The Arkansas JFK Experience Turns 50

by Larry Brannan ( 89 views 

Editor's note: You can access the digital version of this article at this link, which features several original photos from JFK's visit to Arkansas.

It was October 3, 1963.  The Arkansas State Fair and Livestock Show was underway, but this was not the typical Thursday afternoon crowd as estimates put the number jammed in to the fairgrounds in Little Rock at 40,000. There was electricity in the air in anticipation of a very special guest the crowd had come to see and hear.

The 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was due to arrive shortly to give a speech and shake hands with those lucky enough to get close to him.  He had been narrowly elected in November of 1960 over Republican challenger Richard M. Nixon and was in his third year of office when he came to Arkansas.

The Little Rock School District had emptied out allowing students a chance to see the president.  As a young ninth grader at Little Rock’s Pulaski Heights Junior High, I decided to make the trek to the fairgrounds for just that chance.  This president, then 46, was the youngest ever elected and had resonated with an adoring nation.  I wanted to see him and I was determined to shake his hand.

I don’t really remember how I got there or got home, but I do remember the huge crowd and how I tactically inched my way towards the restraining barrier.  Eventually, I was able to worm myself right up to the barricade and there I waited.

The arrival in a word for a young lad was awesome.  Two of the biggest and loudest helicopters I had ever seen or heard roared into the landing area. When the massive rotors stopped, out poured a large contingent of staff, Secret Service agents, politicians and the like.  Then President Kennedy emerged to a tumultuous ovation.

My first impressions were how tan he was compared to everyone else and how at ease he seemed. He gave a speech, which I hadn’t remembered, but my research says he spoke on “his vision for an economically prosperous new South.”

After it was over, Kennedy began to work the crowd packed along the restraining line.  Slowly he moved along shaking hands, visiting, and flashing a huge smile and his gregarious personality.  As he got closer to me, I’m sure my heart started to pound. He got so close I had my hand out extra-ready for him to shake. About ten people or so away from me, he stopped and just waved to the rest of us.  I remember looking him right in the eyes, and then he turned and departed toward his helicopter which would whisk him away to Air Force One that had landed and was parked at the Little Rock Air Force Base.

Seven weeks later he would be gone, leaving a nation in mourning and the course of history forever changed.

Kennedy’s visit to the State Fair and Livestock Show was important, especially since the Second Congressional District was then represented by Wilbur Mills, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and considered the most powerful man in Washington D.C. besides the president.  But the Little Rock visit was not the main reason Kennedy had come to the state.  He had flown in that morning to dedicate the new Greers Ferry Dam at Heber Springs in Cleburne County.

Construction on the massive dam and hydroelectric system had begun in 1959, and although the cost estimate was $60 million, the Army Corps of Engineers and its contractor had completed the project for $48 million.

Besides generating electricity, the dam regulates the flow of the Little Red River to control flooding. Of course damming the river created the beautiful 40,000-acre Greers Ferry Lake that has a shoreline of more than 340 miles, and by doing so, turned the area into a recreational paradise.

Chief of the Corps’ Engineering Division for the Greers Ferry Dam build was Carl Garner. One of the reasons he was chosen was because of his experience with other dam projects like Bull Shoals and Table Rock near Branson, Missouri.

An Arkansas native, Garner began his career with the Army Corps of Engineers shortly after graduating in 1938 from Arkansas College in Batesville, now called Lyon College.  He spent the next 58 years of his life working for the Corps and along the way was involved in projects in several states. He moved to New York at one point and spent two years working with a survey team whose task was to update maps along the Canadian border.

In 1959 at the age of 48, he moved to Heber Springs to begin work on the Greers Ferry project. It took two years to build, and construction on the 243-foot tall concrete structure was completed in December of 1962. And the day President Kennedy came to dedicate it, the person in charge of the ceremony was….Carl Garner.

Now 97, Garner said months had gone into planning the dedication event. They picked a beautiful spot near an overlook for the speaker stand, but he said that location was where the concrete mixing plant and rock crushers had been set up when building the 1,700-foot long dam.  All the debris, rock and equipment had to be removed and Garner says topsoil was hauled in and Bermuda grass seed was sewn.  Then a pipeline was installed to water the grass as it grew.  By dedication day Garner said, “It was the prettiest lawn you ever saw.

On top of that lawn, the Corps built a speaker stand that seated 36 VIP’s, some from other states.  In front of it, Garner’s team built another platform for the media and made it high enough so photographers could get a clear view over the crowd.

Garner wanted everything perfect for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and almost got it.  He said it was a beautiful day, but by dedication time he said the temperature had risen to 93 degrees. “Everybody like to have burned up,” he recalled.

A carnival-like atmosphere surrounded the event.  A choir from the U of A and its marching band were on-hand as well as a choir from Arkansas College (Lyon College).  Garner said the Young Men’s Business Club from Batesville came and barbequed chicken on site “with all the fixings” for lunch after the dedication ceremony. And according to a copy of the official program, there was even a talent show earlier in the morning. Garner also said a big tent had been erected where the president and VIP’s were to have lunch.

Kennedy and his entourage arrived by the helicopters a safe distance from the gathering and used a motorcade to travel to the dedication site.  The program started at 11:00 and Congressman Mills was the Master of Ceremonies.  The Arkansas Congressional delegation, all Democrats, was an amazing line up of power and longevity on Capitol Hill.  Besides Mills, Senators John L. McClellan and J. William Fulbright were present as were U.S. Representatives Oren Harris, James Trimble and E.C. Gathings, along with Governor Orval Faubus.

Faubus gave the official welcome and Senator McClellan introduced the president.  Almost immediately in his remarks, Kennedy acknowledged the power base of the Arkansas delegation.

“I suppose pound for pound, the Arkansas delegation in the Congress of the United States wields more influence than any other delegation of any of the other 49 states.  That could be either good or bad for the country, but in this case it happens to be good.  And I don’t know whether the people of Arkansas who may feel that Washington is far away and not every face may be friendly—I don’t know whether they realize that your delegation holds within its hands, in a very real sense, not only a good many important measures which affect this state, but measures which also affect this country,” he told the crowd.

He went on to praise each of the members of the Arkansas delegation individually, particularly Mills.

He said the most significant reason he was there was, “Because of your distinguished Congressman who is chairman of the most influential committee, the Ways and Means Committee of the House, which just ten days ago passed through by an overwhelming vote a tax reform and reduction bill which I think can do much for this state and other states in maintaining its steadily expanding economy.  It said in the NewYork Times this morning that if Congressman Mills suggested it, that the president would be glad to come down here and dedicate this dam and sing ‘Down By the Old Mill Stream,’ or any other request that was made—and I would be delighted!”

On a more serious note when reflecting on the dam, Kennedy said, “This dam represents not merely the time of construction, it represents almost 30 years of effort.  It was first authorized in part way back during the New Deal and then it was talked about afterwards and then finally the money was appropriated in the mid-fifties.  And now the dam is built in 1963 and next spring will begin to get power.  And the full impact of it will be felt by the sense of recreation and industry in 5, 10, 15, or 20 years.”

“And those people who say it is pork barrel—which is more wasteful: the waste of life and property and hope or a multi-purpose project which can be used by all our people?  Which is more wasteful:  to fail to tap the energies of that river, to let that water flood, to deny this chance for the development of recreation and power, or to use it wisely?  Which is more wasteful:  to let the land wash away, to let it lie arid, or to use it and use it wisely and to make those investments which will make this a richer state and country in the years to come?”

After the dedication Garner said the president ate lunch in the tent area before diving into the crowd to say hello and shake hands.  The whole event was on a strict time schedule because after lunch Kennedy was to tour the park, plus he had that huge crowd gathering in Little Rock.

At 1:00 his motorcade formed and Garner had the distinct honor of riding in the car with the president. He said he sat up front with two Secret Service agents and in the back along with the president was Senator McClellan and Governor Faubus.  Garner said he knew Kennedy liked to sail so he had arranged with Fairfield Bay Marina, to have “a bunch of sailboats on the lake near the dam.”  As they toured the area, Garner said the president wanted the radio turned on so he could get a score from the World Series between the New York Yankees and the L.A. Dodgers.

Along the way Garner said he and Kennedy, “Talked about Arkansas and about the lake.  He thought it was a beautiful lake.”  According to the official agenda, President Kennedy departed in his helicopter at 1:45.

When asked if he was glad when it was over Garner said, “Oh I was happy.  When you are responsible for something like that you worry about everything that is going to happen.  I didn’t sleep much the night before.”

After the dam was completed, Garner applied to stay on at the Heber Springs dam site as Resident Engineer of Operations and Maintenance.  He was given the job and for the rest of his Corps career that’s where he stayed.  He retired in 1996 at the unbelievable age of 81.

Garner said for a country boy who was raised on a farm near Batesville, “I could have never imagined all the things I’ve done in my career, especially meeting with the president.”

The visitor center near the dam is named after Garner and so is the street he lives on.  In 1970 Garner organized the first Greers Ferry Lake cleanup, which inspired the Great Arkansas Cleanup that started in 1979.  His annual lake cleanup “was used as model for Keep America Beautiful’s first National Public Lands Day” and has won several environmental awards.

For the 50th anniversary of the dam dedication next October 3rd, Garner says he plans to invite Kennedy’s daughter Caroline, who is now 54.  If she makes it, she will be able to see a bust of her father placed at the exact spot where he spoke.

Kennedy’s trip to Arkansas was one of his last pubic appearances before he was assassinated.

Garner said when President Kennedy’s funeral was held, “I sat by the television set and cried.  It was like losing one of my family almost.”

So did millions of other Americans, as well as that 9th grade young man who the president had waved at just weeks earlier.