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Friday, May 6, 2016

Wahpeton Inn: The little inn that could

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The first Wahpeton Inn, a frame structure built by Dr. and Mrs. George Gillespie Buford. The inn burned in 1932.
The history of tourism in the Spring River area goes back to the turn of the century when the first resort was established in Hardy by a Memphis physician who fell in love with the area. The city of Hardy itself was spawned in Sharp County due mostly to the growth of the railroads during the early 1900s, but the tourism industry was also largely responsible for substantial growth at the turn of the century. According to published records and books, The Wahpeton Inn on Wahpeton Hill in Hardy was the areas first resort and the humble beginnings of what would eventually be responsible for making Hardy a lifelong tourist destination.

Hardy was developed on 600 acres of land owned by Walker Clayton. The town was established to service the needs of travelers and named after Independence County railroad developer James A. Hardy. At the turn of the century, the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Memphis railroads connected Hardy to Memphis, making the area a hub for travelers. Wahpeton Hill lies on the south side of the Spring River and overlooks what today is known as Main Street Hardy. According to historical reports, the hill was named after the Indians who once lived near the river and held their annual Indian Olympic Games in the field that is now Loberg Park. The name Wahpeton means, "Home among the leaves."

In 1908, a prominent Memphis physician, George Gillespie Buford, and his wife were detained in Hardy while on a train trip to the area. While the mechanical issues with the train were being repaired, Buford and his wife climbed the nearby Wahpeton Hill and fell in love with the beauty of the area. The next summer, the couple came back to Hardy and purchased 50 acres of land on which they built a summer cottage as a getaway from the city.

A view from Wahpeton Hill overlooking Hardy in the 1920s.
Over the following years, the Buford's purchased more land including Jordan and East Wahpeton Hill and in 1912 the couple built 10 guest cottages on their property and the Wahpeton Inn. The inn was very exquisite and through his Memphis connections, Buford began to promote the area to other residents of the city. According to the book "Hill Folk," Buford nicknamed the area the "Playground to the Ozarks." The original Wahpeton Inn was a frame structure and was visited by many until its untimely demise by fire around 1932.

Buford also sold river lots and successfully developed more land and directed many to the area for their summer vacations. Many Memphis residents, who came to visit the area for the summer, eventually relocated causing substantial growth to the railroad town.

Hardy's population was 508 in 1930, but the visitor population was nearly 1,000 per day during the summer months. By the 1920s the town's tourism industry and summer camps led to major economic development for the Sharp County area near the Spring River.

What remains of the Guthries Wahpeton Inn that is incorported into the architecture of Guthrie and Eileene Castle's home today.
Besides railroad service, at this time Hardy also boasted bus service, making the trek from larger cities easier for tourists. In the 1920s Main Street Hardy was beginning to boom with a bank, two cafés, two drug stores, a Ford dealership and a grocery store.

By 1920, the group of Memphians, who had been directed to Hardy through Buford's endeavors, had established several well known summer camps that are still used today. Girl Scout Camp Kiwani was created in 1920; Miramichee was built by the YWCA and Boy Scout Camp Kia Kima were both constructed in 1916 as well as an area orphanage. These organizations were sponsored by Memphis' churches. In 1920, St. Mary's Episcopal Church was created, a beacon of wealth and influence in stark contrast with the smaller area churches that dominated the county in the early 20th century.

The Wahpeton Inn operated very successfully through the depression years when other tourist towns were not nearly as successful. Buford always credited the success of the inn to the beauty of the area and the Spring River's crystal clear waters. The Wahpeton Inn burned in 1932. The same year the inn burned, Blytheville businessman Lloyd Ward mimicked Buford's tourist cottage idea and constructed Rio Vista on the banks of the Spring River. Rio Vista operated a very successful business until the 1950s.

Judge and Mrs. Frank Gutherie bought the Wahpeton Inn after the fire that destroyed the structure and rebuilt it. The new Guthrie Wahpeton Inn added even more amenities than the original, including a bowling alley, shuffleboard court, a dance floor and tennis courts. The inn was built of native stone and the floors were flagstone and all the furniture was native oak. Visitors were treated to an orchestra, coffee shop and family style meals, much like the sought after bed and breakfasts in the area offer today's tourists.

Guthrie's grandson, Guthrie Castle. and his wife Eileene, currently live on the beautiful mountainside in what is left of the structure overlooking Hardy. Castle, also a Memphis native, said he remembers coming to the inn every summer as a child. He also remembers his grandparents working to rebuild and open the inn. Castle has pictures of the fire that ultimately destroyed the stone structure Nov. 13, 1939. The stone arches and the large end portion of the massive structure are all that remain, other than the memories so many vacationers had of the Guthrie's Wahpeton Inn.

The original arches from the stone structure have been incorporated into the architecture at the end of their home in a very large screen room type setting that appears very relaxing and scenic. Eileene Castle said they moved into the home in 1992 or 93. The decor housed within this wonderful piece of history is very nostalgic and comforting. An elegantly framed photo collage of the structure at its prime makes its home very near the entryway. The serene beauty of Hardy can be seen from all the rooms on the backside of their home.

The odd shaped guest cottages are still visible near the Castle's driveway. Over three quarters of a century after the resort's creation, it is easy to see why Wahpeton Hill was such a sought after destination, much the same as the beauty of the Spring River and historic Hardy continues to beckon tourists to the area.

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