There is something about the rolling forest covered hills, clear mountain creeks, flowing springs, and grassy meadows of this part of Northwest Arkansas that made it a destination for recreation and restoration. Long before Bella Vista was a vision in anybody’s eye, the families would retreat from the city-summer heat of Bentonville by traveling the wagon-trail north though four miles of farmland to spend a day picnicking by waterfalls. cooling springs, and swimming holes.
The aspiration to improve on the natural beauty with development began with Mary Baker and her husband, the Reverend William Baker. In 1909, Mary converted a $4,500 inheritance into 159 acres along Little Sugar Creek, which she dammed in 1915 creating a very small Lake Bella Vista. Her attempt to build a resort was still on paper and funding her dream by selling lakeside lots was less than successful. In 1917, she sold the land and remnants’ of her vision to the Texas-based Linebarger Brother’s for $3,100.
Like many residents who make their home in Bella Vista today, the Linebarger family vacationed in the region before making it their home. It was a stopping point for the family as it traveled from their home in Louisiana to visit family in Indiana. When Mrs. Linebarger contracted tuberculosis and was advised to seek a dryer climate, the family relocated to a farm near Bentonville where the three brothers spent their childhood. After their mother died, the Linebarger family relocated to Texas where soon both their fortune and interest in real estate outpaced farming.
In 1917, when the Baker’s were giving up and ready to sell, at least one Linebarger brother was ready to buy. Over his older brother’s and other partner’s skepticism about the future of Bella Vista, ‘an obscure corner of the Ozark Mountains where no decent roads go’, Forest W Linebarger convinced the company buy the Baker’s property and to invest an additional $3,000 for adjacent property. Forest W or FW, as he was known, headed to Arkansas to turn 200 acres into a destination.
Within six months Mary Baker’s fledgling sketches had been opened as a resort ready for the summer resort season. Driven by his own enthusiasm and pressure from his partners to realize a return on what had quickly become a $20,000 investment, FW Linebarger raised the dam, enlarged the lake, built a water system, devised an electric grid, built, furnished, and staffed a dining room, pavilion, and sleeping lodge.
The hectic activity had a rippling economic effect on Bentonville and surrounding commerce as equipment, hardware, labor were harnessed by FW as he feverishly pursued his goal. Surrounding farms were called upon to supply food for Bella Vista guests soon to arrive from Texas and Oklahoma. He addressed the obscurity issue with a massive and far-reaching publicity campaign, coining the phrase “Nature’s Gem of the Ozarks” and offering glowing descriptions of something that really did not quite yet exist beyond FW’s imagination.
The 33 year-old middle Linebarger brother, opened Bella Vista Resort on June 20th, 1917, six months after signing the purchase papers.
As the end of the decade folded into the nation-wide exuberance of the 1920’s, Bella Vista as a destination resort grew steadily. Visitor accommodations were improved with a new lodge, expanded dining room and pavilion, and children’s playground. Under the skeptical gaze of the area’s farmers a bottomland cornfield was reborn as a golf-course. A 210 ft. long swimming pool complete with slides and diving tower, dressing rooms, concession stand and night-lights was built in 1924. By that year, Bella Vista took on the character of a small town, with grocery store, gas station and garage, and an outdoor market.
While FW kept churning out publicity for the resort, it was clear that the only substantial return on the brother’s investment would be in the subdivision and sale of property as summer vacation homes. The lots were advertised as available with a choice of several ‘cottage’ designs, constructed and ready for wealthy, influential mid-western and southwestern families to escape to the country for the summer. Through outreach and word-of-mouth neighborhood clusters of summer cottages purchased by family acquaintances from cities of industry such as Tulsa, Chicago, or Dallas families began to form. It was common for men to commute back and forth to city jobs leaving women, children, and their house servants to spend the summer.
Production and promotion of an ever growing number of events and dances for the amusement of the summer residents and lodge guests as well as property improvement and maintenance quickly brought the Bella Vista staffing requirements to 100, mostly seasonal, workers. The youngest of the three brothers, Clarence A, or CA, took over day-to-day operations in 1924 at the age of 33 and FW returned to Texas.
While Bella Vista’s reputation as a resort town grew, economic down turns in the showing themselves first half of the 1920’s began to impact the wealthy class. By 1930, it had become a struggle to maintain Bella Vista in the lighthearted, optimistic spirit it had nurtured through the 20s. When cottage owners couldn’t make their payments they tried to sell their property back to the Linebarger’s Company. The eldest brother, Clayton C, who throughout the venture expressed his doubts about the sense of investing large sums of money in a dream located in an obscure corner of Arkansas rather than the oil fields of Texas, refused to budge. Young C.A. quickly stepped up and offered to manage cottages for people who wanted to rent them for all or part of the summer season to visitors to help pay the mortgages. Airbnb in the roaring 20’s?
C.A. continued to manage Bella Vista but the depression, followed by World War II when no one had the time, resources, or heart for vacations, took its toll. It grew more and more run-down in its appearance; weeds and brush grew up around cabins no longer visited. C.A. kept on promoting Bella Vista’s bucolic environment as a restorative balm for the stress of city life and the brothers kept pouring money into holding back the degeneration. But behind the curtain, broken windows and sagging porches, a lake filling with silt, and a golf course that looked like—and, at times, served as—a cow pasture were indicative of C.A.’s losing battle against the times.
Eventually, the Linebarger brothers, facing health issues and family financial hard times reluctantly, and at a loss, found a buyer for Bella Vista in Cave Springs business man E.L. Keith in 1952 It was the end of an era. It was still a beautiful part of the Ozark Mountains, but Nature’s Gem of the Ozarks as envisioned by C.W. Linebarger was gone. It was to be reinvented by Keith as something quite different in the 50s and then again a decade later, sold with, yet again, a different business model in mind.
Keith was successful marketing Bella Vista to middle class Christian families offering wholesome recreation at affordable prices. In 1962, he sold Bella Vista to John A Cooper and Cherokee Village Development Company whose vision was a ‘graduated retirement community, where people would first vacation and then retire.”
Retirement was changing for many Americans who were retiring with means and while still active. Cooper’s vision—encouraged by Bentonville business interests—was to get in front of this real estate opportunity. Keith’s Bella Vista Resort was only a part of the property Cooper needed to fulfill his goal. Keith did not want to sell, but the pressure was more than he could tolerate. “I’d better sell or my name will be mud in Bentonville,” he wrote in his diary. And so he did, and the over the next four decades Bella Vista became the community it is today.
Bella Vista in the 1920’s was alive with the glittering jubilance of unbounded optimism and economic recovery from the wartime devastation of World War I and deferred spending. As the community enters 2020, a century later, how will it move keep moving forward to worthy of that glorious moniker, Nature’s Gem of the Ozarks?
The Linebargers’ decades long realization of their idea of what Bella Vista could be is well documented. The Bella Vista Historical Museum is managed and staffed by the all volunteer BV Historical Society board of directors with financial and in-kind support from the City of Bella Vista, the Bella Vista Property Owners Association, a number of organizations and residents. It is a rich archive of Bella Vista’s colorful history and a worthy destination.
Thanks to the generous sharing of time by Xyta Lucas, Co-President Bella Vista Historical Society and the chronology as it unfolded lifted from Gilbert C. Fite’s detailed history of Bella Vista Village, 1915-1993, From Vision to Reality (available at the Museum)
Bella Vista Historical Museum
1885 Bella Vista Way
Corner of Highway 71 and Kingsland
Open Wednesday through Sunday 1-5 year around