MAMMOTH SPRING -- This summer will mark the 112th year folks from northern Arkansas and southern Missouri, as well as other parts of the country, have met on the banks of the Spring River in tribute and celebration.
The Old Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Air Force Reunion will once again be held at Mammoth Spring State Park Aug. 2-7.
The week-long celebration is an important occasion for the entire area and is sponsored by Mammoth Spring VFW Post 7831 and Ladies Auxiliary.
History of the reunion follows:
Several years before the event was officially organized in 1893, hard feelings lingered between those who opposed each other during the Civil War.
The Mammoth Spring community, being in Arkansas, had sided with the Confederacy in the war and some of its close neighbors to the north, just over the state line in Missouri, had supported the Union.
Research shows the two communities were close-knit as it is today, but often families were separated by the war.
The two opposing factions would gather by the Mammoth Spring to discuss their differences. Old timers say these gatherings were not always friendly and cordial. Many a blow was exchanged over by the old mill on the banks of the river, often between friends, neighbors and family members.
Before long, the opposing veterans were bringing their families and picnics; thus the Reunion had begun.
In 1883, Capt. Mack Archer of the Confederacy was elected president of the reunion, and Capt. A.L. Cooper of the Union Army was chosen as vice president, and it was called "the Blue and Gray Reunion."
The Mammoth Spring, one of the seven wonders of Arkansas and located near the site of the Civil War Battle of Spring River on the Missouri-Arkansas border, seemed an excellent site for drawing the "Boys in Blue" from the North and the "Boys in Gray" from the South.
The official opening was announced at sunrise on the first day by the roar of a cannon and a belch of black smoke over the Mammoth Spring.
The cannon was again fired Aug. 14, 1993, at the reunion's 100th anniversary.
The old cannon used to be on wheels, but it was always in danger of being pushed into the water, so the wheels were removed. The cannon has since been cemented in place and its final resting place is the pavilion at the park.
The first reunion was three days and three nights long with people coming together cooking and visiting.
There was some discussion what flag should be flown at the reunion: the Stars and Stripes, the blue flag for the northern states, or the gray flag for the Confederacy.
Reunion organizers finally decided on the Stars and Stripes. Reunions of recent years have flown the American Flag and the Arkansas Flag.
The first reunion-goers found they couldn't meet every year on the Fourth of July as the summer crops were not gathered, so they decided to meet a week each year in August so anyone who couldn't make in one day probably could make it another day.
On Wednesday of reunion week decades ago there was always a parade with participants meeting at the Methodist Church on Main Street in Mammoth Spring.
The parade went west across the old bridge that was always lit up with red, white and blue lights at Reunion time.
Will Hackus was called Mr. Parade because he always led the event.
Fife and drum corps participated and floats drawn by horses and mules carried northern and southern soldiers who were dressed in blue and gray and were singing songs.
The parade marched down Main Street amid cheers of bystanders, then crossed the bridge, ending at the reunion grounds which was crowded with excited, laughing people. There was a great amount of back slapping and reminiscing. Speaking was the order of the day whether it was an election year or not. The children also had their games, but the main attraction to them was the mule-drawn merry-go-round.
At sunset, the old cannon was always fired and a huge bonfire was built, and everyone sat around telling stories of adventure in the Civil War and singing songs like "Old Black Joe" and "Tenting in the Old Camp Ground."
In 1919, the management of the annual event was turned over to the newly-founded American Legion Forest-Stone Post No. 55, which carried on the custom, calling it the Reunion of the Soldiers, Sailors and Marines.
In 1975, Mammoth Spring Langston-Vincent Lunn VFW Post 7831 started managing the annual reunion, and added the Air Force to the other service organizations mentioned in the original title.
In recent reunions, the carnival has been the main attraction at the event, replacing the bonfires, old soldiers' stories, fife and drum and the mule drawn merry-go-round.
The carnival will no doubt be a strong point at this year's reunion, but there will also be some events reminiscent of reunions past, thanks to the event's organizers, the Mammoth Spring VFW and Ladies Auxiliary.