Since its founding, Siloam Springs has been a destination for nature lovers. Situated in the Ozarks, the town is surrounded by rolling hills, green forests, and winding streams and rivers. The summer heat in the region can be stifling, making water activities popular. Near Siloam, locals and visitors alike love to entertain themselves in the Illinois River, floating leisurely, fishing, or kayaking.
In the 1920’s, a businessman from Tulsa named Julius K. Livingston noticed the beauty of the region around the Illinois River and decided it would make an excellent place for a nature resort. In 1926, he and some partners bought around 1,200 acres on the Illinois River a few miles south of Siloam Springs on Highway 59 and developed what he called Forest Park. The resort’s land fell in both Oklahoma and Arkansas. He built a dam on the portion of the river which ran through the property, creating a 70 acre lake. In addition to the lake, the resort featured a large hotel, outdoor and indoor dining, a ballroom, a golf course, tennis courts, walking trails, a swimming pool, and more. This week’s featured photograph was donated to the museum in 1986 and shows two women enjoying the outdoor dining facilities at Forest Park. Behind the women on the left side of the photograph, a large, stylized map shows diners the locations of the park’s amenities.
The museum’s archives has no shortage of photos showing the offerings of Forest Park. The resort was mostly marketed toward wealthy Tulsa oil executives who needed a weekend getaway. As such, it was dotted with many weekend cabins for rent or for sale, and on one occasion, a cabin was given away in a contest. Some of these cabins were secluded in the woods, while others were in a small neighborhood, as shown in the second photo below.
Though it was marketed to the Tulsa wealthy, locals from Siloam Springs still enjoyed lake activities, golf, and dances at the resort. The ballroom at Forest Park was reported to have a dance floor large enough for several hundred couples.
In 1927, James Wallace Sloan gained the controlling interest in Forest Park and renamed the area Lake Frances after his daughter. After only a short period of time, the lake’s dam had already seen some damage from flooding. Sloan commissioned Caldeen Gunter II (a descendant of one of the founders of the Hico settlement) to build the dam higher to prevent the damage from being repeated.
Unfortunately, Gunter was driven into bankruptcy by the Great Depression before construction on the dam was completed. Construction was continued by someone else until it was finally finished. However, this dam was also damaged by flooding. Thus, in 1954, the City of Siloam Springs bought Lake Frances to serve as a water source and a recreation area once the dam was repaired. For the next three and a half decades, the area was used by swimmers, fishermen, and summer camps.
Once again, the dam received flood damage. In 1989, Lake Frances was drained to prevent a catastrophic break which would have caused extensive damage down river. Once the lake was gone, the land around it was bought by several private citizens, and today it no longer serves as a recreational area. Most of the buildings which made up the facilities of Forest Park are no longer standing. However, driving through the old resort area (being sure to stay on public roads), one can still see the Lake Frances sign on Highway 59 and the chimneys of the now razed cabins standing alone in the trees.
Though Lake Frances is gone, the Illinois River is once again an attraction for nature lovers. It is a popular destination for those who love to fish or float, and the Siloam Springs Kayak Park sits not far from where Lake Frances once was.
Written by Chuck McClary
Hico, a Heritage: Siloam Springs History by Maggie Smith
Images of America: Siloam Springs by Don Warden
Siloam Springs Museum
Siloam Springs Museum Archives