Many of the stories I grew up on featured Keels Creek as a recurring landmark. Obviously, this was because various branches of my family either lived on Keels Creek or not too far from it. I’ve always thought it interesting that Keels Creek was named for an early pioneer’s first name: Keel Williams.
I suppose many people only see Keels Creek from the bridge on Rockhouse Road, and much of the time there is no water to be seen because it runs under the surface gravel. Don’t let the lack of visible water fool you, though, because the Keels Creek watershed covers 19,211 acres of land south of Eureka Springs. That is 30 square miles of springs and creeks and rainfall to drain.
One of my favorite Keels Creek stories involves my wife’s great-great grandfather, Murrell Nelson. He had a big place on Keels Creek on the Madison County line (southeast of the present day Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge). He had bought the land in pieces from Claude Fuller and others in 1916 when he returned home from California where he had worked for the railroads.
Late in life, Murrell had to move fifty head of cattle from his farm to Berryville. The cattle drive followed Keels Creek eight miles, before fording both the Kings River and the Osage. The destination farm was located behind the present day Maverick Supply. One just doesn’t hear of long cattle drives in Carroll County anymore. It would be a logistical nightmare.
A whole book could be written about M.D. Nelson and overcoming adversity. When he was 7 years old his father (who had returned from the Civil War in one piece) was murdered by a horse thief on his Carroll County farm. After that, Murrell bounced around living and working for various people. He married Nancy Johnson in 1890 and farmed south of Eureka Springs after homesteading 160 acres in the Buck Mountain area. He then sold out and went to California to make his fortune.
Murrell Dixon Nelson died in the Eureka Springs Hospital in 1953 and is buried in the Eureka Springs Cemetery.
Ernest Schilling (1878-1975) is buried in the Gracelawn Cemetery at Van Buren, Arkansas. On his tombstone is the likeness of a billy goat and the name by which he was most known: “By Golly”. He was a sign painter by trade, but also a talented artist. His trademark was the “By Golly” signature on all of his work.
Though he lived out the end of his days in the Van Buren area, he was a resident of Eureka Springs off and on for many years. He would set up at the side of the road with a sign that read “By Golly, The Sage of Pine Log.” I’m told that tourists would stop to have their likeness drawn or to take his photograph. Though an educated man of Swiss-German heritage, By Golly could look like a stereotypical Arkansas hillbilly with his long beard and floppy hat.
McKinley Weems remembers By Golly being in Eureka Springs in the middle 1930s working on the painting of the big Onyx Cave sign on the building downtown. In those days, By Golly worked out of a cart pulled by a jenny.
McKinley worked in the radio shop in the lower level of the building and outside were barrels full of junk. One cold day, bundled up in winter clothes to keep warm, By Golly was high up painting the Onyx Cave sign when he fell and landed on the barrels below. It is said that the only thing that saved him was the many layers of bulky clothes that he was wearing.
I’ve heard the story that he lived in Seligman, Missouri for awhile and a church hired him to paint a sign. He painted the name of the church and other information as instructed and at the bottom he signed it “By Golly.” The church was unhappy with the signature and demanded that it be removed. Without a word, By Golly climbed the ladder and painted over the signature. The next time it rained, however, the paint that he used to cover the signature washed away and his “By Golly” signature reappeared.
Time to dip into my boxes of old Eureka Springs Times-Echo newspapers and see what the past has to tell us. The news of September 25, 1969 was dominated by preparations for the upcoming Ozark Folk Festival. I’ve always heard that the scale of yesteryear’s Ozark Folk Festivals was much larger than that of those held currently, and the newspaper articles confirm this. For instance, the 140-member Razorback Marching Band was slated to lead the festival parade. Another example is that Louise Berry announced that TV Channel 27 out of Springfield, Missouri was going to broadcast a 30 minute program previewing the 1969 festival. Local Eureka Springs musicians and entertainers were to appear on the show.
This front page article caught my eye. The estate of the late Miss Beulah Edge, formerly of Eureka Springs, was left to the United Nations. The estate consisted of $125,000 in cash and 50 oil wells situated on 4,000 acres of land in Roberts County, Texas. The short item states that Miss Edge had a PhD and that her parents were natives of Eureka Springs.
The classifieds are always interesting in the snapshot of the past that they provide. In 1969, one could purchase Avon products from Judy McClelland or buy a 1954 Ford (with radio) for $250.
Prolific writer Virginia Tyler penned three separate columns for the Times-Echo back then. The first reported that 19 had attended the meeting of the Ukulele Club at the New Orleans Hotel. The second column told how seven car loads of folks hiked the old railway line for the meeting of the Alpine Hiking Club. She mentioned that “devil-may-care individuals such as Janie Reeder and Bob Kappen” had walked across the tall trestle. She was disappointed that the old train tunnel was blocked by fencing that they couldn’t scale. Virginia Tyler’s third column was the long running Around Town and it told about George and Ruth Pinkley’s business, the Wardrobe Cleaning Company. She reported that several Birchfields worked there and that “These Ozark hills are full of Birchfields – they are all related, and are the salt of the earth.”
I ran across an interesting newspaper article published in the Joplin Globe on Valentine’s Day, 1934 concerning the infamous outlaws Bonnie & Clyde coming through this part of the Ozarks.
Forty year old bachelor farmer Joe Gunn told this story: “I had been to a grist mill southwest of Reed Spring and was walking back home on a side road when the bandits drove up beside me. There was a man and woman in the front seat and two men in the back seat of the red car. One of the men got out of the back seat and asked me the direction to Berryville. Before I had time to answer he had a gun on me and told me to jump in the back seat.” After he was in the car, Joe Gunn continued: “We saw some officers coming and drove into another side road and found we were hemmed in.”
Clyde Barrow is reported to have said, “We’ve got to let ’em have it, boys,” before picking up a submachine gun and shooting at Sheriff Seth Tuttle’s automobile. He emptied his weapon twice with Bonnie reloading it for him while Joe Gunn said he sat “frightened stiff” in the backseat.
Escaping after the gun battle, the criminals continued on to the edge of Berryville, where they stopped and asked a pedestrian for directions to Eureka Springs. Before the pedestrian could answer, he too was kidnapped. The article says that about eight miles south of Berryville, Clyde Barrow stopped the car, tweaked Bonnie’s nose and said, “There’s no use carryin’ this dead weight, baby.”
The two kidnapped men were freed and they walked back to Berryville without speaking. From Berryville, it took Joe Gunn all night to reach Reed Spring on foot. The story of Joe Gunn’s kidnapping was relayed with the help of a telephone operator because Mr. Gunn had never before used a telephone.
Bonnie Parker, 23, and Clyde Barrow, 25, were to be killed in a shootout with law enforcement three months later in Louisiana.