Originally published: Memphis Magazine, Volume XXXII No. 8, November 2012
Martha McKay’s love affair with Arkansas’ iconic Horseshoe Plantation.
By Michael Finger
The farmers and planters who lived and worked around Horseshoe Lake, Arkansas, never forgot the Sunday morning of October 5, 1930.
As they headed homeward from the tiny churches whose steeples stand like white sentinels in the green fields of cotton, soybeans, and alfalfa, they witnessed an astonishing sight. A fleet of a dozen airplanes dropped, one by one, out of the clouds, and roared towards the ground. The pilots seemed to be in hot pursuit of a young fellow in a Ford jalopy, weaving crazily across the dirt roads, as he desperately tried to escape bombs dropped on him from the planes. As the witnesses watched in horror, the car received two direct hits, and for a few seconds, disappeared in a cloud of white smoke. But then, miraculously, the driver survived, the planes banked and flew off over the horizon, and the Ford drove away.
What everyone saw that day was not an aerial assault on the peaceful farming, fishing, and hunting community that lies just 30 minutes away from Memphis. No, this was the First Annual Horseshoe Aeronautical Sweepstakes, just one of many spectacular events organized by Robert and Grace Snowden, owners of one of the wealthiest and largest plantations in eastern Arkansas. Their home at the northwest crescent of the lake became a magnet for wonderful, sometimes wild adventures, including that afternoon in 1943 when two members of British royalty . . .
But wait, let’s start at the beginning.
“It was the absolute best farmland.”
Two centuries ago, Horseshoe Lake was nothing more than a tight bend in the Mississippi River. The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 changed all that; the upheaval shifted the main channel of the river eastward, leaving an oxbow lake that became a haven for creatures that swam, flew, slithered, and crawled. Horseshoe is actually five separate lakes; the largest is Horseshoe, but the crescent embraces four smaller lakes and ponds: Porter, Bushy, Goose, and Mud. Over the years, a few families settled in the area, and eventually cotton plantations owned by longtime Arkansas families — Taylor, Zanone, Beck, and others — moved in.
But it was the Snowden family who really put Horseshoe Lake, just 3o miles southwest of Memphis, on the map, and any discussion of that family needs to go back to their beginnings. Way back.
An outsider trying to trace the family tree is usually befuddled because of the Snowdens’ penchant for naming their boys Robert or John. In fact, the first Snowden who came to America from the family home in Scotland in the 1600s was John Snowden. But sitting in the living room of the Snowden House on an October morning, Martha McKay, current owner of the property and the granddaughter of Robert and Grace, starts with the man everyone called “The Colonel.”
“My grandfather’s grandfather was Robert Bogardus Snowden, and he was a colonel in the Civil War,” she says. “After the war, he was involved with land, banking, businesses, and everything to do with building a city.”
This is the Snowden who served under Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Who gave Jefferson Davis the horse he was riding when the president of the collapsed Confederacy was captured. Who formed a partnership to build our city’s first streetcar system. And who dwelled in the magnificent Annesdale mansion, the centerpiece of a 200-acre estate on what is now Lamar Avenue in Memphis.
His son was also named Robert, but most people knew him as R. Brinkley Snowden, though his family called him “Pot o’ Tea.” Was he shaped like a pot of tea? Was he unusually fond of drinking it? “I just don’t know why he was called that,” says McKay, laughing. Continuing in the family business, the son was a successful land developer, acclaimed as “one of this city’s great real estate barons.” Among other accomplishments, he designed and built Ashlar Hall, still standing on Central Avenue in Memphis.
And it was at Ashlar Hall where Robert Bogardus Snowden Jr. was born in 1896. He grew up in Memphis and studied agriculture at Sewanee, where he met a charming lady from Knoxville named Grace Mountcastle. They planned to marry, but the First World War interfered, and Bob (as everyone called him) became a pilot while Grace volunteered as a nurse. “Her parents wouldn’t let them marry until the war was over,” says McKay, “so she trained as a nurse because she figured if he got injured she could nurse him.”
They both survived the war unharmed, got married, and looked for a place to settle down. Bob wanted to farm, so one day, McKay says, “he flew over here and picked out this spot from the air. It ended up being the absolute best farmland in this whole area.”
And so, in 1919, the Horseshoe Plantation was born. McKay sorts through a box of ancient photos and pulls out an image of the original home. It bears no resemblance to the Snowden House today. Instead, it’s a large but rather modest fishing cabin, raised on brick piers, with a screened porch stretching across the front. The house had one bathroom, and the only source of heat was a single fireplace. Air conditioning? You opened the windows in the summer.
The story goes that, with no decent roads in the area, the Snowdens transported everything they needed down the Mississippi River, and then mules hauled the newlyweds’ belongings to their new home. McKay laughs at tales she heard about her grandmother’s first days here.
“Grandmother was a very refined woman, and she was exposed to ‘ruffians’ — people she had never encountered before,” she says. “She came out here thinking she would have fresh eggs and vegetables, but obviously those things don’t just spring out of the ground. You have to develop a farm first.”
The Horseshoe Plantation — sometimes marked on maps as the Snowden Plantation — thrived, with more than 1,000 acres devoted to high-grade cotton. Bob maintained an interest in other business ventures in Memphis, becoming one of the founders of the Wolf River Watershed Association, the Cotton Carnival, and many other civic endeavors, as did his wife. In the late 1920s, though, he returned to his first love — flying — and founded Command-Aire, to design and manufacture a luxury personal airplane called The Little Rocket (the factory was in Little Rock). McKay shows a leather scrapbook with old plans, photos, and colorful magazine ads for the plane, which enticed customers with lines like, “Caress the nose of this Command-Aire while father fondles the bill.”
Command-Aire wasn’t just a pipe dream. The company built and sold some 350 of these sleek yellow-and-blue biplanes. The story goes that Douglas Aviation offered to buy the fledgling company, but Bob responded, “No, thanks. Someday I’m going to buy you.” (To that, McKay says, “It sounds just like Grandfather!”)
Maybe he should have taken that offer. The timing couldn’t have been worse. “He raised all this money and got prominent Memphians involved,” says McKay, “and then the Depression hit, and all of a sudden, there was no market for such an extravagance. He lost everything.”
Well, not everything. Command-Aire closed, but Bob still had the plantation, so he came back to Horseshoe. According to an Arkansas Gazette article, he told reporters, “As an airplane manufacturer, I turned out to be a damn good farmer.”
He certainly kept his sense of humor when times got tough. Just as the Depression started, he formulated his First Annual Horseshoe Aeronautical Sweepstakes. Elaborate printed programs have survived from this 1930 event, which involved more than a dozen of his friends with private planes following clues that he had concealed in the fields and farms of the region. The introduction begins, “Any dumb novice — or other kind — can enter without being an impediment to others, so we expect you to shove your ship right smack down the line in every single event.”
A “Rough Map of the Smooth Country Carelessly Drawn” shows landing fields in the area and identifies the Snowden House as “Home of Thirsty Pilots.” It cautions those pilots, “Now all the fields where you should be / Are marked as you can plainly see. So don’t go dropping down kerplunk / On unmarked fields or you’ll be sunk.”
The day’s events included a scavenger hunt, landing stunts, and the aforementioned “Bombing Contest.” The fellow in the car was a Snowden employee, and those “bombs” were just harmless bags of flour. The best bombardiers were awarded prizes: “First, Second, and Perhaps.” Afterwards, everyone was invited to “the Old Homestead for ‘special’ refreshments and food if desired. On the stroke of 5:15 p.m. you’ll be asked in a nice way to take the air (not given it), which will be a mild hint to be on your way. . . . It is only a matter of 15 minutes to the Municipal Field in Memphis, which is telling you something, but not hinting.”
Among many other special events in the long history of the Snowdens is the day in 1943 when Lord and Lady Halifax of Great Britain stopped by, according to family lore as part of a fund-raising trip they were making across America during World War II. Photos exist of the couple enjoying a spot of tea — served in the Snowdens’ best silver and china, with family members gathered outside around a table crafted from a massive slice of a giant California Redwood. It’s too bad that we have no record of the Lord and Lady’s impressions of this rustic yet refined environment.
“I never met anyone like her.”
If Bob and Grace Snowden come across as colorful characters, that’s the way everyone seems to remember them.
“My grandfather was a very well-loved man, and he loved his family,” says McKay. “When he walked into the room he was the center of everything. He was just a large personality, and everything revolved around him.”
He also made important contributions to the world around him. He was enshrined in the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame for his “outstanding achievements and contribution to the development of aviation in the state of Arkansas and the nation.” He earned a special citation from the Memphis Agricultural Club for his innovative farming techniques. Among them, “Mr. Snowden realized that a soil-rebuilding program was necessary if his rich acres were to maintain their original fertility [and] he promptly started the use of cover crops long before the government advocated soil building on a national basis.”
McKay also has special memories of her grandmother, which she included in a senior thesis she prepared on her family, “Four Generations of Southern Women,” while attending the University of Washington.
“Ever since I was a little child, I was mystified by her and her ways,” she writes. “She was a lady in the formal sense of the word: dignified, well-mannered, and graceful. She was always well-groomed with her hair done up and attired in dress and stockings. . . . I never met anyone like her. She lived a privileged life, to be sure, but she was grateful for her blessings and made it a point to raise us with a sense of appreciation for the beauty of life.”
McKay says, quite simply, that her family “was never wanting for anything, and we were always comfortable.” At the same time, her family — and especially her grandparents — made sure to help those less fortunate than themselves. Bob was actively involved in the church in Arkansas and donated money so that Holy Cross Episcopal in West Memphis could build a school. Closer to home, he donated money to build a school for children of the tenant farmers at Horseshoe, naming it Arthur Evans School after one of his own employees. For her part, Grace served as board president of the Crippled Children’s Hospital and the Memphis Art Academy, and board member of the Memphis Garden Club and the Salvation Army.
The family grew. Three daughters and a son were born, and the Snowdens outgrew the fishing cabin. “So what you see today is a complete expansion of that, into a more formal home,” says McKay.
In 1949, the Snowdens hired Everett R. Wood, one of Memphis’ most prominent architects, to transform their simple home into a Southern showplace. Tucked away in an upstairs closet, McKay found the original blueprints for the renovation, and it’s such a comprehensive and seamless revision that it’s hard to determine what areas remain of the original structure.
What Wood did was turn a one-story dwelling into a three-story, 6,000-square-foot home on a grand scale. The main (or second) floor was transformed into an inviting living room, dining room, bedrooms, and kitchen with butler’s pantry. The master bedroom offers a panoramic view of the lake. A third floor was added, identified on the drawings as a nursery, with two more bedrooms and a bath.
The original ground floor was little more than a covered space below the original house. Workers scooped out dirt to allow more headroom, and the bottom floor now holds a cozy den, bathrooms, and dressing rooms — a more casual living area than the rest of the house, with wonderful views of the lake.
The crowning touch was the creation of the front entry hall. That entire two-story space, with its sweeping staircase, black-and-white marble floor, and Greek Revival portico, simply didn’t exist on the old building. “My grandparents were world-class travelers, and they had seen an antebellum plantation home in Louisiana, and that’s supposedly what my grandmother patterned this home after,” says McKay.
Bringing everything full circle were ornate mirrors, a glimmering chandelier, and a Carrara marble fireplace that originally graced the Snowden family home in Memphis, Ashlar Hall.
The Louisiana look apparently impressed the producers of the 1994 movie The Client, starring Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones, because the Snowden House was featured in the movie — as a home in suburban New Orleans! “I still find people wandering around the property who say, ‘We just wanted to see the home in the movie,’” says McKay.
“People don’t realize how close it is.”
But change was coming. McKay’s mother, Sally, married a professional actor from New York named David McKay, and after living a few years at Horseshoe, they moved away to San Francisco and other places on the West Coast, taking the children with them.
“Mother would bring us back for the summer and leave us here,” says McKay. “It was just wonderful. I felt like I was royalty, with the big house and servants. Everything was fresh from the garden, fresh eggs and all, and we even had a peach orchard. We got to swim every day, and it was just ideal. Both my grandparents just loved having a houseful of kids, and they showed it.”
But soon that blissful isolation would end.
A city slicker who ventures along the 13-mile highway that encircles Horseshoe Lake discovers a natural paradise. The shores are dotted with ancient bald cypress trees, and clusters of massive lilypads — some of them two feet across — form floating islands in the lake. Flocks of white egrets nest in the trees, and occasionally a Great Blue Heron will flash out of the cattails. It was only a matter of time before more people discovered this secret world, liked what they found there, and began to establish their homes at Horseshoe.
Some of the first homes went up in the 1950s, along Bream and Bass Roads, at the northeastern sweep of the lake. Many of these were originally tenant farmers’ houses built by the Snowdens, who then leased them out to friends from Memphis and Little Rock who enjoyed the solitude of Horseshoe Lake. Other plantation owners in the area began to sell off their lakefront properties when they realized an acre here and there was more valuable for growing homes than cotton.
By the 1970s, some 150 families had settled around the lake; in a 1994 article, this magazine profiled the growing creative community that could be found at Horseshoe — restaurateur Karen Carrier, artists Peggy Turley and Carol DeForest, architect Coleman Coker, and many others.
Meanwhile, developers laid out a little town along the southeast shore of the lake. The original covenants included special provisions for the minimum size of the homes to be constructed (900 square feet), and stipulations such as no farm animals allowed on the property. Three narrow roads — Highland, Lake Estates, and Lakeview — ran parallel to the lake, and intersecting streets completed the development. Every house, it seems, had spindly piers jutting out into the lake for the owners’ boats or jet-skis, and in these parts, a Chevy Silverado was the vehicle of choice, for towing boats or farm equipment.
Family groceries opened up here and there on the highways leading into the community. An old fishing camp reopened as Kamp Karefree, complete with boat ramp, fishing pier, and a ramshackle building that became a great place to hang out and get a decent meal. A nice chapel, St. Mary of the Lake, opened on Highway 131, crafted from materials salvaged when the Convent of the Good Shepherd in Memphis was demolished in the 1960s.
Horseshoe Lake resident Nikki Walker is writing a book on the history of the area, a work in progress for the past eight years. Her husband, Jimmy, built a tiny house on Horseshoe Point in 1987.
“Jimmy was one of the top barefoot skiers in the world,” she says, “but he lost the use of his legs in an airplane accident. He liked to come here and fish, and he originally built this place just so he could have a place to relax when he wasn’t fishing.” Jimmy came from Raleigh, and Nikki was raised in Ellendale. When they married in 1984, she moved to Horseshoe and decorated their new home with a pair of booths, lights, and the big dining-room mural from the old Pat’s Pizza on Summer.
Her husband passed away earlier this year, but Nikki is determined to finish her book. “I was a librarian and a teacher and kept getting misinformation about the lake,” she says, “so I hope my book will help.”
Photographer Jack Kenner, whose work appears on the cover and in this article, bought his house on Lakeview Drive in 1987. “I’m actually in the town of Horseshoe, because of the fire department and the sheriff, and we know people living here at night. Around the lake, it’s kind of empty during the week.”
Kenner and his wife, Laurence, have completely revamped and expanded their home, and the property now includes a separate building for his photography gallery. “Here’s the great thing about Horseshoe,” he says. “It is just 30 minutes from downtown Memphis, and you can come out here for lunch, to work or to fish, and then be back in Memphis before dark. People don’t realize how close it is.”
“I could walk across the lake.”
He recalls days when he was doing freelance photography for local ad agencies: “When I first moved here, I carried a pager, and Ward Archer & Associates would page me. I might be out on the lake, so I’d stop the boat, come over to Memphis for a meeting, and then go back out fishing or skiing.”
As more houses sprang up, in all shapes and sizes, the town developed a unique charm. No house looked anything like the one beside it. Homeowners used all sorts of farming- or fishing-related objects for exterior decorations: clusters of rusted plows and harvesting equipment in the front yard of one home, painted oars lined up against the walls of another, a giant red and white float dangling from the mailbox of another.
But then the homeowners, especially the ones who had built those long piers and bought their fancy boats, discovered an unexpected problem.
Horseshoe Lake was disappearing.
Anyone who’s lived near the Mississippi River knows it’s prone to flooding from time to time. Remember last year? Well, those floods, as entertaining as they are for news crews, tend to destroy homes, crops, and farms that get in their way. And the flat lands of eastern Arkansas become lakes. So, in the 1970s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studied the problem and came up with an extraordinary solution: the Huxtable Pumping Station, constructed in 1977 near Marianna, Arkansas.
“It’s the second largest pumping station in the nation,” says Martha McKay. “All these farmers had this rich farmland and didn’t want it flooded anymore. What it did, though, was prevent backwash when the Mississippi River, the St. Francis River, and all the bayous came up. We didn’t get that overflow water anymore.”
The result: The water level in Horseshoe dropped year after year. “When we first moved over here,” remembers Nikki Walker, “I could walk across the lake. It got that low.” More than a hundred property owners found they were no longer right on the water, or couldn’t get their boats in the lake. Many sold their homes. Stores closed, along with other businesses.
“We had a mini-depression here,” says McKay. “People moved away, or stayed away.” Most of the folks profiled in our 1994 article left the area. Kamp Karefree closed. “The Commercial Appeal had a front-page story about how Horseshoe Lake was drying up, and that was the last anyone heard about us in the media,” says McKay. “Nobody ever came back here, looked around, and said, ‘Horseshoe Lake is BACK.’”
What pulled it from the brink of disaster was the 2007 formation of the Horseshoe Lake Drainage and Irrigation Improvement District. McKay explains the $1.4 million project: “We dug six wells that extend down into a deep aquifer, to keep the water level high. We have a committee that oversees the water level, and when it drops we turn the pumps on. We took out bonds to do this, and we are paying them back as part of our property tax. It was quite a job, to get easements from property owners and farmers, but everybody is happy with it, including me.”
The “drainage” part of the name comes from a system of canals — some of them originally cut by Bob Snowden — that drain the lake if the level gets too high. It’s been in operation five years now, and even with the great flood last year, seems to be working perfectly.
Nothing lasts forever. Robert Snowden passed away in 1982 at the age of 86. Grace died in 1989 at the age of 91. Both are buried on the property, their simple granite headstones — along with that of their longtime maid, Bessie Thornton — protected by a circle of boxwoods. Grace’s epitaph is “A Gay and Grateful Heart.” Bob’s marker carries the Latin inscription Dum Spiro Spero (“While I breath, I hope”).
In the 1960s, Bob had created the Horseshoe Plantation Corporation, which embraced the farmland, some industrial property, more than 30 cabins along the lakefront, Kamp Karefree, pecan orchards, and of course the Snowden House itself. He gave away shares in the corporation to his daughters — Sally McKay, Edie Dewey, Happy Jones, and their children.
After Bob’s death, Sally McKay served as manager of the company. She divided all those cabins among the three families to make ownership of them more manageable — as her daughter Martha says, “to do with them as they pleased.” The original family members, however, retained group ownership in the rest of the property, which they called “the big partnership,” or simply, “the company.” Among other ventures, Sally leased the Snowden House to various people, including Polly Brown and her sons, Mark and David, who ran it for several years as a restaurant and bed-and-breakfast. Many Memphians have fond memories of birthday parties and anniversary dinners served in the spacious dining room upstairs.
After Sally McKay’s death in 1996, Edie Dewey then took over the management duties. This was a big job, and in an attempt to help her aunt, Martha McKay came back to Memphis for awhile, closed down the B&B, made some improvements to the Snowden House, and, as she puts it, “held down the fort” until things became more stable.
Her work here finished — or so she thought — McKay moved back west and bought an 1861 home in Nevada, one of the most historic residences in Virginia City. In 2004, though, she decided to restore her family’s home to its former glory, so returned to Horseshoe and bought the Snowden Home from the “big partnership.” She remains the sole owner of the house today.
“I needed to bring the home up to the twenty-first century.”
“By that time, the house was pretty run-down,” says McKay, “but over my adult life, I discovered historic preservation is something I like to do. I had renovated a beautiful home in Virginia City, Nevada, and two or three houses in Seattle. So I sold the house in Virginia City and bought the Snowden House. It was the only way that I could see doing the kind of work that I wanted to do.”
The original plan was to renovate the home to serve as her private residence, and open up the house and grounds for wedding receptions, parties, and special events. She recruited acclaimed restoration expert John Griffin and interior designer Biggs Powell to help with the project.
Some parts of the house just needed “freshening up” with new, historically correct paint schemes, such as the stunning blue that now brightens the entrance hall. McKay brought old porcelain lamps from her home in Nevada. Crafted in Germany in the 1800s, these are former oil lamps suspended by elaborate chains from the ceiling. But a hidden feature is a counterweight, which allows the lamps to be raised and lowered through a system of pulleys at the ceiling mount.
The bathrooms got new Calcutta Gold marble countertops. While retiling the bathrooms, McKay added heated flooring with loops of hot-water lines beneath the tiles, and “my cats just love it.”
The kitchen was a major challenge. “Because it had been used as a restaurant, the walls were just covered in gook,” she says, “so we just took them down and exposed the bare pine walls.” The yellowed asbestos tile ceiling got the same treatment. She retained the original metal Geneva cabinets from the 1940s, but with the help of Griffin, added zinc countertops. A new kitchen island with sink and cabinets has a soapstone surface, also with zinc treatments.
But along the way, McKay decided, “I needed to bring the home up to the twenty-first century.” That wasn’t easy.
When her grandfather grew older, he finally added air conditioning to the house — window units. “These giant box air conditioners were hanging out of every window — the kitchen, the side porches, everywhere. It was horrible, and you can imagine the expense,” she says. “And in the basement, I found a gas guzzler of a furnace. It was costing $1,000 a month to heat the place.”
McKay was determined to find something more “green.” So she researched geothermal systems and came up with a solution: using the lake water for cooling and heating. It’s actually a very complicated system, but she explains it this way: “We have a continuous loop of water that runs through the home and out into the lake, where it runs through a panel that converts it to the constant 57 degree temperature of the lake water. There’s a heat transfer system for the wintertime, to convert that 57 degree water into something warm enough to heat your home.
“The only utility I’m using is electricity to run the pumps. And my average bill, year-round, is about $250 monthly.”
The work was finished, the house glowed like a brand-new home, and McKay printed up nice cards promoting the venue. And then the bottom fell out of the economy. “Unfortunately, just when I was finished with the home and ready to launch it, our big recession hit, and I felt the timing wasn’t so good,” she says. “So I thought somebody else should come in, and take it from here.”
“50 years behind the rest of the world”
That explains the Hobson Realtors signs on the highway and lake announcing FOR SALE. Asking price for the house and the four acres of land it occupies: $1.2 million. In April, the farmland was sold off to a local buyer. Now McKay is just waiting for a buyer for the house.
And after that? “I don’t want to think past that stage,” she says. “I just hope whoever comes in has as much appreciation for it as I do.”
Horseshoe Lake today — the community — seems a place suspended in time. A visit in October revealed dozens of homes for sale, ranging from older cottages within the town to modern showplaces around the lake.
It takes a certain kind of person to live there. A love of nature and an appreciation for the area’s intense isolation come first. But it’s a town with a tiny library and no post office. A fire department but no police department. No banks, doctors, or dentists. Some cell phones won’t work there. And the only eatery is a restaurant tucked away in the back of Bond’s, a combination gas station, grocery store, and bait shop on Highway 147, the main road into the community.
“They have music and stuff there,” says Nikki Walker. “My husband used to say, ‘Where else can you go to a restaurant behind a service station and get a glass of wine for $7.50?’” Another restaurant on the edge of town, the Horseshoe Café, until recently offered “Backwoods Bayou BBQ and Burgers” but it now sits empty.
Other than the lake, entertainment options are limited. When asked what it’s like to live there in the winter, when it’s too cold to venture out on the water, Walker says, “Well, we have parties to keep ourselves entertained.”
But there’s no denying that Horseshoe has special charms. After all, as the turtle-decorated sign on the main highway says as you approach the lake, “Live Life Slowly at Horseshoe.” Several artists still live here and there, and McKay’s cousin, Barbara McKee — the only other Snowden family member at Horseshoe — runs the Plantation Gallery, offering paintings and pottery, in a brick building that once served as the Horseshoe Plantation offices. Everyone waves as you drive by. And forget about house numbers and addresses. A visitor asking directions to the library is told to “go out on the big road and look for the little house next to the pile of burned leaves.”
Looking for a second home? It’s a buyer’s market at Horseshoe, where it’s possible to buy lakefront property for $21,000 (house not included). And the fishing is quite fine, with the lake just teeming with bream and bass. Photographer Jack Kenner laughs about the time he recommended a favorite fishing spot to a friend, who promptly caught a 65-pound grass carp — a world record, certified by the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame.
Kenner seems positively enchanted with “the bliss of the lake and countryside.” He’s currently putting together an exhibit, “The Horseshoe Lake, Arkansas, Delta Project 2012,” which will go on display at the Arkansas Gallery in Little Rock in 2014. In his artist’s statement about the collection, he says, “The Arkansas Delta is nearly devoid of people during the week — and most weekends — except for the occasional farmer riding a tractor or a diehard fisherman trying his luck. Mornings and afternoons, I would wander the lake, fields, and roads in total solitude, capturing whatever the light provided.”
Jennifer Sexton runs the one-room library that’s open two days a week. She moved here several years ago with her husband, after working as a carriage driver on Beale Street. “I lived in Memphis for years, but came here to escape all the stress,” she says. “Horseshoe Lake is about 50 years behind the rest of the world, but that’s why I like it.”
When Ms. McKay took over the home from the rest of her family and commenced the restoration in 2005, her biggest challenge was upgrading the heat and cooling system. The home was traditionally heated with radiators operating first from a coal-fed furnace and later converted to a gas boiler, and cooled the old-fashioned way with two attic fans, transom windows, and sleeping porches. In the 1960’s central air was installed to parts of the house but it still required numerous window units throughout the home to cool it properly, which were unsightly and costly to operate. Having grown up in San Francisco and educated in the west, Ms. McKay is an avid supporter and believer in sustainable building and lifestyle. In her restoration of the old-style mansion she was committed to bringing it up to date with the most sustainable technology available, utilizing renewable energy sources wherever possible. After much trial, error, and diligent research on her part, she retrofitted the home with a geothermal heating and cooling system that relies on the temperature of the lake to provide the heating and cooling of the home throughout the year. The only non-renewable energy source utilized is the electricity required to run the units. While somewhat more costly to install, the monthly utility bills now average around $300 per month for a 6,000 square foot home, offering a year-round savings that have more than compensated for the initial expense. Moreover, the satisfaction of knowing that the home is now creating a significantly lighter carbon footprint on the environment is deeply rewarding. In addition to the geothermal system, the home maintains the traditional natural air-cooling system of two attic fans, transom windows, and a screened porch. For efficiency and luxury, two of the private bathrooms on the main floor have heated marble floors.
The Commercial Appeal
August 8, 1937
Unusual Sports Hold Interest of Society Members During Summer Season
Horseshoe is Favorite Site
Many Memphians Own Summer Homes at Resort
(Insert in photo: “Gone With the ?”, the Robert Snowdens’ sailboat, not only makes a beautiful picture against the background of the Snowden home at Horseshoe Lake, but is a continual source of pleasure for the Snowdens’ guests. Seated at the tiller of the boat is Sarah Lowrance, while Mary Heath Butler scans the horizon to see that the coast is clear as they start for a sail.)
Hanging over many a door is a rusty horseshoe, symbol of good luck. Strangely enough this symbol had nothing to do with the naming of Horseshoe Lake, which has been synonymous with good luck to Memphis sportsmen for many years.
Stretching more than 10 miles in length, the lake is approximately a mile wide in the shape of a horseshoe from which it derived its name.
Along its shady banks attractive clubhouses and private cottages have been built where Memphians enjoy week-end trips and Summer outings.
From these Summer homes one can look out over the expansive lake and see sail boats gracefully tilted in the Summer breeze and motor boats from which fishermen troll for silver-scaled crappie and black bass.
Bordering the lake is Horseshoe Plantation, year-round home of R. B. Snowden Jr. and his family. Friends of the Snowdens are always delighted with an invitation to the happy, informal home noted for its hospitality and entertainment.
Swimming, sailing, fishing, and hunting are just a few of the interesting activities in which the Snowdens participate. Added quite recently was fencing.
Fencing is Popular
Mrs. Snowden and her daughters, Sara Day Snowden and Edith Snowden, are enthusiastic about learning the art of fencing from Professor Tata, champion fencer of the United States and Canada, who recently became manager of the Horseshoe Yacht Club, of which Mr. Snowden is a former admiral.
Several times a week the professor instructs a group of Memphis ladies on the lawn of the club in fencing. He has won titles throughout the United States and was instructor of Douglas Fairbanks, whom he describes as an excellent swordsman.
The Yacht Club, organized about a year ago, has a membership of 50 with Elmer Ries as admiral and Ed Slater as commodore. The club has a large building with interior carried out in a ship motif with furniture, bunks and decorative effects all nautical.
(Caption for photo on right: “On guard” calls Sara Day Snowden (left) to her sisiter Edith Snowden as they step into position for their fencing lesson from Profesor Tata in front of the Horseshoe Yacht Club. The girls are fast becoming expert fencers.)
HUGHES – If you go see “The Client” this spring, you may see a familiar sight—the Snowden House in Hughes will be featured in some of the movie’s pivotal scenes.
Although the film, based on the novel by John Grisham, centers around New Orleans, some scenes were shot at the Horseshoe Lake bed and breakfast/restaurant last month, according to Polly Brown.
She said the experience was “very, very pleasant” for her and other family members who run the facility.
Snowden House will look a little different in the movies, as set designers added and removed plants including “a great deal” of Spanish moss which was used to drape the trees around the grounds so it would look lie Louisiana.
Except for one scene inside the house, all the filming for the movie was done outside.
Some permanent changes to the property were made, including a boathouse and new pier. Brown explained that prior to the filming, Snowden House only had a small dock.
Brown said neither she nor any family members got to be in the movie because all the scenes centered around the two stars, Susan Sarandon and 11-year-old Brad Renfro, and “a few mafia characters.”
She said they didn’t meet any of the stars, except for Renfro, who made friends with her grandson, Warner Brown, age 10.
However, the director, Joel Schumacher, and the British cinematographer, Tony Pierce Roberts, stayed at Snowden House for about a week with their assistant.
Brown said they were “delightful” and “very interesting.”
Mosquitos were a problem because they were attracted by the huge lights used during the nighttime filming. “They had lots of very powerful lights and they drew every bug and mosquito in eastern Arkansas,” Brown said.
The cast and crew covered themselves with Off and Avon’s Skin-So-Soft and continued filming, however.
Brown watched some of the filming, but not all, in part due to the odd times at which the movie was shot. Filming began about 5:30 p.m. with a break for lunch at midnight, and then continued until about 5 a.m.
Although there may be some mention of Snowden House in the movie’s credits, Brown is not counting on any recognition.
She does hope the added local publicity given the property due to its “feature role” will attract customers.
Brown and her family lease Snowden House from the Snowden family in Memphis and have been managing it as a bed and breakfast/restaurant for three years.
This recognition of service to agriculture in the Mid-South is made by Memphis Agricultural Club to:
Robert B. Snowden
For an outstanding individual contribution during the year 1953 toward the reclamation of eroded lands and the prevention of sedimentation of the streams in the Wolf River Watershed
Rarely does a man catch the vision of the need of soil conservation and soil building when working virgin soil but the recipient of The Memphis Agricultural Club 1953 Certificate of Award has done just that. Immediately following the close of World War One Robert B. Snowden, a young lieutenant, took his bride into the virgin woods on Horseshoe Lake and began to carve out a plantation. In the early twenties Mr. Snowden realized that a soil building program was necessary if his rich acres were to maintain their original fertility. He promptly started the use of cover crops long before the government advocated soil building on a national basis.
In addition to maintaining an excellent example of land management, Mr. Snowden found time to volunteer for duty in World War Two and achieved the rank of Lt. Colonel. He has been accorded to honor of King of The Memphis Cotton Carnival, President of The Memphis Chapter of The Friends of The Land and he has been active in the YMCA, Crittenden Hospital, and numerous civic and welfare organizations.
In April of this year, The Wolf River Watershed Association was formed and Mr. Snowden accepted the presidency. He immediately gave unstintingly of his energy, ability, and money to the reclaiming of the vast eroded areas in this watershed and the freeing of the waters of Wolf River from pollution and the making of this stream suitable for recreational purposes. Under Mr. Snowden’s able leadership and his eagerness to go beyond the call of duty, this project, in just a few months, has advanced so rapidly that it is receiving national recognition.
Mother’s Day – May 9, 1943
I think of you today…on this day that the world calls mine. There are thoughts I have for you, that can never be fully spoken…because they are thoughts…not words.
This year…I shall not look into your eyes nor see the love and worship there…as I have done in other years. But in my heart I have —– to be as strong and brave as you.
—–our task today, my son. You and I. —–great that none can know or see its —–is ours to do.
—– fight…and give your life per—— highest cause of man…the —–peoples of the world.
Mine…to give to you in every word and thought and deed…the courage and comfort to help you through. And most of all…assurance of my constant faith in you.
As this day comes this year…I shall contemplate the honor that has come to me through you. The pride I have in your high purpose and achievement.
I shall plan for your return…to the better world of your own making. And if, perhaps, you should not share this freedom you so fully earn…I shall know that we have sacrificed together…remembering that our lives can only be justified by the measure of our sacrifice.
Be grateful with me, my son, for the land and principles for which you fight. And know that in the end, because of you, the world will live in peace and freedom. Be faithful to your country…I would have it no other way.
(Tribute from Sara Day Snowden – Mrs. Brinkley Snowden – to her son, Robert B. Snowden, Jr.; “—-“ denote missing pieces of article)
On Mother’s Day in 1948, Robert B. Snowden, Jr., made a “most generous contribution” to the Young Men’s Christian Association to be used in their new building program. This contribution was made by “Bob” (RBS is a “wonderful friend to the YMCA and has served zealously as a member of the Board of Directors for a number of years”) as a Living Memorial to his mother, Mrs. R. Brinkley Snowden:
A LIVING MEMORIAL FOR MY MOTHER
In deep appreciation of her love and affection for her family – her abiding spirit of cheerfulness and encouragement – her continuing strong and healthy life of leadership — her full measure of lasting good works – and her every-day living of a perfect Christian life.
Robert B. Snowden
May 10, 1948
Memphis Press-Scimitar; March 15, 1961
By Mary Raymond, Press-Scimitar Editor
Long before smooth, broad highways and modern bridges linked Memphis and Arkansas for easy travel, a young Memphis man, back from World War I, was flying a Jenny plane over the “lost lands” in Arkansas. Spread beneath him was a beautiful curving lake, shaped like a horseshoe, rimmed by heavily timbered land – an almost virgin forest.
This was the way Robert B. Snowden “discovered” his home-to-be from the air.
He went back to Memphis, told his father, the late Brinkley Snowden, that he had seen the property he wanted, property then owned by Russell Gardner of St. Louis, part of it used as a hunting preserve as it abounded with game.
On a bitterly cold January day when the Mississippi appeared almost frozen over, with big blocks of ice floating in the water, he went back into the Horseshoe Lake section by boat, found a few acres cleared there, and an old-fashioned house that still stands on the Snowden plantation.
The property was purchased, and in 1920 a home was completed and given to Mr. Snowden and his charming wife, the former Grace Mountcastle of Knoxville, by his parents.
The city-bred young couple, who had never lived in the country made the transition.
They went by Mississippi steamboat to Bender’s landing, where a wagon and mules were waiting to take them to their Arkansas home – to start farming without a strip of bacon in the house, Grace Snowden remembers, — a lake at their front door and a wilderness all around.
In 1948, the cycle that had begun in 1918, when Horseshoe Lake was surrounded by woods and muddy wagon trails, was completed in the remodeling of the home. Rather, building upon their first house, the present splendid Louisiana Colonial style residence, its balconied front overlooking the lake, the curving steps leading up to the second floor. Everett Woods was the architect. Practically all farm labor was used in building the home—which is in the raised basement style of architecture.
Like many old Southern homes, you enter at the back, reached by a driveway bordered with box. Lofty columns, made on the place, lift to the second floor, the wide doorway with its high fanlight, flanked by old carriage lamps of brass and German silver.
The columns were made with a brick core and plastered over with cement, the way they have been made for years for plantation homes near a river.
Inside the entrance hall, a Colonial stair winds to the second floor, with its forma living room, elegant dining room and other rooms on this level, and then continues its climbs to rooms on a third level.
If guests go the Horseshoe Lake expecting to “rough it” they are in for a surprise.
Here is the hospitality of old plantation life, the gentle manner of the Old South. Here, finger bowls are used every day.
Many friends and notable visitors have been entertained in the Snowden home. Among them, Lord and Lady Halifax of England. A framed picture of the English nobleman, a former Viceroy of India, and his wife (with Horseshoe Lake in the background) is on the table in the reception room upstairs. The wide windows of this room look out upon a balcony, its lacy ironwork framing the lake and its moods: Sometimes serene under sunny skies and again roughened and foam-crested by heavy winds.
Downstairs in the entrance hall, is an exquisite crystal chandelier that once shone down upon Napoleon Bonaparte in one of his palaces. The hall is two-storied to the ceiling, and there a mechanical device in the attic permits the chandelier to be lowered to the floor for periodic cleaning of its dazzling prisms.
This treasured piece was a gift from the late Mrs. Brinkley Snowden, one of Memphis’ loved “first ladies.” She also gave the large antique gold leaf mirror and the Carrera marble mantel below. There are many antiques of Chippendale and Sheraton in the home, Oriental rugs on the polished floors, and rare ornaments.
Portraits of Owners
On the walls of the dining room are portraits of the owners, Mr. Snowden’s painted while he was in Italy, by the famous Russian artist Ellie Shoumatoff. Later, she came to Horseshoe Lake to paint the portrait of Mrs. Snowden.
This is the artist who was painting President Roosevelt at Warm Springs, Ga., at the time he died.
Another painting prized by Mr. Snowden, who served in two World Wars, I and II, is of a Revolutionary War sea battle in which one of his far-back “great” grandfathers, had the principal role. A brass plate on the painting tells that Capt. Elisha Hinman of the U. S. Ship, 32 gun, “Alfred” is shown engaging two British ships, the Ariadne and the Eres.
One of the most lived-in rooms of the Snowden home is downstairs. A big family room, where a log fire blazes in winter. The floor is of concrete and the walls, on which are many Audubon prints of birds and flowers, are white brick. Nearby are the dressing rooms for the swimmers. For the children grew up, and the grandchildren are growing up, as much at home on the water as on the land.
AS for the land: Long since, the wilderness gave way to the plantation’s groomed acres—1000 of them—geared for soybean growing, operation of an alfalfa dehydrator and pellet mill (one of the newer developments of agriculture to “pelletize alfalfa). And of course, there is the South’s No. 1 crop, cotton. A big pecan grove has provided an annual yield of the large papershell variety for market.
Cottages Spring Up
Along with the development of the Snowden plantation, something was happening to the entire Horseshoe area. Summer lodges and recreation cottages have been springing up all around, and the entire section is rabidly being transformed by more intensified farming.
Two daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Snowden – Edith (Mrs. Craft Dewey) and Dorothy (Mrs. Frank Jones Jr.) live in Memphis. Sally, (Mrs. H.R. McKay) lives in Bradley, Arkansas.
A huge leather-bound volume has the family lineage, including the Snowdens, Brinkleys, Overtons, and Days – Tennesseans whose lives and achievenments are part of the state’s history.
Mr. Snowden was named for his grandfather, General Robert Bogardus Snowden who married Annie Overton Brinkley. Their home, century old “Annesdale” on Lamar, was a gift from her father. Mr. Snowden’s uncle, Bayard Snowden, lives in this stately residence with his son-in-law and daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas H. Todd.
With roots in the city and their hearts in the country, the Robert Snowdens enjoy their dual existence – going back and forth between Memphis and their Arkansas plantation.
With farming a primary interest, Mr. Snowden has had an active part in The Press Scimitar’s “Save Our Soil” program, the Commercial Appeal’s “Plant to Prosper” activity; the Wolf River Watershed. He is a leader in “Survival, U. S. A.”
He is dedicated to the preservation of American ideals and the American way of life, which he sees as endangered in a troubled, turbulent, and changing world.
“He loves the land,” says his wife.
The words of Goethe, framed on the wall, are his creed, she says:
“Nature understands no jesting. She is always true, always serious, always right. The errors and faults are always those of man. Those incapable of appreciation she despises, and only to the apt, the pure, the true, does she resign herself and reveal her secrets.”
Mr. Snowden has never failed in appreciation: Seeing the beauty in the lake that stretches nine miles from point to point; his woods and the incredible miracle of recurring spring; his stately oaks, sycamores, cottonwoods, and the gnarled cypress trees that have “always been there.”