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Life Along the Buffalo: Before and After the National River

Michele Skalicky

Anyone who’s been to the Buffalo National River can attest to the beauty of the area, with its massive cliffs, cool, clear water, abundant wildlife and many diverse hiking trails.  But some may not realize the effort it took to create the park and the impact that had on landowners.

It was just over 46 years ago, that the Buffalo River became a national river, under the management of the National Park Service.  It was a long fight to get to that point with some people pushing for government ownership, others supporting a U.S. Corps of Engineers effort to dam the river and locals fighting to keep land that had been in their family for generations.

Treva Stoops and her son, Louie Stoops, remember well when they had to sell their land to make way for the new national park.

Treva grew up along the Buffalo—a fifth or sixth generation family member, she said, at Buffalo Point.

"I've been on the river for a long time--seventy something years," she said, laughing.

Treva’s grandfather, Pate Dillard, (Louie’s great-grandfather) owned Dillard’s Ferry, and Treva’s dad’s kin owned Grinder’s Ferry on the Buffalo River.  

Her mother, Doretha Shipman, told Treva stories about how as a child, the family would load up the wagon at their home on the top of the hill and go down to the river for the summer to grow crops. 

And Treva has fond memories of summers at the river, too.  When she was a young child, her grandfather would set up a hunting tent along the river, and her grandma would fry up fish and potatoes on a camp stove.  She remembered one time someone killed a raccoon, and her mother cooked it for lunch.

"She boiled the coon with sweet potatoes, and that takes out some of that wild and the grease, you throw all that away, then you put that coon in a pan, and you roast it, and it takes the moisture out, and it's really, really good with barbecue sauce over it," she said.

As she got older, her mother and father began farming along the river.  She remembered how much work it was but also how much fun they had.  She recalled the times her sister would drive the tractor while she was responsible for something else.

"The little ones drove the tractors, and so, Daddy had showed her (Treva's sister) how to start and to stop.  And, so, they were using an old hammerhead bailer, which, you pitch the hay in, somebody had to block it--it was a big old wooden block--and then somebody poked wires through these holes, and the machine would bind those wires, and you'd have a bail of hay," she said.  "If you didn't put your block in early enough, you had a bail of hay that just kept going until you blocked it, and if you blocked it in too soon, you might have a little bitty one, so that was my job, and I got pretty good at getting them the same length."

She remembered how her mother would always have snacks in a bag that she’d put in a spring to keep them cold, and how she especially loved ice cold Butterfingers after a day of herding cows.

No matter what they did, though, she said, her father always made sure they had fun doing it.

"He would go one round around the field, and it was fairly large around, and then he'd stop and he'd yell, 'alright.  Ten minutes  in the river,' and that means they got 10 minutes to swim.  But when he hollered, nobody said a word, they just jumped out wet, it didn't matter, back onto...make another round, and usually about every round is 10 minutes to the river," she said.

When the National Park Service began buying up land for the Buffalo National River, it was an anxious time for landowners.  Louie Stoops said they didn’t know if they’d get to keep their land, have to sell it right away or get to keep it until they died when it would go under the ownership of the National Park Service. 

"It was just a 'what's going to happen?' kind of deal.  You know, everybody was really, really--it was tense.  Like I said it was tense.  It was a hard time there for us," he said.

Treva recalled how her family felt the National Park Service employees at the time liked to flaunt their intelligence while insinuating that the locals knew less than they did.

"This one particular guy would come from the park to buy milk and tell Daddy everytime he come, cause he got to be a joke after awhile, how smart he was.  He knew every tree there was out there.  He knew every flower.  There was nothing that man didn't know.  And everytime he'd come to get milk, so then it got to be a joke when he'd come.  'I wonder how much he knows today?' she said.  "So, he pulls up in front of the house one day to get milk, and he gets out, he says, 'Mr. Shipman.  You know, I've told you I know every one of these trees...except this one in front of your barn.  And for the life of me, I can't figure out what that was.'  And Daddy looked at us kids, and he looked at that big old apple tree that's full of apples, and he says, 'well, that's an apple tree,' and that young man, he got his milk, and I don't think he ever came back to the farm."

Louie agreed that what made the loss of their land even more difficult was the way the locals were treated.

"The locals in general that lived down there was really treated--the old, I don't know, the old hick hillbillies from Arkansas, and these folks come in, and, like I said, they knew more than us, and like she (Treva) said, they basically told us, 'it's not yours.  We don't want you down here anymore,'" he said.

According to Louie Stoops, that’s all changed now.  Some people who had to sell their land to make way for the Buffalo National River still hold a grudge against the government, especially those his mother’s age and older.  But Louie said his generation, for the most part, no longer harbors bad feelings towards the Park Service.

"After growing up and learning the reasons why it was done, and it made a lot of sense, that if they had not have done it, the farmland would've probably been under, you know, 6o foot of water because it was going to be dammed up, so we would've lost the river anyway and the farmlands, too, so as I grew older it made more sense, and I understood why the Park Service did it," he said.

In fact, Louie works for the National Park Service now and has for about ten years as the dispatch supervisor/communications manager for law enforcement dispatch.    His office sends out officers for four national parks:  The Buffalo National River, Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, Pea Ridge National Military Park and Hot Springs National Park.  He sees the benefits the park has had on the area in terms of tourism and the economy.  And he’s grateful the river wasn’t dammed.

"In the grand scheme of things, this was the right thing to do by far.  I mean, I would not be able to hike to the rock house if it was underwater," he said.  "It's just--there's so much that we can do still because they took it."

He said his kids have grown up on the Buffalo and are self-described river rats like himself.

Treva and her daughter-in-law volunteer for the National Park Service every summer.  She knows that if the dam had been built, the area would be radically different.

"It's a beautiful place.  I love it.  It's deep to my heart, so you could not have gone to see any of it.  It would've been lost.  I love to canoe.  I love to kayak.  I love to just go to the river and swim, so...none of that would've happened had you built a dam because it would have been under water," she said. 

All but one of her brothers and sisters, she said, live within 10 miles of where they grew up.  She believes she and other families who lived along the Buffalo in the 1960’s and 1970’s would have left the area if a dam had been built.

"We are tied to this river with very deep roots, and that would've all been gone, you know, where they (her ancestors) grew up, so we would go up there, too" she said.  "I think we are probably tied to the river as much as any family around, and I'm by far more happy that it is what it is now."

Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.