The First Travelers
Tourism in the Arkansas Ozarks began in the 1880s when thousands traveled on newly built railroads to drink and bathe in the healing waters of mineral springs. Health spas sprung up at such places as Eureka Springs (Carroll County), Elixir Springs (Boone County), and Sulphur Springs (Benton County). The spas later turned into resorts, offering amenities to attract a new breed of traveler—the vacationer. Dances, recreational sports, lectures, and countryside excursions all encouraged folks to stay a little longer.
The Open Road
With the advent of affordable automobiles in the early 20th century, travelers abandoned the railroads with their strict timetables. Not only did the auto allow them to travel at their own pace, they could wander off the beaten path. Having good roads made all the difference.
William Hope "Coin" Harvey may have been the first entrepreneur in Northwest Arkansas to use the emerging automobile culture to encourage area tourism. He began the Ozark Trails Association in 1913 in an effort to promote the building of quality roads as a way to bring vacationers to his resort at Monte Ne (Benton County).
Arkansas began charging sales tax on gasoline and oil in 1923, using the revenue to start an ambitious road-building program. Paved, two-lane highways sprung up across the state. With new roads came more sightseers, lured by travel brochures highlighting the splendors of the area.
Touting the region as a whole, the Ozarks Playground Association, formed in 1919, branded the area as "The Land of a Million Smiles." Its successful advertising campaign convinced many to enjoy outdoor sports, elaborate agricultural-themed festivals, and shopping opportunities. Folks stayed at roadside camps and cottage-like tourist courts.
The Arkansas Centennial Commission, formed in 1935, was instrumental in opening the state’s first tourist information centers, including one at Sulphur Springs. However, tourism suffered during the economic woes of the Great Depression and World War II, when rationing of tires and gasoline curbed unnecessary travel.
By the late 1940s America was once again on the road. Restaurants, motor lodges, souvenir stands, and eye-catching attractions were built along popular roadways. These mom-and-pop operations were designed to entice the traveling public to stop, look, and spend before moving on to their final destination.
The Shift From Journey to Destination
What began with the advent of affordable vehicles and the promotion of good roads basically ended as the U.S. interstate highway system began rolling across the country in the late 1950s. New four-lane highways were built through rural areas, away from population centers.
Travelers often chose the speedier route to their destination, by-passing many attractions. Chain restaurants, motels, and convenience stores sprung up, offering nationally known familiarity and ease. The old two-lane highway with its unique offerings became the road less traveled. The attractions faded away.
Bottom postcard from the Gene Parrish Collection (S-92-30-1).
Remaining postcards courtesy Bob Besom and Susan Young.