The double-yellow highway stripes remain unbroken for mile after mile as Highway 19 winds through the rugged Ozark hills. In an area blessed by geography, the message is clear: Slow down and look around.
Sparkling at the foot of the hills are the Current River and the Jacks Fork River, which make up the Ozark Scenic National Riverways, the nation’s first designated scenic river. It’s been protected as a national park since 1964.
The heart of the park is Eminence, Mo., a town that bills itself as “The Canoe Capital of the World” and boasts of having more rental canoes (712) than residents (548).
“When the pretty weather comes, even if it’s in February, they come to canoe,” says Brad Williams, president of Eminence Security Bank. “The rivers and the hills and the Ozark scenery are what make Eminence. If you have to be close to malls and bright lights, you won’t like it. You’re 120 miles from it.”
Nature’s resources have always served the town, first as a lumber boomtown and now as an outdoorsman’s paradise. Each year, 1.5 million canoeists, campers, fishermen, hikers, hunters, and horseback riders drift through Eminence.
“Tourists have always come here,” says Edna Staples, 93, owner of Harvey’s Circle B Campground, one of 15 campgrounds, motels, and bed and breakfasts.
In the 1930s, well-heeled folks came to fish the rivers on johnboats with fishing guides and cooks, Staples says. Her late husband, Harvey, built three of the flat-bottom boats. In the 1950s, canoes became popular.
The crystal-clear rivers are fed by 58 springs, including Big Spring, the largest freshwater spring in the United States with an average flow of 276 million gallons per day. At Blue Spring, the water is so clear you can see the bottom 90 feet below.
“It’s typical of an Ozarks stream, and that’s why it was chosen to be set aside to protect and to interpret the culture of the Ozarks,” says William Beteta, management assistant of the Ozark Scenic National Riverways. Sixty-one historic structures, including mills and farmsteads, are within the park’s 134 river miles. The rivers meander through the Mark Twain National Forest, lush with pines, and among 300 caves. Wild horses roam the area.
“I’ve floated a lot of streams and this is as nice as you’re going to find,” says Bill Dauer, 50, of St. Louis, who discovered the Current and Jacks Fork with his college buddies 30 years ago. He’s been back every summer since and coordinates a father and son float trip of 50 people from across the United States.
“Some of the kids are now 23 and 24, but they come back with their dads every year. It’s just a special time,” Dauer says. “We set up tents all around like a city. We flip over one of the canoes and use it like a 17-foot-long buffet table. The trip is relaxing and the town is unchanged, except for a new restaurant here or there.”
That timeless, slow-poking character of Eminence is its charm, says Dauer, and what locals cherish and protect.
After living away for decades, Winnie Weber, 67, returned home and bought the 1923 Hyde Building, a former drugstore on Main Street. She spent $1 million restoring the old-fashioned soda fountain and restaurant, now called Winfield’s, with its tin ceilings, ornate belt-driven ceiling fans, and copper-plated front walls.
“I came here as a high school girl, and I’d have a pineapple Pepsi and peanut butter and crackers, and I was living high,” Weber says. “I just had to save the one place that I knew would serve pineapple Pepsi.”
Her sister and former Eminence mayor, Paulette Williams, says, “You look out in the fields here and see 40 varieties of wildflowers. That’s why we have families coming here for 60 years.”