipments go by rail and the old port is just a faded memory preserved by one of the large murals. From Pine Bluff, I headed north to Stuttgart, Augusta, and Batesville, passing huge fields of rice, corn, sorghum, and cotton. Along the way, I spotted quite a bit of wildlife, including black vultures, white egrets, coyote, and even a couple of Armadillo, who were unfortunately the victims of road kill! As I drove through many small towns along highway 79, I passed old, dilapidated downtowns that had long since died out as people had migrated to larger towns, and businesses had relocated to shopping malls outside of town. It was sad to see what surely had once been lively towns that are now just names on the map. Lovely old buildings stood vacant and decaying, awaiting the wrecking ball, or perhaps a new life someday. As the day approached late afternoon, heavy dark clouds began to appear, signaling the inevitable thunderstorms that characterize mid-summer weather in the South.
With them, the thunderstorms brought a temporary cooling relief from the oppressive heat and humidity of the day. So they were welcome, unless of course, a tornado or two should happen to join the storms! That evening I found a nice room at the “Dogwood Motel” on the edge of town. As I walked around the town, I discovered that it was the oldest town in Arkansas, having been the first territorial capital. It had also become an important port on the White River and a gateway to the Ozark Mountain region to the northwest.
The next morning, heavy thunderstorms lingered, before eventually yielding the day to sunshine. At least the weather was noticeably cooler, but still quite humid. Leaving Batesville, I made my way to the tiny town of Cave City, and as I entered the town, there was a huge sign on the side of the road that read “Home of the World’s Sweetest Watermelons”! Further down Main Street, I spotted a very strange and unique looking motel, the “Crystal River Cave Tourist Motor Lodge”, built of rock from the cave located near the center of town.
The cave, which was formed by the Crystal River, had served as a veritable “town refrigerator” where local people stored their milk, butter, and produce. Apparently, various attempts had been made to explore the cave to determine the origin of the Crystal River that flowed under the town. While no one has ever been able to show where the river begins and eventually ends, it’s said that the river rises and falls with the level of the Mississippi River, more than 150 miles away! These days, Cave City is most famous for the annual Watermelon Festival in July. Beyond Cave City was the old town of Newark, once the county seat, but now virtually deserted, except for a couple of old red brick buildings on Front Street, and a huge grain terminal alongside the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad. The next community I came to on state highway 14 was the old village of Jacksonport, with its historic red brick county courthouse dating back to 1872. At that time, the town was an important steamboat stop and trading center at the confluence of the White River and Black River, until it was bypassed by the Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad in 1890. But the most memorable historic site in town was the old sternwheel steamboat named the “Mary Woods No.2”. She carried passengers and cargo up and down the river from 1831 well into the 1960’s, before being retired and opened as a museum in 1976.
Leaving Jacksonport, I followed state highway 14, parallel to the White River, through many small towns, with curious names like Oil Trough, Pleasant Valley, and Evening Shade. And along the way, I went from a dry county to a wet county and back to dry again! Just outside the small town of Mountain View, on my way to the Ozark Folk Center State Park, I spotted a large billboard on the side of the road that was quite a curiosity. On it was a picture of a bag of chewing tobacco named “Stench”, side by side with a pack of cigarettes named “Fool”. And in big bold letters above them was the title “Dumb and Dumber” – sponsored by the Stone County Health Department. Gradually I began the slow ascent into the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas and the Ozark – St Francis National Forest.
There I found the Ozark Folk Center State Park and the Dry Creek Lodge, a beautiful old log structure that looked like it had been built from the surrounding forest. Luckily I was able to book a room in the lodge, and then I grabbed my camera to take photos of the traditional mountain arts and crafts being demonstrated by local artisans in the adjacent village. It was fascinating to watch and listen as the artisans and craftsmen worked in the same way and with the same tools and materials as their ancestors had done 150 years earlier.
As evening approached, I headed to the “Iron Skillet Restaurant” in the lodge for a huge traditional southern dinner, that included two thick slabs of salt-cured ham, beans, mashed potatoes and white gravy. As I savored the delicious meal, I watched a host of wild critters outside the window – squirrels, chipmunks, hummingbirds, doves, cardinals, and one incredibly fat woodchuck! That evening, after dinner, I sat outside on my balcony in the warm summer night, listening to the crickets, and watching a skunk prowling around the edge of the forest in search of food. The next morning, after a hearty breakfast of homemade biscuits and sausage gravy, a southern tradition, I headed north to Blanchard Springs Cavern. There I joined a small tour group, lead by a Ranger from the Ozark National Forest, and followed him into several huge underground rooms, whose ceilings were covered in beautiful “drapery” limestone formations.
Apparently, the cavern was only recently discovered, so much of it remained unexplored. Continuing west on state highway 14, I passed “Branscum’s Grocery Store” in the tiny village of “Fifty-Six, Arkansas”. It seems the town’s name originated from the number of its school district when the US Post Office was established there.
Further on there were very impressive views of the rocky bluffs rising several hundred feet above the White River near the old town of Calico Rock. The town was once a bustling steamboat landing and railroad junction in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. But those days had disappeared, leaving it a very quiet shadow of its former self.
As I continued west through the heart of the Ozark Mountains, I passed several small settlements with some odd names, like “Flippin”, “Yellville”, and “Blue Eye”, before coming to the spectacular Buffalo National River. It was over 150 miles long, with a steep gradient and fast water, bordered on both sides by 500 foot high sandstone bluffs, making it very challenging and exciting for white water enthusiasts.
The area, managed by the US Forest Service and the National Park Service, spanned four counties in northern Arkansas. Portions of the region had also been designated as wilderness area. It was the nation’s first National River and remains a true gem in the state, that almost became flooded by two proposed US Army Corps of Engineers dams in 1972. Northwest of the river I came to the fabled town of “Dogpatch, Arkansas”, where the post office had closed many years before, as had virtually everything else in town, including the crumbling remains of the “Dogpatch USA” theme park! (which at one time had grand dreams of being the Disneyland of the south!) As I looked around at what was left of Dogpatch, I remembered the time when I worked at the Republic Ranger District on the Colville National Forest in northeastern Washington State. While I was there, I had supervised some tree thinning projects being done by a family from Dogpatch. (I still have the letter from them with the postmark from Dogpatch!) So, yes, Dogpatch does/did exist. Later that afternoon, I drove to Petit Jean State Park and the beautiful Mather Lodge, situated on the edge of a thousand foot high escarpment, overlooking the spectacular Arkansas River.
The name of the state park originated from the legend of a young 18th century French woman who disguised herself as a boy in order to find a position as a cabin boy on a ship sailing to the Louisiana Territory. Once the ship’s crew had reached the upper portion of the Arkansas River, she became very ill, and on her deathbed she revealed her true identity to her fiancé whom she had tried unsuccessfully to join earlier on the voyage. By her last request, she was buried on the top of the bluff under the name she had been given on board ship, “Petit Jean”, meaning “Little John”. That evening I was able to book one of the rustic cabins near the lodge, which had been built of local river rock and stone in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I spent a lovely, quiet evening sitting on the porch of the cabin, as the music of the crickets filled the air and the light of the fireflies illuminated the dark sky. The following morning, I hiked to the Cedar Falls Overlook for a beautiful view of the water tumbling over 120 feet into the river below. From there I drove to “Stout’s Point” on the top of the bluff, with sweeping views of the river and the entire valley over a thousand feet below.
Nearby was the gravesite of Petit Jean and views of Mount Magazine in the distance, Arkansas’s highest point at 2,753 feet. As I admired the spectacular view, I had to admit that I had not expected to see this kind of magnificent landscape in Arkansas. Later in the morning, I headed west into the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, where I discovered several old vineyards, some dating back to the mid-1800’s. Just outside the small town of Altus was the “Chateau Aux Arc Vineyard”, where a Swiss family had been making wine from the native “Cynthiana” grape for generations! It was here that I came to realize the origin of the name Ozark, which comes from the literal pronunciation of the French term “Aux Arc”, meaning “Big Bend” – the name the early French explorers gave to the distinctive bend in the Arkansas River. The French were among the first European explorers in Arkansas and Louisiana, which accounts for the abundance of French names of places in the state. Further to the southwest, on my way to Fort Smith, I traveled through a small portion of eastern Oklahoma and the Ouachita Mountains.
It was a lovely landscape of high rolling hills and dense deciduous forest, mixed with large expanses of beautiful meadows – all part of the Ouachita National Forest. Later in the afternoon, I crossed back into Arkansas and came to Mount Magazine State Park, the state’s highest point. There were some spectacular views of the river from the high bluffs, a popular site for hang gliders.
That evening I found a nice old hotel in Van Buren, across the river from Fort Smith, and as I searched for a place to have dinner in Fort Smith, I was pleasantly surprised to find a large number of tasty oriental restaurants. There was everything from Chinese and Japanese to Thai, Malaysian, and even an Indonesian restaurant.
The next morning, I walked around the historic downtown area of Van Buren along Main Street, from the old “Frisco” Railroad Depot (St Louis & San Francisco Railroad) down to the riverfront.
At one point, I came across the old “Anheuser-Busch Brewery” building, where the company name was still inscribed in the floor tile at the entrance. By this time, I was ready for breakfast, and as luck would have it, I was standing across the street from the “Cottage Café”. As I entered the small café, it was very obvious that it was a “local” favorite. Even before I sat down at the vintage counter, I was greeted by a mother and daughter waitressing team with “have a seat hon”. They were a couple of “brassy, bleached blondes”, who smoked constantly and called everyone “hon”, regardless of gender. It was a classic local diner, and the huge portions of country ham, eggs, homemade biscuits, red eye gravy, home fries, and coffee were delicious – and kept me going for the entire day! After a huge breakfast from the bleached blondes, I bought a ticket on the historic “Arkansas and Missouri Railroad” for a trip through part of western Arkansas and the Ozark National Forest to the small town of Winslow, a distance of 70 miles.
During the scenic journey, the onboard crew entertained us with many interesting stories and fascinating local history. The train made a short stop in Winslow at the Chester Railway Hotel, where our guide told us about a ghost in room number 4, who was a man locked out of his room late at night over 100 years ago, after having drunk too much at the saloon on a frigid winter night. Apparently, as a result, he froze to death that night, and it was rumored that if you booked room number 4, your blankets would often be pulled off in the middle of the night! On the return trip, I spotted a lot of deer grazing at the edge of the forest, and at one point, the train crossed three old wooden trestles, one of which was over 700 feet long and 125 feet high, before entering the ¾ mile long Winslow Tunnel. All in all, it was a very interesting and scenic journey on a historic old railroad. After returning to Van Buren, I drove south on US Highway 71 and state highway 270, through the beautiful Ouachita National Forest, to the tiny town of Pencil Bluff. According to historical accounts, the town started out as two small towns by the names of White City and Sock City before merging into the present-day community. Apparently, the origin of the name Sock City came from the fact that men often hid money in their socks when they went to play poker at the local saloon. The town sat at the foot of a high bluff overlooking the Ouachita River. Leaving town, I continued southeast on a narrow country road into the backwoods of Arkansas, near the town of Cherry Hill, and then on to Polk County Road 67, a gravel road that crossed over the Ouachita River. Suddenly, I came upon a large flock of Wild Turkeys beside the road, as well as an old dog lying smack in the middle of the road and totally ignoring me!
Eventually I made my way northeast, passing through the village of “Caddo Springs”, in the “Caddo River Valley”, the names of which derive from a misspelling of the French word “Caddeaux”, meaning gift. It was another of the many misspellings of French words in Arkansas, the pronunciation of which were very much French, despite the misspelling. (A fascinating historical aspect of my journey through the state of Arkansas)
Finally, I arrived in the historic tourist destination of “Hot Springs National Park”, a popular spot for both American and European visitors in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. I was able to book one of the last available rooms at the historic, grand old “Majestic Hotel”, not far from the famous “Bath House Row”. (on a sad note, the Majestic Hotel was destroyed by fire and demolished in 2016)
Although the National Park was established in 1921, one of the nation’s oldest, the region of Hot Springs had been used for therapeutic baths by the indigenous people for over 8,000 years. Geologically, the springs water originates from rainfall in the surrounding mountains, which seeps very slowly through sandstone at a rate of about one foot per year, to a depth of almost 7,500 feet below the surface, a trip that takes about 4,000 years! At that depth, the water encounters rock heated by the earth’s core. Then the heated water begins to rise along fault zones, as a result of artesian pressure, to emerge at the surface as hot (140 – 150 degrees) spring water containing a wide variety of dissolved minerals – a pleasant tasting solution, mildly alkaline composition of mostly Calcium Carbonate. Legend has it that the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto received a gift of the healing water from the local Quapaw tribe in 1541.
Beginning in the mid-1800’s and into the early 1900’s, several large, elegant “bath houses” were built over the hot springs to offer treatments for a wide variety of diseases of the skin and blood, nervous affections, rheumatism, and “various diseases of women”! Later, during the height of popularity for “seeking the waters” in the 1930’s, many “modern” therapeutic treatments were introduced, often under the supervision of a physician. These new treatments included being placed in a steam box, a German “needle shower”, and something called a “Scotch Douche”. (a needle shower surrounds the body with a strong spray of water from dozens of very small nozzles, whereas the Scotch Douche involves strong jets of alternating hot and cold water) During my tour of the National Park Visitor Center Museum, some of the “equipment” used for these treatments bordered on resembling instruments of torture during the Spanish Inquisition!
Often, the “treatments” would take several weeks, consisting of daily baths and therapy. The bath houses remained racially segregated until the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Today, only two of the old, original bath houses are still operating – the Buckstaff and the Quapaw. The remaining bath houses have been renovated and repurposed as the Visitor Center/Museum, a Contemporary Art Museum, and even a craft brewery/restaurant. So Hot Springs has changed a great deal over the past century, but it remains active and a popular tourist destination. After a short walk down the “Grand Promenade”, I went back to the hotel for dinner in “Grady’s Bar and Grill”. The filet mignon, grilled rare and served in a wild mushroom ragout, was truly incredible, along with a glass of “Chateau Aux Arc Cabernet Sauvignon”. And the “Louisiana Bread Pudding” in Bourbon sauce was an outstanding finish to a wonderful dinner. But later that night, I was rudely awakened at 2:30am by the loud noise from a TV blaring at full volume in the room next door. After repeated knocking on the door and three phone calls to the room, there was no response! Finally, I went down to the front desk and requested the assistance of hotel security. They unlocked the room and found no one there – unbelievable! As I checked out in the morning, I hung the “Make Up My Room Early” sign on their door, silently bid them farewell, and wished them a lousy day! Then I took a long leisurely walk along the “Grand Promenade”, past many of the old hot spring bath houses, most of which had been closed for many years.
However, the National Park Service had restored the “Fourdyce Bath House”, one of the most classic and luxurious of all the old bath houses and developed it as a Visitor Center/Museum. I had arrived just in time to join a tour lead by one of the Park Rangers. During the tour, she explained the unique geological conditions that yield the constant flow of hot spring water that made the town a mecca for people from all over the world seeking to “take the waters”. The bath house was divided into separate areas for men and women, although both had the same equipment and services. She also pointed out some of the really weird “instruments” that were used for “therapy”. In the main rooms were beautiful stained-glass windows and skylights that illuminated the brilliant white marble floors and walls.
All too soon, it was time to leave Hot Springs and head to the Little Rock airport to catch my flight to Montana, and the beginning of the second leg of my journey. Along the way, I had time to briefly visit “Toltec Mounds State Park”, where huge earthen mounds were burial and ceremonial sites dating from 400BC. Several of the mounds were located so as to mark the dates of the summer and winter solstice. It was a short but fascinating look at Native American history and culture in Arkansas. Upon reaching the airport, it was a quick and easy check in for the flight to Dallas, so I had time for a cold glass of local “Diamond Bear Blonde Ale” in the Delta Airlines Crown Room before boarding was called. Arriving in Dallas, I waited in the Crown Room and watched TV as Lance Armstrong won his 5th straight Tour de France. As he was cycling through cold, pouring rain in France, it was very hot, muggy 100 degrees outside in Dallas! On the flight to Salt Lake City, my seatmate was a man from Montgomery, Alabama on his way to Edmonton, Alberta to oversee the installation of new carbon bearings in an oil rig. I had a short break in the Salt Lake airport Crown Room, before boarding my final flight to Bozeman, Montana, where I arrived just before midnight. I picked up my Hertz rental car just minutes before their office closed for the night! To my surprise, they handed me the keys to a brand new, bright red Ford Expedition – not exactly the “mid-size” SUV I had reserved. But it drove very well, though it “felt” huge! Then I checked into a nice room at the Holiday Inn and settled in for the rest of the night. Tomorrow I would begin the second week of my vacation in southwestern Montana. [Stay Tuned!]