Pictured above: A camel greeting at Rhoda Farm in Clinton. Photos by Joe David Rice.

 

The good folks at the Arkansas Department of Transportation have invested millions of tax dollars improving U.S. 65 from Conway to Harrison, leveling slopes, straightening curves and adding lanes. Travelers in a hurry can now easily make the 110-mile journey in two and a half hours.

 

It is not exactly a drive through the remote wilderness — with 45 churches, 10 Dollar Generals, five Sonic Drive-Ins, three Walmarts and two Dairy Queens along the way (not to mention an indoor shooting range, a winery, a quail preserve, a disc golf course, a wedding chapel, a psychic reader and even a heavy-equipment operating academy).

 

There are some interesting surprises, too, from camels to chocolate rolls. Here is an alternative: During the next trip north on U.S. 65 toward Harrison, Eureka Springs or Branson, make it a leisurely trip, and explore lesser-known highlights along the way.

Decadent chocolate rolls in Searcy County.

For starters, many have blown past the Village at Pickles Gap just a couple of miles north of Conway, never realizing that it is worth a stop. The Ranch House Antiques and Hazel Green, an upscale women’s boutique, are there, along with a half-dozen other retail establishments.

 

A mile or so beyond Greenbrier is the turnoff to Woolly Hollow State Park, a 375-acre reserve with a fishing lake, a seasonal swimming beach with a bathhouse, 40 camping sites, five trails (including a 9.4-mile option for mountain bikers) and the original 1882 one-room homestead of the Woolly family.

 

Continuing north, travelers cross North Cadron Creek, one of the state’s best canoeing streams during the wet months. A few miles upstream from the bridge is the site of Pinnacle Springs, a once-thriving community that had at least 10 bathhouses, eight stores, two hotels, a skating rink, a saloon and the Arkansas Christian College serving its population. The town fell into decline, the post office closed in 1891, and all that remains are scattered remnants of old foundations.

 

Damascus, the next point of interest, was known for years as a speed trap. That is no longer the case, but the town has another claim to fame: the site of a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile explosion. A 103-foot-tall rocket, buried in a silo a couple of miles north of Damascus, blew up on Sept. 19, 1980, following a rupture in a fuel tank, and ejected its nuclear bomb high into the air before crashing into a ditch 200 yards from the silo. Had safety devices failed, the warhead, with an explosive capacity 560 times that of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, Japan, would have obliterated Damascus and everything else within a 250-square-mile area.

 

Bee Branch, between Damascus and Clinton, has produced professional fisherman Larry Nixon; major league baseball players Jim McKnight and his son Jeff McKnight; and Amber Straughn, renowned astrophysicist and deputy project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope — not bad for a town of just under 300 residents.

 

About two miles north of Clinton, there is a large pasture just before the entrance to the Natural Bridge of Arkansas. Careful observers may spot a pair of camels in this field. Yes, that is correct — camels. The larger one is named Sampson, and the smaller is Titus. They are pets of Jill and Paul Rhoda, who have now owned and cared for camels for over 20 years, featuring them in Clinton’s annual “Behold the Lamb” live nativity program the first week after Thanksgiving.

Surprising sights lie around every corner on the route.

Sampson was only 2 weeks old when the couple got him and had to be bottle-fed for months. He is now 8 years old, and Titus is 4. The Rhodas learned that horses and cattle generally do not like camels upon first seeing them. By placing the camels in a pen within the pasture for a time, they got the animals accustomed to each other, and they get along. As for food, the camels graze alongside the other livestock, but Jill shared a secret: Camels enjoy doughnuts, honeybuns and cookies.

 

Next door is one of the state’s geological marvels: the Natural Bridge of Arkansas. Open daily from March through November, the commercial venture, which has a modest admission fee, includes a bluff shelter, a picnic area, two old cabins and, of course, the 120-foot natural span that is probably about 3 million years old.

 

Another three miles north on U.S. 65 is a short sign on the left, or west, side of the highway that reads “Bluffton Cemetery.” Follow this gravel road for about four miles, and travelers eventually arrive at the Bluffton Preserve, a 989-acre Nature Conservancy tract with four miles of frontage on the bluff-lined Archey Fork of the Little Red River. Hiking trails, canoe access, picnic tables and a wonderful swimming hole await, reminding many visitors of the Buffalo River, but getting there requires a high-clearance vehicle.

 

Roughly five miles later, travelers pass an interesting assortment of buildings on the left, one of them marked “The Zoo Church.” This is the site of the former Hallie’s Rest Stop, a tourist attraction dating back half a century ago. Owned by Harrison businessman Hallie Ormond, its amusements ranged from a zoo, pony rides and arcade games to a miniature railroad, of which portions of tracks remain.

 

In addition to this establishment, Ormond had acquired several thousand acres of timberlands in the area, much of it along the scenic Middle Fork of the Little Red River north of Shirley. Around 1980, Ormond offered the property to then-Gov. Bill Clinton for a state park. With tracts strategically located along the stream, it would have allowed canoeists to paddle until they tire, make camp, and then repeat this routine for another day or two.

 

Ormond, a long-standing Republican, met resistance from Clinton’s staff, sadly. The land appraised for $303 per acre, and Ormond wanted $313. Unable to compromise over that $10 per acre disagreement, the proposed deal fell through. Ormond sold the property a week later to a national timber corporation. It was, according to Richard Davies, director of Arkansas State Parks at the time, the single biggest disappointment in his 40-year career.

 

“The property was absolutely beautiful,” Davies said. “A combination of the best of the Buffalo River and Petit Jean Mountain.”

Leslie’s lovely downtown district.

As visitors approach Leslie, they will notice an assortment of stone yards. The oldest of the bunch is Sutterfield Stone. Established by C.D. Sutterfield in 1971, it still has an old A-frame structure built by the elder Sutterfield, who roofed the building with pancake-flat rocks. His granddaughter, Tabatha Wilson, the third generation of her family in the rock business, said things have changed over the decades. When her grandfather first started, local landowners willingly let him remove rocks from their properties at no charge. The business is now forced to buy them.

 

Leslie is worth a visit for its antique shops and historic downtown area. One chapter of Leslie’s past is pretty grim: Soon after the Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad closed its machine shops in town in 1912, a devastating fire broke out in the Williams Cooperage plant, destroying the large factory and putting hundreds of men out of work. A financial reorganization of the company collapsed, bringing Leslie’s economy down with it. In fact, things got so desperate in Leslie that the American Red Cross had to intervene, bringing in teams to feed the local children.

 

Dessert aficionados will find a special treat in Leslie and Marshall — chocolate rolls, an elongated pastry that delights the taste buds. Recognizing a marketing opportunity, civic leaders have proclaimed Searcy County the “Chocolate Roll Capital of the World.”

 

Architecture fans might enjoy examining the Dr. Sam G. Daniel House on Nome Street in Marshall, one block west of the courthouse square. Built in 1902-1903 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is a two-and-a-half-story house built in the Queen Anne Revival Style using cut lumber reportedly purchased from the Sears, Roebuck and Co.

 

Alert travelers will note a small sign reading “Zack Road” at the second traffic signal in Marshall. Zack, some five or six miles to the north, is the hometown of world-class yodeler and country music star Elton Britt. Political groupies might recognize Britt’s name because he ran against John F. Kennedy in 1960 for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president — unsuccessfully, as it turned out.

 

Shortly beyond the intersection with Zack Road is the Kenda Drive-In Theater, one of two such establishments remaining in the state (the other is some 35 miles to the east in Mountain View.) Opened in April 1966, the Kenda replaced the Ken Theater, a traditional venue in downtown Marshall that was operated by Ken Sanders and his family.

 

Named after his 1-year-old daughter, the Kenda screens popular Hollywood releases on weekends during the winter months and expands its schedule as the weather warms. The original speakers have been retrofitted to receive broadcasts from the theater’s own FM station, but vehicular radios also pick up the 88.9 FM signal. While the theater’s 400-car capacity is seldom approached, popular films such as Titanic and Top Gun: Maverick have drawn big crowds. The record attendance can be traced back years ago to a showing of Bootleggers, a 1974 production of Charles B. Pierce that was filmed in the nearby Buffalo River country. Now training its fourth generation, the family-owned attraction is in good hands.

Smith Barn in Marshall.

Classic wooden barns in Arkansas are fast disappearing, but travelers can spot one now and then on U.S. 65. Approximately four miles north of Marshall is perhaps the most photographed example in the entire state. Known as the Smith Barn, it was built by Calvin Stephenson in the late 1930s. Jerry Don and Judy Smith purchased it and the surrounding property in 2000 and began restoring the structure in 2002. If you are lucky, you might get a picture of the barn with a herd of elk in the background.

 

Another couple of miles will bring travelers to the junction with Arkansas 74. About seven miles to the west are the few remaining houses and stores in what was once the thriving community of Snowball. As for the name (there are only two Snowballs in the whole country), it appears the original settlers wanted their town to be named Snow Hall to honor a local leader. When they applied to the federal government for a post office, an employee in the postal service somehow recorded the name as Snowball, and that is what it has been called since 1888 (although the post office closed in 1966).

 

A local teacher named James Corbett Morris was a creative soul and composed a song — “The Battle of New Orleans” — to help his students in Snowball grasp American history. Morris later changed his name to Jimmy Driftwood, went to Nashville and signed a contract with RCA Records. Johnny Horton covered the above-mentioned song and won a Grammy for it in 1960.

 

Continuing north on U.S. 65 will bring travelers to a road to the left that leads to the Tyler Bend Visitor Center, a campground and access point on the Buffalo River. Along the way, you will pass the Collier Homestead, a 40-acre tract settled by Solomon Collier, his wife, Ida Mae, and their two children in 1932. Their old log home, surrounded by an ancient picket fence, is a favorite of photographers.

 

U.S. 65 crosses the Buffalo National River at a place known as Grinders Ferry. A ferry operated there until the first bridge was built in 1929. Today, the site is known as a principal put-in and take-out point for paddlers and is a popular swimming destination during the summer season. Maybe a hundred yards beyond the north end of the bridge is a gravel road on the right. Half a mile long, it leads to an area known locally as Shine Eye — a favored spot with a wonderful gravel bar and deep swimming hole beneath a colorful bluff.

 

A little over a mile past that, U.S. 65 tops out on a hill that has Ferguson’s Country Store on the right. A good selection of outdoor gear and souvenirs is available, of course, but Ferguson’s has built a well-deserved reputation on its enormous — and tasty — homemade cinnamon rolls. Across the highway is Coursey’s Smoked Meats, an institution soon to hit its 80th year in business. Both Ferguson’s and Coursey’s are seasonal and may be closed until late winter or early spring.

 

Arkansas 333 intersects with U.S. 65 at Ferguson’s. Taking 333 east for a couple of miles will get you to Gilbert. The quaint town, established on the banks of the Buffalo River in 1902, was originally a construction camp for the Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad and was named for Charles Gilbert, the company’s secretary and treasurer. The town soon boasted a post office, two hotels, four stores, three doctors, a cotton gin and a saloon — the latter of which was washed away by the Buffalo in the great flood of 1915.

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Gilbert General Store.

A strange religious sect moved to town in 1920, adding about 70 residents to Gilbert’s population. When the charismatic leader failed to resurrect a dead member of the congregation as promised, the group disbanded, although a handful of its buildings still stand, along with the old general store, circa 1901. When the railroad ceased operations in the mid-1940s, Gilbert’s population began to wane and now seems to have stabilized at 26. The community has long been known as the state’s coolest town due to its advantageous geographic location on the banks of the Buffalo. In more recent years, some of its citizens have taken to calling it the Aspen of the Ozarks. Either description seems apt.

 

Continuing north on U.S. 65, you will soon come to St. Joe and Pindall, both of which can be traced back to the days of the Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad. Another thing they have in common is an interesting style of vernacular architecture. Constructed of small, irregularly shaped rocks apparently scavenged from nearby hillsides, the rough exterior walls of stacked stone are distinctive to the area.

 

Harrison, the Boone County seat, also has ties to the old Missouri & North Arkansas line. Although the railroad is long gone, the city is still in the transportation business, and FedEx Freight is among its major employers. Harrison’s primary downtown area, the Harrison Courthouse Square Historic District, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. Two blocks to the north is another National Register listing, the Hotel Seville at 302 N. Main St. The handsome three-story building, constructed in 1929 in the Spanish Revival Style, is still open to guests. The historic Maplewood Cemetery, just a few blocks off the highway on Maplewood Road, is spectacular when fall foliage hits.

 

Travelers who desire additional information on north-central Arkansas might enjoy a stop at the state’s official welcome center on the north side of Harrison at 3391 U.S. 65 N. The phone number is (870)741-3343. Visitors can expect to find friendly staff, clean restrooms, and fresh (and free) hot coffee.

 

To sum up, U.S. 65 out of Conway offers an expedient option for trips to the northern reaches of the state, but for people willing to slow down, there are definitely some roses to appreciate along the way. 

 

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