The Town of Gilbert, Arkansas:  Open for Business Despite Recent Rains

By Jill M. Rohrbach, Ark. Dept. of Parks and Tourism

First posted on 05-16-2008

Gilbert, Ark.—The “Coolest Town in Arkansas” is open for business despite being one of the wettest towns in The Natural State this spring. But what makes Gilbert prone to flooding is also what draws visitors to it. Gilbert is laid out along the banks of the rugged and free-flowing Buffalo National River in the Ozark Mountains.

Located just off of U.S. 65 on Ark. 333, the town partially flooded and Ark. 333 washed out four times during the storms and heavy rains that made national headlines several weeks ago. The campground at Buffalo Camping and Canoeing flooded twice, picnic tables floated away and water rose within three inches of the floor of one of the cabins located in the flood plain.

“The last big flood that we had was in 1982 and 1915 before that. This was the third one on record,” said Ben Fruehauf, owner of Buffalo Camping and Canoeing located at The Gilbert General Store. He added that his businesses’ picnic tables have been replaced and the rebuilding of the bathroom is almost complete.

“We’re ready for next weekend and for Memorial Day,” Fruehauf said.

The main draw for tourists is camping and canoeing at the Buffalo. And in a town with a population of only about 20, visitors can easily outnumber locals. Fruehauf said the 2000 census set the town’s population at 33, the delineation on the sign marking the city limit; but the number of residents has dropped since then.

Don’t let its size fool you. Gilbert may be a tiny town, but it is big on beauty and charm. “It’s a Norman Rockwell picture of America,” Fruehauf explained. “People come to Gilbert to get a different mindset. They’re in high gear and by the time they leave they will be in granny. They walk to the river, flip a rock in the water, take a swim, float the buffalo—an un-orchestrated vacation.”

The main road through Gilbert ends at the soft gravel bar providing access to the scenic river. The nation’s first federally protected stream, the Buffalo National River meanders through the Ozarks for almost 150 miles. The middle section is noted for its beautiful limestone bluffs, smallmouth bass, and year-round floating.

The Gilbert General Store, built in 1901, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places under the name Mays Store. The community was founded in 1902 when a railroad construction camp for the Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad was built and named in honor of Charles W. Gilbert, secretary-treasurer of Allegheny Supply Company, which was building the railroad. In 1906, William Mays moved his store and post office from Duff, located a few miles away.

Gilbert was a hub for commerce. Cotton, logs, ore and grain came by rail. Gilbert was eventually the home to a repair shop for the railroad, which ceased operation in 1946. While the tracks were removed and sold as scrap, there are still signs of the railroad where the old concrete supports crossed the Buffalo River. The former rail bed is now a hiking route along the river.

Today, Gilbert contains a few homes, guest houses and cabins for rent, and camping facilities. Remnants of old homesteads provide a hint of its past.

The Gilbert General Store is still in operation, providing supplies and hunting and fishing licenses. Fruehauf described it as a scaled down 7 Eleven offering a selection of T-shirts, knick knacks, beverages, sandwiches, snacks, charcoal, automotive needs and more.

“It’s a live working museum,” he said. He’s been adding old signs, memorabilia and other items to the store since he and his wife Cindy purchased it in 1988. “When you come in the first question I ask people is what decade do you go back to?” For Fruehauf it’s 1940. “I give tours. Of course we only have three aisles,” he joked.

He runs his camping and canoeing rental business from the store too. His campground, which is also open for tent camping, consists of 16 RV sites with power and water and bathrooms with sinks, toilets and hot water. The facilities have been extended to include horse campers. There are eight horse stalls.

Just down the street, the only other business in town is The Gilbert Café feeding diners in the area – locals and tourists. It’s a blue plate special locale serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Gilbert holds the self-proclaimed title of “Coolest Town in Arkansas.” When Fruehauf held a city councilman position back in the 80s, he suggested the tongue-in-cheek motto as a way to describe the town’s weather and its people. “It holds true today,” he said. “It is the coldest place on average here in the State of Arkansas and it has some neat people.”

Attractions near Gilbert are Blanchard Springs Caverns, Hurricane River Cave, Mystic Caverns and Ozark Folk Center State Park.

Article courtesy of Arkansas Dept. of Parks and Tourism