Lady of the Lake

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



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.

 

Colonel Robert Bogardus Snowden – the first one – poses with other Confederate Army officers; the date and location are unkown. He's the one in the middle, with the sword across his lap. - photograph courtesy Snowden Family

“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.

 

The original house erected in 1919 featured a simple wooden screened-in-porch stretched across the lake side of the home, but the 1949 expansion transformed it into this oasis, a wonderful place to sit in the morning and evening – all day long – and admire the view across the lake. Wrought-iron railings give the home the Louisiana plantation touch that Grace Snowden found especially appealing. - photograph by Joel Hobson

“I never met anyone like her.”

If Bob and Grace Snowden come across as colorful characters, that’s the way everyone seems to remember them.

“My grandfather was a very well-loved man, and he loved his family,” says McKay. “When he walked into the room he was the center of everything. He was just a large personality, and everything revolved around him.”

He also made important contributions to the world around him. He was enshrined in the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame for his “outstanding achievements and contribution to the development of aviation in the state of Arkansas and the nation.” He earned a special citation from the Memphis Agricultural Club for his innovative farming techniques. Among them, “Mr. Snowden realized that a soil-rebuilding program was necessary if his rich acres were to maintain their original fertility [and] he promptly started the use of cover crops long before the government advocated soil building on a national basis.”

McKay also has special memories of her grandmother, which she included in a senior thesis she prepared on her family, “Four Generations of Southern Women,” while attending the University of Washington.

“Ever since I was a little child, I was mystified by her and her ways,” she writes. “She was a lady in the formal sense of the word: dignified, well-mannered, and graceful. She was always well-groomed with her hair done up and attired in dress and stockings. . . . I never met anyone like her. She lived a privileged life, to be sure, but she was grateful for her blessings and made it a point to raise us with a sense of appreciation for the beauty of life.”

McKay says, quite simply, that her family “was never wanting for anything, and we were always comfortable.” At the same time, her family — and especially her grandparents — made sure to help those less fortunate than themselves. Bob was actively involved in the church in Arkansas and donated money so that Holy Cross Episcopal in West Memphis could build a school. Closer to home, he donated money to build a school for children of the tenant farmers at Horseshoe, naming it Arthur Evans School after one of his own employees. For her part, Grace served as board president of the Crippled Children’s Hospital and the Memphis Art Academy, and board member of the Memphis Garden Club and the Salvation Army.

The family grew. Three daughters and a son were born, and the Snowdens outgrew the fishing cabin. “So what you see today is a complete expansion of that, into a more formal home,” says McKay.

In 1949, the Snowdens hired Everett R. Wood, one of Memphis’ most prominent architects, to transform their simple home into a Southern showplace. Tucked away in an upstairs closet, McKay found the original blueprints for the renovation, and it’s such a comprehensive and seamless revision that it’s hard to determine what areas remain of the original structure.

What Wood did was turn a one-story dwelling into a three-story, 6,000-square-foot home on a grand scale. The main (or second) floor was transformed into an inviting living room, dining room, bedrooms, and kitchen with butler’s pantry. The master bedroom offers a panoramic view of the lake. A third floor was added, identified on the drawings as a nursery, with two more bedrooms and a bath.

The original ground floor was little more than a covered space below the original house. Workers scooped out dirt to allow more headroom, and the bottom floor now holds a cozy den, bathrooms, and dressing rooms — a more casual living area than the rest of the house, with wonderful views of the lake.

The crowning touch was the creation of the front entry hall. That entire two-story space, with its sweeping staircase, black-and-white marble floor, and Greek Revival portico, simply didn’t exist on the old building. “My grandparents were world-class travelers, and they had seen an antebellum plantation home in Louisiana, and that’s supposedly what my grandmother patterned this home after,” says McKay.

Bringing everything full circle were ornate mirrors, a glimmering chandelier, and a Carrara marble fireplace that originally graced the Snowden family home in Memphis, Ashlar Hall.

The Louisiana look apparently impressed the producers of the 1994 movie The Client, starring Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones, because the Snowden House was featured in the movie — as a home in suburban New Orleans! “I still find people wandering around the property who say, ‘We just wanted to see the home in the movie,’” says McKay.

But change was coming. McKay’s mother, Sally, married a professional actor from New York named David McKay, and after living a few years at Horseshoe, they moved away to San Francisco and other places on the West Coast, taking the children with them.

“Mother would bring us back for the summer and leave us here,” says McKay. “It was just wonderful. I felt like I was royalty, with the big house and servants. Everything was fresh from the garden, fresh eggs and all, and we even had a peach orchard. We got to swim every day, and it was just ideal. Both my grandparents just loved having a houseful of kids, and they showed it.”

But soon that blissful isolation would end.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Among many memorable visitors to Horseshoe Lake over the years was Edward Fredrick Wood – better known to the world as the First Earl of Halifax, one of England's most distinguishable statesmen. During World War II, Halifax served as Great Britian's ambassador to the United States. as shown here in 1943, he is enjoying a glass of iced tea on the lawn of the Snowden House. In the background, other guests that day strike a pose for a photographer. - photograph courtesy Snowden Family

“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.”

 

Martha McKay stands at the foot of the sweeping staircase in the Snowden House entry hall. This grand space didn't exist in the original house her grandfather built; it's one of the most impressive features of the 1949 renovation. The crystal chandelier and massive gilt mirror cam from teh family's original Memphis home, Ashlar Hall, along with other pieces throughout the house. - photograph by Jack Kenner

“50 years behind the rest of the world”

Horseshoe Lake today — the community — seems a place suspended in time. A visit in October revealed dozens of homes for sale, ranging from older cottages within the town to modern showplaces around the lake.

It takes a certain kind of person to live there. A love of nature and an appreciation for the area’s intense isolation come first. But it’s a town with a tiny library and no post office. A fire department but no police department. No banks, doctors, or dentists. Some cell phones won’t work there. And the only eatery is a restaurant tucked away in the back of Bond’s, a combination gas station, grocery store, and bait shop on Highway 147, the main road into the community.

“They have music and stuff there,” says Nikki Walker. “My husband used to say, ‘Where else can you go to a restaurant behind a service station and get a glass of wine for $7.50?’” Another restaurant on the edge of town, the Horseshoe Café, until recently offered “Backwoods Bayou BBQ and Burgers” but it now sits empty.

Other than the lake, entertainment options are limited. When asked what it’s like to live there in the winter, when it’s too cold to venture out on the water, Walker says, “Well, we have parties to keep ourselves entertained.”

But there’s no denying that Horseshoe has special charms. After all, as the turtle-decorated sign on the main highway says as you approach the lake, “Live Life Slowly at Horseshoe.” Several artists still live here and there, and McKay’s cousin, Barbara McKee — the only other Snowden family member at Horseshoe — runs the Plantation Gallery, offering paintings and pottery, in a brick building that once served as the Horseshoe Plantation offices. Everyone waves as you drive by. And forget about house numbers and addresses. A visitor asking directions to the library is told to “go out on the big road and look for the little house next to the pile of burned leaves.”

Looking for a second home? It’s a buyer’s market at Horseshoe, where it’s possible to buy lakefront property for $21,000 (house not included). And the fishing is quite fine, with the lake just teeming with bream and bass. Photographer Jack Kenner laughs about the time he recommended a favorite fishing spot to a friend, who promptly caught a 65-pound grass carp — a world record, certified by the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame.

Kenner seems positively enchanted with “the bliss of the lake and countryside.” He’s currently putting together an exhibit, “The Horseshoe Lake, Arkansas, Delta Project 2012,” which will go on display at the Arkansas Gallery in Little Rock in 2014. In his artist’s statement about the collection, he says, “The Arkansas Delta is nearly devoid of people during the week — and most weekends — except for the occasional farmer riding a tractor or a diehard fisherman trying his luck. Mornings and afternoons, I would wander the lake, fields, and roads in total solitude, capturing whatever the light provided.”

Jennifer Sexton runs the one-room library that’s open two days a week. She moved here several years ago with her husband, after working as a carriage driver on Beale Street. “I lived in Memphis for years, but came here to escape all the stress,” she says. “Horseshoe Lake is about 50 years behind the rest of the world, but that’s why I like it.”

For more views of the Snowden House, visit the Hobson Realtors website.

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