I ARRIVE IN Heber Springs about 20 minutes earlier than the time I had arranged to meet my guide for the day. As I look for a spot to park along Main Street (parallel parking never was my friend, so I aim for a spot I can pull into without having to negotiate the seven easy steps outlined by the DMV), I see a sign on the corner at Second Street: “BOOK SALE.” An avid bibliophile, I know that regardless of what is on my guide’s agenda, I must—under any circumstances—make it to that book sale before I leave Heber for the day.
I find the perfect spot to leave my car in front of Allen Furniture and walk next door to our meeting place, the Jitterbug Café and Ice Cream Parlor. It’s a beautiful old rock-face storefront, with large windows looking out on quaint downtown Heber. I keep walking, past Rhonda’s Dream Makers Voice & Piano Studio and Soul Mates Boutique, to the most perfect small-town theater. Something in me wants it to say “Rialto,” but it says, vertically, in neon art deco letters, “G-E-M,” and on the marquee shows that the action movie San Andreas is currently playing, in RealD 3D, no less.
I round the corner and walk one block down Second Street to Kathy’s Book Nook, a little tan clapboard house that, unfortunately, doesn’t open until 10—the time I am to meet Jackie McPherson, former mayor of Heber Springs and my chauffeur for the day. I check my phone, and lo and behold, it’s almost that time. I hotfoot it back to the main drag.
10:02 a.m.I walk in the front door of the Jitterbug, admiring the tin ceiling, quirky art and the older man waiting in line for coffee. Wearing a sea-green V-neck T-shirt, a pair of cargo shorts and khaki boat shoes, this guy (I estimate him to be in his late 40s) is flat-out gorgeous. Wouldn’t it be nice if he were my guide for the day?
“Heather?” the man asks me, his mouth breaking into a brilliantly white smile.
“Jackie?” I return, and he comes toward me, hand extended for a shake. This is my lucky day.
“Can I get you a coffee? Or something?”
He orders his drink from the lovely barista dressed in a flowing paisley shirt. Jackie likes his coffee black and strong. I, on the other hand, am less certain in my drink of choice. “What would you recommend?” I ask her.
“If you like Creamsicles, we have a really great Italian soda that tastes like one.”
“Sounds fabulous to me,” I reply.
She pushes Jackie’s gigantic coffee across the counter and rings us up. He takes a sip of his coffee and winces. He drops the several dollars change she’s given him into the tip jar. “That’s if you can get my coffee hot enough,” he says to the barista. She giggles and puts the mug in the microwave.
Jackie and I choose a round table with charmingly mismatched chairs, where he tells me a little of his own history. “I was born in Indiana. Jeffersonville, Indiana. My folks were from Arkansas—the town of Magnus, Arkansas, and Newark, Arkansas. There’s five of us kids—I’m youngest of five. I was about 2 when we moved back to Arkansas. We moved back to Newark, then moved to Heber in 1964. So I’ve been here for a long time.”
I quickly do the mental math, realizing that even if he immediately moved to Heber when he was 2, he is, at the very least, in his 50s. With his full head of hair, trim physique and clear ice-blue eyes, I wonder if he’s secretly found the fountain of youth. And I might just be right.
“Heber Springs was Seven Springs before it became Heber,” Jackie tells me. “Back at the turn of the 19th century, it was a resort town that people came to just for the springs. That was kind of our claim to fame, and we were probably a larger resort area then—just for our springs—than we are now with our lake and river.”
“What was the change?” I ask, wondering how the name “Heber” grew out of “Seven.”
Jackie contemplates my question. “You know, I don’t know what incorporated the change, to be honest with you. I’m sure there’s … we could find some history to explain why it did change. But I’m not quite the historian I should be.”
I make a note in my legal pad to look up this information later. No problem. But right about now, I’m ready to get on the road.
“I’m gonna take you to Spring Park first,” Jackie declares. “We have some wonderful water out of the springs that you really need to try. It smells like rotten eggs—very potent—but there’s so many people that believe in the healing effects of it. People still come every day and fill up their milk jugs with water. When I was a kid, that’s what we would drink. When it’s cold, it’s really good. But you smell the rotten eggs as you sweat it out. It keeps mosquitoes off you, and bugs, because even they’re offended by some odors. I mean, there’s people that’ve—I’ve had an old man tell me one time that it cured his cataracts. He washed his eyes in the water, and it cured his cataracts. You look at some of these people—you know they’re a hundred years old—that are going in there to get it. There may be something to it!”
I know at that moment that if Jackie drinks that water, and he looks at least 10 years younger than he is, and he goes water skiing—slaloming!—out on Greers Ferry Lake every day at his age (as he tells me he does as we climb into his black Chevy Tahoe), I am going to drink a gallon of that stuff.
HEBER IN NUMBERS
Cost to build the dam and lake
Revenue generated annually by the
dam and lake
Weight of the record brown trout caught on the Little Red
Acres at ASU’s Heber campus
Miles of shoreline along Greers Ferry Lake
Cost of replacement flip-flops
I do not drink a gallon of that stuff. The smell, as we descend into the first well-house pavilion in Spring Park, is exactly as described—rotten eggs. A combination of arsenic, iron and white sulfur, the water is truly noxious, but I do get one sip down. “It’s awful!” I exclaim.
Jackie smiles. “I told you it was better when it was cold.”
He walks me around the park, showing me the skate ramps, the playgrounds, the amphitheater where pageants are held. He tells me about the Old Soldier’s Reunion that’s been held here every year since the Civil War, when veterans of all ages come from around the world for a reunion and celebration. It’s a darling park, and I kind of wish we had to time to see the other six well houses located on the property. Then I remember the acrid taste and don’t mind heading forward on our journey.As the former mayor, Jackie is especially well-versed in civic and economic developments in the area. He tells me how Heber Springs, a community where many folks come to retire along the shores of its beautiful water features, “received Community of the Year, like, 14 times.” He says Heber’s main economy is supported by three sources: retirement, manufacturing and tourism. He drives me out to the sports complex, where tax dollars have paid for beautifully manicured fields worthy of travel-tournament play.
But this sports complex is rivaled, if not bested by, the community center. Also one of Jackie’s big projects while he was mayor, the Heber Springs Community Center was built in 2010 and still looks pristine. The center boasts two basketball courts, two racquetball courts, an indoor track, an aerobics room, a cardio room, an aquatic center and a room dedicated to women’s-only fitness.
We walk into the aquatic center, and Jackie shows me the therapy pool and the Olympic-size swimming pool with its racing lanes. People young and old are enjoying the benefits of water exercise, and I am especially pleased to see one older lady, gray hair wildly displaced by swimming goggles, playing with two younger children. “They’ll let anybody in here!” Jackie calls out to her. She smiles big. “I was about to the say the same thing.” They chat a while, and I can see that water, and the community that builds around it, is truly the draw here in Heber.
Our next stop on the tour is one of the community center’s meeting rooms, and when my guide and I enter, about half a dozen women and one man seem to call out “Jackie!” in unison, much like to “Norm” in Cheers. Jackie smiles, shakes hands.
“Won’t you have lunch with us?” asks a perky lady, blues eyes peeking out under blonde bangs, hair long in the back.
“Oh, I can’t,” Jackie says, and I swear a half-dozen faces are crestfallen. “I promised my son I’d have lunch with him. Haven’t seen him since Christmas. He’s going back to Houston today.”
The blonde turns to me. “What about you?”
“Actually, I’d really like that,” I say, and her smile widens.
“Are you sure you don’t mind?” Jackie asks me. “I hate to leave you here.”
“This is just the kind of opportunity I’d like to take advantage of,” I say, and I’m shown to a glorious buffet of Mexican chicken spaghetti, salad with ranch dressing, hot rolls and sweet tea, all catered from GG’s Dinner Belle. I pile my plate high and sit down with these employees of the Parks and Recreation Department, who are getting ready for an afternoon day camp. I don’t even notice when Jackie leaves.
“Where all has Jackie taken you?” Lesa Jernigan, executive assistant to Heber’s current mayor, asks me.
“We met at the Jitterbug; then he took me to Spring Park …”
“Did you drink the water?” she asks me.
“Of course I drank the water!” I reply.
“I haven’t,” Chris, the blonde who first invited me to lunch, tells me.
“How long have you been here?” I ask.
“Almost three years,” she tells me. Chris’ story is similar to that of many of Heber’s current residents. A former resident of Memphis, she and her family owned a lake house here, where she would spend weekends and vacations. In love with the area, she moved to Heber as soon as she could. “I’m a lake rat,” she explains.
Suzanne, another worker, moved from Georgia almost a year ago. And Stacey, the director of Heber Springs Parks and Recreation, started coming to Heber Springs about 15 years ago. He promised his wife if they could ever afford to retire, they’d go to Heber.
And now here they are.
“So what is it about this place?” I ask. “What makes Heber Heber?”
“The view!” a teenager working the day camp hollers. “The lake!” Chris concurs. Heads nod in assent, and people begin asking me if I’ve seen the lake and the sandy beach and Bridal Veil Falls and Collins Creek. I tell them I believe those are on the afternoon’s agenda. But Lesa gets to what she feels is the heart of the matter: “Heber is still a rocking-chair porch community. You get to know your neighbors. We’re like family.”
I’m starting to feel like family, myself. And then Jackie shows up.
I tell Jackie that I heard a terrible rumor about him at lunch—something about him dressing in a Captain America suit for a polar bear plunge at Sandy Beach? He laughs but, like a true politician, will neither confirm nor deny the rumor.
He drives me to the overlook at the hydroelectric dam, the last place JFK visited before his ill-fated trip to Dallas. We head down a ways toward the Greers Ferry National Fish Hatchery, where dozens of campers in recreational vehicles and tents and trailers are set up along the Little Red River—many more than I expected to see on a quiet Tuesday. We head back up a bit toward Collins Creek, where we walk the trail down to one of the most beautiful spillways I have ever seen. On the way back to the Tahoe, I blow out my flip-flop. (Turns out my footwear choice wasn’t entirely appropriate for a place like Heber Springs.)
But the broken shoe does not slow us down. Jackie takes me to the beautiful Bridal Veil Falls, where I trooper on barefoot along a gravel trail. He drives me through the Greers Ferry Lake Dam Site, the most-used U.S. Army Corps of Engineers day site in America. There’s a little island just off shore that Jackie informs me is called “Trouble Island, where all the teenagers swim out to and hang out.” It, too, is beautiful. And it is about this time that I write myself a note: “Quit using the word ‘beautiful.’”
But I can’t. Heber Springs is beautiful. Jackie drives me past Arkansas State University-Heber Springs, a recent addition built at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain. It looks like a ski resort. We go to City Hall, where I am concerned about being shoeless. “They won’t care,” he assures me, and they don’t—not even Mayor Jimmy Clark and Bobby Walker, the chief of police, who’s sitting in the mayor’s office..
Bobby tells me a perfect Heber story: “I went and saw this guy speak two or three years ago, and it was a preacher. And he stood up there and he said, ‘You know,’ he said, ‘I came into town, and they showed me all the mountains and the lake and all that.’ He said, ‘I’m here to talk to y’all about going to heaven. But,’ he said, ‘I’m afraid some of y’all will be disappointed!’”
We all laugh—the mayor, the former mayor, the chief of police and me. And I begin to feel the tug of sadness as I know my day in small-town paradise is coming to an end.
“There’s one more stop I gotta make,” I tell him, and explain about the hand-painted “BOOK SALE” sign I saw earlier.
“The book store? Oh yeah! We need to stop in there and see little Ms. Rosetta. Now she’s the one who can tell you all about Heber.” Jackie parks right next to the stone path to the shop so my bare feet can touch as little pavement as possible. We enter the clapboard house, and sure enough, Ms. Rosetta Sparks is there. Slightly taller than my 5-5, with a pixie haircut and wire-rim glasses, Rosetta is thrilled to see Jackie. She throws her arms around him.
“Jackie, did you know I’m now an ambassador for CEC?” She shows us the website. It’s the Council for Exceptional Children, a group that works to meet the needs of special-education students.
“Rosetta, Ms. Heather here is interested in Heber Springs’ history, and I told her you were our girl. When was the courthouse constructed?”
Rosetta erects her posture and folds her fingers together, as if she were reciting a poem. “The cornerstone was laid in 1914, but the building opened in 1915.”
Jackie smiles. “And do you know why the town’s name changed to Heber Springs?”
Rosetta nods. “Dr. Heber Jones of Memphis, Tennessee, was the original owner of the town site. Son of …” And she goes on to recite fact after fact of obscure history, Jackie nodding along in approval and genuine interest.
As we leave, Rosetta pulls me aside. “Can I tell you something?’
“Sure,” I reply, not quite sure what to make of her confidential tone.
“I’m autistic. And not many people like me get the chance to work like I do here. I love Heber Springs. It’s my home.”
“It’s not where you’re from originally?” I ask, sensing that she, too, is a relative newcomer.
“It wasn’t. But it is now.” She smiles, and we head back to my car.
I am loath to leave, but I figure I better do it quickly. After all, by the looks of things, if the waters of Heber Springs don’t capture your heart, the people will.