Petit Jean State Park.. A Living Museum

June 1, 2012 | By More

Legends abound on Petit Jean Mountain; from tales of prehistoric Indians and early pioneers to romances lost and found. You may know the story of the French girl, Petit Jean, who disguised herself as a boy to secretly accompany her sweetheart, an early French explorer, to the mountain where she is buried. Then there is the remnant of a 150-year-old log cabin at the entrance to park’s Cedar Creek trail that stands as a testament to the hardy pioneers who came to live and die on the mountain.

But did you know that in the early 1900’s a contract physician for the Fort Smith Lumber company fell so much in love area with the area around Cedar Creek Canyon he campaigned to make Petit Jean Mountain a National Park 12 years before it became Arkansas’s first State Park in 1923? Or, that the park’s rustic lodge was named after the country’s first National Park Service Director, Stephen Mather, in memory of that vision?

Maybe you already know that the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), called President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Tree Army,” built the park but here’s something you many not know. The CCC workers there were not all “young” men, but unemployed WWI veterans approaching middle age by the time the park was built in 1933. These men earned a whopping “$1 a day and all you can eat” for a hard day’s labor busting rocks and felling trees to make the park’s signature log cabins, mostly by hand under harsh conditions.

If you use a little imagination, you can still sit hear the men, most dead now, talking and laughing in the old CCC dining room or imagine them huddling by the massive stone fireplace to keep warm on a cold night.

The old rock fireplace wall is all that is left of the old CCC building that greets visitors near the park’s entrance, but the original CCC dining room is still a central feature of the park’s beautifully renovated Mather Lodge. The Lodge reopened in May after a $4.3 million renovation that closed the lodge in December 2011.

Mather Lodge has tripled in size but maintains its rustic ambiance. Designed in Adirondack-style park architecture with tall vaulted ceilings held aloft by towering timbers, rich wood floors and period-appropriate furniture and lighting, visitors are now treated with a full view of the park’s spectacular vistas without leaving the building.

For nostalgia, the CCC dining room’s log walls are a focal point of the lobby which is reached by the new entrance with a grand “porte cochere” covered drive-through for convenience.

Around the corner from the lobby and down a hallway with wall-to-wall windows facing west toward the canyon, the lodge’s rustic old lobby and CCC dining room are still intact. Furnishings in all areas were built to the specifications of the original furniture designs so the look is still uniquely Petit Jean.

The old 60’s era dining room and kitchen is almost doubled in size and diners are treated to unobstructed views as the outdoor porch in front of the old dining room was removed to make room for added seating and a gleaming buffet station. The kitchen is moved to a new location to accommodate a state-of –the art food prep area and a new electronically wired meeting room for up to 50 guests. The meeting room is available for banquets and wedding receptions and Wi-Fi is available throughout the Lodge and nearby cabins.

While the menu has not been significantly changed and favorites like chicken fried steak and Rueben sandwiches will still be served, the menu has several new dishes including rib-eye steaks, Big Rock burgers, catfish and salads.

Convenient public restrooms are located in the lobby and a new handicapped accessible outdoor pool complete with a waterfall feature is available for overnight guests. Guest rooms at the lodge are also refurbished with new bathrooms, beautiful hardwood floors and flat screen TVs.

Outdoor accessible public restrooms were added near the pool area due to its proximity to one of the park’s most popular hiking trails.

In describing the new facility, Petit Jean Park Superintendent, Wally Scherrey said, “This is like a living museum!” Petit Jean is Arkansas’ first of 27 State Parks and was the inspiration of Dr. T.W. Hardison and a lasting tribute to the men and women in the CCC, he added.

Arkansas State Park Director Greg Butts said, “Our State Parks are in the memory business” and described the lodge’s architectural vision as “appreciating the old inspires the new.”

Funds for the renovation came from Amendment 75, Arkansas’s 1/8cent Conservation Tax, and two grants through the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, said Butts.

To increase future funding for State Parks, the Arkansas State Transportation Department recently issued a new specialty license plate featuring a picture of old Mather Lodge, said Butts. A portion of the proceeds from sale of this license will fund State Park programs. Still, over 50% of the State Park budget comes from fees taken in the parks, he added.

Naming Mather Lodge an “Arkansas historic treasure,” Public Information Officer of Arkansas State Parks Joan Ellison said, “I love it that this lodge, like all the other Arkansas State Parks facilities, belongs to each and every citizen of our great state!”

To make cabin or lodge reservations, call (800) 264-2462 or e-mail the cabin registration office atmather.lodge@ arkansas.gov.

 

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