Back on the road

Following Arkansas 7 to the end of the line

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette road trip illustration.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette road trip illustration.

Editor’s note: This is the second part of Senior Editor Rex Nelson’s trip along Arkansas 7.

The part of Arkansas 7 that runs through Hot Springs--known as Central Avenue--is familiar to many Arkansans.

Hot Springs has been the state's go-to place for entertainment for decades. On this day, it's our go-to city for corned beef as we finish sandwiches at an Oaklawn Park restaurant known as Silks. David Stricklin of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Paul Austin of the Arkansas Humanities Council and I are on a two-day road trip. We're attempting to cover every mile of Arkansas 7 from the Louisiana border in Union County to the shores of Bull Shoals Lake in Boone County.

Having started early in the morning in the pine woods of south Arkansas, we've made too many stops along the way (we've never met a historical marker we didn't want to read). We're staying in a cabin atop Mount Nebo near Dardanelle, and we're determined to drive the curvy road to the top of the mountain before it turns dark. So there's no time for walking around downtown Hot Springs.

I've been coming here my entire life and have never been more excited about what's going on. I was only 8 years old when Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller shut down casino gambling in the Spa City in 1967, so most of my memories are of a downtown in decline--hotels going out of business, bathhouses shutting down, the disappearance of the auction houses. I even remember the awful canopy over the sidewalk in the 1970s. Music that was mostly static blared from speakers, and strange liquids dripped on your head as you walked underneath. Those weren't happy days for downtown.

Now almost all of the downtown retail spaces are filled, restaurants and craft breweries open on what seems like a weekly basis, an upscale boutique hotel is accepting guests, most of the bathhouses are being used, and there are plans for the first new construction across from Bathhouse Row in about 50 years. The revitalization of downtown Hot Springs is one of the best economic development stories in the state right now.

But the Ouachita Mountains must be traversed before dark. We head north on Central Avenue to the cleared site that long was home to the Majestic Hotel and turn right onto Park Avenue, following the route of Arkansas 7. There's plenty of traffic and commercial activity as

we head north out of Hot Springs, past the gate to Hot Springs Village, and on through Jessieville.

Once we leave Jessieville, we won't see much in the way of businesses until we reach Ola in Yell County. The mountainous stretch of Arkansas 7 from Jessieville to Ola is as close as it comes in Arkansas to parts of Skyline Drive in Virginia and Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina that I used to drive when I lived in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s. We're in the Ouachita National Forest as we travel from Garland County into Perry County. We stop briefly at what was the site of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp during the 1930s. U.S. Forest Service budget cuts are evident from the condition of the signs here, which are difficult to read.

The day's most interesting stop proves to be Hollis Country Store on the west side of the highway just north of the South Fourche La Fave River bridge. The original portion of the store was built in 1931-32, while other parts were added in the 1950s. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. There are few stores like it remaining in Arkansas. The business has been operated by the Crain and Hawks families since 1940. Berl Hawks and wife Connie bought the store in 1989. Berl died in 1999. Connie has operated the store ever since.

"You still going strong?" I ask as we walk in.

"For now," Connie Hawks replies.

We're full from lunch at Hot Springs so we don't order the store's famous bologna sandwiches. I do buy a brown paper sack filled with parched peanuts to munch that night on Mount Nebo.

When I was a boy, my parents liked to stop in Hollis and eat at a restaurant called Sam-Ann's, established by Sam and Anna Herbert in 1951. John Egerton wrote in his classic 1987 book Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History: "It was closed for a time in the 1970s, but Sharon Nugent and Tony Montgomery re-opened it with the old name and the same purpose: 'Continuing Miss Anna's tradition of excellence.' Sam-Ann's calls itself the 'premier country restaurant' in Arkansas. Its features include large breakfasts, soup-and-sandwich lunches, and dinners built around Arkansas catfish, chicken, pork chops and fried steak with gravy. Fresh vegetables grown on the place or produced by local farmers are served when available, and the iced tea is freshly brewed. The greatest asset, however, is Sharon Nugent's bakery. It provides the whole-wheat dinner rolls, the breakfast cinnamon rolls and pancakes, the brownies and cookies, and the delicious cream and fruit pies. Many of Sam-Ann's patrons drive from Little Rock--a three-hour round trip--and the baked goods are a major motivation."

Sam-Ann's later burned and was never rebuilt.

The South Fourche La Fave River, which we just crossed, begins in the Ouachita Mountains near Onyx in Yell County and empties into the Fourche La Fave River near Deberrie in Perry County. We cross the main Fourche La Fave, which begins near Boles in Scott County and empties into the Arkansas River in Perry County, just below Nimrod Dam.

Flooding once was common in Yell and Perry counties, and the federal Flood Control Act of 1938 authorized construction of a dam. Engineers began testing in 1938, and a flood in April 1939 washed out two bridges and gave the project political momentum. The dam was completed in March 1942, and Nimrod Lake remains a popular fishing spot in this part of Arkansas.

The next stop is Ola in Yell County, which had a population of 1,281 in the 2010 census. The community's name was changed from Petit Jean to Ola in December 1880. Deltic Timber is a major employer, though a number of Ola residents drive to Danville, Dardanelle and Russellville for work. Because of jobs in the poultry industry, there has been a large Hispanic influx into the area. The Hispanic population grew from 27 in the 1990 census to 231 in the 2010 census, and likely will be even higher when the 2020 census is conducted.

We cross the Petit Jean River north of Ola as we leave the Ouachita Mountains and enter the Arkansas River Valley. The land flattens out here and consists of cattle pastures and chicken houses--lots of chicken houses.

The sun is beginning to set as we enter Dardanelle, so we get off Arkansas 7 to make our way to the top of Mount Nebo. The state park store is about to close as we get the keys to our cabin, and it's starting to rain. We don't want to go back down the mountain, so we buy canned chili and crackers. Along with the peanuts purchased at Hollis, that will be our supper on a cold, rainy Tuesday night as we start a fire in the fireplace.

The rain has stopped by the time we awake early the next morning. Paul, who packed his own coffee beans and grinder, makes coffee. After a short drive around the top of the mountain, we head down, reconnect with Arkansas 7, and cross the Arkansas River into Russellville. Breakfast at the Arkansas classic known as Old South Restaurant, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1999, beckons.

The Art Moderne modular diner was built in six days in 1947 out of manufactured parts produced by the National Glass & Manufacturing Co. of Fort Smith. A similar Old South restaurant earlier had opened at Fort Smith but is long gone. The Russellville restaurant serves one of my favorite breakfasts in the state. I like to get things I can't often find on menus elsewhere, and so corned beef hash is my choice on a chilly morning.

We don't have as far to traverse as we had the previous day. We take our time at breakfast before heading north through Dover and into the Ozark Mountains. We pass the remains of the Booger Hollow tourist trap, which has been closed for years, and stop at the National 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 here 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.

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, we determine that a stop for pie and coffee at the Cliff House Inn, six miles south of Jasper, is de rigueur for anyone traveling this stretch of Arkansas 7.

In 1960, Kenneth and Fern Carter were driving along Arkansas 7 on a Sunday afternoon when Kenneth got out, looked down at what's now known as Arkansas' Grand Canyon, and told his wife he wanted to build a motel on the site. He bought the land in February 1964. A gift shop and five-unit motel opened on May 27, 1967. The restaurant was added in the 1970s. The Cliff House went through a succession of owners until Mike and Becky McLaurin of Shreveport bought it in 2006.

The next two stops are so we can walk around the downtown squares at Jasper and Harrison. Both are county seats, but they're far different places. Jasper, the county seat of Newton County, had a population of only 466 people in the 2010 census. Harrison, the county seat of Boone County, had a population of 12,943.

The trip is nearing its end as we leave Harrison and drive north through Bergman, South Lead Hill, Lead Hill and finally Diamond City.

Diamond City on the shore of Bull Shoals Lake had 782 residents in the most recent census. Most of them are retirees. Construction of Bull Shoals Dam began in 1947 and was completed in 1952. Real estate speculators wasted no time buying up farms near the lake. A developer named Henry Dietz incorporated Diamond City in June 1960. In May 1966, it was consolidated with the neighboring community of Sugarloaf.

We stop the vehicle at the park where Arkansas 7 ends, walk to the shore of Bull Shoals, and throw a few rocks in. We look north across the water toward Missouri and contemplate all we've seen during these two days. Arkansas 7 has taken us through four of the state's six distinct geographic areas--the Gulf Coastal Plain, the Ouachita Mountains, the Arkansas River Valley and the Ozark Mountains; everything but Crowley's Ridge and the Delta.

From Hartwell Smith Jr. at Smith's Liquor Store in the pine woods of Ouachita County in south Arkansas to Connie Hawks at the Hollis Country Store in the Ouachita Mountains of Perry County, we've visited with the type of rural Arkansans who give this state its soul. The trip has reminded us what a varied, fascinating place Arkansas is.

Reluctantly, we point our vehicle south and begin the trip home to Little Rock.

Editorial on 12/17/2017

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