The drive into Hochatown, an unincorporated community a few miles from the Arkansas border in southeastern Oklahoma, isn't what I expected. There are billboards everywhere. Even though it's a weekday and school is back in session, cars with Texas license plates are easy to spot on the narrow highway.
It appears the Branson phenomenon--which also took place only a few miles from the Arkansas border--is happening again. This time, instead of Midwesterners who flock to Branson, the Hochatown explosion is fueled by visitors from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. A summer weekend here can draw as many as 30,000 visitors.
Traffic backs up for miles on weekends. A temporary stoplight was put up to help control the flow.
"Hochatown, a resort town?" Richard Mize writes in The Oklahoman. "Yes, by next year, the booming spot in the road just north of Broken Bow, a longtime mountain retreat for those in the know, will be a literal resort town. The Choctaw Nation will see to it with its next big casino and resort hotel. It could be the next Branson, some say. It feels like the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, they say, and it's closer.
"In the meantime, Hochatown's thriving cabin rental business will surely keep luring vacationers and investors, mostly Texans, across the Red River to the Ouachita Mountains, 240 miles southeast of Oklahoma City and 170 miles northeast of Dallas. Most of the owners don't live in Hochatown--permanent population 242 in 2020--but their cabins are second homes when not being rented out."
I pass the casino construction site. It's next to an RV park where construction workers live. I walk into the Blue Rooster restaurant for lunch. It's filled with construction workers who are also busy building houses along what were once Weyerhaeuser-owned logging roads.
They call them "cabins," but many look like mansions to me. Some have gone up on roads that have yet to be paved. That's how fast the growth is at Hochatown.
Waiting for me at Blue Rooster are several civic leaders who are anxious to talk about the boom. In addition to cabins, there are new strip centers along the highway filled with restaurants, craft breweries and entertainment options ranging from ax throwing to video games.
The Hochatown boosters are in good moods. The previous day saw the McCurtain County commissioners agree to allow a November vote on incorporating Hochatown as a city. That would help ensure adequate police and fire protection.
For now, it's the wild wild West in this unincorporated rural region. It's estimated that as much as $800,000 in municipal tax revenue could be generated each month to fund a city government.
A volunteer firefighter joins us at our table and tells me that only two of 12 volunteers on his force live at Hochatown. Response times can be slow. Broken Bow tried to annex Hochatown, but those efforts failed.
"In the 1990s, the DFW folks began to find out about us," says Dian Jordan, considered the Hochatown historian. "They heard that trout were being stocked in the Mountain Fork River below Broken Bow Reservoir, so those who were into flyfishing were the first to come. Soon they learned they would get to go fishing more often if they brought their families with them. So they built cabins.
"The next big thing that happened was when a county tourism authority was established in 2003 and a tax on hotel rooms was instituted. That was originally a 10-year tax that we made permanent in 2013. Proceeds go for advertising in the Dallas market. It seems that all 7 million of them want to get out of town every weekend and come here."
The start of the pandemic in 2020 took things to the next level.
"The transient tourist population was already growing before the coronavirus, social distancing and other precautions made a nice cabin in the woods a safe place for a vacation, and extra-low mortgage rates sparked more investment," Mize writes. "It was like throwing moonshine on a fire in the woods around Hochatown, known from the 1920s to 1959, the year Prohibition ended in the state, as the Moonshine Capital of Oklahoma.
"The blast threw home prices to the sky and development into overdrive. ... At the end of last year, the median home sale price in the Broken Bow area, including unincorporated--for now-- Hochatown, was $658,000, up 65 percent from 2020, according to Realtor.com. By way of comparison, the median price in the Oklahoma City metro area ended 2021 at $230,000."
As an Arkansan, I find myself asking why all these Texans aren't coming to Arkansas instead of Oklahoma.
With all due respect to the Sooner State, the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas are more beautiful than the Ouachita Mountains of Oklahoma. There's more to do in Arkansas. And southwest Arkansas isn't all that much farther from the Metroplex than Hochatown.
We missed out on the economic benefits of the Branson boom by several miles. Will history repeat itself? Could there be a Hochatown East in Arkansas that attracts large numbers of visitors from Texas?
Days later, I find it. I'm riding a four-wheeler up the side of a mountain with Rick Williams, a developer who owns much of downtown Hot Springs, and Brian Gehrki of Gehrki Commercial Real Estate.
In 2014, Williams purchased 495 acres between Glenwood and Caddo Gap. He has renovated three historic cabins on the property. They're known as Bean Creek Cabins and are available for rental.
The Farmhouse is a two-story log cabin with modern conveniences that sleeps seven people. The Creekside Cabin sits on a creek and can sleep nine. The Bean Cabin, built in the 1800s, is the largest of the three. All are available for nightly and weekly rental.
If word of mouth starts spreading in Texas about how beautiful this spot is, I can see the surrounding acres--bordered by the Ouachita National Forest--filled with "cabins" like those being built at Hochatown. That, in turn, could lead to businesses at nearby Glenwood, Caddo Gap and Norman.
"The history around here is so rich," Gehrki says as we eat pasta for lunch at Ari's in Glenwood. "There was the Caddo Indian influence, the outlaws who would hang out in the hills and then the sawmills that were built when virgin timber was cut. It's just such a serene part of the state. I can be cynical and callous after 38 years in the commercial real estate business, but this is something pretty special."
The Bean family was once heavily involved in the timber industry. When Williams heard they were selling the property eight years ago, he pounced.
"I was just going to have a private place to go on the weekend," he says. "I collect things, and those cabins on the property appealed to me. I later decided other people should be able to enjoy this."
Though Williams might further develop the property, he has it listed for now with Sotheby's for $3,495,000. One never knows when a Texan might bite.
Williams--who owns buildings in downtown Hot Springs than once housed the Downtowner, Velda Rose and Howe hotels--clearly has an interest in this part of the Ouachita Mountains. We drive by a tiny cabin he rents out along the banks of the Caddo River in Norman. He also bought a dilapidated RV park at Norman and cleaned up the property.
Even though it doesn't receive the publicity the Buffalo River gets, this part of the Caddo above DeGray Lake is to south Arkansas what the Buffalo is to the northern half of the state: a scenic mountain stream for paddling and smallmouth bass fishing. If the folks in the Dallas-Fort Worth region discover it, it could one day be almost as busy as the Buffalo.
Looking at the old stone buildings in Caddo Gap and Norman, one can see the potential for charming restaurants, retail shops and overnight rentals. I don't want the gold-rush madness of Hochatown, but an infusion of Texas capital into remote Montgomery County certainly couldn't hurt.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.