WE’VE BEEN doing these “Wish You Were Here” travel pieces for almost two years now, but this is my first go at writing one. I’ve been present on every trip—from the Kings River Deck House to the Mound City Farm Resort—but until now, I was mostly just along for the ride, responsible for providing the trip’s soundtrack, some comic relief and the occasional observation about our stay that might make it into the final draft of the story. It wasn’t an easy job, but I performed it diligently.
This time around, however, telling the story is largely up to me. So once we pull into the gates of Dogwood Hills Guest Farm, I’m doing my best to take everything in and commit it to memory and my notepad—and there is certainly a lot to take in. The journey up from Little Rock has taken us deep into the Ozarks and well off the beaten path, which has now turned into a winding gravel drive. As we meander past an orchard of various fruit and pecan trees, the scene that opens up before us makes it feel as if we’ve stumbled onto the loading zone for Noah’s Ark: There are chickens, cows, ducks, goats—all the animals you might expect to see on a farm—then a few surprises, including an alpaca named Frodo and a lemur named Zaboo, and ohmygosh, are those PUPPIES? There must be six or seven Great Pyrenees pups roaming around the grounds before us—some romping, others lazing about in the shade, even more that are clearly eager for an ear-scratching or belly-rub. Are we in heaven?
It’s then that we’re pulled out of our collective reverie by our approaching hosts. Ruth Pepler introduces us to her daughter, Grace, and husband, Thomas. American Gothic, this is not. The Peplers are all extremely friendly and seem very at home on the farm. Ruth, in particular, is eager to show us around. “Where do you want to start?” she asks, excitedly. “With the puppies?” We nod, grinning ear to ear while Ruth tells us about the 10-week-old pups bred from one of their livestock guardian dogs, Bree, who are responsible for running predators off the farm. It’s all very interesting, but still, we wonder, OK, if we’re not in heaven, then where are we? And how did the Peplers find themselves here?
Well, technically we’re in Harriet, about 11 miles north of Marshall—but we might as well be in our own little world. The Peplers found their way here by way of New Jersey about 11 years ago after Thomas took a job as director of a nearby residential center. At that time, the farm wasn’t a farm at all—just a long driveway leading down to a house in the woods. Slowly but surely, however, the Peplers began to develop the property. And when the residential center where Thomas worked relocated out of state, they decided to stay. The seeds of what would become Dogwood Hills were already planted—it was then time for the Peplers to help the seeds grow.
“We didn’t have this,” Thomas says. “But we’d already started some of it.” This is what Dogwood Hills has become in the years since then: a fully immersive farm experience where every detail has been tailored for and designed around the guests.
“[When guests arrive], they’re experiencing the baby chicks and playing with the puppies and milking the cow,” Ruth tells us as she shows us around the barn. “They’re making that first squirt of milk, and when they actually figure out how to get the milk out, then figure out that it’s warm—the surprise is just amazing.”
But maybe getting your hands dirty (or milky) isn’t really your thing. Maybe you want to see how a farm operates up close, then retire to the guest house’s hot tub or take a visit to the nearby Buffalo River. That’s OK, too, Ruth says. Ultimately, the farm’s success depends on hospitality and the guest’s experience, rather than a yield of goods.
“We don’t really have a product here,” she goes on to explain. “It’s all agritourism, and everything that comes off the farm goes back into farm-to-table or our guests.”
Speaking of farm-to-table, just above the barn, the Peplers have installed an industrial kitchen where they prepare fresh meals for their guests using ingredients sourced from their own farm or other local producers. Over the course of two days, they feed us pork marsala with mushrooms, onions and rice grits; homemade ricotta-filled crepes topped with a reduction of whole blueberries; fried eggs and uncured pork jowl; and unpasteurized cow’s milk and gluten-free (not that you’d ever be able to tell) cookies, muffins and buttermilk pie. Sitting at the enormous kitchen counter across from the gas range while Ruth and Grace prepare our meals (“I’m just the dishwasher,” Thomas says) feels like stepping through a TV screen onto the set of our new favorite cooking show. And as you might guess, everything is as delicious as it sounds.
All of this seems like second nature to the Peplers, but that’s really no surprise, considering their history. Ruth worked in catering and as a private chef once upon a time, and Thomas came from a big Italian family where there was always an open door and a pot of coffee on for whoever might drop by. “The hospitality thing was just part of my upbringing,” he says. As for Grace’s part, well, she’s grown up on this farm and spent a good portion of her formative years helping take care of Dogwood’s guests in one form or another.
WE FEEL IT in any number of moments: as we hand-feed the goats and the cows with Grace’s hydroponically grown fodder, when we pull still-warm eggs from beneath a chicken, while we watch Grace spin yarn from their sheep’s wool and felt it into a tiny sheep facsimile, as we supply Zaboo the lemur with raisins, when we squirt fresh milk from Molly the cow’s utter into Smudge the cat’s mouth. There’s something different about this place—something special.
Dogwood Hills might not be heaven, but it does feel like a slice of paradise. It’s truly unlike any other place we’ve stayed so far. And now more than ever—we wish you were here.
Living Off the Land
Because even a farmer needs to leave the fields behind every now and again
Dogwood Hills Farm Store
Before you venture off the farm, be sure to visit Dogwood Hills’ store, where you can purchase artwork and goods hand-crafted by local artisans. Bonus: Locally grown farm provisions—eggs, rice, and buffalo snack sticks, just to name a few—from both Dogwood and other area farms. (thefarmex.com)
The Buffalo River
If you feel like splashing around, Dogwood Hills is located just a few miles south of the Dillard’s Ferry access to the first National River. And if you’re looking to float, be sure to check out the nearby Crockett’s Country Store & Buffalo River Canoe Rental, or Wild Bill’s Outfitters. (buffalorivercanoerental.com; wildbillsoutfitter.com; nps.gov/buff)
As if going to a drive-in movie wasn’t enough of a throwback, the Kenda Drive-In has been hosting free Throwback Thursday screenings throughout the summer with the viewing lot open exclusively to pre-1980s vehicles (though lawn chairs and blankets are allowed if you left your ‘59 Chevrolet Impala at home). Don’t miss Back to the Future on July 25 and Dukes of Hazzard on August 29. (Westwood Drive off U.S. Highway 65, Marshall, kendadrivein.com)
Before RazorBack Ribs’ owner Joel Gallegos opened his Yellville barbecue joint, he honed his craft cooking on a traveling competitive barbecue team. Now he’s serving some of the best Texas-style ‘cue this side of Texarkana: Pulled pork, brisket, chicken, spare ribs—RazorBack does it all. (369 Highway 62 E., Yellville, Search for “RazorBack Ribs” on Facebook)
Ozark Grinder Trail
Looking to get in a workout while taking in some of the most impressive views in the Ozarks? Look no further than the epic Ozark Grinder Trail, which features over 140 miles of mostly gravel mountain biking trail with access points at nearby Tyler Bend, Snowball, Leslie, Marshall and Oxley. Just be sure to bring your own bike as outfitters in the area are scarce. (facebook.com/OzarkGrinderTrail)