by Steve Lancaster 4/2/18
Two weeks ago, wife and I made our annual pilgrimage to Hot Springs for the races at Oaklawn racetrack. The drive from Fayetteville takes about three half hours, through gorgeous country. We often travel down highway 71 from Fayetteville to Alma. It is the old route through the mountains and little towns that are now more of a curiosity than settlement, West Fork, Greenland, Winslow, Mountainburg, Chester, and Rudy.
In Winslow the population is about 400, however, there are 15 churches which is one church for every 25 people in town. However, each appears self-supporting and on Sundays, the pews are mostly full. It is the rural folks coming to town that keep the churches up. Winslow has several unique qualities. It was the first town in Arkansas to have an all-female town council and mayor (1925). During the lumber boom, there were several mills in the area, a thriving downtown with three banks. Now all gone due to a fire in the 50s. Before universal air conditioning, Winslow was a destination for people from Fayetteville in the summer, breezes and average temperature about 10 degrees cooler.
The Boston Mountains, just south of Fayetteville were the source of most of the rail ties laid west of the Mississippi river in the 19th century. The bulk of the native white oak were clear cut to draw the nation from coast to coast by rail. Over the last 100 years new growth has covered the hills and dales of Northwest Arkansas, sadly little of the white oaks are left, but nature renews itself, if not in ways we approve.
Mountainburg, south of Winslow is a little larger, although the same fate awaits as most of the small communities in rural Arkansas. The lack of jobs and an increasingly older population will one day reach a breaking point. The only grocery closed recently so purchasing supplies requires a drive to the Wal-Mart in Alma about 20 miles. Not far from Mountainburg, is Chester. It sits on the rail line and has a small operating saw mill. Chester has a post office, elementary school and a B&B that does not have toilets inside the house, rural charm at its most rustic.
Rudy is mostly a suburb of Alma, it has a small community growing around the two truck stops. One of these has a sign in the window warning that the building is not a gun free zone and concealed and open carry is not only allowed but encouraged. It seems the highway socialists have taken the warning to heart. They have never been robbed, while the Pilot just down the street has been hit twice in the last year—go figure.
Fort Smith still is the largest city, at 88,000, in NW Arkansas, but the 2020 census may change that. Fayetteville was 72,000 in the 2010 and if you look at the combined corridor along I49 from Fayetteville to the Missouri border the total exceeds 300,000 and growing rapidly. Fort Smith sits on the Arkansas river and is an inland port. The river is wide here, about half a mile. 150 years ago, Fort Smith was the frontier and the home of Judge Parker, the famous hanging judge of Indian territory. His courtroom has been restored to its original frontier style, and the buildings in the area provide a sense of what this part of Fort Smith must have looked like to the soldiers serving in the post war years.
The model for Rooster Cogburn is Bass Reeves. Charles Portis used Reeves and other marshals as a composite for True Grit. Bass Reeves was one of the most famous marshals and was the first Black deputy US marshal in the west. It has been speculated that Reeves was the prototypical Lone Ranger. The US Marshal museum recently opened with tributes to these little-known law enforcement officers.
Heading South from Fort Smith along 71 there are no more large metro areas. We pass through the Ozark national forest into the Ouachita National Forest (Ok, it is pronounced Wash-it-tau). If your building a home anywhere within 1,000 miles the odds are the pine for the home was harvested here. The years from 2006-2017 were hard on the lumber industry here. Small mills shut down due to the lack of demand for lumber, and the larger mills like Travis Lumber worked reduced hours and only one shift. In the last year that has changed dramatically. Small mills have reopened, and the large mills are running a second shift and Saturdays. There is a feeling of optimism in the small communities along highway 71.
As we turn to the east towards Hot Springs driving through the mountains along the Ouachita River, spring is definably about to happen. There are thousands of trees with white blossoms that Yankees mistake for dogwoods but are actually Bradford Pear trees. Yes, they are pretty but only a Yankee would not know the difference.
Pencil Bluff and then Mount Ida the largest towns between Waldron and Hot Springs. If you’re a collector of crystals or geodes, then Mount Ida is your home away from home. Both communities are slowly becoming retirement and sports destinations and neglecting their farming roots. Cattle are the mainstay among those who still work the land.
Coming into Hot Springs the highway becomes Albert Pike and not far from downtown is McClard’s BBQ. In my not so humble opinion one of the best BBQ in the state, if not the nation. A meal at McClard’s is close-packed, loud and delicious. The furnishings are the 1960s and until recently they only accepted cash, no credit cards or non-local checks, and they still close on Sunday.
Turning onto Central Ave. on one side is the Monument to Confederate soldiers. Four flags fly over the memorial, US, Arkansas, Bonnie Blue, and the First National. The monument and ground are owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). There is not, and I don’t believe ever has been, an Army of Northern Virginia Battle Flag flown here. Yankee’s apparently believe the Bonnie Blue and First National are flags from the Revolutionary War, a testament to the poor state of education in the US.
Directly across from the memorial is the “Landmark” building. For 75 years the building was not an office building, but the Como Hotel one of the best brothels in the South. Sadly, it was closed in the 60s and its sordid past aggressively disremembered.
Driving up Central the celebrated bathhouses are on the right. Most have been restored as tourist sites and not operating bathhouses. It’s possible to still take the waters in Hot Springs, but it now takes some effort. The best place for that is the Arlington Hotel.
The Arlington is the grand hotel of Hot Springs. Time and deferred maintenance have had their effect on her from the glory days of the 20s and 30s. However, new owners are investing millions in refurbishing the rooms and fixing items that have been postponed for years. It is too bad that the Trump hotels did not purchase the hotel. I hope the new owners stay faithful to the traditions of the Hotel and Hot Springs. The Rebel Stakes is Saturday, St. Patrick’s Day. The question among professional and those not so skilled; is the Bob Baffert entry going to win again?
It is possible to drive to Oaklawn but avoid it if possible. During racing season traffic on Central, always a pain, is just not worth it on big race days. They are predicting a crowd of over 30,000 today and taking a shuttle from the Arlington is the better bet. It is $5 per person one way the best deal your likely to get for the day.
Oaklawn is very much like any other major horse racing track in the nation. Admission is free, but it will cost you to get out. Racing form, program, food, and drink will run about 25 dollars per person. If you drove parking will cost another 10-30 dollars depending on how far you choose to walk. On major stakes days, the stands start filling when the gates open at 11 AM for a post time at 1 PM.
One of the advantages for the player going on these days is the large number of amateurs who will bet on anything with four legs. This is especially true in the early races which consist of low-level claimers, conditioned races, and maidens. Careful watching of the odds can produce overlays that are not normal, and the place and show pools do not reflect the true odds. It is possible to get a large payout on a second or third tier horse to place or show than an odds-on favorite to win.
The last three races of the day are the stakes races and the Rebel features 5 times in a row winner Bob Baffert entry, Solomimi with a morning line of 3-2. Attendance is at its peak, this year 37,000, a new record for the Rebel Stakes and the board reflects the large numbers with the handle going quickly to 500,000 dollars in the win pool. The total handle for the race will ultimately cross 1,000,000 dollars. It’s bad news for the Baffert fans. Solomimi does poorly and Magnum Moon wins easily.
We get back in time for prime rib buffet at the Arlington. A good night’s rest and a leisurely drive back the way we came to Fayetteville. It is an easy drive across a state that has been disparaged by the media as “flyover country”, but it is the heart of America. • (232 views)