A great dam transformation

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In his marvelous new book on the Ozarks, Arkansas historian Brooks Blevins explores the difference the US Army Corps of Engineers tanks have made to the lives of those who live in the region.

“Outsiders may have fixated on the area’s reputation for primitivism, but nothing modernized and transformed entire neighborhoods in the 20th-century Ozarks more than the creation of man-made reservoirs,” Blevins writes in “A History of the Ozarks: The Ozarkers”.

In today’s Perspective section cover story, I note how the Norfork and Bull Shoals dams transformed Mountain Home from a poor, sleepy mountain hamlet into a bustling northern Arkansas town. Norfork was first envisioned as a flood relief initiative, but business and municipal leaders in that part of the state have pointed to the additional need for hydroelectric power.

“No one has done it harder than Tom Shiras, editor of the weekly Baxter Bulletin in Mountain Home,” writes Blevins. “Without a hydroelectric dam, Shiras feared, Norfork would turn out to be ‘just a frog pond instead of a lake’, and the publisher arranged for delegations of local businessmen to travel to Washington, DC, to push for a power plant Before long, one of its key allies had an office in the Capitol.

“No figure appears more important in the history of dam-building and hydroelectricity generation in the Ozarks (and elsewhere) than Clyde T. Ellis, a country schoolteacher from northwest Arkansas turned Accusing 3rd District Congressman Claude Fuller of doing too little to bring electricity to farmers, Ellis ousted the longtime incumbent and quickly announced his presence in the nation’s capital by proposing a White River Authority, a global planning agency inspired by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Ellis spent countless hours lobbying his colleagues in Congress and only withdrew the White River Authority’s plan when he was able to win approval for power generation at Norfork Dam and two additional tanks in the Ozarks. The Flood Control Act of 1941 changed the region forever. Two years later, Ellis became the first general manager of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“Norfork’s conversion to a hydroelectric dam set the stage for the years of Corps activity that followed,” Blevins wrote. “The two White River dams that Mr. Rural Electrification helped secure turned out to be the largest ever erected in the Ozarks. The first was built just a few miles south of the Arkansas-Missouri line. Hauling aggregate from a quarry north of Yellville to the dam site, workers worked for four years on a reservoir covering more than 45,000 acres behind a 256-foot-tall dam.

“Completed in 1951, Bull Shoals Lake stretched some 87 miles upstream. Seven years later and just a few miles upriver from Branson, construction crews completed the Table Rock Dam and Reservoir, just over smaller than Bull Shoals.At the end of Table Rock, many workers simply moved south into the Arkansas Ozarks when the Corps hired the same company to build the Greers Ferry Dam on the Little River. Red, a tributary of the White.The Greers Ferry Dam had an immediate and remarkable economic impact on the nearest town, Heber Springs.

Bank deposits in Cleburne County increased 57% in the two years since construction of Greers Ferry began. School enrollment doubled and nearly 300 new homes were built.

“President John F. Kennedy visited the Ozarks to officially open the dam in October 1963, just as President Harry Truman had done at Bull Shoals 11 years earlier,” Blevins writes. “Kennedy’s speech turned out to be the President’s last major public appearance before his assassination in Dallas the following month.”

There was even more growth to the north in Baxter County thanks to the presence of Norfork and Bull Shoals. Not only did tourists come, but retirees headed to the area from the upper Midwest.

“By the 1950s, whether politicians and dam developers publicly acknowledged it or not, flood control and hydropower had taken over economic development and recreation,” Blevins writes. “Most of the areas around the man-made reservoirs experienced significant economic growth. Arkansas’ Twin Lakes Region experienced the region’s first reservoir-fueled development boom just as post-war American wealth war has begun to clog the highways with vacationers.

“In the early 1970s, tourist camps, hotels, and resorts in the Twin Lakes area could accommodate more than 8,300 people a night. Retirement was even more essential to the Twin Lakes economy. 1970s and 1980s, the largest Mountain Home The area became one of the nation’s top retirement destinations as Midwesterners headed south to spend their golden years on the hills where stubborn Ozarkers had torn their lives on rocky soils.

Blevins says the retirees have brought pensions and savings “unprecedented for many of their native neighbors” who had struggled for decades to survive in these hills. Real estate agencies have sprung up everywhere. At one time, Mountain Home had more realtors per capita than almost any city in the country.

Mountain Home has become known as Chicago’s most remote suburb. The Chicago Tribune had dozens of subscribers in Baxter County who received the paper by mail.

“The lake areas of the White River Basin were central to one of the most pivotal stories of post-World War II demographic change in the Ozarks,” Blevins writes. “At the heart of the retirement story was a phenomenon that affected the Ozarks as much as any other place in the country: the planned retirement community. Although real estate developments from Florida to Arizona claim to be the model of the planned retirement community, little if any trace of their roots further than Cherokee Village in Arkansas.

“Yet it is the man-made lakes that have attracted the greatest number of retirees. … The rapid development of the retirement industry in the South Ozarks has fundamentally altered the demographics of communities and counties. Taking place in amid a mass exodus of rural Ozarkers, in some places the influx of retirees replaced the natives as the dominant population.”

An added attraction for tourists and retirees came when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established a large trout hatchery just below Norfork Dam in 1957 and began storing tailwater below dams in the basin. of the White River. Cotter was soon called Trout Capital USA.

“The vast system of dams in the Ozarks wiped out the region’s once-popular float fishing industry, but it didn’t spell the end of warm-water fishing,” Blevins notes. “In fact, the calm waters of the reservoir attracted even greater numbers of anglers. Anglers from the Southwest and Midwest fished the lake in search of the elusive walleye – jack or jack salmon in local parlance. – and laid the coves for largemouth lunker bass. Species such as muskies and striped bass brought additional diversity to the area’s fish population.”

This part of the Ozarks has been transformed by the influx of new residents. Nowhere has the transformation been more evident than in and around Mountain Home.

“The prosperity reflected in gleaming pontoons and sprawling resorts tended to mask the cultural transformation wrought by the dams,” Blevins writes. “Within a generation, newcomers outnumbered natives in the reservoir development areas. In the Twin Lakes region – where pre-dam society was defined by evangelical Protestantism and the democratic political control – exotic immigrants introduced Catholicism, Lutheranism, and republicanism, among other unusual practices.

“The nasal timbre of the Great Lakes accent began to drown out the twang of the hills. And newcomers and weekenders in reservoir areas were more likely than natives to capitalize on the economic boom generated by the dams …Perhaps the least chronic part of the saga of the dams has been the fate of the thousands of families displaced by the reservoirs.”


Rex Nelson is editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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