A whimsical look at life growing up in the small town of Waldron, Arkansas in the 1960s and 1970s, plus occasional observations from the present. Want to start at the very beginning? Click HERE.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Whole School Goes To Lake Hinkle

Senator John L. McClellan signs autographs for a group
of Waldron school children.  Can anyone identify the
boys in this picture?
It was, by any description, a momentous event.  A flood-control dam had been constructed on Jones Creek west of Waldron, and a new lake would fill the valley, providing the residents of Western Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma with a fantastic new recreational resource.  A new campground, a new swimming area, and almost a thousand acres of great fishing.  The date was October 15, 1971.

I was in tenth grade that year, and there was much excitement when it was announced that the entire school would be bused to the dam 12 miles west of town, where we would spend the day viewing the new soon-to-be-filled lake.  We would also listen to some speeches, a not-too-exciting prospect to most school kids, but the prevailing sentiment was that a day outside listening to speeches was still preferable to a day inside listening to teachers.  So, in what was actually my very first time to ride a school bus (I was a town kid, you know, and in those days, town kids got to school on their own!), we loaded up about mid-morning and headed out in a slight misty rain to Lake Hinkle.

The lake was named for Mr. Byron S. Hinkle, who was a Scott County legend.  He had served as county agent for many years, providing tremendous assistance to local families who were making their living by farming.  Later, he was elected to represent Scott County in the state legislature.  In honor of his contributions to Scott County, he was being recognized with the naming of the new lake. 

The big draw on that October day was the presence of one of our United States senators from Arkansas, John L. McClellan.  Senator McClellan was a part of the incredibly powerful trio of men who represented Arkansas in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  In addition to Senator McClellan, the state's "Junior" senator was none other than J. William Fullbright.  Both of our senators served as chairmen of powerful Senate committees, and carried considerable weight on a national level.  In the House of Representatives, central Arkansas was represented by Wilbur Mills, who, as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, essentially controlled the purse strings for most federal funding.  Representative Mills was often referred to as the second-most powerful man in Washington, after only the President.  Unfortunately, one night as Wilbur's limousine cruised around Washington, there was a little problem that resulted in a local stripper named Fannie Foxx jumping from the moving car and ending up in Washington's Tidal Basin.  Fannie spilled the beans on her relationship with Wilbur, which soon brought an end to Wilbur's political career and Arkansas' power in Washington.  But, I digress.

Edward P. Cliff (right), introducing the world to Woodsy
Owl, exactly one month before his (Edward's, not Woodsy's)
visit to Scott County.
Another visiting dignitary was Mr. Edward P. Cliff, who at that time was Chief of the National Forest Service.  Scott County, about 75% of which is covered by the Ouachita National Forrest (for nonlocals who may be reading, that's pronounced "Wash-ah-taw").  Mr. Cliff was not a politician, but a man who had started out as a forest ranger and worked his way up in the organization, becoming Chief in 1962.  He surely felt at home in the beautiful hills of the Ouachitas.

And a beautiful spot it was.  Jones Creek wound it's way through some of the prettiest scenery you could find anywhere.  Although the location was only 12 miles from Waldron, the road to the lake was extremely rough, having been cut through some very difficult mountainous terrain.  The rough dirt road was improved about 15 years ago to a nice paved highway, but for most of it's earliest existence, Lake Hinkle was not an easy place to reach. 

A picture of the construction of Lake Hinkle, from Wanda
Gray's Images of America Scott County Arkansas.
That day, the ceremony was held at the newly constructed dam.  Hay had been spread generously over the bare dirt.  I believe that there were large grills going most of the morning, preparing hamburgers for the hungry crowd.  Most of Waldron's leading citizens were there, as well as quite a few of the local residents. 

Sadly, I have no recollection of hearing Senator McClellan speak.  Mr. Cliff also spoke.  For the serious researcher, transcripts of their comments have been preserved in university archives.  I, in a slightly erroneous view of what was actually important, was fascinated by the presence of a news crew from KATV, the ABC affiliate in the far-away town of Little Rock.  That was actually back in my days of wanting to become a journalist, so I was intent on watching how the news professionals were covering the visit of our Senator.  In fact, I had my camera with me, and the only picture that I seem to have of the event is this picture of the Channel 7 news guy filming the speeches.  The Senator and the Forest Service Chief are just out of the shot.
Well, the festivities ended in time for us to load up and go back to school that afternoon.  As local residents can attest, Lake Hinkle proved to be a wonderful addition to Scott County.  At one time, a successful catfish farming operation was conducted near the dam, and after a storm that might cause some of the catfish cages to break open, it was not unusual to find fisherman standing shoulder to shoulder reeling in giant, corn-fed catfish.  Camping and swimming are still popular at the Little Pines Recreation Area, and people come from miles around to fish. 

I'm sure that the forgotten comments of the dignitaries who spoke that day alluded to these benefits.  I, myself, on July 16, 1998 caught 56 fish in the tailwaters of Lake Hinkle, where it empties back into Jones Creek.  So what if most of them were just a little bigger than my finger.  It's not just people that grow up in Waldron.


  1. Cool story. The closest I ever came to hearing a dignitary of that sort speak, during my childhood, would have been my Uncle Jim, who had been a state representative. I just thought of him as my uncle, though, so it didn't impress me as much as it maybe should have. No United States Senators or anything like that roaming around my neighborhood.

  2. I remember the catfish cages well. I lived in Bentonville, Arkansas and would borrow my dad's 1978 Blue Chevy and a 400 gallon fish hauling tank to make the drive to Hinkle. I remember picking up 150 lbs of blocked ice at the last bait store just before making the winding trip up to the dam where what seemed like hundreds of catfish cages await my Big-10 pickup.
    Back in the early eighties, caged catfish from Hinkle were $0.85/pound. I would purchase 1000 pounds of the black cats and drop them into my tank’s ice cold water and somehow take all those fish, water and ice back to northern Arkansas. Made 5-6 trips a summer and the memories were incredible. It’s a shame that the catfish grower is gone now but I can tell you that it’s definitely better for the lake ~ Kevin

    1. Thanks for the story Kevin. The road to Lake Hinkle is much better now than it was back then!

  3. I remember that day. I rode there in the ambulance.