Awesome resource for local history buffs!


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How did I not hear of this before! The Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Company of Brooklyn, New York, compiled maps of towns all across the United States so that insurance companies could evaluate risk levels and price their services accordingly.

The Library of Congress made duplicates of these maps available to research libraries from the 1950s through the 1970s. In Missouri, the recipient of the Sanborn map collection was the University of Missouri in Columbia.

This rich treasure trove, now available in digital form, contains 1,283 maps of cities and towns across Missouri created from 1883 to 1951. They are incredibly detailed and provide a wonderful image of what a town was like at a particular time, all the way down to what type of business was housed at a specific location, whether the buildings were made of frame, brick, or stone, and even whether a factory had a watchman! For map geeks such as myself, this collection is an irresistible magnet. Goodbye, many future hours of my life. I’m diving in.

Favorite Ozarks People – 8


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Leon Fredrick

Leon Fredrick

Leon Fredrick gave me my first job, when I was about 19, and then fired me from it ten weeks later when it became clear that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

He was a classic old-time newspaper editor, and when I knew him he had purchased the Mountain Echo in Ironton from Isla Armfield, the widow of Richard Armfield, the previous owner. They were an interesting pair in themselves and perhaps I’ll write about them one day.

Leon was a big guy, probably 6’6″, and rather intimidating. He had hired me to write feature stories, and I cranked them out like crazy. I wasn’t very good at hard news, though, and was far too shy at my age to walk up to people and start asking questions. If I had an introduction to someone, I could interview and write a story with ease; but generating my own story ideas was beyond my adolescent brain at this point in my life.

I remember one memorable day when a mansion just south of Ironton burned down. I dashed out the door, camera in hand, and spent the afternoon taking photos and scribbling notes. When I returned to the Mountain Echo office, I handed off the camera to Leon and started typing up my story. He emerged from the darkroom about twenty minutes later with my roll of film in his hand – utterly and completely clear. I had failed to load the film properly into the camera and had been snapping away all day with the film still in its canister. The look on his face was something I will never forget.

Leon’s wife, Nadine, was cheerful and upbeat, the opposite of Leon, who was all business. She provided a counterbalance to Leon’s rather sober demeanor, although I always got the feeling that she was just as focused on the business as he was and only showed it in different ways. After selling the Mountain Echo, the Fredricks pursued other journalistic business ventures, finally retiring to Branson, near where they had grown up. They’ve both passed away now, but they were certainly a memorable introduction to the world of small-town journalism for me. I’ve still got clippings of those feature stories, and they’re still pretty good.

Time for the “Historical Accuracy” Debate!


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With the Academy Awards coming up this weekend, and a bundle of movies based on historical events up for Best Picture – including Selma, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and even American Sniper if you want to count the Iraq war as “history” this soon after the events of that story – everyone’s in a snit over the historical accuracy, or lack of accuracy, of their representations.

For those of us who include real historical figures in our storytelling, this is familiar territory. Here’s my take:

I have included historical figures in my work, both as significant characters (the Missouri guerrilla Sam Hildebrand) and as cameo players (William Lloyd Garrison, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Nordhoff). Actual events play meaningful parts in the plot. I’ve always felt that it was all right to fictionalize around the edges of a character or event, but not to distort the essence. Thus my Garrison meets with fictional people, and says made-up things, but I was careful not to put him in a location where he had not actually been or to have him express himself in ways that I thought were contrary to what I had read about him. I have the Battle of Fredericktown occur at the time and in the location it actually did, but I felt free to have a completely fictional skirmish take place in association with that battle involving my characters.

Some authors and filmmakers feel much more free to take liberties with real figures than I do, and I have no argument with them. They’re engaged in a different kind of story-making than I am. The issue comes when readers or viewers believe the fictional version to be the “real” one. We all know that there are multiple perspectives to any event, so claiming one perspective as the “real” one is an error. In Selma, the controversy stems from the movie’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. But let’s face it, by all accounts Johnson was an extremely complicated man who acted from a variety of motives both selfish and noble, and any portrayal of him is going to simplify him. So I don’t think the criticism of Selma‘s version of Lyndon Johnson is especially persuasive.



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When I was a kid, my parents drove us out to visit our relatives on the home place pretty much every weekend, and sometimes during the week as well. My grandparents lived on what everyone called The Old Home Place, and my uncle Bill and aunt Gina lived down the road on why my folks called “Bill’s Place,” but which I understood in the sort of dim way that kids do that it was also part of the Home Place. Not to be confused with the River Place, where my mom had been born, now uninhabited but still part of the farm.

We passed other places – the Thurman Place, the old Kessler Place, the Graner Place (Graners long gone, now occupied by McCreerys, and in the slow process of becoming the McCreery Place). In between were mere houses, occupied by people we didn’t know, or by people we knew but who were yet too brief in their occupancy to merit a Place.

When you had a Place, you were somebody. You were probably just as poor as everybody else – my grandparents’ place was tiny – but people knew who you were, and where you lived. Your Place didn’t change much. Maybe an addition when extra children necessitated it, but the essential plan didn’t change. The house, the barn, the sheds, the pond, the pastures, all existed in a slowed-down version of time, one in which change happened, but on a different rhythm than the rest of the world. Change was more measured, deliberate, its implications considered more broadly. Other farmers considered my grandfather pretty innovative in his time; he was an early adopter of terracing and other practices advocated  by the county agent. But certainly no one would ever have called him hasty.

Needless to say, I don’t have a Place, and at this point in my life probably never will. The contemporary world, and my adjustment to it, doesn’t permit that. But I know that this is a trade and not an unalloyed gain.

I Haven’t Been Blogging . . .


. . . and I don’t care! (Sung to the tune of “Jimmy Crack Corn.”)

I haven’t been blogging lately because I’m deep into the next book, and that work has been taking all my concentration. I don’t know how many writers are like me, but I find that once I’m in the zone of concentration required for sustained fiction writing, I don’t like to get out of that zone for other types of writing. I dislike it so much (I would say “hate,” but that’s too strong a word) that I resort to all sorts of procrastination strategies to avoid other forms of writing.

When I worked in newspapers, back in days of old, we used to joke that you could always tell it was time to drop a columnist when that person wrote his or her column about how hard it was to write a column. So this blog entry is not to be that same self-justifying whine about how hard it is to blog. It’s just a notification that I’m still alive and plan to be back blogging soon.

A Dose of Something Like Reality


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The overnight dose of cold weather caught me off guard, and I woke up this morning with a frozen pipe. My first response, predictably, was frustration and a momentary dose of depression – My day is ruined! - followed in short order by a plan to get it thawed out and see if it has burst. A burst pipe is not the end of life as we know it. At worst it’s a damn nuisance.

As a novelist who writes about past eras, my next though was of course to think about such setbacks for our ancestors. Frozen pipes did not become a problem until the advent of indoor plumbing, and in the era when homebuilders relied on designs from before the indoor-plumbing era, I doubt if they were much of a problem either. Houses were built to keep in the heat, typically had cellars where feasible, and we only large enough to accommodate the direct needs of the family. With one centrally located bathroom in the house, and one kitchen sink, and a laundry room that was likely to be detached with shut-off valves for cold weather, it wasn’t too much of a task to defend your pipes against cold air.

With the housing booms of the twentieth century came inexpensive construction methods. Deficiencies of construction could be compensated by cheaper and ostensibly better energy sources; the gas furnace replaced the woodstove, forced-air fans took the place of radiators. But you also see pipes running up exterior walls, and (as in the case of my house) concrete-slab construction that in some cases puts water pipes overhead in the attic spaces.

The worst house I ever lived in for frozen pipes was in Louisiana, where keeping houses cool in the summer was much more of an issue and as a result pier-and-beam construction was the norm. Whenever a bad cold snap came, and they came like clockwork every two or three years, everybody in the neighborhood would be out under their houses, blow driers and heat tape in hand.

I’m not claiming that life would be better if we had to go out to the well and bring in buckets of water, but I do recognize that frozen pipes are something of a modern problem. So I watch my space heater and wait for the thaw.

Seriously, You Should Check Out This Website


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If you’re interested in Ozarks culture and heritage, and aren’t afraid of some thoughtful analysis to go along with that interest, you should bookmark, a multi-media website recently set up by Leland and Crystal Payton. The Paytons are long-time collectors of Ozarks memorabilia, writers and photographers on contemporary and historical Ozarks subjects, and deep analysts of the economic and political decisions that have shaped much of the Ozark landscape. This website engages all their interests, and every post is interesting. Ozarks geeks, check it out.

The Wounds of War


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Excerpted from my talk to the Quincy, IL, Unitarian Church on December 7.

Today is December 7. And for Americans of a certain age, that will always be followed by “a date that will live in infamy.” It’s the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the event that drew the United States into the Second World War. For my parents’ generation, December 7 was the day that changed everything, that shook the world loose from its foundations. Even though war had been raging in Europe for two years and in Asia for two years before that, it’s the attack on Pearl Harbor that dominates our national psyche as the day the war began.

I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading about war lately as I’ve been working on my second novel. Not so much war itself but the aftermath of war, the societal and cultural reverberations of war that echo long after the war ends.

Evidence of the wounds of war is everywhere we look, if we look carefully enough. On the personal level, our friends, relatives, neighbors, fellow church members, and co-workers who have experienced war deal with that experience in their own ways and with their own levels of intensity. In our political life, we deal with the costs of war, both the economic costs that come from a commitment to military spending, honoring promises made to veterans, and maintaining international ties that grew from wartime; and also in the guns-or-butter sense that every decision to enter into conflict or to maintain a certain level of war readiness is also a decision not to spend money on something else, the old one aircraft carrier equals a million school lunches calculation we’re all familiar with from Facebook.

But as a novelist you try not to think in such abstract terms, and try to focus instead on the human side. So I have a few stories to tell you of a semi-personal nature. Some of them may seem beside the point of this talk, so please bear with me.

When the United States entered the war, my mother started a scrapbook. She was 18 years old at the time, a year and a half out of high school, so as you can imagine the coming of the war affected her and her friends greatly. The community she and my father grew up in was called German because of the high number of German immigrants who had settled there in the 1800s, so maybe they overcompensated a bit. But whatever the reason, the German township always overtopped its war bond quota, led the scrap metal drive, and of course sent its boys into the service by the dozen.

Reading her letters and clippings today always gives me a feeling of being transported to an entirely different universe, even though this is my own immediate family I’m talking about. Letters home were subject to military censorship, so there is little mention of movement or fighting. Like good farm boys, they always took note of the weather and the countryside, and the principal phrases of approval or disapproval were “a lot like home” and “not like home.” One theme permeates all those letters and V-mails, and it’s the simple desire to get home.

The same thoughts appear in wartime correspondence from all ages. While working on my books I spent a lot of time with “Missouri’s War,” a compilation of original source documents that details life in Civil War Missouri through letters, newspaper accounts, sermons, speeches, and so forth. And while the letters in the initial rush to war sometimes have a measure of enthusiasm to them, once the war is underway the voices change, and a kind of grim get-me-through-this mentality emerges.

In 1864 a Missouri cavalryman on the Union side named William Kesterson wrote home to his brother in Lafayette County, close to Kansas City. Kesterson had been in the military hospital in Springfield for about nine months at the time of this letter, and was to stay in that hospital a few months more before being discharged. So you can imagine his state of mind. Part of the letter reads:

Dear Brother

I take pen in hand to inform you that yore letter of the 12th came to hand this day and I was glad to hear that yore health was some better than when you had wrote before. . . . I have wrote to my wife to stay where she is a while longer if she can stay there in any peace it is better than to move to town. That is the worst place a family can go to. . . . I aught to be well satisfied here but it seems as if I cant and I wish that I was away and then I get so that I don’t care where I am until my time is out then I want to get somewhere where I can live in peace with my wife and children and where I can give them good schooling that will be my main object when I get out of the service is the schooling of them. My wife says they are as fat as pigs and talk about me all the time you can guess whether I want to see them or not. . . . I shall be glad to see the end of our time for serving uncle Sam come to an end. I hope the end of this war is close at hand but I fear it will be a long time yet and if you don’t wach you will loose yore bet on peace being made by the first of May. I hope that I shall see you again but when that will ever be the lord only knows but I hope that through gods mercy it wont be long. Yet life is very uncertain and then the dread of the future hangs heavily on my mind some times and dashes what little worldly pleasure I see away from me.

Mr. Kesterson, you will be happy to know, did indeed return to his family, and lived on in Lafayette County for another twenty years.

One of the most treasured documents in my family is the recollections of my great-grandfather, Christopher Wiegenstein, who immigrated from Germany to the United States in 1848, found his way to Madison County, Missouri, and established a farm there. His memoir was composed later in his life, at the entreating of his children, who wanted him to get down on paper the events of his early years in the United States. Like most German immigrants to Missouri in that time, he was a devoted Unionist, an anti-slavery man, and a supporter of the North during the Civil War.

He recalls one harrowing incident in which his brother-in-law, a man named George Canisius, was shot down in cold blood by a bushwhacker. Our family’s oral history was that George was killed because, as a recent immigrant, he didn’t speak English well enough to explain himself to the marauders. The bushwhacker’s story, recorded in a memoir written after the war, was that George had informed on him to the authorities and was killed in retaliation. Either story is plausible and both may have elements of truth.

What I had never noticed, reading this account in earlier times, was a comment that Great-Grandpa Chris made at the end of his memoir. Retired, comfortable, having spent a few terms as a justice of the peace and county judge, he writes, “In politics I am Democrat.” Just this year, I read that and thought, “Wait a minute. Why would an immigrant German, a supporter of the Union, a man who had lost a close relation to a guerrilla, why would that man be a Democrat? When in the last half of the Nineteenth Century, the Democratic Party in Missouri was to a considerable extent the party of ex-Confederates?”

The short answer is that I don’t know. But what I think happened is that Missouri had been a Democratic state before the war, in the frontier expansion Andrew Jackson sort of mode, and once the war was over there was such a longing to return to the way things had been that people were willing to join with their former enemies, victors and vanquished, in the efforts at rebuilding the state. Some of them did it for political advantage. Some of them did it because they felt more sympathetic to the Southern cause than they had been able to show during the war. But for whatever reason, by the early 1870s most Missourians had found a way to put the war into the past and move ahead.

But some did not. In Missouri, disaffected former rebels, men like Jesse James, made war by other means, attacking the visible symbols of the powers that had defeated them – banks, railroads, and government officials. Farther south, where the disruption to the social order caused by the end of slavery was greater, the defeated regained the reins of power and gradually restored a structure that was nearly as oppressive as slavery itself. The distortions in people’s lives caused by slavery, like any wound that has never fully healed, break open again and again, cause pain, and reinfect us. Just this week, marchers going from St. Louis to Jefferson City to protest the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case were met in one rural Missouri town by counter-protesters waving that familiar and predictable symbol of racial hatred and intimidation, the Confederate flag. When I read of events in Ferguson and New York City, the gulf of distrust and misunderstanding that continues to exist between white and black in this country, even the continued insistence that we must identify as white or black, I see a wound of war that has never gone away. And I remember Abraham Lincoln’s prophetic words in his second annual message to Congress: “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”

My mother’s scrapbook begins with enlistments and deployments, but by the second page the inevitable other stories start to appear. Charles Clark, dead in a Philippine prison camp. John Disher, shot down over the English Channel, in the hospital with an injured foot, returned to service, and killed. Audry Clark, killed in France. And most personal to me, Michael Wiegenstein, lost with all his shipmates when his submarine was sunk in the Pacific.

This year was the 70th anniversary of my Uncle Mike’s death, so my cousin Joe organized a memorial service this October. Mike’s loss was devastating to my father’s family. So much so, in fact, that none of them liked to talk about Mike, so all I ever knew of him were a few scattered stories about childhood shenanigans – nothing about his young adult years, or what led him into the submarine service in the first place. So when we looked through the boxes and folders that had been collecting in various closets, it was like catching a glimpse of someone familiar and yet not familiar either. In one letter home, he told his brother – my dad – that there was nothing he would rather be doing at that moment than following the plow behind the family mule. We laid a wreath at the courthouse memorial, we visited the cemetery, and except for one elderly aunt and uncle none of us had ever met the man we were memorializing. My cousin remarked that this was part of our loss – that not only had his parents and brothers and sisters lost the young man who went off to war, but we too had lost the grown man we might have known, the older uncle whom we might have visited with and come to appreciate, the man who would have been a help to his parents in their later years, a friend and companion to our parents and us – an entire stream of life that had been cut off at its source. Although this loss is hypothetical and I suppose imaginary in some ways, to my mind it’s just as real as the more visible ones.

That’s the lesson I have learned this year about the wounds of war. For every visible one, there is an invisible one. They’re slow to heal and require deliberate effort, because when we are mired in a pattern of destruction and hatred, the natural tendency is to stay in that pattern. What it takes first is consideration of our losses, a counting up of the cost and a reflection upon it. I never knew my Uncle Mike, but only this year did I realize how much I missed him.

Patriotic Songs – 3


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I missed posting this for Veterans Day, but want to catch up a little bit. “God Bless America” was introduced on Armistice Day in 1938, although it had been written twenty years earlier. The composer and lyricist, Irving Berlin, thought of it as a “peace song,” which makes more sense when you read the intro lyrics, generally omitted today but which Kate Smith always insisted on including:

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea, let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free,

Let us all be grateful for a land so far, as we raise our voices in a solemn prayer…

“God Bless America” used to irritate me, when it got appropriated by Christian conservatives as a sort of alt-National Anthem, but it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. The lyrics, always Berlin’s weakest side, are still corny and trite; the tired trotting out of mountains-prairies-oceans is lazy, and since when are oceans “white with foam”? Only when there’s been an environmental disaster, I suppose. But you have to give the song credit for great singability and the masterful pop-song flow that rises to a high note and forte on that last “God.” It’s a well-built tune.

The only thing that irritates me nowadays about “God Bless America” is the air of faux piety with which people sing it. It’s a song that I wish could be put in a vault for a couple of decades, and then brought out again when it could be experienced fresh, without the layers of sanctimonious muck that have accreted on it over the years.

For more of my thoughts on patriotic songs, check here and here.

A New Cross-Missouri Trail?


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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe recent legal move by the Ameren Corporation to “abandon” a 145-mile stretch of rail line opens the way for a second cross-Missouri hiking and biking trail to be created. There’s a long way to go, but this is exciting news for anyone who loves the outdoors, especially in the Midwest.

The line, which was once part of the Rock Island Line (which as we all know, is a mighty good road), skirts the northern edge of the Ozarks, from Windsor southwest of Sedalia to Beaufort in western Franklin County. The Katy Trail also goes through Windsor, so the two trails would connect there.

I spent a while with my topographical maps today checking out the route of the rail line. It runs through some very wild country, nothing with special grandeur, but oh my goodness some of the vistas along this trail will be outstanding! There are crossings over the Osage River (above) and the Gasconade, and the line follows the Osage for several miles. These sections in themselves would be enough to make me celebrate. But I also think of the wild sections between so many quiet Ozark villages – Gerald, Rosebud, Owensville, Bland, Belle, Freeburg, Meta, Eugene, Eldon, Versailles, Cole Camp, Ionia – even the names are like a roll call of fascination. I don’t know this part of the country well, hardly at all really, but am excited to learn it.

Would this trail ever develop into the kind of serial B&B-and-winery trail that the Katy has become? I doubt it. It’s more remote, farther from urban centers, and the countryside is less hospitable to the casual visitor. But I think it will develop a character of its own, one that will appeal to a different sort of traveler, and will become a valued destination for people wanting to discover an overlooked part of the Ozarks.

Old rail map Rock Island


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