A River Runs Through It
Former Memphian Maurice Lipsey has created a gorgeous getaway in central Arkansas on the banks of the Little Red River.
photographs by Justin Fox Burks
Seventeen years ago, Memphian Maurice Lipsey decided to follow a dream that he’d had from the age of 15. As a teen, Lipsey took a scuba certification test at Greers Ferry Lake and fell in love with the nearby town of Heber Springs, Arkansas, the clear, deep lake, and the sparkling Little Red River that flows from beneath the Greers Ferry dam.
The dream was deferred for decades, as Lipsey built a successful business — Security Watch — in Memphis, but his heart was always 100 miles west, in the hills and hollows of central Arkansas. When security giant ADT came calling in the late 1990s and bought him out, Lipsey made his move. He purchased 250 rolling, mostly wooded acres on the Little Red, just southeast of Heber Springs, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Memphis.
“Then I just had to figure out how to pay for it,” Lipsey says. “One night, over a bottle of wine (or two), I came up with my quarter-share idea, and I started building three cabins on the river to make it happen. Now I’ve built 10, and just started the 11th.” He’s also built his own “bar” on site. More about that later.
Lipsey doesn’t like the term “time-share,” but his quarter-share plan is somewhat similar. A quarter-share in one of his cabins gets you one week a month at Fat Possum Hollow, which is the name of Lipsey’s dream place.
The great majority of Fat Possum’s part-time residents (quarter-shareholders) are Memphians. And many of them have been coming for years, bringing their children to enjoy the country air, the river, the horses, the hiking, and the camaraderie. On some weekends, Fat Possum most resembles a rustic Memphis neighborhood, with each cabin’s driveway occupied by a vehicle with Shelby County plates.
One of those vehicles is likely to belong to Paul and Jennifer Chandler, who’ve been coming to Fat Possum for many years.
Paul is the executive director of the Germantown Performing Arts Center and is one of Fat Possum’s early converts. “I started coming before I was married,” he says. “It was in the late 1990s, when Maurice was just getting started. There were just three cabins.
— Maurice Lipsey
“I met Maurice when we were both living downtown,” Chandler continues. “I heard about what he was doing at Fat Possum from my friend and fishing buddy, Ken Dick. So I called Maurice and asked if I could come over. He put me in Cabin One and introduced me to the barn bar, and I was hooked. I signed up for a share, started bringing my friends, and they started signing up, and pretty soon there was a great bunch of Memphis folks over there.”
Jennifer Chandler is a chef and food writer, the author of a successful series of cookbooks (Simply Salads, Simply Grilling, Simply Suppers). She is a self-proclaimed city girl. “My idea of a great getaway is going to New York City and staying in a nice hotel,” she says. “But I tell my friends, going to Fat Possum isn’t like camping. It’s comfortable and there are so many things to do in the area. We always have a great time.”
The Chandlers started bringing their daughters, Hannah, 13, and Sarah, 11, when they were toddlers. “Back then,” Paul says, “we’d bring them over and let them run around the pastures or play on the playground while we just relaxed. It was our getaway, a place to rest and sleep. Now, I’m proud to say they’ve both learned to cast a line and catch a trout.”
Paul says he catches at least two or three big trout at Fat Possum each year, but his greatest thrill was putting his friend, Memphian Tommy Prest, on the fish of a lifetime. “I set up Tommy’s rig, coached him on how to present the fly, and he caught a 33-inch, 19-and-a-half- pound rainbow.” The picture of Chandler, Prest, and the big one that didn’t get away is framed and hanging in the barn bar.
The Little Red has long been known for its world-class trout fishing. But the public access points are often crowded, and finding a nice unmolested pool is difficult. Fat Possum offers fishermen a perfect wade-in spot that’s only approachable from a limited stretch of private shoreline — no mobs of flailing bait-fishermen, no boats buzzing by, just pristine wadeable water and the occasional kayaker. A deep run just off a small point of shallow water on the property has yielded a number of very large trout through the years.
In addition, a large Bill Dance-designed lake was built on the property and stocked with hundreds of lunker bass. You want to fish? Fat Possum has you covered.
Ironically enough, Maurice doesn’t fish. But he is quite the character, with a shock of thick white hair and a ready wit. He will tell you his story — and patiently listen to your tale about the one that got away — at the neighborhood bar, which he also built. It’s not a bar in the regular sense; it’s in an old barn in a field on the property, and you have to bring your own poison, but Maurice will set you up, and if you’re a Memphian, you’ll feel right at home.
The walls are covered with Tigers sports posters, old photos, clippings from the Press-Scimitar and The Commercial Appeal, and other Memphis memorabilia. The main room has a huge stone fireplace, with a pool table and ping-pong in an adjacent area. The television is permanently tuned to ESPN, and the place is home to one of the world’s best beer bottle collections, a stellar old jukebox, and a big friendly Airedale named Belle. And lots of horses hang around just outside the open barn door.
Though fishing is the main draw for many who come to Fat Possum, it has horse riding and hiking trails and several canoes lying around for family members and friends who might want to pursue other leisure options. Bird watching is another popular activity. As is lying around in a hammock nursing a cold beverage.
A word about the “cabins”: Though the name Fat Possom Hollow may evoke images from Deliverance, these cabins are cabins only in the sense that they are in the woods and the interior walls and ceilings are built with sweet-smelling cedar. But the houses that Maurice has built come with whirlpool baths, high-end kitchens, satellite television, and spacious decks that overlook the Little Red. With their vaulted ceilings, rustic interiors, stone floors and fireplaces, the cabins bring a ski lodge to mind.
In recent years, several companies — including food service companies Ben E. Keith and Sysco — have purchased shares in Fat Possum houses to entertain clients.
The two newest cabins are built on the lake a few hundred yards from the river, but most of the houses are set just above a long, shallow shoal of the Little Red that falls into several rocky pools. If you see more than three other fisherman, you can consider it crowded. It’s a gorgeous stretch of water that no one can wade to from upstream or down because of the deep pools in either direction. The shoals are a popular spot for wildlife, too. Deer, wild turkeys, red foxes, and other wildlife can often be seen splashing across. Geese, great blue herons, osprey, and bald eagles also cruise this stretch of river.
Like all great getaway spots, Fat Possum has its rituals. When evening falls, most of the “residents” gather at the bar to socialize over a glass of wine or a cold beer. Children sometimes take over the ping-pong table or run around outside chasing fireflies. It’s not unusual for pizzas or some barbecue to show up, delivered from nearby Heber Springs. If there’s a Tigers or Grizzlies game, it can get pretty raucous in the room. Dancing on the bar has been known to happen. The beauty part is that after you’ve had a few beverages and enough of the company, you only have to drive a few hundred yards on the moonlit field road that leads back to your house on the river, where you can sit on the deck under the stars, listen to the gurgling waters below, and pretend you actually own the place.
Morning comes early at Fat Possum, as it always seems to when you’re nudged by birdsongs and sunrise. It feels almost like a neighborhood — a really perfect neighborhood in the woods. You can smell the aroma of fresh coffee wafting through the trees. Two boys wade the shallows, turning over stones in search of crawdads. A few yards downstream, a great blue heron stalks the shoals. A flock of Canadian geese honks and splashes to a landing. The sky is pale behind Sugarloaf Mountain in the early light. The trout are always waiting, and usually willing. Soon, three or four fly-fishermen are looping casts over the shoals, testing their skills and bringing trout to the net with regularity.
The early sun and fog make the river seem a magical place. Almost like a dream come true. And when you leave Fat Possum, the keeper of the dream always says the same thing: “Come back, soon. And be careful, it’s a jungle outside that gate.”
Maurice is right. And it’s a paradise inside.
Bruce VanWyngarden is editor of The Memphis Flyer.
Fat Possum Hollow is located on Route 337, just southeast of Heber Springs.
Phone: 501-362-7738; fatpossumhollow.com.