Strange States: Arkansas

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If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home. Peruse the whole Strange States series here.

Today we're heading to the birthplace of Wal-Mart, Johnny Cash, and Bill Clinton: the Natural State, Arkansas.

The Legend of Boggy Creek

Conventional cryptozoological wisdom has it that Bigfoot generally sticks to his Pacific Northwest stomping grounds. But for years now, people around the small town of Fouke, Arkansas, near the borders of Texas and Louisiana, have seen their own version of the legendary apeman lurking among the trees on the banks of Boggy Creek. Although sightings go back as far as the 1930s, the Fouke Monster became a mainstream sensation in 1971 when two families staying in a remote cabin claimed they were attacked by a 7-foot tall, 300-pound bipedal creature covered in reddish-brown fur. They were able to scare the thing off with their hunting rifles, but not before 25-year-old Bobby Ford was allegedly wounded by the beast, sending him to the hospital with animal-like scratches on his back. When police investigated the scene, they saw claw marks on the porch and odd, three-toed primate footprints in the area, but no concrete evidence of the creature was found. 

Intrigued by the stories of the monster (and looking to cash-in on the media attention), local advertising salesman Charlie Pierce borrowed $100,000 from a local trucking company to make 1972’s The Legend of Boggy Creek, a feature film with interviews and footage of authentic Fouke Monster witnesses, as well as reenactments of sightings, including the Bobby Ford incident. The film was marketed for drive-in theaters and Saturday matinees, and proved to be a big hit, bringing in over $20 million in box office receipts. (It has also been credited with inspiring The Blair Witch Project thanks to its docudrama storytelling structure.)

New sightings of the Fouke Monster around Boggy Creek crop up every few years, adding new elements to the legend.  Some subsequent witnesses say the creature has long, monkey-like arms, others say he’s 10 feet tall with glowing red eyes, and some accounts mention a horrible smell—like a cross between a skunk and a wet dog—that permeates the air whenever he’s spotted.  Of course there are those who believe these sightings are little more than a case of mistaken identity, with a bear being the most likely culprit.  But whether real or fictional, the legend of Boggy Creek continues to grow, and will undoubtedly do so for years to come.

Christ of the Ozarks

Nestled in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas is Eureka Springs, a picturesque Victorian village that draws tourists year-round to its many arts and music festivals, car shows, and gay-friendly events. The town is filled with unusual sights, like the Guinness Record-holding World’s Largest Tuned Musical Windchime, the ghost-infested Crescent Hotel, and at the top of nearby Magnetic Mountain, a monumental statue of Jesus, known as Christ of the Ozarks.

The oddly-shaped figure—many say it looks like a milk carton with a head and arms—is the work of eccentric sculptor Emmet Sullivan. Sullivan is something of a legend among roadside attraction enthusiasts as the designer of animal and dinosaur statues at a number of theme parks in Arkansas and South Dakota. But at a height of 67 feet, with an arm span 65 feet wide, and weighing in at over two million pounds, Christ of the Ozarks is undoubtedly Sullivan’s most ambitious piece.      

The $1 million monument was commissioned by Gerald L. K. Smith, a controversial figure in American politics during the 1930s and '40s, mostly known for his anti-Semitic rhetoric. Christ of the Ozarks became the centerpiece of Smith’s Sacred Projects, a 167-acre Christian theme park with religious attractions, that opened in 1968 and essentially gave birth to the tourist industry of Eureka Springs.

The attractions at Sacred Projects include full-scale dioramas of locations in the Holy Land, complete with Jesus’ tomb (post-resurrection), that give visitors a snapshot of life in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. There’s also the Bible museum with over 6000 Bibles in 625 languages and dialects, including a page from one of only 47 original Gutenberg Bibles in existence. A gallery with over 1000 pieces of religious artwork is on the grounds, as well as a replica of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, and even a section of the Berlin Wall. But the highlight of the park is The Great Passion Play, a live performance starring a cast of 150 actors and a menagerie of animals, that tells the story of Jesus. The play is held in a natural amphitheater that seats over 4000 people on a 550-foot stage, with sets that reach three stories high. Over the years, the play has been seen by over 7 million people, helping it earn the title of America’s #1 Attended Outdoor Drama. 

Although it’s still an important part of the Eureka Springs economy, the Great Passion Play has suffered from low attendance in recent years as other local attractions have become more popular. During its heyday in the 1970s, it welcomed 300,000 annual visitors, but last year’s attendance was just over 46,500.  In fact, the park was forced to shut down in December 2012, but was able to reopen a month later thanks to donations from the public.   

Have the scoop on an unusual person, place or event in your state?  Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States! 

Peruse the whole Strange States series here.

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September 9, 2013 - 12:00pm
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