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Willow Springs

Willow Springs

Location Class:
Built: 1928 | Abandoned: 2013
Photojournalist: Ginger Beck

Willow SpringsWhen reflecting on Arkansas theme parks, many people think of Dogpatch, Magic Springs, or even Wild River Country; however, a great portion of the state and surrounding areas will immediately remember one of the oldest water theme parks in the entire United States: Willow Springs. Built in 1928 primarily to serve servicemen stationed at nearby Camp Pike (later known as Camp Robinson.) The “pool” was a sandy bottom lake fed by local springs. The water was chemically treated and PH balanced for cleanliness. It was pumped into the lake at the rate of 300 gallons per minute at 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

willow springsThe bottom depth ranges from 6 inches to 5 1/2 feet. In its early years, the deepest part was up to 12 feet deep. It was built by German immigrants using a mule to pull a buck scraper (also called the “flip” or “slip” scraper because it was flipped to empty it, and it slid or slipped along the ground as horses or mules pulled along and filled it with dirt and rocks and the load could be dumped by flipping the scraper forward and over.) The Buck scraper with a metal bucket pictured is the actual scraper used to dig Willow Springs operated on the same principles as the slip scraper, but it was much more efficient and easier to handle.

Willow Springs History

Over the years, the park was owned by different entities and owners and underwent numerous changes and improvements. Until 1960, the park consisted of a swimming pool and a skating rink. In 1960, the park changed hands and the new owner installed the first ride, a Toboggan Ride. In 1982, the park added the first water slide of 400 feet; over the course of the next few years, the old skating rink was converted to a picnic area. Even local celebrities were known to frequent Willow Springs: Governor Faubus’ wife was known to spend time there until she was too recognizable, and other stories even have former Governor and President Bill Clinton quietly reading a book on the beach enjoying the day as people played and swam all around, oblivious and not bothering him.

Willow SpringsThe park grew over time and eventually became available to the public due to its family atmosphere. Over its 80 plus years of operation in addition to the skating rink, toboggan ride, and 400-foot water slide, other attractions were added such as kiddie pools, playground, a multitude of covered picnic tables and grills, log rolls, water platform, multiple slides, water trampolines, a beach, horseshoe pits, basketball and soccer areas, an amphitheater pavilion for live entertainment, water basketball, volleyball, and tether ball, a launch pod, and swimming lessons. Owners, David and Lou Ann Ratliff employed a multitude of workers and lifeguards.

Willow SpringsOne difference in Willow Springs that set it apart from other pay-to-enter parks was that families were allowed to bring their own food and drinks in (aside from glass bottles and alcohol), making it an affordable option for families who wanted a day of fun in the sun.

In 2006, the Upper Deck Café was added, which included a reading area and view of the pool. There were dressing areas and bathrooms available for patrons to use, which are now part of the home today.

At times, over 1000 visitors would come to the park in a single day.

Willow SpringsMuch to the disappointment of many, including the owners, the park closed in 2013. However, over the years David and Lou Ann have made the former clubhouse a renovated home and allowed nature to reclaim parts of the park. They have turned the former bathhouse/café into their private home, established a lush garden, built a chicken coop and area, planted beautiful elephant ears and other plants around the grounds and use every bit of lumber and tin for repurposed areas.

Their family gathers on holidays to celebrate, fish, canoe, and continue to enjoy Willow Springs. “We are happy. We’ve traveled the world, and there is no other place we would rather come home to,” says David.

To share your memories and read stories and see many more personal photos, visit the Willow Springs Facebook page that has been active continuously as a place to reminisce and celebrate one of Arkansas most memorable places for families for nearly a century. https://www.facebook.com/WillowSpringsWaterPark


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Ginger Beck

Ginger Beck has been exploring with Abandoned ARkansas since 2017. She has authored "Abandoned South Arkansas: Natural State, Natural Decay" and co-authored "Abandoned Arkansas: An Echo From the Past". She lives in a restored historic home in Downtown Little Rock and works to raise awareness on historical structures with local agencies.

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