Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Last Hanger-On, Artist Point near Mountainburg.

Though the heyday of US Highway 71 as the major route between Alma and Fayetteville are over, one lone establishment manages to remain as a hallmark to a golden age of Arkansas tourist travel. Let's take a look from Artist Point.



Imagine a highway packed with vehicles, snaking over and around mountaintops with two lanes, sometimes three, tightly spaced with travelers heading north or south, along the major thoroughfare between population centers.  For many years this was highway life in many places in America.  But in Arkansas, most of those two-lane highways were superseded by the construction of interstate highways, both I-40 and I-30, in the 1960s and 1970s.  In Little Rock, this continued through the heart of the 1980s with the construction and completion of I-630 through the heart of town.

In northwestern Arkansas, the transition didn't occur until the 1990s, and it was met with much force and fight.

US Highway 71 was first designated as a major north-south route through the United States back in 1926.  Today the route runs from south Louisiana all the way to the Canadian border, traversing Arkansas’s western border for 300 miles - which Hunter and I covered on our epic road trip along US Highway 71 from the Louisiana border to the Missouri State Line.

There are few that would argue for the need for an interstate to connect Fayetteville and points north with Fort Smith and points east these days.  Our northwestern corridor is burgeoning with industry, arts and a swiftly growing population. But a generation ago, there were two major routes from the south - the Pig Trail (Arkansas Highway 23 from Ozark) and US Highway 71.

On game weekends for the University of Arkansas, there would be traffic jams two days before and the day after with thousands of fans attempting the trip.  Eighteen wheelers and compact cars would vy for the same roadspace with often fatal consequences.



But the businesses that grew along the stretch flourished for generations.  Indeed, many stopped in along the route at its famed places, from the Ozark Mountain Smokehouse to the Bluebird Cafe (now Grandma's House Cafe), from the Sky Vue Lodge to the Dairy Dream, with every manner of roadside motel and cabin available perched on the edge of the ridge for remarkable views into the depths of the Arkansas Ozarks. The tight right-of-way meant sometimes you came around a corner quickly as another individual was trying to turn in or out of a property.  Treacherous didn't quite cover it.

The legend goes that a Walton is responsible for the twin ribbons of asphalt that run to the west of US Highway 71 between Alma and Fayetteville. The legend goes that Alice Walton lobbied hard in Washington for an interstate that would link Bentonville with Little Rock.  When her vocal efforts failed, she encouraged several U.S. senators to come up to Bentonville for a visit.  After a rather hairy ride up US 71, funding was quickly secured for the new link. Dubbed I-540, that stretch was constructed in the 1990s and opened in January 8, 1999 (another stretch that circumnavigates Fort Smith and Van Buren has been existence a lot longer, and remains named such today). In 2014, denoting its eventual inclusion into a new interstate plan, the entire Alma-to-Bentonville section was redubbed I-49.

US 71 runs to the east of the new interstate.  Once the major route from Little Rock to the northwest, the bypassed highway is now ideal for motorcyclists and those who want to see a bit more of the Ozark highlands.

But the change has come
with catastrophic effects for the businesses that once crowded the highway's shoulders.  Mount Gaylor, a famed stopover with a swimming hole and an observation tower, is an empty husk.  Ozark Mountain Smokehouse is all but gone (with one remaining affiliate in Russellville), and a host of motels now empty, rotting husks or repurposed single-individual dwellings.

A few places, such as Mountainburg's Dairy Dream and Winslow's Grandma's House Cafe, have managed to survive.  The relocation of Lake Fort Smith State Park has brought some small amount of traffic to the area.  And then there's Artist Point.

The photo you'll see most often is just like this -- a telescope on a railed ledge, overlooking Saddle Canyon.  It's a popular place to pull off for the view.  But many fail to recognize the significance of the building that stands to the south of that
overlook... which has ensured that little outcropping with its pay telescope stay put and clean all these years.

Artist Point originally opened in 1953, and has served generations of travelers with kitchy souvenirs, soap, locally produced crafts, neat artworks and directions on where to go for a truly Arkansas experience.  I can remember stopping in many times as a child on trips through the area, looking at the Indian exhibit (because the words political and correct hadn't been married yet), checking out the teepee and having a slice of fudge while sitting on the back porch.

And sure, there were many places along the way that offered such accommodation, such as similar locations along Scenic Arkansas Highway Seven (particularly at the Cliff House Inn) and US Highway 65.  But of all the places along US Highway 71, this is the last original spot offering the tourist experience.

Which is why it was our first stop when Hunter and I left from Lake Fort Smith State Park.  I wanted her to see the view, sure, but I also wanted for her to experience something I used to take for granted... good, old fashioned hillbilly appeal.


I can recall fingers gripping my shoulder to keep me out of the busy traffic passing by on US 71 when I was younger, and the voiced concern about those big trucks that tended to speed up a little on that one straightaway.  No need here.  We pulled in and walked over to the lookout, and it may have been a full five minutes before we saw a car pass, around noon on a Thursday morning.

Off in the distance, through the bare trees, I-49 was just visible, a great double-ribbon of white against the dun of mountainsides, rolling high above early green fields below.  At this distance, there was no sound.

Hunter carefully walked out and looked around.  She looked through the wrong end of the pay telescope just to be different, and then glanced out at the north end of Lake Fort Smith (once Lake Shepherd Springs) far down in the valley.  I told her about the waterfall about half a mile down from this point, but she declined, mentioning her hunger (our next stop was Grandma's House Cafe a few miles up the road) and indicating we'd better check out this place rather quickly.


Once we were through the old porch doors and into the building proper, her intensity settled and she gawked.  And I have to admit, there was very little difference in what I saw at that moment than at any other moment before, except perhaps the angle of my view and the lack of windchimes.  There were once windchimes, weren't there?

We walked through the front room, and I explained what lye soap was to Hunter. She's seen so much jam and jelly, the big display of such didn't interest her.  What did draw her attention was the advertised museum at the end of the room.


And this room... has not changed much over all these years.  There's still a crazy collection of taxidermy.


There are still Native American artifacts.


And there are cornshuck dolls and other assorted historical items.


The wood-and-glass and wood-and-chickenwire frames hadn't changed much, either.  Pieces of petrified wood were openly displayed.  And then there were cola bottles and old coffee cups and other memorabilia of this place, which I begrudgingly admitted to myself that might have come after I was born.  They looked so old.


Looking at dusty old items and materials held just so much attention for Hunter, and we walked back and into the other rooms.  The long middle room contained all sorts
of souvenirs that had always been popular - slices of geodes in bright colors that always went home in some kid's pocket; tumbled stones; hand-thrown pottery and a wide collection of hillbilly inventions, including several very reasonably priced items...


like bubble bath


and doughnut seeds.


The old glassed-in back porch bore a collection of cacti on its ledge, and a collection of dishware for sale on its end.  A glance through the window to the left showed me that yes, the old picnic tables were still out there.

To the right, out the window, one can see the
back of the establishment.  Still, the view through the window, even over cacti, is still grand.

I noticed in the middle room on the counter, a candy cabinet with different confections, such as chocolate covered nuts and buckeyes.


And still, though there's no counter full of slabs any more, there's still slices of chocolate fudge offered.


Still, none of this compared to what caught Hunter's eye -- a large white parrot who seemed just as curious about Hunter as she was about him.  Making sure to keep clear of his sharp beak, she stared fascinated at the creature while I purchased some pottery and a rock for her collection.


And then we were gone, back on the road.  This stop, which had born much significance in my mind, wasn't much for a child who has grown up traveling.  Maybe when she's older she'll understand what life was like back in those days when the only air conditioning on the trip was 4-40 - four windows down, 40 miles an hour - and when you stopped on the side of the road when you had to... go.

The fact that Artist Point still stands and survives is a testament to a time that's almost out of our grasp, when this snaking, winding highway brought people from these hillsides together.  In a few years, the construction of I-49 between Texarkana and Fort Smith will bypass similar businesses on its stretches, and I wonder if places like Karen's Krystals and The Rock Cafe will do so well once it's come through.

But for this time, we needed to go.  I had a child hankering for fresh tomatoes and beans, and I wanted some fried chicken and a gander at the pie buffet at Grandma's House.

If you're interested in visiting Artist Point, head north on US Highway 71 from Mountainburg or south from Winslow.  It's located on the east side of the road.

4 comments:

  1. It was always a fascinating place for the obscure:)

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  2. Very nice accurate article about Artist Point and US 71. Sky-Vue predates Artist Point by 21 years if the 1953 date is accurate. A little disappointed that there is no mention of other businesses that have come in to be the new attractions along this State Scenic Byway. Glenn

    ReplyDelete
  3. Very nice and accurate article about Artist Point and US 71. Sky-Vue still going strong) predates Artist Point by about 21 years if the 1953 date is correct. A little disappointed that there is almost no mention of all the new tourist destinations along this State Scenic Byway. Glenn

    ReplyDelete
  4. The Sky-Vue Lodge is alive and well, and has great food as well as cabins. It's a wonderful place.

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Be kind.