A River Ran Through It

A historic Hill Country road brought Texans to the Blanco. Then came John O'Quinn.

For more than a century, parched Texans made the six-mile trek east from the town of Wimberley down the five-mile-long Little Arkansas Road, which parallels the Blanco River into an unspoiled land filled with clear water, cedar, oak, cypress knees, armadillos and white-tailed deer. Before the Texans came, the road led to a favorite stopping place for the Comanche, a site that would later become a storied campground called Little Arkansas. During the Civil War, local legend has it, draft dodgers hid at Little Arkansas and worked the fields dressed as women to avoid being spotted.

The Fulton Ranch, later renamed the McCoy Ranch, surrounded Little Arkansas. The area is so beautiful that it was the scene for movies like the made-for-TV The People Next Doorand the Kevin Costner/Clint Eastwood hit A Perfect World.

However, this small perfect world will soon be nothing more than memories for the many back-route travelers and campers who were drawn to its beauty. Before long, they will find only a barrier blocking access to the closed Little Arkansas Road. The area, labeled by locals as arguably the best swimming hole and campsite around, will become just another section of a 5,400-acre private enclave for wealthy Houston civil attorney John O'Quinn.

Closing off public access to what he calls his home away from home, the controversial lawyer has stirred up a Hill Country hornet's nest in Wimberley. Some townspeople allege that O'Quinn and his minions have cut a backroom deal with Hays County Commissioners Court to seal off the historic 150-year-old road and rugged scenery.

All that is left of Little Arkansas is a decaying campground blocked by a huge new O'Quinn ranch-house complex. Access will be by invitation only.


A Hill Country legend named Liza Howell held the area with a velvet fist for the first half of the last century. She arrived in 1920 as the 15-year-old bride of rancher Charlie Howell. The two raised thoroughbreds at their Little Arkansas spread and traveled the horse-racing circuit together for decades.

As Charlie grew older, the couple first opened their ranch as a campground during World War II. He died in 1960, and Liza ran the camp until her death in 1991. Ownership passed to a contentious and cantankerous group of heirs who fought over possession of it -- in part because Liza had left multiple wills.

Sandra Keith, Liza's granddaughter, and Sandra's three sons ended their lengthy probate battles with their lawyers getting the bulk of the property in fees. The campground closed in September 1998.

The spirit of Liza Howell is said to haunt the place to this day, but O'Quinn's representatives say the public won't have a ghost of a chance of returning to the land.

O'Quinn's office said he is out of the country and unable to speak with the Houston Press. However, attorney Charles Soechting, 50, is a Hays County native who handles the lawyer's business in Central Texas.

Soechting refuses to even call Little Arkansas Road, and a scenic switchback that leads to it, a road at all. Despite more than a century of travel along the river by horses, wagons and later cars moving between Wimberley and San Marcos, Soechting refers to the country lanes as right-of-way only.

For decades Hays County maintained that right-of-way, and the local sheriff's department patrolled it as a public area. In March the City Council of Wimberley, a town of about 9,000 residents, officially dubbed Little Arkansas Road a "scenic drive."

Despite that, it was the end of the road for Little Arkansas a month later. Commissioners Court voted on April 17 to swap Little Arkansas Road for a new $5.8 million road financed by O'Quinn that would reroute all traffic away from the scenic river areas.

The Texas Historical Commission has asked Hays County to put O'Quinn's deal on hold pending study of its impact on historical sites, but its request has no power to stop the project.

Wimberley's mayor charged in the local newspaper, The Wimberley View, that city leaders were not consulted regarding the deal, and that they should have had a say because part of the original Little Arkansas property lies within the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction.

"I don't even know if they did the due process correctly," says former county commissioner Craig Payne. "They gave him that road on a promise that he is going to do this and do that."

County Commissioner Bill Burnett acknowledges that there were no public hearings prior to the Commissioners Court vote. Critics note that Burnett received a $1,000 contribution from O'Quinn in May 2000. But Burnett told the Press he returned the money by last October, saying he knew there would be county matters involving the Houston lawyer and he didn't want to risk being accused of a conflict of interest.

Burnett admits that discussions with the lawyer to provide public access to the river "didn't go very far."

Still, historian Dorothy Kirbow, author of Wimberley, Historic Belle of the Blanco, accuses the county of giving O'Quinn the go-ahead long before the vote. She says that months before the county's official approval, construction had already started on the new road, which runs by her home. The route will make a semicircle through the valley, on the fringe of O'Quinn's land, and will connect with another road leading to San Marcos.

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13 comments
rlshumer
rlshumer

I loved that place, too. Spent COUNTLESS days and nights there with family and friends. I attribute my healthy first pregnancy to the wonderful hugs & love from "Miz Henny" and her cure all spring water : ) She refused to charge me a dime that entire summer....she treated me like family almost from the moment I met her. I spent lots of very entertaining  evenings listening to her stories the summer of 1986.

A doctor I worked for told me about Little Arkansas and another nurse and I went on our first camp out there in the early 80's....we never stopped going until it closed. I, too, have millions of happy happy HAPPY memories there. Thousands of picures....made lots of friends there, saw many friends there from all over Texas.

Each time I went, I made a point of picking up trash other people left simply because it hurt my heart that once Ms. Howell had died (and I was there that day) her family let it go....

Maybe someday another person will own a section of this beautiful land & reopen it to the public....

Chris
Chris

I finally made the trek to Little Arkansas, on foot from Flite Acres. No one was at the Little Arkansas campgrounds, it is such a shame when people buy land to keep to themselves but then don't even use it on a frequent.

I have read several little stories of the old Little Arkansas River Rats back in the day, and all the stories of Little Arkansas Road being a through road into San Marcos.

Finally making it to Little Arkansas was such a pleasure. This place is such a nice place on The Blanco River. Paradise, it is such a shame you have to worry about the whole "private property" dilemma

The 19 year old Trespasser,Wimberley Texas

Brenda
Brenda

My family and i camped here so many times yet each time we went was like the first visit ever.My husband passed away when my kids were very young and there only good chilhood memories are of camping here. We feel that this greedy man who already had so much took away our memories. i just hope now his family does't go through the same fight the others before went through and who knows maybe who ever gets the place now will open it to all.

nancy
nancy

I think that there waas a curse on the old place and O'Quinn finally got what was coming to him--massive karma for stealing the place from the Keith family...

Bobbie
Bobbie

Now, perhaps, I may once again look at some of the most beautiful areas God created for all people.

Blue Paddler
Blue Paddler

The arrogant sumbitch can burn in hell now. That river belongs to the people of Texas.

Travis
Travis

I sure did have some fond memories of that place, I fear i'll never be able to swim there again. It is a taunting though to put out wildland fire's in that area and know it's right there. wish it was still open to the pubic!

Fire Fighter,wimberley TX

Alopez33
Alopez33

I've visited Little Arkansas a few times in the mid 90's and it really is a beautiful place. I believe nature will prevail in this case and old O'Quinn will regret the fact that he is a greedy son-of-a-bitch

Alopez33
Alopez33

I've visited Little Arkansas a few times in the mid 90's and it really is a beautiful place. I believe nature will prevail in this case and old O'Quinn will regret the fact that he is a greedy son-of-a-bitch

Leslie Laws
Leslie Laws

This article made me tear up. Little Arkansas is such a part of my youth and of my daughter's as well. To this day we rarely camp because nothing measures up to Little Arkansas and we are always disappointed.

It broke my heart when Henny's (Mrs. Howell) grandsons were running the place and letting it go down the drain. The last time I went out there was probably the summer of 1998 and there was trash everywhere and some fairly serious drunks and druggies running around. Was no longer a good place to take the kids. Our campsite was full of trash when we got there.

I could go on and on about my wonderful memories of swinging on the rope swing, drinking from the spring, playing around the waterfall, floating down the river, but if you have been there, you know how special it was.

Geraldine Null Bennett
Geraldine Null Bennett

Good for you. Myself, I have already told my family that when I die - I wish to be creamated and my remains scattered there. I told my husband, he will have to trespass to get it done - but he knows how passionate I am about that place. I went there every summer for 33 yrs until it was gone. Sucks.

Geraldine Null Bennett
Geraldine Null Bennett

spent 2 weeks every summer at Little Arkansas with my family from the time I was 3 months old. My father was friends with Danni's step-son Gordon Mitchell. I can't even explain how every inch of that place is ingrained in my heart and soul. I am now 45 yrs old and was able to take my children there before it finally closed down for good. I saw the decline on each trip, but I had to keep going. I had a dream last night about Little Arkansas - could even smell it when I woke up. I have been obsessing over it all morning and searching the internet for information and connections with people that have similiar memories. I can still close my eyes and walk every step of the way from camp #13 (our favorite spot), down the hill, across the bridge, past the swings, the dam, up the trail to the springs, climbing up the water fall and into the springs themselves. I know it all, like the back of my hand. Our family continues to go to Wimberley every summer, we mostly stay at 7A but on shorter trips - we stay at the cabins on the square or different places in town. As soon as we arrive in Wimberly, my husband knows to drive me down Flite Acres road to Little Arkansas road - stop on the bridge and roll down the windows. I have to smell the river as soon as I get there. This brings back a flood of memories and usually tears, thinking about the loss - it is almost like grieving over a death in the family. I know, it sounds crazy - but I do it every year, I can't help myself. I have been thinking about starting a blog "Sharing memories of Little Arkansas". It may be just for my own pleasure, but there may be others that feel the same as I do and would like to contribute. I grew up there, I was baptised there, my father married my step mother there 16 years ago. If you have any thoughts or even get this, you can e-mail me at grnbennett09@yahoo.com

Geraldine Null Bennett
Geraldine Null Bennett

I spent 2 weeks every summer at Little Arkansas with my family from the time I was 3 months old. My father was friends with Danni's step-son Gordon Mitchell. I can't even explain how every inch of that place is ingrained in my heart and soul. I am now 45 yrs old and was able to take my children there before it finally closed down for good. I saw the decline on each trip, but I had to keep going. I had a dream last night about Little Arkansas - could even smell it when I woke up. I have been obsessing over it all morning and searching the internet for information and connections with people that have similiar memories. I can still close my eyes and walk every step of the way from camp #13 (our favorite spot), down the hill, across the bridge, past the swings, the dam, up the trail to the springs, climbing up the water fall and into the springs themselves. I know it all, like the back of my hand. Our family continues to go to Wimberley every summer, we mostly stay at 7A but on shorter trips - we stay at the cabins on the square or different places in town. As soon as we arrive in Wimberly, my husband knows to drive me down Flite Acres road to Little Arkansas road - stop on the bridge and roll down the windows. I have to smell the river as soon as I get there. This brings back a flood of memories and usually tears, thinking about the loss - it is almost like grieving over a death in the family. I know, it sounds crazy - but I do it every year, I can't help myself. I have been thinking about starting a blog "Sharing memories of Little Arkansas". It may be just for my own pleasure, but there may be others that feel the same as I do and would like to contribute. I grew up there, I was baptised there, my father married my step mother there 16 years ago. If you have any thoughts or even get this, you can e-mail me at grnbennett09@yahoo.com

 
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