The square in downtown Jasper is hopping on this Saturday afternoon. Bubba's Buffalo River Store is filled with visitors.
Opened in March 2020 by North Little Rock businessman Walter "Bubba" Lloyd Jr., who long has had a house in Newton County, Bubba's isn't like those tacky tourist shops that once dotted the Arkansas Ozarks. It's filled with high-quality shirts, caps, coffee mugs and other goods that well-heeled visitors are willing to pay for.
Jasper, which only has about 700 residents, is changing. Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, purchased the Dogpatch USA property, and there's dirt work going on that's likely costing Morris millions of dollars. Depending on what Morris does with the land (and all of his projects are first class), Jasper just might be Arkansas' next hot spot for tourists.
Just across East Court Street from Bubba's Buffalo River Store stands the old Gordon Motel. It recently was purchased by investors from northwest Arkansas who have big plans for the property. Harold Gordon moved to Jasper from Bogalusa, La., and purchased the motel from his uncle in 1970. In 1987, Gordon opened Buffalo Canoe. Four years later, he added a canoe factory at Spider Branch. Gordon died in 2017 at age 81.
For more than 40 years, Gordon Motel had a partnership with the National Park Service, having obtained one of the original canoe rental permits when the Buffalo was designated by Congress as the country's first national river. Outdoor recreation such as paddling the Buffalo is now more popular than ever. That popularity, combined with Morris' Dogpatch purchase, has investors taking a look at the stone buildings around the Newton County Courthouse.
One such investor is Fred Lydick of Oklahoma City, president of an investment and holding company known as Living Investment. Seed money for Living Investment (which specializes in multifamily housing) came from Lydick's sale of the high-tech company Expertcity. His wife, Amanda Villines, is the Living Investment chief financial officer and hails from Newton County.
"Her family has been there for generations," Lydick says. "I fell in love with the area 25 years ago when I fell in love with her. We decided to buy the Ozark Cafe to provide an opportunity for my wife's parents. It has kind of gone from there."
Lydick has since purchased other buildings in Jasper.
"The pandemic has folks leaving big cities," he says. "I don't have a crystal ball, but I think there will be a bunch of new folks coming to Jasper in the years ahead. Across the country, people are flocking to places like this."
Eddie Watkins, with whom I grew up in Arkadelphia decades ago, came to the Ozarks to raise bees. I'm biased since I've known him for so long, but his Buffalo River Honey is the best I've had. Two years ago, he purchased Arkansas House, a six-room bed-and-breakfast inn downtown.
Watkins has made numerous improvements, including the reopening on weekends of an adjacent restaurant. Now known as Boardwalk Bistro at Arkansas House Inn, we enjoyed a gourmet lunch prepared by chef Wyatt Foley from Harrison, whose cooking has taken this part of Arkansas by storm.
The buildings housing the inn and restaurant along Jasper Creek were built in 1928 and 1935. Many of the rock buildings and walls downtown were constructed during that era by Gould Jones. While in Bubba's, I visit with his nephew, 91-year-old Jolly B. Jones. Bubba's sells volumes of Jolly's poetry.
Jolly is one of those characters who make visits to the Ozarks so fun. He hasn't had a television since 1972 and once rode a motorcycle to the Arctic Circle.
Business leaders in Newton County once thought Dogpatch USA would change everything for the better. Decades later, it might be Morris and folks such as Lloyd, Lydick and Watkins who put Jasper on the map.
Albert Raney Sr. listed his trout farm for sale in 1966. A real estate investor in Harrison, Oscar Snow, found additional investors and went to Al Capp with the idea of a theme park based on Capp's 'Li'l Abner' comic strip. The town of Marble Falls just north of Jasper even changed its name to Dogpatch.
The cost of construction was $1,332,000 with the park featuring the trout farm, buggy and horseback rides, an apiary, Ozark arts and crafts, gift shops, entertainment by Dogpatch characters and a railroad when it opened in 1968. Amusement rides were added in subsequent years.
Arkansas businessman Jess Odom purchased a controlling interest in 1968 and hired former Gov. Orval Faubus as general manager.
By 1972, Odom had bought out most of the remaining partners and constructed a winter sports complex called Marble Falls on the hill overlooking Dogpatch. The idea that you could have winter sports as far south as Arkansas was the beginning of the end. Dogpatch declared bankruptcy in November 1980.
Wayne Thompson's Ozark Entertainment Inc. purchased the theme park but not Marble Falls and operated Dogpatch from 1981-87 before selling it to Melvyn Bell. The park's final season was 1993. In November 2001, Bell was indicted by a federal grand jury for tax evasion. The trial was delayed repeatedly because of Bell's health problems. The case was dismissed two months before Bell died.
Arkansas has a history of people such as Bell who promise big things and fail to deliver. Those who have followed Morris' career know he can and will deliver.
The courthouse on the Jasper square was completed in 1942 as a Works Progress Administration project. Arkansas 7 from Harrison to Jasper was finally paved in the 1950s.
Locals gather with visitors to eat at Ozark Cafe on the square, which has been around since 1909. It's part of the Jasper Commercial Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The restaurant has expanded through the years to include parts of three buildings. The cafe has had 14 sets of owners during its 112 years.
"This is the kind of place where regulars have their own tables and waitresses know what some patrons are going to order before the customer even sits down," Julianna Goodwin wrote for the News-Leader in Springfield, Mo. "The menus are printed on newsprint, and the restaurant is decked out in vintage signs and black-and-white photos. There are photos from all over Newton County, representing different founding families and moments in the town's history."
Other places in the county also are positioned to take advantage of the coming boom. Horseshoe Canyon, a nationally recognized dude ranch operated by Barry and Amy Johnson, has become a favorite spot for rock climbers from around the world.
Ponca-based Buffalo Outdoor Center also has gained a sterling reputation. Mike Mills, a legend in Arkansas' tourism industry, started BOC as a canoe rental operation in 1976, four years after the national river designation. That business now has a large store, modern log cabins, a lodge, zip lines and more.
There's fine dining at Nick Bottini's Low Gap Cafe between Mount Sherman and Ponca.
"My grandfather and mother were full-blood Sicilian," Bottini says. "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."
In 2002, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission established the Ponca Elk Education Center across the road from BOC headquarters. On Arkansas 7 in Jasper, just north of the bridge over the Little Buffalo River, the Hilary Jones Wildlife Museum and Elk Information Center also offers a place for visitors to learn about the county.
"We're already crowded this summer, but you can sense that this place is just about to explode," Lloyd says. "Newton County's time has arrived."
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.