Vol. II, No. 1, Summer 1988


New England in the Ozarks

The Curtis Fletcher Marbut House

by Robert K. Gilmore



The large Cape Cod style house, situated on a wooded hill overlooking Little Flat Creek in Barry County, Missouri, is an unexpected discovery for a visitor accustomed to encountering more traditional Ozarks architecture.

This interesting home, with its distinctive New England flavor, was designed by Ozarks native Curtis Fletcher Marbut, who hoped to live out his retirement there. Marbut was respected in scientific circles around the world for his pioneer work in soil classification in the early 1900s, and, by the time of his death in August, 1935, had become the world's leading authority on the science of soils.

Unfortunately, he never got to live in his dream home, never even saw it completed. In the summer of 1935, while the house was a shell with only the framing and floor joists in place, he was presented with an opportunity to go to Manchuria, China to study soils there. On the way, he represented the United States at the Fifth International Congress of Soil Science in Oxford, England. A cold, which he had contracted earlier in Washington, persisted through his stay in Oxford. Strenuous meetings in Moscow, and a journey on the Trans-Siberian railroad, led to in his death from pneumonia at Harbin, China. He was 71 years old.

Marbut had designed his house after the home of Dr. Wallace Atwood, president of Clark University at Worcester, Massachussets. Marbut, who gave summer lectures at Clark, had been a frequent guest in the Atwood home, and sketches of the plans were drawn on Clark University stationery.

A local neighbor and builder, L. A. Lamport, who was from New England, executed the plans, and Marbut's brother Edward supervised construction. The eleven room house cost $6000 in those Depression days.

In an article in the Springfield, Missouri, Sunday News and Leader, July 22, 1973, Dr. Milton Rafferty, Head of the Department of Geosciences at Southwest Missouri State University, described the interior of the house:

The layout includes six fireplaces, one in the basement, three on the first floor and two in second story bedrooms. The rooms are large -- a kitchen furnished in oak, a formal dining room with French windows opening onto a deck, a grand living room decorated in oak with ceiling-high bookcases. A rear entrance foyer is paneled in solid walnut and warmed by a fireplace. An angled staircase, with walnut handrails, leads to the five upstairs sleeping quarters. And the indoor plumbing and bathrooms provide a measure of the relative progress of New England residential design over the average Ozarks dwelling of the mid-1930s.

Marbut's family had come to the Ozarks in the 1840s by way of Tennessee and South Carolina. Marbut was born on July 19, 1863, while his father Nathan was away serving with the Union Home Guard. His mother, Jane, named her new son Curtis, for Union General Samuel Curtis, and Fletcher, for the Radical Republican Thomas Fletcher, who was elected Missouri Governor the following year.

Curtis Fletcher grew up in a pioneer environment, hunting and fishing and working on the family farm. His early schooling was in a one-room log schoolhouse, and then at McDowell, three miles away. Later, at age 17, Marbut taught at McDowell for $20 per month. It was at Professor Noah Lee Maiden's Collegiate Institute in Cassville that Marbut's educational horizons were expanded as he studied Latin, Greek, mathematics, literature and philosophy. Professor Maiden also took his students on geological field trips.

Marbut attended the University of Missouri and Harvard. Although he never completed his final requirements for the PhD. at Harvard, he later received many academic honors, including honorary doctorates from the University of Missouri and Rutgers. He was the author of dozens of scholarly papers, many of which dealt with the geography and soils of Missouri.

He served for 25 years with the U. S. Soils Survey. Under his leadership approximately one-half of the United States land area, nearly a billion acres, was mapped. A collection of many of his maps and mementos is on permanent display in Temple Hall on the SMSU campus in Springfield. Other Marbut papers are in the Joint Manuscripts Collection, University of Missouri, Columbia.

Curtis Fletcher Marbut was a remarkable Ozarker whose distinguished career and international fame never caused him to lose his ties with the Little Flat Creek valley. The house that he planned and caused to have built is significant as the creation of one of America's foremost scientists, and as a distinctive contribution to the cultural landscape of Barry County and the Ozarks.

The Curtis Fletcher Marbut retirement house, Barry County, Missouri, c. late 1930s.
C.F. Marbut
Robert K. Gilmore is an Editor and Publisher of OzarksWatch.

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