fbpx vie magazine subscribe button

Something in the Water

This Quirky Ozark Town Is a Little-Known Mountain Oasis

By T.S. Strickland | Photography by Chip Ford

It’s a weeknight at Chelsea’s Corner Cafe in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and the house band is plowing through a blistering bluegrass rendition of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Methamphetamine.”

The five-piece band is crammed down the throat of the narrow barroom, which sits beneath a pizza joint at the top of a steep mountain road on the edge of downtown. Chelsea’s is a local favorite, especially during the slow fall months when tourists are scarce. Today, there isn’t one tourist in sight, and the place has taken on the atmosphere of an old-fashioned Ozark square dance.

Patrons have to squeeze past the stand-up bassist to get cash from the ATM, while those entering through the front door are forced to duck beneath the arms of the washboard player—a short, shirtless chap with duct-taped fingers and a thick black beard—to reach the bar. No one seems to mind the extra effort. In fact, the whole place seems to rollick with each refrain. The old floor heaves and creaks while patrons toss back shots of whiskey and tap their feet to the music.

The fiddle player, a wiry man with an ecstatic, drunken smile and a beard that could shame Grizzly Adams, sways back and forth like a shaman while he sears through a solo. Meanwhile, the bandleader sits on an old barstool, looking like an Ozarkian reincarnation of Kurt Cobain. He wears a flannel shirt and dingy sneakers. A cigarette hangs limply from his lips while he growls through the chorus:

It’s gonna rock you like a hurricane.
It’s gonna rock you ’til you lose some sleep.
It’s gonna rock you ’til you’re out of a job.
It’s gonna rock you ’til you’re out on the street.
It’s gonna rock you ’til you’re down on your knees.
It’s gonna have you begging pretty please.
It’s gonna rock you like a hurricane —

Basin Park Hotel In The Scenic Town of Eureka Springs

The audience howls along, grabbing arms and two-stepping in time with the music. Outside, the cacophony peals out over the mountains, black masses set against a star-filled sky.

Welcome to Eureka Springs—the weirdest little town this side of Austin.

The City Water Built

I worked in Eureka Springs for a year, from 2012 to 2013, as a reporter for the local newspaper and became hopelessly enchanted by the place. I spent many nights at Chelsea’s, huddled over a keyboard, churning out reams of copy over whiskey and bluegrass ’til the barkeep told me to go home.

The town—home to 2,500 people and one of the nation’s best-preserved collections of Victorian architecture—is known as the City Water Built. The main industry is tourism, and it’s not hard to see why. The place is improbably beautiful—a picturesque jumble of old resort hotels, flower-filled gardens, and meticulously maintained mansions carved out of a mountainside in the extreme northwest of Arkansas.

Eureka Springs is also a land of contradictions. The town is home to the tallest statue of Jesus Christ in North America. It was also dubbed “the gayest small town in America you’ve never heard of” by LGBT-interest magazine The Advocate and hosts an annual meet-up of Swingers on Bikes, otherwise known as SOBs. (Locals usually do their drinking at home that week.)

Beautiful Landscapes And Oasis of Eureka Springs

Eurekans, as locals are fond of calling themselves, like to say there’s “something in the water” when trying to explain their town’s overwhelming quirkiness. I’m more inclined to think the “something” is in the whiskey. Either way, it’s there, and it has been for a long time.

The limestone hills that surround the town, carved by rivers from an ancient seafloor, are riddled with natural springs. The water was long believed by Native Americans to possess healing properties, but it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that the roving eyes of white men finally fell on the place.

Alvah Jackson, an American physician whose son’s eye condition was allegedly cured after being washed with the limestone waters, was the first to capitalize on the springs. Seeing such a miracle—and being of red-blooded, capitalist stock—the good doctor set about bottling and selling the water. It wasn’t long before word spread, and within a few short decades, Eureka Springs had become a boomtown. Thousands flocked there to bathe in the springs, while business-minded others plundered the virgin hills to build their spas and resorts.

Today, the boom has long since busted, but the sense of magic still clings to the place. A walk down Spring Street, the main commercial district, is enough to prove the point. The road is flush with shops, bars, and restaurants, all housed in Victorian-era storefronts and interspersed with pocket parks that enshrine the town’s namesake springs.

It’s not just the beauty of Eureka Springs that makes it memorable though. It’s also the people.

The Picturesque Cresent Hotel Nestled In Eureka Springs Styled In Victorian Architecture

Saddle up to the bar at the New Delhi Cafe just off Spring Street and you might begin to understand what I mean. The bar’s owner, Billo, is descended from a family of wealthy Indian industrialists and is fond of asking his patrons whether they would like “a stiffy”—by which he means a drink. His former partner John is an Arkansas blue blood who delivered the eulogy at Norman Mailer’s funeral.

Leave the bar at sunset and cross the street to Basin Park, and you’ll find Yao Angelo leading a drum circle. African rhythms echo off the walls of the natural amphitheater that once housed a sacred Native American spring. Angelo hails from the African country of Côte d’Ivoire, and he traveled the world performing traditional dance as a member of a national troupe before moving to the United States.

Once you’ve had your fill of the drums, saunter down—or rather up—the hewn limestone sidewalks to the Crescent Hotel. You’ll pass stately Victorian bed-and-breakfasts and roving bands of wild deer along the way. Once you leave downtown, Eureka Springs at night is dark and quiet—the darkness interrupted only by sweeping vistas of mountains and starlight and the quiet only by the sound of the breeze in the treetops or the occasional echo of the drums.

A brisk hike up a steep switchback will bring you to the hotel, which rests like a crown at the very top of the mountain. The opulent Victorian resort is believed to be one of the most haunted places in America. It must also rank among the most beautiful.

A Profile View of Basin Springs Hotel In The Heart of Eureka Springs

Climb to the rooftop Sky Bar and enjoy a cocktail while looking out over mist-draped mountains. It’s magical.

Magic has always sustained Eureka Springs. The town fell into disrepair in the early twentieth century around the time people stopped believing in healing springs. The old mansions moldered and gathered dust. Then the 1960s brought a new wave of migrants. Many of them were drawn in by the back-to-the-land philosophy of the era. They set up shop as artists and craftspeople and turned Eureka Springs into a destination for the arts—which it remains today—as well as a city of refuge for those with what might be termed “nontraditional” views.

For such a small town, Eureka Springs has a surprisingly cosmopolitan outlook, welcoming people of all creeds and orientations. It maintains a domestic partnership registry, hosts a triannual Diversity Weekend, and is the only city in Arkansas to have officially endorsed same-sex marriage.

Despite this tendency toward inclusiveness, however, Eureka Springs is still situated in a deeply conservative part of the country. That fact is never far from view—quite literally, thanks to a man named Gerald L. K. Smith.

Smith moved to Eureka Springs to retire in the 1960s, taking up residence in one of the town’s forlorn mansions. The firebrand pastor was already known nationally for his anti-Semitic views and his early affiliation with Louisiana political boss Huey P. Long. Once in the Ozarks, Smith started a new chapter in his career, beginning construction on the first of what he called his Sacred Projects, a series of religiously themed tourist attractions that would transform Eureka Springs, once more, into a tourist mecca.

Gerald L. K. Smith's Seven-Story Christ of The Ozarks Statue Looks Over Eureka Springs From Magnetic Mountain

Smith’s seven-story Christ of the Ozarks statue, completed in 1966, looks out over Eureka Springs from Magnetic Mountain. The sculpture was described unflatteringly by one critic as a “milk carton with a tennis ball on top.” Most locals are gentler, referring to it as Gumby because of its resemblance to the cartoon character.

After completing the statue, Smith also formed The Great Passion Play, a live-action reenactment of the life of Jesus Christ—which has, in more recent years, been edited to remove anti-Semitic overtones. The play, seen by nearly eight million people to date, is one of the best-attended live theater events in North America.

Eureka Springs is also home to the Ozark Folk Festival each October, the longest continuously running annual folk festival in America. Now in its sixty-ninth year, the festival features folk music, a parade, and a “barefoot ball” at the top of the historic Basin Park Hotel.

An even more colorful tradition, showing off an “only in Eureka Springs” quirkiness, happens each September with the reenactment of a failed robbery of the town’s bank. The robbery, which made national headlines in 1922, is still a point of pride for locals.

Man in Bright Colored Suite Against An Equally Quirky Backdrop of Eureka Springs

In that year, a group of five seasoned bandits made plans to loot the town’s bank. At the time, most Eurekans closed shop at noon to go home for lunch. Knowing this, the bandits timed their robbery to coincide with the daily lunch hour. They had set their clocks an hour fast, however, and arrived to find the town filled with people.

A shoot-out ensued between the outlaws and the armed locals. By the time the smoke cleared, three robbers had been killed and the other two detained. Not a single townsperson was harmed. To commemorate the hilarity, Eureka Springs holds a parade during which townspeople chase a gang of costumed bank robbers down Spring Street each September after the annual Antique Automobile Festival.

Eureka Springs is a place filled with life. No matter the time of year, one can usually find Basin Park filled with music and people of all persuasions celebrating together. Parades and festivals are an almost weekly occurrence. Eurekans themselves are generally a welcoming breed, happy to invite curious outsiders to their mountain oasis. Just don’t try to rob a bank, and be on your best behavior. Gumby’s watching.

Want to go?

Here are some top picks for a memorable Eureka Springs vacation.



The 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa is perched at the very top of East Mountain and set amid fifteen acres of woods and formal gardens. The Victorian-era hotel, hewn from native limestone, is rumored to be one of the most haunted places in America. It also boasts a full-service spa, elegantly appointed guest rooms, and stunning views of the surrounding countryside. www.crescent-hotel.com


DeVito’s of Eureka Springs is a local favorite serving homey Italian food in a refined casual setting. The waitstaff is superb, and the restaurant features a rooftop dining terrace. Both the lunch and the dinner menus are stocked with winning entries, but the trout, which is raised at the DeVito’s own family farm, comes highly recommended.


Stunning views aren’t difficult to find in these parts, but Bluebird Mountain is a local favorite. The popular lookout spot, located a few miles east of town on U.S. Highway 62, affords sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. It’s especially beautiful on a clear, starry night.


Eureka Springs prides itself on plenty of nightspots, but for local flavor, it’s hard to beat Chelsea’s Corner Cafe. The popular bar and eatery hosts live music five nights a week. The kitchen, located upstairs, also turns out one heck of a New York–style pizza. www.chelseascafeeureka.com

— V —

Read Responsibly

VIE Magazine August 2020 Art & Culture Issue, Nathan Alan Yoakum Art
VIE Magazine - Architecture & Design Issue - July 2020
VIE Magazine - Decor and Home Issue - June 2020
VIE Magazine May 2020 Entertainment Issue, Leslie Odom Jr
VIE Magazine - April 2020 Culinary Issue
VIE Magazine March 2020 The Fashion Edit, VONDOM, Alys Beach Fl, Digital Graffiti, Tres Chic, isidro dunbar Modern Interiors, Digital Graffiti Festival
VIE Magazine February 2020 Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine - Travel Issue - January 2020 - Tanzania Safari Cover
VIE Magazine - Women's Issue - December 2019 - Tina Brown Cover
VIE NOV19 Goodness Issue
VIE Magazine, September 2019 Art & Culture Issue, Paul Hanninen
VIE Magazine - August 2019 - The Architecture and Design Issue
VIE Magazine - July 2019 - The Artist Issue
VIE Magazine - June 2019 - Fashion Edit
VIE Magazine - May 2019 - Culinary Issue
VIE Magazine - April 2019 - The Health & Wellness Issue
VIE Magazine - Special Entertainment Edition - March 2019
VIE Magazine February 2019 Luxury Homes & Technology Issue with Robbie Antonio of Revolution Precrafted
VIE Magazine - January 2019 - Southern Sophisticate Issue Cover
VIE Magazine - Special Anniversary Travel Edition - December 2018
VIE Magazine - The Goodness Issue - November 2018
VIE Magazine - The Art & Culture Issue - October 2018
VIE Magazine - Home & Garden Issue - September 2018
VIE Magazine - August 2018 Animal Issue
VIE Magazine - July 2018 Architecture & Design Issue - Subscribe to the magazine!
VIE Magazine - June 2018 Travel & Tech Issue
VIE Magazine - May 2018 Couture Issue
VIE Magazine - The Culinary Issue - April 2018 Cover - Chef James Briscione and Brooke Parkhurst
VIE Magazine - The Entertainers Issue - March 2018
VIE Magazine - February 2018 Destination Travel Issue
VIE Magazine - January 2018 Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine, The Sophisticate Issue, December 2017
VIE Magazine - November 2017 Art & Culture Issue
VIE Magazine - October 2017 Home & Garden Issue
VIE Magazine | September 2017 | The Stories and Storytellers Issue
VIE Magazine - The Adventure Issue - August 2017
VIE Magazine - July 2017 - Art & Artist Issue
VIE Magazine - The Voyager Issue - June 2017
VIE magazine 2017 March-April Cover South Walton Fashion Week
VIE Magazine - January/February 2017 - The Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine - Nov/Dec 2016 The Sophisticate Issue
christian siriano vie magazine september october 2016 vie magazine
the modern minimalist issue
the culinary and couture issue march april 2016 vie magazine
the voyager issue alys beach vie magazine january february 2016
cultural issue vie magazine november december 2015
home and garden issue vie magazine september october 2015
the art and style issue vie magazine july august 2015
the wedding issue 2015 May June vie magazine
the food and fashion issue vie magazine march april 2015
the travel issue vie magazine january february 2015
the music issue vie magazine 2014 november december
The Animal Issue vie magazine september october 2014
the home and garden issue vie magazine july august 2014
the wedding issue vie magazine may june 2014
emeril lagasse food and fashion vie magazine
the men's issue january february 2014
the music issue november december 2013 vie magazine
the home and garden issue 2013 october september
the wedding issue vie magazine july august 2013
the artist issue may june 2013 vie magazine
the food and fashion issue march april 2013
the men's issue january february 2013 vie magazine
The Holiday Issue
the love issue july august 2012
the all american summer may june 2012
the entertainment issue march april 2012
the fashion issue vie magazine winter 2011
the home and garden issue vie magazine fall 2011
the anniversary edition vie magazine summer 2011
the wedding issue vie magazine spring 2011
vie magazine the holiday issue 2010 Dec
vintage swimsuits vie magazine 2010 Fall
judith march designer vie magazine summer 2010
wedding giveaway vie magazine spring 2010
holiday gift guide vie magazine winter 2009
emarketing explosion vie magazine fall 2009
tribute to mother's day vie magazine summer 2009
james and robert redford vie magazine spring 2009
zz top vie magazine fall winter 2008
project dreams vie magazine new york fashion week
Sign-up for VIEmail

Sign up for VIEmail