Little River Country Club
In the Southwestern corner of Arkansas, about 5 miles southwest of Horatio, and 15 miles north of Foreman, Ark Hwy 41 makes a sharp right turn, just where the road from Cerrogordo meets the highway. If you look to the left at that corner, you’ll see the ruins of an old country church, built for Mrs. Billingsley the winter after she ‘got religion’ from a traveling preacher in about 1951. If you are coming from Foreman, you should slow down, because you want to turn on the next track to the left. You probably would have missed the turn, if you hadn’t had detailed directions. It’s easy to miss the 3 x 4 foot crudely lettered sign that proclaims “Little River Country Club.” It’s only a quarter mile or so after you turn off the highway before you cross the cattle guard and see the 5th hole of the 9-hole golf course on your right. Cabins begin to appear on the left and the road eventually splits at the Club House. You can’t see the river yet, but up-river is to the left and downstream is to the right.
It’s been 50 or more years since I’ve spent any great length of time there, but the smell of the cedar cabins, the warm water of the river, and excitement of seeing my bobber disappear under the water is still as fresh to me as my breakfast this morning.
My grandmother and grandfather were members of the Club when it formed about 1925. They never owned any of the almost 50 cabins that sit on a bluff, high above the south bank of the river. There wasn’t any need to buy a cabin — they were good friends with Miss Norma and Mr. Steve, who were the managers and caretakers, and they always knew who was not going to be there that week and would be willing to rent out their cabin. Mama and Uncle Billy grew up spending summers and weekends with Jane and Brother, Miss Norma and Mr. Steve’s children. Later Cousin Net’s brother built a wonderful cabin that he called Eagle’s Nest when he got a promotion to Full Colonel in the Army during the Second World War. Cousin Net inherited it when he died, and from then on we always stayed in Eagle’s Nest when we went there.
It sat in the shade of the loblolly pines and blackjack oaks at the top of the bluff with only a narrow path between the front porch and the edge of the path to the river. There was a long set of steps leading down to the water where there was a dock that you could fish from or tie a boat up to.
The cabin was made of roughhewn lumber, creosoted to keep the termites out. Inside there was a great room — probably 15’ by 30’ — that served as the living room and dining room in the winter. The dining table was at the other end of the room from the kitchen. It wasn’t very convenient, but nobody wanted to spend much time in the kitchen when they were “at camp”. Anyway, the kitchen wasn’t big enough to cuss a cat in without getting fur in your mouth. It mostly functioned as a place to keep the ice chests and chop salads. Besides, of course, there was no air conditioning in the 1950s, particularly at camp, and nobody wanted to cook when it was that hot!
When we were planning a trip to Little River, Mama and Aunt Jan (Uncle Billy’s wife) and my grandmother would spend days making menus and figuring out what to take. They always took a whole, fully-cooked ham (because you didn’t have to heat up the oven), several chickens that the men would barbecue out back, and jars and jars of already cooked and cut-up potatoes, onions, and celery for potato salad, so all you had to do was add the mayonnaise. Cornfield peas or fresh green beans, seasoned with ham hock, squash, and turnip greens were our mainstay veggies. Tomatoes, lettuce, onions, cucumbers, and fruit from roadside stands figured heavily in the menus as well. If the fishermen did a decent job, we might have fresh fried crappy, bass or brim. We brought plenty of lunch meat and bread for sandwiches, and a couple of pies and a couple of cakes. Often, they would send one or more of the men to Horatio to pick up ice cream, or once or twice, we brought the ice cream freezer and made our own. The men had to drive in to Horatio every morning anyway to get ice because the tiny little refrigerator couldn’t make it fast enough. An additional trip in the evening for ice cream meant they could pick up another six-pack of Miller High Life.
Cheek by jowl with the ham, the pies and the cakes was everything else we needed to spend the weekend or a week. We always took sheets and towels, of course, but we also hauled fans — box fans and buzz fans, one of which was named “Old Whir-whir”. The cabin had two lazy ceiling fans that stirred the air in the great room, but generally the air they blew down was hotter than what was at floor level. We put the box fans in front of the windows and blew the cool morning air into the house until about noon. After lunch we turned them around blew the hot air out.
The dining table was wonderful! It was made of polished cedar planks, with the bark still left on the edges, and the planks fitted together so carefully that there were no gaps between them. 12 of us easily sat around it on benches down the sides with armchairs at the ends. The end of the great room that held the table was a two-story high window. I think the sashes folded back on themselves, so that whole end of the room was open. Of course, there were screens to keep the mosquitoes, flies, etc., out.
There were two staircases leading up out of the great room to sleeping lofts on either side. The one on the road side was for the boys and the one on the river side was for the girls. The lofts ran the whole length of the great room with two double beds and two single beds in each loft. The lofts were open to the great room with only a rail to keep younger kids from falling to the ground 10 feet below. They had windows on three sides that were hidden under the eaves of the house, and could be opened even when it was raining to catch the cross breeze from the river. Each of the lofts got its own oscillating fan that sat on a dresser and spread a cool breeze the length of the bed. On hot summer nights, I would lie there in a puddle of sweat waiting for that gentle wind to sweep the length of my body, listening to the peepers’ tiny voices and the bullfrog’s bass “chug-a-rum”, accompanied by the squeak of the rocking chairs as the adults sat talking quietly. The whippoorwill would announce his presence, and I could hear the hoot of the bigger owls as they conversed across the river. Occasionally, I would start up, wide awake, as the screech owl proclaimed his victory over an unlucky mouse.
Off the great room below the boys’ loft was a sleeping porch with a double bed and room for a crib, a tiny bathroom with a shower that was well-populated with spiders, and the kitchen. Below the girls’ loft was the front porch with rocking chairs, couches and another double bed at the end. That bed was where my grandmother always slept and all the grandchildren fought about who would get to share it with her because it was constructed very oddly. Whenever anyone turned over, it set the whole bed to rocking like a boat and it would gently lull you back to sleep.
Usually right after breakfast, my cousins, Anne and Mimi, who were just my age, my sister Harriet and I would go out to the leaves on the ground behind the cabin, and dig up some worms. Then we would take our cane poles down the bank to the dock and drown the worms for a couple of hours. We always had to have an adult go with us to fish us out if we fell off the dock and to keep an eye out for water moccasins. It was hot on the dock, and we sat with our feet dangling in the water. The current drifted by lazily. We could swing our bobbers out into the middle of the stream, and watch them float gently by. We had to be careful to be sure the hook wasn’t dragging on the bottom — a hook bumping along through the leaves and sticks lying at the bottom of the river could easily get caught and you’d find yourself excitedly pulling a large branch up on the dock when you were sure you had caught “a big one”. The other thing we had to learn to guard against was mistakenly feeding the worms to turtles. The turtles could and did nibble just exactly like a brim, but you didn’t want to have to deal with getting the turtle off the hook if he was stupid enough to swallow it. We usually were able to catch a mess of palm-sized sunnies before it got too hot, and we got too sunburned. We’d take the fish home and try to get Papa to clean and scale them for us. He, however, insisted that “If you catch them, you have to clean them”, so I learned at an early age how to scrape the scales off, slit the fish up the stomach, and pull out all the innards. Harriet and Mimi always refused to even try, but Anne and I loved fried fish, so we would clean and scale theirs for them. We usually didn’t worry about cutting their heads off, and Mama would dip them in corn meal and fry them for us. You had to be VERY careful or you’d end up with a bone in your mouth or, heaven forbid, in your throat. Each little fish only had about four bites of meat on it, but the fins and the tail were edible dipped in cornmeal and fried crisp. Wow, were they ever good!
Late one afternoon, Mama and I took the boat and paddled across the river to try our luck at the fish on that side. The water around the club was pretty well fished out, and we weren’t having much luck with catching anything. We tied up to a stump about three feet from the bank and baited our hooks with minnows. If you’re careful when you bait the hook with a minnow you can stick it just through the middle of the little fish, and it will still be able to swim around. It’s pretty funny to see your bobber suddenly start swimming back towards the boat. Usually it means something large is trying to eat the minnow, which in turn means you’ll soon have a nice sized fish on your hook. This time both bobbers started heading wildly for the stump and we realized something must be chasing them. About that time, my bobber completely disappeared under the water and I gave the line a jerk to set the hook. Whatever it was on the other end of my line was a good size and had plenty of fight, but I kept pulling it in towards the boat. Mama got the net ready and I got the fish right up next to the boat. I started to pull it out of the water when Mama gave a scream “Don’t get it in the boat with us!” I had hooked a gar — a prehistoric looking monster of a fish, about 15 inches long — a third of it mouth — with sharp pointed teeth. It’s what a malformed pike might look like. If one of those ever got in to boat it would probably attach itself to one or both of our legs and have a nice dinner on us. So, there we sat with the thing swimming around the boat at the end of my line. Finally, Mama grabbed the line while I held on to the pole, and we were able to cut the line. We started giggling about how funny we must have looked trying to hold off that fish, and the more we thought about it, the funnier it got, until we almost were unable to paddle back across the river to go home for supper.
Early, early in the morning, one or more of the men would go off with a guide to do some “real” fishing. They would drive up to Cerrogordo and put-in, and float back to the club, usually arriving in the late morning. If they were lucky they would have caught a couple of bass. They had to leave at 4:00 am so they could be on the river by first light, and one of my waking-up memories was of the deep voice of the guide outside my parent’s window saying, “Bob? You ‘bout ready?” In the middle of summer the big fish won’t bite once it gets too hot. Occasionally, one of the guides would take them to Bissel or to Old River. Those were horseshoe lakes that had been cut off from the river when it changed course. They didn’t have many fish in them, but the ones they did have were monsters (at least to hear the tales). Papa caught a 3-lb bass at Bissel once.
One time Wingy, the guide, took Papa to Bissel. They stayed most of the day and came home with nothing to show for it. When Wingy brought Papa home, Uncle Billy had just driven up to the Club. He asked Wingy to take him back to Bissel, so off they went. In about an hour, back they came with the biggest bass anybody had ever seen. Miss Norma jumped all over Wingy, saying, “You’ve had Mr. Bob out all day and you came home with nothing. Now you took Mr. Bill out and you came home with the granddaddy of all fish. What are you doing?”
Wingy replied, “Mr. Bob won’t do like I tells him to. I tol’ him that bass was lying right behind that log, and he threw his line everywhere but there. I tol’ Mr. Bill to drop his lure right there and, sho’ ‘nuff, WHOMP! that ol’ bass rose up out of the depths an’ Mr. Bill pulled him in.”
We always took a nap after lunch, in the heat of the day. At least the adults napped, the kids spent the afternoon playing cards at the big table. In addition to cards, we always had poker chips to play with. My grandmother had a collection of over 1000 poker chips — some cardboard, some plastic, some with advertising on them, and some just plain. Sometimes we spread them out on the floor and made pictures, like mosaics, with them. Sometimes we used the poker chips as they were intended to be used. By the time I was nine or ten, I could play Black Jack, Poker, Michigan Rummy, Canasta, Samba, Pinochle, Gin Rummy, 500 Rummy, Hearts, Spades, Double Solitaire and Cribbage, in addition to those baby games of Go Fish, and Old Maid. Harriet, who is 4 years younger than I am, went off to kindergarten counting, 1–2–3–4–5–6–7–8–9–10-Jack-Queen-King.
About 4:00 in the afternoon, a nice breeze would come up, the adults would wake up, and we’d walk to the club house, and then a little further up-river until we came to the road that led down to the swimming hole. The swimming hole was a shallow area where the river ran into a gravel bar. In the winter and spring when the river was high, the beach was an island and the river split around it. But in the summer the south channel dried up and the river took a sharp turn to the north and formed a rapids around the island. There wasn’t really much “swimming” because the water was pretty shallow. The bottom of the river was very rocky and the beach was rocky. We always “swam” in tennis shoes because, while the rocks were usually smooth, occasionally you’d step on something really sharp. There were also fresh water clams that left their shells all over the place, and they weren’t nice to step on barefooted. When Harriet was two years old she loved to blow bubbles under the water. Anne and I both had to hold on to her back to keep her face out of the water. When she “dove” under, she often forgot to “come up” when she ran out of air, and we were terrified she would drown.
I liked to play with the other kids, but I also loved sitting with the adults while they “visited”. I heard stories of when they were young, and about relatives who were long dead. Of course, there was no television then, and even radio reception was spotty at best. I liked to listen to the plink, plink of black-eyed peas hitting the pot as Mama and Nannie sat shelling them. In the evenings, everyone sat in the rockers on the front porch and rocked and fanned and told stories about when Mama was a little girl, or even better about back in Washington, AR, where my grandmother was born. We turned the lights out on the porch, because even with the screens, moths and mosquitoes could still get in. We would hear them bumping against the screens in a desperate attempt to reach the lights.
We were away from civilization entirely. In the early days of the Club, the lawyers and doctors who were members decreed that there would be no telephones at Little River. They didn’t want to be bothered when they were on vacation. In an emergency, if anyone had to get in touch with someone who was staying at the Club, they had to call the General Store in Horatio, and the storekeeper would find somebody to drive out and give them the message. It seems almost impossible in these days of instant access to everyone, when even school children have a phone in their backpacks, in case Mama wants to get in touch with them.
By the time I was a teenager, civilization began to come to Little River Country Club. First, they built a swimming pool because the river was unpredictable in depth and there was no place for a life guard. Read that as the parents didn’t want to be bothered with going with their kids to the river, and, besides the water was sometimes muddy and sometimes too deep and you never knew when the water moccasin who lived in the bank would take it into his head to come home. I know the kids liked being able to go to the pool, even when their folks didn’t want to come with them, but they missed the whole experience of learning to swim wearing sneakers. You couldn’t catch frogs at the pool, or hunt for fossils and shells after your skin got all pruney.
In the late 50’s there was a pretty severe drought in that part of the country, and the larger towns, like DeQueen and Texarkana were on water rationing. The Army Corps of Engineers pushed up their plans to build a dam on Little River, outside Ashdown. The dam and the lake that it created controlled the periodic flooding and provided a source of water for the whole area in times of drought. It also regulated the flow of water past the Club, and, while the fishing improved, the river lost much of its character.
Then, people decided that they needed a phone at the Club, so Southwestern Bell put a pay-phone at the Club House. Once the phone line was in, it was an easy matter to get a phone in your cabin, and the “otherworldliness” of Little River Country Club disappeared.
In 1972, a propane gas explosion leveled the cabin next door, and five of the cabins, including Eagle’s Nest burned to the ground before the volunteer fire department could get there. Other cabins were rebuilt at that end of the river, but they were winterized and air conditioned. Gone were the screened in porches and sounds of buzz fans.
Al and I drove up to Little River about 10 years ago, just to look around. The swimming pool and golf course are still there. The pool was still full of kids. The old playground with swings and a jungle gym looked abandoned, most of the chains on the swings rusted and the seats splintery. The golf course looked pretty good. They have installed a watering system, so the greens are in decent shape.
The rest of the club looks very much the same, but the people who made the place important to me are long dead. Miss Norma, Mr. Steve, and my grandparents have been gone 35 years or more. Mama and Papa, Aunt Jan and Uncle Billy have been dead at least 15 years. Anne is a widow and lives in Nashville, TN, and Mimi lives outside of Richmond, VA. I know they both remember our time at Little River, but they haven’t been back in over 50 years. Harriet lives in New York City, and she still remembers our summers there, and makes a pilgrimage to see the Club every time she visits my sister Betty who only lives about an hour away. Betty was enough younger than we were that she doesn’t share the memories that we do. I’m an old lady, rocking on a porch in Tacoma, Washington, dreaming up the stories of a gentler, simpler time when summers were a time when even the adults quit their busy lives and listened to the crickets and frogs sing lullabies in the dark.