The dredging of the new Arkansas River channel back in 1954 made some huge changes in the River Valley. The channel along with the lock and dam system virtually eliminated the threat of flood to residents of the river bottoms. It created a safer, more productive lane of commerce. Goods were much easier to import and export out of the River Valley. It was also responsible for separating a crescent shaped piece of Pope County from the rest of Pope County.
The Osage and Cherokee tribes of Native Americans called this area home and the fertile river bottoms attracted early settlers for the same reasons the Native Americans chose it. The waterway provided good soil for crops along with an abundance of wild game. All of the ingredients needed for people to prosper have always been available in this area.
As more settlers moved in the community encircled on three sides by the Arkansas River became known as “Holla Bend” named for one of it’s earliest residents, Holly Brown. Sometime around 1830 a crew began survey work in order to make an accurate map of the area and one letter was changed by mistake as the map came into production. A community name changed forever by one little typo.
In April of 1927 a massive flood from the then untamed Arkansas River destroyed the farming community and altered the river’s course. While the river levees didn’t help much in preventing the flood, they did keep the flood waters from quickly receding. This allowed sediments to form a blanket of sand — in some places more than eight feet deep. Because of the change in the river channel, flooding continued to be a threat and made it impossible for residents to make a living on the once-prosperous soil.
Holla Bend reverted to scrub timber and grass with little farming activity. Public interest from River Valley sportsman created a push to designate Holla Bend a National Wildlife Refuge, and in 1957, the efforts of these outdoorsmen and women came to fruition.
Now a part of 540 refuges across the nation, Holla Bend is a wildlife wonderland in the River Valley. Agriculture is again an important part of the refuge but the land is farmed to benefit wildlife as well as the local farmers. The farmers plant milo, soybeans, corn, and winter wheat. The soybeans and milo are harvested by the farmers for profit while the corn and wheat are left in the fields. The leftover wheat and corn provide much needed high carbohydrate food for the many species of wildlife that both migrate through and live year- round on the refuge.
In the winter the ponds fill up with rain, or in dry years, they are flooded by refuge employees, providing perfect stopovers for waterfowl. This is a duck’s version of a four-star hotel along with an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Holla Bend is a resting area for migratory birds that travel the central and Mississippi flyways during the spring and summer migrations. At least 240 different species of birds have been observed on the refuge ranging from the tiny ruby-throated hummingbird up to the majestic bald eagles. Waterfowl sometimes number into the tens of thousands on the refuge during peak migration dates.
Many different species of reptiles and amphibians call the refuge home along with a multitude of mammals. Probably the most popular animal on the refuge, especially in the eyes of sportsmen and women, are the whitetail deer.
The Refuge usually sells around 200 deer hunting permits per year. While the deer population is high, the relatively low annual deer harvest of between 30-60 deer — due in large part to the difficulty of killing a deer with archery tackle — guarantees that many bucks will reach maturity and maximum size.
For many years Holla Bend has been mostly on the radar of hunters, anglers, and a few die- hard bird watchers, but new management at Holla Bend saw the need for more public awareness. Current Refuge Manager Durwin Carter has a vision that goes beyond the people that already enjoy the refuge; he has set a goal of finding new ways to inform more River Valley citizens about the treasure of wild land that exists right under their collective noses.
“Our mission here on Holla Bend is to protect the natural heritage that we have and we do that by education and involvement.” Carter spoke with emotion as he continued.
“It’s really about the kids; we’re just borrowing the land from them and if we’re not finding ways to create an interest in nature, in wildlife, then I’m just wasting my time doing the things I do on the refuge today. We need future stewards of the land. I want the kids to be able to experience what I experience when I see a red-tailed hawk soaring above or even a leopard frog on a pond bank.”
“This is just a group of citizens that enjoy Holla Bend and want to find ways to make the public, specifically the kids, aware of it.” Carter went on to talk about some of projects and events that ‘The Friends of Holla Bend’ had planned and implemented.
“This was the second year for Bow Jam and we doubled the number of kids that came out to participate. The members made wooden bows for all the kids, had target shooting, a flint knapping demonstration, and a table with antlers and furs for the kids to look at and touch.”
“The group had a nature hay ride this summer and they are planning more things like this. Part of my job is to help them make Holla Bend attractive to the public, to the kids. Getting them involved and interested in the natural world helps insure the future of places like Holla Bend.”
Carter captured the essence of what Holla Bend is with one succinct statement. “I work here, this is where I make my living, but Holla Bend belongs to the citizens. I just want them to be aware of the special and interesting place that it is.”