REX NELSON: Lunch at Cook’s Lake

We’re traversing the flat fields of Grand Prairie this Tuesday morning. At the wheel is Deke Whitbeck, president of the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation. Whitbeck and I are joined by Austin Booth, director of the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission.

The destination is the remote Potlatch Conservation Education Center on Cook’s Lake near Casscoe in Arkansas County. Cook’s Lake is a 2.5-mile-long meander in front of the White River surrounded by the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge.

This is wild country, the only place where the native Arkansas bear population survived. Bears in other parts of the state are descendants of those brought in by the commission.

As someone who loves to eat fish and wildlife, I have always been intrigued by the cooking of Wil Hafner, the facility manager. The commission often features Hafner’s recipes on its website and in videos. Earlier this year, for example, the featured recipe was squirrel boudin.

“Boudin is a popular Cajun sausage that consists of meat and rice,” Hafner said. “Traditional boudin consists of pork shoulder, pork liver, Cajun spices, and the trinity, which is the Louisiana term for equal parts bell pepper, onion, and celery. Boudin is also a great use for spices.” wild game, including squirrel”.

Hafner has made corned beaver and corned duck (even better, I think, than the famous corned beef at Oaklawn) to go with etouffee made from a White River flathead catfish. Booth and I go back for a few seconds. Besides the exotic food, the other reason I wanted to visit Cook’s Lake is to see the lodge. I’ve written frequently about duck clubs in eastern Arkansas, and it doesn’t get much more historic than this.

In 1947, the Lion Oil Co. of El Dorado purchased 1,850 acres around Cook’s Lake. The company built a 4,800-square-foot shelter. The current lodge, built in 1955, replaced the original lodge that was destroyed by fire. Colonel TH Barton, the founder of Lion, didn’t know how to do things to the little girl.

Barton arrived in El Dorado in January 1921 after oil and gas were discovered in the area. He organized the El Dorado Natural Gas Co., which became known as the Natural Gas & Fuel Corp. in 1924. Barton sold the company at a huge profit in 1929 to Cities Service Co. By then, he was the largest shareholder in Lion.

Barton agreed to serve as president of the Lions. Under his leadership, the company grew rapidly. Three months after Barton became president, Lion bought production leases on the Smackover oil field which turned out to be very profitable. In 1935, Lion discovered the third largest producing geologic zone in the Smackover field.

In 1937, Lion drilled the wild discovery well at Shuler Field, 15 miles west of El Dorado. Barton leased 7,000 acres and began development on a field that was second only to the discovery of Smackover.

Lion employed 3,000 people and sold its products at more than 2,000 gas stations throughout the South in 1955. The company used the lodge to entertain business leaders and celebrities from across the country. I marvel at the lumber (cut by Stuttgart’s Townsend Lumber Co.) used to clad each room and a teddy bear in one corner.

The lodge can sleep 13 people and now hosts events like youth deer and duck hunts. One bedroom is known as the John Wayne Room, named after a visitor Barton brought here.

In 1967 (Barton died in December 1960), Lion sold the property to Mark Townsend and Townsend Lumber. The company held ownership until 1971, when it was acquired by the logging giant Potlatch (now PotlatchDeltic). Potlatch allowed Mark Townsend to retain hunting and fishing rights for life.

The 49-nation Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance recognized this area in 1990 as one of eight designated wetlands of international importance. Three years later, Potlatch entered into a land trade agreement with the federal government that significantly increased the size of the White and Cache river refuges.

After her first visit to Cook’s Lake in 1994, Barbara Pardue, who at the time was Potlatch’s director of public affairs for Arkansas, suggested that the company convert the lodge and some surrounding properties into a conservation education center. Other Potlatch executives wanted to auction the land to the highest bidder, and at one point bids were solicited.

Pardue, however, secured the support of John Richards, the company’s CEO and a member of a northern Idaho logging family. Richards retired as president in 1999 and died in July 2018 at age 81. He approved the establishment of the educational center with the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation as the lead partner.

Potlatch accepted nearly $1 million less for the property than he would have earned through auction. Most of the surrounding land is now the Cook Lake Unit of the White River National Wildlife Refuge. Potlatch donated the lodge, other buildings on the property, and 72 surrounding acres for the education center. The center was inaugurated on April 21, 2000.

A foundation post I pick up at the lodge notes that Cook’s Lake “remains home to ancient cypress trees that ring the lake and a large expanse of lowland hardwoods that naturally transition to pine forests in the upper areas of the property. The diversity and health of the forests, plants and wildlife is a testament to the good stewardship that Potlatch practiced.”

It is a beautiful place to visit. And if you can get Hafner to cook for you, that’s just lagniappe, as they say in Louisiana.

Senior Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He is also the author of the Southern Fried blog at