By Suzi Parker
LITTLE ROCK, Ark (Reuters) - It's not every day that a 3-million-year-old natural sandstone bridge hits the auction block.
But on Friday morning about 20 people gathered at the base of the 120-foot-long bridge for the sale of a legendary Ozark tourist stop between Little Rock, Arkansas, and Branson, Missouri.
The first bid, from an unidentified woman in the crowd, was for $100,000. Less than 15 minutes later, it was Jack Smith, an elderly Navy veteran from Conway, Arkansas, who bought the bridge, gift shop, log cabin museum, moonshine still, and 101 acres of forest for $207,900.
The attraction, about 65 miles north of Little Rock, has been called a natural wonder because of its arching rock formation that was used as a wagon bridge by pioneers.
For years, and even today, barn roofs along Highway 65 are painted with advertisements luring tourists down a winding road into Little Johnnie Cavern to see the "world wonder where nature is still the boss." A covered wagon greets visitors at the entrance.
Smith, who had to pay a $40,000 immediately and must pay in full within 30 days, said he was representing his son James, who lives in Georgia and was the actual buyer.
"He wants to come back here one day," said Jack Smith, adding that his son listened to the auction by phone while on a lunch break from his job at a military base.
The bridge has been in the hands of one family since 1973, when Garner Johnson bought the scenic site, which hosts sassafras, oak and hickory trees as well as wildlife such as deer and wild turkey.
Johnson and his son Bill ran the business until their deaths about 10 years ago. Another son, Royce, now operates it, but he and his two brothers, Wayne and Harold, said they were ready to retire.
"We've been preparing for this for a while so there's not a lot of emotion today," Wayne Smith said.
Auctioneer Joe Wilson said he had auctioned many properties over the years, including a house where Bill Clinton lived as a teenager, but nothing this unique.
"I'm pretty sure it'll be our last natural bridge," Wilson told Reuters after the auction, adding that the winning bid was satisfactory for the Johnsons given the depressed economy.
"A person can make a living with this property," Royce Johnson said. "It's still very successful and, at times, it can get really crazy with tourists."
The admittance fee is $3 and the tour is self-guided through a gravel path.
Leslie Morgenthau Rawlings of Little Rock said she took her three children to see the bridge in the 1980s after her then-husband, a truck driver, saw the advertisements.
"I remember he took the kids up on it even though I was fussing about it because the signs clearly said not to do that," Rawlings said. "There are a lot of neat places like that in Arkansas but we lose a lot of them to flashier, closer to the freeway things that don't have nearly as much character."
The Arkansas Parks and Tourism Department doesn't want that to happen to the Natural Bridge.
"Our hope is that it's bought by a creative and ambitious entrepreneur who can make it an exciting destination for travelers in the Ozarks," Joe David Rice, Arkansas Tourism Director, told Reuters.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)