Vol. V, No. 2, Fall 1991



In Search of Ozarks Crafts

By Sandy Primm



Writer, artist, and media producer Sandy Primm, a St. Louisan, now lives near Rolla, Missouri.

Who are the finest, most representative practitioners of traditional crafts in the Ozarks? Something over a year ago the J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, gave me a chance to seek them out.

For an exhibit called Ozark/Appalachian Crafts: A Comparative Study, craftworkers or traditions from each region were to be exhibited in the museum. A series of films, talks and demonstrations were also to be part of the March to May, 1990 show.
Rebecca Bingham, of Whitesburg, Kentucky, who has worked with Berea College and Appalshop in crafts projects, collected from her Appalachian mountain region. I had six months to do the same: identify what would be exhibited--either on loan or for sale--gather it, transport it to Louisville, and organize public programs.

It sounded simple. But would it be possible to arrange for Ozarks craftsmen to surrender their works for a period of three months? For someone making a living with objects he Or she crafts in the Ozarks, an exhibit in a Kentucky museum might not be all that helpful. Day-to-day sales pay the bills. Would some crafters feel they might as well ship their work to the moon as to Kentucky?

Generous, committed, and caring craftspeople finally made the project possible. In assembling the exhibit, I gained an increasing understanding of a gentle dichotomy in the philosophy of crafts. There are those who build their product trying faithfully to follow tradition, and those who tend to individualize and personalize their product. I personally liked the craftspeople who individualized their approach, but the more I examined different crafts, the more I appreciated those who worked close within a tradition.

Research and visits to some major centers for crafts in the Ozarks began the process. I met with Jim Price, an archeologist and student of the Ozarks from Naylor, Missouri, who said the one craft he knows as unique to the Ozarks is fishing with spikes (see OzarksWatch, Vol. IV, No. 3)

Jim suggested not looking for the unique as much as exhibiting a range of crafts, to show ethnic and cultural variety in the Ozarks, advice I was pleased to follow.

Eureka Springs, Arkansas, was one of the first places visited, and showed how diverse Ozarks crafts can be. A friend works at a store where new quilts costing $1,000 and more are peddled, mainly to Texans. The store's owner, possessor of a new MBA, chooses colors and patterns, then contracts with skilled seamstresses to make quilt tops to his order. Actual quilting is done by Amish ladies, also under contract.

"I can tell right away if a couple is going to buy," my friend explained. "I don't waste time on ladies alone. The man's got to be along for a purchase like this. I can sense when the old lady's got him m hne. On a good day I'll sell $5,000 in quilts."

This didn't seem like quite the right operation to typify Ozarks quilt making, although it may typify a tradition of soaking city tourists. After later meeting and talking with Bernice

[18]

A warbler carved by Junior Cobb sits on a piece of cedar root collected by the artist in the woods. It is carved actual size and painted to resemble a species that migrates through the Ozarks.

Bunch of Salem, Missouri, who makes quilts by herself by hand, I realized quilting deserved more thorough attention than this exhibit would be able to provide.

I knew several people who carry forward traditions ideal for exhibiting; Roger and Betty Curry of Salem, who continue a heritage of Ozarks basket-making, and Dr. Frank Wissmath, Hermann, Missouri, who has developed a unique approach to German-style baskets. Friends who are homesteaders in the Missouri Ozarks, Ted and Kay Berger and Heidi Eissenmann and Ronny Jones, two families near the upper Jacks Fork, both make their living growing herbs, vegetables, and dried flowers, and know traditional uses of all they sell.

For woodworking, the late Alva Gene Dexhimer of Syracuse, Missouri, produced a variety of items influenced by his father, a German carpenter. Lynn Morrow, an historian in Jefferson City, pointed out another tradition with unique Ozarks aspects--build-ing with stone, particularly the"giraffe-style" of slabs laid up vertically on walls. Photographer Dave Ulmer of Ballwin, Missouri, was able to get excellent images of splendid stone buildings [see"Stone Craft Architecture of the Southern Missouri Ozarks," p. 40]."

Following up on suggestions took the most time. When I stopped by The Ozarks Mountaineer magazine office, in Taney County, Missouri, Barbara Wehrman pointed out a recent article about Rex Harrel, one of Arkansas' last practicing blacksmiths. After a day at his farm near Wilbum, Rex agreed to loan a good selection of his hand-made woodworking tools. When shown at the museum, they looked like modern art, and sold well, too.

Alex Outlaw runs interpretation programs for the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, a national park headquartered in Van Buren, Missouri. John boats were important to the Ozarks, Alex said, and suggested I contact Don Foerster who teaches shop at the local high school, and who gets out on Current River whenever he can.

Hauling an 18-foot, 350-pound wooden boat on a small truck to Louisville was a logistic feat equalled only by the difficulty of getting it into the museum itself--it had to be lowered down an elevator shaft. Don, with his father Eddie, came to the museum and demonstrated building a john boat one spring weekend to crowds of visitors.

In Mountain View, Arkansas, the Ozark Folk Center attracts crowds to the 25-year-old state park with a number of craftspeople who demonstrate traditional skills. Bill McNeil, a curator who specializes in folklore, suggested numerous workers, including Junior Cobb.

So many traits of the Ozarks craftsman are carried forward by Junior that he merits special attention.

A decorative bouquet of thyme, garlic and cayenne peppers grown and made by Heidi Eisenmann and Ronnie Jones of Willow Springs, Missouri.
A wooden duck pulling a cart, painted pine with paint can lids for wheels, 4' long, 1.5' high. The late Alva Gene Dexhimer made this and other wooden crafts of his own design--gun racks, blanket chests, shelves, etc.--to sell from his trailer south of Syracuse, Missouri in the mid-1980s.

[19]

Woodcarving tools, a U-gouge, a V-tool and a knife, made by Rex Harral of Wilburn, Arkansas, from scrap iron with handles of white oak, walnut and cherry respectively.
I had met woodcarver Junior Cobb, who lives at Three Brothers, Arkansas, once before, but at Bill's suggestion I stopped at his place on Route Five north of Mountain Home again. His work is already at the Ralph Foster Museum at the College of the Ozarks. Perhaps he could be persuaded to share some of it for the Louisville show.

For several years Junior carved at Silver Dollar City near Branson, Missouri, and collectors are said to be avid for his work. But Junior carves only when he is inspired and needs the money.

"He never got very far in school or wanted a regular job or any extra money. Just enough to get by from one day to the next. That's pretty much the way he was brought up along the White River," Junior's dealer, Roger Williams at the Ozark Emporium at Gassville, Arkansas, said.

For several years Junior's father operated what has been described as a rickety ferry boat, just big enough for two cars, downstream from the Buffalo River's confluence with the White. Junior began selling his carvings to travellers using the ferry who appreciated his early skill.

"For a while the family lived in a cave near their operation at Shipp's Ferry," Mr. Williams said. "Before Bull Shoals Dam was built the whole family would put in a john boat way up on the river and float all the way down to the lock at Batesville, fishing for mussels for the shell button industry. They all would camp out along the river for several weeks as they worked together harvesting the river."

He has been able to support himself and his family as a woodcarver since his marriage as a teenager some 30 years ago. Roger Williams believes Junior has five children, most of whom still live in the area, and is "about 48 years old, but I'm not sure, and I don't think Junior knows for certain either."

Almost no power tools, just kitchen knives from Wal-Mart, are used in Junior's work. Catalpa or pine do best. Not only are his carvings of birds and fish--his biggest sellers--anatomically correct, they are painted with a close eye for color and detail.

Employing simple local materials, marketing to tourists, not rushing, swapping, using traditions learned from family, making do--all are characteristics of Ozarks crafts. What Junior adds to these is a personality and an ingenuity that is best exemplified by his extraordinary home.

He has built it all himself in recent years, and he' s proud of it. "Want to see my place?" he'll ask. His house is a supreme Ozarks monument to the use and reuse of found materials, the concept Drury College folklorist Ellen Gray Massey refers to in her Missouri Humanities-sponsported article entitled, "Wear it out, use it up, make it do, or do without."

There may not be a straight wall in the place; the halls are just wide enough for one person, the ceilings only tall enough for a man Junior's size (about five feet seven in run-down tennis shoes). The whole place has a give to it because several layers of flooring--cardboard, tarpaper, chipboard, what-ever--have been used to level a room, and carpets from old motels added as necessary. The siding, like the in-terior walls, is as you would expect, a little bit of everything. Building materials are kept handy in the yard as new scrap is added onto old piles--the pro-cess seems never ending.

The near impossibility of separating the builder from his product makes Junior's edifice a marvel. His house is a metaphor for his life. Waste nothing. Build intuitively. Have pride. Enjoy.

The exhibit is over. It opened and closed as scheduled. Junior's birds and the other Ozarks crafts I assembled were all much easier than the john boat to get into the Louisville museum, and all were much admired there during therun ofthe show. The Ozarks crafts had the aesthetic integrity and fascination of the work from the Appalachians.

[20]

Most memorable from that region were work by a chairmaker and a woman who weaves coverlets, a tradition long gone in the Ozarks, at least to this afici-ando of craft. In three months of intensive fieldwork for this exhibit, I sensed how much work is going on I know little about.

Traditional crafts in the Ozarks deserve a more thorough examination in some spacious museum. One of the first large folk festivals was held in Stone County, Arkansas, fifty years ago, according to Vance Randolph. Mountain View, Arkansas, and Branson, Missouri, had special activities featuring a variety of folk music and other crafts at that time. L.L. Broadfoot was working on his monumental study Pioneers of the Ozarks which documented many traditions of Current River county and environs.

Fifty years of a crafts revival constitute a sustained period of work. Several guilds and other cooperative groups in the region help give Ozarks crafts a continuity not apparent to the casual visitor. Carrying forward a tradition receives scant attention in a society where innovation is the oldest convention.

Junior Cobb's home at Three Brothers, Arkansas, promotes his woodcarving business and shows his skills as a carpenter working with recycled materials of all kinds. Discarded rugs decorate the front yard and eliminate the need for mowing.

[21]


Copyright -- OzarksWatch


Next Article | Table of Contents | Other Issues | Keyword Search


Local History Home