Turner Bend Turns 100

Angry Dave's

The following story was just released by Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism:

Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

The Turner Bend Store as it looks today.
The Turner Bend Store as it looks today.

The Turner Bend store — set amid the changing shape of a lush landscape influenced by rippling waters, lost highways and throngs of exuberant floaters — is turning 100. Standing at the junction of Arkansas 23 and the Mulberry River, the store is a testament to longevity.

Coinciding with this century milestone is Brad Wimberly’s 30-year anniversary of owning the store. He’s throwing a celebration on Aug. 27. The event starts at 6 p.m. and includes a pot luck dinner, music by Dave Robertson and JoJo Mas, and a12-minute “Up Around the Bend” slideshow. At 9 p.m. Mas Agua will take the stage. Party-goers should bring their own chairs and beverages. Expect some banging on the gong, usually reserved for starting boaters at the annual Jungle Boaters Canoe Race.

An iconic feature of the river, Turner Bend sells provisions and gas and is a Mulberry River outfitter, renting out canoes, kayaks and rafts. Cabins and campsites are available too. But, throughout the century it has been much more than its physical function. It embodies community and a sense of place.

A family business from the start, the store was built by William Eli Turner and his son Champ. While other family members were involved in the beginning, Champ and his wife Flora ended up running the place.

“Turner Bend for 100 years has kept that valley going,” says Beth Turner, granddaughter of Flora and Champ. “Grandma and grandpa, they made that area a family.” Whether someone needed a bandage on their knee or help getting their car out of a ditch, Champ was the guy they turned to, she says.

“Grandma and grandpa were always there and the light was always on,” she adds. Turner produced a documentary, “Ties that Bend,” which is for sale at the store, about Turner Bend and the area.

The Turner Bend store has occupied three different buildings on the same property since its establishment in 1911. “The first building was closer to the river next to the original bridge across the Mulberry,” explains Wimberly. “Most of the traffic in the early days was by horse or foot.”

Then in 1935, a new bridge was built. The Turners used the wooden planks from the old bridge to build a store further away from the river. Sitting between a wooded Ozark hillside and the curve where Arkansas 23 crosses the Mulberry River, this building served as both a store and a residence for 50 years.

“The Turners raised three sons in half of this building while conducting business out of the other half,” Wimberly says. “In those days the store was known as the home of Bubbles the mynah bird. Apparently Bubbles had a large vocabulary, some of it X-rated. Champ was something of a trader and had lots of old guns hanging from the wall inside the store. The public restroom was an outhouse sitting over a creek.”

Turner says Turner Bend was more than an outfitter or supply source; it was a social center, like an office water cooler. State politicians, including a young Bill Clinton, stopped by to shake hands and explain their position to Champ who would then pass the information on to people in the valley that visited the store.

People, mostly from outside the region and even the state, began flocking to the Mulberry to canoe in the late 1960s after the guide book “The Mighty Mulberry” was published. The 56-mile Mulberry River is a National Wild and Scenic River known for its class II/III rating. From its beginnings deep in the Ozarks to its confluence with the Arkansas River, the Mulberry pours over ledges and challenges floaters with sharp turns. It’s definitely one of the state’s wildest rivers during spring.

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“Champ did not have a gauge as such but could tell you how many steps were covered and whether the river was rising or falling,” explains Wimberly. He says not everyone in the area welcomed the influx of out-of-towners, but the Turners appreciated the new customers.

Wimberly and his friends canoed the Mulberry often. He particularly remembers conversations with Champ during the 1976 and 1977 spring float seasons. “When we returned for a float trip in 1978 the store was closed,” he says. “Champ was soon to pass on.” The Turner family leased the store out for a couple of years before selling it.

“Champ died of lung cancer,” Turner explains. “Brad heard about it and came down here and met with my dad. Brad said, ‘I never want to change the name. It’s Turner Bend to me too.’”

“As the saying goes, ‘Fools rush in,’” says Wimberly. “I purchased the store in May 1981. Good thing I was only 26 since there were hardships and problems at every turn. I lived in the back of the old store like the Turners before me.” There was no privacy or escaping the store for an evening since it was also his residence. “The wiring was faulty, the water well was suspect, the roof was leaky, and there was no insulation,” he adds. “It was so hot inside the un-air conditioned store that I would step outside and hose myself down with a water hose and then step in the cooler just to be able to stand it.”

Wimberly’s first major improvement was an attractive rock landing that is a landmark on the river. Lloyd Schlicker designed and built it the fall of 1981. Wimberly’s first test from Mother Nature came in December of 1982 when a record flood threatened to wash away the Ark. 23 bridge over the Mulberry, and turn the bend in the river into a straight. That winter he moved into a 250-square-foot shack located in the Turner Bend campground in order to expand the store into what had been his living quarters. With a few upgrades, he lived there for 10 years. He married his wife Vien on the landing at Turner Bend.

In the next decade the store became a notable and established stop along Ark. 23. This highway is also known as the “Pig Trail” and it was heavily traveled in those days, especially with folks traveling to and from the college town of Fayetteville.

“University of Arkansas students flew down the trail on Fridays and back up on Sundays,” Wimberly explains. “Business men traveling to and from Little Rock would stop, going and coming back. Hog fans with their flags flying stopped on their way to games. Canoeing on the Mulberry grew in popularity.”

With a growing business, Wimberly decided in 1986 to build a new store right next to the old one. “Actually, we had to build part of the new building, tear part of the old one down, build some more, tear the rest of the old building down then complete the construction. The whole process took about a year and we never closed a day.”

Although the ability to turn a profit was affected by the forces of nature on the Mulberry River, Wimberly greatly improved the campground and built a home and rental cabin on the property by the late 90s. But huge change came in 1999 when Interstate 540 opened up to the west of the Pig Trail. It provided drivers with a faster, less curvy road to the northwest corner of the state. Wimberly says Ark. 23 lost about two thirds of its traffic.

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“I had naively thought that a lot of the regulars would continue to travel the Pig Trail since it is so much shorter than the interstate route, but I was wrong,” says Wimberly. “We lost all of the regular traffic. Students now attend the University of Arkansas and don’t even know what the Pig Trail is.”

Luckily, a couple of good canoeing years bolstered the business after losing much of the drive-by traffic, and then the growing motorcycling population found the Pig Trail. Today, Turner Bend caters to the bikers and boaters. Wakarusa, a large annual music event at Mulberry Mountain in Ozark also brings people now. Business has recovered but with really slow off-season week days and huge peak weekend days.

“Turner Bend has this whole new life of people that know it for a new reason,” says Turner.

The tight curves and canopy of trees make the Pig Trail a favorite with motorcyclists. The major Bikes, Blues and BBQ event in Fayetteville each fall brings tons of motorcyclists by the store. Bikers will find patches, pins, goggles, and t-shirts at Turner Bend. Boaters will find everything from NRS river shoes and gloves, to whitewater PFDs, and TurnerBend.com is a primary source for daily river level reading.

In addition to groceries and camping supplies, the store sells several kinds of maps, including Turner Bend’s custom-designed Mulberry River map. Wimberly also stocks a documentary of the Mulberry River from Wolf Pen to Mill Creek. Turner Bend is well known for its homemade sandwiches. Many regular boaters take these made-to-order sandwiches for lunch on the river.

Turner Bend also runs shuttles to the Ozark Highlands Trail to accommodate hikers. Wimberly hosts an annual river clean up, which he’s done for the past 20 years.

He has made a few other improvements during his 30 years of ownership. “After toting the canoes up the rock stairs for 20 years, we built an electric hoist in time for the 2002 season,” he says. Four years ago he purchased some riverfront property just downstream from Turner Bend. It has a rental cabin, and Wimberly is adding a few primitive campsites to relieve the congestion at Turner Bend. The new property is called ‘Round the Bend.

Turner says Wimberly has the same character about him as Champ did serving the community and preserving the river. “We just feel like the Wimberlys are Turners,” she adds.

Fleet Feet Little Rock

While change continues at Turner Bend, it remains that little store on the bend of the river — an intersection for people and nature and a community that embraces the valley and beyond.

To add to the above story, the Turner Bend Store is a favorite stop for me whenever I’m in the area whether hiking the Ozark Highlands Trail, Floating the Mulberry, Visiting White Rock Mountain or just taking one of my favorite drives in the state up the Pig Trail. Stop by and take in some of this great Arkansas history next time you’re in the area…and be in the area soon.

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