Ross Whipple's Big Lake Remains Elite Getaway

More than 135 years ago, a group of Little Rock businessmen banded together to form a hunting club on about 2,000 acres of bottomland woods in south Pulaski County.

Editor's Note:
This is the latest in a series of business history features. To suggest Fifth Monday subjects, email Lance Turner.

The club’s 41 founding members represented a roster of prominent citizens of the day, monied and influential folk who included Union and Confederate Civil War veterans, first-generation immigrants, politicians, merchants, lawyers and executives.

The dominant feature of their property, a cypress-tupelo swamp, gave the club its name: Big Lake. Over the decades, necessity waned for parliamentary procedure and election of officers to administer the affairs of Big Lake and its forested environs.

“It’s a one-member hunting club, so you really don’t have to have a vote,” said Ross Whipple, sole owner of the property for the past 25 years.

The wetlands associated with the club are among about 70,000 acres of Arkansas timberland owned and managed through Whipple’s Horizon Capital Partners.

The former Arkadelphia banker oversees an additional 64,000 acres, mostly in Clark and Hot Spring counties, owned by the Ross Foundation. Jane Ross and her mother, Ester Clark Ross, established the nonprofit to fund a philanthropic grants program.

And it was business dealings with his cousin Jane that provided Whipple’s entrée to the Big Lake story. Along the way, he became a caretaker of the historic club’s unofficial archive of records and photos.

The paperwork goes all the way back to April 20, 1886, when the Big Lake Club was established. The venture was capitalized with $10,000, with members buying stock valued at $25 per share.

Back in 1886, there was no Pine Bluff Highway to provide easy access to the hunting ground 18 miles south of Little Rock, let alone motorcars to expedite such roadway travel.

But thanks to the recent arrival of the iron horse, Big Lake was a convenient train ride away from the capital city, where the population would nearly double to 25,874 by 1890. The tracks laid by the Little Rock, Mississippi River & Texas Railway, acquired by the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway in 1887, passed less than half a mile from its hunting lodge.

That time-saving travel option was made possible with the opening of locomotive-powered traffic between Little Rock and Pine Bluff in 1881. The rail line that served as a commuter route for Big Lake extended from Little Rock to Chicot on the Mississippi in southeast Arkansas.

The prospect of moving goods and people by rail was becoming a paradigm shifter on the business scene. The significance of that growing transportation industry in Arkansas was reflected in the leadership at Big Lake.

Numbering among the club’s inaugural seven-member board of directors was J.A. Woodson, general superintendent of the Little Rock, Mississippi River & Texas Railway Co. James Alexander Woodson, who worked on and off in Arkansas rail ventures, would go on to serve as mayor of Little Rock from 1895-1900.

James Russell Miller, president of Big Lake Club, is remembered for developing the first cottonseed oil mill in Little Rock and investing in the city’s various horse-drawn and electric railway ventures.

Big Lake Club’s first treasurer was William Booker Worthen, renowned banker, real estate investor and namesake of W.B. Worthen & Co.

Other members of the club’s first board of directors included George Reichardt, president of Charles F. Penzel Grocer Co.; John B. Jones, a noted land lawyer and treasurer of the City Electric Street Railway Co. of Little Rock; and James E. Gibson, wholesale and retail druggist.

The final member of the Big Lake Club directorate was the first name listed in the roster of members: H.H. Rottaken. Describing himself simply as a capitalist, Herbert H. Rottaken received an extensive listing in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas on par with Worthen.

He served as Pulaski County sheriff as well as county assessor. Chief of Little Rock’s volunteer fire department and two-term city alderman were among his other civic posts.

Born in Germany, Rottaken rose through the ranks to become a captain in the Union Army, a company commander in the Sixth Missouri Cavalry Regiment.

Rottaken survived the battlefield during his youth only to fall at the age of 69 in a grim hunting accident at Big Lake. While getting into a boat, his left arm was nearly severed when his gun discharged. His death the next day made local front page news in 1908.

Rottaken’s name remains attached to the rail crossing at the entryway to the Big Lake Club.

Poisonous Dissolution

The founding purpose of the Big Lake Club has remained intact even after the organization’s disintegration during World War II.

“The general nature of the business proposed to be transacted by this corporation is to buy and own and improve lands, and sell the same or the timber therefrom, or cut and market the timber or lease or farm the lands and for the further purpose of preserving and protecting the game upon the lands, or the game upon or fish in the waters owned by the corporation, in order to furnish fishing and hunting grounds for the members of this corporation.”

Envisioned as a 19th century getaway in an era of open season hunting and no bag limits, Big Lake remained an active club as wildlife management and regulation became the new norm during the first half of the 20th century.

“Everything stops in about 1943,” Whipple said of the club records.

The dissolution of the club was attributed to foul play in the clubhouse kitchen by a member or someone who had access.

“Someone was putting arsenic in the sugar,” Whipple said, though no deaths resulted.

If forcing a sale of Big Lake was the motive behind the poisoning, it worked.

Arkadelphia timberman Hugh Ross learned the property was available to buy on one of his routine trips to play poker in Little Rock with fellow business leaders. The source: Witt Stephens, founder of Stephens Inc.

“Witt told him it was for sale, and he bought it for about $10 an acre, which was a pretty price for back then,” Whipple said. “My great-uncle bought it for about $20,000 in 1946. He didn’t hunt. He fished.”

During the 1950s, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission made a brief foray to acquire Big Lake during the Faubus administration and open the property to public hunting as a wildlife management area. Whipple’s cousin, Jane Ross, sought counsel on what to do to prevent that.

“They were threatening eminent domain, and she picked up the phone and called Witt Stephens,” Whipple said. “It just went away.”

The original clubhouse was torn down in 1951 with some of the bigger timbers used for a lake house in Hot Springs. In 2004, Whipple built the current 2,829-SF clubhouse, with a wrap-around screened porch overlooking the Big Lake and sleeping quarters for 11.

“There are bigger places and nicer places, but it’s fine for what I need,” he said. “We’ve got duck, deer and turkey. With a little work, we’ll have good quail habitat.”

Whipple is three years away from adding 10-pound bass to the list after developing a 17-acre lake north of the clubhouse last year.

He entered the ownership picture after acquiring Big Lake from Jane Ross in April 1996 for $1.4 million funded by his success in banking.

Whipple made his name in banking circles building and selling two Arkadelphia-headquartered franchises.

In 1997, he struck a $150 million stock swap deal with Mercantile Bancorporation Inc. of St. Louis for the $551 million-asset Horizon Bancorp Inc. The deal reflected a whopping 3.2 times book value.

That was followed in 2015 by the $216 million sale of Summit Bancshares Inc. to Little Rock’s Bank OZK. That deal for the $1.2 billion-asset bank holding company also brought Whipple to the Bank OZK board of directors.

Since buying Big Lake, Whipple has tripled the legacy acreage with buys that pushed westward to Interstate 530 and leaped eastward across Highway 365 to the Arkansas River.

His expanded property lines of Big Lake encompass the convergence of two diverse topographical features. The west gulf coastal plain meets the wetlands of the Mississippi River alluvial plain, where the northern boundary of the south Arkansas piney woods bumps against the western border of the east Arkansas hardwoods.

But Big Lake remains the centerpiece of the property, a magnet for waterfowl and other game.

The shallow lake is a natural duck hole crafted in part through the handiwork of beavers and tweaked over the years by man-made levees.

Even in the driest seasons, Big Lake has water.

“At its full pool, it covers about 1,100 acres,” Whipple said. The lake holds 6 to 8 feet of water at its deepest points.

Big Lake is formed by Fish Creek from the north, Lorance Creek from the northwest and Maple Creek from the west. Some historic maps refer to a feeder stream as a branch instead of a creek, which makes sense because the trio of waterways merge into one to create Pennington Bayou below the lake.

The Big Lake watershed drains about 64 square miles of southern Pulaski and eastern Saline counties. Using some sketchy ecological estimates, the formation of the lake dates back at least 300 years, maybe even further.

“We project it began sometime in the reign of Henry VIII, but we don’t know that for sure,” Whipple said. “The beavers controlled it. That’s the only explanation we can find. It’s a little scientific and a little anecdotal.”