|Vol. V, No. 2, Fall 1991|
by Donald R. Holliday
Don Holliday, acting head of the Department of English at Southwest Missouri State University, is a fourth generation Taney County, Missouri, native.
Editor's Note: James Madison "Judge Jim" Holliday, grandfather of the author, built the stone and wood Tudor facades of Downing Street, Hollister, Taney County, Missouri, thus "turning the town around" so that it faced the new railroad. The Downing Street complex is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
I remember watching my Uncle Loy playing the fiddle, his big hard-calloused left fingers fretting over an instrument no larger than a baby's wrist, his right hand and arm a blur of motion, his left foot tapping time--the rest of his body carved in stone, his face set for the ages, his gaze fixed just over the tops of reality, staring into endless spaces. He made his fiddle wail. He made it moan. I never wondered, when I was a child, why he looked that way when he played. It all seemed to fit together--he a sculpture frozen in time, the hills unshakable, his fiddle calling down reaches of long valley miles, while deciduous oaks and hickories sprouted, took nutrients from stone and fixed them in wood, grew green leaves, fruited, turned yellow and brown, and died.
Later, when I was no longer a part of that time and place, I did wonder, and I think I understand. That was part of the craft of Ozarks life, because craft was not only something we did. It was something we became and that made us whole or made us fit into a larger whole--as we learned to do and did. For most of us, my uncle's time and place have fallen like leaves, but, sometimes, out of the earthy mold wild strains of fiddle tones echo again from the bluff walls and oaken arras of our minds. Then we know again, for a moment at least, the wholeness of creating, of a time when we drew the stuff of our lives from the rock we lived on and the trees we lived under--or in. My grandfather built a town of oak beams and rock. My father watched him work, then helped him work. My father made houses and walls and gateways of rock. He built barns forty-eight feet wide and sixty feet long and thirty-six feet tall supported vertically by whole oak trees he had cut and trimmed and sheathed in solid oak planks a foot wide. I watched my father work when I was a baby. When I was five or six, old enough to tag along, I followed him, watched him swing the axe, heard its rhythm, a rhythm as natural to a boy growing up in hardwood country as his mother's heartbeat.
Before I was permitted to carry a double-bitted axe, standard tool of the hardwood timberlands, one bit kept razor sharp, I felt its heft and balance as it notched and trimmed trees. I heard the old ones talk, measuring a man's worth in his skill with an axe. "He's a good man with an axe," the old ones would say, when a man notched a tree, in preparation for felling it with a two-man crosscut saw, and both the bottom of the cut--horizontally cut across the grain--and the angle looked like they had been planed. "He's a good man with an axe," I heard when I saw my father take a position beside a tree, watched him set his feet and twist them into a solid stance, and heard and felt the perfect rhythm of his strokes. "He's a good man with an axe, and with eye and crosscut." I knew when my father judged a tree's balance from its shape, judged the wind's influence, computed where the tree "wanted to fall," laid out a line of two-foot trunk cuts where he wanted the tree to fall, notched the tree, sawed it, and dropped the tree precisely atop the line of blocks laid out for it, thus saving levering up the prone trunk high enough to saw it into wood cuts or sawlog lengths. I knew it too when, with a deliberate glancing stroke, he slapped the flat side of the axe against the prone tree trunk in a swing that whipped the razor edge through the butt of the limb at its juncture with the trunk. He made the sharp steel ring.
He made the dull steel "chonk" too. He could set on end a block of straight-grained oak over two feet in diameter, take his stance, strike a first blow near the outer edge of the heartwood with the dull bit, the axe's plane glancing at forty-five-degrees from the horizontal, the plane of the axehead aimed through the block's center; thin cracks appeared on both sides of the bit. Then he glanced a blow at the same angle from the heartwood's opposite edge, also aimed through the center. Then he glanced a blow near the center, at thirty degrees from the horizontal, the axe's plane connecting the lines already drawn. The block fell open with a resounding "chonk." Then with single blows from the dull bit, he arced the axehead in glancing chops, thirty degrees from horizontal, to knock heating-stove sized cuts from the edges of the halves. At each swing, the flat of the axe rang against the top of the block left standing, and when the new block split off, it flew against blocks already split and went "bonk."
By the time I was four or five, I followed my father to cut wood. I followed him to load wood and sawlogs bound for the mill. While he worked, I dug pits in hillsides and built miniature houses over them, with sticks for timbers and green moss for roofs, and watched him and heard him cut and split post oak for fence posts and rails; shelly black gum for beehives and feed troughs; cedar for posts and machine tongues and porch supports; hickory, the most prized of heating woods, for smoking meats and for tool handles; white oak for always marketable stave bolts and, along with black oak and red oak and water oak, for lumber; even dogwood and red-bud and shittimwood, the hardest and finest grained of Ozarks woods, for small hand-finished items.
Following and imitating, I learned every variety of timber, at what level it grew on north-facing or south-facing slopes, whether it sprouted and grew in deep leaf mold or in rocks eroded bare. I knew trees by the bark, by the fruit, by their shapes, by their leaves. I even knew them by smell, by the water oak's soured water odor when green cut and by its soured sweat odor when dried, by the elm's peculiar aroma that gave it one of its common names--"piss ellum"--by the walnut's essence of crushed green walnut hull, by the sycamore's pungency that pervaded whole creek bottoms.
These were the basics of woodcraft. Mastery of the axe, the saw, the splitting mallet and wedges, working in green or hardened dry wood, left me with a thorough understanding of the characteristics of the wooden species--not at all unlike the human, its brittleness, its hardness, its tendencies to warp as it ages, and its likelihood of acting unlike its species if it grows in the wrong setting. Mastery came slowly, a little at a time, even more slowly than strength, for without developing through long practice the proper rhythm and technique, a boy can pile up broken axe handles faster than wood. My father did not quote rules about the value of doing things well. He always said, "Learn to do it right, so you can do it cockeyed when you have to." In time I learned to do it right, to make the good steel ring, and I learned to effect shortcuts when the press of time made them right.
But, as in any craft or discipline, the basics are only the beginning. We built with the wood we cut into logs, hauled to the mill, and hauled home again. We framed and boxed rooms for the house, chicken houses, smoke houses, barns, farrowing houses. That was the intermediate course. We finished the interiors, cased windows and doors, built cabinets and furniture, slowly, laboriously, with square and plumb bob to align walls and doors and windows, folding ruler and string for measuring and halving and quartering and centering distances, hand saw and rip saw, brace and bit, wood chisel, hand plane, and--always--the axe. That was the advanced course. We knew there were power lathes and saws, but we didn't have them, and we made everything we could for ourselves with what we had. When we used it up or wore it out, we made another, then another, until we ourselves were used up and worn out.
We never painted our barns or sheds, and my grandfather and father were born in an unpainted house my great grandfather had built, and I in one my father built. Made of oak, our houses lasted as long as we had need of them. They weathered, as we weathered. They turned brown, grey, silver. They fit the moonlight. They fit the sunlight and shade and cloudy mists. Built of trees, our farmsteads were laid out in the trees, according to the slope and terrace of the land rather than squared to the quadrants of the compass. We were unfinished--our buildings and ourselves. We were temporary, and we knew it. We accepted that. We built accordingly.
To build of stone, on the other hand, is to build for the ages--an idea alien to the way we lived. The hills' limestone foundations, themselves imbedded with layers of flint, the flint-littered fields, creek channels and eroded ravines choked with jumbled rock, bluffs that loomed over river and sky--these' were facts of agelessness. We cut a few foundation blocks, to hold up our wood; we cut a few stones to build fireplaces and flues. We told a few self-effacing jokes on ourselves, even on God. But we did not tease ourselves with illusions of forever, not on this earth. Whoever built the hills might, but we couldn't.
Yet, my grandfather built a town of stone, a medium alien to his nature and alien to the craft that was his Ozarks life. But he built it for outsiders, newcomers to the hills, speculators who came during the boom times of the 191 Os and 1920s to take advantage of cheap land made accessible by a railroad. And he built great houses, not for himself or other hill folk, but, again, for outsiders, wealthy people by hill standards who early in the century found the hills a place of sanctuary. The chronology of his building makes it clear that, at first, he merely practiced his founda-tion-block, fireplace-and-flue craft on a large scale, for commercial purposes. Building for such purposes in itself denied both teleological and aesthetic principles of his craft, that he build to use and that the use fit his life.
To his struggle with these ethical problems, the stones he cut and the walls he shaped speak unmistakably. Grandpa's first building in stone, commercial buildings in Hollister, including The English Inn, was in limestone, the material of his traditional foundation and fireplace craft. His technique at first is obvious. With sledge and rock hammers, he pounded blocks into rough geometric shapes and laid them with little cement into rough forms. He made his first crude arched doorways. By the time he moved to the ground floor interior of The English Inn, he had begun to develop a finer technique in cutting and laying the stone, but he was still pounding limestone with rock hammer and sledge into building blocks which he made into heavy block-shaped walls, relieved only by cavelike arched casements as heavy as the walls. But the ground floor had to be stone, because the developers had laid out their town where no hill native would have built--in a creek bottom where it was subject to annual flooding. Above the ground floor, in second and third and fourth floors and attics, Grandpa turned to his traditional medium, wood, but the size and the purpose of the building placed the building far outside the traditional craft. According to order, he built exposed, mortised and tenoned oak beams framing stuccoed masonry, all topped by steep, many-gabled roofs--an Elizabethan fantasy in the turn-of-the-century Ozarks.
Although he could roughly shape limestone blocks, he could not practically shape a building with them, except in forms dictated by the limestone block. He could not shape them into forms or appearance born in traditions of his hardwood hills and wooden craft tradition. Only when he rose above the limestone walls and casements and turned to materials more plastic in his hands did he exercise the craft that was part of his living. Limestone, pried from the foundations of the hills, was an implacable stone, too permanent, too much a stone of the ages to be the material of human craft. Perhaps it was the stuff for commemorating the great ones, for launching a grand enterprise, but that is not the stuff of living, which includes dying.
On the other hand, in commercial building Grandpa had discovered that tradition may have many dimensions. For one thing, in the pillars of a smaller building sharing a wall with The English Inn, he had rediscovered chert--flintrock, common field stone. Compared to limestone, which he never grew to like as a solitary medium, field stone had diverse color, texture, vitality. Perhaps more importantly, he had rediscovered an old truth in flint; as the many species of wood and their many variations in characteristics reflect the many variations in human character, flint reflected another human quality. He could not shape flint. He could shatter it, but he could not shape it. When the railroad, and then Union Electric, brought a new world to the White River v alley, they disrupted the old. The implacable nature of flint became more important to him in the new world than it had in the old world of wood and natural cycle. With field rock, he built his first great house, for the Quick family of Saint Louis. Although made of flint, the new house looked like it was made of a million corpuscles,looked warm, looked alive, the way a house should, not like a tomb carved of limestone. Flint fit the fields and the post oaks, as field stone always will.
Commercial Hollister had taught him one thing more. The Elizabethan fantasy that was The English Inn in the turn-of-the-century White River valley had opened his imagination. The fantastic forms of The English Inn's top floors, followed by his use of a new medium in The Quick House, and others, had opened all the floodgates of creativity. He built his last great house, The Bartlett House, a melding by the master craftsman in flint and limestone and wood.
The Bartlett House fits atop Johnson Hill, overlooking the site of Oasis in the Long Creek Valley, where my great grandfather, a "wood artificer" for the Eleventh Illinois Artillery, was buried under the trees, where my grandfather and my father were born in an unpainted house, where my Uncle Loy first drew a fiddle bow. Drawing its thousands of parts together, some of them human, The Bartlett House looks alive. Commanding its lofty position, the house seems poised. Holding a message sent by the temptress, Art, it looks like it might rise and sail off, down across the valley, like a leaf, like the strains of a calling fiddle.
Copyright -- OzarksWatch