In Ozark Town, There’s Something About the Vibe
In the 1800s, tourists came for the magic cures in the natural springs. In the 1960s, flower children flocked to communes on the edge of town, looking for harmony.
These days, three investigators of the paranormal give ghost tours at the landmark Crescent Hotel. Self-described victims of alien abduction gather each summer. Most shops stock miniature Buddhas, crystals and incense burners. Every street corner carries ads for massage therapists.
“Our population is only 1,900, but there is every kind of person imaginable,” says Debbie Samack, one of the town’s 400 ordained ministers.
Locals say this Ozark Mountains town exerts a powerful, mysterious allure.
Self-described hippie Barbara Harmony headed south from Hoboken, N.J., 26 years ago. She now makes a living charging tourists for astrological readings--provided on a downtown park bench. She also offers “mystical journey tours,” in which she demonstrates ancient healing ceremonies and provides the history of the town’s natural springs.
On an adjacent park bench, artist and fellow astrologer Sandra Synar competes for a share of the cosmic cash pot. Synar says a “magic vibe” called her to Eureka Springs decades ago.
“The best thing about Eureka Springs is that it allows you to be as eccentric as you want to be,” says Synar, who nonetheless wants people to know there’s more to the town than T-shirt shops, wedding chapels and pastel-colored Victorian buildings.
Even Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee says Eureka Springs--where the terrain is so rugged that each of the eight floors of the 96-year-old Basin Park Hotel, which backs into a mountain, has access to ground level, and downtown streets have hairpin turns--is a “natural magnet” that brings him back each year.
“With the landscape and the shops, it has a sort of European ambience. It’s like a little Switzerland,” says Huckabee, who honeymooned here with his wife, Janet, in 1974.
One park bench astrologer links the town’s pull on people to its founding date--July 4, 1879. That alignment (as Synar says, “Libra was rising and . . . the moon was in Capricorn”) meant Eureka Springs was fated to attract people with strong and creative personalities.
Mayor Beau Satori says Eureka Springs is additionally a “mecca for divinely inspired people.”
“There is a strong religious and spiritual influence to this city,” he says.
With so many ministers in town --many, like Samack, are ordained through the Universal Life Church of Modesto, Calif., which allows anyone to register as a minister by mail or online--weddings are big business.
About 5,000 couples are married here each year. The courthouse is open Saturdays, and legal proof of age is the only requirement for a marriage license. The town’s 19 wedding chapels (Samack owns the Queen of Hearts Wedding Chapel) are open late to accommodate night owls.
Ken Fugate believes he was expressly summoned to Eureka Springs from San Francisco--by the ghosts in the Crescent Hotel, a Depression-era cancer hospital.
“If you are meant to be here, it draws you in and puts you here,” says Fugate, a former surgical scrub nurse who says he became a paranormal investigator after 30 years of amateur study.
Fugate and two friends give nightly tours, telling tourists of the gruesome goings-on in the 1940s when Dr. Norman Baker swindled desperately ill patients into experimental treatments. The tour leaders claim Baker amputated body parts to keep cancer from spreading, incinerated bodies to hide the number of patients who were dying and claimed to cure cancer with corn silk and the seeds of watermelon and clover.
Fugate says the spirits needed his help to get word out about what happened at the hospital.
“They know we are doing the tours, and they know that we aren’t interested in hurting them,” Fugate says of the ghosts. He says one particular downstairs spirit “told the three of us that we were supposed to be doing this.”
Also claiming to be specially called to Eureka Springs are people who believe they’ve had contact with extraterrestrial life. The Ozark UFO Conference meets here every April.
Among the better-known characters in town is Crescent Dragonwagon, a children’s book author who this year founded the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow in a venerable inn she and her husband had run for years.
The New York native moved to Eureka Springs in 1972 at age 19. She changed her name from Ellen Zolotow, choosing Crescent because it means “the growing,” according to her biography. Her first husband was named Crispin Dragonwagon.
“I think people seek members of their own tribe in one way or another,” she says. “In Eureka, a lot of people who thought of themselves as being one of a kind are now just part of the crowd here.”
But Dragonwagon notes that the flip side of delightful eccentricity is never-ending political infighting. She laments how the town’s sometimes bizarre squabbles make it a “laughingstock.”
Locals are still at odds, for instance, over a roughly 30-foot brick walk in Basin Park and whether it should be pulled up and moved because it could be a liability under new city safety regulations.
The 300-some bricks in the walk, called the Pathway of Love, are inscribed with remembrances of favorite times, loved ones or departed pets, and the brick owners and pathway organizers are upset with city efforts to move the path.
The park’s astrologers, musicians and artists are divided. Some complain the red glow that reflects off the bricks disrupts the park’s energy flow.
A tree ordinance has also split citizens into camps. The mayor irritably complains that “a faction of anarchy that opposes any type of regulation” has spent two years “reworking, shaping, amending and changing the ordinance” so that no one is certain any longer just what it would do. The original idea was to regulate the removal and planting of trees to better control developers.
Even the mayor’s plans to cut off his waist-length ponytail last New Year’s Day became a political issue. Hundreds of residents signed a petition urging him to scrap the haircut, and Satori complied.
People here don’t so much mind Eureka Springs’ reputation for political eccentricities, but they don’t like being called weird.
“Everyone says the people in Eureka Springs are weird, but being politically involved doesn’t make us weird,” says bookstore owner Virginia Linbald. “People don’t turn off their brains when they come here.”
Several residents suggest little can be done to reduce the friction. It was destiny, they say, that brought the combatants to town.
“One of the favorite topics of people who live here is how did they come to be born here, brought here or drawn here for some inexplicable reason,” says Satori. “This is a place where the abnormal is normal and the misfits fit.”
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