Vol. V, No. 3, Winter 1992


Spring 1989

the Irish Wilderness

The Curious History of an Ozarks Place

by James M. Denny



The Irish Wilderness has long been known as a wilderness place in popular Ozarks legend. The actual gaining of formal wilderness designation by the U.S. Forest Service, however, has only recently been achieved. The title was bestowed on a 16,500 acre tract in Oregon County, Missouri in 1984, only after a drawn-out struggle between conservationists and a mixture of timber and mining industry interests allied with pro-development local citizens and politicians. The call for Wilderness designation for this special place was sounded as early as 1949 by Ozarks conservationist and publicist, Leonard Hall. By the early 1970s, the Irish Wilderness had become foremost on the wilderness agenda of most environmentalists. Staunch resistance to this proposal was raised by the lead mining industry which suspected that needed reserves of ore might lie, embedded deeply in Paleozoic strata, some two-thousand feet below the wild expanse of hills, hollows, forests, and clear running waters.

The struggle continued for more than a decade before there was a clearing in the political clouds of congressional politics that allowed the Irish Wilderness to belatedly join six other areas in the Missouri Ozarks as a designated wilderness area.

While the Irish is now an official wilderness, and the largest one in Missouri at that, it is a wilderness of a special kind --one not of primeval landscapes and towering virgin forests (those were completely cleared during the early twentieth-century timber boom to be replaced by a mixed hardwoods second-growth forest). The Irish Wilderness, instead, attains its character by what John Karel has characterized as an "authentic sense of vastness." Dan Saults wrote that the place possessed a "space and breadth and clean loneliness." The Irish is one of those places that is becoming rare, even in the Ozarks Highland -- a place where one can meet nature on its own terms, where one can taste deeply of the mystery and haunting power of the natural world, a place where, if one is not guided by map and compass, it is possible to become very, very lost in a maze of ridges and hollows.

Add to this vastness an amazing resiliency and you have some sense of the basic essence of this locale. Without these qualities, the Irish Wilderness would be a wasteland, the product of some of the worst things that Americans have done to their environments, and to each other. The wilderness that is the dark side of the human soul is reflected in the history of this brooding place, as well. But far more powerful is the sense of nature's will and determination to reclaim man's spoiled landscapes. It is an improbable story with an appropriately improbable beginning.

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Woven into this beginning are the complicated strands of several events: the Irish potato famine of 1848 that emptied out a good portion of Ireland's people, scattering them about the globe; one of the destination points of this tragic diaspora, St. Louis, where the Irish came to make up one-third of the burgeoning city's population; the grim realities of oppression and poverty that greeted Irish families; and, finally, the brave and hopeful dream of a young Catholic priest named Father John Joseph Hogan. It is Father Hogan who, in his autobiography, On the Mission in Missouri, left the only First-hand account of the venture into the wilderness of the Oregon County Ozarks.

Father Hogan conceived of his wilderness venture, during the years 1854-55, while ministering to the congregation of St. John's Catholic Church in St. Louis. Here, the thirty-thousand Irish refugees crowding the city were regarded with disdain by their established German- and Anglo-American neighbors. While Irish women could find work as domestics, males were often forced to travel in search of it, frequently following the vagabond life of the railroad worker.

As a conscientious and idealistic pastor, Father Hogan despaired about effects on family life that inevitably resulted from the hard and difficult straits, and the forced separations, of his parishioners. He came to envision a solution to this social dilemma that was both bold and imaginative, yet quaint and utopian at the same time. His vision was mixed in parts from a kind of Jeffersonian pastoralism, and a pre-industrial notion of a way of life derived from the quasi-peasant Irish agrarian system. He would found a settlement in the Missouri Ozarks.

Hogan believed that it was possible for a people of small means who were industrious, patient, and frugal, to settle the Ozarks with advantage. A people, who as renters in their native Ireland were able to maintain a living, could "...using the same thrift and energy in southern Missouri, successfully cultivate land, and establish on it for themselves and their a permanent homestead."

And so it was that an Irish settlement was founded in Oregon County along the banks of the Eleven Point River in the wild country that would forever after bear their name. But tragedy continued to dog these ill-destined people and found them even in their wilderness retreat. Scarcely had they settled in before the Civil War unleashed upon them a hardship as great as any entailed by the great famine they fled in 1848.

Too much time had been consumed between the inception of Father Hogan's vision and its implementation. Not until 1859 did the colony finally get under way. Father Hogan reported that a good start had been made by spring. Trees had been felled, rails split, farmsteads assembled, fields cleared, broken, and sown. Masses were well attended at the forty-foot square log church the settlers built in the forest. Nowhere, Hogan proclaimed, could people "so profoundly worship as in the depth of that leafy forest...where solitude and the heart of man united in praise and wonder of the Great Creator."

The situation they found themselves in was not Edenic, however, and Father Hogan's own actions may well have placed the colony in peril. While Hogan found his established neighbors, the local Ozarks hill folk, to be generally kind-hearted, sincere, and sociable, he may have seriously erred in his estimation of their seeming willingness to receive his instruction in the Catholic religion. This proved to be an unwise move that incensed the fiery and ill-educated circuit riders who held sway over whatever religious sentiments existed in the area. The response to Hogan's efforts to generate new Catholic converts was swift and impassioned. An inflammatory sermon was preached against Catholicism by a preacher who later became a notorious guerrilla leader, and Hogan was nearly attacked. Hogan devotes some space to revealing his magnanimity, how he forgave his potential assailant, concluding that the preacher was simply misinformed about Catholicism. He evidently did not consider the possibility that his own actions were needlessly provocative. He may have exposed the fragile settlement to jeopardy by arousing the ire of the established community.

During the Civil War, the dark side of human nature was given free rein in places like the Irish Wilderness. The region became a desolate, ravaged no-man's land, claimed by neither side. The deep forests of the Irish wilderness became a refuge into which bands of bushwhackers could vanish after raids. Periodically, detachments of Union cavalry on retaliatory sorties swept through, killing any man they encountered and burning or confiscating any scrap left behind by the guerrillas. Father Hogan reported that the wilderness had been picked so clean that soldiers venturing through it were obliged to carry feed for their horses with them.

Only the hardiest and most resourceful of hill folk could have survived in such a wasteland.

What happened to the Irish? In October of 1863, a Union Major James Wilson reported dispatching a detachment to Pilot Knob with some prisoners and a train of refugees from Oregon County. If none of the Irish were in that sad train, it was only because they failed to hold out that long. Father Hogan was in Chillicothe, where he had a parish, when the Civil War erupted, and never again returned to Oregon County. During the war, hostilities prevented travel; after the war, there was no colony to travel to.

What was launched as a hopeful alternative to the harsh and degrading realities of Irish-American life in an industrializing nation endured only the most ephemeral of existences as an experimental society, and came quickly to a tragic end, defeated by the irony of time and place. There may have been an unrealistic and fatal yearning for pre-industrial simplicity in this venture into the wilderness, but there was also something unique in the colony's approach to the Ozarks environment that is intriguing when viewed against the backdrop of subsequent Ozarks land-use, which has too often been wasteful and exploitative. Father Hogan's experiment demanded an harmonious and sympathetic stewardship finely attuned to the carrying capacity of the Ozarks ecosystem. There is in his vision an untried alternative and a missed opportunity.

The years immediately following the Civil War saw the Irish Wilderness lapse back into the wild, trackless state it has always sought when left alone. For the next quarter of a century, vast, somber wilderness reigned; the area is remembered as a legendary hunting ground.

In the 1890s, the timber boom began. The Ozarks, with its great stands of virgin pine, was ripe for harvest by timber barons eager to fill the nationwide demand for the lumber to throw up houses and businesses and accommodate the swelling populations of industrial cities.

Before the short-lived timber bonanza ended, hundreds of millions of board feet of what was once the vast forests of the Ozarks departed the region annually. It was the Ozark Land and Lumber Company, operating out of Winona, Missouri, that relieved the Irish Wilderness of its great stands of virgin and hardwoods. But the boom didn't last long, and when the timber company pulled out, only stumps were left behind. So thorough had been their clear cut policy that there was nothing left worth taking.

By the end of World War I, the Irish Wilderness had again reverted to a wild state; not the lofty, park-like forest of before, but a dense tangle of vegetation, thickets and scrub timber. The terrain was broken by forgotten hollows lurking in perpetual gloom. Only the trail-wise locals would dare to venture into it -- only they and moonshiners. By the dawn of the Depression, the land had lain for years producing nothing but a mounting burden of unpaid back taxes.

It was at this time that the influence of the New Deal rippled out to the reaches of the Irish Wilderness. This great force of modernity in the Ozarks encountered an area, a whole geographical region, destitute from too long a period of land misuse. Improper timbering and unwise agricultural practices had left streams choked with gravel washed down from bare hillsides, depleted wildlife, and a greatly diminished potential for sustaining any population, even at the subsistence level which still persisted in the "arrested frontier" regions of the Ozarks. It was a different land from that encountered seventy years earlier by a priest with a hopeful but star-crossed dream.

Between 1935-1940, the Irish Wilderness experienced the beginning of another chapter in its uncertain history: it entered the U.S. Forest Service's system as a part of the Fristoe Purchase Unit. The Civilian Conservation Corps moved in, sending unemployed youth into the wilderness (where they frequently got lost and had to be rescued) to build roads and thin the forest, reestablish pines, and construct fire lookout towers.

Through the early 1950s, there existed the White's Creek Wildlife area. This and similar areas were utilized by the CCC, the Forest Service, and the Missouri Conservation

Commission to reintroduce wildlife, particularly deer and turkey, that were nearing extinction in southern Missouri.

If for no other reason than the sheer inability of anyone to figure out a way of making a sustained profit off of it, the wilderness state began to assert itself once again.

Still, new schemes continued to be hatched. Some local promoters tried, with no luck, to get a hydrogen bomb plant located in the wilderness. Efforts to discover uranium failed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in pursuit of more dam building projects, set their sights on the Current and Eleven Point rivers, threatening to inundate the entire region. An unusually outraged public response delayed that project until more permanent protection became available in 1964 with the designation of the Current, Jacks Fork, and Eleven Point as National Scenic Rivers.

There have been, and continue to be, those who come to the Irish Wilderness with exploitative intentions; but there have also been many who accept the area on its own terms, concluding its best asset to be precisely that wilderness quality which has managed to persevere with remarkable resiliency despite persistent efforts to obliterate it. The vastness and haunting qualities of the Irish Wilderness have left many with a unique and unforgettable impression. It may be that wild places have a more vital role than we might have imagined as refuges of sanity and solitude, and as fragments or evocations of a primordial environment that is vanishing before our spreading civilization with chilling swiftness.

Such qualities may be even more rare and precious than lead.

James Denny is a parks operations officer for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. He has spent much time roaming the cultural landscapes of Missouri, especially the Irish Wilderness.


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