What never was
Mountain Home’s path not taken
During my formative years in the ’60s and ’70s I always knew my hometown of Mountain Home (also known as MoHo) was an odd place. It was at once full of native-born folks as well as increasing numbers of new residents and visitors. We could pick the latter out easily due to their colorful car tags. They were conveniently color-coded for us. The local culture was a mishmash of Southern and upper Midwestern influences, with the latter more evident each year.
It wasn’t until I left for college in 1974 that my perceptions changed to those of a non-resident, and I began seeing the forest rather than just the trees. My cognitive filter more easily interpreted just what was going on in my hometown and, more than likely, who was most responsible.
I was born there in 1956, and was among the earliest group of children growing up in what I call the modern era of north central Arkansas, defined as the time period after 1951, the year that the second of the large Corps of Engineers’ dam construction projects was completed (Norfork Dam was the first, finished in 1944).
Authorized and funded for flood control, those dams created a wonderland for outdoor recreation enthusiasts. My home area was forever changed. However, I have an issue with what it changed into as a result.
With the recreational assets embodied in two large lakes and two world-class fishing rivers, the Twin Lakes Area (or TLA) had a destiny to become a powerhouse tourism destination, on the order of Hot Springs or Branson. The backbone was already in place. But that didn’t happen. Specific, conscious decisions appear to have been made by a small group of influential locals that put the area onto an alternate, narrow path. They somehow concluded that it was best suited to develop into a retirement destination.
In retrospect their influences proved disastrous to the development of a healthy tourism economy. MoHo was offered the opportunity to become a true tourism destination, not just in the Ozarks but also in the entirety of the South and the Midwest. That became the road not taken, the one that could have produced a much different city, one not dominated by retirees from elsewhere, and one with more career opportunities for everyone. No brain drain of young talent in that scenario.
Had that natural path been followed, the tourism-centric Mountain Home might have had a base population somewhat larger than today and be greatly inflated during a busier summer season. It would also reflect a much more balanced generational profile. There would still be some retirement aspects as with all resort areas everywhere, but they would not primarily define it as they do now.
I lament the loss of that MoHo every day.
It’s all speculation of course, but I fully embrace the idea that my hometown stood at a crossroads in the 1950s and simply made a destiny-altering turn. As a result Mountain Home evolved in a perplexing manner. That reality has produced a myriad of apologists over the years but was also bound to eventually produce at least one critic like me. I’m critical of the modern MoHo in terms of how it has actually developed, because I know it could have been a more economically viable community than it is now. I’m a critic of those fateful decisions made by the cabal that led Mountain Home to look the way it does in 2018. I will always love my hometown but love is often expressed via timely observations and critiques. As such I’m the loyal opposition, the 10th man who by definition must disagree with nine others speaking with one voice.
On a positive note, MoHo appears to have an increasingly healthy economy of late, a renaissance of sorts occurring in the 2000s. I won’t say it’s booming, but commercial growth within the retail and hospitality sectors is more robust than in past decades.
There’s a greater energy coming from the non-retired ranks, especially among young adults, which I believe has not been in evidence since the 1960s. In my opinion that was the last time that the median age in Baxter County reflected aspects of normality.
My parents and those of my classmates were among those making relevant contributions in that decade.
Mountain Home remains an enjoyable place to live for members of many cohort groups, whether native-born or transplant. The tens of thousands of folks who have relocated to the TLA over the decades would not have done so if they thought otherwise. Many of them might still have ended up there even if the tourism-centric model had been allowed to unfold in a natural way.
At this point, roughly 60 years after the retirement village overlay was placed on the already-existing town, it’s now permanently cast as a retirement destination. In a curious way MoHo might still have ended up as a retirement town in the 21st century even if it had followed that original pre-ordained path. The tsunami of baby boomer retirement will change the cultural landscape of America. Many communities that have been tourism-centric for decades just might be morphing into retirement destinations soon enough. The wave is coming.
Maybe this was what was destined for my Mountain Home all along. It just got there, regrettably, decades ahead of schedule. A longtime Conway resident, Rick Rogers has been a Mountain Home expatriate for over 44 years. This essay is adapted from his book manuscript, The Premature Graying of the Ozarks: Reflections on Retirement Migration, Leisure Ghettos, and Relocation Tourism. He is currently seeking a publisher.