The Crystal River Cave gave birth to Cave City, a town that straddles the border between Sharp County and Independence County in the Ozark Mountains of north-central Arkansas.
"The cave has played a pivotal role in the history of the community," Mike Cumnock writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "For thousands of years, it has served as a temporary shelter, source of water and a fascinating place to visit. Settlers in the 19th century also used the cave for food storage because of its cool temperature. For many years, a well into the Crystal River was the major source of water--other than collected rainwater--for the entire area. There was a fascination with an endless source of water that remained a constant 57 degrees. The limestone cavity is well insulated deep underground and is undisturbed by activities that are more than 75 feet above it."
The cave was referred to as Horn's Cave in the early 1800s for the family that owned the land above it. Among the superstitious hill folk, stories spread of people who were alleged to have gone into the cave and never come out. For that reason, some people were scared to enter. The cave later was purchased by Dr. G.T. "Doc Tom" Laman. Families stored their milk, butter and produce in the cool cave.
"A letter appeared in the Sharp County Record in August 1881 promoting the curative effects of the cave water," Cumnock writes. "Crystal River Cave was one of the first caverns in Arkansas to be opened for tourists, and the cave was marketed as having medical benefits in the latter part of the 19th century. The cave contains at least five rooms, 75 to 100 feet below the surface. The river rises and falls with the Mississippi River, which is about 150 miles to the east. It contains a species of fish that are not only sightless but eyeless."
To understand the efforts of a new generation of leaders who are attempting to put Cave City back on the map, it's important to know the story of Hubert Clarence Carpenter, a Cave City native who once owned the H.C. Carpenter & Co. store in his hometown. Carpenter also worked at points in his life as a postal carrier and teacher.
In 1934, Carpenter purchased the land surrounding the mouth of the Crystal River Cave with the goal of making it a tourist attraction. He hired a carpenter and stonemason named Prince Matlock to build stone exteriors of local fieldstone. Carpenter also convinced a farmer at Calamine to sell him round geodes that the farmer said were taken from rock walls constructed by Native Americans. Carpenter paid the farmer 50 cents for each 15-gallon washtub filled with geodes.
Matlock then embedded the geodes along with petrified wood and Native American relics such as arrowheads into the walls of an office building, five residential structures that made up the tourist court, a structure at the entrance to the cave and a pumphouse. Matlock also built retaining walls, fences, arched gateways and paths on the property.
In June 1991, what's known as the Crystal River Tourist Camp Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In the application, the 1930s folk architecture was described as "quirky, unusual, puzzling and fantastic."
Carpenter and his wife lived on the property for several years before building a stone house across the street. They operated a small museum that housed Native American relics that had been found in the cave. The tourist court closed in the 1950s. It has reopened and closed again numerous times in the decades that followed.
The tourist court and cave are closed these days. The buildings need a lot of work. The property is in private hands, though the leaders of Cave City--modern-day versions of H.C. Carpenter--would love to see some sort of public-private partnership revive the Crystal River Cave and Court.
I'm just down the street in the modern stone-and-glass building that houses the Bank of Cave City. Built in 2013, it serves as an anchor for Cave's City small downtown. The bank's former home, just on the other side of a parking lot, is now the library. I'm visiting in the bank's community room with John Beller, the 40-year-old president and chief executive officer, and Jonas Anderson, Cave City's 35-year-old mayor. About two-thirds of Arkansas is losing population these days. Finding dynamic young leaders such as these in small, rural towns is a challenge.
Cave City, which had 1,909 residents in the most recent estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau (up five people from 1,904 in the 2010 census), could provide a lesson in leadership for rural communities across the state.
The Bank of Cave City was organized by several area families in 1906 with James Laman as its first president. In 1919, J.M. "Roe" Street became the bank's president and served in that capacity until his death in 1942. His son, Eagle Street, was the bank's president from 1942-84. The bank has been controlled by the same family for a century. "Roe" Street was Beller's great-great-grandfather, and Eagle Street was his great-grandfather. Grandfather Eugene Street was a bank president. So was John Beller's father, Sam Beller, who took on the role in 1997 and relinquished it to his son in May 2014.
John Beller graduated from Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia in 2001 and joined the bank in 2006. Anderson, the mayor, works in the information technology department of the Cave City School District. He was asked to take on the mayor's job in July of last year when the previous mayor retired. Anderson was elected to a four-year term in the fall.
The walls of the community room at the bank are covered with old photos and framed newspaper stories. There's a framed campaign ad from when Eagle Street ran for the state Senate. Most of the photos concern the area's history of growing watermelons. A melon growers' association was formed at Cave City in 1938. By 1958, the association had 127 members with about 1,000 acres planted in watermelons in Sharp and Independence counties. At the time, Ellis and Ernest Landers had the largest melon farm with 45 acres planted.
Watermelon slices were served at Cave City's annual Fourth of July picnic, which began in the 1890s and brought hundreds of people to town. A June 1899 article in the Sharp County Record noted that the "rents for swings and lemonade stands will be used toward buying a windmill to draw water from the cave."
The picnic eventually was discontinued. In 1980, Charles and Anita Landers (Charles' father was the aforementioned Ernest Landers) decided to start the Cave City Watermelon Festival. When the Landerses tired of doing the event by themselves, a younger group of activists took it on. They've taken the festival to the next level. That group is spearheaded by Julie Johnson, the technology coordinator for the school district.
The mayor estimates that between 12,000 and 14,000 people attended last year's three-day event. There are nine commercial growers in the area, and the fame of Cave City watermelons has spread statewide. When the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame inducted its inaugural class in 2017, the Cave City Watermelon Festival was named the first food-related festival of the year.
"We now have people who drive from out of state just to buy melons," Anderson says. "But we're just scratching the surface on how much we can do here. There's so much more that we have planned."
When it comes to young leaders, Anderson and Beller have company. Several members of the Cave City School Board are in their 30s, and the police chief is 34. Residents take pride in a school district of 1,175 students that has 20 bus routes serving a 285-square-mile area of Sharp, Independence and Izard counties. They also take pride in the library. The idea of turning the former bank headquarters into a branch of the county library system came from Beller's grandmother.
"She told me that she thought it would be a good idea, and then she reminded me of that on a daily basis," Beller says.
The mayor's grandmother, Vera Mae Anderson, is the librarian.
After visiting the library, we head to nearby Brood Farm, where Beller's wife Ashley does everything from teaching cheese-making classes to hosting field trips for school groups.
The Brood Farm website states: "Yes, we will grow. Slowly and on our small, family scale. One of us works off the farm and loves it. The brood spend lots of days at school. But we will grow. We have plans for a you-pick orchard, for Thanksgiving turkeys, for some custom meats. ... We are not out to change the world. We are just out to share the delicious fruit of this way of life with folks who want to try it out. We are so lucky to live in Cave City where good, smart growers market incredible watermelons and cantaloupes; where farmers raise cattle and chickens and even a few sheep and goats and pigs; and where lots of our neighbors grow great tomatoes. We are proud to be rooted in the sandy, rocky soil of this part of the world, and as we work to be good small farmers of it, we will work to be good neighbors to the folks who celebrate it and struggle in it too."
Brood Farm sells grass-fed beef, what it calls forest-raised pork (pigs are allowed to roam in the woods), eggs from free-range hens, raw goat milk and goat milk soaps and lotions.
"This thing can be as big as Ashley wants it to be," John Beller says.
John and Ashley Beller strike me as a rural version of Chip and Joanna Gaines, the Waco, Texas, couple whose home renovation television show Fixer Upper took the nation by storm and led to a multimillion-dollar empire. I can picture the Bellers and their children starring in their own reality show.
For now, though, the focus is on bringing more people--both residents and visitors--to Cave City and the surrounding area.
John Beller and Anderson take me to a facility where UniFirst Corp. employs almost 100 people to make 500,000 customized floor mats each year for businesses across the country; to the place where Bald Eagle Barns manufactures storage buildings that are sold across the region; to the recently opened Harris Farm & Home store; to the busy Cave City Pharmacy and to a downtown retailer known as Sass 'N' Bass that has everything from fishing tackle to clothes to coffee beans.
"People no longer have to leave Cave City to buy their Christmas gifts," Anderson says.
The same spirit that led H.C. Carpenter to make Cave City a tourist attraction in the 1930s now drives John and Ashley Beller, Jonas Anderson and a whole cast of Cave City residents under the age of 45. In a state that's becoming more urbanized by the day, most small towns' best days are behind them. If this group has its way, Cave City's best days are still ahead.
Editorial on 01/13/2019
Print Headline: Reconfiguring Cave City