Bullfrog Valley meanders alongside Big Piney Creek in Pope County, Arkansas for about five miles, marking the spot where the river begins its slow descent out of the Ozark hills and into the floodplain of the Arkansas River. The valley begins at Long Pool—a popular take-out and put-in spot for boaters and fishermen.
Long Pool stretches about a quarter mile as it bends to head south. The only obstacle during this long patch of green, calm water is a set of three house-sized boulders set far to the river right just before the river swings around to create one milder Class II rapid. The rapid is a kind of shudder, before the river widens into the lazy Class I section canoeists call the “Long Pool to Twin Bridges” run. Long Pool is one of those places where the topography gives humans a name for itself.
In the Ozarks, as in most places in America, settlers named places after themselves or, as in the case of Bullfrog Valley, after other humans. My maternal grandmother, Mildred Opal Light Waldo, tells a story about Chief Bullfrog, the Cherokee, who lived and died here “back in the old-time days.” She never says what caused Chief Bullfrog’s death, but she makes a point of romanticizing it: he was buried, with honor, under a tree at one end of the valley.
When I asked her which end, she shrugs off the question, because that isn’t the point. The point is that Chief Bullfrog was a legend, and legends exist outside of time and place. No one remembers which end of the valley Bullfrog’s family picked for his grave because it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the people liked him enough, or remembered him well enough, to name the valley after him.
Long Pool is different. Maybe no one claimed ownership of the spot, or maybe the convenience of naming the place after its topography was too easy and obvious. Maybe the settlers found no sense in getting creative about it: no need to or manufacture symbolic gestures or create ambience, the way they did with other spots in the area.
Booger Hollow, the east entrance into Bullfrog Valley, is named for the bad luck travelers had there during the American Civil War. The dark overhang of cliffs and trees on either side of the road made it a great hide-out for highwaymen and bandits. It was, at the time, also a major thoroughfare on the road from Harrison near the Missouri border and Russellville on the Arkansas River.
Everyone traveling by wagon had to cross through Booger Hollow on their way in or out of the most remote part of the Ozarks. Cemeteries punctuate the hollow on both ends, which surely gave the place an otherworldly feel. On the southwest end of Bullfrog valley, Silex Mountain (named after an early Anglo settler) marks the valley’s border on the northern bank.
Only Long Pool, and nearby Bald Nob Mountain, are named for their topographical features. Bald Nob has a pun-ish nature about it, though. It’s not as straightforward. It could have just as easily been called “No Tree Nob” or “Rock Nob,” if the intention was to describe the hill’s treeless summit. “Bald” has a decidedly human ring to it. At Long Pool, the river created the name and the locals didn’t see any need to romanticize the selection.
They clearly didn’t see any need to fancy up the river’s name either, other than to differentiate it from Little Piney Creek and from the now-faceless settlement called just “Piney” that sits at the confluence of Big Piney Creek, the Illinois Bayou, and the Arkansas River. Big Piney Creek slowly settles into its slower pace at Bullfrog Valley, flattening the landscape at gradual intervals. The valley completely opens up about a mile south of Long Pool, near the Bates family hog farm, just north of Grimmet Springs. Grimmet Springs, like Bullfrog Valley, is no longer a place exactly. Not in a sense that most Americans understand, anyway.
These days, Grimmet Springs is a burned out shell of an old wood shop building, just steps from a natural spring. This spring gurgles up from porous limestone underneath the forest floor. It sits only a few feet from the highway, hidden in a heavy overgrowth of pines, oaks, and dogwood. The road follows the edge of a hollow, so the landscape sharply rises just beyond the spring. The bottoms of Bullfrog Valley stretch out immediately across the road, beyond a pair of wear-worn farmhouses.
There is no grocery store within twenty miles, unless you count the snacks on hand at Moore Outdoors, a canoe-rental shop at the intersection of Hwy. 164 and Long Pool Road. Cell phones don’t work here. There is only one quasi-public building besides the Moore Outdoors shop: Booger Hollow Recreation Center, an ancient Masonic-esque building, that sits alongside the road as it enters the valley from the east.
There aren’t many people living in Bullfrog Valley, and there never have been. This was always a backwoods place, even in Chief Bullfrog’s days. Chief Bullfrog, as much as we know, was one of the first outsiders to settle here on a semi-permanent basis. Chief Bullfrog would have arrived around 1820, with the first exodus of Cherokee from their ancestral home in the eastern southern states of North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.
Before that, the entire area of Johnson, Pope and Newton Counties were only counted as hunting grounds for various Native American groups including the Osage and the Choctaw. A few small bands of various Native American groups lived at least part-time in caves and overhangs in the Ozarks, but there were no large settlements in northern Pope County, Arkansas. A few intrepid French and Spanish explorers and trappers had been through the area before Chief Bullfrog, but none of them settled down for good.
If Chief Bullfrog was a real person, it’s likely he farmed here, as most of the Anglicanised Cherokee did at that time. Farming would have been a relatively new endeavor in this hilly area, which was mostly known for its abundance of game. Arkansas was entirely wilderness then, seen by its white American overseers as far enough away from civilization to send a whole series of Native American tribes into exile there.
The naturalist Thomas Nuttall didn’t make his descent of the Arkansas River until 1819, just a year before a breakaway group of Cherokee took the Americans up on what seemed like a good offer: land in the Arkansas River Valley for their long established farms 2,000 miles away. At least it would get the Americans off their backs, and maybe in the familiar hilly landscape, they could start over.
Life is never that idyllic, of course. The first group of Cherokee that settled here did not get along well with the Osage, and were constantly fending off raids. The major part of the Cherokee settlement in Pope County focused on Piney, at the confluence of the Illinois Bayou and the Arkansas River. For a man trying to recreate a life of farming and occasional hunting, Bullfrog Valley probably looked like an excellent choice.
It was too far away from the main settlement to be of any real consequence to a raiding party. The valley is protected by narrow hollows on two sides. If you are trying to avoid the marauding locals, Bullfrog Valley would have been strategic. The Big Piney was big enough and low enough up to Long Pool that a canoe could easily navigate its way up and down to the main settlement, offering a market for farm goods and easy access to the local society. The bottomland along Big Piney offered up plenty of lumber and fertile soil. Bullfrog Valley would have made a resource-rich, if immensely isolated, farmstead.
Not much has changed, really. This is still the wilderness and farming is still the major occupation for the few full-time residents. Along the road through Booger Hollow sits a neatly fenced and tidy cattle farm, marked by a large sign near a 1960’s ranch-style house that sits on a low rise overlooking bottom land stretching several hundred acres to Big Piney Creek’s bank.
From the road, a traveler can see a mix old wood-frame houses, house trailers, and neat modern houses like the cattle farm, or the Bates Hog Farm property at the northern start of the valley. A visitor would have to be heading toward Long Pool to even encounter the Bates farm: deliberately traveling upward, further into the hills, on a one-way road.
If you stick to the main highway through here, the last sign of civilization in Bullfrog Valley is the well-tended Owens Cemetery, situated across the road from Moore Outdoors. After that, the valley really does feel like the end of the earth, especially because the one paved road through the area dead-ends at Long Pool. Surrounded by steep mountainsides and accessible only via a steep winding road, it feels literally cut off from the rest of the world.