Somewhere along Highway 153 between Stuttgart and Crockett’s Bluff, there sits a time warp.
By Steve Bowman // Photos by Jamison Mosley
When visitors are sent back in time is anyone’s guess. It’s possibly on the undulating blacktop where flat rice fields transition into semi-rolling landscape along the White River. Or maybe it’s where a hairpin curve sends you straight south and next to Schwab’s Grocery, where antique tractors occupy the parking lot. It is certainly evident when you take a left in that curve and venture up a gravel road to the highest point in Arkansas County to the rustic cabins of Crockett’s Bluff Hunting Lodge.
Vestiges along this path of a time – once a bustling center of rice and timber trade alongside the winding White River – are everywhere.
In some ways, not much has changed around these parts in the last seven decades. In other ways, everything has, providing a shadow of a life of those lovingly called “river rats,” who lived in house boats strewn up and down the river.
Time has caught up to Crockett’s Bluff, but the past hasn’t relinquished its hold on the small town. That’s just the way John Hearnsberger likes it.
Hearnsberger is one of seven members of the Crockett’s Bluff Hunting Lodge, one of the oldest operating duck hunting clubs in the state. The lodge lies within the footprint of the Grand Prairie of Arkansas and sits majestically overlooking the White River, abutting the White River National Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest remaining bottomland hardwood forests in the Mississippi River Valley.
In 1918, Sam Fullerton purchased a small lumber mill in Warren, Arkansas and started the Bradley Lumber Company. Two decades later, the company needed a place to entertain clients and promote lumber sales. They built Crockett’s Bluff Hunting Lodge in 1938, utilizing native woods such as pecky cypress, cherry bark oak, white oak, loblolly pine and green ash to panel the club.
Hearnsberger, the self-appointed historian for the club, notes these changes for the club full of historical shifts and owners.
The original lodge burned in 1955 and was rebuilt in 1956 in its present configuration.
*In 1958, Potlatch Lumber Company acquired Bradley Lumber Company, which included the Lodge and approximately 40,000 acres of White River bottomland hardwoods.
In 1970, the lodge and 4.5 acres were acquired by the Frank Lyon Company, a Whirlpool and RCA distributorship. Frank Lyon owned a number of other companies, including Coca Cola of Arkansas, Twin City Bank and Ag-Pro (a John Deere distributor) and in 1973 acquired Wingmead Farms. Lyon utilized the lodge for duck hunting and fishing for his companies. Other improvements made by Lyon include the tool shack, the four-stall boat dock and the conversion of the heating system from propane to electric. The wooden boat was used for three seasons until it was replaced by the green aluminum “cab boat” for trips into Horseshoe Lake. This change was made due to Mr. Lyon, Sr. hurting his ankle while jumping down into the wooden boat in the boat house.
In 1993, Potlatch exchanged its White River bottomlands with the United States Fish & Wildlife Service and the lands became part of the existing White River National Wildlife Refuge. Hunting leases in the refuge held by the Crockett’s Bluff Hunting Club ownership expired in 1996.
The current seven owners of the club, including John and Graves Hearnsberger, Ken McRae, Elvin Shuffield and Burt Newell, acquired the property in 1995.
The club has seen a lot of different faces and owners in 79 years, but a day of hunting in the White River bottoms is one of those experiences that is surprisingly similar to the way it has always been.
The White River, flowing out of the Ozarks and through the Delta to the Mississippi River, has always been the backbone of duck hunting in Arkansas. The vast expanse of hardwood bottoms that makes up the White River drainage, including the Cache and Black Rivers, has been the buffet table for migrating ducks since the dawn of time.
Every spring somewhere in the vast expanse of Saskatchewan, Canada there are scores of mallards that are raised each year and will eventually complete a migration to these woods. Their trek from potholes to bottomlands has been well-documented for as long as man has looked skyward and watched flocks of ducks moving south. While most duck hunters are aware of the importance of the pothole region where ducks are produced, few are aware it is the wintering grounds of flooded trees, grasses and crop lands that provide another key component to the success of that breeding.
Hunters in the White River bottoms see floating and sunken leaves in varying degrees of decomposition. It doesn’t look like much at first glance, but as the leaves break down they produce energy that fuels a food chain of organisms in the water.
The presence of high-protein invertebrates is critical for wintering waterfowl in building up reserves to get them back to their breeding grounds. The invertebrates are especially important for the hen, to build a strong eggshell to ensure that, once there, the bird can continue to produce a clutch of eggs.
Many years ago, these woods would flood naturally, providing a perfect dinner table for migrating ducks. As surrounding lands were cleared for agriculture while levees sought to tame rivers, that natural process was interrupted for much of eastern Arkansas. But with all the tributaries that feed the White River from one end of the state to the other, the area floods easily in the fall and winter. Add the Mississippi River, that provides a plug of sorts, and the lower White River becomes a virtual inland sea of flooded habitat.
It’s unlike the storied rice and green tree reservoir hunting that gets most of the attention from duck hunters in the state. In those areas, water is managed and controlled. On the lower White River, the only thing a hunter can control is when his alarm clock goes off.
“Every day down here is different,’’ Hearnsberger says. “It’s still the wildest place in the state. It’s always changing and access is limited. You can’t expect the next day to be the same as today and that’s what I like about it.”
There are things, though, that Hearnsberger counts on. Things like no cell service, few people and the thought that he might be the first hunter to stand against a tree in that day’s hot area.
Each day begins with a dark boat ride under the arms of oak trees lining the course, like soldiers holding their sabers, and creating a path to something special in front of him. Each stop is dictated by the wind and the ducks. For those venturing out in these bottoms, it’s the essence of duck hunting — nothing guaranteed, but nothing ventured and nothing gained.
That is the way it has always been. There’s a beauty in that for hunters like the Crockett’s Bluff Hunting Club. The wildness and unpredictability, though, is something that has forced many clubs, especially those with clients, to center their activities in flatter, more easily managed environments.
“It’s nice having a place where a guy can count on his duck hole being shin-deep every day of the season,’’ Hearnsberger said of many of those clubs. “But I’m not sure I would have the same passion if I knew which tree I was going to stand beside every day of the season.
“One day I’ll be in one place standing against an oak tree and the next it could be six feet deep and I have to move with the ducks. Some might find that frustrating, but that’s the beauty of the White River. It’s challenging. We call it vagabond hunting, you go with the water and the ducks.”
Those sudden rises on the White River are legendary. A few times in the last decade, the river has reached near record highs. But none has approached the Great Flood of 1927.
The historic flood, considered the most costly natural disaster in the state, covered almost 6,600 square miles. Along the lower White River, the only dry spot was a hill just outside of Crockett’s Bluff proper, where locals pitched tents and parked houseboats to escape the rising water. Eleven years later, that high spot would become the location of the Crockett’s Bluff Hunting Club.
John Hearnsberger is like a kid in a candy store, walking through the hallways of the main cabin at the club. He’s been walking these halls for more than two decades, and can’t help pointing out every old photo and interesting artifact and telling the story behind each piece.
There is plenty to tell after 79 years of hunting from this spot for Hearnsberger, the self-appointed historian for the club. There are photos of old blinds the members hunted from before Potlatch Timber Company transferred most of its holdings to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, increasing the size of the White River National Wildlife Refuge. There are, of course, new and old photos from great deer and duck hunts in the past. There are stacks of photo books, mounts of antlers and waterfowl along with pieces of wooden boats and a 1950s tractor with a wagon that was used to pull hunters to the woods decades ago. It still runs and is a part of the Crockett’s Bluff July 4th parade every year.
Those reminders of the past include the bedspreads that cover the beds in the bunkroom. They are the same ones that can be see in photos from decades ago. The spotless structure is more museum than cabin.
In the 1940s and ‘50s, four additional outbuildings were added for an increasing number of hunters. They were the Caller Shack (later renamed Persimmon), the Honeymoon Shack, the Help Cabin and the Manager’s Shack. The Caller Shack, where Everett Forrest would take his daily nap, later became known as Persimmon due to a persimmon tree growing nearby. The Honeymoon Shack got its name from the couples who were housed in the cabin. The kitchen and lodge staff stayed in the Help Cabin when the weather took a turn for the worse. The Manager’s Shack was for the camp manager.
There’s even a houseboat tied to the bank on the river that would be the envy of any river rat, past or present. The cabin, houseboat and surrounding area are so striking they were used as the backdrop for the movie Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey, Sam Shepherd and Reese Witherspoon. One of the final scenes of that movie, a shootout involving McConaughey, took place on the houseboat.
Amid all the reminders of the past 79 years, the movie poster for Mud has a prominent place.
“Our deal is we are just caretakers of this great spot,’’ Hearnsberger says. “There’s so much that has gone on here over the years and we want to make sure none of it is forgotten.”
He points out they are still doing great things worth remembering every year. In January the club hosted John Hemingway, the grandson of Ernest Hemingway, who wanted to recreate the experience of hunting the White River like his grandfather years ago. The younger Hemingway would recount that trek in Ducks Unlimited magazine.
But for Hearnsberger and the members, besides the incredible hunting experiences that can come at any moment, it’s what the club members do for their families that means the most. It’s evident in their annual Thanksgiving dinner of all the members and family (numbering around 30) where young and old gather each year for a spaghetti dinner.
“Everybody looks forward to it,’’ he says. “We park the cellphones and just become a family unit, enjoying each other. There are no distractions. We can just focus on us, while sitting on the edge of wilderness.”
That becomes much easier somewhere along Highway 153 between Stuttgart and Crockett’s Bluff.
*Historical information provided by John Hearnsberger.