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There has been a town called Mountain Home for decades. For all practical purposes, though, what we now know as Mountain Home is a recent creation.

In the 1940 census, there were just 927 Mountain Home residents. By 1960, the population had more than doubled to 2,105. By 1980, there were 8,066 residents. The current population is about 12,400 people.

On a trip south along Arkansas 5, I started and ended in places--Mountain Home and Heber Springs--that were altered by impoundments constructed during the 20th century by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The federal Flood Control Act of 1938 had authorized a series of dams along the White River and its tributaries in Arkansas and Missouri. Those dams transformed what were some of the most impoverished areas in the region.

The dams were such monumental projects that two presidents showed up for dedication ceremonies 11 years apart.

President Harry S. Truman spoke at the formal dedication of Norfork and Bull Shoals dams near Mountain Home in 1952. President John F. Kennedy spoke at the Greers Ferry Dam dedication near Heber Springs in 1963.

"The fortunes of Mountain Home and the surrounding area dramatically changed in the 1940s and early 1950s with the building of the Norfork and Bull Shoals dams," Clement Mulloy writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "These dams were part of a federal project to dam the White River basin to provide flood control and hydroelectric power. The project, a smaller version of the Tennessee Valley Authority, was also intended to stimulate commerce and industry throughout the region. Norfork Dam was completed in 1944. Bull Shoals Dam, one of the largest dams in the nation, was completed in 1951. Both were dedicated on July 2, 1952, with Truman as the keynote speaker.

"The construction of the dams was the most important event in the history of Mountain Home. The town was ideally situated

about midway between the two projects. Formerly an isolated rural community with few businesses or paved streets and fewer employment opportunities, Mountain Home suddenly became a boomtown with workers attracted by high-paying government jobs moving into the area. Businesses were established and houses built. Farms that had been abandoned during the Great Depression were re-occupied, safe from the threat of future flooding."

This remote mountain area became a draw for visitors from across the country, especially trout fishermen. Trout aren't native to the White River. The start of trout fishing followed the construction of the dams, which release cold water. In 1955, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service approved construction of Norfork National Fish Hatchery so trout could be stocked in the North Fork and White rivers. A 43.9-acre site just below Norfork Dam was chosen for the hatchery.

Hatchery employees began stocking trout in 1957. The hatchery was doubled in size in 1964. Rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout are raised there.

Among the early entrepreneurs who took advantage of the change was Al Gaston, who created Gaston's White River Resort at Lakeview in 1958. His son, Jim Gaston, inherited the business at age 20 in 1961. There were 20 acres, six small cottages and six boats at the so-called resort at the time.

Jim Gaston would go on to become a legendary figure in the state's tourism industry. The resort now covers 400 acres with two miles of river frontage. There are 79 cottages, a 3,200-foot airstrip and a well-known restaurant. Gaston died in July 2015, but Gaston's White River Resort continues to attract visitors from across the country. On the other side of Bulls Shoals Dam, Gaston Visitors Center for the Bull Shoals-White River State Park keeps his memory alive.

The Corps' six-lake White River basin system consists of four dams in Arkansas: Beaver and Bull Shoals on the White River, Norfork on the North Fork River and Greers Ferry on the Little Red River. There are also two dams in Missouri: Table Rock and Clearwater.

The 722-mile-long White River begins in the mountains of northwest Arkansas and flows east toward Fayetteville before turning north. It enters southern Missouri then flows southeast back into Arkansas. It transforms from a mountain stream into a slow Delta stream near Batesville.

The North Fork River begins near Mountain Grove in southern Missouri. It flows south for almost 110 miles before entering the White River in Arkansas. Lake Norfork covers parts of Baxter and Fulton counties in Arkansas and Ozark County in Missouri. Norfork Dam was built 4.8 miles before the North Fork empties into the White at the town of Norfork.

Private power companies had begun exploring the possibility of building a dam at Wildcat Shoals above Cotter on the White River in the early 1900s. A Corps report in 1930 recommended the Wildcat Shoals site. A decade later, an updated Corps report listed Bull Shoals as an alternative to Wildcat Shoals, which had unsuitable foundation conditions for a dam.

Construction of Norfork Dam began in 1941. Construction of nearby Bull Shoals Dam began in 1947. At the time of its completion, Bull Shoals was the fifth-largest concrete dam in the country. Construction of the powerhouse commenced in September 1950, and generation started two years later. The final two generating units were installed in 1963.

During his July 1952 visit, the outspoken Truman took a shot at the politically powerful Arkansas Power & Light Co. for its long opposition to the federally subsidized rural electrification project.

Congressman Claude Fuller of Arkansas was the leading advocate for a system of dams on the White River and its tributaries to control flooding. Fuller served in Congress from 1929-39. In 1938, Clyde Ellis defeated Fuller by 109 votes in the Democratic primary (winning the primary was tantamount to election in Arkansas in those days). Ellis immediately took up the fight for the dams. He argued that a dam with a power plant might be needed to meet production demands should the United States enter World War II. Ellis succeeded in getting funding and additional authorization for hydropower for Norfork Dam in 1941.

Norfork Dam was built entirely of concrete. A spur railroad line was used to move equipment and materials. A total of almost 27,000 railroad cars moved along the spur during construction. As the water began to rise, about 400 landowners had to relocate. Twenty-six cemeteries were moved before the lake started to fill on Feb. 1, 1943.

Largely because of the lakes, the population of Baxter County went from 10,281 in the 1940 census to 41,513 in the 2010 census.

The effect of having a big popular lake was just as dramatic to the south in Cleburne County. By 1960, the county's population had dropped to 9,059, lower than it had been in 1900. The number of residents had almost tripled to 25,970 by the 2010 census.

Cleburne County was the last of Arkansas' 75 counties to be formed. Travel was slow across the mountains to Clinton, the Van Buren County seat, in the late 1800s. Officers of Sugar Loaf Springs Land Co., who hoped to turn what's now Heber Springs into a health resort along the lines of Hot Springs and Eureka Springs, convinced Sen. Zachariah Bradford Jennings of Van Buren County to introduce a bill during the 1883 legislative session that would create a new county. The bill passed, and the county was carved from parts of Independence, Van Buren and White counties with Sugar Loaf (now Heber Springs) as the county seat. The county was named for Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne, who's buried at Helena.

When an application was submitted for a post office, the government rejected the name Sugar Loaf Springs. The name Heber was chosen in honor of Dr. Heber Jones of Memphis, son of an early owner of the site. From 1882 until 1910, the post office was called Heber and the town was called Sugar Loaf. The names of both were changed to Heber Springs in an attempt to attract more visitors.

An 1886 booklet promoting the area declared: "The sulphur springs are a cure for dyspepsia, headache, biliousness and hundreds of other ailments."

The coming of the Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad in 1908 increased the number of visitors.

"Tourists filled the 11 rooming houses and hotels that were built to serve them," Evalena Berry writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Doctors sent patients there to drink the mineral water for relief from nervous disorders and stomach ailments. Main Street thrived with a movie house, an open-air skating rink, an ice cream parlor, a bowling alley and other diversions. Fishing and picnics on the Little Red River were popular among residents and summer visitors."

Tourism declined during the Great Depression, and Cleburne County again needed a boost. That came in the form of Greers Ferry Dam, named after a ferry that had operated on the Little Red River. Work was completed in 1962, and Kennedy attended the formal dedication on Oct. 3, 1963. It was one of his final major trips before his assassination the following month in Dallas.

Development of the area was spurred even further by an Arkansas business titan, Herbert L. Thomas Sr. He was born in February 1899 in rural Ashley County in far south Arkansas. Early in life, Thomas became convinced that the insurance industry was a sector of the economy that could withstand downturns. He formed the Mutual Assessment Co. in 1923. By 1925, there were more than 10,000 policyholders. Many of them were rural Arkansans.

Thomas later incorporated the First Pyramid Life Insurance Co. of America and set up shop in the Southern Trust Building in downtown Little Rock, which he purchased in 1937 and renamed the Pyramid Life Building.

Thomas and his wife Ruby had fallen in love with the Greers Ferry area. In 1961, he purchased 500 acres near Heber Springs for a development that would become known as Eden Isle. Thomas' political connections paid off.

"For those wanting lakefront property, it was a gamble to buy land around the proposed dam site because no one knew exactly where the lake would be or what the water level would be ... until Herbert Thomas came along," writes Arkansas historian Rachel Patton. "Thomas knew Rep. Wilbur D. Mills and Sens. John L. McClellan and J. William Fulbright and was able to find out the location of the lake and its water level. He knew which land to purchase and when to purchase it."

Islands in Corps lakes cannot be privately owned. Knowing this, Thomas built a causeway that would be above lake level so what would become Eden Isle couldn't be classified by the federal government as an island. Thomas also had to build the causeway before the lake filled. When the lake was full, 400 of Thomas' 500 acres were above water.

Thomas began selling lots for homes and started construction on what he hoped would be one of the finest vacation destinations in this part of the country, the Red Apple Inn. The lodge and restaurant opened for business in 1963, burned in 1964 following a kitchen fire, and reopened in 1965.

Editorial on 03/10/2019

Print Headline: The shape of water: How a series of dams brought commerce, industry and tourism to a downtrodden stretch of our mountainous state


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  • Delta2
    March 10, 2019 at 10:29 a.m.

    Mountain Home hardly resembles Arkansas anymore. A lot of the population increase is due to snowbird yankees, especially from the Chicago area. You'd be hard pressed to hear a Southern accent during a walk through Walmart on any given day up there.

  • GeneralMac
    March 10, 2019 at 11:34 a.m.

    Mountain Home

    I'll bet the Walmarts in those towns experience way less shoplifting than the Walmarts in "your kind" of town, DELTA2 .

    Why is that ?............SARC

  • GeneralMac
    March 10, 2019 at 11:36 a.m.

    Thank you, Rex Nelson, for yet another of your interesting, highly informative, columns.,

  • Delta2
    March 10, 2019 at 12:09 p.m.

    Prove it, Carpetbagger.

    Got Meth?

  • GeneralMac
    March 10, 2019 at 1:21 p.m.

    DELTA2......why does a town have to be over 50% BLACK with a crime rate over 2x the national average before you consider it "your kind of town " ?

  • Delta2
    March 10, 2019 at 1:45 p.m.

    I don't think I ever said that, Carpetbagger. I'm just not a fan of the Midwest, of which the Ozarks are more akin to. Since you're a displaced Yankee, you don't understand it, but during the Civil War the mountain counties were more likely to favor the Blue over the Gray. It's crazy that nowadays they try to pretend that they're the most Southern people around.

    Being a Southerner is much more than waving a Rebel flag and being a racist. That's why you don't get it.