Welcome to Eureka Springs

The gayest small town in America you’ve never heard of.

BY Chadwick Moore

April 24 2014 3:14 PM ET


“Why can’t it just be a business guild? It’s almost like going back in the closet to call it ‘gay,’” he says.

 
Sparky has a narrow face and a silver goatee and hair. He’s wearing a psychedelic blazer that conjures up images of a Hare Krishna’s robe tossed on the linoleum of a double-wide, Kool smoke ensnaring the receiver of a princess telephone. Actually, that description sums up more around here than just Sparky’s blazer.
 
“When Roger died I was so sad on the inside I started wearing really loud colors, because it made people happy,” he tells me when we next meet. This time he is wearing neon pink houndstooth.
 
Eureka began to take on its current character in 1964. That’s the year Gerald L. K. Smith arrived: a rabid white supremacist, Hitler admirer, anti-Semite, and former contender for the U.S. presidency. He began buying up property in Eureka Springs, which he hoped to turn into a Christian amusement park aimed at saving the white race. The amusement park didn’t happen, but he managed to complete the Christ of the Ozarks, a modernist, 67-foot-tall white Jesus statue perched atop Magnetic Mountain. There’s a view of it from behind the china wall at Charlie and Alvin’s. Some around town call it “Chalk Monster,” “Gumby Jesus,” or “The Milk Carton of the Ozarks.” Smith also established The Great Passion Play, which is still performed next to the statue six months out of the year (though it was recently revamped to scrub the heavy anti-Semitism from the original). Its first year, 1968, the play attracted 28,000 visitors. Today, more than 7 million people have seen it. It’s the sort of thing church buses load up for and families haul the kids out to on a spring weekend, because that’s what they did as a kid.
 
At the same time Smith was doing this, the back-to-the-land movement was sweeping the nation. Hippies flocked here in droves and established communes, many of them feminist and heavily lesbian. Marijuana was also a major draw — locals quietly call it the area’s main cash crop. Locals say that Willie Nelson once told Oprah Winfrey that the best pot he ever smoked came out of Carroll County, Ark. The town also has an isolationist reputation, an affordable cost of living, and abundant freshwater springs.
 
Bill King arrived here during that time. On a Saturday afternoon, he’s circling his hillside property looking for his goats. King is a tan, wiry guy with a grizzled goatee and tinted glasses worn beneath a low-slung baseball cap. He runs a no-kill dog rescue shelter in nearby Berryville called Go East, Young Dog and lives on this property just outside town with his husband, John Rankine, a local found-object sculptor.
 
They are part of a 20-couple lawsuit against the state of Arkansas over its same-sex marriage ban. King started a local paper, the Lovely County Citizen, in 1995. This week, both it and the other local newspaper have photos of gay and lesbian couples on their front page.
 
In 1976, King caravanned here from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with a crew from Short Mountain, Tenn., stopping at diners in Georgia and sucking the air out of the room as the guys bandied about in heels and earrings.
 
“It’s become more segregated as more people have moved here. In the old days everyone mixed together. It was just a community of alternative-minded people,” King says.

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