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Jubilee bus helped win the Buffalo River battle

The landmark successful battle to preserve north Arkansas’ Buffalo River as a free-flowing stream came about through many people’s efforts.

Some are well known, like Dr. Neil Compton’s organizing the Ozark Society, like Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt’s bill to create the Buffalo National River, like George Fisher’s newspaper cartoons.

Others are little known today but were significant in that battle of a dozen years, roughly 1960 to 1972. A prime example is the Jubilee bus, which was 40 or so Buffalo River supporters going to Washington to tell their story to members of Congress in 1971.

This was described recently at an Ozark Society gathering at the Tyler Bend Recreation Area just off U.S. 65 at Silver Hill – Buffalo River country.

Mary Virginia Ferguson, formerly of Conway, now living in Boxley Valley near Ponca, told of the Jubilee bus episode. She was on it. So was Jo Wilson, a Fayetteville teacher at the time and wife of Steve N. Wilson, who later became director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

The bus came about for the simple reason of getting Buffalo River supporters to Washington to tell their story to Congress. They could have flown, certainly, except money was short. Chartering a Trailways bus was much more economical, and this was the route chosen. Motels? Expensive for the group, too, so the bus ride was straight through – 25 hours.

Ferguson recalled, “We stayed at McLean Gardens for $5.50 a night (per person).”

McLean Gardens was a facility left over from World War II days, a dormitory-type housing for workers associated with the war effort.

The group aboard the bus was diverse, as were the supporters of a free-flowing Buffalo in general. Several on the bus were University of Arkansas graduate students, young people who had learned of Compton’s Buffalo fight through Doug James, a zoology professor at the university.

Ferguson was a member of the Conway family that published the Log Cabin Democrat and operated Conway Printing Co. She taught at Conway High School and she took along her oldest child, son John, a teenager at the time.

Wilson said, “I was teaching school then (in Fayetteville), and I went as a mother to tell how important the river was to save.”

She and husband Steve had begun their love of the Buffalo River as undergraduate students at Arkansas Tech several years previously.

The Jubilee travelers told the story of the Buffalo in congressional hearings, testimony that Ferguson said “was well received.”

The fight was won in 1972 with President Richard Nixon’s signing of a bill passed by both houses of Congress to create the Buffalo National River. Later, Compton authored a book, “The Battle for the Buffalo River,” and said in it, “Their testimony was a most important event.”

Compton had the help of those 40 travelers on the Jubilee bus. He had help from countless others who wrote letters and made phone calls during the years of battle to stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from building two dams on the Buffalo. He had help from William O. Douglass, U.S. Supreme Court justice who canoed the Buffalo in 1961 and pronounced it “too beautiful to lose,” generating for the first time national attention to the river.

Compton, who died in 1999, also authored “The High Ozarks: A Vision of Eden.” He received the National Wildlife Federation’s National Conservation Achievement Award and was a President George H. W. Bush Point of Light recipient for his community service. In 1990 President Bush presented him with the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Award.

Compton and cartoonist Fisher have been inducted into the Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame. Many others, including the Jubilee travelers, are deserving of lasting recognition as well.

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Joe Mosby is the retired news editor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas’ best known outdoor writer. His work is distributed by the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. He can be reached by e-mail at jhmosby@cyberback.com.

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