Lady of the Lake
Martha McKay's love affair with Arkansas' iconic Horseshoe Plantation.
photograph by Jack Kenner
(page 1 of 6)
The farmers and planters who lived and worked around Horseshoe Lake, Arkansas, never forgot the Sunday morning of October 5, 1930.
As they headed homeward from the tiny churches whose steeples stand like white sentinels in the green fields of cotton, soybeans, and alfalfa, they witnessed an astonishing sight. A fleet of a dozen airplanes dropped, one by one, out of the clouds, and roared towards the ground. The pilots seemed to be in hot pursuit of a young fellow in a Ford jalopy, weaving crazily across the dirt roads, as he desperately tried to escape bombs dropped on him from the planes. As the witnesses watched in horror, the car received two direct hits, and for a few seconds, disappeared in a cloud of white smoke. But then, miraculously, the driver survived, the planes banked and flew off over the horizon, and the Ford drove away.
What everyone saw that day was not an aerial assault on the peaceful farming, fishing, and hunting community that lies just 30 minutes away from Memphis. No, this was the First Annual Horseshoe Aeronautical Sweepstakes, just one of many spectacular events organized by Robert and Grace Snowden, owners of one of the wealthiest and largest plantations in eastern Arkansas. Their home at the northwest crescent of the lake became a magnet for wonderful, sometimes wild adventures, including that afternoon in 1943 when two members of British royalty . . .
But wait, let’s start at the beginning.
“It was the absolute best farmland.”
Two centuries ago, Horseshoe Lake was nothing more than a tight bend in the Mississippi River. The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 changed all that; the upheaval shifted the main channel of the river eastward, leaving an oxbow lake that became a haven for creatures that swam, flew, slithered, and crawled. Horseshoe is actually five separate lakes; the largest is Horseshoe, but the crescent embraces four smaller lakes and ponds: Porter, Bushy, Goose, and Mud. Over the years, a few families settled in the area, and eventually cotton plantations owned by longtime Arkansas families — Taylor, Zanone, Beck, and others — moved in.
But it was the Snowden family who really put Horseshoe Lake, just 3o miles southwest of Memphis, on the map, and any discussion of that family needs to go back to their beginnings. Way back.
An outsider trying to trace the family tree is usually befuddled because of the Snowdens’ penchant for naming their boys Robert or John. In fact, the first Snowden who came to America from the family home in Scotland in the 1600s was John Snowden. But sitting in the living room of the Snowden House on an October morning, Martha McKay, current owner of the property and the granddaughter of Robert and Grace, starts with the man everyone called “The Colonel.”
“My grandfather’s grandfather was Robert Bogardus Snowden, and he was a colonel in the Civil War,” she says. “After the war, he was involved with land, banking, businesses, and everything to do with building a city.”
This is the Snowden who served under Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Who gave Jefferson Davis the horse he was riding when the president of the collapsed Confederacy was captured. Who formed a partnership to build our city’s first streetcar system. And who dwelled in the magnificent Annesdale mansion, the centerpiece of a 200-acre estate on what is now Lamar Avenue in Memphis.
His son was also named Robert, but most people knew him as R. Brinkley Snowden, though his family called him “Pot o’ Tea.” Was he shaped like a pot of tea? Was he unusually fond of drinking it? “I just don’t know why he was called that,” says McKay, laughing. Continuing in the family business, the son was a successful land developer, acclaimed as “one of this city’s great real estate barons.” Among other accomplishments, he designed and built Ashlar Hall, still standing on Central Avenue in Memphis.
And it was at Ashlar Hall where Robert Bogardus Snowden Jr. was born in 1896. He grew up in Memphis and studied agriculture at Sewanee, where he met a charming lady from Knoxville named Grace Mountcastle. They planned to marry, but the First World War interfered, and Bob (as everyone called him) became a pilot while Grace volunteered as a nurse. “Her parents wouldn’t let them marry until the war was over,” says McKay, “so she trained as a nurse because she figured if he got injured she could nurse him.”
They both survived the war unharmed, got married, and looked for a place to settle down. Bob wanted to farm, so one day, McKay says, “he flew over here and picked out this spot from the air. It ended up being the absolute best farmland in this whole area.”
And so, in 1919, the Horseshoe Plantation was born. McKay sorts through a box of ancient photos and pulls out an image of the original home. It bears no resemblance to the Snowden House today. Instead, it’s a large but rather modest fishing cabin, raised on brick piers, with a screened porch stretching across the front. The house had one bathroom, and the only source of heat was a single fireplace. Air conditioning? You opened the windows in the summer.
The story goes that, with no decent roads in the area, the Snowdens transported everything they needed down the Mississippi River, and then mules hauled the newlyweds’ belongings to their new home. McKay laughs at tales she heard about her grandmother’s first days here.
“Grandmother was a very refined woman, and she was exposed to ‘ruffians’ — people she had never encountered before,” she says. “She came out here thinking she would have fresh eggs and vegetables, but obviously those things don’t just spring out of the ground. You have to develop a farm first.”
The Horseshoe Plantation — sometimes marked on maps as the Snowden Plantation — thrived, with more than 1,000 acres devoted to high-grade cotton. Bob maintained an interest in other business ventures in Memphis, becoming one of the founders of the Wolf River Watershed Association, the Cotton Carnival, and many other civic endeavors, as did his wife. In the late 1920s, though, he returned to his first love — flying — and founded Command-Aire, to design and manufacture a luxury personal airplane called The Little Rocket (the factory was in Little Rock). McKay shows a leather scrapbook with old plans, photos, and colorful magazine ads for the plane, which enticed customers with lines like, “Caress the nose of this Command-Aire while father fondles the bill.”
Command-Aire wasn’t just a pipe dream. The company built and sold some 350 of these sleek yellow-and-blue biplanes. The story goes that Douglas Aviation offered to buy the fledgling company, but Bob responded, “No, thanks. Someday I’m going to buy you.” (To that, McKay says, “It sounds just like Grandfather!”)
Maybe he should have taken that offer. The timing couldn’t have been worse. “He raised all this money and got prominent Memphians involved,” says McKay, “and then the Depression hit, and all of a sudden, there was no market for such an extravagance. He lost everything.”
Well, not everything. Command-Aire closed, but Bob still had the plantation, so he came back to Horseshoe. According to an Arkansas Gazette article, he told reporters, “As an airplane manufacturer, I turned out to be a damn good farmer.”
He certainly kept his sense of humor when times got tough. Just as the Depression started, he formulated his First Annual Horseshoe Aeronautical Sweepstakes. Elaborate printed programs have survived from this 1930 event, which involved more than a dozen of his friends with private planes following clues that he had concealed in the fields and farms of the region. The introduction begins, “Any dumb novice — or other kind — can enter without being an impediment to others, so we expect you to shove your ship right smack down the line in every single event.”
A “Rough Map of the Smooth Country Carelessly Drawn” shows landing fields in the area and identifies the Snowden House as “Home of Thirsty Pilots.” It cautions those pilots, “Now all the fields where you should be / Are marked as you can plainly see. So don’t go dropping down kerplunk / On unmarked fields or you’ll be sunk.”
The day’s events included a scavenger hunt, landing stunts, and the aforementioned “Bombing Contest.” The fellow in the car was a Snowden employee, and those “bombs” were just harmless bags of flour. The best bombardiers were awarded prizes: “First, Second, and Perhaps.” Afterwards, everyone was invited to “the Old Homestead for ‘special’ refreshments and food if desired. On the stroke of 5:15 p.m. you’ll be asked in a nice way to take the air (not given it), which will be a mild hint to be on your way. . . . It is only a matter of 15 minutes to the Municipal Field in Memphis, which is telling you something, but not hinting.”
Among many other special events in the long history of the Snowdens is the day in 1943 when Lord and Lady Halifax of Great Britain stopped by, according to family lore as part of a fund-raising trip they were making across America during World War II. Photos exist of the couple enjoying a spot of tea — served in the Snowdens’ best silver and china, with family members gathered outside around a table crafted from a massive slice of a giant California Redwood. It’s too bad that we have no record of the Lord and Lady’s impressions of this rustic yet refined environment.