Vol. VI, No. 1, Summer 1992 / No. 2, Fall 1992


"The Land Will Make You A Living If You Let It"

By Robert Gilmore



This issue of OzarksWatch is about resources, a word sometimes dually defined as the wealth of a place, or as its means of producing wealth. What an agreeable image is conjured by the first part of this definition! The sum of all our resources--the variegated landscape, the forests and prairies, water, game, minerals--is certainly the collective wealth of t is a wealth in which all may share, and which may surely exist in perpetuity.

But wealth, or capital, I seem to remember from Economics I, is seldom permitted to just sit there, doing nothing. Like the definition says, wealth, even our Ozarks resources, is used as a means of producing even more wealth.

Ozarkers have always been clever about using whatever resources were at hand to make a living from the land. In 1904, Stone County, Missouri businessman Truman Powell bragged that "It is easier for a poor man to live here, keep his health, and keep out of debt than it is in the prairie country."

How could this be? What possible resources could this isolated, rocky, thin-soiled place offer? Writing in the weekly Stone County Oracle. Powell explained:

The finest tomatoes for canning grow on the slopes and tops of the gravelly ridges considered a few years ago as only good for poor pasture. In our woodlands we have timber to furnish fuel for all time. In our ledges and cliffs we have the marble, onyx, limestone, and cotton rock to build the future cities of the whole southwest. In our mighty streams we have the power to light up the whole land and run electric cars to every neighborhood. In our caves we have cold storage for fruits, meats, plants, and all things which it is desirable to preserve. In our springs we have health giving water. In' our woods we have game for the sportsmen. In our streams fish for the anglers. All these things we have, and yet we are at the beginning of better and grander things.

In his litany of Stone County assets--game, timber, minerals, water, and caves--Powell mentions the resources that have provided Ozarkers a living from the land for generations. These are the same resources about which our authors have written for this issue of OzarksWatch.

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The Jacob Goetz family and farm. Taney County, Missouri, 1907. Courtesy History Museum at the Bentley House.

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U.S. Forest Service photo, Missouri Ozarks, C. 1935.
Warren Cook of Republic, Missouri, told Ellen Massey's Bittersweet students who interviewed him in 1978, "The land will make you a living if you let it." I don't think Mr. Cook was suggesting to these young people that the land was like money in the bank, drawing interest and providing income to the owners with no further effort on their parts. "Unearned" income, economists would call it. Few Ozarkers who depend on the land would call their income unearned. The settlers who cleared the land of trees to create some crop land certainly found every such acre a struggle. The German Friederick Gerstaecker, travelling in the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks in the 1830s and '40s, described how it was done:
When about to make a clearing, the American looks out for the largest and straightest oaks, which he fells, and splits into poles, from ten to twelve feet long, for fencing .... Next, the trees which have a diameter of eighteen inches and under, are felled, at about half a yard from the ground, and cut into lengths, while the larger trees are girdled all round with the axe and very soon die. The shrubs and bushes are then rooted up with a heavy hoe, and, with the help of the neighbors who are invited in for the purpose, the whole, except the poles for the fence, is rolled into a heap and set on fire.
As soon as the land is cleared of all that can be easily removed it is fenced in, and ploughed. This last work is very severe, and gives the ploughman and cattle many a rough shake, as the ploughshare, catching in the roots, has constantly to be lifted out of the stumps. These stumps give the fields a very extraordinary appearance; it takes from six to ten years before they rot away entirely.

This method of clearing the land continued well up into the present century. Unearned income, indeed!

Denver Hollars, who has lived in southern Stone County for over 60 years, says that the people who lived in the narrow valleys of Dogwood and Little Indian Creeks were living "Indian style, living off of nature." Sometimes they'd have some little bottoms there, that would have a pretty good little patch of corn in 'em.

.. They'd cut that butternut timber up there and they'd gather the papaws and black haws, winter grapes and besides all the mushrooms... And all that water, and all the things that grow up in there, in them little bottoms, they were aliving pretty good in them days.

All members of a family had to be employed in this diversified subsistence lifestyle---raising some crops, planting a garden, running some livestock, and working in the timber, as well as hunting, trapping, and fishing.

But living "Indian style" implies another factor, the practice of a conservation ethic that, tragically, has not always been observed in the Ozarks. Schoolcraft in his Journal of a Tour Into the Interior of Missouri and Arkansas in 1818 and 1819, makes a telling comparison of wasteful ways with conservation:

The Indian considers the forest his own, and is careful in using and preserving everything which it affords He never kills more meat than he has occasion for. The white hunter destroys all before him, and cannot resist the opportunity of killing game, although he neither wants the meat, nor can carry the skins.

But there was so much game! "There were wild ducks, prairie chicken, and quail by the thousands," wrote Margaret Kelso who was bom in Greene County, Missouri, in 1855. "When we went to the spring of mornings, the ducks would be swimming up and down the creek, as far as we could see, and the prairie chickens would alight by the hundreds in the cornfields." Some families caught so many quail, she said, that they saved the feathers and made feather beds of them. Passenger pigeons were so thick that they bent the trees almost to the ground.

"Game seemed to abound," Gerstaecker wrote. "Flocks of wild turkeys filled the forests as thick as partridges in Germany, and deer were equally plentiful?'

Game was not the only resource. Schoolcraft described the beautiful Kickapoo Prairie: It is a mixture of forest and plain, of hills and long sloping valleys, where the tall oak forms a striking contrast with the rich foliage of the evergreen cane, or the waving fieM of prairie-grass. It is an assemblage of beautiful groves, and level prairies, of river alluvion, and high-land precipice, diversified by the devious course of the river.....4 scene so novel, yet so harmonious, as to strike the beholder with admiration.

With such bounty--so much wildlife, so many trees, such abundant minerals, such splendid rivers and springs---there seemed to be little need to conserve and preserve. We know the result. Much wildlife was decimated, hillsides denuded of forests, the landscape scarred by surface mining, waters polluted. For a long time we were using up our capital, the very capital resources essential to provide us our living.

Fortunately, that has changed. Serious efforts to conserve, preserve, and restore these precious vital resources are being carded out by individuals, groups, communities, organizations, businesses, and government. The land is being attended to by those who have formed a partnership with it, who respect it, and who give back to it more than they take from it.

One result of these caring efforts has been that millions of visitors now come to the Ozarks each year, in part to experience a place where nature still dominates---a place they perceive as relatively unspoiled and comparatively isolated. This creation of a significant tourist industry has brought with it into the Ozarks economy a flow of dollars and provides a livelihood for many residents.

Many visitors return in retirement to become residents, and to partake fully of the good life they sampled as tourists.

Ozarkers, once confronted with the problem of working a bull tongued grub plow through the rotting stumps of some newly-cleared ground, today face a different kind of challenge: keeping our Ozarks a good place to live and visit in the face of population growth, urbanization, development and masses of tourists.

The Ozarks may be quite different than it used to be, but I believe Warren Cook was right: the land will continue making a living for its people.

Visitor Overlook, Table Rock Dam in background.

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