By Robin Harris
As you travel past Little Rock and take Highway 5 going north, you will find yourself passing through lush scenery and small towns. Eventually you’ll come over a mountain top and find yourself in Heber Springs, home of the Little Red River, Greers Ferry Lake, and the Sugarloaf Mountain. I wanted to live on the Little Red River. I needed to find a Realtor. This is how I met Frank Barton. He told me this story that changed many lives, including mine.
Sugarloaf Mountain rises 690 feet. It is an erosional remnant beside the Little Red River in Arkansas. The Osage Tribe who used to live there called it Tonawanda or Ton-Wan-Dah. From the top of Ton-Wan-Dah there is a view that extends for miles in every direction. The earliest settlers called it Sugarloaf because it looked like the shape of the loaves of unrefined sugar in use at that time. Sugarloaf became the name of the community that developed nearby. It was later changed to Heber Springs.
Back in 2007, weather permitting, Frank Barton and Joe Rath would hike up the Sugarloaf Mountain with their kids who were so little they put them in backpacks. “Unfortunately, one of the “things to do” around the mountain was to paint graffiti on it,” Frank explained. “It was everywhere – graffiti on top of graffiti. It was prolific, every boulder and surface all along the trail up to the summit was painted.”
Graffiti was even sprayed in plain view, during daylight hours. Everyone seemed to be doing it. Nevertheless, Frank and Joe loved the mountain. They loved hiking it with the kids and they especially loved the view from the top.
“When the kids got old enough to read,” Frank continued, “during a hike, they said ‘daddy what does *#@* mean?’ Joe and I just looked at each other shaking our heads.”
“I was on my way to Colorado for vacation”, Joe said, “when Frank called me and said ‘Joe, we have to do something about the graffiti. If you know someone over at Arkansas State University (ASU) that we can talk to, I will contribute to the effort'”. Since ASU owned the property they needed their support.
So Joe called Dr. Dianne Tiner the Vice Chancellor at ASU. She liked the idea and really wanted to clean up the mountain. Soon after, she had a meeting with Joe and Frank and included Jeff Baggett, and Clay McCastlain who were both from ASU. It was then, in 2007, that the Sugarloaf Heritage Council (SHC) was formed. Around this time Mark Johnson, and Jo Price, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director, joined the group. Very soon after, Heber Springs Mayor Jackie McPherson and Randy Kemp, Editor, The Sun Times joined.
Arkansas State University and Sugarloaf Mountain
First, several meetings were held to complete a plan. According to Joe Rath “The plan was the glue that held us together. Ken Easton helped put the plan together in a nice format and did a wonderful job. We could show the plan to the city, county, or any business and get funding. It was the founding boards’ vision that was the guide. The plan helped ASU see what would be done to their property, it got us a buy-in.”
There were phases to the plan; Remove graffiti, restore and enhance the Summit Trail, create the Tonawanda Trail (Base Trail), and create the Wildlife Trail.
“I remember going from bank to bank, business to business in Cleburne County and Heber Springs asking for donations”, explained Mark Johnson. “It wasn’t just the big donors like the County, City, Banks, and Businesses that helped us. These donors budgeted for annual donations going forward. There were a lot of small donations too. Being all volunteer we had no overhead, every dollar went to restoring the mountain. Every year we had Heritage Day. Mack’s Fish House would donate the food. We would show our supporters what we had accomplished that year and sign them up for the next year.”
But then there was the graffiti. “As hard as we tried, we could not find a way to get the paint off the rocks”, Frank Barton said. “Initially, wire brushes were used to scrub the rock surfaces, but it was so thick it just would not come off. The problem seemed insurmountable; it was as if there was no practical solution. Even the rangers at Pinnacle State Park could not find a solution. Then, Jeff Baggett found Elephant Snot”, Frank explained.
“The product name comes from its consistency and color as you might imagine what elephant snot would look like. It is eco-friendly and fast acting in dissolving the paint from various surfaces”, explained Mark Johnson.
“Elephant Snot is expensive”, said Frank. “We painted it on, then removed the graffiti using a pressure washer. To provide water for the pressure washer, we bought a pump and hauled barrels of water up the mountain. Then, Jeff came up with the idea of running a water line up the mountain.”
The pipe was acquired from F.L. Davis in Heber Springs at a significant discount. The group installed it on the mountain, but, being nearly 700’ long, the water pressure wasn’t strong enough. After the funds were raised, a pump was purchased and installed. It provided the pressure needed and the graffiti started to come off.
To get off all the graffiti, they had to hang by ropes almost 700 feet straight up. The force of the pressure washer pushed them away from the mountainside; they swung out and in spraying as they reached the rock surface. Gradually, the graffiti began to wash away.
Frank Barton cleaning graffiti at nearly 700 feet
After two years of work on the project, most of the graffiti was gone. The Greers Ferry Lake/Little Red River Annual cleanup included the Sugarloaf Mountain for the first time. More than two dozen people collected over 600 pounds of trash around the mountain, it had never been done before.
Now with the graffiti nearly gone, the Sugarloaf Heritage Council turned their attention to the trails. “We started with the Historic Trail”, Joe explained. “This is known as the Summit Trail today. It was always there.” The other trails in the plan were new, including the Wildlife Trail which is being excavated today.
In the meantime Joe had explored the area and discovered the pond there. No one knew about it. The group decided to add a trail there and call it Hidden Pond Trail. They added the trail to the plan. They included a phase to pave it and the parking lot to make it ADA compliant.
SHC was awarded an Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department grant to restore the Summit Trail. SHC had to match 20 percent of the grant so Jo Price started a “Hit the Trail” campaign with a $50,000 goal in mind. Each thousand dollars would improve so many feet of trail until the trail was complete.
“SHC raised the money to match the grant”, said Jeff Baggett. “ASU Maintenance did the legwork to apply for the grant and manage the project.” Jeff continued. “ASU Maintenance volunteers built the 120′ bridge framework on the south fork and built the bridge on the north fork of the Hidden Pond Trail, and one on the Summit Trail.” The district volunteers from Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints build the bridge itself.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Volunteers from seven area wards working on the Hidden Pond Trail
For at least three years the Quitman Ward of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints put in a considerable amount of volunteer hours. At one point the entire district showed up with over 150 volunteers to install two bridges, clear trails, and spread gravel. This was coordinated by Shawn Oliver a SHC member. After Jeffs’ crew dug, framed and poured the concrete for the sign, Shawn set the stones around it. It isn’t surprising that it still stands today.
By 2011 most of the graffiti was gone, the Summit Trail was resurfaced, and Hidden Pond Trail was almost complete. More volunteers from area churches and businesses worked on the Hidden Pond Trail. Funds were donated by the community, local banks and businesses. Every dollar was spent on the trails.
SHC contributed more than 600 hours of volunteer labor which combined with others allowed Heber Springs to be named the Volunteer City of the Year in 2013. Another 1/2 mile of the Tonawanda Base Trail was cleared – 5 bridges, 50 tons of gravel and 70 tons of gravel screenings were used. During the trail blazing, an old overturned rusted-out Pontiac was spotted in an area now called Pontiac Point.
The 45th Greers Ferry Lake/Little Red River cleanup included 120 volunteers 2 to 80 years to work on the trails; Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Quitman, Searcy, Batesville, Mountain View, Jacksonville, Jonesboro, and Paragould. This was also coordinated by Shawn Oliver. Two foot bridges were assembled and installed, roots and branches cut, gravel spread, and rocks placed on wet trail areas. During the same year the Greers Ferry Trail Council blazed a trail with chainsaws along the old Missouri North Arkansas Railroad bed. This was the start of Sulfur Creek Trail. Ultimately, the Sugarloaf Trails will tie into this trail system when the Wildlife Trail is complete.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Volunteers from seven area wards working on the Hidden Pond Trail
That same year, on Trio Day over 100 students from AASAP (Student Assistance Program) cleaned up litter and worked on improvements of the trails. A 12 foot bridge was installed, roots removed, and the surface prepped on the Tonawanda Base Trail and North Fork of the Hidden Pond Trail. 13 trailer loads (20 tons) of gravel was spread.
Hidden Pond Trail, the parking lot, and Trailhead road were paved by Cleburne County Road Department with the oversight of Karl Martin, making it wheelchair accessible and ADA Compliant in 2015. Volunteers provided the machinery and labor, the materials were funded by an additional grant. The group was awarded another grant to fund half of the picnic tables for the green space at the entrance of the trails. SHC raised enough money to fund the other half of the project. Today, it is a picnic area.
At last the Wildlife Trail work began and is 1.25 miles long thanks to Jeff Baggett who is in the process of clearing the trail in his non-working hours. This trail will be used by ASU for educational instruction, and available for public use. Ultimately it will connect to the Sulfur Creek hike and bike trail. When this trail is finished, the original plan established by the Sugarloaf Heritage Council will be complete.
“I have lived and breathed this for ten years”, said Mark Johnson. “I am most proud when I see the parking lot full on every nice day. We are planting seeds in visitors who might return to live here fulltime.”
The Sugarloaf Heritage Council is celebrating its 10 year anniversary. The results of this group is obvious, it is nearly free of all graffiti and litter! If you haven’t been there, take a hike up Sugarloaf Mountain. Bring your friends and family. Enjoy the scenery along the way, and from the top, enjoy the view. As you do, please remember the Sugarloaf Heritage Council, the volunteers, those who donated, and Frank and Joe who started all this for the love of a mountain.