Eva “Granny” Henderson’s cabin, dating to the early 1900s, sits along the Buffalo River. Today, it’s a popular stop for travelers.
PONCA, Ark. — Tired with age, the cabin’s newspaper-lined walls tell of another time. The print speaks, of course, but so does the papers’ presence: Of the day when they were likely hung by Eva Barnes Henderson, the cabin’s owner, to keep out the wind.
Decades have passed since those papers were placed. But while the wind still whispers, swapping secrets with the leaves, it’s been decades since Granny — as she was affectionately known — has been to her beloved cabin.
But she didn’t ever want to leave.
One of the last private landowners in the Buffalo River Valley, Granny was pushed from her property when the Buffalo was designated as the United States’s first national river. In 1978, she left her home.
Despite the passage of time, the cabin still stands. Today, it’s an Ozarks ghost full of nothing but memories — and offers a snapshot of a way of life most today have never known.
Starting its life
Granny’s cabin came to be in the early 1900s. After her 16-year-old self married husband Frank, the couple settled on the riverside tract. Then came the cabin, which was built from a lot of hard work, and the native timber and stone found nearby.
Despite her claim to be a descendant of U.S. President James Buchanan, Granny’s story wasn’t one of luxury. Instead, her hands stayed busy with a hard-work life that today draws curious fascination. But back then, it was just life.
Walking behind a team of mules, Granny helped clear fields with Frank; buildings were raised, and crops planted, to cultivate a better tomorrow. Instead of running water, the Hendersons initially utilized the quarter-mile-away Buffalo for their needs. “I don’t mind it,” said Granny, in a 1974 article in the Big Basin Herald, of fetching water. “Never give it much of a thought, except to just get it done.”
Later, they introduced some modern convenience by hiring a “water witch” to use a divining rod to find water in their backyard. It was a challenge, especially after a spot was found — barricaded by solid rock.
“But Frank wouldn’t let them give up,” recalled Granny in an interview for the Springfield News-Leader in 1978. “‘I’ve had it witched and I been guaranteed water,’ he told those welldiggers. ‘You’re not a gonna quit it now. Well, sir, they had to go down 65 feet — had to blast most of the way through that rock. But we got our water.’”
And it was a life where Granny could love her animals — or, perhaps in her mind, friends. “…My grandma bought me and my sister a calf apiece when we were just little kids,” recalled Granny in 1978. “‘Now you take care of these and don’t depend on the boys to help you,’ she told us. And I’ve loved cattle ever since.”
Designating the Buffalo
When Frank passed away in 1959, Granny didn’t leave the cabin. But more change was lurking just ahead, beginning with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’s desire to dam up the Buffalo in the early 1960s.
“But neighboring farmers and cattlemen up and down the river itself seemed to have a different feeling,” recorded The Ozarks Mountaineer in May 1972. “Most of them, we discovered, wanted the river ‘left just like it is,’ so they could continue to work the land most of them had inherited.”
Around that time, an alternative plan began floating around: The prospect of designating the Buffalo as the country’s first national river. A years-long debate ensued over the river’s future, resulting in widespread attention as referenced in the Mountaineer:
“Events piled up. Rallies by both sides were held. The conservationists scheduled more float trips and outings. The BRIA (Buffalo River Improvement Association) and some of the landowners who supported the dams took measures to stop use of the river. The stream was denounced … as “stagnant, dry much of the time” not fit for preservation. Trees were cut along the stream to block boaters. Barbed wire was strung across the water.”
Tension grew: In 1965, some of that barbed wire was strung across the Buffalo ahead of a publicized canoe race, cutting at least one of the canoeists. The same day, shots were fired upon other floaters. Eventually, even individuals opposed to both the dam and national park plans became convinced that the latter was the lesser of two evils.
A choice was made in 1965, when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, in his last term of office, wrote the Corps of Engineers and stated that their plans for damming the river were “unacceptable.” His reaction halted the dam project; the Corps stated that it was not their policy to continue with projects opposed by governors in affected states.
But the national park idea continued. After legislation was proposed to Congress, the project received a major boost in 1971 when the Arkansas Parks and Tourism Commission voted to give 2,280 acres of land — comprising the Buffalo River State Park and the Lost Valley State Park — to the National Park Service.
The bill passed on Jan. 31, 1972 and was signed into law on March 1.
Back at Granny’s
During those years of controversy, Granny was still at her cabin. She knew of the Buffalo’s allure; after all, she’d seen visitors come past her place for years. “Sometimes (tourists) camp here on the shoal, and I hear them laughing and talking as they prepare their meals,” she said in 1974. “I enjoy the company of the floaters, I guess, but don’t particularly miss them when things settle back to normal again.”
But soon, normal was never to be again.
Life began to change shortly after the Buffalo’s new designation. Part of the plan was to reclaim sections of the river’s surroundings as “wilderness areas” even though they had already been developed.
“What really bothers me is they’re gonna let it all go wild again,” said Granny in 1977 to a National Geographic reporter. “I know some folks like that idea. But, lan’ sakes, I can remember helpin’ clear these fields and hammerin’ up many o’ these buildings. Things you work that hard doin’, seems t’me, out to be allowed to last forever.”
But besides that, in connection with “new” Buffalo National River, the government was authorized to acquire nearly 96,000 acres of land. According to an article in the Springfield Daily News, about 35,000 of that total was already owned, or was optioned, by the National Park Service by December 1974.
Granny was one of the people “government men,” as she put it, visited with about selling out. “They come out here one morning while I was turning the cows out,” she recalled in 1978. “They said they aimed to buy my land, and asked me what I thought of it. ‘I don’t think much of it,’ I told ‘em. I said it kinda short, because I meant it short.”
After all, “movin’ out ‘o here would mean givin’ up all I’ve got, all I’ve ever had,” said Granny in 1977, a sentiment echoing something she said years earlier in another interview: “I’ve never known anything else.”
Some might wonder why Granny couldn’t simply live out the rest of her life at the homestead. Indeed, she did have that opportunity: But a key provision of the lease agreement stated that only one domesticated animal would be allowed per person on the land. Surrounded by her cows, chickens and Bobbie the Dog, that stipulation was too much for Granny to bear.
In 1978, 87-year-old Granny sold her 167 acres of land and took up residence with her daughter, Arbie, up on the hill.
Granny reportedly received a sizable sum for her land. But money is pointless when it can’t buy happiness: Happiness that, perhaps, was found in a life that could never be again.
Just a few months after her move, Granny passed away.
The cabin today
Inside the cabin
Today, a tiny trail — in some places, no bigger than a cow path — leads to the cabin. Tucked among the trees, it reminds of a life and legacy that, like the cabin, is fading away.
No doors or windows shelter it from the elements; a pile of dry, cracked leaves fill a corner. Protesting with every step, the floorboards threaten noisily; a light jump shakes the entire cabin.
Remnants from another life
Little touches, however, remind that this was once a home. Patches of floral wall paper brighten space near the once-was wood stove, a metal centerpiece of which only remnants remain.
Outside, a root cellar gradually disappears; another building, perhaps once a chicken house, slowly collapses with age. A former fence lies twisted just a few feet from the well, today sealed off with a concrete cap.
But, like the newspapers tacked up in the attic, the cabin’s presence simply shares a story and serves as a landmark. Tourists — traveling by canoe, on foot or by horse — often stop there. Some of those people know who she was: An independent, competent woman, despite the fact that she never drove a car, flew in an airplane, or even had electricity.
But even those who don’t know can perhaps appreciate how she felt about her area of the Buffalo, voiced in 1974:
“My lands! — the colors in the hollows sure were pretty here, and not too long back, either, because the land is so sheltered and all. And it’s that sense of gratitude for life — and inward peace — that helps us. Without those things, there’s no happiness anywhere, do you think?”
Finding the cabin
Granny Henderson’s cabin is located along the Buffalo National River. Be warned: It is a trek to find the cabin, which can be reached on horseback, by canoe or on foot. The scenery is beautiful, but the trip is considerable.
For more information, call the Tyler Bend Visitor Center at 870-439-2502.
A Place of the Heart, OzarksWatch, Suzie Rogers, 1995
After a lifetime in Buffalo valley, Eva Henderson moving ‘up on hill,’ Springfield News-Leader, Mike O’Brien, 1978
America’s Little Mainstream, National Geographic, Harvey Arden, 1977
Buffalo River landowners voice strong opposition to ‘wilderness,’ Springfield Daily News, Bob Ross, 1974
Buffalo River plan purposely vague, Sunday News and Leader, Susan Croce Kelly, 1975
Issue settled, emotions not in wake of Buffalo River Controversy, The Ozarks Mountaineer, Charles McRaven, 1972
Memories of “Granny” flow along Buffalo River, Springfield News-Leader, Bob Linder, 2011
President’s descendant is real mountaineer, Big Basin Herald, Eric Allen, 1974