OPINION | REX NELSON: Newton County revived

You can imagine the buzz around Newton County, that rural spot in the Ozarks that recorded just 8,330 residents in the 2010 census. Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops fame is bringing his magic touch to this part of Arkansas.

Yes, that Johnny Morris. The billionaire who gave new life to the moribund Pyramid on the banks of the Mississippi River at Memphis. The man whose attractions in nearby southwest Missouri--the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium, Big Cedar Lodge, the Top of the Rock Ozarks Heritage Preserve and Native American Museum, Dogwood Canyon Nature Park--bring visitors from across the country. The man has the Midas touch.

Morris' parents were born in the Ozarks at Willard, Mo., in 1911. His mother Genny was one of 10 children who grew up in a two-bedroom house. His father, John A. Morris, grew up poor and was raised by a great-aunt. John A. Morris participated in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II, then returned to Missouri to go into business at Springfield.

By age 21, Johnny had fallen in love with competitive bass fishing and spent five years on the professional circuit. He started Bass Pro Shops with eight square feet of space in the back of his father's Springfield liquor store.

His Bass Pro empire grew quickly, and Morris later bought out a major competitor, Cabela's. He now operates almost 200 retail stores across the country. More than 200 million visitors enter those stores each year. The flagship location at Springfield and the Pyramid at Memphis are leading tourist attractions in their respective states. Many of the stores have large aquariums to go along with extensive wildlife mounts. Some feature Uncle Buck's Fishbowl & Grill restaurants and ocean-themed bowling adventures.

In 1978, Morris' White River Marine Group came out with Bass Tracker, the first professionally rigged and nationally marketed boat, motor and trailer package. In 2010, Tracker Marine Group surpassed Brunswick to become the leading boat manufacturer in the world.

Big Cedar Lodge, which Morris began developing three decades ago, has about a million visitors annually. The lodge's rooms, cottages and cabins on Table Rock Lake are part of a 4,600-acre resort that has four restaurants, a spa, five swimming pools, more than 20,000 square feet of meeting space and both land and water adventures ranging from lake cruises to horseback riding. There also are golf courses.

Like other Arkansans, I can't wait to see what Morris does with the old Dogpatch USA property in Newton County. His quote following the announcement earlier this month that he had purchased the property was tantalizing: "We're very excited to have this opportunity to restore, preserve and share this crown jewel of Arkansas and the Ozarks so everyone can further enjoy the wonderful region we call home. We're going to take our time to restore the site, dream big and imagine the possibilities to help more families get back to nature."

When Morris dreams big, he dreams really big. The final summer for the amusement park to operate at Dogpatch was 1993. Newton County's hopes of attracting tens of thousands of people to the park each year had ended. But something interesting has happened since then. People ranging from Oklahoma oil and gas executives to Arkansas automobile moguls have built second homes in Newton County. Others rent cabins. That trend will accelerate in the years to come.

I sometimes go to Newton County to visit my friend Walter "Bubba" Lloyd Jr., a North Little Rock businessman who has a second home here. Sensing an increase in well-heeled visitors to the area, Lloyd earlier this year opened Bubba's Buffalo River Store, a decidedly upscale shop in downtown Jasper.

Sensing the same thing, Eddie Watkins (we grew up together in Arkadelphia decades ago) purchased the historic Arkansas House Inn in downtown Jasper in order to house overnight visitors. He's also hoping to reopen the restaurant there.

At Nick Bottini's Low Gap Cafe, which is in a former store between Mount Sherman and Ponca, visitors show up for fine dining. Bottini once told Arkansas Living magazine: "My grandfather and mother were full-blooded Sicilian. I learned from them. I studied five years at culinary school in New York. Then I went back to California, bounced around at various restaurants and resorts, and eventually ended up in Arkansas after visiting relatives and falling in love with the state. Horseshoe Canyon Ranch is just up the road, and we're only a few miles from the Buffalo River."

You don't expect to find a classically trained chef in Newton County, but Bottini makes magic happen in his small kitchen. Weekends often feature live music on the restaurant's deck.

Horseshoe Canyon, meanwhile, has become a well-known dude ranch under the steady leadership of Barry and Amy Johnson. It's one of those places that attract tourists with lots of money to spend. In addition to families who spend the week there, Horseshoe Canyon has become a favorite spot for rock climbers from around the world.

Ponca-based Buffalo Outdoor Center also has gained a nationwide reputation. Mike Mills started BOC as a canoe rental operation in 1976. The Buffalo River had been designated a national river just four years earlier. There are now modern log cabins, a lodge, a general store, zip lines and much more. In the process, Mills became a legend in the Arkansas tourism industry.

There are various artisanal products that come from the county. One example is honey harvested by Watkins for his Buffalo River Honey Co. I don't claim to be a honey connoisseur, but it's the best I've tasted.

"Our bees harvest nectar from wildflowers untouched by chemical pesticides," Watkins says. "Each year our honey, like fine wine, varies according to the flower blooms and the impact of the seasons. One thing remains constant: The character of our honey is unlike any you have ever tasted. You've not tasted pure wild honey until you taste our honey. We honor and practice our ancient craft much as beekeepers have through the centuries. Our bees have bred with wild strains. We avoid chemicals and manage pests with essential oils."

It seems that the best days are still ahead for Newton County, through which flow the Buffalo and Little Buffalo rivers. This was once part of Carroll County. In late 1842, the Legislature created a new county in the Ozarks and named it after a U.S. marshal, Thomas Willoughby Newton. There were only 24 slaves in the county in the 1860 census.

A strong Union sentiment was present in these hills, and that resulted in a base of ancestral Republicans who thrived in Newton County when there were few Republicans elsewhere in Arkansas. Long before the rest of the state began to go red politically, Newton County had plenty of residents whose loyalties were with the GOP.

The Civil War split families here. Guerrilla warfare was common, and some families moved into caves. Change came slowly to Newton County in the decades after the war.

"Smaller farms were prevalent, while larger farms existed near the rivers," C.J. Miller writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Potatoes, apples and peaches supplemented the main crop, corn. Cotton provided the cash crop for the Buffalo River valley. Lumber camps developed. Whether for added income or personal use, the production of moonshine made use of the surplus corn. A legend was born as Beaver Jim Villines became known for this trapping ability. Visitors went to Marble Falls and Tom Thumb Spring for the water's healing power."

Newton County hit its population peak in the 1900 census with 12,538 residents. It was thought that Dogpatch would change everything when plans for the amusement park were announced in 1967. It didn't, but Johnny Morris might.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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