When the Cleburne County judge asked for innovative tourism ideas, all Billy Lindsey had to do was dig under the seat of his old truck to find drawings and a proposal that President John F. Kennedy approved more than 50 years ago.
A multimillion-dollar botanical-and-water-garden project to be built near the Greers Ferry Dam was pitched to Kennedy at the dam dedication in October 1963, about six weeks before his assassination. Before his death, the president had already instructed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to have plans drawn for the project.
It was architect Edward Durell Stone, a University of Arkansas at Fayetteville graduate, who later created watercolor drawings for the project, which Cleburne County Judge Jerry Holmes and Lindsey said could draw tourists worldwide.
“Even the plans are breathtaking,” said Lindsey, who owns Lindsey’s Resort in Heber Springs.
Holmes said he kept the project’s rejuvenation quiet until he found federal and state support for it, which he has.
In August, a design team from the University of Arkansas is coming to Heber Springs to look at the site “and bring Edward Durell Stone’s plan, as much as possible, 50 years forward. Hopefully, by the end of the year, we will have that,” Holmes said.
“You cannot imagine what this will be,” Holmes said. “People who haven’t seen [Stone’s plan] can really not visualize the concept of it. My thought is it will be in comparison to what [the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art] has done in Northwest Arkansas.”
The plans, originally designed for 300 acres near the dam, included a fountain to also serve an amphitheater and performing arts center.
“The fountain was probably the size of two football fields, and it was round like a stadium and had stadium seating inside of it,” Holmes said.
The design shows a restaurant inside the amphitheater, a cascading waterfall into the Little Red River, gardens and multiple buildings. Drawings were made of a tram with enclosed cars to take guests up the hillside above the fountains and gardens.
JFK Park has been created since then, so the proposed site is lessened to about 170 acres, Holmes said, but it’s still undeveloped.
“When you look at where the main fountains and main gardens were going to be, there’s nothing there,” Holmes said.
In a copy of the plans Lindsey has, Stone named the project the Greers Ferry National Garden Park. It was designed to be a pilot project for the United States.
He said Stone wrote in documents that it was “a design conception that could serve as a prototype water garden of national significance.”
“The history of this is just amazing,” Holmes said.
It all started with a trip that Heber Springs businessman Herbert Thomas and his wife took to Italy.
Holmes said Thomas, who helped develop Eden Isle and was the founder of First Pyramid Life Insurance Co., had just returned from Italy in the early 1960s and was impressed with the Tivoli Gardens in Rome.
About the same time, the Greers Ferry Dam was under construction, Holmes said.
“He thought what better of an area there adjacent to the dam – the terrain apparently was just right — he thought that would be wonderful for the area,” Holmes said.
Thomas, who died in 1982, contacted his longtime friend Sen. J. William Fulbright.
“Fulbright was real enthused about it, so he got with the University of Arkansas and had them do some conceptual drawings and slides,” Holmes said. “I never have found the slides.”
At the dam dedication in October 1963, Fulbright came to the site with Kennedy. Also traveling with Kennedy was a general with the Corps of Engineers, Holmes said.
The county judge said he got information from newspaper archives, as well as Carl Garner, engineer for the dam project. Garner died earlier this month at age 99.
Fulbright pitched the idea to the president, Holmes said, and Kennedy asked why the project wasn’t further along.
The senator said it was because the Corps didn’t have the project in the master plan. The general on board the helicopter reportedly spoke up and said, “You’re talking to the man who can change that,” referring to Kennedy.
Holmes said he read in newspaper articles that Kennedy’s helicopter pulled out from the pack and flew over the area being discussed for the gardens and water park. He instructed the general to get plans ready, and by Nov. 16, the Corps had water-garden plans ready for the president.
It was to be a federally funded project.
“Sadly, one week later, the president was assassinated, and history just changed completely,” Holmes said.
Lindsey said that once Kennedy died, “the plans got pushed to the back burner.”
“Vietnam was escalating; lots of things were going on in this country, so it kind of got buried. Had President Kennedy lived, there would be a national water garden sitting in that location at this time,” Lindsey said.
Fulbright didn’t give up, Holmes said.
“He went on under President [Lyndon B.] Johnson trying to get this thing brought back to life,” Holmes said.
Johnson decided the National Park Service needed to take a look at the plan, and the organization spent about six years, until 1972, doing conceptual designs, Holmes said.
Fulbright had recruited one of his longtime friends, Stone, to create a conceptual design in about 1966.
“Edward Durell Stone came in with one of the most magnificent designs for a water garden and fountains you’ve ever seen,” Holmes said.
After U.S. Sen. John McClellan of Arkansas, who supported the project, and Fulbright were out of office, the project stalled, Holmes said.
“It has just been dormant; it’s just laid there,” the judge said.
Lindsey, who serves on the statewide Parks Recreation and Travel Commission, briefly revived the project in the 1990s.
“I’ve been aware of the water garden being proposed, being signed off on by President Kennedy,” Lindsey said.
When he needed an idea for the Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism, Lindsey said, “Of course, I said, ‘Why don’t we revisit the water-garden project, guys? I know it’s huge, but it also would have huge ramifications, huge impact.’ It was our regional association’s proposal. We called it Project Aquarius for lack of a better name.
“We started digging into the history and got documentation,” Lindsey said.
Lindsey said the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism hired a national team that looked at the gardens project and said it was doable, but it never got momentum.
He stuck all the documentation in his truck and went on about his business.
The project saw the light of day again in 2013 after Holmes came into office, and he asked for ideas to generate economic development.
Lindsey, who was one of the committee members, “dug around” in his truck and found the old copy of photos and a proposal for a feasibility study.
Lindsey took them to the meeting and told the group he had something that could impact Cleburne County “for generations.”
“I threw these plans on the table,” Lindsey said.
Lindsey said he remembers Holmes’ reaction.
“His eyes kind of got wide when I started talking about this thing, and he grabbed ahold of it with both hands,” Lindsey said. “He is a tenacious individual. He has literally taken it and run with it.”
However, the judge said he kept the idea quiet until he knew there was support for it.
Holmes said he sent Gov. Mike Beebe a letter about the project, “and they were very intrigued.”
He said Beebe set up a meeting in May 2013 in Heber Springs with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, state Parks and Tourism, the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, the Corps of Engineers and the National Park Service, as well as representatives of the state’s U.S. senators.
In June 2013, Holmes went to Washington, D.C., to meet with the Arkansas delegation.
“There is nobody I’ve found on the congressional side, the state side, who does not support this project for what it will do not just for Cleburne County, but for the state of Arkansas,” Holmes said.
Holmes said he went to the University of Arkansas, and officials in the School of Architecture and its Community Design Center are “elated to be part of this” because Stone and Fulbright were products of the University of Arkansas.
Holmes said he has $100,000 thus far, including a $40,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant received through the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
The project was estimated to cost $22 million in the 1960s.
“It would definitely have to be on a smaller scale,” Lindsey said.
“Granted, this is many years later, and I’m sure there’s going to be some differences in the overall planning, … but his designs and schemes were pretty well timeless,” he said.
In a revised version, Lindsey said, he and others have discussed incorporating a Center for Environmental Studies for colleges and universities to use.
“It’s perfectly suited for that,” Lindsey said. “University of Arkansas is interested in it; [Arkansas State University] is interested in it; [the University of Central Arkansas] is interested in it.
“There’s a lot of national interest in this right now and, of course, a lot of local interest in revisiting this issue,” Lindsey said.
“We envision this being a public/private development,” Lindsey said. “It would have to be a project with government backing because the scope is too great otherwise.”
Holmes said his goal would be to break ground on the project within a year or two.
“I dream pretty big, or I wouldn’t be this far with this project. I would hope that there would be some federal funds to get started and possibly some state funds, and some of these foundations that would like their names tied to the Kennedy era,” Holmes said.
“What is really amazing to me is in 1963 when President Kennedy gave basically his blessings for it, in my opinion, and the circumstances that happened with him being assassinated, it almost gives me chill bumps that almost 50 years later, when we’re about to have the 50-year dedication of the dam, this resurfaces. Why did that happen?”
Lindsey said that if Cleburne County can pull this off, the project will have a major impact on Heber Springs and the state.
“If this happens, it’s a game-changer for Arkansas. It puts us in a whole different perspective, not just locally, but from a state standpoint and a promotion standpoint, … the state of Arkansas would be beyond explanation,” Lindsey said.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.