Lake Conway: There’s never been another one like it.
It was the first lake project undertaken by the Arkansas Game and First Commission, and at 6,700 acres, the largest lake that agency or any other state agency in the nation has built. Heavily used by fishermen for 60 years, the lake has yielded enormous numbers of bass, bream, crappie and catfish – and continues to do so year after year.
Yet, Lake Conway’s birth was a difficult one. The project, conceived by a handful of Conway fishing enthusiasts, later joined by some Little Rock anglers, had more troubles than Dick Tracy before men with bulldozers and dynamite began working on a lake on Palarm Creek.
Actual construction on the dam didn’t start until October 1950 and was officially completed July 4, 1951. The project to bring a lake to the dense Palarm Creek bottoms in southern Faulkner County started in earnest in 1945 and informally many years before that, probably in the mid- or late-1930s.
Not readily apparent is who first voiced the suggestion, "Let’s build a lake on Palarm Creek," and when this was uttered. Some sources credit B.F. Stermer with the idea. He was a Conway resident, Faulkner County surveyor and one report was Stermer had the idea of a Palarm Creek lake in the 1920s.
Two names, however, quickly surface in a study of Lake Conway’s birth – Walter Dunaway and Dr. James H. Flanagin Sr. Both are deceased, but these two close friends and long-time fishing and hunting buddies were in the forefront of the length, difficult drive to (1) raise money for the lake, (2) seek donations of land for it and (3) sell the Game and Fish Commission on the idea of Lake Conway.
All three elements were arduous, with perhaps the land donation the easiest. Some landowners quickly agreed to give acreage for the lake. Those who didn’t either sold land later or battled through, and lost, some notable condemnation suits brought by the Game and Fish Commission after it finally took the project under wing.
Another key player in the lake project was the late Russell C. Roberts, long-time Conway attorney and circuit court judge. Then there were W.D. Cole, who was Conway’s mayor from 1920 to 1925, Bob Osborne, Ernest Halter, T.P. Earnhart – and that’s just for starters.
Dunaway was later mayor of Conway. Opal Dunaway, Walter’s widow, said, "I remember Walter and Doc (Flanagin, a Conway dentist) talking about the idea of the lake for years. We were married in 1939, and they may have been talking about a lake even before that.
"Walter and Doc would go out for two or three days fishing and hunting. They wouldn’t take much food, figuring to catch or kill their food. One time, I think it was up on the Arkansas River, they didn’t catch anything to eat and would up eating a bunch of turnips from somebody’s patch."
The Palarm Creek bottoms were a thick mixture of bottomland hardwoods, swamp, some permanent small natural lakes (Adams Lake, Green’s Lake, Gold Lake) and small homesteads that engaged in "subsistence farming," to use a bureaucratic term of the times.
Lake Conway’s conception came about at a time of two notable events, one major, the other lesser. World War II (1941-45) changed the lives and environment of many Arkansans. The Game and Fish Commission was reshaped in its present form in 1945.
The war brought an expanded Camp Robinson to southern Faulkner County and displaced many of these rural families. The war also brought a sense of can-do to many facets of American and Arkansas life. Technology advanced by leaps and bounds, and bulldozers were one example.
Major constructions, such as dams, could be tackled more readily with a dozer than with a man and a mule-drawn scoop. Conway proponents of a lake on Palarm Creek could make a short trip to the west and see brand-new Lake Nimrod, built during the war. They could go to the north and see big Lake Norfork, also completed during the war, and they could listen to the plans for an even larger Bull Shoals Lake. All these, though, were U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes. All were for the purposes of power generation and flood control. Fishing did not figure in their priorities.
Nobody had ever built a big lake for fishing. And nobody ever suggested Lake Conway was meant to be anything except a lake for fishing and duck hunting. Oh, there was a little talk at the outset about clearing the lower end of the lake to allow boat races and water skiing, but that evaporated quickly.
The war and technology changed many things, and there was that wartime campaign spearheaded by the Arkansas Wildlife Federation to take the Game and Fish Commission out of politics.