~ News, announcements, events, and ruminations about my books, including Slant of Light, This Old World, The Language of Trees, and Scattered Lights, and about creativity, fiction, Missouri, the Ozarks, and anything else that strikes my fancy
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Trevor Harris, the producer of the Mo’ Curious podcast. His podcast features byways and little-known stories from Missouri history, and although it’s just beginning, it’s very promising!
I also enjoy listening to the History a Go Go podcast, which has featured some of my former Culver-Stockton colleagues in past episodes. Although many of its episodes have a Quincy/Tri-States angle to them, a lot of them range into a wide variety of topics.
If anyone has other recommendations for podcasts, especially ones that are not as widely known and that have an interesting focus, let me know! I’m always on the lookout for something new to listen to.
When I was a young reporter, I worked for a weekly newspaper that had “community correspondents.” Country folk of a certain age will know what the term means. Every little community in the county had a correspondent, usually a longtime resident and almost always female, who would write up an account of the goings-on in the community for the week: church suppers, visitors in and out, illnesses, revivals, and occasionally items of greater news value. Their payment was typically a free subscription.
My job was to convert the correspondents’ reports into usable copy. This task varied from one person to another. Some correspondents sent neatly typed reports, correctly spelled and punctuated, leaving me little to do besides check for style issues and insert paragraphing where needed. Other columns arrived in wadded bundles of notebook paper, scribbled out in ancient handwriting, nearly indecipherable.
Such was the news from Turkey Creek. The Turkey Creek community lay in the east end of the county, far from any towns. It had lost its post office and school some years back. But it was still a voting precinct; on election night, Turkey Creek was usually the last to report, with its thirty votes. And it still had its community correspondent, whose name was Dees.
I never met Mrs. Dees, but she reported in from Turkey Creek faithfully, her handwritten message arriving every week. Things were slow on Turkey Creek most of the time, but she did her best to liven up her column with observations about the changing seasons and the condition of the roads. She always referred to herself in the third person, following some notion of proper style, and appeared to travel everywhere with a daughter, or perhaps a granddaughter, who went by Teenie. Perhaps that was her actual name. Mrs. Dees and Teenie traveled to Poplar Bluff and Greenville, and they visited neighbors. Teenie spent overnights with friends. And all was duly recorded in the News from Turkey Creek.
As a young college-educated smartass, I regarded Mrs. Dees’ news of Teenie with mockery, although I never let it show around the office. The owners knew the family and respected them. But at night, over beers with my friends, I would laugh at the tedious, inconsequential doings of Mrs. Dees and Teenie. The pinnacle of humor came with a three-week sequence of columns in which she took note (first week) that a dog had died just above the low-water bridge, and that the county road crew needed to come out and take care of it. Second week, the dog remained, and had become increasingly foul. Mrs. Dees expressed horror and again called upon the road department. By the third week’s column, Mrs. Dees had stopped the car and gone over to inspect, informing us that to her great disgust the dog had swelled to the point that a person could no longer tell if it was male or female. Fourth week, no report. Either the county or the scavengers took notice.
Only in later years did I reflect on Mrs. Dees’ column and its significance. Turkey Creek had been a logging community, building up after the turn of the century to decent size, with its own tram line to Greenville, where a person could connect to the larger world. After the log boom came to an end, Turkey Creek and its sister communities on the east side of the county began their slow slide to oblivion. After the post office and school were gone, what was left? The Baptist church, the polling place, and the weekly newspaper report.
What I thought of as silly nonsense was the last assertive echo: We are a place, we are people, we are still here, we mean something. Nowadays I don’t laugh about the travels of Teenie. I cherish them, and I wish Mrs. Dees had told us more.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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 Mountaintook 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.
“On Limits and Localism” is the title of an excellent, thoughtful article by Lindi Phillips that recently came out on the Arkansas Strong website. It talks about farming in the Ozarks, and how the old traditions of small, diversified farming gave way to the standardized monoculture of national agriculture. And then it connects the weaknesses of that system to the issues of the current pandemic. It is well worth the read!
I wrote earlier that I preferred “America, the Beautiful” to “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem, partly because of its singability and partly because of its tone. It’s a celebration of America in all its variety and thus appropriate for all times, while “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a battle song, more suitable for wartime spirit-rousing than for reflection on our blessings. (In a future post I’ll write about America’s other great battle song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”). In our current turmoil over public symbolism, Francis Scott Key’s checkered history as a slaveowner who also criticized slavery has made him a problematic figure, similar to Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and a great number of important historic figures whose past deserves re-examination. I doubt if “The Star-Spangled Banner” will ever lose its place at ball games and public events, though, now that it’s ingrained in people’s minds, so I’ll let that debate pass.
A friend of mine used to say, only half-joking, that Paul Simon’s “American Tune” should be our national anthem, as it reflected the American spirit nowadays a lot better than the songs from the 19th Century do. I’d like to think a little about “American Tune,” because it confronts us with the question of what a patriotic song is, and what it isn’t.
“American Tune” was written in 1972 and released in 1973, and Simon told an interviewer that it was written in response to the re-election of Richard Nixon. The tune was taken from Bach’s setting of “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” from the St. Matthew Passion, a melody that has been used for other songs over the years, notably “Because All Men Are Brothers,” which was on an early album by Peter, Paul, and Mary. The lyrics are, in my opinion, among Simon’s best. They combine his penchant for surreal imagery with direct and emotional statements, and they convey a sense of weariness combined with resolution that we can all appreciate.
The song begins with a sense of defeat: souls battered, dreams shattered, friends ill at ease. But that sense is tempered by reassurance: “It’s all right,” the chorus reassures us, although just what “all right” means is rather subdued. It’s all right because we lived so well so long, and it’s all right because you can’t be forever blessed: not exactly words to march into battle with. The song’s most memorable moment, the one that everyone remembers, comes in the bridge section. The speaker has had a dream. I dreamed I was dying, he says, but this dream is all right, for his soul looks down and smiles reassuringly. Then I dreamed I was flying, and this time when he looks up, he sees “The Statue of Liberty / Sailing away to sea.” Liberty itself has fled the scene.
Is it a patriotic song? Of course it is. It expresses deep feelings of loving concern about the country, at a time when “love it or leave it” was a popular slogan. As we reflect on our history today, with renewed examination of our under-told stories, our under-examined monuments, and the challenges posed by our historic symbols and slogans, we owe it to ourselves that patriotism doesn’t rule out criticism and love of country mustn’t blind us in those moments when the Statue of Liberty appears to have sailed away.
Today is Juneteenth, an unofficial holiday that grew out of a relatively obscure event, but one which has gained increased significance these days. We are in troubled times now, but I think this day is still worth celebrating. We don’t have any official holidays to celebrate the ending of slavery in the United States; the ratification of the 13th Amendment occurred on December 6, and the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, with an effective date of January 1. But Juneteenth has the virtue of spontaneity and an up-from-the-grassroots spirit, so it works even better as a day of commemoration.
In my ideal world, the anniversary of the end of slavery would be celebrated with national pride and a sense of relief, accompanied by resolutions on how to do better at wiping out the remainder of that American stain, a solemn day but also a joyous one. For now, though, I think more about the distance yet to travel than about the distance already gone, significant though it is. The last several weeks have demonstrated with painful clarity the inequities still present in our society, so this year’s mood is more about cleaning wounds than about celebrating progress.
I remember my own upbringing, in a tiny, lily-white school in a rural district. There were a couple of African-American kids on basketball teams in our conference, but that was my only contact with African-Americans other than television, until 4-H camp one year when there were others in my cabin. But really, until college I had no practical contact with families of another race. So I still have a lot of ground to catch up, even at my age. As a teacher, I had a fair number of African-American students, and dealing with them was a wonderful learning experience for me. I even had one of my former students call me “a favorite professor” recently, which I wear as a tremendous badge of honor.
Simply put, in the area where I grew up, casual racism was the norm. I remember after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, the mother of one of my classmates offered her take on the situation in the most vulgar, racist language imaginable, shocking me to my core. My parents had brought me up to be considerate of others and had taught me the evil of racism, and to hear it spoken aloud by a trusted elder was devastating. I would like to imagine our country has outgrown those attitudes, but I know it’s not true. Another former classmate recently posted a remark on social media that was flat-out racist. Some of us called him on it, but he was unrepentant. I suppose the only difference is that fewer people nowadays (I hope) hold such beliefs, and that others are more willing to challenge them. But racism is alive and well.
I’ve been listening to the Slow Burn podcast on the career of David Duke, and it’s disheartening. I’d like to think that we’ve gotten past people like him. Unfortunately, the road ahead of us is probably as long as the road behind.
Ozark Children Getting Mail from RFD Box, 1940. Photographer: John Vachon. Library of Congress FSA Collection
A little while ago, I reviewed a new book entitled Ozarks RFD, by Jim Hamilton. Coincidentally, a friend recently asked me something about the old TV show, Mayberry RFD. Naturally, these events started me thinking about “RFD” itself.
Most of us know that the initials stand for “Rural Free Delivery,” which began in spots in the late 19th century to provide mail service to rural residents. Free delivery had been established in cities over 10,000 in 1863, but it wasn’t until 1895 that Congress appropriated money for some test routes in rural areas. Rural Free Delivery gradually caught on across the country, with the support of farmers’ groups driving the expansion.
Curiously enough, not all rural people supported the idea. Two main groups opposed it: small-town merchants, who rightly recognized that one effect of free mail delivery would be that farmers would make more use of mail-order companies like Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck; and, ironically, postmasters at the smallest post offices. The opposition from small postmasters, typically political appointees, resulted from their recognition that Rural Free Delivery could lead to the elimination of many of their positions, as indeed it did. But farmers loved it, and by 1902 it was established all over the country.
Mailboxes, 1936. Photographer: Russell Lee. Library of Congress FSA Collection.
Like rural electrification a generation later, Rural Free Delivery was a huge leap forward in the betterment of rural life. Farm families could stay in touch with the wider world more easily. They had access to market information and thus were less susceptible to the manipulations of distant capitalists. They could buy more things from faraway places, subscribe to publications more easily, and participate in the national discourse more fully. Free daily postal delivery, which most of us take for granted, was a powerful enrichment to the lives of rural people.
Nowadays, of course, we hear talk about how the Postal Service has become outmoded, superseded by messenger services, private package delivery companies, and the Internet. There is even talk about letting the Postal Service go broke. But for many rural inhabitants, the daily mail is still a lifeline. Rural broadband remains a mirage in many areas, and just try to get FedEx or UPS to deliver to a rural route. It always distresses me to hear politicians talk about how much they love rural people and embrace rural values, and then to watch as they lay siege to the things that make rural life possible.