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Arkansas State Parks: Governors and Growth

Article follows the photos:
  • Queen Wilhelmina State Park lodge

  • Lake Chicot

  • Lake Greeson

  • Ozark Folk Center State Park

December 26, 2001

Arkansas State Parks: Governors and Growth

(Editor's Note: The following is the third of a four-part series on the history of Arkansas's state parks. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the 1927 legislation that gave rise to The Natural State's parks system.)

By Jim Taylor, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

While serving as state attorney general in the mid-1930s, Carl Bailey made a special effort to become familiar with Arkansas's fledgling system of state parks. The 1927 law creating the State Parks Commission had designated the attorney general as the panel's chairman, and Bailey used considerable leisure time to visit the parks and better prepare himself for fulfilling that duty.

After Bailey became governor in 1937, the commission was revamped and, though already a decade old, received its first budget for more than its own administrative costs. It was also authorized to hire the first state parks director, Samuel G. Davies, who had been construction superintendent for the Civilian Conservation Corps at Petit Jean State Park.

Throughout their existence, Arkansas's state parks have relied on the kindness of governors. From the late 1930s through the 1970s, Governors Bailey, Orval Faubus and Dale Bumpers were particularly kind, providing leadership needed for the system to greatly expand from its seven Depression-era sites and achieve prominence in state government.

Bailey's reorganized commission, along with the State Planning Board and the National Park Service, conducted the first-ever study of Arkansas's recreational needs, but its recommendations were never implemented. From the end of Bailey's governorship in 1940 through 1954, there was virtually no capital investment in nor acquisition of new lands for the system, in part because of World War II.

There was, however, some organizational tinkering. In 1945, the parks commission was replaced with the State Forestry and Parks Commission and the newly created Division of Publicity. In 1953, the panel was reorganized
under Gov. Francis Cherry with state forestry officials gaining firmer control over the parks.

That led to a dark, albeit brief, period in which commercial lumber operations were permitted within the parks. Dr. Thomas W. Hardison, a founder of the parks system who had served on various incarnations of the parks commissions, would recall the situation as "something no state but Arkansas had ever done."

After defeating Cherry in the 1954 gubernatorial race, Faubus ended the forestry officials' control by creating in 1955 the State Publicity and Parks Commission. Faubus' parks and tourism initiatives were likely inspired by his familiarity with the Ozark Playgrounds Association, which had been promoting tourism since 1919 in the Ozark Mountains that Faubus called home.

A Time of Growth

Coinciding with Faubus' rise to power, several major lakes created by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' dams had sparked increased interest in Arkansas recreation. The lakes made extensive stretches of open water a part of the state's scenery, greatly enhanced opportunities for water-based sports, and created cold tailwaters that would soon become nationally renowned for trout fishing.

In 1955, the state acquired park sites on the new lakes known as Bull Shoals, Ouachita and Greeson. These were the first major parks added since the Depression. (In 1953, the state legislature declared the one-acre Herman Davis Memorial honoring a World War I hero a state park.)

Meanwhile, the Publicity and Parks Commission requested that the National Park Service evaluate Arkansas's parks. Finding them run-down, the park service reported: "[The] Physical condition of the state park plan in Arkansas is not such as to warrant expressions of pride by the citizens of the state." Years of neglect and lack of funding had taken their toll on the Depression-era facilities.

In 1957, the state's legislature authorized the use of revenue bonds to finance park improvements. Federal funds were also becoming available for state recreation projects. Thus, it was during Faubus' 12 years as governor that the parks system saw its first major expansion and improvements since the 1930s.

Sites were acquired in 1957 atop Arkansas's second highest peak for Queen Wilhelmina State Park and on the shore of the state's largest natural lake for Lake Chicot State Park. Added in 1958 was the Hampson Museum, to house a significant collection of Native American artifacts, followed in 1959 by Old Davidsonville, to preserve the site of an historic frontier town.

In the 1960s acreage was acquired for 14 parks, but three sites were soon transferred to other government agencies. The 11 remaining parks were Poison Springs (1961), Marks' Mills (1962), and Jenkins' Ferry (1963), all Civil War battle sites; Withrow Springs (1962); Lake Charles and Lake Poinsett (both 1963); White Oak Lake (1964); Jacksonport (1964), to interpret the story of a historic steamboat port; Mammoth Spring (1966); Lake Dardanelle (1967); and the Ozark Folk Center (1969), to preserve the folk crafts, music and dance of Ozark Mountain pioneers. The areas were acquired by various means, including purchase, donation and leases.

Yet another name change for the panel overseeing state parks came in 1969. From then until the present, it has been known as the State Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission.

Embracing Change

When the 1970s arrived, a new environmental awareness was sweeping the U.S. while Southern states were continuing their long-standing efforts to join the nation's economic mainstream. As Ben F. Johnson III, an Arkansas historian, has observed, "Tourism became the meeting ground between the new environmentalism and New South boosterism."

In Arkansas, Gov. Dale Bumpers personified the vision of tourism as a means of economic development, saying in his 1971 inaugural address, "We can and will intensify our efforts to both industrialize and develop a parks and recreation system which will in turn attract an increasing number of tourists."

Reorganizing state government, Bumpers made the executive director of the newly created Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism a member of his Cabinet. The state parks director would head the department's Parks Division. And, at Bumpers' urging, the 1971 legislature approved $22.5 million for capital improvements in the parks and expansion of the system.

During Bumpers' tenure, the system enhanced its administrative capabilities, added park rangers with law enforcement training, and accelerated the hiring of interpreters to conduct programs for park visitors. In 1973, a system-wide plan was developed that would serve as a blueprint into the 1980s.

With the impetus Bumpers provided, the 1970s became the greatest decade of expansion in the history of Arkansas's parks. The 17 parks acquired that remain today were Moro Bay (1970); Prairie Grove, a major Civil War battlefield (1971); Crater of Diamonds, Lake Fort Smith, Old Washington, Village Creek and Woolly Hollow (all 1972); Pinnacle Mountain (1973); Logoly, an environmental education park, Toltec Mounds, site of a Native American ceremonial center, and Powhatan Courthouse (all 1974); Lake Frierson (1975); DeGray Lake, a resort park, and Lake Millwood (1976); Cane Creek and Louisiana Purchase (both 1977); and Beaver Lake (1979).

By 1983, the parks system had grown to 42 sites and increased in popularity and political status, but the expansion and other accomplishments of the previous three decades proved no guarantee of a secure future. Financial difficulties were lurking ahead.

(NEXT -- Arkansas State Parks: Building a Better Future)


Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"