Wednesday, July 19, 2017
Prince Fred on the Geological Survey Map
I just returned from a short trip to New York City. I had an appointment late on Monday afternoon, and had taken advantage of circumstances to plan an overnight with Rich, Katie and young Ruby in Red Hook. It had been a while since I was there. Rich, my eldest, is a man of various profitable skills, among them expertise as a sound-recording engineer. Still, I was taken by surprise when he asked me whether I would be willing to spend a while recording my reminiscences of some family experiences of his earliest years.
What he wanted me to talk about specifically was “Prince Fred,” also known as “Prince Fred’s Knob”. This is the place name for a small, conical mountain in Marion County, Arkansas, now a part of the wilderness above the Buffalo National River. I can trace this name back only to the 1890s. From a long-defunct title deed for the forty-acre plot of land I owned for some years in the 1960s and 1970s I can see that it was part of a larger parcel recognized in 1892 as a valid mining claim by the Prince Fred Placer Mining Corporation—an enterprise of which I have been able to find no other record whatsoever. I know that there were some active lead and zinc mines in the Ozarks in earlier times, but Prince Fred cannot have been one of them. There was some modest evidence on the property of an ancient feint at excavation, including perhaps a single dynamite blast, but to label the results a mine would be to allow the imagination to run riot.
No, for us Prince Fred was simply a wild, remote, beautiful and challenging place where over a period of several summers Joan and I, I together with two small children and a shifting crew of undergraduate friends, pitted ourselves against the elements in the ostensible effort to erect a log house. As parents we have long been convinced that the adventurousness, the practical competence, and the wanderlust of our two elder children flow directly from this early experience. They think so too.
miles of green
In my own childhood years I had always vaguely hoped that I might own a piece of my own land in “my” mountains, but it was only when I was married with children and a professor of medieval literature at an institution twelve hundred miles away—that is to say, when the hope became entirely impractical and quixotic—that I acted upon it. My beloved aunt Louise, who at that time was working for the Baxter Bulletin in Mountain Home, Arkansas, knew of my land-lust. One day a man walked into the newspaper office with a “for sale” ad: forty wilderness acres, two thousand dollars, in a virtually inaccessible part of the neighboring county—Marion. That was the first and only time in my life that I enjoyed the shady advantage of insider trader’s information.
Prince Fred was perhaps six miles from our old home farm, from which its top was clearly visible, but to get even near it by motor vehicle you had to drive for probably thirty. It is in the high ground above the river-front that briefly in the 1990s became nationally famous in the Whitewater Land Development Deal featuring among others Bill and Hillary Clinton. The Ozarks are, from the geological point of view, very ancient. Geologists conjecture that in eons past they might have been the size of today’s Rockies, worn down like old boot heels over millennia of mysterious abrasion. Sometimes from a distance the hills present an aspect of strange regular verticality like a pencil point—the shape favored by Al Capp in the old “Li'l Abner” comics and in other hillbilly cartoons. My aunt pointed it out to me from the road to our house—a misty green pyramid in a vastness of misty green. I could snap up a good chunk of the far side of it for the pittance of my life’s savings. Today I marvel that my younger self was capable of such an act of brilliant improvidence.
In yesterday’s interview we didn’t get all that far into the story. The moment I began thinking about it, details came flooding back, but along with many uncertainties of dates and narrative sequences, anecdotes, and personalities. These will need sorting out. The interview will have to be continued and so also, perhaps, the narrative in this blog. But I can tell you the ending in advance. Sometimes our government does good things. In the early Seventies the Buffalo was declared a “national river”—our nation’s first. The valley side along its confluence with the White River became wilderness parkland. The Government began a process of forced purchase of all private lands within the proposed park. I stalled for a while but didn’t even think about seriously resisting. They were compensating at a rate of a hundred dollars an acre. That means I doubled my money—almost as good as the Whitewater investors would do—and still ended up co-owner (along with three hundred million fellow citizens, of course) of one of the most gorgeous tracts of land God ever made.