by Joe David Rice | Photography provided by Arkansas Parks and Tourism and the venues
Few travel articles begin with a list of things you won’t find in the featured destination. But that’s how I’ll start this piece, noting that visitors to Jasper will not see parking meters, stoplights, McDonald’s, Starbucks or a big-box retailer. What they will discover is one of the most interesting and authentic towns in the Natural State along with friendly folks eager to make guests feel right at home.
Located on the banks of the Little Buffalo River (once known as Hudson’s Fork), Jasper serves as the county seat for Newton County. Its two-story courthouse, nicely situated on the square in the middle of town, was constructed 80 years ago by the federal Works Progress Administration. The handsome Art Deco structure, built of local limestone, boldly displays “Newton County” etched in a panel above the entrance.
Jasper can trace its history back to 1840 although the community wasn’t legally incorporated until 1895. Many of the buildings in town date from the 1880s through the 1940s. In fact, the entire downtown district has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places. One of my favorites is the old city jail (in use until 2009), a classic two-story stone structure just a block northwest of the courthouse.
Downtown Jasper has lots going for it besides its fine collection of historic structures. The Blue Mountain Bakery & Café (207 N. Stone) is something every town should have. A hungry family looking for a unique dessert might opt for “The Thing” – a $10 brownie, pecan, ice cream, chocolate syrup and whipped cream extravaganza. Count on the Ozark Café (107 E. Court Street) for tasty breakfast, lunch, and dinner options seven days a week (check out the chocolate gravy). Another block down the street is Arkansas House (215 E. Court Street), a quaint five-unit lodging establishment with a prominent outline of the state worked into the top floor of its rock façade. Located between these two businesses is Emma’s Museum of Junk. This quote from a recent Facebook posting is perfect: “I am in LOVE with this place! Great items and decent prices.” Emma has reluctantly embraced the 21st century and now accepts credit cards.
I, for one, have especially appreciated the wonderful rocking chairs that have been placed in handy downtown locations for the weary. Come to find out, Katherine and Joe Nance took it upon themselves to donate these welcoming treasures as a way of saying thanks to the veterans who visit Jasper. A generous group of civic-minded residents also presented the town with Newt, the 9-foot tall, 350-pound bronze-plated aluminum elk statue lording over the northwest corner of the courthouse grounds.
Newt, of course, is a testament to Newton County’s legacy as “Elk Capital of Arkansas.” Years ago, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission reintroduced elk in the Buffalo River Valley north and west of Jasper. Today the herd includes about 500 of these magnificent beasts, some of whom can be seen in the Ponca/Boxley area, most often in the winter and spring months. Wildlife enthusiasts will also enjoy the hands-on exhibits at the Elk Education Center in nearby Ponca (15 miles west of Jasper).
For over two decades now Jasper has hosted the Buffalo River Elk Festival. The 22nd annual edition of the event will be held the last weekend of this month (Friday, June 28 and Saturday, June 29). Foodies will appreciate the Dutch oven cookoff and the pie contest, and the younger crowd will enjoy the fun run and fishing derby. This festival also includes something no other Arkansas festival can claim: an elk calling contest. For more details, check out the website: buffaloriverelkfestival.com
Visitors heading to Jasper should consider several worthy side trips as they plan their excursions. Folks arriving from the south can travel up Scenic Arkansas Highway 7. Recommended points of interest between Interstate 40 and Jasper include: Pedestal Rocks, Haw Creek Falls, Sam’s Throne, Alum Cove Natural Bridge, and the Arkansas Grand Canyon. A couple of miles south of town is the Round Top Mountain Trail. This three-mile loop takes hikers past the site of a fatal B-25 crash in 1948 and also offers outstanding views of Jasper and the surrounding countryside.
Travelers arriving from the north via Scenic 7 will pass by Mystic Caverns before crossing the Buffalo National River. The historic Parker-Hickman farmstead (circa 1840) in the community of Erbie is worth a visit. Those coming in from the west can include Boxley Valley, Hemmed-In- Hollow, Lost Valley and Steel Creek among their optional side trips.
Mayor Jan Larson is proud of her town, and rightfully so. When asked about the community’s assets, she quickly mentions “our natural setting, the goodness of our people and the Jasper quality of life.” One of her chief concerns is offering jobs for the next generation of workers. Using a grant from the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District, the city has asked the University of Arkansas Little Rock to assist in the preparation of a five-year strategic plan for the community. Given Larson’s strong interest in keeping young people in town following their education, it’s no surprise to learn that a priority of the research team is to include students at Jasper High in the planning process.
The attitude of the mayor is echoed by Vixen James, president of the Newton County Chamber of Commerce. James, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Arkansas National Guard says, “The Buffalo River is at the center of all the beauty and recreational opportunities this county has to offer. I’m an outdoorsman, and it excites me when I can share the beauty of this county with others.”
With its 466 residents, Jasper is among the smallest county seats in Arkansas. But don’t let that number fool you. Jasper is indeed a special place, and one worth a visit. For complete details on lodging opportunities in the area (and there are dozens of cabins for rent), visit the state’s website at arkansas.com.
Finally, for those who’d like to know more about Jasper and Newton County in the early days, take a peek at Walter Lackey’s History of Newton County. This delightful book, first published in 1950, includes chapters on distilleries, water witching, shooting matches, lizards and many other fascinating topics.