Floating the lower Current River on a tube did not catch the imaginations of any river rats until a group of high school boys from Doniphan jumped on innertubes at Deer Lodge and headed to the tie yard in town…back in the mid ’50s.
Or so it seems to John Bingham, a 1958 graduate of Doniphan High School. He doesn’t remember details, other than not recalling anyone tubing before he and his school buddies tried it. Back then it was the norm to tip the tube, as though inside a giant cup, to sip the cool clear water of the Current, when the soda was gone, that is. And if a soda tube flipped, there were enough floaters along who could dive and retrieve the bounty, once even acquiring an extra, to make it a case of 25 identical bottles. (Bingham’s soda tube was an Ozarkian version of the cooler tube – dare I say ‘redneck’ version? It was a tractor tube covered with a tarp that cradled the drinks).
Later, as a businessman in town, Bingham loaned tubes to any who asked, if they stopped by his service station, Johnny’s Mobil Station, located in the vicinity of the present-day E&S Pharmacy. There were no outfitters back then. He didn’t realize he was the forerunner of what would eventually become a major tourist attraction in an area that outlived its fame as the railroad tie capital of the world.
I am a transplant to Ripley County. My parents, Cal and Evelyn Pearson, made the decision to exit south from St. Louis with me and my siblings Glenn and Phyllis in June of 1969. Summer visits made to the area before the move always included a trip to Current River, either to Float Camp or to an area I have lost track of just across the state line in Arkansas, close to the ferry at Pitman, or to Big Springs, a favorite spot even if Dad did make me get in a boat and take a ride sometimes. Tubes were part of the images I remember, though I didn’t make a river float trip until I became a Ripley Countian. (As youngsters, my brother and I did tube Logan Creek with our uncle Jimmy Bizzell as the guide). My first tube purchase was from Butler Tire Shop on State Street in town, back when there were parking meters and diagonal parking lines on downtown streets.
Early floats on Current River included cousins gathered for vacation at various grandparents’ homes. The Pearsons on A Highway, the Halls just across the state line on Snake Road, and the Bizzells, adjacent to their grocery on 160 East, hosted their rowdy grandkids, deeply etching memories complete with fish fries, homemade ice cream, cool drinks of well water from a basin with a dipper, trips to the outhouse, baths in washtubs, parental “suggestions” not to slam the screen door, jars of lightning bugs and snipe hunts.
Bingham did not believe Deer Lodge was more than just a place to get in the river, but by the time I was running around the area, there was a store there, just beyond the rock at the end of the path that led from Float Camp to that favorite launching spot. My first canoe trip was with a cousin from Indiana, but I can’t remember where we rented the canoe, if we rented it. For some reason the notorious root wads didn’t make an appearance on my stage of memories until that canoe trip. (Jeff, what does that say about letting you sit in the back?!)
Later, as an adult, I would rent a tube from Floyd and Sue Lynxwiler, operating out of a building they built on the edge of town, their leap into the floating business before opening Hobo’s, now Rocky River Resort. Much later I would work a couple of summers at RRR, helping locals and tourists alike relive their own early memories and create new ones, with Current River as the backdrop.
Who could have foreseen that, thirty years after my turbulent arrival to Ripley County, turbulent because it was the eve of my senior year in high school, Frank Winford andI would count on Current River to launch a kayaking business, KC’s on the Current, at a location on Y Highway that played a role in my early river memories? See-Lou’s originated at that location; it was the last stop before arriving at Float Camp, a stop for ice, RC Cola, probably bologna and chips. Sometimes it was the first stop after leaving the river for ice cream and maybe a chocolate or grape soda.
KC’s branched out to become a concessionaire of the US Forest Service. Oddly, I had briefly served campers in the same location as a college student, though in a different capacity. To help in the summer outreach ministry of First Baptist Church, I had hosted a children’s Sunday School Class in the little bandstand that used to be near campsite # 16. How neat it has been to realize that our river, along with its recreational options, is responsible for endless connections and reconnections of folks we know, or folks who know folks we know. Sometimes we even stumble on a relative! It is curious to hear how visitors discover Ripley County; it isn’t always due to surfing the net. The stories and connections abound.
One day, as I worked with broom and trash bag in hand, an elderly gentleman approached and told me the story of the house that used to sit on the spot where the pavilion is at Float Camp. It was a house he had lived in. How I wish I had put down that broom and trash bag, rummaged around for a scrap of paper and a pen, and recorded the story he shared that afternoon. As one of KC’s owners, I had the chance to meet Seeward Chailland, of See-Lou’s Grocery and See-Lou’s Country Music Theater. It took quite a bit of dynamite to make the site suitable for the big yellow building that housed the first KC’s on the Current.
It has come full circle. KC’s now greets tubers and campers at the place where the Lynxwilers initiated their seasonal business, next to Riverfront Park and the T.L. Wright Memorial Boat Landing, the site that was the hugest tie yard ever to this city girl who visited regularly during her childhood. (I vaguely remember the depot, but I distinctly remember the smell of the ties.) Kathy and Stan Schultz and Cindy and Rodney Moore are creating new waves in that business, expanding the original vision. Winford and I still work at KC’s, enjoying reconnections with customers who return summer after summer, some who have become friends.
A brief “connection” with John Bingham at McDonald’s during breakfast was the initial spark for this reminiscence. Sparks for stories were going in every direction, but the flames were dampened to contain them, otherwise a wildfire with no boundaries would have engulfed the author. She welcomes additional sparks as she continues her jaunt down memory lane, warmed by the stories as they unfold.