Vol. V, No. 3, Winter 1992
By Robert Flanders
Where is the Ozarks? What is the Ozarks? Is the Ozarks is, or are the Ozarks are? Is the Ozarks "like Appalachia?" And what is a "native" ? These and a host of other questions eventually confront any one who tries to make sense of the Ozarks as a place, a people, a subculture.
Newcomers find answers to be at best indirect, often evasive or negative. Especially in years past, one might hear, "We're just in the foothills here, but on down there, that's real hillbilly country! .... This town isn't Ozarks anymore, it's gone beyond that". "This food is too fancy to be real Ozarks food," and so on. I asked one native, a young professional woman, "Is Springfield in the Ozarks? .... Oh no," was the reply, "Springfield was never in the Ozarks." "How about West Plains?" "No, no, West Plains (population c. 10,000) is too big to be in the Ozarks." "How about Ava or Gainesville (much smaller)?" Long consideration, then, "No; no town is really Ozarks." "Could you name me a typical Ozarks place, then?" More consideration, then a shake of the head. No authentic Ozarks place could be identified by my informant, at least not in the late 20th century.
A man of old patrician family from patrician rural Mid-Missouri, looking at my Ozarks map, (which included a hilly bit of Howard County, his home) said, "Well I don't know much about the Ozarks, but 1 do know that Howard County is not in it!" Where did he perceive the Ozarks to be? He didn't know for sure ("Maybe down by Lake of the Ozarks"), but definitely somewhere else, not where he lived.
Such notions of the Ozarks, implying somehow another place, another time, other condition, was echoed by an Ozarks friend of advanced age and definite opinions: "Son, you want to study the Ozarks? You're 25 years too late. The Ozarks is over, it's done with."
Somewhere else, somebody else, some other time. Quaint, mysterious, old fashioned, poor, ignorant, remote, yet intriguing. The Ozarks might as well be Tibet, to hear casual approaches to its definition. But Tibet is far away, and the Ozarks is near. A professional agri-business manager hired from outside to run a new Ozarks cattle ranch put it this way: "This place is nearby to nowhere, the land is no good, and the people are impossible. But," he concluded resignedly, "they say it's the land of opportunity."
If one is to take the sum of all such negative definitions seriously--and one must--the conclusion leaves a large question: why is the Ozarks apparently one of the most popular and sought-after regions in the United States in the late 20th century, experiencing population explosion, economic growth, and an outburst of regional pride and optimism?
Perhaps the answer is to be found in part in the negatives themselves. The Ozarks is perceived to be not modern, not populous, not urbanized, not faddish, not stylish, not "fast"--and not expensive. The Ozarks is catching the rebound from the post-modern, post-urban, cultural fatigue of the second half of the century. The phenomenon of urban people embracing rural folk regions is a not only nationwide; it is worldwide.
The Ozarks does indeed remain a folk region, a place relatively resistant to rapid change, to innovation, to the full force of modernity. Early white settlers in the rugged Ozarks, especially those of Scotch-Irish and German descent, created localized societies where cultural patterns were preserved generation after generation. At the same time, the pioneer societies of other less geographically and economically isolated rural regions were quickly changed by large-scale commercial agriculture, industrialization, and even urbanization. The Ozarks stereotypes of "old-fashioned" and "folksy" are well founded in history. Custom and tradition are not taken lightly by Ozarkers.
Poverty, another customary part of the Ozarks definition, is also present in the region. But the fact of poverty says less about the Ozarks than is often assumed. Poverty exists in all regions, most particularly urban ones. What outsiders define as "poverty", to many Ozarkers means a life resistant to absolute dependence on a money economy, a cleaving to ways that are as self-sufficient as possible. As one native said, "The difference between town and country is this: In town others do for you. In the country you do for yourself." To him the Ozarks is definitely "country."
What of the questions put, somewhat rhetorically perhaps, at the beginning? I conclude that "Ozarks" like "Great Plains," is a singular noun ending in "s" (can one Ozark be found, anymore than one Great Plain?). Is the Ozarks "like Appalachia?" Yes and no. Many similarities exist, but so do many significant differences. It is a question for another article. As for defining "native;" I use the term to identify persons of any age whose family roots have been in the rural Ozarks for two or three generations at the least.
But one needn't be a traditional Ozarker, or even try to emulate one, to live and be happy here. Ozarks people are becoming increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan. Fast highways, modern communication, and rural amenities make it possible for newcomers (who have the money to afford them, as they often do) to maintain ready connection with the outside, whilst being comfortable amid the beauty and geniality of this rural folk region.
Ozarkers, whether natives or newcomers, tend to want the best of both worlds; so they work at achieving a synthesis. It is that synthesis which does much to define the Ozarks as a distinctive place in our generation--a place both modern and traditional, isolated and connected. Cosmopolis in the province, so to speak. Americans have always sought places they hope will provide opportunities for the Good Life, however they may imagine it in their time and circumstances. The Ozarks seems again to be perceived as such a place.
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