Not many Ozark communities can claim that slaves named the town. That’s just one way that Mountain Home is unique among Arkansas cities. The first white pioneers moved into the region around today’s Mountain Home well over 200 years ago. Maps of early Arkansas from that era show a village known as Rapp’s Barren, most likely to recognize Henry Rapp, the original settler. As for the term “barren,” it indicated a prairie-like setting with few trees. That name went by the wayside in 1857, to be replaced by Mountain Home when a post office was established. The change can be traced back to 30 slaves who worked on two plantations owned by Col. Orrin Dodd, one in Rapp’s Barren and the other far to the south in Augusta. Some of them had taken to calling Dodd’s Ozark estate “My Sweet Mountain Home,” and the name caught on. That’s the legend, at least, and the town’s been known as Mountain Home for well over 150 years now.
Located in north-central Arkansas, a dozen or so miles below the Missouri border, Mountain Home remained a quiet little hamlet until the 1940s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction of two major dams in the area. One was on the east side of town on the North Fork River, creating Lake Norfork, and the other was to the west on the White River, impounding Bull Shoals Lake. President Harry Truman came to Mountain Home on July 2, 1952, to dedicate this pair of massive public works projects. Together, the two lakes offer some 67,440 acres of open water and 1,500 miles of rocky shoreline. Primarily built for flood control and power generation, the reservoirs soon became meccas for tourists — and Mountain Home began its transformation. Scores of small fishing resorts and ancillary businesses sprang up around the lakes to serve the influx of visitors.
However, the federal government wasn’t finished with its construction. In 1955, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opened the Norfork National Fish Hatchery, built to offset the loss of native riparian habitat, at the base of Norfork Dam. The country’s largest hatchery, it produces thousands upon thousands of rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout for release in the cold tailwaters below the two dams (and others) and is the foundation for what’s grown to be nearly a $100 million a year trout fishing industry in the greater Mountain Home area. The most popular tourist attraction in Baxter County, the hatchery (1414 Highway 177 South) hosts some 250,000 visitors a year.
For outdoor recreation enthusiasts, fishing isn’t the only option when visiting Mountain Home. In fact, the town is virtually surrounded by an amazing assortment of diverse opportunities to experience the Natural State. Lake Norfork alone can boast four quality hiking trails (David’s Trail, Norfork Trail, Pigeon Creek Trail and Robinson Point Trail) offering good views with moderate difficulty. Bull Shoals-White River State Park features half a dozen trails, one of which is a three-mile challenge for mountain bikers. Less than an hour south of Mountain Home is the Syllamo Mountain Bike Trail complex, an internationally recognized 50-mile network of interconnecting loops in the Ozark National Forest and accessible off Arkansas Highway 5. Motorcyclists (and others looking for an enjoyable leisurely drive) appreciate the tight twists and turns of the Push Mountain/Sylamore Scenic Byway, which winds through the Ozarks south and west of town. The lower section of the Buffalo National River is only about an hour southwest of Mountain Home, and the state’s last operating ferry — the Peel Ferry on Bull Shoals Lake — is about 45 miles to the west. One of Arkansas’ top golf courses, the Big Creek Golf and Country Club, occupies a beautiful setting on the western edge of town and has recently completed a multiyear renovation. And scuba enthusiasts have long slipped beneath the deep, clear waters of both Norfork and Bull Shoals to explore the underwater sights. Check out the arkansas.com website for additional details on these and other possibilities.
Clearly, Mountain Home is a pretty special place for folks who love the outdoors. Jeff Pipkin arrived at this conclusion only days after he’d moved into the community, not quite four years ago, to become executive director of the Mountain Home Area Chamber of Commerce. “I’d never seen anything like it,” he says. “An ambulance pulling a bass boat.”
But there’s more — much more — to Mountain Home than plenty of excuses to get outside. Noting that Mountain Home services a trade region of approximately 250,000 people, Pipkin says it should come as no surprise that it offers much more than the typical community of 12,500 residents. The town can boast many of the chains typically found in much larger cities, sometimes with a special flair. The local Wendy’s, for instance, features live music every Tuesday night. When Pipkin expressed surprise upon learning about these performances, one of his board members asked, “Don’t all of them do this?” Rumor has it that Mountain Home’s Walmart is the busiest in the entire state.
As for dining options, Mountain Home’s restaurant scene has vastly improved since the days I visited the town as a young man. Dusit Thai Cuisine, Fred’s Fish House, Bookworms, Holy Smokes BBQ, Clayton’s Downtown Grill, and Cooyons Restaurant are all worth a visit, along with a couple of others technically located outside the Mountain Home city limits but nearby: Gaston’s on the White River in Lakeview and The Grill at Whispering Woods, overlooking Lake Norfork. I was told about a revealing exchange between the visiting CEO of a high-powered engineering outfit and chef Richard Quiblier, who spent 22 developing and refining his culinary expertise in Switzerland before opening The Grill at Whispering Woods. Handing his business card to Quiblier following an exceptional meal, the guest said, “You really need to move your restaurant to my hometown.” Never missing a beat, Quiblier smiled and replied, “No sir. You need to move your operations to Mountain Home.”
Another big change is the evolution of the city’s downtown, and a major factor is the formation of what’s called “The District.” Taking advantage of legislation passed by the Arkansas General Assembly in 2019, Mountain Home was the first town in the state to create an “entertainment district” — an 8-square-block zone where adults can purchase beer, wine, or a mixed drink from a bar or restaurant and consume the beverage while wandering through the district from 4:30 p.m. through midnight. It’s been in effect almost exactly a year now, and Mayor Hillrey Adams is pleased with the results. “We’ve established an environment where a person can get a nice meal and enjoy an evening’s entertainment with a cold beverage,” he says. “The District allows us to have some interesting options, and it’s created an area where growth is occurring.”
A prime example of that downtown growth is the forthcoming Rapp’s Barren Brewing Company operation, a “gastropub” in the works at 601 S. Baker St. Russell Tucker, a fourth-generation Mountain Homer, began his brewing career in the garage as a hobby before his “passion got out of control,” as he puts it. Formally in business since 2017, Tucker and his partners decided to make a bold statement and relocate from rented facilities to their own building. They bought the oldest commercial building in the city (circa 1892) and will preserve as much of the structure’s cultural integrity as possible. With a tentative opening set for the spring of 2021, the 8,000 square-foot combination restaurant/brewpub will be, in Tucker’s words, “a cornerstone of the community where people can enjoy each other’s fellowship.” In the meantime, customers can enjoy a dozen or so varieties of beer, along with root beer and cream soda, at the current brewery (1343 E. 9th St.).
A downtown landmark, the Baxter County Courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. This handsome, three-story Art Deco-style building was constructed by the federal Works Progress Administration between 1941 and 1943. The entire downtown area received similar recognition in 2010, with the application stating, “The Mountain Home Commercial Historic District is a cohesive group of buildings that represent, in their appearance, the eras of the city’s development and use of indigenous materials.” These indigenous materials (i.e., limestone and sandstone) are on display in the form of cut stone block, uncut fieldstone, flagstone and stacked river rock — making for one of the more interesting and attractive business districts in the state.
Several north Arkansas cities — places such as Eureka Springs, Hardy, Harrison and Mountain View — are known for their antique shops, and Mountain Home is no exception. A few to consider, in alphabetical order, are: Antiques and Uncle Junk (21 E. 6th St.); Earl’s Antiques (3328 Highway 62 W.); Red Star Antiques (3260 Highway 62 W.); Remember When Antiques & More Mall (5655 Highway 62 E.); and Rusty Rooster Flea Market & Antique Mall (1340 Highway 62 E.).
Another aspect of Mountain Home’s history is its longstanding support of education. In the mid-1850s, the aforementioned plantation owner Orrin Dodd and newly arrived professor John S. Howard established the Male and Female Academy. Built on property owned by Dodd and operated by Howard, the school drew students from throughout the region, greatly contributing to the community’s image and growth. Arkansas could claim only about 25 public schools at the time, and the Male and Female Academy was among the best in the state. Johnny Key, Arkansas’ Secretary of Education, lived in Mountain Home for about 20 years (serving in the Arkansas General Assembly for 12 of them), and knows firsthand about Mountain Home’s school system. “The quality of education is superior,” he says, “such that it’s now attracting young families to move into the town.”
Key tells me about Elroy Chinn, a career railroad man from Texas who moved to the Mountain Home area upon his retirement. Chinn, who is African-American, wasn’t able to attend school as a youth. But at the age of 84, and through the help of the local Twin Lakes Literacy Council, Chinn finally learned to read, fulfilling an ambition “to read the entire Bible before I die.” Recognized as the Arkansas Student of the Year in 2005, Chinn was selected as the International Student of the Year in 2006. Chinn went on to become a successful motivational speaker before his death in 2011 at the age of 92.
Another example of the town’s commitment to education is its strong support of a branch campus of Arkansas State University that opened in 1995. Serving about 1,300 students each semester, the 120-acre campus on the city’s southwest side offers a wide range of specialties: automotive, allied health, nursing, paramedic, cybersecurity and coding. With several leading boat manufacturers located nearby, the school has also developed a technical program in fiberglass boat-building.
For the last six years, it’s been recognized by the Aspen Institute as one of America’s top community colleges. And Wallethub, a popular personal finance website, ranked Arkansas State University-Mountain Home (ASU-MH) among the nation’s top two such institutions in both 2018 and 2019. Visitors to the wooded campus expecting the usual mixture of low-bid structures often typical of two-year colleges will be surprised. The school’s architect based the design on the classic brick buildings found at the University of Virginia, giving the college a Jeffersonian-style look.
Dr. Robin Myers, a native of Blytheville, became the ASU-MH chancellor in 2012. Recognized by his national peers for his leadership, Myers is particularly proud of the school’s Gaston Lecture Series (endowed by the late Jim Gaston) that regularly features provocative speakers on a wide variety of topics, and the Arvest Concert Series that consistently exposes appreciative Mountain Home audiences to an impressive range of musical talent.
For those readers with a literary bent, let me mention that the late poet C.D. Wright was born in Mountain Home in 1949. After dropping out of law school, she earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arkansas in 1976, eventually gaining wide acclaim for her many volumes of poetry. Wright won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2010 (and was a National Book Award finalist that same year). Over the course of her productive career, she received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship. Wright also produced A Reader’s Map of Arkansas.
When I ask Mayor Adams about his priorities, he notes the town’s success attracting baby boomers and Gen Xers. He says, “I want to see Mountain Home become a place that’s also friendly to millennials, a place where they can work, live, and be a part of this community.” Two recent grants from the Arkansas Department of Transportation for community trails will work to that end. Adams also mentions a new event that began in July: the Baxter Summer Concert Series at Hickory Park. Funded by the Baxter Healthcare Corporation (which employs about 1,100 people locally) and supported by the Mountain Home Advertising & Promotion Commission and the Mountain Home Chamber of Commerce, the weekend performances take place on a fine new stage built by the Farmers and Merchants Bank.
Adams, who recently retired following a 40-year career with the U.S. Postal Service, has now been mayor for about 18 months and truly enjoys working with what he describes as a “good, close-knit community.” The mayor says, “This is the best working experience of my life.”
As is the case with many Arkansas destinations, half the fun of driving to Mountain Home is checking out the interesting spots along the way. Depending upon how you get there, these “bonus” side excursions could include the Jacob Wolf House in Norfork (said to be the oldest log structure in the state), Blanchard Springs Caverns near Fifty-Six, the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, the ghost town of Rush south of Yellville and the Spring River at Hardy.
So, put Mountain Home on your bucket list. Mayor Adams will be glad to see you.