Vol. V, No. 3, Winter 1992


Winter 1988

Pride and Progress

The Evangelism of Modernity

by Robert B. Flanders



a whiskey town! So Ash Grove Commonwealth editor J. O. Waddle characterized his village of some 1000 population in 1905, amidst an ambitious civic promotion. He sought grand changes for the future, all the while extolling the fact that a virtuous past, represented by many churches and absolute dryness, was carefully preserved there. Ash Grove, one might imagine from reading Waddle's Commonwealth, had arisen from perfection and now aspired to progress.

Ash Grove and The Commonwealth, along with the rest of the Ozarks ,entered the twentieth century in an interstice of time, a sliver of history between an isolated, long perpetuated frontier past, and a modernizing future that promised a better life. A railroad had connected Ash Grove and its rural surround in northwest Greene County, Missouri, to the outside world for a generation. Springfield, the county seat metropolis 20 miles away, was now only an hour's journey away, instead of a day. Local wheat, fruit, livestock and produce flowed into the broad streams of commerce, moving the producers for the first time toward a cash economy and away from simple self-sufficiency. Ash Grove was not a hick place in the sticks, as Editor Waddle proclaimed tirelessly.

But neither, thankfully, was it Springfield, where some 40,000 inhabitants, high prices, strangers, and John Barley corn meant worldliness. Ash Grove retained decency and modesty, moral cleanness and frugal ways, the best of the old rural world from which it was emerging. What better place for sensible, God-fearing people to want to live? What better place to confidently, safely, locate any decent enterprise at the outset of the new century?

Proclaiming the imminence of a modern future, small Ozarks towns like Ash Grove challenged the countryside for dominance. They possessed powerful means to assert themselves; mills, stores, markets, credit, electric lights and telephones, railroad stations (some of them at least), -- and newspapers. In such a profoundly rural region as the Ozarks, the rise of towns to dominance would be a great change. Newspapers were the unique voice of the new town culture.

Ozarks village newspapers, though proud of the pioneer virtues retained by their clientage, seldom romanticized the frontier past -- at least not until it was safely behind them (rarely the case by 1900). They worried about the rusticity, the dogged self-sufficiency and cantankerous independence of the country people. They extolled "progress,'' and admonished backsliders from its gospel. The Eminence (Shannon County) Current Wave, preserves notable examples of that generation's town "voice" in a rugged forest county notoriously resistent to modernization. When a railroad finally came in 1887 (though unfortunately not to Eminence) the Wave exulted:

William Aden French, (center), editor of the Current Wave (Eminence, Shannon County, Missouri), sets type with two assistants circa 1940. (Photo courtesy Edibeth French Chilton)


Shannon County is "on the improve." The hum of saw mills is heard in every quarter; the forests resound with the blows of the woodsman's axe and the crash of the mighty pines and the 'coon and 'possum trees; ox teams are only used in the lumber districts; nearly every man drives a spanking (and kicking) team of mules; new wagons are now the rule; the men wear better clothes and drink more whiskey; a new baby can be found in almost every hollow stump, and the girls -- bless their dear hearts -- are able to wear red stockings, long dresses and bustles as big as the Shannon County debt used to be. Oh, we're getting in fine shape.

Shannon County seemed finally to possess the key elements of a modernizing economy dreamed of and worked for by progressive people: a railroad, a commercial timber industry, towns and town markets, and a few local entrepreneurs. But too many rural people did not respond. In an 1895 front-page editorial the Wave admonished those set in old-fashioned ways:

The majority of the farmers of Shannon County do not farm for a profit while a great many more farm with a rifle and a pack of hounds, and others sit on a dry goods box and whittle and comment on the political status of the day. The celebrated yellow pine of the Ozarks, of which we are all so proud, will soon be a thing of the past; and with it goes the deer and the turkey, the rifle and the hounds, and the face of the country will be changed.

Patiently, in schoolteacher-fashion, the editor instructed the rural folk in the rudiments of making money: first, take manure from the barns and spread it on the fields; second, plant more corn and wheat, take it to mill, then take the flour and meal to the timber company stores and sell it; third, cut more hay and sell that. The editor noted a serious balance-of-trade problem in the county: With 3,375 non-farming mouths to be fed, along with unnumbered mules and horses, twenty-seven cars of supplies rolled into the county in a single month to meet the demand. "How long will the farmers of Shannon County allow this condition to exist?... Is it any wonder that money is scarce here?"

The real subject, however, was quality of life for country people, "how people can satisfy their desires for something better than they now possess.'' The hoped-for assumption was that the people really desired "something better."

The end of the line: Ava, (Douglas County, Missouri), circa 1910. Ava hopes for a boom -- on the new, unpainted station a banner promotes "business and resident lots," in a newly-platted addition. The worm-gear "timber tram" locomotive was acquired from the Missouri Lumber and Mining Company, a great commercial timber corporation in the southeastern Ozarks. The three-car train (one passenger and two freight) carried photographer Charles Phelps Cushing from Kansas City to his jumping-off place into the wilderness of Ozark County.

The Ava-to-Gainesville U. S. Mail hack, circa 1910. Photographer Charles Phelps Cushing, a young Kansas City newspaperman, was intrigued by the hogs that ran loose in the towns. The ancient tradition of scavenging street animals persisted in the Ozarks after it had been forgotten elsewhere. The exceptional quality of the hack and the matched mule team bespoke the wealth of the government, and would have excited local admiration.

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Grand changes. They came to the Ozarks, but seldom in the form or at the speed with which progressive townspeople sought them. I spoke recently with one countrywoman who was a child of that "better" time. She called it "The Big Change." "When The Big Change came in here," she would begin, and then elaborate: life became less arduous, less bleak, less uncertain. Especially memorable to her were two local Depression relief work projects: construction of concrete privy vaults, and sewing of cotton mattresses to replace cornshuck ticks.

But just what did she mean by "The Big Change?" I asked, hoping to draw some generalization from her. "Son," she replied with a touch of Ozarks irony, "if you don't know already, I don't rightly know how I could explain it to you!" Modernity, like religion, is easier to experience than to explain.

Modernity -- what those seeking it often call "progress"--is indeed a kind of secular religion. Its evangel swept through Ozarks towns by 1900, just as the great revivals of spiritual religion had swept the frontier countryside of the grandparents. It was a gospel promising salvation from the terribly difficult, often killing, life of pioneer times, still remembered by all, still the lot of many. For those who sought it with energy and fervor -- who did not "squat in the Serbonian bogs of apathy'' as editor Waddle put it in his inimitable way -- it conferred middle class status and the promise of secular salvation in this life.

Through their newspapers, village editors were crucial agents in abetting the transformation of local, rural, provincial societies into more cosmopolitan ones. They instructed readers in a new culture and sought to modify mindsets to imagine new possibilities, new exigencies. But they were agents of conservation as well, not wanting the transformation to cosmopolitanism to go too far, too fast. In the Ozarks, and especially in Ozarks towns, people should blend tradition and progress. The past should engage the future so as to keep that future under control.

This is a philosophy which has survived (modified perhaps) to the present, a kind of popular philosophy for the region: go ahead -- but not too far, not too fast. It still defines the Ozarks to prospective clients, natives as well as newcomers.

Robert Flanders is co-editor of OzarksWatch and Director of the Center for Ozarks Studies.

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