Good Times in Big Flat
New property inspired one farming family to launch another business and helped kick-start a resurgence in their mountain hometown.
By Boyce Upholt | Photos By Boyce Upholt
On a midsummer afternoon, Shawn Shelton guides his pickup truck through the hills surrounding his hometown of Big Flat, Arkansas. He’s on his way to a pasture to check on some of his cows. They’re wandering amid what Shawn jokingly calls the “suburbs.”
Big Flat sits in beautiful country—red-tailed hawks circle overhead, and the tree-topped Ozark Mountains crumble down into an intricate warren of hollers and creeks—but it’s never been populous enough to spawn a suburb, at least not yet. When Shawn was born in 1969, there were around 200 people, and the population has fallen since.
“Nothing for the young people to do,” he laments. “No jobs around.” Now, though, new opportunities are emerging—and a business that Shawn and his family launched is a big part of why.
Shawn was born in Big Flat; his mother ran the local grocery store, while his father worked for a trucking company. Like many other locals here in north-central Arkansas, they raised a few dozen cattle—but kept the numbers low enough so they could liquidate at any time.
After graduating high school in 1987, Shawn left briefly, working in New Jersey in the drywall business. Yet, he missed the “hill people” with whom he’d grown up. After about a month, he flew home for a weekend. As he drove north from the Little Rock airport, every mile closer to home deepened his sense that he’d never leave again.
During the next few years, he worked hay fields for neighboring farmers and as an employee at three local stockyards, which deepened his understanding of cattle. “I sort of learned the trade there,” he says. In 1993, with a loan from his father, Shawn purchased 10 cows of his own. He poured his profits back into the herd, doubling in size every few years. Now, 25 years into his career, he has around 250 “mama cows.” Scattered on land across three counties, these cows produce the calves he sells to stockyards. His summer drive through the “suburbs” is to check on those cows. All is well, he finds. They are making their daily trek to their watering hole.
Shawn has raised 20 replacement heifers, “to keep the young herd coming on.” His goal is to become a closed, self-replenishing herd. That means he has control over genetics, and can breed for temperament, feed efficiency and other desirable qualities.
The beef cows are just one of several lines of business. Shawn raises Bermuda hay on 1,600 acres, 400 of which he owns. His cows consume about a third of the 6,000 bales he produces each year. He sells the rest to local ranchers. Two days a week, Shawn hauls cattle for neighboring farmers to a stockyard in West Plains, Missouri, about 100 miles away. Some evenings, he also hauls chickens for a local organic cooperative.
“There just ain’t enough hours in the day,” he says, as he continues his drive.
Not that he does it alone. In 1990, a friend arranged a date for Shawn with a high school teacher from a nearby town. She’d never been to Big Flat before. “I thought I knew what a small town was,” Kim Shelton says today. “And then I came here.”
In 1993, the same year the couple married, the town shrank further. The local school closed as the district was consolidated with another town’s. From their porch, the Sheltons watched as the school furnishings were hauled away. “The town sort of died off,” Shawn recalls, shaking his head.
But the bounty of the landscape helped save Big Flat. Retirees began to arrive, attracted to the surrounding Ozark National Forest and the easy access to the Buffalo National River, known as one of the best floating streams in the country. “We’ve got people from New Orleans to Chicago to the [Arkansas] Delta,” Shawn says. “And they’re all a real nice fit to the community.”
The family has grown, too. The Sheltons have two daughters—Shelayna, 21, and Cheyenne, 19, who attend nearby colleges—and a 13-year-old son, Drew. They all chip in around the farm, mowing the grass or, in the case of the older children, hauling cattle when Shawn can’t make a run.
In 2001, the Sheltons bought an 85-acre plot of farmland on the edge of town, squeezed between two 40-acre properties they already owned. They planned to run cattle there, but after clearing trees, they realized the site had an unexpected perk: a wide-open view down into the National Forest. A friend pointed out that the Ozarks were popular with horseback riders, but there was nowhere nearby to quarter a horse. So, the Sheltons hit upon a bright idea: a new venture they christened Shelton’s Big Flat Getaway in 2004. They gradually installed 30 RV hookups and built seven cabins, catering to those who float the rivers, hunt the forest and traverse nearby trails on horseback. Equine enthusiasts can keep their horses in the on-property barn. “It’s a family-run business,” Kim says.
As they’ve done with cattle, the Sheltons have invested their profits back into the hospitality business, building more cabins as they pay off the older ones. And just as with the farming operation, the three children do their share to keep the property clean.
A Town Revived
The Sheltons’ venture proved to be a spark for Big Flat, and soon, the little town was attracting residents instead of losing them. John Parkerson is among them. After hunting with Shawn for five consecutive turkey seasons, he moved from Crossett, Arkansas, in 2013. Now, he and his wife, Ann, both work for the Sheltons full time. Two other regular guests at the horse camp have bought property nearby.
Two jobs created. That has a big impact in a tiny place. Shelton’s Big Flat Getaway also has become something of a model for other area entrepreneurs. In the 15 years since the Sheltons opened their resort, four other businesses have opened in town. Big Flat has undergone such a turnaround that the town council—on which both Shawn and Kim sit—decided in 2016 to institute a sales tax, the town’s first, with the money used for general improvement projects.
As the afternoon wears on, Shawn leaves the outlying fields to visit a hay field not far from the horse camp. It’s a productive spot—and a good “honey hole,” he says, for hunting whitetail deer. Lately, though, he can imagine something else here, too:
a tidy, rustic housing development—a spot for more new arrivals or for visitors
“As a younger man, I had tunnel vision,” he says. “I’d look at a piece of property and all I could figure was how many cattle it could run. Now that I’m older, I’m thinking differently.” It’s wisdom that will help not just Shawn and his family, but their entire Arkansas hometown.
For more info, see Shelton’s Big Flat Getaway.