Ozarkland. Unless you moved here more than 45 years ago, or you’ve been talking to someone who did, you probably won’t recognize the name. “Ozarkland,” was the name originally given to a project which included a radio and television studio built at Horseshoe Bend in1969. The project was not only slated to house and broadcast the daily Country and Western music program called Ozarkland Jamboree, but hoped to make the little town in the Ozarks become the 1970s answer to the “next big thing.” As a matter of fact, the City of Horseshoe Bend, which is celebrating its 50th year in 2013, was a pretty big thing in its early days.
Horseshoe Bend was once known as “Crape Myrtle City, U.S.A” and was touted as the little city with The Perfect Plan, The Ideal Location. “When Bill and Dick Pratt purchased this land now called Horseshoe Bend from John Williams, I am sure they never visualized what it would become. They enjoyed getting away from the cities and fishing, hunting and just retreating on the land,” said Willie Nemec, the city’s very first resident. “In the fall of 1962, I was happily employed with Pope, Pratt and Shamburger, Attorneys in Little Rock and had no thoughts of leaving that beautiful office. One day in November, Dick Pratt asked if my family would like to spend the weekend in the country and I jumped at the chance-and got my first look at what is now Horseshoe Bend. We had to open three gates to go down this trail to the Strawberry River where the only overnight accommodations were. (The cabin and the trail leading to it were built by the Pratts after they purchased the land.) There was no road from Franklin and I can not tell you to this day how we got there.”
Bill Pratt told Willie that he had plans to build a huge clubhouse and restaurant up on “Gobbler’s Knob,” the highest spot on the brother’s property. All she saw were trees…and more trees, “I thought the man was a little touched in the head.” But, despite her misgivings, in May 1963, Willie and her three children moved to northern Izard County. Willie ended up managing Dick Pratt’s “touched in the head idea” during its first two years in business.
There were no real roads, no phones, just a farmhouse and stable from which an old goat followed a handful of donkeys everywhere they went. The Pratt’s original getaway cabin on the Strawberry had washed away with floodwaters in December, so even the place where Willie and her family had been first introduced to Horseshoe Bend was gone.
However, the first big thing event in the Bend actually proved to be a bit of a bust. The Clubhouse had developed a following of regulars who would drive up the one-way road from Ash Flat to enjoy a coke or meal, but mostly to see what was going on up the hill. Bill Pratt expected a big, big crowd for their first barbeque, which he cooked himself. But, as it turned out, the Pratt families, Willie, her children and their first employees, Willie Mae Garner (Pratt), Clarice Montgomery, Lucille Billingsley and Ginger Roberts were the only ones to enjoy that first Independence Day celebration.
Not to be discouraged, the enterprising Pratts set up a sales office a little way down the hill and furnished it with a crew consisting of local folks: Olen Barnes, Harlus Harber and Willene Langston. John E. Miller, flanked by his young son David, surveyed the first additions in Horseshoe Bend. The White Motel, which was once located where the parking lot near the ProShop is, was constructed to accommodate visitors and potential buyers. The nearest phone was in Agnos, sales promos were done by “RFD,” mail-outs to larger cities with replies received via the Rural Free Delivery route-ie somebody had to drive to Franklin to get the mail. The first election was held at Day, Arkansas in a hot, dusty, wasp-plagued combination garage and blacksmith shop. Eighteen voters showed up.
Despite its disappointing appearances, a great happening was brewing under the surface of Gobbler’s Knob. The word was getting around that the little burg in the Ozarks was the place to be. Bill Pratt built himself a home here, but Wilma and Troy Mendenal bought it before he ever had a chance to move in. Dick also had a house on Clark Lane, but it sold to newcomers just as quickly as his brother’s had. The town suddenly took off. There were square dances, bingo, Wednesday morning socials for the ladies, and regular talent shows for the kids, and an occasional formal ball. The stables offered hourly trail rides. There was always a melon or two cooling in the water at the Strawberry River picnic and fishing area. Five lakes were established, the largest of which sported a marina and recreation area. A challenging golf course, tennis and shuffleboard courts, basketball court, children’s play area, mini golf, and two public swimming pools were built on what would eventually be known as Turkey Mountain.
The orchard that supplied apples and peaches for Glenda Ramsey’s fried pies eventually gave way to a ball field and Veteran’s Park. Hillhigh Hotel treated its guests to a European-style spa experience, the finest dining and spirits in the Carriage Room and a state-of-the-art convention facility. The airport was buzzing. The mall was full. Little Rock promoter Albert C. Gannaway built a soundstage in the lower section of the mall, with plans for a Grand Ol Opry-style music show for TV, and the filming of portions of feature length western movies and television series episodes on-location in the surrounding area.
Gannaway expressed high hopes that Ozarkland Studio, along with it’s adjacent family-fun theme park would become the “TV and movieland center of the Ozarks.” CBS looked at possible on-location sites for filming Lassie. The producers of Gunsmoke, Bonanza and High Chaparral were also interested in the Bend. Gannaway was quoted as saying, “Unlike Disneyland, Ozarkland will have a dual purpose.” It was a no-fail proposition. (Unfortunately for Horseshoe Bend, Gannaway also had strong ties to a little peninsula to our southeast.)
The town grew up, the western set known as Pioneer Homestead grew old. The Music Mountain Theatre-recording and radio studio which had once hosted the likes of Ernest Tubbs, Dolly Parton, Mickey Gilley and the like, sprung leaks and grew musty. Annual festivals became mundane, the parking lots empty. It’s too bad that the town that the Jonesboro Sun once dubbed “The Ozarks Wonderland” never reached and held onto its potential. Or is it?
Look at what’s coming back: Dogwood Days, Independence Day, Music in the Mountains, Ozarks Got Singers/celebrity events at Beavers Music Hall, fishing derbies, golf tournaments, the possible return of the LPGA event, antique car and motorcycle shows, Young Eagles future pilots and visits from the Navion Aviation club, Casino Nite at the Loft, the ever-growing Trunk or Treat and Haunted House Halloween Festival, the annual WinterFest, the possibility of a new membership campground/RV park in town, yearly Garden Club sales, events put on annually by the Friends of the Library, Friends of Horseshoe Bend Animals, Boating and Fishing Club and other area civic clubs, the missionary work by local churches…the old folks say when you plant a seed; it takes one part sunshine, two parts water and three parts prayer. Horseshoe Bend currently has several seeds in the ground, but perhaps they need an upgraded recipe: maybe one part enthusiasm, two parts cooperation and three parts prayer certainly couldn’t hurt…who knows how big they could grow?
And even if it stays small-town for the next 50 years, we still have one of the finest and most friendly communities in the state. Horseshoe Bend has such people in it, and that counts a lot for this brave new world we live in.