NEWS FROM THE WOODS
By Bob Ketchum
Originally Published July 4, 2014
By the time my parents moved here from St. Louis in 1948, the Baxter County Courthouse and square had already been here for 7 years. The Mountain Home "Square" was a fixture as I grew up here. We lived 9 miles out of town, at the very end of Tracy Ferry road. My parents owned and operated Blackberry Hill Lodge, and about the only time they could take the time to come into town for supplies and groceries for the resort was on a weekend. Dad was a fishing guide during the day, and Mom had to oversee the operation of the Lodge, which included everything from the preparation of meals (three squares a day for guests, called the "American Plan") to laundry services for four cabins and up to sixteen guests.
Trips to Mountain Home were always scheduled around the operation of the Lodge. Saturday was usually the day selected to run into town and stock up on supplies. Whenever I got the opportunity to ride into town with mom (and if all my chores were done), the town square was my favorite place to hang out. In those days, everything you wanted was found in businesses around the town square. There were two drug stores, two movie theaters, a dry goods store, a department store, an automotive store, a bank, men's and women's clothing store, shoe store, café's, outboard motor repair shop, a military surplus goods store, a couple of appliance stores, a paint store, children's apparel store, real estate offices, and even a pool hall. The county library was only a block away, located in the second floor of the combination City Hall and Firehouse. It was catty-corner from the mountain Home Telephone Company. In those days the "center of town" meant something more than a geographical location.
By 1950 the square had added hanging traffic lights. They replaced the original lights on a pole located on the corner of the square, as the main body of traffic back then on Highway 62 took you right through the center of town on the west side of the square.
The Courthouse lawn was a hub of local activity. The men in the "spit and whittle" club, as we used to call them, would sit on the benches of the east side of the square, facing Cooper Drug Store. Men would sit and spend hours with their Barlow, Schrade and Case pocket knives, slicing away at a tree branch or block of wood while chewin' and spittin' and telling tale tales. Occasionally they would stage knife competitions with their favorite blade's fate hanging in the balance, like an old fashioned game of "Keeper" marbles.
The County Courthouse was the repository of all things legal in Baxter County. The jail was located on the top floor, and sometimes the prisoners would acknowledge a pretty visitor to town with wolf whistles emanating from the jail cell windows. Sometimes an arm would thrust out from a barred window as an inmate waved at a passer by. In 1968 Sheriff Emmett Edmonds was shot and killed during an escape from the Baxter County Courthouse Jail. He and a city marshal had gone to the third floor of the courthouse to feed the prisoners breakfast. While Sheriff Edmonds talked to two of the prisoners they suddenly attacked him and shot him with a .32 caliber handgun that had been smuggled into them earlier. The shooter escaped but was apprehended three days later in Cotter. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in 1969. I distinctly remember in the days following the murder and before the escaped prisoner Pittman's capture, how many local citizens were driving pick up's around the square with their gun racks brandishing shotguns and rifles. It was Ozark vigilante justice at it's finest.
My own love affair with the square began at an early age. I recall in 1955 when dad trailered our horse "Nellie" and drove us into town one Saturday morning. It was the big fair parade, which always took a route around the town square. We arrived in town a little late and took Nellie off the trailer across the street from Earl Johnsons Supermarket. By the time I got her saddled and haltered the parade had already started. I worked my way up the back streets of town to try and meet the end of the parade, where the horses always brought up the rear (due no doubt to the amount of horse poop left behind). But by the time I got to the junction of Highway 62 and 5 North, the end of the parade was already way down the street, almost to the square. With my heart pumping and my mind racing to decide what to do, I kicked Nellie with my heels and we began galloping (alone) down Main Street, trying frantically to catch up with the horsemen. As folks began gathering up their chairs and calling in their children who were grabbing the last pieces of thrown candy on the street… Here comes "little Bobby", racing down Main Street. I finally caught up with the other riders in the middle of the circle around the square. I am sure my face was as red as my new leather saddle with its silver buckles. I'm sure glad they didn't have video cameras back then!
In 1965 I was a freshman in college at Arkansas State in Jonesboro. Visiting home over the Christmas holiday, my dad asked me if I wanted to drive his car in the Christmas Parade. What special treat that was for me! Dad owned a 1964 Lincoln Continental convertible, with suicide doors (think of JFK's final ride). It was about as upscale as you could get in Baxter County in the 60's. I wore my one and only suit as I drove Miss Merry Christmas in the fair parade. I really thought I was a Big Shot !
I spent my summers in the 60's working for my family at the Cedar Crest Service Station in Henderson. For several summers I worked as the manager of that Sinclair gas station. Back in those days, Henderson was like "the other side of the tracks" because of the ferries. Lake Norfork was more like a barrier in those days. Sometimes you could wait for an hour or more to catch the ferry crossing the lake. We had an ice house at the station, but our stock of ice came from the Ice plant in Mountain Home, just a couple of blocks from the square. At least once a week I would have to drive my Uncle Dean's pickup across the lake to pick up ice. After spending a short visit with friends around the square I would load up three huge blocks of ice in the bed of the pickup and head back to Henderson. After sitting in the traffic line on the Panther Bay side of the lake for 15 minutes or more, people would notice a large stream of water running down the highway underneath all the cars. Although I had the ice covered with a tarp, the summer heat would take its toll on my load and by the time I actually got across the lake and to our ice house I might have lost 20% of my load.
By the 70's I was out of college and into radio broadcasting. I had moved around the state a bit from 1968 to 1970 but finally found a great job in radio in Ft. Smith. Whenever I came home for a rare weekend, it was that moment that I drove by the courthouse and the familiar square (it had hardly changed) when I felt like I was finally "home". In recent years - now that I have relocated back home - I have been asked several times to use my convertibles (I just love convertibles) to escort parade royalty. I always say "yes", and I still feel the same kind of hometown pride when driving down the street in a parade. Anyone that has ever driven in a hometown parade will tell you what a thrill it is, especially the part where you slowly drive around or by the courthouse square filled with smiling people and kids eagerly awaiting a "candy toss".
Today the square has changed dramatically. The entire West side of the square, which had fallen into disrepair and neglect, was completely razed and replaced by the beautiful Veteran's Memorial Park. Many businesses have come and gone, most replaced by Sam Walton's "One stop for all" Wal Mart Empire. The mom and pop store from the 60's has been all but forgotten. However, in recent years a revitalization of sorts has restored much of the original small town charm of the square. New storefronts and awnings have given the old square a facelift. The jail and city offices have moved but the Courthouse still stands proudly as a memorial to life in Baxter County.
I hope that never changes.