Cleburne County could be the site of a massive water garden that got its start 50 years ago this year.

Fifty years ago this year, President John F. Kennedy stopped in Cleburne County to dedicate the Greers Ferry Dam. It signaled the completion of a project that completely changed the face, and the future, of the county.  Kennedy left Cleburne to continue on to Dallas, where tragic fate caused his untimely end and left a country in mourning.  With a presidency and energetic life cut short, many of Kennedy’s goals were left unfinished and a legacy was left incomplete.  Unbeknownst to many, one of those goals was the development of a massive water/botanical garden to be built here in Cleburne County.

According to sources, the water garden was a brainchild of Herbert Thomas, the man behind Eden Isle.  Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright became an ardent supporter of the project early on and was determined to bring it to the attention of Kennedy.  Reportedly, Fulbright discussed the idea with Kennedy on the helicopter flight to the dedication from Little Rock to Heber.  After the dedication ceremonies, Fulbright and Kennedy discussed the project further, at which point Kennedy reportedly had the helicopter turn around mid-flight to inspect the proposed site for the project.  After touring the proposed site, Kennedy is reported to have instructed his aids to “make it happen”.  Preliminary plans were drawn and land was set aside, but the assassination of the president caused this, and many other projects, to come to a halt.  The plans, however, and the land (located on the river close the fish hatchery) are still there and are still, with a few alterations, earmarked for this project.  This incomplete legacy of Kennedy has languished in limbo for decades, until now. 

A couple of months ago, Bill Lindsey brought the project to the attention of County Judge Jerry Holmes.  Holmes immediately recognized not only the historical significance of the project, but the impact the water garden could have on the future of Cleburne County, both economically and historically.  The gardens, based on the design of the Tivoli Gardens in Italy, would be a center of tourism and education.  If completed, Cleburne County would have only water/botanical garden of this nature and size in the entire Western Hemisphere, making it not only a draw for local tourists, but for sightseers around the world.  Just like Greers Ferry Lake moved Cleburne forward and changed the face of the county, these gardens would help define county in the future.  Cleburne County would have another source of pride to show off to the world.

The Sun-Times will be telling the story of the project over multiple issues.  From beginning efforts by Judge Holmes and others, the process and where it stands now, and how the story develops as we move forward with this exciting proposal as we potentially sit on the cusp of a bright and shining future for Cleburne County.  Next week, we will discuss the efforts of Holmes and other players in pulling the project together and where the proposal currently stands as far as adoption and funding.