Lady of the Lake

Martha McKay's love affair with Arkansas' iconic Horseshoe Plantation.

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The rear of the house, facing the lake, is a shady retreat. The Snowdens were world travelers, and on a trip through Louisiana, Grace noticed a Greek Revival-style home in the Bayou Country. When the Snowden House was expanded in 1949, she asked the architect to emulate this style of that home. Even though the origianl blueprints (which have survived) indicate the house should have two sets of stairs curving upwards to the porch, only one was constructed. - photograph by Joel Hobson

“People don’t realize how close it is.”

A city slicker who ventures along the 13-mile highway that encircles Horseshoe Lake discovers a natural paradise. The shores are dotted with ancient bald cypress trees, and clusters of massive lilypads — some of them two feet across — form floating islands in the lake. Flocks of white egrets nest in the trees, and occasionally a Great Blue Heron will flash out of the cattails. It was only a matter of time before more people discovered this secret world, liked what they found there, and began to establish their homes at Horseshoe.

Some of the first homes went up in the 1950s, along Bream and Bass Roads, at the northeastern sweep of the lake. Many of these were originally tenant farmers’ houses built by the Snowdens, who then leased them out to friends from Memphis and Little Rock who enjoyed the solitude of Horseshoe Lake. Other plantation owners in the area began to sell off their lakefront properties when they realized an acre here and there was more valuable for growing homes than cotton.

By the 1970s, some 150 families had settled around the lake; in a 1994 article, this magazine profiled the growing creative community that could be found at Horseshoe — restaurateur Karen Carrier, artists Peggy Turley and Carol DeForest, architect Coleman Coker, and many others.

Meanwhile, developers laid out a little town along the southeast shore of the lake. The original covenants included special provisions for the minimum size of the homes to be constructed (900 square feet), and stipulations such as no farm animals allowed on the property. Three narrow roads — Highland, Lake Estates, and Lakeview — ran parallel to the lake, and intersecting streets completed the development. Every house, it seems, had spindly piers jutting out into the lake for the owners’ boats or jet-skis, and in these parts, a Chevy Silverado was the vehicle of choice, for towing boats or farm equipment.

Family groceries opened up here and there on the highways leading into the community. An old fishing camp reopened as Kamp Karefree, complete with boat ramp, fishing pier, and a ramshackle building that became a great place to hang out and get a decent meal. A nice chapel, St. Mary of the Lake, opened on Highway 131, crafted from materials salvaged when the Convent of the Good Shepherd in Memphis was demolished in the 1960s.

Horseshoe Lake resident Nikki Walker is writing a book on the history of the area, a work in progress for the past eight years. Her husband, Jimmy, built a tiny house on Horseshoe Point in 1987.

“Jimmy was one of the top barefoot skiers in the world,” she says, “but he lost the use of his legs in an airplane accident. He liked to come here and fish, and he originally built this place just so he could have a place to relax when he wasn’t fishing.” Jimmy came from Raleigh, and Nikki was raised in Ellendale. When they married in 1984, she moved to Horseshoe and decorated their new home with a pair of booths, lights, and the big dining-room mural from the old Pat’s Pizza on Summer.

Her husband passed away earlier this year, but Nikki is determined to finish her book. “I was a librarian and a teacher and kept getting misinformation about the lake,” she says, “so I hope my book will help.”

Photographer Jack Kenner, whose work appears on the cover and in this article, bought his house on Lakeview Drive in 1987. “I’m actually in the town of Horseshoe, because of the fire department and the sheriff, and we know people living here at night. Around the lake, it’s kind of empty during the week.”

Kenner and his wife, Laurence, have completely revamped and expanded their home, and the property now includes a separate building for his photography gallery. “Here’s the great thing about Horseshoe,” he says. “It is just 30 minutes from downtown Memphis, and you can come out here for lunch, to work or to fish, and then be back in Memphis before dark. People don’t realize how close it is.”

He recalls days when he was doing freelance photography for local ad agencies: “When I first moved here, I carried a pager, and Ward Archer & Associates would page me. I might be out on the lake, so I’d stop the boat, come over to Memphis for a meeting, and then go back out fishing or skiing.”

As more houses sprang up, in all shapes and sizes, the town developed a unique charm. No house looked anything like the one beside it. Homeowners used all sorts of farming- or fishing-related objects for exterior decorations: clusters of rusted plows and harvesting equipment in the front yard of one home, painted oars lined up against the walls of another, a giant red and white float dangling from the mailbox of another.

But then the homeowners, especially the ones who had built those long piers and bought their fancy boats, discovered an unexpected problem.

Horseshoe Lake was disappearing.

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