Lyon College Regional Studies Center
Creation and Development of the Arkansas Folk Festival
and Ozark Folk Center – An Oral History Project
Interviewee: Tommy Simmons
Interviewer: Brooks Blevins
Date: September 28, 2003
Place: Mountain View, Arkansas
Blevins: This is September 28, 2001, and I’m with Mr. Tommy Simmons in the Mountain View City Park, and we’re just going to talk a little bit about his background, a little bit about the Folk Center, and that kind of stuff. Mr. Simmons, when were you born?
Simmons: 1928, September 14th.
Blevins: So you just had a birthday a couple weeks ago.
Simmons: Two weeks ago. That’s right.
Blevins: And you were born in . . .
Simmons: At Edgemont, Arkansas, actually. My father, he worked on the old Missouri and North Arkansas railroad, and they happened to be living there at that time, and so I was born at Edgemont.
Blevins: Yeah. That was, at one time, a big lumber center, wasn’t it?
Simmons: Well, I’m not for sure. All I know is they had a little railhead there, and that’s where he and my mom met. She was working in a hotel there, and the railroaders frequented the area, and they got acquainted and got married there.
Blevins: Now, was she from Cleburne County?
Simmons: No, she was from Van Buren County.
Blevins: Is Edgemont in Van Buren County?
Simmons: It’s in Cleburne County. She was born out from Shirley at a little place called Settlement, and my father was born over on Angora Mountain here in Stone County.
Blevins: Okay, and that’s where you grew up?
Simmons: That’s right, yes, in and around. That was always home, although I traveled some and lived in other places, but that’s always been home.
Blevins: Now, your folks had a farm over there when you were a kid?
Simmons: That’s right. During the Depression years, my father got laid off from the railroad, and we lived on a little farm up between Arlberg and Elba, which was two little towns on the railroad there, and I think we had 85 acres and one old mule and several old hens and an old sow or two, but . . . And there was no money then. You know, there just wasn’t any money. We ate good, but there sure wasn’t much cash to be found, you know, and there was a quarry going, being operated by the Armond brothers just down the road from us, and people was walking eight and ten miles a day to and from work for a dollar a day, ten cents an hour, and was glad to have a job. There was probably fifteen or twenty guys sitting around in the shade waiting on one of them to slow down a little bit so might get his job, you know. Jobs was just nonexistent. But that’s kind of how I got started in this world, anyhow. Rather tight conditions back then.
Blevins: Yeah. What did y’all grow? Did you grow any cotton?
Simmons: No. No, Dad never did grow cotton. He grew corn, and we’d sow oats and harvest them with a cradle, one of those hand-swing cradles, and that’s what he fed his horses and his mules. His mule; he didn’t have any horses. He had a couple of old mules, and we had us a bunch of brown Leghorn hens, and the biggest chore we had was trying to find those hen nests. Those things were almost wild, you know, just laid everywhere - in the barn and out in the woods and everyplace else.
Blevins: Did you have any brothers or sisters?
Simmons: I had a sister who was two years younger than I, and she died when I was nine and she was seven. She had a very rare disease, then - leukemia. They called it Hodgkin’s Disease. It was one or the other, but you know, it was just unheard of at the time. So she died quite young. From then on I was alone at home, you know.
Blevins: Well. Where did you go to high school down there?
Simmons: Well, I went to Clinton for a half year. We lived out on the farm, and then Dad moved us back up to Harrison, and that’s where I graduated in 1946. I went 3 ½ years to Harrison, and then . . . Well, I actually went three years, because I graduated midterm, and that’s the longest I went to any one school.
Blevins: What were you doing in Harrison? What was he doing?
Simmons: He was just a railroader, see . . .
Blevins: Oh, and he got moved back up there.
Simmons: That was a junction in the railroad. That was one of the places where they sent out trains one way or the other. They had trains going north to Joplin or south to Heber Springs from the Harrison terminal, so we lived there for . . . Different times. I went to the fourth grade there for a while, and went to the sixth grade there for a while. My mother and dad moved 25 times the first 20 years they was married, if that gives you an idea how nomadic we were.
Blevins: Yeah. Well, I’ll be.
Simmons: Now, I told someone that part of my education, I guess part of the better part of my education, was learning to get along with people because I had to be moved so much. I had to make friends. Sometimes three and four times a year, you know, we’d just move, and I’d go to a different school. It was difficult because the curriculum was never the same at any place back then. Nothing much was standardized at that time, you know, but I managed to get through, barely.
Blevins: Well, it wouldn’t have been too long after that when they just shut the M & NA down, wasn’t it? It was the late forties, I guess, when they did that.
Simmons: That’s right. It was actually in 1945, I believe, they shut it down, because we moved from Harrison in 1945 back down to the farm over here, and I stayed there with my mother and dad for about five or six months, and then in 1946 I volunteered for the Air Force and was in the Air Force for three years. I spent about 21 months of that on Guam, got well acquainted with that little island. It’s five miles wide and 21 miles long, and so there’s not a whole lot there, and then I came back home and married and started raising a family at time, and then I was farming still yet. I had 160 acres up the river from Arlberg, and I bought a bunch of cattle and started trying to raise cattle. Then in 1953 and ’54 we had extreme droughts - it was terrible weather - and I just couldn’t raise enough feed to feed them and certainly couldn’t afford to buy feed to feed them, and so I finally sold the cattle and I moved out to Oregon and stayed there in ’55 and ’56, and as soon as I got my debts kindly paid off and a little money in my pocket, I had to come back to Arkansas, which it was always my first love, and I ended up back over there on that little farm, and then I started logging and sawmilling, and I did that for several years, and in nineteen and sixty - I believe that’s when the Berlin airlift started - a friend of mine had a parts store over at Clinton, and a young guy that worked for him and was in the Reserves got called up, and so one day he stopped me on the street and asked me if I’d like to go to work for him. And we talked a while and agreed on a salary and whatnot, and so I worked there until September of ’62, and that’s when I moved over here to Mountain View and put in a little parts store of my own because Gerald, the fellow that worked for him, was coming back, and of course got his job back, and I was going to be unemployed, and I’d decided by then that selling parts was easier than cutting logs and scratching chiggers and ticks and things like that, so I went in business for myself and operated it then for quite a while here until ’70, I’d say.
Blevins: Let me ask you one thing about . . . How did you decide to get into the cattle business when you got back from the Air Force?
Simmons: Dad had cattle. That’s just sort of . . . You just . . . You know, he’d been raising cattle and doing pretty good with them, actually. The difference in his ability to stay in and mine was that he raised his. He just started with about eight cows, and just kept keeping his heifers for increase, and I borrowed money and bought mine. So when the drought come and I had, you know, big payments to make and such, I just couldn’t do it. That’s when I got out. He stayed there with his. Of course, he could afford to, you know. By then he was retired from the railroad and had a modest monthly income, and it kept him going.
Blevins: When you bought yours, did you buy purebred cattle?
Simmons: No, just grade cattle. I just tried to buy good grade beef cows. He had polled Herefords, and I tried to buy something along that line. I just raised them for the beef market, not to resell for stockers or anything like that.
Blevins: Well, let’s see. We got you moved to Mountain View in ’62, when you set up your store here. That would have been right about the time everything was getting interesting around here.
Simmons: Well, shortly after that is when the Craft Guild decided to have that craft show, and I think they thought that . . . I think they’d had one and didn’t have much turnout, and thought if they could incorporate some music with it, that would certainly increase the draw, and I guess they enlisted Jimmy Driftwood. They’d do that, and . . . I was always interested in music. I had musical people on both sides of my family, and so I got interested in it. Couldn’t play much and can’t even yet, but then I had some friends that lived here in town and we hunted and fished some together, and so they got to playing and picking and I got to going to their house and joining in, and that’s kindly how I got started.
Blevins: Yeah. Well, tell me about Jimmy Driftwood. What was he like? I never met him.
Simmons: Well, Jimmy . . . You know, he was almost a self-educated fellow, I guess. He’d been a schoolteacher and a songwriter. He wrote lots of songs. Some of them I really liked and some of them I didn’t care for, but that’s the way it is with everybody, you know, and I’m not being critical when I say that. It’s just that some of the stuff I didn’t like. He was a guy that was . . . I don’t really know how to say that, but he was kind of a dominant person, you know. He was domineering in the sense that he just had one way of doing things, and if it wasn’t done that way, he was off of it, you know, and he . . . No doubt, I’ll give the guy credit. He was one of the movers as far as getting the money approved for the Folk Center. I guess I was in the first meeting that I recall, that we had in the old telephone office, and I believe that . . . Well, I know Glen Hinkle was there, and Edwin Luther, and Jim Warren - he was head of the Craft Guild at the time, I think - and John Opitz was there, and Jimmy and myself, and I don’t recall anybody else particularly, but that’s when the Economic Development Administration was . . . Area Redevelopment, ARA, the Area Redevelopment Administration. John worked for them. We were talking about the Festival, and Mountain View and what it had to offer, and so John - he was the guy that proposed, you know, trying to get some money to build something with, and everybody was for that, except most of the people was pretty negative about thinking it could happen. Nobody really thought that it could happen. That’s the first time I ever met John Opitz. John was a real mover. That guy was really sharp. I really did like him; he was straightforward and honest and he called a spade a spade, you know. That’s the kind of person I like, and he didn’t try to use anybody. He was just there to serve. If he could help, he would, and I liked him. I really did. Really, of all the people, he was the key that turned the door lock, the one that opened the door, and everybody else helped, and there was a lot of people in this town that really did help. Glen helped, and Edwin, and Junior Lancaster. He had a store up here on the corner where Lancaster’s is there now, and he was extremely active, and a good guy, and a real community man. He was part of my administration when I was mayor. He was a city councilman.
Blevins: Okay. Now, this meeting you’re talking about, that was even before you became mayor, wasn’t it?
Simmons: Oh, yeah. It was quite some time before I became mayor. I didn’t become mayor until ’66, I guess, and when Rockefeller . . . He and I both got elected at the same time. I remember the Stone County headline: “Rockefeller and Simmons Elected.” A lot of people said I got elected with that Rockefeller money, but I never did see any of it.
Blevins: Yeah. Well, you weren’t running as a Republican like he was.
Simmons: No. I ran as an Independent, but they tried to - because many Republicans are just simply not popular in Stone County - they tried to sort of link me to that, you know. There’s several reasons for that. Junior had a brother-in-law that worked for Mr. Rockefeller, and they tried to . . . some of the folks tried to link us together, although I met the man on several different occasions - Mr. Rockefeller, that is - but he wouldn’t have known me if I had walked up in his face, you know.
Blevins: Let’s see. When they first started the Rackensack Society, were you ever in on any of that at the beginning, when they first started having the meetings?
Simmons: Oh, yes. Now, I wasn’t at the first meeting, but I was at the second or third meeting. I wasn’t at the first one. They had it in Dr. Hollister’s office, the first meeting.
Blevins: Was Jimmy at that first meeting?
Simmons: Oh, yeah.
Blevins: Okay. I’ve seen different reports that sometimes Jimmy Driftwood took credit for starting it, and sometimes they said that somebody else started it, and so I don’t really know.
Simmons: I think Jimmy did. He’s the one that did it. Yeah, he was the daddy of the Rackensack, as far as I’m concerned, you know, and other people may have different ideas about that, but he was the mover, the one that got it going.
Blevins: Okay. Well, that clears that up. Of course, like you said, he was pretty much in charge of it, I guess.
Simmons: One time he said to me, he said, “The only way that you can get things done here is just be a benelovent [sic] dictator.”
Blevins: Before we get a little further, let me ask you about another guy that was hanging around and that I’ve seen a lot about. That was Harold Sherman.
Simmons: Harold Sherman. I met Harold.
Blevins: What was he like, because I don’t . . . I know he was a Yankee.
Simmons: Yeah, he was a Yankee. He was a Yankee. He was a sharp guy, I guess. He was real proponent of ESP - extrasensory perception - and that was his big thing. He was quite a promoter. He worked, you know, on civic matters, like roads and things like that. He’d go along with the group to be their spokesman, and he was articulate in his presentation, a well-educated guy, apparently. He had some good ideas, and one of his ideas that someone else takes credit for now was this cleanup around all over the state. You know, they have it over at Greers Ferry, but now that’s not where it started.
Blevins: So Carl Garner didn’t start that.
Simmons: No, Carl didn’t start that. The Beta Club here in Mountain View did that, and they got . . . Let’s see. The radio station KAAY was giving someone . . . Or they offered 1390 - that was their dial number - -$1390 to someone who came up with the best idea, so the Beta Club just came up with the idea. Harold Sherman, I think, was the one that . . . That’s my recollection. Harold put the idea in their head, so to speak. “Let’s just have a big county-wide cleanup,” and did. Boy, I mean. Chester Passmore was the county judge and I was the mayor and we furnished city trucks and things like that. We hauled trash from everywhere, cleaned up dumps and covered them up, and it was a big deal. And you know, we got a lot of publicity from KAAY and the different TV deals. Carl started the one on the lake, but he wasn’t the first one to come up with the idea. He thought it was a great idea and then capitalized on it, you know.
Blevins: Yeah. I guess, from what I’ve seen, a lot of the people around Mountain View kindly thought Sherman was a little crazy because of his ESP stuff.
Simmons: Yeah, they thought he was eccentric. One time he did a presentation at the Lion’s Club, I believe - one of the civic places - and he’d been over in the Philippines, and he’d been with this guy that did bloodless surgery with his hands - no scalpel, no anything, you know - he had all this . . . slides and things like this. It was a little hard to swallow for us old hillbillies who like to see things as they really are, you know.
Blevins: He was one of the movers behind Blanchard Springs, especially, wasn’t he?
Simmons: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, he was the politician, you know. The fellow you can credit that for is John McClellan and Wilbur Mills, primarily Wilbur Mills. Wilbur Mills was the real power behind Blanchard and the Folk Center. He’s the guy that had the purse strings then. That’s right.
Blevins: Well, did you go to that meeting where Mr. Opitz made the formal request for the money and all that kind of stuff in Washington? Were you up there with them?
Simmons: Now I went with that group of guys that went to Washington - Eddie Walker and Junior Lancaster and myself and Buddy Lancaster and, I think, Willie Morrison - a whole bunch of us, about twenty, I guess, or twenty-five. I don’t remember just who-all was there, but I was with that group. We drove out there. It was in October, as I recall; there was a lot of color, you know. We played on the Capitol steps. I’m in the picture there if you’ve seen it, you know.
Blevins: I don’t know. I guess I have.
Simmons: Well, they made a group picture while we were playing music, and I can’t remember the caption. “Fiddling for Cash,” or something like that. “Arkansas Hillbillies Fiddling for Cash” or something to that effect.
Blevins: You play the guitar?
Blevins: Okay. I’ve seen one of your albums. I used to keep it in my office over at Lyon College back . . . I don’t know when it was made, but . . . thirty years ago . . .
Simmons: Before Jean and I divorced we made eight, I think, total . . .
Blevins: Yeah. I think we had two of them.
Simmons: I don’t know which one you had.
Blevins: I don’t even know. Now, when they went up there and asked for the money from the . . . with Mills and all that kind of stuff, was that money a package deal that included Blanchard Springs and the Folk Center?
Simmons: Just the Folk Center.
Simmons: Blanchard was always a federal project, see. It was on federal land, and it was always a federal project. This wasn’t. It was a municipal project funded with federal funds. Like I said, the Area Redevelopment Administration was the first people we applied with, and then it was changed to the Economic Development Administration. I met the same people when I went back when I was traveling around, but that’s where the money came from.
Blevins: Okay, that administration . . .
Simmons: It was a loan and a grant, I believe 80% grant and 20% loan. It was 3 ¾ % interest secured with revenue bonds. You can’t get a better financial deal than that, hardly. If there’s no money made, there’s no money paid back, you know.
Blevins: Yeah. And when I was . . . I told you about reading that interview that somebody’d done with John Opitz and Jimmy Driftwood, and they were saying something in that interview that you had to ask for a pretty big chunk of money before they could justify it, or something.
Simmons: Yeah, before they would even consider it, I guess you could say. Yeah. I mean, let’s face it. You know, the per capita income in Stone County has never been great, and it was just sort of beyond our imagination that you could go up there and could get two million dollars or two million plus dollars, and of course all of us expressed that, and John, who was a bureaucrat, said, “Oh, no, the money’s there. We can get it.” And we did. It took ten years, but we did it, you know. Jimmy asked him that day, and I recall this very well. He said, “John, how long is this going to take?” He said, “Oh, a couple of years, maybe.” It was ten years later when it happened, you know.
Blevins: Well, according to that interview, according to John Opitz the reason it took so long had something to do with Arkansas and Texas being tied together within that ARA or EDA, and the people from Texas for some reason kept blocking it over the years, and so actually . . .
Simmons: Down in Austin. That’s where their district office was, was in Austin, Texas. I went down there with the first architects that did the first schematics and the next presentation, and they was really just trying to kill it - there ain’t no doubt in my mind - and when I got down there they said, “Well,” (I was mayor at the time.) “Mayor, we need to change the scope of this project, and what we need you to do is to sign off on the old project and we’re going to reapply,” and I said, “I don’t believe I want to do that,” and they said, “Well, you know, we’re going to need to do that, I think.” Said, “You need to call Wilbur and tell him that that’s what we’re going to do.” I said, “I’m going to let you call Wilbur. I’m not going to call him. We have our application in. If you want to kill it, you know, that’s your prerogative. You’re the people who are in charge, but I’m not going to do that. I have to go back home.” And it didn’t get killed. None of them wanted to call Wilbur, I can tell you that for sure.
Blevins: He wouldn’t have agreed to it, would he?
Simmons: Oh, no, not at all. No, and he’d have skinned me alive if I’d have agreed to it. [laughs]
Blevins: And I think, according to that interview, that it was eventually Wilbur Mills who just kind of finally said it’s going through . . .
Simmons: Oh, yeah. Several of us - I was still married at the time - Bud Lackey and myself and Junior Lancaster and Ivan Williamson - he was city attorney - we flew up to Washington because the project was about to die, and we had only like . . . Oh, I mean just five or six, seven days to push it through all these different agencies or . . . The new year was coming - you know, the fiscal year - and it was going to die, so Gene Goss, who was Wilbur’s right-hand man, he called me and said, “Y’all got to get up here and do something.” So we got on a plane and flew up there, and when we got there, boy, they had . . . All the doors were open and all the hinges were greased, and we just picked that paper, got in taxis, and here we went, and every place we went in, they were looking for us. They signed off, and when we left there two days later, we had it done.
Blevins: Huh. Do you remember what year that was?
Simmons: No, I can’t . . .
Blevins: It would have been the late sixties sometime.
Simmons: Yeah, sometime in the late sixties. I’d say it would be probably ’68, ’69.
Blevins: Yeah. Well, I knew that always kind of confused me, because it took so long for that to just kind of come about.
Simmons: They really had no intentions of ever funding it, because from an economic standpoint it was a loser, you know, and there just wasn’t any way that they could see that you could put that much money in a little old hill town like this right here and ever make it pay for itself, even the twenty percent. And the Folk Center’s an extremely expensive project to operate. It’s all electric, and just the power bill alone is tremendous, you know, and it’s not a money maker. It wasn’t designed to be a money maker, you know, but the economic impact in the community has been tremendous, and that’s what economic development is all about, you know. The project is, to me, a great success because it accomplished what EDA is supposed to be accomplishing, enhance the economic situation in places like Mountain View, Arkansas. And it’s certainly done that. I recall that, when we were in the planning stages and just getting ready to let contracts - or open bids, I guess - I ran into a fellow here in town, William Parsons who owned the little motel - Mountain View Motel - down here. William’s a good friend of mine. And he was mad. Man, he was ready to whip me, I’m not kidding you, because we’d put those sixty rooms over there at the Folk Center. “Oh, you’re going to put me out of business!” I said, “William, for God’s sakes, man. Your place is never more than 40 or 50 percent occupied; we’re going to fill you up. That’s what we’re going to do.” “Oh, no,” you know, and he was just . . . Oh, he was furious. But that’s exactly what we did, and it wasn’t long until it was a motel here and a motel here and a motel here . . . William, he’d always . . . His mom and dad had had that, and he inherited from them, and there was just one way to run it, and that’s the way they’d run it, you know, but later on he came back, and he was apologetic. He said, “Boy, I was just so wrong, but I just couldn’t see that.” So, from an economic standpoint it is effective.
Blevins: Yeah. Now the original plans called for them to train folks, train young people in crafts and stuff like that out there, and that fell through.
Simmons: It did fall through. Too bad, really. There was supposed to be a continuing education project with it, and that was supposed to . . . Supposedly you’d be able to bring - and we did, to some degree - bring classes from colleges and universities all over the nation to come here and study Ozark traditions, music and crafts, and early on we did some of that, a little of that. There was some of these colleges . . . One down in Texas - can’t remember the name of it - they were up here a couple of times, and others brought small classes here, but never on the magnitude that we envisioned. At the time we envisioned that being, really, what would fill up the rooms over here, and the rooms was really to support the continuing education center, a dormitory, more or less, so to speak.
Blevins: Well, I didn’t know that.
Simmons: There was an old fellow down in Georgia, down at Athens, Georgia. His name was Dr. Masters. I don’t remember his first name. But he did the feasibility on this place up here, and he said . . . I recall quite well what he said. He said, “Put as many rooms in as you possibly can. That’s where the money is.” And he was so right. The profit is in the housing, much more so than in the restaurant and things of that nature. The place would probably have been - I don’t know; I’ve been away from Parks now for ten year, and I don’t know what their budget is or how close they come to generating their budget or not, but I don’t think they do - but if they’d have doubled the rooms when they built the place and put in a hundred and twenty rather than sixty, it would probably have been in the black from that day. That’s where the profit is.
Blevins: Then Mr. Parsons would have been even madder at you.
Simmons: Yeah, but still yet, it would have filled his place up. Of course, it wasn’t but a couple years till Mr. Parsons was adding on, building some more rooms down there, because he was booked, and you couldn’t get a room. The first three or four years this place was open, you could not drive into town and get a room. That’s just all there was to it. During the season, of course. There just wasn’t very many of them, and they were all . . . Everybody had them reserved months ahead.
Blevins: Well, let me ask you about that New York company, Advanced Projects.
Simmons: I worked for them for a while.
Blevins: Yeah? I noticed that. I’ve got Kelly’s paper she wrote here. How in the world did y’all find them?
Simmons: We didn’t. John found them.
Blevins: Okay, and he did that through Washington, I guess.
Simmons: That’s right. That’s right. He found them, and we got involved with them. When I became mayor, they had appointed the Ozark Folk Center Commission, but none of the papers had ever been processed. They was piled up in City Hall. They wasn’t legal. I mean, nothing had been done. So as soon as I got in, I got some of that paperwork to going and got that out. And when we had a meeting with Advanced Project Corporation in Little Rock, Ray Rossi was the president of the company, and they were satellite to another company, which happens a lot up there - there’s lots of companies - and I remember that he brought down a fellow with him. Now this is when they were trying to sell it to State Parks. He brought a fellow with him that was wanting to buy it. His name was Louie Cecci. Louie had on a pair of alligator shoes and a five-hundred-dollar at least, maybe a thousand-dollar, suit, and a tie pin there as big as the end of your thumb, and I looked at his hands, and they’d never touched anything other than greenbacks, you know, and it was so obvious where that was coming from. It scared us half to death, literally, and when we left there, we left there with the idea that State Parks absolutely had to buy that contract. I think that was the whole idea. I think Ray brought him just for that purpose. I always liked Ray Rossie. He and I always got along good. I had a lot of problems with him; I couldn’t get him to pay me sometimes. It was funny. Through my office . . . I was project manager up here, and I had to process all of the payments for the contractors, the subcontractors, and things like that, through my office, and of course they got a percentage, and I just said, “Well, you know, I just won’t put that piece of paper through till I get my salary.” And I didn’t. And they called me one day, saying, “What’s wrong? We can’t get our money.” “Well, I can’t get mine, either, Ray. I don’t what the problem is, but if we can get that straightened out, we probably could get the other straightened out.” And he said, “You ought to have been raised in New York.”
Blevins: You just have to do business like they do.
Simmons: That’s exactly right.
Blevins: Did people suspect Rossi of being connected with the Mob or anything like that?
Simmons: No. No, I don’t think so. I didn’t either. I don’t think he was.
Blevins: Now who is this guy? The guy you replaced was Ed Nantel?
Blevins: What was his story? He just worked for them?
Simmons: He worked for Advanced Projects Corporation.
Blevins: Was he from New York?
Blevins: They sent him down here?
Simmons: I believe he was from New Jersey. But he was a big roly-poly guy, and he was an alcoholic - bad alcoholic - and he had no earthly concept of what this place ought to be like at all. He knew nothing about Ozark music and crafts and things like that. Of course, we had two young architects from Little Rock who was great architects. If you could tell them what you wanted drawn, they could do that, I guarantee you, but they didn’t know a great deal about that, and so the project really kind of got hung up there for a little while because of Ed not processing stuff out, not knowing what to do, and things like that. And he got to drinking and not coming to work till ten, eleven o’clock in the morning. I can’t think of the lady’s name, but . . . Martha something. She was vice president of APC, and she called me. I had the parts store over there at the time. She called me and asked me if I’d pick her up in Little Rock the next day, and I told her I would, because I’d gotten acquainted with them and I was working for them, and so I picked her up. And she asked me at that point in time, “Would you like to be the project manager over there?” and I’d sold my store, and I was just fixing to vacate it, had a good offer. “Yeah, that sounds good.” She said she’d come to fire Ed that day, and when we go to his office, he wasn’t there, and this was like almost noon. His secretary called him. He’d told her not to, but she got around and called him anyhow. He came up there really not clean, not shaven, you know, and looked bad, and she just took him back in the back room and told him what was happening, and he was really upset, really bad. I was concerned that he might do something, you know, violent, either to her or himself. That’s how it happened.
Blevins: That’s how you moved in as . . . And so you worked for a while under APC.
Simmons: Oh, I did work for them directly as project manager over here.
Blevins: Now were you manager when they actually drew up the architect’s plans, or . . .
Simmons: Oh, no, no, no. All that was done before we ever got the money released.
Blevins: Okay, so they had already done that.
Simmons: Oh, yeah, it was done. They just had the . . . They had the architectural and engineering contracts, APC did, and they hired Thompson and Turner as their architects, and they worked for them just like I did.
Blevins: Nabholz build it?
Simmons: That’s right. Nabholz built it. ConArk Builders, I believe they called themselves. That’s the nonunion side. Whichever. I think Nabholz is union; ConArk is nonunion. The nonunion side built it. They’re excellent builders. I really couldn’t complain on their work. You can go look at it, you know. It’s weathered the time very well; it’s well-built. They did a good job and, remarkably, came in under budget, which don’t often happen, on federal projects, at least.
Blevins: Yeah. Now, when the state took over it, you more or less stayed in the same position, just under the state?
Simmons: No. After it was built and we were getting . . . Just three or four months before it was to open up, I was still working for APC, and one of the commissioners approached me - Henry Ketcher from Little Rock; he has a roofing company down there - he approached me and asked me if I would like to be manager of the Folk Center, and I said, “Gee, I don’t know. You know, that’s something I’d really have to think about a lot.” But you know, I did. I went home and I talked to my wife, and I thought about it, and I . . . It would be a challenge; I could see that, and I, of course, felt a lot for the project. I really wanted it to be successful, and I thought, “Well, you know, if I could have anything to do with helping that happen, well, maybe I’d like to. I could do that.” And of course, at that time Jimmy was one of my supporters, and so it happened. The State Parks - Buddy Surles was the director, and Bill Henderson was the director of the State Parks and Tourism agency at the time - and so I went down there and we talked about salaries and where I’d start in their grade levels and things like that, and we agreed on it, and so I resigned from APC. The project was done, really, just paperwork to be wound up for another maybe ninety days, and so I resigned and went to work for them.
Blevins: Hm. And you were the first director.
Blevins: And that opened in ’73?
Blevins: And when you first started, you contracted with Driftwood’s bunch to do the music, and contracted with the Craft Guild to do the crafts instead of with individuals.
Simmons: That’s right. That’s right. When we first started up, we started out with the Foothills Craft Guild running the craft area, and Jimmy and the Rackensacks providing the music, and it just didn’t work, finally. Like I said, Jimmy was pretty domineering, and people just kind of got tired of being pushed, and so they just . . . sort of a rebellion, I guess you’d say, in the ranks.
Blevins: His group split up, didn’t it?
Simmons: Yeah, it did. It had split earlier, and that’s how come the Mountain View Folklore Society is in existence now. Eddie Walker and Penny Blair and some of the Blairs were movers in that, because . . . primarily for one reason and one reason only that I could tell. They wanted to play a bass fiddle in the old shows we had there in the courthouse, and Jimmy said, “No. That’s not part of the music.” Well then, they came up with photographs that was taken in the thirties over at Blanchard of the very first Folk Festival that was ever held in Mountain View, and what was on the stage? A big bass fiddle. And Jimmy was there, too. He was part of it, you know. And so . . . But anyway, that just boiled till it finally blew up, and half of them went that way, and half of them stayed with Jimmy.
Blevins: Yeah. I had a quote from that interview that we did with John Opitz. He said, “Folk music is whatever Jimmy Driftwood says it is.”
Simmons: That’s right. That’s right.
Blevins: So that’s kind of how it was at the Folk Center?
Simmons: That’s how it was. And then, after the split-up, of course . . . Buddy Lancaster was trying to schedule people and run the things such as that. He was a member of the Rackensack Society. And they just could not get along with Jimmy. That’s just all there was to it, you know. And then, after a period of time, I think the Parks Department decided, “Hey, look, we’ll just do this ourselves.”
Blevins: I read a article in the paper - I think it’s from ’75 - about square dancers getting in a fight backstage or something.
Simmons: No, it was jig dancers.
Blevins: Oh, it was jig dancers. But I guess it was all had to do with . . . Some of them were on Jimmy’s side, and some of them weren’t, or something.
Simmons: That’s right, thereabouts.
Blevins: So I guess it got to the point where . . .
Simmons: Had to do something different.
Blevins: Yeah. And that’s when, let’s see . . . Pryor was governor then, and they just pretty much come in and cleaned house.
Simmons: That’s right. That’s exactly right. Now Bumpers was the one that cleaned house after . . . when we first started, of the management. He’s the one that fired Charley Sandage and David Newbern and Porter Young. But then Pryor, of course, followed him, and . . . This is funny. David would probably deny saying this if he were confronted with it, but we all went down there for a program supporting the One Hundred Women for the Folk Center. You know, they were this group of ladies who run that part of the training program over there that helps fund it. And that’s when this controversy was . . . (?) . . . I was standing up on the veranda there back of the governor’s mansion, and he was there, and me, and Buddy Lancaster and two or three others, and I said, “Governor Pryor, how’s things doing in Mountain View right now?” And he turned around and he said, “God, I’d like to drop a bomb on it.” That was his words: “God, I’d like to drop a bomb on it.”
Blevins: Well, were you still in charge of the Folk Center at that time? Did you leave before Jimmy left?
Simmons: I was there when he left. I was there until . . . Well, I don’t remember just when I went out into the region, but I was there for about three or four years, the first three years, I believe. And it just got to be so impossible. Politics was just so bad that I was holding off politicians with this hand, and trying to do my work . . . There was a position that came open as a regional supervisor for State Parks, and it didn’t cost anything pay-wise, and boy, I was ready to get out of the Folk Center. So I applied for it and got it. I wasn’t fired, as James Franks wrote in his paper, you know. It was my idea. I called Mr. Henderson and I told him what I wanted to do, and he said, “I don’t know if I want you to do that or not.” He said, “I’d rather just fight ‘em and leave you there,” and I said, “No, I’m burnt out. I’m tired. I got to get out of here, really. This’ll be better for you and me and everybody involved, because of John Miller. Mr. Henderson didn’t get a raise one year, and he was part of the governor’s cabinet. He was a cabinet member. He wanted him to fire me, and he wouldn’t do it, and so I said, “We don’t have to put up with that kind of stuff. If I go out and leave you.”
Blevins: John Miller?
Simmons: Yeah. John: “Well, we just can’t figure. What I hear from up there, he’s still got his finger in the management over there, you know, and we can’t have that.” Blah, blah, blah. So he wanted me fired, but she wouldn’t do that. The governor said something to the effect that, “Well, if you don’t want to do it, I can put someone over there that will.” She said, “Well, I don’t think that would be good for any of us, you know,” kind of bucked him, you know, a bit, so he backed off of that, but anyway, that’s how come I moved down to Wynne. Village Creek. I moved my office down there, which was the very far end of my region. From a logistics standpoint it was ridiculous, but that’s where I ended up. Because by then I’d really sort of got the bits in my teeth, so to speak, and I was not going to . . . If I could keep that job till I could retire, I was going to do it, because I wanted the retirement, you know. From a selfish standpoint, and then just for my personal satisfaction, “Man, I’m going to beat those damn guys if it’s the last thing I ever do.”
Blevins: Was it a group of local people that kept everything stirred up?
Simmons: Yeah. Yeah.
Blevins: Going all the way back to your political days as mayor.
Simmons: Oh, yeah. That’s right. That’s exactly right. That’s where it all originated.
Blevins: They just wouldn’t let it die.
Simmons: That’s right. It was the old Faubus clique, you know. When I moved to Mountain View, I mean, the Faubus clique, they ran the place. I mean, they had control of the courthouse, the welfare department, and the sheriff’s office. Ruddell Storey was county judge. Bill Storey, his son, was the welfare director. Cullen Storey, his nephew, was the sheriff.
Blevins: Did a lot of that go back to them linking you with Rockefeller when you came in, or was it just that you had new ideas and wanted to do something different?
Simmons: That’s right, just because it was . . . Things were changing, you know. One of my very best friends over here was a member of the Craft Guild, and I hunted and fished. That guy, I loved him, you know. He’s dead now, but I just thought the world of him, we spent such good quality time together camping and fishing and such. But when I announced for mayor, it just made him so mad he couldn’t hardly stand it. He said, “I’m not going to vote for you.” I said, “What? You can’t mean that.” “Nope.” It was Epps Mabry. “I’m not going to vote for you.” I said, “Why?” He said, “You’re going to change things, and I don’t want nothing changed.” I said, “Well, I can understand that, but I could help. You’ve got five children. How many of them live in Mountain View and make a living here?” He said, “Not a one of them do.” “Wouldn’t you rather have your grandkids live closer to town? I think you need jobs.” It didn’t matter. It just didn’t matter. You just don’t change people like that, you know.
Blevins: What was their reason for not wanting to change things? Was it that they wanted to run things or they just didn’t want any new people in here?
Simmons: They just didn’t want the town to change any. They liked it when it was laid-back and there wasn’t any traffic on the streets and, you know - they just liked it the way it was.
Blevins: Wanted to be Mayberry.
Simmons: That’s right. That’s exactly right. That is exactly right.
Blevins: Well, I don’t know if they’re the same, but I guess there’s still a lot of political division in Stone County.
Simmons: I don’t have any idea at all, because I really . . . I read the Stone County paper, you know, the Leader, and apparently there is, because there’s some City Council that have been at odds with the Water Commission. They’ve fired them, and all kind of stuff. There’s something like that going on, seemingly, all the time, and I guess that won’t change, you know. But politics is something I have no desire to get close to. I go vote, and that’s the extent of what I do.
Blevins: You were mayor for four years?
Blevins: Was that two terms?
Simmons: No, that was one term. That was the first term where there was four-year terms for mayors. It had been two years up to then. Yeah, I think I won by - just off the top of my head - about 30 votes, or something like that, and I lost by 35. That’s just the way it was back then; the town was split, you know, and nobody was happier than I when I saw the returns come in because I really did . . . I would not have run had it not been . . . I just couldn’t walk away from the people that had supported me. I said, “Well, I’ll put my name up there,” but I don’t recall ever asking anybody to vote for me for no second term. I didn’t want it. It cost me too much money; it cost me too much time; it really had hurt my business. You know, I had good customers that, once I became mayor, wouldn’t come back in my store. They were on the other side of the political fence. And another thing, too: See, when I was mayor, I was also the municipal judge. Every Friday I had court. I had to get the kids up there for DWIs and reckless driving and things like this, and I didn’t have any favorites. They all looked the same when they got there, and so that made people mad at me, you know. So I needed to get out of the mayor’s office, and I was glad when I did. So glad.”
Blevins: Yeah. And that was Ackerman that beat you.
Simmons: Yeah. See, I beat him the first time. He ran against me when I went in, and I beat him that time by 30 votes, and then he beat me by some 35 or so.
Blevins: Would he have been part of the old Faubus clique?
Simmons: Oh, yes, absolutely. You bet. Yep. If I remember, the caption in the paper said, “Stone County Voters Take Three Storeys Out of the Courthouse.” I can look at all that now and it’s really funny, but at that particular time it wasn’t particularly funny. That’s just Stone County.
Blevins: Yeah. That interview mentioned a Mayor Gower. Was he right before you?
Simmons: Yeah. He was like 80 or 82 or -3 years old. Really, he shouldn’t have been in there. He was just sort of a figurehead. That’s all he was.
Blevins: He’s the one that wasn’t moving anything along.
Simmons: Yeah. He never got anything done. He was just the mayor. He drew his hundred dollars a month and that was it, you know. That’s what the mayor’s salary was then, a hundred dollars a month. Told ‘em I did it for the money. [laughs]
Blevins: Well, let’s see. That Folk Center Commission that was set up - I don’t guess there was any local people in there.
Simmons: Oh, yeah.
Blevins: Were there some on it?
Simmons: Oh, yes. Van Rosa, had the Rosa Drug Store. Joe Wyatt, he was on it for a long time. I believe Karen Lackey . . . No, she was in the One Hundred Women thing. I know those two at least were on the commission, local people.
Blevins: Now that’s the commission that Bessie Moore was on?
Simmons: Bessie, you betcha. You talk about a jewel of a person and a mover, now Bessie Moore was the thing now. I just loved that old lady. She was just the best I’ve ever seen at moving things. She was a politician par none, you know. She was just the best I ever saw. She and Wilbur Mills were just like this, you know. They were just bosom buddies and she was a big mover in this town. One time shortly after the place was opened up and they had a dedication thing and they had the . . . Well, it opened while Lona [Ackerman] was mayor, and so his name was up there, and we were standing there reading all of those and everything, and she said, “Well, I see Lona’s name up there, but you and I know what happened.” But Joe, bless his heart - and he insisted that I come to the dedication, you know - I think some of them wasn’t even going to invite me - The funniest thing, too, and David Newbern will tell you this. He’s now an Arkansas Supreme Court judge. Did you know that?
Blevins: No, I didn’t.
Simmons: Yeah, he is. David was an exceptionally nice man. I really liked David. But David had never dealt with these hillbilly folks, you know, like that . . .
Blevins: Where was he from?
Simmons: He was from Fayetteville. He was teaching up there; political science, I believe it was. So he came over here to run the Folk Center, and I was then demoted to operations manager, which meant I run the Folk Center, but you know, the name. His name was out front. And he had a young guy in his class - he told me about this; he was in his political science class - and he said, “Doc, you’re not really going to Mountain View, are you?” And he said, “Sure I am. You bet. I just can’t wait to get over there.” He said, “By God, them hillbillies’ll chew you up and spit you out.” Said, “Man, you got no business over there.” And about the time he was leaving he said, “Boy, that was one of the smartest kids I had in my class.” But they had a meeting over there in what we called The Dry Hole then, which was the Iron Skillet now, in that little room back there. He come to pour oil on the water, you know, and what could he do . . . “What can I do now to help with our community relations,” just things like that and - I’m not sure who it was - someone piped up and said, “Fire Tommy Simmons.” “Well,” he said, “I can’t do that,” and he said, “You just might as well hush.”
Blevins: How long was he here?
Simmons: About . . . just one season, I believe.
Blevins: Yeah. And that’s when you were still . . .
Simmons: I was out there. I was the operations manager; that was my title. He left, and Charley, and Porter left in the fall, and Bumpers, then, was still governor. They called me, and I went down to the office, and Buddy Surles and Mr. Henderson - Bill Henderson - and I went over to the governor’s office, and . . . You know, a lot of Dale Bumpers’s policies I don’t agree with; he’s too liberal to suit me, but one thing I admire in the man is he is very open. You never have to guess what he’s thinking. We heard how he felt that day about the Folk Center, and he said, “Y’all gotta just keep things from freezing up over there till next spring, you know. I’ll give you enough money to open the doors, but from then on you’re on your own.” “Okay.” And Buddy and them had asked me to stay on and manage the place during the winter, and they let me keep, I believe, four people on the payroll, and we stayed there all winter, and I came back and projected budgets for the next five months, whatever it was until April from that time, and I guess I was lucky, but I never did go over budget. I was always within the budget, and he funded that out of his contingency funds, which kept the place up, and he gave us oh, four or five thousand dollars to open up on, which was just to buy supplies, and it didn’t even do that. But luckily - we didn’t have enough money to meet the next payroll when we opened our doors at Festival time, but boy, we had a good Festival. We had a lot of people come, we made money, and from then on we were on our own. We made it, you know, we were out of it, but . . . It was iffy at the time. If they hadn’t have come, we’d have been closed down, maybe gone to some private group, I’m sure, or something like that.
Blevins: Maybe it was Bill McNeil or someone told me that the decision to drop the training aspect of the Folk Center was because the state said they wouldn’t take it over unless it was going to be money-making, unless it could pay for itself.
Simmons: Yeah. Supposedly it would be. Yeah. That was it. He thought it was too expensive. For budgetary reasons, I guess, is the clean way to say it, but that’s why he dropped it, and at that particular time, all of these little community colleges wasn’t so popular. If that would have happened, say, six or eight years ago, oh, they’d have jumped on it. That would have been the greatest opportunity in the world for a community college out here, you know, but that wasn’t popular yet. Its day hadn’t come.
Blevins: Well, with John Miller over there . . .
Simmons: That probably wouldn’t have, anyway.
Blevins: Yeah, it would have had to go to Melbourne.
Simmons: It’s like Nick Wilson said one day down there when they was trying to get all these budgets. He said, “I’m going to apply for one out at Fox, Arkansas, and you can call it Fox U.” He was a crook, but he was quite a guy.
Blevins: To the people in Little Rock, I guess this place up here must just seem like a nightmare.
Simmons: Well, it was. There ain’t no doubt about it.
Blevins: Feuding hillbillies and . . .
Simmons: Oh, yeah. No doubt about it. They was good people up here working, and they knew that, you know, so they stayed put because of that, but there was some folks that really gave them I mean a lot of problems. It was just a constant thing. Now, when I hired my first staff, I tried my best to hire - I had four positions to fill that were like head of food service, security, the lodge, and programming - so they sent me programming - that was Charley Sandage - and I hired a fellow to run the restaurant over there that had a restaurant downtown, and his wife was a sister to one of the real big politicians here, and he was on the Faubus side, no doubt about that. And then I hired Carson Fence - and I always felt like Carson was aligned with them, too - as head of security. No, I didn’t. Before I hired him, I hired a guy by the name of Ben Kent, and there was no doubt where he stood, you know. And then I hired a fellow over in food service, and he was . . . (?) . . . to start with. But he was more or less neutral. I guess it was . . . No, that was the guy down here . . . Anyway, down at the Lodge, June Burroughs, she was the Lodge manager, and she’s still the Lodge manager. She’s stayed there the whole time. A good person. But that was the four people I hired. But then Mr. Henderson got a letter from one of his wheeler-dealers up here and said, “If you don’t belong to just one political organization, you can’t get a job over there,” and he showed me that letter and I couldn’t believe it, because I knew the guy knew better, you know. I never did complain, but it didn’t make any difference. We just had to do what we had to do. Like you said, I don’t know how in the world, if John Miller had been around the place much, he’d have known that I never went back there again. I mean, I just literally was so glad to get away from that place. It was really telling on me, you know? I put in long hours lots of days. I’m not saying that to be boastful; I’m just saying it because it’s a fact, you know. That was a big reason I wanted to get away from it, politics and all that, but as long as I was there, they was always shooting at me.
Blevins: Yeah. I guess that’s probably the most profitable state park in the system, wouldn’t it be?
Simmons: That or Petit Jean. Petit Jean is a good park. The one down at De Gray, it should be. It’s got lots of . . . If they ever got that big lodge, but I just don’t know. Like I said, I’ve been out over ten years, so I don’t know. I don’t even have any idea how this place is doing here from a budgetary standpoint.
Blevins: Now, what was your title after you left and got switched over - the rest of your career?
Simmons: I was manager, you know, director of the state park, of the Folk Center. I was promoted back to it. I was running the place.
Blevins: Okay, that last year you was here.
Blevins: And then what was your title when you moved out of the Folk Center?
Simmons: I was the regional supervisor.
Blevins: And that’s what you were the rest of the time?
Simmons: That’s right. I stayed as a regional until I retired.
Blevins: Was that the northeast region, or how did they do that?
Simmons: Actually, when I first did it, I had the northwest region, and this was in the corner of that, but I still had Mammoth Springs and Bull Shoals, Devil’s Den back toward Fayetteville, and Whistler Springs, and . . . I had thirteen parks. And that went on until they realigned the parks, and then they realigned them to try to get them grouped better together, and then I lost Petit Jean and Devil’s Den, Withrow, and I kept everything over in northeast Arkansas, including the one down at Wynne. That was in my region, and when I moved down there, of course that’s when they did the realignment, when they moved me down there, in order to have me in my region.
Blevins: Let’s see. Was Driftwood fired, or did he quit?
Simmons: I really don’t know. I can’t say for sure about that.
Blevins: Yeah. Because I’ve seen . . . Well, like you said, the paper reported that you were fired, and I . . . The one thing I wrote about the Folk Center in my book . . . Well, I wrote a bunch about the Folk Center, but I think I even had you getting fired in the book, because I just used what it said in the newspaper, and I wish I hadn’t done that.
Simmons: When that came out, my mom, who - I’m getting older now - I went up there and she was crying, and I said, “What’s wrong?” She said, “I didn’t know you got fired.” I said, “Oh, I didn’t. I never did miss a payday, nothing . . . What I did, I did on my own.” And she said, “Well, look at the paper,” and that’s when Franks said . . . Oh, that really infuriated me, so I had a talk with Mr. Franks, and he retracted it the next day.
Blevins: Yeah. I guess I didn’t catch the retraction.
Simmons: He put it on the back page, of course.
Blevins: Oh, yeah.
Simmons: And I told him, “Don’t you ever, ever put my name in your paper again.” And he never did, as far as I know. I don’t remember him ever putting it in there again. He might have whupped me, but boy, I was mad enough right then to take him outside if he’d go with me, because that really burned me up, because he was writing about something he didn’t know anything about, see, and he was on the other side of that political faction. He was on my back from the time I was elected till I got out, you know, because he was their mouthpiece. They punched his buttons and he typed it in.
Blevins: Yeah. Well, let’s see. I can’t . . . You retired ten years ago?
Blevins: And moved back up here?
Blevins: And you were in Wynne up until that time?
Simmons: No, actually I moved my office to Fairfield Bay. My mom and dad - I’m the only child - my mom and dad, Dad particularly, got ill. He’d had a couple of light strokes, and I either had to quit or move my office. I was just too far away. I couldn’t look after them. And I owned this little place there that adjoins them already; I’d bought it several years before, so the Parks Department said, “Well, we’ll just move you up closer to home,” and I said, “Well, let me go to Fairfield Bay, and I’ll find some office room over there, and the guy that was the representative up here was also worked for Fairfield Bay, and of course he was interested in me finding office space there at Fairfield Bay, so after I found the office space, I said, “Now, you’re going to need to call John and tell him that you’ve rented me some office space,” and he did. John argued with him, and he said, “Now, look, John. You know, this is it.” He was another representative, so . . . That’s the only way we could have ever got that done, literally, you know.
Blevins: Let’s see. Anything else that we didn’t cover about that that you think’s important?
Simmons: No, not really, I don’t guess. One of these days, if I had time, I’d like to set down and write a book.
Blevins: I tell you what, this . . .
Simmons: It’d be that thick. A lot of things happened that . . .
Blevins: People wouldn’t believe half of it.
Simmons: . . . really recall, start recalling that stuff, you know. Amazing. Absolutely.
Blevins: Yeah. You could make it into a movie. Part of it would be comedy and part would be tragedy. I don’t know what-all. But it’s kind of a crazy story when you get into it.
Simmons: No doubt about it.
Blevins: Do you think - all that happened thirty and more years ago - that Mountain View today . . . What do you think some of those early folks would think about it today?
Simmons: Oh, I think that . . . Most of them are gone, most of the people who opposed it. The greater portion of them are already gone. I think the people in town basically support the Folk Center. I think they see its worth, and I think they support it, you know, any way they can, and the population of Mountain View has changed a lot since I was here. There’s been an influx of people who are not ingrained in one side or the other. When I came here, it was like Bush said the other day: “You’re either for us or you’re against us.” You’re either on one side or the other. There was no middle ground. You absolutely . . . If you tried to stay in the middle, neither of them liked you, you know, so to have friends you had to line up one way or another. But that’s different now. It really is. If I can see it . . . From what little I can see about politics, I don’t see that split that once was here at all. I think that time has healed a lot of that, and new faces more than anything else has helped.
Blevins: Yeah. Well, I appreciate your sitting for the interview.
Simmons: I hope I’ve helped you a little.
Blevins: You certainly have. A bunch of information I didn’t know, so that’s good, and I appreciate it.