About the Area: Greers Ferry Dam & Lake

The flow of the Little Red River was uncontrolled during the first half of the 20th century, which resulted in almost yearly flooding and compounded flooding problems further downstream along the White River. Beginning in 1916, efforts were made to construct a dam on the Little Red River to provide flood control. After years of failed projects, Congress passed the Flood Control Act in 1938, authorizing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build dams on most of the country's free-flowing rivers. North Arkansas's White River basin, which includes the Little Red River, was among the chosen waterways.

Shortly after the passage of the Flood Control Act, engineers began surveying the White River and its tributaries for locations to build a series of high, concrete dams. Several locations were selected, and in 1944, the first of five dams that would eventually be built in the White River basin was completed at Norfork. The Norfork Dam was followed by the Bull Shoals Dam in 1951 and Table Rock Dam in 1959. In 1960 construction began simultaneously on the Beaver and Greers Ferry dams. Greers Ferry Dam, named after a ferry operated on the Little Red River near the dam site, was completed in 1962 and was dedicated on October 3, 1963, by President John F. Kennedy, in what would be his one of his last major public appearances before his assassination. The concrete dam measures 1,704 feet in length and stands 243 feet above the stream bed of the Little Red River. It cost $46.5 million and created a reservoir of between 30,000 and 40,000 acres, depending on water level, and over 340 miles of shoreline in Cleburne and Van Buren counties. The dam's primary function is flood control, but it also serves as a hydroelectric power plant. Greers Ferry Lake, created as a result of the dam, is a popular recreational destination.

Arkansans in High Places

It was no coincidence that Arkansas got funding for all of these flood control projects—the dynamic trio of Senator John McClellan, Senator J. William Fulbright, and Representative Wilbur Mills chaired some of the most important committees in the U.S. Congress during this time period. McClellan, a U.S. Senator from 1942 to 1977 (longer than any other Arkansan), was the Chair of the Committee on Appropriations and ranked second in seniority when he died in 1977. Fulbright was a U.S. Senator from 1944 to 1974 and chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Mills, a U.S. Representative from 1939 to 1977, was the longest-serving chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee (writes policies on Social Security, Medicare, and other social service programs).

These powerful Arkansans also made the resort community of Eden Isle a reality for businessman Herbert L. Thomas, Sr.

Herbert L. Thomas, Sr.

Herbert Leon Thomas, Sr., was born in the Ashley County community of Lone Prairie on February 14, 1899. Times were hard when Thomas was a child, and insurance impressed him as a business that could withstand periods of economic decline. So in 1923 he started the Mutual Assessment Company, and by 1925 the company had gained more than 10,000 policy owners, mostly from small towns in Arkansas. Things were going well, so Thomas incorporated the First Pyramid Life Insurance Company of America. The company headquarters were in one room of the Southern Trust Building at the SE corner of 2nd and Center streets in downtown Little Rock. First Pyramid continued to grow, and in 1937 the company purchased the entire Southern Trust Building and renamed it the Pyramid Life Building. The company remained in this location until spring 1980, when First Pyramid moved to a building in west LR. However, the old Southern Trust Building at 2nd & Center is still called Pyramid Place today.

In 1977 First Pyramid achieved a milestone when its policies swelled to comprise more than $1 billion of insurance. By 1982 the company was licensed to operate in 25 states, owned 3 subsidiaries (Eden Isle Enterprises, First Pyramid Mortgage Company, and Computronics, Inc.), and had assets in excess of $100 million.

In addition to his work at First Pyramid, Herbert Thomas wore several other hats. Thomas was Chairman of the Little Rock Municipal Water Commission from 1937-40 and Chairman of the State Highway Audit Commission from 1951-53. He chaired the Senior Advisory Committee of the State Chamber of Commerce and while in this position, helped form the First Arkansas Development Finance Corporation, a nonprofit charged with financing industrial expansion in Arkansas. While serving on the Advisory Council for the Small Business Administration, Thomas appeared before the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking and Currency to promote passage of the Small Business Investment Act of 1958.

Conscious of the importance of education for financial growth, Thomas served on the University of Arkansas's Board of Trustees from 1943-51. He was instrumental in the admission of the first black student to the University of Arkansas School of Law in 1948 (Silas H. Hunt). Thomas was also involved in banking—he acquired City National Bank of Ft. Smith in the mid-1950s as well as Citizens Bank of Booneville in 1963.

Although he never ran for political office himself, Thomas was heavily involved in politics. He had a very close relationship with J. William Fulbright and headed his initial Senate campaign after convincing Fulbright to run for an office higher than Arkansas's governorship. Furthermore, Thomas figured prominently in President John F. Kennedy's 1963 visit to Heber Springs for the dedication of Greers Ferry Dam and Lake.

And Thomas was also interested in real estate…in 1961 he purchased 500 acres of land near Heber Springs for the development of a resort community called Eden Isle.

Eden Isle

The plans for Greers Ferry Dam had been in the works for years before the structure was actually built. After the Flood Control Act was passed in 1938, engineers started surveying for the proposed dam. But the dam wasn't actually completed until 1962…so in the meantime, people had been buying up large chunks of bottom land in hopes that they could sell it to the government at a profit or end up with lake front property (after the completion of a dam). After so many years, most individuals gave up on these notions and sold out. Plus, for those wanting lake front property, it was a gamble to buy land around the proposed dam site because no one knew exactly where the lake would be or what the water level would be…until Herbert Thomas came along…

Thomas knew Rep. Mills and Senators McClellan and Fulbright and was able to find out the location of the lake and its water level, so he knew exactly which land to purchase and when to purchase it.

Thomas bought property historically owned by the Estes family and known as "Estes Hill." It was also the first location of the Heber Springs Airport, so some people referred to it as the "old airport."

Because no private entity can own an island in a Corps of Engineers-controlled lake, Thomas had to build a causeway that would always stay above the lake level so that Eden Isle would not technically be classified as an island. And Thomas had to construct this causeway before the lake was filled because he wouldn't have been allowed to build a causeway in a Corps of Engineers lake either. This all lends support to the fact that Mr. Thomas knew exactly what the water levels would be ahead of time, which took major political clout on his part. It is also rumored that the height of the dam was adjusted to make the water level just right for Thomas' real estate development.

After the lake was filled, Eden Isle ended up being about 400 acres in size because some of the land was submerged or located just beyond the causeway on the Heber Springs side.

Thomas immediately began selling lots on his "island paradise" of Eden Isle and in 1962 constructed the Red Apple Inn and restaurant. The Inn actually opened for business in 1963 but burned to the ground in 1964 after a fire started in the kitchen. The Inn was rebuilt using the same boulder foundation and in 1965 reopened for business. No expense was spared on Eden Isle—fourteen miles of roads were paved throughout the development and then covered with dirt and gravel to blend in with the natural surroundings. The Island had all utilities—water, sewage, electricity, telephone, and postal service. In addition, there was a beautiful 9-hole golf course, swimming pool, tennis courts, and a private marina. Lots initially sold for $3,000 and up, and homes sold for $12,000 and up. In 1965 developers estimated that a retiree would need to have an income of $400 a month to live comfortably on Eden Isle.

Planning and construction restrictions were to be enforced by a community corporation, so that homes would blend into the landscape. Houses were supposed to be relatively small and employ native stone, wood, and glass construction with a tile roof. First Pyramid provided an architect and maintained a full-time engineer and construction force. The developers also hired full-time landscape architects to ensure that native trees and plants were protected and that yards were attractive, yet low-maintenance for individual homeowners.

Herbert and his wife, Ruby, were very involved in the actual construction of homes and management of the restaurant at the Red Apple Inn. The Red Apple Inn consistently enjoyed high national ratings for food, lodging, and service. People knew the area because of the Red Apple Inn—not because of Greers Ferry Lake or Heber Springs. In 1978 the Red Apple Executive Conference Center opened in a new addition to the Red Apple Inn and accommodated groups of up to 120 people.

In 1980 Thomas resigned as CEO and Chairman of the Board of First Pyramid Life Insurance Co. of America. He focused on the development of Eden Isle from that point until his death in March 1982 at the age of 83. Thomas' 3-story Eden Isle home, called "Northwinds," still stands today. Although property owners no longer adhere to construction restrictions today, most homes are constructed with at least some attempt to blend into their surroundings. And times have changed—some homes on Eden Isle now sell for $2 million (and up). However, Eden Isle remains a quiet, upscale resort community in the foothills of the Ozarks, just as Herbert Thomas envisioned it.