Lady of the Lake

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

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At first glance, this is a dramatic view of Horshoe Lake, with a magnificent sunset in the background. In reality, that golden glow is the result of fires set in the fall by farmers to clear away old crops and prepare for the new planting season. Fishing and farming endure as the main activities around Horseshoe, foremd when the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 changed the course of the river, and a sharp loop in the channel was left behind. - photograph by Jack Kenner

“I could walk across the lake.”

Anyone who’s lived near the Mississippi River knows it’s prone to flooding from time to time. Remember last year? Well, those floods, as entertaining as they are for news crews, tend to destroy homes, crops, and farms that get in their way. And the flat lands of eastern Arkansas become lakes. So, in the 1970s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studied the problem and came up with an extraordinary solution: the Huxtable Pumping Station, constructed in 1977 near Marianna, Arkansas.

“It’s the second largest pumping station in the nation,” says Martha McKay. “All these farmers had this rich farmland and didn’t want it flooded anymore. What it did, though, was prevent backwash when the Mississippi River, the St. Francis River, and all the bayous came up. We didn’t get that overflow water anymore.”

The result: The water level in Horseshoe dropped year after year. “When we first moved over here,” remembers Nikki Walker, “I could walk across the lake. It got that low.” More than a hundred property owners found they were no longer right on the water, or couldn’t get their boats in the lake. Many sold their homes. Stores closed, along with other businesses.

“We had a mini-depression here,” says McKay. “People moved away, or stayed away.” Most of the folks profiled in our 1994 article left the area. Kamp Karefree closed. “The Commercial Appeal had a front-page story about how Horseshoe Lake was drying up, and that was the last anyone heard about us in the media,” says McKay. “Nobody ever came back here, looked around, and said, ‘Horseshoe Lake is BACK.’”

What pulled it from the brink of disaster was the 2007 formation of the Horseshoe Lake Drainage and Irrigation Improvement District. McKay explains the $1.4 million project: “We dug six wells that extend down into a deep aquifer, to keep the water level high. We have a committee that oversees the water level, and when it drops we turn the pumps on. We took out bonds to do this, and we are paying them back as part of our property tax. It was quite a job, to get easements from property owners and farmers, but everybody is happy with it, including me.”

The “drainage” part of the name comes from a system of canals — some of them originally cut by Bob Snowden — that drain the lake if the level gets too high. It’s been in operation five years now, and even with the great flood last year, seems to be working perfectly.

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