THIS IS AN ODE to a bar we’ve never known. Not one we’ve lost, not a long-ago bar from our high school or college days that would serve cold cans of beer, physically and metaphorically under the table—not even one that our parents are old enough to have known (at least in the bar’s heyday). In a sense, it’s a bar that we miss the idea of. It’s a place whose particulars we can only imagine—its atmosphere, the chatter of those who made the descent into its depths, again, physically and metaphorically—placing us among the very many who wish they could’ve been around for its tenure. More than anything, it’s a bar that lives up to its name: It is and was a Wonderland, for those who knew it and those of us who will only know it in our dreams.
DURING THE SPRING and summer months of 1930, reporters for the Arkansas Gazette were called out to a remote stretch of road off U.S. Highway 71, about 15 minutes north of Bentonville, for two very different stories. The one that was more prototypically local-newsy concerned a group of 10 youngsters—nine boys and a girl—who’d taken the challenge of seeing how long they could sit perched in a stand of trees outside a cave. For this bout of last man standing, a physician came by daily with a ladder, checking the participants so they wouldn’t have to vacate their places for a checkup. This went on for some 212 hours, just shy of nine presumably sweltering, assuredly miserable days in early August, with the last three boys eventually agreeing to call it quits and split the $100 prize.
The other story, however, was considerably more interesting—and destined to have much more far-reaching implications for the area.
On April 6, 1930, sharing page 39 of the Gazette with “Arkansan Received Confederate Patent” and “Sam Houston Was Familiar Figure in North Arkansas,” just below the fold, there was an article headlined “Bella Vista’s Unique Cave Cabaret.”
“An improved and modernized replica of a famous Paris ‘caveau’ will be opened this season at Bella Vista, the largest resort of the Ozarks,” the story began. It went on to say that during the fall of 1929, just as the nation’s economy was screeching to a halt, a local businessman, C.A. Linebarger, had taken a trip to Europe with his wife. While there, he’d been inspired by that Parisian nightclub and had decided to attempt something similar, albeit with the process reversed: Rather than making a nightclub look like a cave, he’d make a cave look like a nightclub.
Late that year, and on into the spring of 1930, C.A. and his similarly monikered brothers C.C. and F.W.—who’d spent the past 13 years developing a resort on their 200-acre property in modern-day Bella Vista—developed the nightclub, installing electric lights along walks and stairways, Chinese lanterns, a 30-foot marble bar, a bandstand with room for up to 16 musicians, and a wooden dance floor, effectively transforming the sprawling, miles-long cave into something that would have been previously all but unfathomable.
By all accounts, Wonderland was an eclectic place in those early years. Officially, frosted grape juices and tonics were served alongside chop suey. (Editor’s note: The Southern Foodways Alliance has a wonderful podcast all about this.) Unofficially—mind you, this was during Prohibition—there might’ve been a few folks carrying flasks and doing their share of tippling. Legislators from the Arkansas House and Senate convened there during a special session in the summer of 1931 (though apparently not without the weather interfering—one newspaper account mentions that a morning meeting had to be pushed back a few hours after heavy rains made the cave inaccessible to autos). It was always between 60 and 62 degrees. There were dances from midnight until 3 a.m. It was dank in the way that all caves are, an issue that led to the wooden floors buckling and the decision to use poured concrete instead. It could be raucous, and it could be elegant. It was a place where people found their life partners and hurled their empties into the dark.
For all those reasons, it can be a little tough to gauge exactly what the vibe might’ve been like. And likewise, as the years have gone by and the cave’s legend grown, solid information has become increasingly difficult to come by—something not helped by C.A.’s apparent proclivity toward exaggeration. Early advertisements, for example, proclaimed that the cave was “500 feet below the surface of the earth,” when in fact it was closer to 83 feet. In addition to the occasional mention of Jesse James, who some say was reputed to have used the cave as a hideout, big-band legends such as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway are often mentioned as having made appearances there—though no small amount seems to have stemmed from hearsay.
One thing is for certain, however: Much as C.A. and subsequent owners tried to make the cave something more than what it is, those efforts never quite stuck. The cave was always a cave.
WHAT’S IT LIKE now? As one might expect, a great deal has changed in the 60-some years since the club’s Depression-era heyday. In 1952, after an ailing Linebarger sold off most of the property (with the exception of the cave itself), there seems to have been a shift in aesthetic, with Alice and residents of Wonderland appearing behind the bandstand, and cutouts of the Queen of Hearts and the cards taking up posts at the ends of benches. Later, as the shadow of the Cold War loomed, the cave was turned into a civil-defense fallout shelter, with 17.5-gallon barrels of water brought in. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, there was one last grasping attempt at life, as two men from Bentonville bought the property from Linebarger’s three granddaughters and installed modern lighting, restrooms and an expanded bar.
But even knowing all of those changes have come to pass doesn’t soften the blow of seeing what the cave looks like now.
For the final minute of an amateur documentary about the cave posted on YouTube in 2010, there’s a mix of video footage and photos that provide a glimpse into the cave as it was at the time. Any sign of elegance has been stripped away. Time and vandalism have left the place in ruins. Broken bottles litter the stairs. Graffiti mars the white stone walls. There are no more working lights. The plumbing is a splintered mess of white plastic. Somewhere even deeper still, past the ballroom, there’s a cache of barrels held over from the fallout-shelter days.
In fairness, it’s probably different now. Since 2012, largely owing to new ownership, there’s been a renewed interest in seeing the cave restored. Volunteers have spent hours cleaning out beer bottles and scrubbing the rocks. Although it seems funding has been hard to come by, there’s a chance that at some point, the cave might be a destination—albeit with more of a family-oriented bent. But for us, it’ll always be the same as it ever was. For us, it’ll be Wonderland.