The Waltons’ Arkansas Connection
Although he didn’t know it at the time, Earl Hamner Jr. Was crafting the story of an iconic American family while typing away in a small cabin near Rich Mountain, in western Arkansas, during the summer of 1949.
That family was the Waltons of the popular television show of the same name that ran for nine seasons on the CBS network during the 1970s. The basis of that show was “Spencer’s Mountain,” which was one of the books Hamner began writing in Arkansas.
“I was working on two novels at the same time,” Hamner said in an interview from his Virginia home. “I was also writing a book called ‘Fifty Roads to Town.’ When I got bogged down with one, I would switch and work on the other.”
Just like his character, John Boy Walton, in the television series, Hamner had dreamed of becoming a writer since his boyhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. But World War II interrupted his college days at the University of Richmond, and he was further sidetracked after the war when he took a radio scriptwriter’s job in Cincinnati.
Earl Hamner, Jr. and Richard Thomas
“After two years of working at the radio station and saving all the money I could, I realized that if I was ever going to write a novel, the time had come,” Hamner recalled. “I found a list of secluded retreats in Writer’s Digest magazine, and I picked the one in Arkansas because it was among the more affordable places listed.”
A Rich Mountain retreat
Hamner resigned his job at WLW Radio in the early spring of 1949. The station replaced him with another young writer named Rod Serling, who went on to become famous as the host of the “Twilight Zone” television series. Serling and Hamner became lifelong friends, but Serling always said that Hamner gave him his first job as a writer.
With a duffel bag in one hand and a well-used typewriter in the other, Hamner departed Cincinnati via train but traveled the last the last leg of the trip by bus.
“I had heard of Mena before because the famous radio comedians ‘Lum and Abner’ called it home,” he said.
Mena natives Chet Lauck (Lum) and Norris "Tuffy" Goff (Abner)
After checking into Mena’s downtown Antler’s Hotel (which he found delightful), Hamner waited for B.D. Caverley, the owner of his rented cabin, to pick him up the following morning. She was a transplanted Texan who also lived on the north face of Rich Mountain, about a half of a mile from the rental.
“She came and got me and we drove a few miles until she stopped along the road,” Hamner recalled. “Then she said, ‘We walk from here.’”
The two walked up a path across some railroad tracks, crossed a creek on a log and hiked up another path until they eventually came upon the small, stone cottage that Hamner had read about back in Cincinnati.
“I was told that the cabin had been built and first occupied by an artist, and it was ideal for a writer wanting to get away from everything,” he said, adding that the fact that it had no modern conveniences, like running water, was not a major problem for a young man from the mountains of Virginia.
“As primitive as my cottage was, it provided a perfect atmosphere in which to write,” Hamner said. “I had no human visitors. Occasionally a deer would wander across the property or a cottontail would hop by going about its business. There was no telephone, no radio and the only sounds were the songs from a variety of birds that came and went.”
A friendly place
The community of Rich Mountain was nearby and he sometimes walked to other towns and places for social contact and to purchase supplies. His nearest neighbors were the Call family, whom he remembers as a friendly and generous couple with lots of children.
“The folks that I met in western Arkansas were very like the mountain people back home in Virginia,” Hamner said. “Perhaps it was because so many Arkansas natives have their family roots in my home state. I found that Arkansas people are hardworking, kind and hospitable.”
While exploring the countryside near his cabin, Hamner also discovered the ruins of the original Queen Wilhelmina Lodge, built in 1896 and allowed to fall into disrepair by the 1920s. He was happy to learn that the lodge has been rebuilt on a much grander scale and is now an important part of the Arkansas State Parks system. (Note: The lodge is presently closed for renovation until early 2014.)
“I never liked being alone for very long,” Hamner said. “After a few weeks of writing, cabin fever hit me. I needed to go somewhere that had people.”
The budding novelist caught a ride into Mena and purchased a round-trip bus ticket to Hot Springs. “It was a thriving resort town then, as I am sure it remains today,” he said.“There was lots of entertainment available, but I could not afford some of the admissions at the time. However, I truly enjoyed my weekend in Hot Springs.”
The dream comes true
At the end of the summer, Hamner received a letter from home with news that his sister was getting married. Knowing that he must place family first, Hamner packed and left his “writer’s retreat” behind in Arkansas.
Hamner wanted to return to Arkansas after the wedding in Virginia, but he didn’t have the money to travel. With $2 in his pocket, he accepted a free ride to New York with a family that had attended the wedding. Hamner first worked at Macy’s Department Store, but soon landed a job as a writer for NBC. From there, he wrote for some of the biggest TV shows of the 1950s, known as the “Golden Age of Television.” He worked on the novels only when time permitted.
“Fifty Roads to Town,” the other novel Hamner worked on in Arkansas, was published in 1953. “Spencer’s Mountain” was published in 1961 after Hamner had married Jane Martin, started a family and moved to Hollywood. It was made into a major motion picture, starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara. “The Homecoming” was a sequel to “Spencer’s Mountain,” but the name of the family had to be changed because Warner Brothers Studio owned the rights to the Spencer title. So, the Spencers became the Waltons.
Return to Arkansas
Fifty-seven years after he left Rich Mountain, Hamner returned for a visit. After speaking at a writer’s conference in Tulsa in September 2006, Hamner rented a car and drove back to find the cabin on Rich Mountain. After visiting with locals at a restaurant, he discovered that the cottage had been enlarged and was now a private home. He got directions and drove up to see it.
“No walking across a log this time,” he said, adding that “it gives me an odd feeling to remember that somewhere amongst all the trees, I spent a memorable summer and actually got some work done.”
Earl Hamner, Jr.
Craig Ogilvie is a freelance writer based in Batesville.
THE REAL JOHN BOY
Earl Hamner Jr. Was born on July 10, 1923, in Schuyler, Va., a Blue Ridge Mountain community established by a soapstone factory that turned out a variety of materials, including sinks for chemical laboratories.Hamner’s father worked at the mill until it closed during the Great Depression. The Hamner family home, which had belonged to the stone company, was purchased for $500.
The little town of Schuyler has always embraced “The Waltons” and its famous native son. In 1992, the Walton’s Mountain Museum opened in the school that Hamner attended during his youth.Hundreds of thousands of fans from around the world have toured the facility and viewed the actual home of the real “John Boy.”
After decades of awards for his work, including an Emmy and the national George Foster Peabody Award for excellence in journalism, Hamner received the Literary Lifetime Achievement Award from the Library of Virginia in 2011.
Earl Hamner Jr.’s book, “Spencer’s Mountain.”
Earl Hamner with the cast of The Waltons
This article originally appeared in the November 2013 Arkansas Living magazine and is being republished here as a courtesy of that publication. Hamner died March 24, 2016 at the age of 92.