Favorite Ozarks Places – 18


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Osage River from north overlook – Painted Rock Conservation Area

The “painted rock” of the Painted Rock Conservation Area isn’t much to look at, and I’ve never seen it. You shouldn’t try, either; an archaeologist who documented the painted rock (actually, a Native American pictograph) in 2006 noted that the site is closed to the public “because of the extreme risks of drowning, falling rocks, and poisonous snakes.” But that’s not why people visit Painted Rock anyway.

They go there because it has some of the most sweeping overlooks of anywhere in the Missouri Ozarks. The Osage River forms the western edge of the conservation area, nearly 1,500 acres owned by the Missouri Conservation Department, and a loop trail takes hikers to a couple of magnificent viewspots. The river sweeps in a large curve beneath the bluffs there, known as the “Osage Bend,” so visitors can see for miles in both directions and can have as a bonus a view across the river of some of the finest-looking farmland in the state.

Mountaintop meditation is some kind of basic human impulse, and the Conservation Department has placed benches at several locations to meet that need. I doubt if this use is officially approved, but you might well see some evidence of cremation scatterings. Frankly, for a local nature lover it’s hard to imagine a better place to have your crumbs spread out.

The use of this high location as a funereal spot, in fact, goes back perhaps more than a thousand years. Along the hiking trail is a Native American burial cairn, a reminder that this area was an important, perhaps even sacred, spot long before Europeans arrived. Sadly, the site bears signs of having been looted in years past.

Burial cairn at Painted Rock – from Wayfaring.com

The recent history of Painted Rock is less exalted. While researching this location, I came upon an excellent blog entry from Julianna Schroeder, who blogs under the name The Opulent Opossum. Here’s a link to her post, and I’ll try to link to her blog on my sidebar, if I can remember how to do that. For my purposes, though, I’ll quote from her entry:

“The Missouri Department of Conservation acquired the land in 1981, but it’s been used as a park and preserve since the last quarter of the 1800s. At that time, the land was leased and used by a group of affluent citizens of Jefferson City for hunting purposes. In 1907, when the land appeared to be in danger of being subdivided and sold, the group of hunters organized formally into the Painted Rock Country Club and purchased the property—1,086 acres.

“The country club, whose members included Governor Herbert Hadley, had a clubhouse on the land, gathered there on the weekends, and had fall and winter hunts for deer, turkey, squirrels, rabbits, quail . . . this at a time when game was becoming increasingly scarce in the state due to the lack of centrally organized conservation efforts.

“Again, these were prominent people; in 1909 the group’s annual banquet was held at the Governor’s Mansion, and it’s widely agreed that this club’s members were instrumental in developing and supporting Missouri’s first statewide hunting laws as well as creating (in 1936) the state’s department of Conservation.

“The club’s heyday was in the 1920s, but it declined somewhat during the Depression; the land was sold in the mid-1940s and then sold again in 1952 to Sam B. Cook, a prominent Jefferson City banker who was the son and grandson of men who had been members of the country club. In 1981 he sold the property to the Missouri Department of Conservation, which developed the trail overlooks, interpretive signs, and other information, and worked to improve the quality of the area’s oak-hickory forests.”

View from south overlook – Painted Rock Conservation Area

Painted Rock sits at the northern edge of the geographic Ozarks, and the area around it (Westphalia, Freeburg, Koeltztown, Meta) is not what is commonly considered the “cultural” Ozarks; it’s predominantly German and Catholic/Lutheran in its heritage. Geologically, though, it fits right in, with dolomite bluffs intermingled with chert and sandstone. And if there are lessons to be drawn from nature - and I think there are - perhaps the best lesson, sitting on a bench contemplating mortality, with ancient graves behind you and the mooing of a cow or clattering of a tractor floating up from the fields below, is that our notion of what is culturally “in” or “out” of the region probably needs continual expansion and reconsideration.

The Sleep of Reason

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, The sleep of reason produces monsters (No.43), from Los Caprichos– Google Art Project

So much has been said and written about the events of Wednesday, January 6, that I hestitate to add anything. But Wednesday’s events were so shocking that it seems irresponsible to say nothing.

Shocking, but not all that surprising. The incidents of mob violence and rioting that began (most recently) with Charlottesville and have continued for the last several years have deep roots in American history. I’ve been reading Erik Loomis’ A History of America in Ten Strikes, and one theme that recurs is the remarkable amount of violence that has permeated our history from the very beginning. By comparison to many workers’ strikes of the 19th century, the five fatalities from the Capitol siege was tame. And just over the last few months, capitol buildings in Michigan, Idaho, and Oregon were overtaken by mobs of armed, violent men who threatened the elected representatives. So even the particular nature of this incident should come as no surprise.

At this point I should warn you, dear readers, that at the end of this post I am going to place a photograph of the violence at the Capitol. It is disturbing. So if disturbing photos upset you, you should stop scrolling.

The image above is “The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters,” an etching from the 1790s created by Francisco Goya, that great Spanish chronicler of the human capacity for monstrousness. It’s an appropriate title for our time, unfortunately, because so many of us have allowed our reason to go to sleep.

So how do we reawaken our reason? I think one necessary step is to require ourselves to start facing up to difficult facts. The world is not always as we want it to be, but pretending that it’s something else entirely is no help in coping with its difficulty.

So to start: By now, it’s quite clear that the election result was not in doubt from the very early days after November 3. This fact applies both to the popular vote and the electoral count. In the U.S., elections are governed by individual states, unless the state’s practices are so egregious as to create a civil rights violation; so if you think there were irregularities in an election, the proper place to seek redress is in the state courts or with the state elections commission. Those efforts have been tried repeatedly, and they haven’t affected the results. In fact, courts and election commissions almost completely rejected those complaints. If you’re having a hard time with this fact, all I can advise is to keep trying. That’s how elections work. Somebody wins, and the people who lose accept that fact and then start planning how they might be able to win the next time around.

So, with that fact known and understood, we have to think about the riot at the Capitol. Several thousand people attended the morning rally because they either refused to accept that fact or they believed those leaders who understood that fact but chose to mislead them. What would make so many people wilfully disbelieve the obvious?

Well, wishful thinking, for one. Nobody likes to have their wishes thwarted. I know when a candidate I support loses, I find myself in disbelief for a while. How could anybody have voted for X when they could have voted for Y? But after that wears off, I come to terms with the fact that it sure enough happened, and start thinking about the future. Refusing to believe the obvious truth only cripples me for what is to come. I think most of the people at the Capitol that day fall ino this category: wishful thinkers whose path toward reality has been unnecessarily prolonged by leaders who see advantage in not making them face facts.

But there appears to have been another group there, people who knew full well that the election had been lost but who didn’t care. They weren’t there to “stop the steal” or whatever other slogans were being chanted. They had come to start trouble, to engage in violence, and if they were lucky to kill some people. You can see them in the photographs in their military-style gear, with the weapons and tools of destruction that they had not brought with them. These were not misguided truth-deniers who got caught up in the moment. These were people intent on harm.

But they needed the mob for cover, and so the many Trump supporters who swarmed to the Capitol were useful to them. So we have a large group of fact-denying wishful thinkers who imagined themselves reversing an election that they foolishly believed to be “stolen,” and a smaller group of dedicated troublemakers who had come to commit crimes. Those with criminal intent, though, needed the mass of people who had let their reason go to sleep. Even those who came with what they believed to be patriotic intent were enabling the thugs. If the polls are to be believed, a large majority of those people and their supporters still fail to see the connection between their actions and the horrifying crimes that occurred. But that connection is clearly there, and until everyone acknowledges it, we will not have a true reckoning about the storming of the Capitol.

Subsequent events have revealed more wishful thinking, at least in my opinion. I stress here that I’m in the realm of opinion now, not facts, so you can feel free to disagree. But the whole idea of impeaching somebody who is about to leave office, knowing that there’s no time to have a trial, seems nonsensical to me. At best, it’s an emotional gesture, a final declaration of enmity toward a despised opponent. At worst, it’s just political opportunism, a chance to score points and fund-raise. The net effect in practical terms is zero. If Nancy Pelosi was the kind of mad genius she is portrayed as being in right-wing media, she’d avoid impeaching the president entirely, because his continued presence in the Republican Party is tearing it to pieces, and she wouldn’t want to disturb that process. But as I said, this all is just my interpretation, not a statement of incontrovertible facts like the result of the election.

Reawakening our sense of reason and respect for facts will not happen overnight. But I do hope that those who have been gulled into believing a pack of lies will be able to rejoin the world of reality, bit by bit, once the shock of last week’s events has taken hold. We will all come to grips with the fact that a mob of thousands of people desecrated the U.S. Capitol. That’s not patriotic.

These people are not patriots:

Favorite Ozarks Places – 17


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Ha Ha Tonka Spring

I generally avoid anything having to do with the Lake of the Ozarks, because it is so garish, messy, and utterly overcommercialized. But I have to admit that there are some beautiful scenic areas in that region, despite the overgrown forest of advertising signs that often obscures it.

One of those areas is Ha Ha Tonka, now a state park. Ha Ha Tonka was given its name by an early promoter who claimed that it was an Osage phrase that meant “laughing waters,” and if you believe that I’ve got a bridge to sell you. What it is, though, is a magnificent spring (pictured above) and a number of geologic features that are truly memorable.

It’s a wonderful place to see karst topography in its many forms. Water flowing through dolomite, with a sandstone overlay, has created a natural bridge (pictured below) and a deep chasm that connects the spring to the lake below. Before the lake, the spring fed the Niangua River, but nowadays that’s all beneath the surface. The remnants of a mill dam are still present, so one can easily imagine the community that existed there in the 19th and early 20th century.

The natural bridge at Ha Ha Tonka

The chasm is quite spectacular, similar to Grand Gulf farther south, and hiking trails wind through it in all directions. I wouldn’t recommend some of the trails for casual hikers; the rocky, rugged terrain makes for a tough clamber in some places. But there’s a paved path from the lake that nearly reaches the spring, until the rocks close in.

Most of the park’s visitors, though, visit the ruins of a big old house that overlooks the chasm from the north side. This mansion, optimistically referred to as a “castle” by the parks people, was begun in 1905 by a rich guy from Kansas City. He was killed in a car wreck the following year, but his sons continued with the construction of the house, which probably did have the best view in Missouri. It burned in 1942. I get the impression that the ruins, which the state parks people have stabilized, are preserved to maintain their current picturesque level of ruination. After all, it would lessen their attraction if they just went ahead and fell down.

Ha Ha Tonka spring, Castle in distance

As for myself, I’ve never been much interested in the opulent structures built by rich people, ruined or otherwise. The views from up there are excellent, though. Before the state obtained the property, Ha Ha Tonka was run as a private tourist attraction, with all kinds of fanciful names for the geographic features. The creation of the lake inundated some of those features, sparking a long legal battle between the owners and the electric company. The story of Ha Ha Tonka, both the geologic story and the story of the various humans fighting to profit from it, is told in excellent detail in Leland and Crystal Payton’s Damming the Osage.

Joel Vance


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On the left of this page is my “blogroll,” the list of blogs that I’ve found enjoyable, interesting, or worthy of a follow. You’ll see Joel Vance’s blog listed there, and I recommend you visit it.

His last post was November 20 of this year, not long ago, and it’s classic Vance. A consummate storyteller for many decades, Vance always put himself in the stories as the butt of the joke. His misadventures with a continuing cast of hunting dogs were a staple of his years with the Missouri Conservationist, the publication where I first read his work and for which he wrote during much of his career.

Sadly, I read in Brandon Butler’s column this morning that Joel Vance died Wednesday, at the age of 86.

Joel Vance didn’t just write funny stories. He also wrote about the joys of the Missouri outdoors and the threats to it. He wrote in a vivid, conversational style that let you know that you were getting the real Joel Vance, not some packaged PR, although of course the Conservationist is ultimately a PR publication. There was also a no-nonsense quality in his writing that let you know he was ready to call bullshit when he saw it, and I’m sure he saw plenty.

Brandon Butler remarks in his column that this quality of Vance’s writing inspired confidence in his readers and built a rapport with them that carried over into other areas. He specifically cites the passage of Missouri’s much-admired conservation sales tax, which drew on a reservoir of trust that the Conservation Department had built up over the years. I think there’s real merit in that observation, and it’s something that deserves more attention.

Why did people trust the Conservation Department enough to pass a dedicated sales tax? Lots of reasons, of course, but one is that the department, through people like Joel Vance, had been open and honest with the citizens of Missouri. They communicated effectively. As I used to say in my Principles of PR class back at Culver-Stockton, the first rule of good public relations is “Never lie.” And to expand further, “Never even allow youself to be suspected of lying. If something bad happens, deal with it head-on. You’ll suffer in the short term but build trust for the long term.”

Nowadays, we are living through one of the great health crises in our country’s history. We’ll top 300,000 deaths this week, maybe as early as tomorrow, and may potentially hit 400,000 by the time our new president is inaugurated. What would have our situation been like if our leaders at the federal and state level had followed Joel Vance’s example and addressed the situation plainly and honestly, without all the fudging, misdirection, and outright lying that we have seen over the past year? No one knows, but it’s plain to see that there is no reservoir of trust to draw on. Our governor and our president, and their myriads of enablers, have accustomed us to assume that the government is not being straight with us. It’s a sad state of affairs, and it will take a long time to reverse.

I imagine that eventually, Joel Vance’s blog will be deactivated. But for now, I’m leaving the link up at the side of my page, and I encourage you to read through his work. You may not always agree with what he says, but you’ll always know what he thinks and where he stands. And I guarantee that you’ll be entertained.

Old Hymns and Odd Images


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I’ve made my fondness for old hymns known before. I grew up with them, and even today an old hymn will get stuck in my head for days at a time.

Such is the case with “Come, Thou Fount,” one of the hymns that was an evergreen favorite in my childhood church, and one of those that has maintained a surprising popularity among contemporary pop Christian groups and singers, although as usual they can’t keep from tweaking it to make it more “modern,” adding choruses or smoothing out the lyrics to suit today’s sensibilities.

“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” to give its full title, was written in the mid-1700s by a 22-year-old English pastor and hymnodist named Robert Robinson. Like most hymns of the era, it came unattached to a particular tune. The tune we associate it with the most is an American tune of somewhat obscure origin called “Nettleton,” named after the Connecticut evangelist and composer Asahel Nettleton, who may or may not have written it. The tune has a kind of thumping, straightforward tread that is one reason it sticks in the mind so easily: de de BUMP BUMP, de de BUMP BUMP, and so forth.

Robert Robinson, from Wikipedia.

But what draws me to “Come, Thou Fount” are its lyrics. They’re kind of a mishmash, really, but in such interesting ways. Take the first lines. “Come, thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy praise. Streams of mercy never ceasing call for songs of loudest praise.” This gives us a hint of what we’re in for. God is a fountain, and also a kind of cosmic piano tuner. The two images are intermingled through the verse. One might say Robinson is mixing his metaphors here, or that this tumbled mix is just what he’s aiming for, in the sense that God is too big to be contained in a single metaphorical framework.

The second verse relies on what to most people today is a very obscure Biblical reference: “Here I raise mine Ebenezer, here by Thy great help I’ve come.” But believers in Robinson’s time would have recognized the reference as coming from 1 Samuel, in a verse in which Samuel erects a monument stone at the site of a victory over the Philistines. Samuel calls it “Stone of Help,” or Eben-Ezer in the English transliteration of the Hebrew, and the word came to signify a place of victory by divine intervention. The legendary Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta takes its name from this passage, as do thousands of other “Ebenezer” churches around the country. So the hymn is a victory paean.

But no, it’s not, for a couple of verses later come an amazing set of lines. “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be! Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.” The grace of God is phrased in terms of debt and imprisonment, which in 18th-century England would have been painfully familiar. For Robinson, who was disinherited at age five with ten shillings and sixpence, debt and imprisonment would have been a present concern. And then the desperate plea: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.” It’s easy to imagine the 22-year-old writer, engaged in his own struggles, pouring out this cry. The whole hymn is a tumbling-out of varied figures of speech, tones, and images, following on each other and sometimes weaving together. No wonder people have felt the urge to clean it up a bit for the audiences of their day!

But I like the tangled, almost synesthetic quality of “Come, Thou Fount.” As the tune goes marching along in steady pace, the lyrics are bouncing all over the place. It’s a mixed-up flow of thoughts for mixed-up minds, and I like it just like that.

Rugged Individualism and Simple Bullheadedness


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One of my favorite stories comes from my mother, who was visiting a nursing home one day when she happened to overhear a resident being comforted by his pastor. The resident was an old farmer, whose infirmities and age had consigned him to the home, and he was bemoaning his fate and wishing he could end it all. The pastor assured him that the simple fact he was alive meant that his purpose in life was not over, and that God still had something He wanted him to do.

The old coot considered this for a moment. “Well, I ain’t a-gonna do it,” he said.

Every time I think of this story I am reminded of Mary Calhoun’s marvelous 1972 children’s book Three Kinds of Stubborn, in which three stubborn Missourians get into a family dispute that keeps worsening because of their refusal to abandon their eccentric positions. The book is a gentle lesson in bending, in recognizing that none of us has a corner on truth, and in the wisdom of listening to others.

Stubbornness is a version of pride, an insistence that my opinion is superior to all others and that nobody has a right to tell me what to do. And pride, convention tells us, is a sin. In some ways, this stance is connected to the rural tradition of individualism and self-reliance, which I ordinarily think of as a virtue; but there are times when individualism and self-reliance become a hindrance rather than a help.

This is such a time, as I watch with dismay my fellow-citizens behave with deliberate and truculent ignorance toward those who need their help and who are trying to help them. The COVID pandemic requires concerted, collective action, with everyone pitching in to slow the spread of the virus by following a few simple health measures, and a coordinated government effort to enforce those health measures and to trace the contacts of those who come down with the illness. Instead, we see widespread refusal to wear masks, regular occurences of spreader events that pass the virus among groups, and a deliberately feeble government response in the name of “freedom” that allows cases to skyrocket.

My morning newspaper reports 105 people in the hospital with COVID today, a new record for the county, including 29 in intensive care and 16 on ventilators. The twist in this report is that only 20 out of the 105 are from Boone County, where I live. The other 85 are from outstate, from rural counties that don’t have the hospital capacity to treat them, or possibly don’t have a hospital at all. If “out of sight, out of mind” is true, then I would imagine that some inhabitants of these rural counties might not have a clear idea of just how widespread and dangerous this epidemic is, since the patients are whisked away to a distant hospital and their local government officials appear to be taking great pains to keep them in the dark. The state government’s COVID dashboard remains consistently behind the true numbers; if you want an accurate picture of the extent of COVID in Missouri, I recommend that you follow Matthew Holloway on Facebook. He’s a private citizen who, along with a number of helpers, has made it his personal mission to comb through local health department reports, media reports, and other public sources to come up with an accurate day-to-day account of the virus in Missouri.

It shouldn’t be this way. We shouldn’t have to argue with our fellow-citizens over simple health measures. We shouldn’t have to rely on motivated citizens to give us accurate statistics. Sometimes “I ain’t a-gonna to do it” is an admirable expression of defiance to the ruffian gods. Sometimes it’s just an obstinate refusal to acknowledge the obvious.

The Lure of the Ozarks


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In 2016, I was honored to be asked to give the keynote at the annual Ozarks Studies Conference in West Plains. The theme of the conference that year was “The Lure of the Ozarks,” so I decided to play on that theme for my talk. My title was “The Lure of the Ozarks: What’s the Bait and Who’s the Fish?”

The good folks at Elder Mountain took my talk, tweaked it a little, and published it in their most recent issue. As editor Phil Howerton aptly describes the issue, it’s a whopper . . . a double issue of 290 pages.

I’m reprinting a passage from near the opening of my talk below. Literary journals need all the help they can get, so if you’d like to read the whole thing, I encourage you to take a look at the issue’s impressive table of contents here and then use the purchase link here. You won’t regret it!

To speak of the lure of the Ozarks, appropriately enough, is to use the language of the fisherman, and prompts the metaphorical question of who is the fisher and who is the caught. Nowadays our talk about the lure of the Ozarks typically involves tourism, and rightly so, as it has become a mainstay of the Ozarks economy. Certainly tourism is a pretty benign sort of catchery . . . I suppose we could extend the metaphor and call tourism the “catch and release” version of the Ozarks’ lure.

But from the earliest times, people have come to the Ozarks to take away something more tangible. From Pierre Renaud down to the Doe Run Lead Company, the Ozarks have been a source of minerals and ore. The Missouri Lumber and Mining Company and its fellow timber harvesting enterprises did the same thing from the 1880s through the early twentieth century. In a general way, I think you’d have to describe the Ozarks as a kind of internal colony of the United States, a place from which to extract value at the lowest possible cost while returning as little as possible. As David Benac observes in his book Conflict in the Ozarks, a significant component of the Ozarks timber boom consisted of companies seeking to “tame” their workers, to bring them into compliance with the needs of an industrial-age enterprise concerning punctuality, sobriety, and adherence to the concept of “working hours” instead of living their lives by the clock of the seasons. What drew these entrepreneurs and companies to the Ozarks was what they could extract from it, and that’s a facet of this landscape that will never go away. I recall during the years of my childhood that every town in the area had its factory – shoe factories, shirt factories, hat factories, that sort of thing – each one staffed mainly by women paid on a piecework basis, overseen by men. It wasn’t until the advent of the global marketplace that these companies discovered they could find workers elsewhere who were even more impoverished and who had even fewer options than the Ozarkers, and relocated their factories elsewhere. For an industry that needed unskilled workers to perform repetitious tasks, the Ozarks must have seemed like a little slice of heaven for a time.

And then there’s escape, that time-honored lure of the Ozarks. Dad Howitt, the Shepherd of the Hills, came to the Ozarks to escape the noise of the city and the memories of his past, and ever since then one of the dominant themes of Ozarks culture has been that of the mountains as a place of refuge. Trappist monks came here, and the Harmonial Vegetarian Society, and so did Bonnie and Clyde. The hollows overflow with people who have come to the Ozarks for one sort of escape or another, whether it’s from the traffic jams of the city or the long arm of the law. My own experience with these transplants has been overwhelmingly positive. People drawn to the Ozarks from elsewhere bring energy, new ideas, and often a fresh infusion of money to communities that need all three. Unfortunately, the Ozarks’ mind-our-own-business reputation also draws the occasional Frazier Glenn Miller among the retired ad executives seeking a quiet place to meditate beside a stream.

Favorite Ozarks Books – 15


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I ran across a chapter of this book in The Literature of the Ozarks, a book that I have written about before. I’d heard of Katie Estill, but somehow had overlooked her novels. So I went out and found myself a copy.

I started reading it a couple of days ago, and it’s a marvel. It begins (or very nearly so) with a murder, but it’s not a mystery, nor is it what one would call a “thriller,” although it does have plenty of police procedure in it. It also has some adult passages with adults doing, well, what adults do. So it’s not exactly a “romance,” either, although there’s love in it, of the most aching and true sort.

It’s set in a county that feels a lot like Oregon County, Missouri, with a river that runs through it (in the novel, it’s the Seven Point, not the Eleven Point as in the real-life county, but let’s not quibble over the number of points). And it has a triumvirate of main characters, three women, all of whom suffer and struggle in the course of the book, and who don’t particularly get along, and who discover that they have common aims and needs despite that. One is a deputy sheriff; one is a woman who has recently returned to the county after a time away; and one is a newer arrival. The murder connects them, divides them, and connects them again.

It’s a beautiful book that defies categorization, and it contains some lovely passages of description of the Ozarks landscape, of the interior thinking of its main characters, and of the mental and emotional negotiations they go through to achieve some answers and some peace. It was published in 2007, but the characters’ travails are as relevant today as they were then. You may have to hunt for a copy, as I suspect it’s gone out of print; but it’s worth the search.

Playing the Stereotype


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On Facebook, I’ve been following the progress of Thomas Peters’ book on radio station KWTO and the Ozark Jubilee with great interest. It’s going to be a great addition to the Ozarks history bookshelf! He’s been posting some of the photos he’s collected for the book, and this morning he posted this beauty:

Les Paul and Sunny Joe Wolverton

That’s an 18-year-old Les Paul on the right, performing with his friend Sunny Joe Wolverton on KWTO as the Ozark Apple Knockers. A far cry from the urbane, sophisticated jazz pioneer he later became, the occupant of more halls of fame than one would care to count. Everybody has to start somewhere, and for Paul it was playing hillbilly music under the stage name “Rhubarb Red.”

When I saw this picture, for some reason I thought of a movie I had recently rewatched, the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster ScruggsBuster (Tim Blake Nelson) opens the movie in full cowboy-movie garb, singing “Cool Water” as he rides through Monument Valley. Of course, the joke (or part of the joke) is that “Cool Water” is not a historic cowboy song at all, but a pop hit of the 1940s.


What follows is a series of ghastly/comic episodes that both play on Western-story stereotypes and embrace them, just as the “hillbilly” image both mocks, uses, and embraces that stereotype as well.

We make art where we find it, with the materials at hand. Sometimes those materials include simplified versions of ourselves, and then we must decide whether to challenge the stereotype or play with it. I think either decision can work, as long as the stereotype is approached with conscious intent. It’s when stereotypes are presented unconsciously and uncritically that they harm. The rural rustic, the hayseed, has been with us since Greek comedy, and we will probably never get rid of it. So we might as well play with that image as we move toward the larger points we are trying to make in our literary and creative work.

What truly prompted me toward these thoughts, though, was the news that the former Dogpatch USA property had been bought by Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops fame. I’ve never met Johnny, although some friends of mine know him and speak very highly of him. While Bass Pro is the business that made him a billionaire, it’s the other Morris properties that play the Ozark stereotypes: Big Cedar Lodge, Top of the Rock golf course, and Dogwood Canyon (which is owned by a linked foundation). These properties present a sanitized, tidied-up version of the mythic Ozarks that people just love and are willing to pay handsomely to experience; a single-day admission to Dogwood Canyon will set you back $20, and it’s another $32 to ride the tram. Assuming you brought your own bicycle or are up for the walk, you can see a mill, an Indian burial cave, a wilderness chapel, some waterfalls, a trapper’s cabin, and other sites, all skillfully manufactured and manicured to achieve a perfect match of product and expectation.

This is progress, I suppose. The old Dogpatch attraction played on an earlier generation of stereotypes, barefoot hillbillies and moonshine stills. It will be interesting to see what becomes of it under its new owner. I’m guessing it won’t stray far from the formula that has made the other attractions so popular.