, , , , , ,

The Tivoli Theatre in St. Louis recently hosted an Ozark Streams Film Festival! I was unable to attend, but was impressed by the list of films.

Luckily for us non-attendees, the festival organizers have posted links to all the films on their website. I plan to watch all of them, one by one, whenever I feel the need for some Scenic Rivers relaxation but can’t get away for a float trip.



Father’s Day 2018


, , , , ,

“It might come in handy one day” was my father’s motto. A child of the Depression, he abhorred wastefulness of every sort. One of his favorite recreations was to go to a farm auction on a Saturday and buy the boxes of junk that sell at the end for a quarter or fifty cents, then root through them at home to see what kind of useful tidbits could be uncovered. Our barn and basement were troves of odd and interesting things, picked up somewhere, salvaged from someone else’s castoff. He routinely brought home discarded dynamite wire after a blast at the quarry, and I can’t enumerate how many projects I’ve done that were held together by those brightly-colored strands.

I have inherited, to some extent, his fondness for accumulating the potentially practical. I can’t pass a lost bolt in the road without picking it up. So when I was commissioned to build a screen for our gas meter a while back, I went to my dad’s playbook: scrap lumber, leftover paint, and a piece of latticework inherited from the previous owner that had been leaning against the shed for at least eight years.

Meter screen

Tipping my metaphorical hat to my dad on this Father’s Day, 2018.

Another Remarkable Bit of History I Just Learned


, , , , , , , , ,

I like to think of myself as a curious guy. I even take pride in it, and in feeling that I actually know a few things. Thus when I discover an episode of history right in my backyard that I didn’t know the least bit about, I am humbled at how much I don’t know, and how much is yet to be learned.

That’s what happened to me when, entirely by accident, I stumbled across this article in a journal called Southern Spaces. Even more humbling to me as a Missouri history aficionado, it was written by someone from the University of Sussex. You should really read the whole article; it’s long but fascinating. But here’s a short summary.

The Great Depression hit everyone hard, but one group hit hardest was the tenant farmers and sharecroppers of the South. Falling prices, increased mechanization, government policies, and environmental disasters all combined to make these most marginal citizens even more marginal than ever. In southeast Missouri, this tenuous existence had been worsened in a January 1937 flood when the Army Corps of Engineers dynamited the levee on the Mississippi River to relieve pressure on Cairo, Illinois, across the river; they gave the 12,000 tenants and sharecroppers on the Missouri side three days to pack their belongings and get out.

Flood refugees

Russell Lee, Negro flood refugees at meal time, Charleston, Missouri, February 1937. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF34- 010215-D.

These refugees, moved by the federal Resettlement Administration to camps in and around Charleston, were fed and housed by the government, but only a few received permanent resettlement. A cooperative farm known as LaForge Farms was created, but only 100 homes were built, with 60 of those homes reserved for white people (the tenant farmers and sharecroppers were overwhelmingly African-American). In response, many of the displaced farmers joined the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which had been established in northeast Arkansas a few years earlier.

Now jump ahead two years, to January 1939. The forces at work in the lives of the tenant farmers were still at work, most notably the federal government’s attempt to prop up commodity prices by paying landowners to take acreage out of production – which meant that those landowners had even less need for tenants or sharecroppers. So when the turn of the new year came, the traditional time for the renewal of agreements between landowners and their tenants, many of those folks received eviction notices instead.

In the past, a farmer receiving an eviction notice would have mourned, regretted the news, maybe tried to convince the landowner to let him stay another year, and eventually moved on in search of a new tenancy. But these farmers, pressed to the extreme by circumstances and awakened by their organizing, chose a different path.

They demonstrated.

Evicted Sharecropper 3

Arthur Rothstein, Evicted sharecroppers along Highway 60, New Madrid County, Missouri, January 1939. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 002926-M3.

The farmers, the union, and other groups like the NAACP and the St. Louis chapter of the Urban League, knowing that large-scale evictions were probably coming, had alerted the news media, and on January 10, some 1,500 people (including about 200 white tenant farmers and sharecroppers) gathered their belongings and created roadside encampments alongside Highway 61 and Highway 60, the two great artery highways of Southeast Missouri. As Jarod Roll, the author of the Southern Spaces article, puts it, “In over a dozen camps, large and small, they erected makeshift tents by draping blankets and sheets over stick frames. Into these tents they moved whatever clothing, food and belongings they had brought. They unloaded straw ticks and corn shuck mattresses from old cars and trucks, parking the vehicles close to their camps to provide shelter for children and the elderly. With this work finished, they sat down among kin, friends and neighbors to wait for the nation to wake up and respond to their collective statement of discontent.”

And respond it did. The Associated Press, major area newspapers, and the Farm Security Administration (the new name for the Resettlement Administration) all sent photographers. It is our good fortune that the FSA photographer who happened to be in the area, and who was sent to document the demonstration, was the great Arthur Rothstein, creator of the iconic “Dust Bowl” photograph of a farmer and his two sons. Thus we have these unforgettable images of the Bootheel roadside encampments – and their subsequent dismantling.

Evicted Sharecropper 2

Arthur Rothstein, State highway officials moving sharecroppers away from roadside to area between the levee and the Mississippi River, New Madrid County, Missouri, January 1939. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 002975-M2.

The initial outcry over the photographs and news stories reached all the way to the White House, with both Roosevelts responding to the farmers’ plight. Federal officials hurried to the Bootheel to talk to the farmers and their representatives.

But state and local officials, stung by the bad publicity, had other ideas. The local papers portrayed the farmers as the unwitting tools of social agitators, and the state health commissioners declared the camps to be a menace to public health because they lacked clean water and sanitary toilets. (Did the typical sharecropper’s cabin have clean water and sanitary toilets? You guess.) So the state highway patrol and local law enforcement officers were instructed to remove the demonstrators from the roadside.

Evicted Sharecropper 4

Arthur Rothstein, State highway officials moving evicted sharecroppers away from roadside to area between the levee and the Mississippi River, New Madrid County, Missouri, January 1939, FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 002932-M2.

By a sad coincidence, many of the evicted farmers were relocated to camps on the same ground that had been flooded by the Corps of Engineers two years earlier. The primary advantage of this location, from the authorities’ viewpoint, was that it was many miles off the highway and thus out of sight, and could be guarded by local officers to keep the press away. The state health commissioner actually referred to these sites as “concentration camps.” And when word arrived that President Roosevelt had authorized the sending of tents, food, and most alarmingly cash grants and relocation loans to the farmers, the local authorities moved again, breaking up the farmers into even smaller groups and dumping some of them on back roads.

Finally, in 1940 and 1941, the FSA built more than 600 homes for the displaced farmers at sites scattered around the Bootheel, although again with a racial disparity of two homes for white families for every one home for an African-American one. It even tried out an experiment in providing low-cost medical care to the poor families, and more than 1,200 families signed up for the plan. But continued opposition from local politicians, who saw the FSA settlements as hotbeds for union activism, led to the eventual privatization of the homes and subcontracting of the health service to Blue Cross. Fortunately, a last burst of activism and fund-raising allowed most of the residents to buy the homes that they had been renting from the FSA.

Evicted Sharecropper 1

Rothstein, Arthur, Evicted sharecropper and child, New Madrid County, Missouri, January 1939. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 002945-M2

It’s a remarkable story of struggle, collective action, and the disenfranchisement of the poor that echoes to us today. And doggone, why had I not heard it until now? I’m chagrined at the many things I haven’t learned.

(P.S. There’s a nice article about the LaForge homes here.)



Our Original Sin


, , , , , , , , , , ,

The circumstances of the original incident between Henry Caldwell and a Mrs. Peck on July 27, 1882, are unclear. An account of the incident can be found on Larry Wood’s admirable Ozarks history blog. Mrs. Peck, according to the original newspaper report, was more than sixty years old and Caldwell was thirty-seven; but we’re left to guess who Mrs. Peck might be, since her first name is not given in the Iron County Register story. But since the incident took place in Ironton, my guess would be Adaline Peck, who would have been 64 that year according to census records.

In any event, according to the Register story, on that Thursday morning cries for help were heard. Neighbors rushed to the scene and found Mrs. Peck and Henry Caldwell in the front yard of her home, struggling. Henry was subdued, taken to the jail, and charged with assault and attempted rape.

The next chapter in this grim story is dispiritingly familiar. Thursday night passed, Friday night passed, with Caldwell still in jail. Then late Saturday night, a mob of thirty to forty men assembled, broke into the jail, and dragged Caldwell to the railroad bridge over Stouts Creek a few blocks away, a noose around his neck. The other end of the rope was tied to a bridge beam and Caldwell was thrown off, but desperate to live, he clung to the bridge timbers until someone took a knife to his arm. When he fell, another gruesome miscalculation; his feet touched the ground. The mob ended his life with a fusillade of bullets.

In his book Witnesses to History: Stories from Park View Cemetery, which is available from the Iron County Historical Society, John M. Abney quotes a different version. The letter from which this quotation is taken is in the possession of the Historical Society.

Henry did something that frightened old lady Peck and it was construed by some as an intended attack on his part.  I [the letter writer, Cora Chase Charlton, daughter of the prosecuting attorney at the time] – who have heard her minute account of what really happened more than once, did not think so.  But a bunch of men who spent their time in the Schultz saloon inflamed themselves with liquor to the point of taking poor Henry out, hanging him on the railroad bridge, and riddling his body with bullits.

Thus occurred the only documented lynching in Iron County, Missouri.

I first became aware of this event many years ago, when I read the diary of a little boy growing up in Arcadia during that time. The boy’s name was Stephen Hinchey, and the diary entry (which I carefully copied down and filed away – this was in the days before computers) read as follows:

Sat July 29

I studied most of the day.

In evening father heard, while in Ironton, that a negro was to be hung by a mob when night came. Father and I went to home of Judge Emerson to warn him of the mob’s plan.

Sunday 30th of July

This morning we heard that the mob hanged the negro on the Ironton railroad bridge. About 60 shots were fired into his body.

A later entry reads:

Sat. August 12th 1882

Today is my 9th birthday.

A few thoughts:

Stephen Hinchey’s father was William Hinchey, an artist and teacher at Arcadia College, and a prodigious diarist himself. William Hinchey’s diaries, written in shorthand and transcribed by Stephen years later, described his travels to the West, his observations during the Civil War, and his life in Arcadia and elsewhere. The Arcadia Valley has drawn many fine artists over the years, and Hinchey was but the first.

William Hinchey

William Hinchey

Henry Caldwell, thirty-seven at the time of his death, was identified in the Register article as married with four children. Census records from 1880 confirm that his wife was Millie, and their children Stella, Peter, Edia, and Nettie. A man who was that age in 1882 would most likely have been born into slavery and lived in that condition until his late teens, nearly twenty. The Register describes him as a bit daft “and at times out-and-out crazy.” Whether there was truth to this description, or a connection to having lived half his life as a slave, cannot be determined, as news accounts of lynchings are notorious for their retrospective portrayals of victims as dangerous and mobs as honor-bound. But Cora Chase Carlton also believed something to be aberrant about Caldwell. The editor of the Register, Eli Ake, went so far to say in his article, “We are not an advocate of lynch-law, but if there ever can be a case calling justly for its intervention, this was one.” The entire account can be found in the Library of Congress’ records. I have been unable to learn what became of Mrs. Caldwell and the children.

The “Judge Emerson” to whom Stephen refers was another significant character in the history of that era: J. W. Emerson, Civil War colonel, war hero, circuit judge, and founding investor in the Emerson Electric Company, a name we still see on consumer products although the ownership of the company has long since passed into the stock exchange.


J. W. Emerson

This lynching predates the horrific spate of lynchings across the Ozarks chronicled in Kimberly Harper’s book White Man’s Heaven by about twenty years. But the pattern is certainly familiar. I am left with a few unanswered questions. The newspaper account depicts the county sheriff, William Fletcher, as surprised and overwhelmed by the mob; but was he? According to the article he had made preparations for mob law the two previous nights, but was caught unprepared on the fatal night. How likely is that? The “colored servant” who usually slept in the jail overnight was conveniently absent. If he sensed something amiss, how did the sheriff not? As Harper’s book observes, a common tactic for law enforcement officials seeking to prevent a lynching was to move the prisoner to the next town or county, making it more difficult for a mob to form and disperse inconspicuously. Why that didn’t happen in this case is impossible to know at this late date.

It’s worth remembering, moreover, that Iron County was firmly Democratic by then, and as Aaron Astor points out in Rebels on the Borderone of the tenets of border-state Democrats of that era was the restoration of the prewar social order, which would include the firm subjugation of African-Americans. The racist language of the Register article and the perception of Caldwell as “dangerous” and “a brute” fit into this mindset. (It’s also worth remembering that Eli Ake, the editor, was a complicated figure who doesn’t pigeonhole easily; John Abney reminded me in correspondence that Ake opened the pages of the Register to African-American correspondents for many years and repeatedly took some risky stands against the Ku Klux Klan in the ’20s and ’30s.)

On a TV show the other night, I heard a historian refer to slavery as “our original sin,” with our meaning “white Americans,” of course. Americans tend not to believe in original sin, a stark doctrine that robs us of individual agency and casts us as largely helpless in deciding our own fate. I’m not a believer in it either, at least not in the religious sense, but it’s surely a powerful metaphor for the unseen forces that shape our lives and our thoughts. To avoid the theological implications, I think of it as “stain” more than “sin.” Some stains simply don’t wash out, no matter how much we scrub.

Caldwell was buried in Park View Cemetery in Ironton, a cemetery also known variously as “potters’ field,” “City Cemetery,” or “the colored cemetery.” It is obscure enough today that it doesn’t even appear on Google Maps. Of the estimated 300 graves in that cemetery, only about thirty have markers. Stephen Hinchey, William Fletcher, J. W. Emerson, and Eli Ake are all buried in Ironton’s Masonic Cemetery. May they all rest in peace, and may we all eventually find some way to fully include that stain in our understanding of the social fabric of our lives. Because more than 130 years have passed and it still hasn’t washed out.

Park View Cemetery

Park View Cemetery

Favorite Ozarks Books – 10


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Ozark Ozark cover

I’ve been thinking about Ozark anthologies lately, and have been re-reading a couple. Ozark, Ozark, edited by Miller Williams, came out in 1981. I have a vague recollection of being an intern at the University of Missouri Press when this book was in production, but I don’t believe I worked on any of it, except perhaps for helping to proofread the Acknowledgements page or something equally forgettable. That’s too bad, because I would like to be able to claim some small amount of credit for this very memorable anthology.

Williams employed a sort-of chronological approach in this anthology, organizing by author birthdate starting in 1869 and ending in 1949. Like all structures, this approach both confines and provides framing; there’s no Schoolcraft or Turnbo, but the early- to mid-part of the century is well represented. Vance Randolph is in there, along with Ward Dorrance and Donald Harington. But I’m more taken by the less-familiar names in the collection, authors I hadn’t known before: Don West, Jack Butler. Some people I’ve known personally are welcome inhJabitants of these pages: Speer Morgan, Eugene Warren (who writes as Eugene Doty nowadays), Jim Bogan, Paul Johnson, Walter Bargen. An occasional ringer fills out the pages as well, like Langston Hughes, who yes was born in Joplin, making him an Ozarker by birth, but who high-tailed it for Mexico, Europe, and New York as quick as he got the chance.

I particularly like the inclusion of some accomplished newspaper columnists in the anthology. The newspaper column is a demanding craft, with strict word counts and unforgiving deadlines, and it’s easy to become a hack at it. Even the best columnists occasionally write a bad one, but the good ones somehow manage to find grace or insight in the everyday rhythms of life. The Jean Bell Mosely/Thomza Zimmerman alternating column, “From Dawn to Dusk,” which appeared in Cape Girardeau newspapers and was syndicated regionally for 21 years, was such a column. So too were the columns of Jim Hamilton, the longtime editor of the Buffalo Reflex, who later collected some of his best ones in a book entitled River of Used to Be, which is one of the prizes on my shelf. We don’t have selections from either of those in this anthology, but we do have columns from Leonard Hall and Roy Reed, and a short magazine piece from Harry Minetree.

The anthology is a reflection of its time, overwhelmingly male and white, and that’s a weakness. I also spotted a few errors in the introduction and notes, but despite those difficulties, Ozark Ozark: A Hillside Reader is still a pleasure to dip into. It’s out of print, as far as I can tell, but used copies can be found for not too outrageous a price.







, , , , , ,

My Facebook feed from Love My Ozarks is filled with mushrooms these days, proud finds from morel hunters who, of course, never quite reveal their secret spot.

I was never much of a mushroom hunter, not from a lack of desire, but from a lack of ability to find the darn things. Then my great friend Rod Walton took me mushroom hunting one spring, and I came back with a sackful. My vision didn’t miraculously improve; what I learned was how to see and where to look.

When we see a map of Missouri’s ecosystems, even a relatively sophisticated one such as this one from the EPA, we know intuitively that it’s just an approximation.


In reality, our landforms are much more varied. A while back, I visited Finger Lakes State Park just a couple of miles north of my house, and just in the short distance of the Kelley Branch Trail a hiker will pass through a buckeye grove, a birch grove, and a pine grove, in addition to the usual oak-hickory forest. Diversity, not uniformity, is the norm in an Ozarks forest. That was my problem hunting mushrooms; I didn’t know the right micro-environment to be looking in.

Subtle shifts in sunlight, soil type, slope, adjacent vegetation, moisture, and other factors produce a forest that is different from the forest only a few yards away. Ozarks landscapes do not offer us the grand experience of the sublime, but rather the rewards of close examination, the appreciation of small things.


Anemone and trillium here, wild ginger there. orange puccoon over there. Microclimates and micro-environments, the joy of variation within small spaces.

A Fine Collection That Will Leave You Touched


, , , , ,

To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts

If you’re a fan of short stories, especially ones with a modern rural base, you’ll like this book.

Not that the characters in these stories are all farmers; in fact, few are. Instead, many are that more common species, the offspring of farmers, women and men who went off to college or who have been squeezed out economically, and are now making a living in “the city” – Minneapolis/St. Paul or elsewhere – and feeling the loss and vague guilt that comes with being severed from those roots.

To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts is full of hard feelings. Siblings hold grudges; parents cling to unreasonable expectations; neighbors misunderstand and judge. But below these hard feelings is the longing to make things right. This is a lovely book of stories, in which the drama, unforgiven wounds, and generational misunderstandings of family members are balanced by their halting attempts to heal those wounds and slights. The characters are drawn with a quiet deftness that sometimes make you forget that they are characters at all, in prose that is likewise quiet, not showy, but always well targeted.

“Fish Eyes In Moonlight” was my personal favorite of the collection, a monologue from the point of view of an old man facing mortality, counting up his losses, mistakes, and moments of redemption. But all ten of the stories have a similar yearning for the moments of harmony that occasionally — but only occasionally — counterbalance our stubbornness and failing. A fine collection that will leave you touched.

Images of the Past


, , , ,

Researching my next book, I came across this trove of photographs in the online magazine Monovisions. 

There’s something about the visual image that arrests in a way that verbal descriptions never do. I lose myself in a narrative or descriptive account, letting my imagination recreate the scene; but with a photograph or map I find myself studying ever more closely, seeking out meaning in the slightest detail.


This photograph was identified as “ca. 1900” and located on Market Street. Let’s assume that the street address on the photo – 1310 – follows the same numbering system in use today. Here’s what’s there now:

1310 Market Street Today

A pocket park next to City Hall.

I’m tempted by the story, how the city went from Image A to Image B, but I’m also irresistibly drawn to the image itself. The life in that photograph! The man peering out from the dark interior on the left – is he the proprietor? And what draws his attention? The blurred passerby near him, or the two loafers propped again the liquor window farther down? I can’t make out the posters in that window, but they appear to be promoting a circus that’s coming to town. Below that, California wines are advertised. California wine, in Missouri, at that time? I never imagined.

The enormous billboard on the roof is another infinite attraction. The Forest Park Highlands will be opening for the season soon! There’s a matinee at the Imperial! And who can resist Tomlinson’s Dead Shot and Quick Relief Oil? I’d buy a bottle just for the name.


And these pavers, identified as working on Compton Avenue north of Meramec in 1906, spiffy in their neckties. Why so many paving stones out? I’m guessing it had something to do with getting a good fit of the stones, with pride in one’s craft. Judging by the spires of St. Anthony of Padua in the background, this looks to be the block today:

Compton Ave

Those stone paving blocks are still underneath the asphalt, I’ll bet. That would be Gasconade Street crossing, which puts the location way south in St. Louis, down in Dutchtown. A solid and respectable address even then, with gaslamps, limestone foundations, and a big brick neighborhood church. You can see in the background how the paved street will improve the place, as the rutted dirt track leads up the hill to St. Anthony’s.

Street scene

Finally (for my purposes, anyway: there are more photos in the article), an unidentified street in the early twentieth century. It’s just the beginning of the motorized era; a sleuth more expert in early automobiles could probably identify the year by the look of the light cargo carrier in the right foreground. But carriages still dominate. Ahead of the man in the motorcar is another man in a one-horse gig, following a wagon that appears to be laden with sacks of grain as it labors up the muddy, tracked hill. But most fascinating of all is the heavy wagon coming in from a side street to the left, with an enormous wooden barrel. Delivering? Taking away? Whatever the task, I wouldn’t want to be that horse.

The marvel about old photographs is how the edges, the details, reveal as much or more than the putative subject. The cock of a hat, the item in a window, the passing glance, all speak to us.

The Stream of Time


, , , , , , , , ,

I grew up in the Missouri Ozarks, a forest-rich region containing nearly ten million acres of dense timberland, and spent much of my childhood exploring the steep hills and crystalline streams around my family’s farm. To my young mind, everything had always been as it was at the current time, so I never considered the history of the region, the environmental and cultural changes it had undergone, or the effects of those changes on the people who lived there. My grandfather, who lived with us during his final years, reminisced about having chopped out a farmstead along the St. Francis River. Our neighbor, a long-time resident, remembered helping his father float enormous rafts of railroad ties down the Current and Black rivers. These tales were just isolated curiosities to me; I never connected them to any larger narrative.

Saint_Francis_River,_USA_04-09Not that history didn’t interest me. I was a good student, and history a favorite subject. But the missing part was the connection between history the subject, filled with names, locations, battles, and Important Doctrines, and history the lived experience.

When I began writing historical fiction, at the age of 52, I came to it as someone who had been writing fiction in a contemporary setting for decades. The year was 2007, the United States was at the peak of its embroilment in the Iraq war, and I had been engaged in the scholarly study of 19th-century utopian communities, more from personal curiosity than as part of any systematic agenda. I had developed an interest in utopian groups after reading a rather snide reference to the Icarians in The Communist Manifesto while I was teaching a Great Books class at Centenary College of Louisiana, wondering “Who the heck were the Icarians,” and then chasing the footnote across the country, as history fanatics often do. It turned out that the Icarians were a pre-Marxian communist group who emigrated from France to the United States in 1848 and had colonies in various parts of the country as late as the 1890s. Once bitten by the footnote bug, there is no stopping. That endeavor led me to a wider interest in utopianism, especially in Missouri in the years before the Civil War. In 2007, something in the news caught my attention, and I was struck by the parallels between the war in Iraq and Missouri’s experience in the Civil War: an occupying army, a restive civilian population whose loyalties were hard to determine, a landscape in which separating enemy from ally was a constant problem, bands of freelance fighters who used the larger war as an excuse to carry out their own vendettas, and a pervasive atmosphere of uncertainty and violence, in which battle lines were never clear, neighbor betrayed neighbor, and casual encounters escalated to deadly violence in an instant.

All at once the connection between my somewhat recreational study of history and my passion for creative writing became clear. The past could give insights into the present, not simply in the “Those who cannot remember history are doomed to repeat it” sense, but in a more visceral way, engaging with the hopes, jealousies, good intentions, and broken promises of ordinary people caught up in terrible times.

That realization marked the moment when I began to think about my own history, and my home’s history, in a different way. My grandfather’s stories about life on the St. Francis River at the turn of the 20th century; my neighbor’s reminiscences of work in the lead mines and the log woods, and his tales of the great tie drives, with miles and miles of green railroad ties, freshly hacked from the forest, bound together and floated down the rivers to the railhead; these stories from my childhood took on life again.

The Ozarks that I had known as a child had not, as I should have realized even then, always been that way. The thick woods, mostly oak and hickory trees a couple of feet in diameter or less, had once been largely pine, much taller and larger. The rivers, clear but relatively shallow, had indeed carried immense volumes of cut lumber. The mound of earth on the hillside above our pasture, oddly soft underfoot, was the long-ago sawdust heap from a mill that had disappeared, along with the village that had grown up around it, leaving only the stray evidence of an overgrown lane, pieces of equipment rusted to the point of unrecognizability, and a hoard of logging tools in the barn.

History, it seemed, was all around me. It had always been, but I had simply never noticed. And it wasn’t confined to monuments and battlefields, but woven into the scenery.

It’s hard to make the claim that one must reach a certain age to appreciate history this way, but my own experience tells me that perspective is what counts in this enterprise, and perspective is a gift of aging. One becomes aware of the passing of time, and of how familiar sights – a street, a building, a landscape – shift over time to reflect changing ways of life, attitudes, and circumstances. Evidence of life-and-death struggle is concealed in plain sight. A sunken roadbed marks where a forced Indian removal passed. The incongruous name of a boat landing reveals the drowned town that once flourished where waterskiers now skim. You don’t have to get old to notice these things, but age brings an understanding of the impermanence of objects and lives, even ones that we might have imagined as children to be imperishable.

Old Greenville

In my case, the enriched understanding of my own heritage as a fifth-generation Ozarker led to an endless fascination with the stories and conflicts of my region. As a child, my parents repeated a family tale about a great-great uncle who had been killed by a bushwhacker—a guerrilla fighter—during the Civil War. My curiosity about this tale was rewarded when I found a copy of the bushwhacker’s reminiscences, dictated to postwar interviewers, for sale in an annotated edition from the University of Arkansas Press. Like other participants in the Missouri-Kansas-Arkansas theater of the war, which was dominated by savage guerrilla fighting with no fixed lines of battle, he had sought to retell his participation in the fight by casting it in the mythical light of honor and revenge, and an eager audience of fellow reinterpreters took down his musings and published them for posterity. I discovered that my family’s story was true, although the motives for the killing remain in dispute. I picked up books like David Benac’s excellent Conflict in the Ozarks and Kenneth L. Smith’s Sawmill: The Story of Cutting the Last Great Virgin Forest East of the Rockies and discovered that my neighbor’s memories of tie drives, two-man crosscutting, and forests so tall and shady, and thus free from undergrowth, that a man could navigate them at a gallop, were not his memories alone, but shared experiences across the Ozarks and into the Ouachita Mountains as far west as Oklahoma.

This renewed sense of history as lived experience has led me to focus, in my novels, on how people’s conflicting belief systems change the way they live. “Be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming,” Emerson famously said, and the utopian idealists, determined slaveholders, love-maddened romantics, and money-loving capitalists of my novels demonstrate that truism again and again. We are living through history, making history, and becoming history ourselves. So when I turn to history in my novels, I see this simultaneous process of being and becoming repeated at the individual scale, relationship by relationship, person by person.

My earlier novels explored the Ozarks during the Civil War and Reconstruction years. My most recent book looks ahead to the later part of the century, when the Industrial Age came to the region in the form of large lumber and mining companies based in the nation’s urban centers. These companies moved into the deep Ozarks, built railroad lines into areas previously considered impossibly remote, and enlisted the local population in the extraction of the region’s natural resources. From the early 1880s through 1910, Missouri forests produced about half a billion board feet of lumber each year, a number that is as mind-bogglingly large as it sounds. The impact of this era reverberates to this day in the Ozarks, in ways that even longtime residents don’t always notice. For example, the large national forests in Missouri and Arkansas, some of the most extensive national forestland east of the Rockies, largely derive from cutover land that the big timber companies were unable to sell and didn’t want to pay taxes on. The environmentally calamitous cut-and-get-out philosophy of one era resulted in a surprising, and unintended, scenic and environmental benefit in another era.

In The Language of Trees, the quiet utopian community established in the 1850s, having survived the ravages of the war and the agonies of its aftermath, confronts a new challenge: what to do when the Modern Age arrives? The agrarian ideals that dominated the founding of America were giving way to the industrial organization of society, with time clocks, factory whistles, and all the social upheaval that accompanies it. From the contemporary perspective, we might see this transformation as a loss of innocence, and indeed it was. But for the inhabitants of Daybreak, the arrival of the American Lumber and Mining Company is a more complicated encounter. The new people who come to the valley, offering more money than Daybreak has ever seen before for land and labor, are not all the wicked capitalists of communal nightmare; in fact, some are quite charming and conflicted in their own motives. And not all the Communists want to remain Communist. Ultimately the villagers have to find a path that threads between love and self-advancement, between cherished ideals and new opportunities, between a changing present and a fraught future.

And thus history makes its way, neither the steady march of progress our forbears liked to imagine nor the decline from innocence it sometimes seems now, but instead a swift and twisting river that loops back on itself, disappears and reappears, and carries us along with it as we try to steer a clear route while being borne by the current. Come to think of it, history is a lot like an Ozark float stream itself. We think we understand it, we even think we can control it, but in the end it surprises us with destruction, or beauty, or both.


This essay first appear in BLOOM.

That Second Cross-Missouri Trail


, , , , , , , ,

Nice piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this morning about the prospects for a second cross-Missouri trail.

Rock Island Trail

It’s easy to see from the Post’s map that this proposed trail would have much less traffic than the Katy. It doesn’t connect or run near major population centers, as the Katy does. So a nay-sayer might complain about the cost-to-people-served ratio.

But the role of state parks is not always to serve the largest possible number. The map also tells us that this trail would give a much more Ozarks-flavored experience than the Katy; it travels through rougher and more forested territory, and thus would appeal more to the backpack-and-tent crowd than the winery-and-B&B types. So it would have fewer hikers and bikers. So what? Is popularity the only value for a park?

Park advocates (including myself, sometimes) have become habituated to using economic arguments to justify them. But the logical trap to that argument is that people who are swayed by economic arguments can always find a more profitable use for parkland. A recent op-ed in the Columbia Daily Tribune from the head of the Conservation Federation of Missouri argued against a proposed bill in the legislature that would allow nonresident landowners to obtain free hunting licenses. His criticism focused on the cost to the Conservation Department – about $500,000 – and included a list of dire consequences if that money were lost. But seriously, $500,000 in a department whose annual budget is nearing $200 million is not much of an argument. I agree that letting nonresident landowners get free hunting licenses is a bad idea, but not just because of the cost. It’s a bad idea because it perverts the original intent of the resident landowner exception, which was to make sure that farmers and other rural residents could hunt on their own property without too many government-imposed hoops to jump through. It’s a bad idea because it opens the door to abuses, with distant landowners finding off-the-books ways to profit from those free licenses. And it’s a bad idea because it’s yet another legislative run at the independence of the Conservation Department. As with the Rock Island Trail park, the value of an independent Conservation Department can’t be measured in dollars and cents. In fact, measuring the accomplishments of government in dollars and cents is the opposite of the point. Government is not supposed to act like a business, where dollar value is the highest priority. Government is supposed to act in the public interest, broadly defined, and serving the widest variety of citizens falls into that category as far as I’m concerned.

Great parks, like great schools and great highways, are valuable on their own merits, not on what they yield economically. And the proposed Rock Island Trail would be a great park.