April 3, 2023
Jeff Williams Editor, Arkansas Wildlife Magazine
FORT SMITH – Bruce Stanton, vice president and general manager of the PRADCO fishing division, made two announcements on the deck of the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center Thursday afternoon. One recognized the needs of future generations; the other was a surprise that honored a longtime contributor to the joys of fishing.
“We make lures right here in Fort Smith that go to over 4,200 Walmart stores, they go to over 60 countries,” Stanton said. “It’s exciting to announce that on behalf of our team members, we’re going to donate $150,000 to kick-start a fundraiser for the Huckabee Nature Center right here in Fort Smith.”
The nature center, which opened Aug. 31, 2006, at 8300 Wells Lake Road, is loaded with interesting displays, although they’ve fallen behind the technological curve after 17 years. An effort to “reimagine” the possibilities at this nature center and others already has begun.
Tabbi Kinion, chief of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Education Division, told the crowd of about 100, many of them PRADCO employees, that the AGFC earmarked $350,000 from the Conservation License Plate Program for the project.
“If you think about the kids from 2006, when this place opened, those folks are having their own children now,” Kinion said. “It is time to reimagine this place for a new generation. Today we are so excited and proud to be working with PRADCO Outdoors and other partners as we reimagine this place for Fort Smith’s families for generations to come.”
Fort Smith Mayor George McGill spoke to the growth of the area and the nature center’s position.
“The timing is right for this,” McGill said. “Our children and our friends and guests from all across the country are going to come to this place, and when they leave they are going to go, ‘Wow, we have to go back.’ The children are going to say things like, ‘Grandpa – that was so cool! When can we go back?’ ”
Plans for the updated exhibits and displays are in the early stages. Kinion and Spencer Griffith, an AGFC deputy director, offered a brief presentation of potential plans for about a dozen local civic and business leaders before PRADCO’s announcements. A wide range of possibilities that would widen the scope of the nature center’s impact will be considered; none of those ideas has been adopted, although the plan is to move relatively quickly.
“We look forward to working with the community to really make this center the crown jewel that it is,” Deke Whitbeck, president of the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation, said. “Just as Chaffee Crossing is undergoing revitalization right where we’re standing, this nature center is going to follow suit and do the very same thing.”
Bennie Westphal of Fort Smith, an AGFC commissioner during 2021-22, has been instrumental in bringing people together to bring the nature center up to date.
“I am passionate about the outdoors and nature,” Westphal said. “I want more kids and families to get excited about the outdoors. I had friends in church that started taking me outdoors and it’s been a blessing to me.”
Whitbeck says the effort will reach far and wide.
“Bennie and I are going to be calling on just about everyone here in the River Valley to see if we can raise some funds to help bring this center where we think it should be,” Whitbeck said.
The Arkansas River Valley Nature Center is the first of nine that are in line for updates. Eric Maynard, an assistant chief in charge of nature centers in the AGFC Education Division, says Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center, which opened Dec. 17, 2008, will be next.
For his second announcement, Stanton called Bill Jarboe to the lectern. “Bill has worked at PRADCO for 53 years,” Stanton said as he directed Jarboe and his wife, Debbie, to a sign covered by a sheet of fabric.
“Instead of announcing it, I’m going to let you all pull it off,” Stanton said as the sign was revealed. “We’ve got PRADCO Outdoor Brands Bill Jarboe Family Fishing Pavilion,” Stanton said. The sign was to be installed at the pavilion on the south side of Wells Lake. An interpretive panel about PRADCO and Jarboe was unveiled later at the pavilion.
Stanton also handed out 100 commemorative Heddon Super Spook Boyo fishing lures
(designed by Jarboe) that read: “March 30, 2023 Dedication Day, Bill Jarboe Family Fishing Pavilion, Wells Lake at the Janet Huckabee Nature Center.”
“Bill has spent 53 years as a tool-maker, fishing lure designer and design engineer for
PRADCO,” Stanton said. Some of Jarboe’s famous lures are the Heddon One Knocker Spook, the One Knocker and Hard Knocker BOOYAH rattle baits, and two of PRADCO’s bestsellers – BOOYAH Pad Crasher and Pad Crasher Jr. frog lures. He’s also designed spinnerbaits.
“He’s just a valuable asset to us,” Stanton said. “He’s still designing lures today.” PRADCO has held fishing derbies at Wells Lake, provided fishing rods to youngsters and
employees have organized cleanup efforts. Stanton says that dedication will continue in Jarboe’s name.
“What we really wanted to do was honor Bill and his family with a permanent monument to what you’ve done,” Stanton said. “As long as the Huckabee Center’s here, as long as this fishing pavilion is here, your name’s going to be on it.”
Jarboe credited his family and colleagues with his success.
“Having my family’s support has been fantastic over the years,” Jarboe said. “My wife had to raise four kids while I was traveling to China; it wasn’t easy. The other thing is the company I work for, from PRADCO in Fort Smith all the way to EBSCO in Birmingham (Alabama), fantastic people to work with and for. That’s one reason why PRADCO stayed in Fort Smith – because of the people that we have here.”
Bruce Stanton of PRADCO addresses a crowd at Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center. Seated are (left to right) Fort Smith Mayor George McGill, Bennie Westphal of Fort Smith, AGFC Education Division Chief Tabbi Kinion and AGFF President Deke Whitbeck.
Fort Smith Mayor George McGill speaks to a crowd; seated are Bruce Stanton of PRADCO and Tabbi Kinion of the AGFC.
Debbie and Bill Jarboe, with family members behind them, cut the ribbon to dedicate the Bill Jarboe Family Fishing Pavilion.