Today’s Trip: Gilbert
The main draw for tourists is camping and canoeing at the Buffalo. And in a town with a population of only 13, visitors can easily outnumber locals. The 2000 census set the town’s population at 33, the delineation on the sign marking the city limit; but the number of residents has dropped since then.
Don’t let its size fool you. Gilbert may be a tiny town, but it is big on beauty and charm. It scenery and people are distinct and inviting.
Located just off of U.S. 65 on Ark. 333, the main road through Gilbert ends at the soft gravel bar providing access to the scenic river. The nation’s first national river, the Buffalo National River meanders through the Ozarks for almost 135 miles. This middle section is noted for its beautiful limestone bluffs, smallmouth bass, and year-round floating. Designated in 1972 after years of debate, the Buffalo celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.
This area of the river came into existence in the early 1900s. The Gilbert General Store, built in 1901, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places under the name Mays Store. The community was founded in 1902 when a railroad construction camp for the Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad was built and named in honor of Charles W. Gilbert, secretary-treasurer of Allegheny Supply Company, which was building the railroad. In 1906, William Mays moved his store and post office from Duff, located a few miles away.
Gilbert was a hub for commerce. Cotton, logs, ore and grain came by rail. Gilbert was eventually the home to a repair shop for the railroad, which ceased operation in 1946. While the tracks were removed and sold as scrap, there are still signs of the railroad where the old concrete supports crossed the Buffalo River. The former rail bed is now a hiking route along the river.
Today, Gilbert contains a few homes, guest houses and cabins for rent, and camping facilities. An RV park opened recently. Remnants of old homesteads provide a hint of its past. The Gilbert General Store is still in operation, providing supplies and hunting and fishing licenses. It offers a selection of T-shirts, knick knacks, beverages, sandwiches, snacks, charcoal, automotive needs and more.
Owner Ben Fruehauf describes the store as a working museum. He’s been adding old signs, memorabilia and other items to the store since he and his wife Cindy purchased it in 1988. He runs his other business, Buffalo Camping and Canoeing, from the store too, renting cabins, and canoes, kayaks and rafts for single or multi-day float trips.
A stone’s throw from the General Store is The Gilbert Café feeding diners in the area – locals and tourists. It’s a blue plate special locale serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Back out on Ark. 65, Ferguson’s Country Store & Restaurant is another excellent place to eat for breakfast and lunch. And don’t miss getting some smoke meats and cheeses from Coursey’s or Big Springs Trading Company. Numerous other outfitters, attractions, lodging and dining opportunities are available in this middle Buffalo area.
Gilbert never fails to make me smile, and I always feel a wave of relaxation wash over me as I step out of my car. This is a place for un-orchestrated vacations – a place where you walk to the river, flip a rock in the water, take a swim, float the buffalo, chat at the general store.
Gilbert holds the self-proclaimed title of “Coolest Town in Arkansas.” It is the coldest place on average here in The NaturalState. It’s definitely one of the coolest places I know of, but not just because of the temperature.