Fordyce Bath House in Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas
Fordyce Bath House in Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas
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by Lee Foster

Arkansas has long promoted itself as “the natural state,” but can now also advertise itself as the state of the political natural, Bill Clinton.

Added to the allure of nature in Arkansas is the question: what can we learn about the president and ourselves by scouting out his roots in Little Rock, Hot Springs, and Hope?

Regardless of your political persuasion or curiosity, the huge forests, ample lakes, wild rivers, and special hot springs of the state attract many travelers.

Combining a look at the natural resources and Clinton Country can be the rationale for a satisfying trip.

CLINTON COUNTRY

A thorough perusal of Clinton Country requires a look at Little Rock, where Clinton launched himself politically; Hot Springs, where his formative years passed; and Hope, where he was born.

This political pilgrimage starts in Little Rock. Then drive an hour west to Hot Springs and another hour-and-a-half further south and west to Hope.

Little Rock, overall, retains a small-town feel, though the city has 350,000 of the state’s 2.4 million people. The best time to witness Little Rock’s folksiness is at the annual Riverfest celebration each Memorial Day weekend.

Essential Clinton stops in Little Rock are:

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*The Old State House, a Greek Revival structure from 1836, where Clinton announced his bid for the presidency, at a time when George Bush’s popularity rating was 91 percent, following the Gulf War. On November 3, 1992, at the Old State House, Clinton accepted the mandate of the voters to become the 42nd President.

*The Capitol Building, a 2/3rd-size replica of the national capitol. Clinton served as governor for 12 years before going on to Washington.

*The Governor’s Mansion, where the Clintons lived. Walk down the street from the mansion to see some of the finest Victorian and Greek Revival homes of Little Rock.

*Bill and Hillary’s houses, where they lived when he wasn’t governor. One is at 816 Midland and the other, which they owned, is at 5419 L Street. The young couple bought the L Street house in 1977 for $35,000.

For your lodging during a stay in Little Rock, a central and historic location is the old Capital Hotel, a restored structure that locates you downtown.

Hot Springs was Clinton’s boyhood home from age 9 until he left for Georgetown University. The essential stops here are:

*Bill’s first Hot Springs boyhood home, 1954-1961, at 1011 Park Avenue. The house is a modest white-and-green structure. Clinton’s early life was tragic and complicated. His father died in an auto accident before his birth. His mother then had Bill live with grandparents for four years while she studied in New Orleans to become a nurse-anesthetist to support her child. She later married a Buick dealer and the family moved to Hot Springs from Hope. Billy Blythe, at age 15, took the name of his stepfather, Roger Clinton.

*Bill’s second boyhood home in Hot Springs, 1961-1964, at 213 Scully. This more substantial wood-frame affair, faced with brick, reflects the family’s increasing prosperity.

*Bill’s High School, a solid brick edifice.

*The local hangout, Bailey’s, where Bill would order a chili cheeseburger, washing it down with a syrupy sweet bottle of Grapette, the local soft drink.

To sample Bill’s favorite Arkansas food today, try the barbecued ribs at McClard’s Bar-B-Que, in Hot Springs. The restaurant does a brisk business selling bottles of its famous barbecue sauce.

Hope, where Clinton was born and lived for his first seven years, lies further southwest in the black-soil, watermelon-growing country. Hope is a forlorn, backwater town that seems to have missed a generation. Downtown, where the Clinton sites are, has decayed. Much of the white population has moved to the outskirts. The giant Walmart store on the interstate has sucked the economic lifeblood out of the small downtown stores, here and elsewhere.

Fordyce Bath House in Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas
Fordyce Bath House in Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas

A Clinton devotee will want to see:

*Bill’s home at his birth, 117 S. Harvey Street, now a decrepit, asbestos-shingled structure, badly in need of repair, debased by the adjacent interstate. Bill lived in this house 1946-1950 with his grandparents as his mother studied nursing in New Orleans.

*Bill’s second home, 321 E. 13th Street, a tidy, white, wood-frame, one-story house on a quiet side street. Here Bill lived 1950-1953 with his mother and stepfather, Roger Clinton.

*Bill’s grade school, a brick edifice now renamed for the principal, Edith Brown, who headed the school when Clinton was a student.

The largest selection of Clinton souvenirs in Hope is at the Western Sizzlin restaurant. In Hot Springs you can find several souvenir stores in the shops opposite Bath House Row. One of the more amusing souvenirs is a packaged red, white, and blue fishing lure called The Big Bill. The lure is guaranteed not to get hung up on a bush. It has a warranty for four years, with an option for four more. The lure is further guaranteed to run true to center, veering neither to the right or left. The price is $10.95, plus tax, plus tax, plus tax.

From a perusal of these three Arkansas Clinton places, a visitor sees that the president came from a rural, relatively impoverished state, racially separated even now, especially in Hope. Clinton certainly had humble beginnings, suggesting an America where any local hometown boy, with talent and drive, could become president.

THE NATURAL STATE

Arkansas has long been appreciated by experienced travelers for its natural resources, especially for Hot Springs National Park and for the beauty of the lakes and woods in the Ouachita National Forest.

The main pleasures of nature in Clinton Country are:

*Hot Springs National Park, for the invigorating and purportedly therapeutic value of water from 47 hillside springs, bubbling out a million gallons at 143 degrees each day.

From the beginning of human habitation in the region, these hot springs have been appreciated. Hot Springs enjoys the eco-precedent of being the first natural resource in the country officially set aside by Congress as a nature “reservation” to be protected. Congress passed the original designation in 1832. In 1921 Congress raised the status of the area to a National Park.

Most of the bathing emporiums along Bath House Row have gone out of business, victims of changing fashions. An exception is the Buckstaff, where you can still bathe. The Fordyce Bath House has been restored as a Park Service Museum to the area’s bathing history.

Bathing in the hot waters at the Buckstaff or at one of the major hotels, such as the Majestic, has an old-fashioned, somewhat clinical feel to it, in relatively aging facilities. The experience departs sharply from a visit to a modern, sybaritic, pleasure spa at newer resorts in other parts of the country. However, to bathe here, then to walk The Promenade above the bath houses, can thrust you back into a nostalgic, fin-de-siecle mood. Hot Springs is an unusual national park because it has a city, rather than hiking trails, as its core.

The appealing lodging in the Hot Springs area is on a nearby lake, Lake Hamilton, and is called The Lake Hamilton Resort. Also on the Lake is one of Arkansas’ finer restaurant, called Hamilton House.

*Lake Ouachita, a mammoth wilderness lake covering 48,300 acres, making it the largest lake entirely in Arkansas. Lake Ouachita has no residences along its thousand miles of shoreline or on its 200 islands. At the Mountain Harbor Resort, the largest among the few lodges on the lake, you can rent a pontoon boat, called a “party barge” in these parts, and explore the endless, wooded shoreline. Everywhere the eye alights there are dense forests of pine and hardwoods, glimpses of the total 1.3 million forested acres of the Ouachita National Forest.

*Queen Wilhelmina State Park, which includes a lodge, along the 55-mile Talimena Scenic Drive. This drive, following the ridge of the unusual east-west mountains, the Ouachitas, provides numerous vistas. At any time of the year the drive is spectacular, but particularly during the fresh green leaf of spring and the blazing fall color of autumn, when the oak and hickory leaves inflame the hills. A day at woodsy Wilhelmina could be contrasted with another day in a lakefront state park, DeGray, which has a lodge and plenty of good fishing for bass, bluegill, and crappie.

*Two scenic rivers with waterfalls. While rambling through this treed countryside, a dominant chunk in an amazing 17 million total acres of forest in Arkansas, stop also to see two scenic rivers. View the multi-leveled cascade on the Little Missouri River known as Little Missouri Falls. Similarly, the Cossatot River boasts a meandering falls, named after the river, where you may see canoeists and kayakers.

*The only U.S. diamond mine and numerous quartz crystal mines. The word “mine” is somewhat deceptive as a description of Crater of Diamonds State Park. The “mine” consists of a plowed field, where any diamonds you find are yours to keep. There were 470 reported lucky finds last year for the 64,000 people who dug. The word “crater” in the park’s name is also fanciful because there is no crater, though the invisible shape of the diamond-bearing area below the surface resembles a large champagne glass.

Quartz crystal mines, such as Coleman’s near Hot Springs, produce an abundant amount of clear crystal, readily available at local rock shops. At Coleman’s you can also dig for your own crystals and keep what you find. Arkansas is the U.S.’s largest supplier of collectible quartz crystals.

Arkansas rewards a traveler both as “the natural state” and the state of the political natural, Bill Clinton. An Arkansas traveler of today can become immersed in the small-town roots of the 42nd president and savor some of the loveliest forests in America.

***

ARKANSAS: IF YOU GO

For general travel information on Arkansas, contact the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, One Capital Mall, Suite 4A-900, Little Rock, AR 72201, 501/682-7777, 800/NAT-URAL, www.arkansas.com.

Hot Springs National Park and community also send out tourism information. Contact Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, PO Box K, Hot Springs, AR 71902, 800/SPA-CITY.

The main resort on immense Lake Ouachita is Mountain Harbor Resort, PO Box 807, Mount Ida, AR 71957, 800/832-2276.

The state park with a lodge on the Talimena Scenic Drive is Queen Wilhelmina State Park, Rt. 7, Box 53-A, Mena, AR 71973, 501/394-2863.

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