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OPINION | REX NELSON: A history of hospitality

by Rex Nelson | July 25, 2021 at 1:47 a.m.

By the 1930s, the era known as the Big Cut--which had begun in the 1880s as northern-owned companies moved into Arkansas to harvest virgin timber--was ending. In the pine-covered hills of southwest Arkansas, that meant a loss of jobs.

Montgomery County had a population of 12,455 in the 1910 census. By the 1960 census, that number had dropped to 5,370. The closure of sawmills and the onset of the Great Depression led to thousands of people moving out of the area. It took the construction of Lake Ouachita to finally turn things around.

Blakely Mountain Dam on the Ouachita River, which impounds the largest lake completely within the borders of Arkansas at more than 40,000 acres, was largely finished by 1952. The power plant generated its first electricity in July 1955. The official dedication occurred July 4, 1956. Construction workers had removed almost 4 million cubic yards of earth from the surrounding area to build the dam at a final cost of $31 million.

One of the first resorts (really just fishing camps in those days) to spring up along the south bank of the lake was Shangri-La. Daniel Maurice Hunter and Louise Mowbray Hunter owned the business with six motel rooms and two cabins.

Austin Carr constructed most of the buildings at Shangri-La, and his wife, Varine Carr, helped run the kitchen. The Carrs came to work at Shangri-La in June 1956, a month before it opened.

The restaurant had five tables. Guests would drive up to a window to check into a motel room or cabin.

The Carrs became part owners in the late 1970s and full owners in 2006. Shangri-La is known for its food, especially homemade pies. Ida Todd, Rosemary Johnson, Ila Green and Varine Carr are among those who have made pies through the decades.

Carr is still there before daylight each morning. When I stopped by Shangri-La for lunch recently, she was at her post behind the lobby counter, as always seems to be the case.

"The details of the eatery weren't lost on me," wrote longtime Arkansas food historian Kat Robinson. "As a handsome older couple came in, sat, and talked at a table near the bar, I looked up and noticed the clock face actually set into a panel in the wall with the numbers neatly arranged around it. I regarded the mounted bass on the walls. I wondered if the pie cases were original.

"Everything from the curved white chairs to the criss-cross latticework near the wait stand seemed so set in place. Someone needs to shoot a movie here."

That's what I always think when I visit Shangri-La. It's a movie set, like stepping back into the 1950s.

Austin Carr died in 2004. In addition to the restaurant and marina, there are now 29 units for rent, and 85 percent of the business is from repeat customers.

An article in the Montgomery County News noted: "Philip Carr (son of Austin and Varine Carr) said many of their customers are third- and fourth-generation guests. He joked that they could pretty much set their schedule in the kitchen every year based on who they knew would come. Not much has changed at the resort, with the newest rooms having been built in the 1970s. Updates have been made, but everything still looks pretty much the same as it did years ago.

"The best thing about the resort, according to Philip, is watching people bring their kids to share the experience with them, just as their parents did a generation ago. He recalled how in the 1970s many guests in the spring and fall were older couples who would stay for two months at a time."

What Bill Barnes (the subject of the cover story in today's Perspective section) remembers most about Shangri-La is the pool. Nearby Mountain Harbor Resort & Spa has been owned by the Barnes family since 1955 when Hal Barnes discovered a harbor he liked near Hickory Nut Mountain.

Son Bill still runs the operation, the fanciest of the private developments along the lake. Mountain Harbor boasts a spa, three swimming pools, the most upscale condos on Lake Ouachita, and a conference center.

"My dad and the original owner of Shangri-La didn't like each other for some reason even though there was plenty of business for both of them," Bill Barnes says. "They had a swimming pool before we did, and I would sneak over there to swim. I can remember coming up for air one day and seeing their owner looking down at me. He said sternly: 'Young Barnes, get back over to Mountain Harbor.'"

The resorts along the lake are mostly along the southern shore since that area is easily accessible from Hot Springs via U.S. 270. The northern shore of Lake Ouachita is much more remote.

In addition to Mountain Harbor and Shangri-La, there's Brady Mountain Resort, which has a marina with 650 slips, a store, lakeside lodging and seasonal dining. There's Echo Canyon Resort, once known as Spillway Resort & Marina, with a marina, lodging and restaurant.

Crystal Springs Resort has a marina with a snack bar and gift shop, a restaurant open during the summer, a motel, cabins overlooking the marina, and a 14-bedroom lodge with meeting facilities.

The closest of the private ventures to Mount Ida is Lake Ouachita Shores Resort, once known as Denby Point Lodge & Marina. It offers motel rooms, cabins and a marina. The businesses along the lake appear to be doing a booming business this summer.

The late Clay Farrar, a Hot Springs attorney who specialized in the history of this part of Arkansas, once wrote: "The terrain of the Ouachita River between Mountain Pine and Mount Ida is almost perfectly suited as a location for a flood-control lake because of its mountainous character. The lake holds back what otherwise would be torrential floods downriver. Lake Ouachita provides flood protection for south Arkansas and central Louisiana.

"A second reason the federal government chose the upper Ouachita River as the site for Lake Ouachita was hydroelectric power generation. As the Ouachita River flows east from the Mount Ida area to Hot Springs, the elevation drops from about 650 feet to 400 feet below the dam."

In a story for what's now the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, Jay Harrod noted the trying times for poor farmers who attempted to settle this region.

"For years, settlers around the upper region of the Ouachita River endured flooding because of the stream's steep drop in elevation followed by a slight ascent," he wrote. "As early as 1870, the federal government was conducting surveys to determine what could be done to stop the floods. In the 1890s, subsequent studies brought recommendations for a series of dams, while a survey completed in 1909 first pointed out the added benefit of power production.

"Congress, however, determined the project didn't warrant taxpayer support, and it was shelved until the 1920s when Arkansas Power & Light Co. became interested in harnessing the river's potential power."

Early settlers were drawn to springs in the area, which they believed had healing powers.

"In 1907, businessman W.M. Cecil hoped to cash in on some of the magic," Harrod wrote. "He purchased land surrounding natural springs, which is now part of Lake Ouachita State Park. The land was homesteaded by John McFadden, who discovered the springs in 1875. McFadden failed to meet federal homesteading laws, and the land changed ownership twice before ending up in Cecil's possession.

"Cecil developed the area as McFadden's Three Sisters Springs Resort (it's said the springs were named for McFadden's three daughters). By the 1930s, Cecil had built several tourist facilities, including summer cottages and the World's Wonder Waters bottling plant. In marketing his bottled water and the resort, Cecil claimed the spring water could cure a variety of ailments. In 1939, Cecil sold his resort. The land eventually was acquired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1951."

I don't know that Cecil's bottled water could cure what ailed you. But I do know that the pie at Shangri-La can.


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

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