Historic Resource Study
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The Ozark Riverways and the "New South": Continuity in the Homeland, 1870-1920

Regardless of the many changes in the new Ozarks, fundamental aspects of the uplander/frontier culture endured in the Current River homeland. In the hills and hollows, away from the towns, the basic self-reliant and self-sufficient way of life continued within the growing money-based commercial economy of the lumber era. The stockman-farmer-hunter generalist lifestyle prevailed with the frequent addition of hiring out for lumber related work. In addition, the perpetuation of an Ozarks vernacular architecture demonstrated the persistence of the homeland culture.

Many Ozarkers demonstrated little interest in intense commercial agriculture despite the new local and regional market created by the railroad and lumber developments. This was very much apparent on the upper Current where the rugged topography and the people that it attracted encouraged a tradition of small self-sufficient homesteads. In 1896, in Shannon County, the editor of the Current Wave bemoaned what he called the lack of a profit motive behind agriculture practiced by the local farmers. He wrote:

The majority of farmers of Shannon County do not farm for a profit, while a great many more farm with a rifle and a pack of hounds, and others sit on a dry goods box and whittle and comment on the political status of the day.

The editor, Joshua Sholar, carefully chastised the local farmers for falling to modernize their farming methods while watching the company stores and other merchants import boxcar after boxcar of foodstuffs into the area. He instructed the farmers to manure their fields, to grow more wheat and corn, to grind it at Alley and then to sell the meal or flower at Fishertown. [1]

In the big lumber era, many hill families added some form of lumber activity to their general agricultural economic arsenal. Dent County farmer W. W. Cannon kept a diary in 1886 and in it described a rural existence that combined regular contact in the local cash exchange economy with a still predominately self-sufficient mode of life. The location of Cannon's farm is uncertain but, in the diary, he mentioned selling hay to the local mill, and this suggested that the mill was animal-not water-powered and therefore away from any spring or river. [2] During the spring and summer of 1886, Cannon supported himself with endeavors ranging from raising corn, beans, cane, and wheat to hauling hay and lumber. Hay was a cash crop for Cannon. He also hauled lumber for cash. During a seven-day period August 18-24, 1886, Cannon made two trips to Rolla with loads of lumber. A round trip was a two-day affair and, during the second trip, he returned with $4.10 worth of merchandise including a pair of shoes and some salt valued at $1.50 and $1.35 respectively. On Sunday, August 22, there was no mention of any activity. He made repairs to his wagon on August 23 and 24. In September, he worked several days at making apple cider (another cash crop), hauled at least one load of lumber to Rolla, cut corn and sorghum cane, and planted some wheat. [3] Reflecting the "do-it-yourself" tradition, he also repaired his own cistern, fence, shoes, and a spinning wheel for his wife. He built hoops for barrels, shod his own horses and collected walnut bark for dye making. [4] Dent County was a much more prosperous agricultural area than Shannon and Carter counties. Its topography and soil were more conducive for agriculture, and it was closer to major transportation routes. Therefore, the commercial opportunities open to Cannon were greater than for the Current River settlers of the mid-1880s. Cannon, however, still was a rural generalist and predominately self-sufficient.

An oral history project conducted by the Center for Ozark Studies at Southwest Missouri State University and focusing on Shannon County provides further insight into the work and leisure customs along the Current River after the turn of the twentieth century. Overall, the elder residents interviewed described childhoods in lively communities along the Current and its creeks and hollows where "there was a house and family just around every corner." They frequently characterized the people as "practical," "self-supporting," and "hospitable." A woman, raised on Sinking Creek, recalled frequent visits from extended family members, especially those of her step-father, whose in-laws from a former wife often "walked across the hills from Big Creek" to call on them. A former Blair Creek resident proudly pointed out a habit of mutual aid:

But I'm going to tell you something about them people over there. . . . But the nights never got too dark or it never got too cold when someone was sick, but that they was right there to help. And if they run out of firewood, somebody come with their saw and axes and cut the wood. And back at the time they didn't have no truck, they hauled it in wagons. So that was neighbors. [5]

The woman from Sinking Creek, though heavily dosed with nostalgia, gave a description of a community that underscored the peoples' self-sufficiency and a perception that valued simplicity in a time when life was anything but simple.

I feel like I have lived through the most important years that have ever been because back on Sinking at the time I was growing up, we were in our own little world. Horses and wagons and walking [were] the only way of getting out of there. Then of course I grew up with pioneer parents. . . . People just simply [were] self-supporting. And I learned all that. And we had the good old horse-and-buggy days. And we had lots of square dances on Sinking. Very little trouble. [6]

The mention of self-supporting, pioneer parents referred to the continuation into the twentieth century of a family survival pattern among the Ozark uplanders that relied on a few acres of crops, the open range, and working odd jobs for cash. As they had for decades, on a few fenced-in acres, the hill families basically grew corn, the staple crop, sorghum cane for molasses, and possibly a little wheat to make the traditional biscuits for breakfast. A garden produced cabbage, beans, potatoes, and other family vegetables. The variety of domestic animals frequently included hogs, chickens, some cattle, and a team of horses or mules. The hogs, still the principal source of meat, foraged on the open range as did what cattle they might have owned. [7]

Men, women, and children all contributed to the family economy. The men and boys generally tended the corn and cane crop and butchered their own meat. Over the course of the long growing season, they often produced two crops of corn. In the late spring, after the planting of the first crop, they planted sorghum cane. The men repaired fences and other items around the home after laying out the crops. They also spent more time hunting and fishing. On Sinking Creek, a woman compared the excitement among the men waiting for the fall price list from the St. Louis fur company of Maas & Staffein with that of Christmas. She commented:

It was exciting because everybody wanted to see how much the fur was gonna sell for. If the possum hides were gonna bring a dime or [were] they gonna bring a quarter. And skunks usually brought about a quarter. And I think possums didn't bring but about a dime. But foxes and different things, they were higher. There [were not] any raccoons back in that time hardly at all. They were around $2.00. But I don't know why there [were not] so many, maybe because there [were] too many trappers. [8]

Beside the enjoyment associated with trapping and hunting, the furs obtained from these activities provided the families with some cash income.

The economic responsibilities of the women most frequently centered on milking the cows, raising chickens, tending the garden, making or repairing clothing and, of course, preparing meals. Tending to the milk cows involved more than just milking; it included separating cream, churning butter, and making cottage cheese. The garden required hoeing and the vegetables, when picked, needed to be canned. Canning was a modern process developed in the 1870s. In contrast to these duties, the women, such as Ena Griffith of Sinking Creek, considered patching clothes and quilting as relaxation and often reserved these activities for warm afternoons. [9]

The division of labor between women and men, however, was not always so neatly defined. Some women plowed, planted, and helped in the fields during the harvests of corn and other grains. They also chopped or sawed wood and split rails for fences. Of course, women would undertake such "man's work" for a variety of reasons, but it probably appeared most common among young couples without children or in families where there were no or few male children. The women from Sinking Creek noted that the females of this community did not undertake much "outside work" because of the large number of boys in the families. Growing up in a family with brothers, one man remembered that, as the eldest son, he began to plow at the age of twelve while his father "worked out all [of] the time." [10] Hiring out was common among women and men looking for a source of cash income.

The uplanders, who at the turn of the century continued to practice a form of self-sufficiency, looked to a variety of ways to earn a little cash for the growing market economy in which they found themselves. For example, they often sold dairy products, eggs, or vegetables to the lumber camps and stores. The men cut ties and fence posts, hauled lumber, and sold hides and pelts. [11] Young women also hired out for cash-paying odd jobs. A Shannon County woman noted the common experience of working around the neighborhood:

I did it because I wanted to hire out. I wanted to work. It was about the only source that a single girl at that time had the opportunity to do. It [was not] like today. You've got your factories, your many places that young people can work. Then you didn't. You lived in the community—maybe I wouldn't have a job very often. Maybe two weeks. That was about the limit. . . . I lived in the household with the parents. . . . And I did some sewing for people.

After marrying, this woman lived on a Low Wassie farm, and her husband worked for a time as a section hand for the lumber company railroads. They periodically would live at various logging camps, such as Edmundson Camp, connected to the tram lines. At the logging and railroad camps, young women often worked at the "boarding houses," where they cooked and laundered for the section crews. Once the boarding houses closed, they frequently went back to their hill communities. [12]

The life of the Nichols family of Parker Hollow on the upper Current displayed the persistence of the frontier/uplander lifeway despite the encroaching modernization. Married in 1894, John and Susie Nichols first settled on eighty acres in northwestern Dent County but, in 1897, they traded farms with John's brother who owned seventy-nine acres of land in Parker Hollow in southwest Dent. At the time of their marriage, John Nichols was twenty-eight years old and his wife was eighteen. A major attraction of the Parker Hollow farm was a spring that the Nichols used for drinking water and to keep perishables fresh. They first built themselves a dog-trot style house near the spring with timber cut from the property and sawed at a local mill. After the birth of their three children, they tore down the first house and built a room home about fifty yards away from the spring. [13]

The couple practiced a self-sufficient form of agriculture, focusing on the growing of crops, livestock, and a garden. John Nichols raised corn and sorghum cane. He had the corn ground at a gristmill down river or at the Schafer Mill at the head of Parker Hollow and had the cane pressed at the latter. A water-powered mill, the Schafer operation included a gristmill, a saw- and shingle mill, a carding machine and a cane press. The Nichols also owned cattle and hogs, which foraged on the open range, as well as horses, mules, sheep, and chickens. They raised vegetables, potatoes, beans, beets, and cabbage in the family garden. John Nichols also hauled lumber either for his own use or for hire. [14]

Surviving today as a dramatic visual reminder of a vernacular Ozarks farmstead, the cultural landscape of the Nichols property illustrates the persistence of uplander/frontier culture in the early twentieth century. North of Cedargrove in the rugged and still relatively isolated upper Current valley, the Nichol's place exists about a half-mile from the mouth of the Parker Branch in Parker Hollow. Their land occupies a level terrace along the spring branch and, typical of the rough Courtois Hills, is surrounded by steep hills. The house, barn, and corncrib—the extant remnants of the farm cluster—stand more than a quarter-mile from the branch down a narrow dirt road that runs through a thickly timbered and overgrown landscape. At one time the farm complex also contained a garage and two smokehouses. The small spring, the Nichol's water source, still spills out near the road leading to the house and barn. [15]

The type of house, barn, and corncrib reflect traditional Ozarks architecture with complex roots in the culture of the Upland South mixed with some other traditions. The house features a double pen, mirror image facade typical of Scotch-Irish settlers and the most common vernacular form still present in the Ozark highlands. It is a single-story building with end cables. The most enduring feature of this vernacular type is the symmetry. Early pioneers originated the double pen configuration by making additions to one-room log cabins. They simply built a second cell (pen) on to the original structure and included a second front door for access. This symmetry in form continued as a Scotch-Irish tradition. Reflecting Ozark custom, the Nichols built their house with the common window-door-door-window fenestration pattern on a stone pier foundation of uncut native stone. [16]

In addition to these traditional features, specific aspects of the house reflected the vast changes underway in the late nineteenth century Ozarks. As originally constructed, the house lacked a chimney and included a rear ell that the Nichols used as a kitchen and dining room. The family cooked on a stove, instead of in a fireplace, and heated the home with a second stove. Such appliances were accessible to the common Ozarker only after the coming of the railroad and reflected an acceptance of some modern changes even by families closely linked to Ozark tradition. [17]

The barn and corncrib also display Ozark vernacular construction. As Stephen Knight noted in his study of the Nichols farm, the small barn is a type common to an upland South variation of German barns in colonial Pennsylvania. It has a central crib of unhewn logs enclosed in a thirty-three- by twenty-eight-foot barn with sawn board sides. The separate corncrib, while built in the early 1930s, after the barn and house, still reflected traditional construction. The Nichols built with unhewn logs, saddle-notched at the ends and supported by stone or wood block piers a foot and a half above the ground. [18]

The materials and method of construction again reflected both Ozark tradition and recent adaptations. John Nichols cut the lumber for the buildings from trees on his land and hauled logs to Schafer Mill to be sawn into boards or made into roof shingles. He then constructed the house himself. Yet he employed a sawmill method of construction, a practice introduced with the company housing of the large lumber mills, in which he nailed the pine boards vertical into sills at the bottom and two-by-fours at the top. There was no framing involved. [19] Displaying a strong community spirit, surrounding neighbors gathered to help the Nichols raise their barn.

The populations of the hollows and hills along the Current peaked near the turn of the century and, as a grandson of the Nichols noted, it was "pretty thickly settled . . . all around through there." Several families lived near Schafer Spring and down from the Nichols across the river. [20] In keeping with the lumber era advances in Ozark society, the Nichols children attended school at the Lower Parker Schoolhouse, and they traveled once a week to Cedar Grove for the mail. The community aid in building, frequent visits among neighbors, and social gatherings demonstrated the existence of a strong open rural community. It also demonstrated that, although this area of the upper Current was still relatively isolated, life here was anything but solitary.

Even in this rugged upper Current area, the declining isolation of the homeland and its increasing integration into a farflung market economy was apparent. On the eve of the twentieth century, editor Joshua Sholar thought it urgent that the farmers bring more money into the county. He foresaw the closing of the big mills and feared that hard times would follow the loss of the timber. He concluded:

The celebrated yellow pine of the Ozarks, of which we are so proud, will soon be a thing of the past; and with it goes the deer and the turkey, the rifle and the hounds, and the face of the country [will be] changed.

The rise in the number of farms and in the value of farm products from 1870 to 1910 indicated that the Ozark population did increase its commercial production. Yet, as Sholar feared, the slow adoption of modern farming methods cut short this growth as the land wore out. Moreover, after 1915 a more learned observer noted the marginal quality of the soil of the southern Courtois Hills, and the best land along the Current River already had been long occupied and cultivated. [21]

A recent analysis by cultural geographer Russel Gerlach identified the traditional Ozarkers relationship to the land as reactive rather than proactive. The persistence of the frontier quality of Ozark life followed the habit of the early Scotch-Irish settlers to adapt rather than to alter the environment. Gerlach explained that the descendants of the Scotch-Irish have demonstrated a pattern of accepting and adapting to change in the economic base of the highlands. In contrast to the Germans, who settled on the more fertile land on the Ozark border and who reconfigured the landscape to widespread crop farming, the Scotch-Irish changed their economy based on the availability of resources and in response to outside pressures. The economic base shifted from a predominance on hunting, crop farming, and livestock production to mining and timbering and eventually to public assistance and then to tourism. [22]

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Last Updated: 02-Mar-2005