A River Ran Through It

The dam where hundreds of people used to swim will become part of Houston attorney John O'Quinn's private enclave.
Bob Chapin

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 Door and 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.

The impending changes triggered some ridicule of the county's newest land tycoon, as seen by letters to the town's paper. The O'Quinn Land and Cattle Company was dubbed by one Wimberley wit as the "O So Quick Lots of Land and So Little Cattle Company."

"Maybe O'Quinn will fall in love with his big piece of heaven and share it only with God," said another writer to the newspaper. It published the message of one resident bemoaning, "Something stinks to high heaven in Hays County, and it ain't Hog Creek's fish after a summer drought."

Soechting dismisses the naysayers as isolated. "The people who are most directly affected are in support of it," he says.

Two of those are Dorothy and Eddie Gumbert, who own Lost River Ranches, which abuts the old campground. "The public has just run over the landowners so bad that it is just ruining the land," Dorothy says. "That road created a problem 50 years ago. People think that they have a divine right to somebody's property."

Soechting, on behalf of O'Quinn, argues that closing the land and river access will protect the area for future generations. He touts O'Quinn's green credentials, noting that the attorney made a six-figure donation to protect the marshes at the Interstate 45 entrance to Galveston, a deed that led to the renaming of that area as the O'Quinn Estuary.

As for Little Arkansas, "The lawyers sold that property," Soechting says. "Mr. O'Quinn came in and paid a very high price to prevent it from being cut up into lots."

He contends that the old road is in such bad condition that it is virtually impassable, although others say it is that way because the county quit maintaining it after the O'Quinn purchase.

Soechting says that he recently encountered young people fishing and swimming on the river at the low-water crossings on Little Arkansas. They left empty beer cans behind, he says, showing that many people don't respect the property. To require O'Quinn to let the public near the river is nothing more than "extortion," Soechting says. "A lot of people who have weekend homes like their privacy."

The O'Quinn representative blames the former owners, the Keith family, of fanning the flames of discontent over the road deal.

"The Keiths have asked that if we give them some land, then they will stop causing trouble and talking to people like the Houston Press," Soechting says. "Little Arkansas sold. He owns it, and he can do anything he wants with it. Hell will freeze over before he gives them a square inch of that land."

More criticism comes from conservationists who accused O'Quinn and other landowners of cutting down centuries-old cypress trees along the Blanco. "Nobody in their right mind cuts a cypress down," Soechting says, denying the allegations.

As for sealing off the property, Soechting maintains that selected members of the public will have future chances to visit O'Quinn's kingdom. Groups such as the Boy Scouts and trail riders can seek permission from the Houston attorney to access his land.

But the great unwashed will soon have to find their own river to bathe in. Little Arkansas and that stretch of the Blanco now belong to John O'Quinn.

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