Here’s a 1903 photo of the Current River in Carter County, Missouri.
My affection for old maps goes back a long way, as any of my longtime friends and family can testify. Maps are fuel for the imagination, and I still use historic maps a lot.
I’ve developed a new talk that I’m ready to start giving to libraries and civic groups – it’s about the timber boom in Missouri that began in the late 1880s and continued into the teens, and the cultural and environmental repercussions of that boom. Needless to say, historic maps play a part. The one shown here is an 1877 railroad map of Missouri.
The solid line is the Iron Mountain Railroad, which had only reached as far as Pilot Knob before the war, but had by 1877 been extended all the way into Arkansas. The dotted lines are “projected” railroads; and by “projected” we can go all the way from “overtly planned” to “wishfully imagined.” I re-read Dee Brown’s classic Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow recently, and it was striking in his research how haphazard the railroad expansion was; if a speculator could get enough backers, then a railroad in that area would be built, regardless of need or connection to existing lines. Railroad mania extended to the local level in the form of county governments that would grant all kinds of incentives to railroad companies, including bonds that would burden the counties for decades afterward when the company went bust. David Thelen’s Paths of Resistance describes many instances of counties across the state that gave tremendous financial assistance to sketchy railroad companies, often assisted by liberal amounts of graft, followed by taxpayer revolts in later years as the bond payments came due. Indeed, some of the incidents of courthouse-burning that occurred in the state during the latter part of the 19th century can be attributed to taxpayers trying to wipe out the county’s tax records in a spasm of felonious retribution. (Other instances occurred because of another type of crime-covering, which I will devote a later post to.)
For the purposes of my talk, though, the item of interest on that map is the projected railroad between Van Buren and Poplar Bluff. In 1877, it was an item of fancy, although lines would eventually be built from Williamsville to Van Buren and from Neelyville (not shown on the map) to Doniphan. But the central development in the timber boom was what became known as the Current River Line, which came in from the west, snaking in from Willow Springs to Mountain View to Birch Tree to Van Buren and eventually to a town that didn’t even exist yet, the timber-milling hub of Grandin. That was the line that opened up the southern Ozarks to the timber boom.
I gave this talk at the Missouri River Regional Library in Jefferson City last weekend and was fortunate that Gene Brunk, a longtime forester in Missouri, was in the audience. Gene’s grandfather was a fireman (a boiler-stoker, that is, not a firefighter) at the smaller of the two Grandin mills, and Gene had some wonderful photos and stories to tell.
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.
Not 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.
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.
The news out of Oregon is not good. A few armed crackpots have taken over the unoccupied headquarters building at a wildlife refuge in order to protest the incarceration of a couple of ranchers who were convicted of arson.
Nobody should break the law in this way. But the history behind this standoff goes a long way back. And Ozarks residents probably hear some familiar notes in the complaints of the ranchers. In a smaller and more geographically limited way, the creation of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways caused the same kind of wounded feelings, and had an impact on the lives of longtime residents, as the actions of the Bureau of Land Management did out West.
Any time a government agency moves in to take control of land for a perceived greater public benefit, or to take ownership of privately owned land, the same tensions will come up.
Here’s an interesting article on the history of land acquisition by the National Park Service for the Ozark Riverways.
Word comes through the news that the Missouri State Park system is creating a new park on the site of the former Camp Zoe. This is about 90 percent welcome news.
First, the good-news part. A tract of this size, this close to the Current River, is almost impossible to find. Had it been sold to a private developer, it would likely have been parceled out into speculative five-acre lots with the promise of future improvements that would likely not have occurred. Almost every county in the Ozarks has one of those would-be vacation paradises sitting undeveloped and abandoned, with a few one-acre, two-acre, or five-acre lots bought and built and the rest waiting for the inevitable tax sale. Or, it would have been developed into an exclusive private preserve, sealed off from public enjoyment for decades to come.
In addition, Sinking Creek has become one of Missouri’s few naturalized trout streams, and the odds of that creek remaining a favorable habitat for trout dramatically improve with a portion of it under state control and oversight. I don’t expect the park system to try to develop it for trout fishing, since there are already plenty of good trout parks in the state, but my point is that there will be a much closer watch on the total ecosystem in that area, which has already suffered plenty of environmental insults in the past.
Finally, there’s the economic benefit. Shannon County is a depressed area by any measure, and even the simple boost of the massive construction project alone will provide a big one-time jolt to the local economy. The ongoing benefits are impossible to measure, but they will be positive. Ask any local resident who lives near Sam A. Baker State Park, Cuivre River State Park, or Elephant Rocks State Park whether they’re glad to have them nearby. The local legislator quoted in the recent Salem News article about the park, who called it a “threat” to the “rights and the money of the taxpayers,” was spouting politicized nonsense of a special order.
But there are concerns as well. First, I’d have to say that the economic benefits are being oversold, as we also see in the Salem News article. The magical “multiplier effect” of economic benefits is a common trope of those is the public development biz, but I’ve never seen it touted at the laughable, nonsensical ratio of 26:1 before. That’s just nonsense. Leland and Crystal Payton, in their admirable book Damming the Osage, describe the sad history of economic wishful thinking as it applied to the creation of Truman Reservoir. This project doesn’t involve the kind of large-scale destruction that one did, of course, but it’s worth keeping in mind that forecasts of economic paradise are always baloney.
I’m also mildly concerned about all the talk of this park being described as appealing to the “upscale market” and other such code words for “people who spend more money than the usual state park visitor.” It’s true that state parks have to pay something back to the government for their maintenance and upkeep, but let’s not forget that a park system is a public trust, not a profit-making enterprise. A state park that chases too much after the luxury clientele that is better served by a private resort has forgotten its purpose for existence — to provide recreation for all the people, not just those who can afford it. Let’s hope the managers of this new park keep that mission in mind.
The image above is the frontispiece to Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s Scenes and Adventures in the Semi-Alpine Region of the Ozarks Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas, published in 1853 and taken from Schoolcraft’s earlier journals from 1818 and 1819. People generally count Schoolcraft’s journals as the first piece of descriptive writing about the Ozarks.
As an explorer, Schoolcraft comes off as a klutz in his journals. His horse is constantly getting away from him, tumbling down a bank or trying to swim a river in a bad place. He and his companion employ local hunters to guide them or bring them provisions, but their guides regularly disappear with their goods or meat. He consistently chooses the wrong stream fork and has to backtrack.
But he’s not really a klutz – he’s a twenty-five-year-old Easterner with a fine education, a keen eye for geology, and a good deal to learn about the frontier. He and his companion spend the three months of their expedition in near-constant fear of the Osage Indians who roamed the Ozarks at the time, and their fear is justifiable. Had they met a band of Osage warriors that deep in their countryside, they would likely have been robbed at the least.
You can read Schoolcraft’s journal at Project Gutenberg, but a better experience is the 1996 edition published by the University of Arkansas Press. The dedicated Ozark geographer Milton D. Rafferty edited this version, and it’s nicely annotated, with Schoolcraft’s route mapped out as best Rafferty could decipher. My friend Steve Yates has written about Schoolcraft here.
I haven’t been on a float trip yet this year — in past years, I’ve often been able to get in a spring float, but this year, the timing and the weather haven’t cooperated.
In compensation, here’s a passage from Three Ozark Streams:
“To feel the boat settle into the long, v-shaped approach, viscous, silent, eager; to paddle vigorously an instant along the inside bank where the water is sharp-toothed, hissing; to shoot down a lane of white-caps (standing erect in the prow, my field of vision filled by the rush, by the foam of the broken river); this is to experience a moment of absolute and exquisite excitement — joy by which afterwards I may gauge the importance of much else.”
As reported by the River Hills Traveler, the Missouri Department of Conservation filed a comment with the National Park Service opposing its proposed changes in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways‘ Draft General Management Plan. There were a number of odd things about this move.
First, the comment was filed on February 4, only three days before the closing date for comments on the plan. The timing of this comment suggests one of two things. Possibly, the Conservation Department was acting under instructions from the Conservation Commission to go on record opposing the plan in order to keep state politicians off their neck, but to do so in a way that would not call attention to the opposition and thus not pose a serious threat to its adoption. The Conservation Department and its voter-approved separate source of funding (which I talked about in an earlier post) are subject to periodic attacks by those who would like to bring it under more political control, or who are reflexively opposed to government in general. The result has been that the Conservation Commission usually displays a fanatical caution when treading in political territory. Hollering about the National Park Service is the current favorite sport of Missouri politicians. The House Budget Committee recently set aside $6 million in the state budget to operate the Riverways as a state park, just in case the federal government decides to return the Riverways to state control. So perhaps the Commission felt the political need to add its peep to the chorus.
The other possibility suggested by the timing is that the Department didn’t want to allow enough time for its objections to be considered fully. I doubt this, but suppose it’s possible. The department’s objections range from weak to potentially meaningful but not significant, and some discussion of them would be good. But now that the comment period has closed, all discussion is presumably after the fact. But what the heck, let’s do it anyway.
The Department has five objections (actually four, since #1 and #2 are two parts of the same thing). They are: 1. current regulations on unauthorized trails, access points, and uses of the park are not being enforced. We should set up a working group to resolve the access issue. 2. designating part of the Big Spring area as a “wilderness” would hamper fire control. 3. restricting parts of the river from motorboat usage would hamper wildlife monitoring and conservation enforcement. 4. you should let people hunt, fish, and trap basically everywhere in the Riverways. Point 1 is the “we don’t need new laws, we just need to enforce the ones on the books” argument. It’s one of those statements that is both true and beside the point. The whole idea of drafting a plan and having public hearings was to air ideas. If the Department had wanted to contribute its opinions it could have done so, rather than proposing a “working group that includes local community members, resource agencies, and other interest groups”–i.e., us and our allies. Point 2 should be considered, because nobody wants to hinder fire management efforts. But would the plan actually do so? No. The plan states,”Wildfires would be controlled as necessary to prevent loss of life, damage to property, the spread of wildfire to lands
outside wilderness, or unacceptable loss of wilderness values.” Point 3, as I understand it, seems to be that the department doesn’t want to have to get out of its big motorboats to do game law enforcement and wildlife research. Oh, come on. If the person catching over the limit has to be in a canoe, do you really need a motorboat to catch him? Couldn’t you just call ahead to the next downstream access point–or paddle faster? Point 4 is a general “we like to hunt and fish” statement that doesn’t address any of the specific provisions of the management plan.
The Conservation Department has a history of doing good work for the citizens of Missouri, and I’m always inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. But this “comment” is just weird. The fact that the department didn’t even bother to issue a statement or news release about its comments in opposition, and that the Traveler had to ask twice before getting a copy of the letter, makes me think that they would just like the whole discussion to go away.
This is undoubtedly one of my most prized possessions – an original edition of Ward A. Dorrance’s Three Ozark Streams from 1937, describing his floats on the Black, Jacks Fork, and Current rivers.
Ward Dorrance was an important literary figure in Missouri during the first half of the twentieth century. A collection of short stories that he co-wrote was the first book published by the University of Missouri Press. He was on the faculty at Missouri until, in a shameful display of 1950s bigotry, he was hounded off the faculty and out of the state because of his sexual orientation. You won’t see anything about this disgraceful episode in the “Mizzou” alumni publications, that’s for sure – they go in for the warm nostalgia of Tiger football and the Shack. But Ward A. Dorrance is the true Missouri treasure, and it’s a sad thing that his work has been so neglected over the years.
The proposed management plan for the Ozark National Scenic Riverways has finally been released by the National Park Service. After years of hearings, meetings, public brouhaha, and generalized hollering, the NPS has released not one plan, but three, with their preferred one identified.
Essentially, one is a high-preservationist model, one is a motorboats-and-dirtbikes model, and one (the NPS-preferred one) is sort of in-between. As compromises go, it’s typical. I suspect the NPS is hoping that everyone is modestly dissatisfied with it, but not dissatisfied enough to mount too much of a stink.
The NPS will hold public hearings on the plan on a Tuesday night in Van Buren and a Wednesday night in Kirkwood, both in early December. Here’s the schedule and the online site for posting comments.
Of the various media that cover outdoors and environmental events and issues in the Ozarks, one of my favorites is the River Hills Traveler. It started out years ago as a tourism magazine, and still retains that element. But it also provides coverage of the less tourist-savory news, such as the unfortunate shooting of a floater on the Meramec River earlier this summer and vandalism at the Castor River shut-ins. RHT has been following the winding trail of the NPS management plan over the years, and I’m sure it will continue to do so.
I highly recommend the River Hills Traveler for anyone interested in news about the Ozarks.