This quirky Ozark town is a little-known mountain oasis
Words by T.S. Strickland | Photos by Chip Ford
It’s a weeknight at Chelsea’s Corner Cafe in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and the house band is plowing through a blistering bluegrass rendition of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Methamphetamine.”
The five-piece band is crammed down the throat of the narrow barroom, which sits beneath a pizza joint at the top of a steep mountain road on the edge of downtown. Chelsea’s is a local favorite, especially during the slow fall months when tourists are scarce. Today, there isn’t one tourist in sight, and the place has taken on the atmosphere of an old-fashioned Ozark square dance.
Patrons have to squeeze past the stand-up bassist to get cash from the ATM, while those entering through the front door are forced to duck beneath the arms of the washboard player—a short, shirtless chap with duct-taped fingers and a thick black beard—to reach the bar. No one seems to mind the extra effort. In fact, the whole place seems to rollick with each refrain. The old floor heaves and creaks while patrons toss back shots of whiskey and tap their feet to the music.
The fiddle player, a wiry man with an ecstatic, drunken smile and a beard that could shame Grizzly Adams, sways back and forth like a shaman while he sears through a solo. Meanwhile, the bandleader sits on an old barstool, looking like an Ozarkian reincarnation of Kurt Cobain. He wears a flannel shirt and dingy sneakers. A cigarette hangs limply from his lips while he growls through the chorus:
It’s gonna rock you like a hurricane.
It’s gonna rock you ’til you lose some sleep.
It’s gonna rock you ’til you’re out of a job.
It’s gonna rock you ’til you’re out on the street.
It’s gonna rock you ’til you’re down on your knees.
It’s gonna have you begging pretty please.
It’s gonna rock you like a hurricane
The audience howls along, grabbing arms and two-stepping in time with the music. Outside, the cacophony peals out over the mountains, black masses set against a star-filled sky.
Welcome to Eureka Springs—the weirdest little town this side of Austin.
THE CITY WATER BUILT
I worked in Eureka Springs for a year, from 2012 to 2013, as a reporter for the local newspaper and became hopelessly enchanted by the place. I spent many nights at Chelsea’s, huddled over a keyboard, churning out reams of copy over whiskey and bluegrass ’til the barkeep told me to go home.
The town—home to 2,500 people and one of the nation’s best-preserved collections of Victorian architecture—is known as the City Water Built. The main industry is tourism, and it’s not hard to see why. The place is improbably beautiful—a picturesque jumble of old resort hotels, flower-filled gardens, and meticulously maintained mansions carved out of a mountainside in the extreme northwest of Arkansas.
Eureka Springs is also a land of contradictions. The town is home to the tallest statue of Jesus Christ in North America. It was also dubbed “the gayest small town in America you’ve never heard of” by LGBT-interest magazine The Advocate and hosts an annual meet-up of Swingers on Bikes, otherwise known as SOBs. (Locals usually do their drinking at home that week.)
Eurekans, as locals are fond of calling themselves, like to say there’s “something in the water” when trying to explain their town’s overwhelming quirkiness. I’m more inclined to think the “something” is in the whiskey. Either way, it’s there, and it has been for a long time.
The limestone hills that surround the town, carved by rivers from an ancient seafloor, are riddled with natural springs. The water was long believed by Native Americans to possess healing properties, but it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that the roving eyes of white men finally fell on the place.
Alvah Jackson, an American physician whose son’s eye condition was allegedly cured after being washed with the limestone waters, was the first to capitalize on the springs. Seeing such a miracle—and being of red-blooded, capitalist stock—the good doctor set about bottling and selling the water. It wasn’t long before word spread, and within a few short decades, Eureka Springs had become a boomtown. Thousands flocked there to bathe in the springs, while business-minded others plundered the virgin hills to build their spas and resorts.
Today, the boom has long since busted, but the sense of magic still clings to the place. A walk down Spring Street, the main commercial district, is enough to prove the point. The road is flush with shops, bars, and restaurants, all housed in Victorian-era storefronts and interspersed with pocket parks that enshrine the town’s namesake springs.
It’s not just the beauty of Eureka Springs that makes it memorable though. It’s also the people.
Saddle up to the bar at the New Delhi Cafe just off Spring Street and you might begin to understand what I mean. The bar’s owner, Billo, is descended from a family of wealthy Indian industrialists and is fond of asking his patrons whether they would like “a stiffy”—by which he means a drink. His former partner John is an Arkansas blue blood who delivered the eulogy at Norman Mailer’s funeral.
Leave the bar at sunset and cross the street to Basin Park, and you’ll find Yao Angelo leading a drum circle. African rhythms echo off the walls of the natural amphitheater that once housed a sacred Native American spring. Angelo hails from the African country of Côte d’Ivoire, and he traveled the world performing traditional dance as a member of a national troupe before moving to the United States.
Once you’ve had your fill of the drums, saunter down—or rather up—the hewn limestone sidewalks to the Crescent Hotel. You’ll pass stately Victorian bed-and-breakfasts and roving bands of wild deer along the way. Once you leave downtown, Eureka Springs at night is dark and quiet—the darkness interrupted only by sweeping vistas of mountains and starlight and the quiet only by the sound of the breeze in the treetops or the occasional echo of the drums.
A brisk hike up a steep switchback will bring you to the hotel, which rests like a crown at the very top of the mountain. The opulent Victorian resort is believed to be one of the most haunted places in America. It must also rank among the most beautiful.
Climb to the rooftop Sky Bar and enjoy a cocktail while looking out over mist-draped mountains. It’s magical.
Magic has always sustained Eureka Springs. The town fell into disrepair in the early twentieth century around the time people stopped believing in healing springs. The old mansions moldered and gathered dust. Then the 1960s brought a new wave of migrants. Many of them were drawn in by the back-to-the-land philosophy of the era. They set up shop as artists and craftspeople and turned Eureka Springs into a destination for the arts—which it remains today—as well as a city of refuge for those with what might be termed “nontraditional” views.
For such a small town, Eureka Springs has a surprisingly cosmopolitan outlook, welcoming people of all creeds and orientations. It maintains a domestic partnership registry, hosts a triannual Diversity Weekend, and is the only city in Arkansas to have officially endorsed same-sex marriage.
Despite this tendency toward inclusiveness, however, Eureka Springs is still situated in a deeply conservative part of the country. That fact is never far from view—quite literally, thanks to a man named Gerald L. K. Smith.
Smith moved to Eureka Springs to retire in the 1960s, taking up residence in one of the town’s forlorn mansions. The firebrand pastor was already known nationally for his anti-Semitic views and his early affiliation with Louisiana political boss Huey P. Long. Once in the Ozarks, Smith started a new chapter in his career, beginning construction on the first of what he called his Sacred Projects, a series of religiously themed tourist attractions that would transform Eureka Springs, once more, into a tourist mecca.
Smith’s seven-story Christ of the Ozarks statue, completed in 1966, looks out over Eureka Springs from Magnetic Mountain. The sculpture was described unflatteringly by one critic as a “milk carton with a tennis ball on top.” Most locals are gentler, referring to it as Gumby because of its resemblance to the cartoon character.
After completing the statue, Smith also formed The Great Passion Play, a live-action reenactment of the life of Jesus Christ—which has, in more recent years, been edited to remove anti-Semitic overtones. The play, seen by nearly eight million people to date, is one of the best-attended live theater events in North America.
Eureka Springs is also home to the Ozark Folk Festival each October, the longest continuously running annual folk festival in America. Now in its sixty-ninth year, the festival features folk music, a parade, and a “barefoot ball” at the top of the historic Basin Park Hotel.
An even more colorful tradition, showing off an “only in Eureka Springs” quirkiness, happens each September with the reenactment of a failed robbery of the town’s bank. The robbery, which made national headlines in 1922, is still a point of pride for locals.
In that year, a group of five seasoned bandits made plans to loot the town’s bank. At the time, most Eurekans closed shop at noon to go home for lunch. Knowing this, the bandits timed their robbery to coincide with the daily lunch hour. They had set their clocks an hour fast, however, and arrived to find the town filled with people.
A shoot-out ensued between the outlaws and the armed locals. By the time the smoke cleared, three robbers had been killed and the other two detained. Not a single townsperson was harmed. To commemorate the hilarity, Eureka Springs holds a parade during which townspeople chase a gang of costumed bank robbers down Spring Street each September after the annual Antique Automobile Festival.
Eureka Springs is a place filled with life. No matter the time of year, one can usually find Basin Park filled with music and people of all persuasions celebrating together. Parades and festivals are an almost weekly occurrence. Eurekans themselves are generally a welcoming breed, happy to invite curious outsiders to their mountain oasis. Just don’t try to rob a bank, and be on your best behavior. Gumby’s watching.
Want to Go?
Here are some top picks for a memorable Eureka Springs vacation
The 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa is perched at the very top of East Mountain and set amid fifteen acres of woods and formal gardens. The Victorian-era hotel, hewn from native limestone, is rumored to be one of the most haunted places in America. It also boasts a full-service spa, elegantly appointed guest rooms, and stunning views of the surrounding countryside.www.crescent-hotel.com
DeVito’s of Eureka Springs is a local favorite serving homey Italian food in a refined casual setting. The waitstaff is superb, and the restaurant features a rooftop dining terrace. Both the lunch and the dinner menus are stocked with winning entries, but the trout, which is raised at the DeVito’s own family farm, comes highly recommended.
Stunning views aren’t difficult to find in these parts, but Bluebird Mountain is a local favorite. The popular lookout spot, located a few miles east of town on U.S. Highway 62, affords sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. It’s especially beautiful on a clear, starry night.
Eureka Springs prides itself on plenty of nightspots, but for local flavor, it’s hard to beat Chelsea’s Corner Cafe. The popular bar and eatery hosts live music five nights a week. The kitchen, located upstairs, also turns out one heck of a New York–style pizza.www.chelseascafeeureka.com
This story first appeared in VIE Magazine.