Lady of the Lake
Martha McKay's love affair with Arkansas' iconic Horseshoe Plantation.
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“I needed to bring the home up to the twenty-first century.”
Nothing lasts forever. Robert Snowden passed away in 1982 at the age of 86. Grace died in 1989 at the age of 91. Both are buried on the property, their simple granite headstones — along with that of their longtime maid, Bessie Thornton — protected by a circle of boxwoods. Grace’s epitaph is “A Gay and Grateful Heart.” Bob’s marker carries the Latin inscription Dum Spiro Spero (“While I breath, I hope”).
In the 1960s, Bob had created the Horseshoe Plantation Corporation, which embraced the farmland, some industrial property, more than 30 cabins along the lakefront, Kamp Karefree, pecan orchards, and of course the Snowden House itself. He gave away shares in the corporation to his daughters — Sally McKay, Edie Dewey, Happy Jones, and their children.
After Bob’s death, Sally McKay served as manager of the company. She divided all those cabins among the three families to make ownership of them more manageable — as her daughter Martha says, “to do with them as they pleased.” The original family members, however, retained group ownership in the rest of the property, which they called “the big partnership,” or simply, “the company.” Among other ventures, Sally leased the Snowden House to various people, including Polly Brown and her sons, Mark and David, who ran it for several years as a restaurant and bed-and-breakfast. Many Memphians have fond memories of birthday parties and anniversary dinners served in the spacious dining room upstairs.
After Sally McKay’s death in 1996, Edie Dewey then took over the management duties. This was a big job, and in an attempt to help her aunt, Martha McKay came back to Memphis for awhile, closed down the B&B, made some improvements to the Snowden House, and, as she puts it, “held down the fort” until things became more stable.
Her work here finished — or so she thought — McKay moved back west and bought an 1861 home in Nevada, one of the most historic residences in Virginia City. In 2004, though, she decided to restore her family’s home to its former glory, so returned to Horseshoe and bought the Snowden Home from the “big partnership.” She remains the sole owner of the house today.
“By that time, the house was pretty run-down,” says McKay, “but over my adult life, I discovered historic preservation is something I like to do. I had renovated a beautiful home in Virginia City, Nevada, and two or three houses in Seattle. So I sold the house in Virginia City and bought the Snowden House. It was the only way that I could see doing the kind of work that I wanted to do.”
The original plan was to renovate the home to serve as her private residence, and open up the house and grounds for wedding receptions, parties, and special events. She recruited acclaimed restoration expert John Griffin and interior designer Biggs Powell to help with the project.
Some parts of the house just needed “freshening up” with new, historically correct paint schemes, such as the stunning blue that now brightens the entrance hall. McKay brought old porcelain lamps from her home in Nevada. Crafted in Germany in the 1800s, these are former oil lamps suspended by elaborate chains from the ceiling. But a hidden feature is a counterweight, which allows the lamps to be raised and lowered through a system of pulleys at the ceiling mount.
The bathrooms got new Calcutta Gold marble countertops. While retiling the bathrooms, McKay added heated flooring with loops of hot-water lines beneath the tiles, and “my cats just love it.”
The kitchen was a major challenge. “Because it had been used as a restaurant, the walls were just covered in gook,” she says, “so we just took them down and exposed the bare pine walls.” The yellowed asbestos tile ceiling got the same treatment. She retained the original metal Geneva cabinets from the 1940s, but with the help of Griffin, added zinc countertops. A new kitchen island with sink and cabinets has a soapstone surface, also with zinc treatments.
But along the way, McKay decided, “I needed to bring the home up to the twenty-first century.” That wasn’t easy.
When her grandfather grew older, he finally added air conditioning to the house — window units. “These giant box air conditioners were hanging out of every window — the kitchen, the side porches, everywhere. It was horrible, and you can imagine the expense,” she says. “And in the basement, I found a gas guzzler of a furnace. It was costing $1,000 a month to heat the place.”
McKay was determined to find something more “green.” So she researched geothermal systems and came up with a solution: using the lake water for cooling and heating. It’s actually a very complicated system, but she explains it this way: “We have a continuous loop of water that runs through the home and out into the lake, where it runs through a panel that converts it to the constant 57 degree temperature of the lake water. There’s a heat transfer system for the wintertime, to convert that 57 degree water into something warm enough to heat your home.
“The only utility I’m using is electricity to run the pumps. And my average bill, year-round, is about $250 monthly.”
The work was finished, the house glowed like a brand-new home, and McKay printed up nice cards promoting the venue. And then the bottom fell out of the economy. “Unfortunately, just when I was finished with the home and ready to launch it, our big recession hit, and I felt the timing wasn’t so good,” she says. “So I thought somebody else should come in, and take it from here.”
That explains the Hobson Realtors signs on the highway and lake announcing FOR SALE. Asking price for the house and the four acres of land it occupies: $1.2 million. In April, the farmland was sold off to a local buyer. Now McKay is just waiting for a buyer for the house.
And after that? “I don’t want to think past that stage,” she says. “I just hope whoever comes in has as much appreciation for it as I do.”