|Vol. VI, No. 4, Spring 1993|
An OzarksWatch Visit
by Robert Flanders
We had to open seven gates between Thomasville and the House, back in the '50s when we were kids visiting," said Julie March, my traveling companion. "The old-fashioned kind? The kind country kids climbed over; the kind our dads couldn't keep from sagging?" "Yes," she said, "that kind."
It was my first visit to the 14,000 acre Eleven Point Ranch in northeastern Oregon County, Missouri. For Julie Hammond March it was a return to scenes and memories of childhood. The scene had changed, however, as her reference to the gates suggested. Now, the old dirt lane is a real road which, though still gravelly dirt, is smoother than some rural paved roads. Forty years ago, the route took the traveler through seven gated pastures.
Fourteen thousand acres is about 22 square miles. Getting to this "farm" is not the same as one imagines about visiting other farms, where a turn off the county road into the farmyard constitutes an arrival. We drove for five miles, all through ranch land. The House (the only term I heard used to describe it) is at the end. Is that road the driveway? The lane? What? Is the beautiful complex of buildings and landscaping at its end a farmhouse, a farmyard? Are the people who will greet us farmers? Indeed, is the Eleven Point Ranch really an Ozarks farm at all? These and similar questions are in my mind. To find the answers, I suppose, is the reason for my visit.
Dick Shaw, founder-owner of the modem Eleven Point Ranch, was a patient of Julie's physician-father in Springfield when she was a child. The families became fast friends. The children, of similar age, spent summers together on the ranch in the 1950s. Today, Julie accompanies me as respected historian-colleague and mutual friend. I'm a bit relieved by her presence.
Five miles. Julie and I passed two large houses belonging to the two Shaw sons, Dustin (Dusty) and Bill, and their families. We also passed an equine complex. "They breed quarter horses," said Julie. We drove through pastures greening with spring, and much clean, well-tended forest. There were no gates to open.
I have known of the Shaws for years, Dick and Peg Shaw were even in a group picture published in the Small Towns issue of OzarksWatch accompanying the article "Thomasville: Center of Civilization." But I never met them. Dick Shaw died in 1988. In response to a recent request, Mrs. Shaw extended a cordial invitation for a visit and interview.
Julie and I passed one feed trough surrounded not by cows but by wild turkeys. About a dozen of the gray-bronze beauties were peacefully pecking away at the ground, poultry-fashion. As we slowed, they looked up at us one by one, seemingly unconcerned. But their boss, an oversized bronze-black tom, didn't like our looks; so they took off. What a sight! It was one I never witnessed when I was an Ozarks farm boy back in the 1930s.
Dick Shaw bought into the Eleven Point Ranch in 1932, when he was twenty-four years old. It was a pre-existing cattle ranch running Texas yearling steers. At that time, there were probably few wild turkeys.
Dick was interested in game. The 1930s saw the beginnings of public conservation in Missouri -- the Department of Conservation in 1937; and Dick's close neighbor, Mark Twain National Forest, the same year. The restoration and preservation of habitat were new ideas. They fit with Shaw's outlook on land use, and he became a pioneer private wildlife manager.
Neat fences line the road. "When we first came down here," said Peg Shaw later, "it was before the stock law in Oregon County. Fencing was a local option by counties, and open range was still the law here. You had to be careful at night, or you'd hit a hog or a cow." When the issue came up for a vote, which side were the Shaws on, I asked? She laughed. "On the fencing side, of course, like all the stock people." She recalled asking Dick how much fence would be needed to enclose their perimeter. "About fifty-five miles," he replied.
Fifty-five miles of fence! Anyone who has ever made fence in the Ozarks might think first of all the postholes, then of all the posts. "We fed stock on horseback then," Peg continued. "All day, going from herd to herd, barn to barn, getting out hay. At day's end, if there were light, and any energy left, we made posts." They used mostly post oak, and hired a lot of work done. "Fifty cents an hour to make posts -- the same as for clearing land."
As we drove deeper into the interior of the ranch, two very different thoughts occurred to me.
I remembered F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic short story, "The Diamond As Big As the Ritz." A Princeton student goes home for Christmas holiday as the guest of a rich classmate who lives on a Montana ranch. It is very remote, very secluded, and very mysterious. The reason: it's on a mountain the whole of which is a diamond. Everything is as fine as one might expect in such circumstances, except for one thing: no guest is ever allowed to leave. I smiled at the recollection, but it left me with a prickly feeling.
My second thought was more mundane. "This dirt road is so well graded," I said to Julie, "that either the county road commissioner is a relative, or there must be an election coming up!" It's an old Ozarks joke. When I learned the road was private, I understood its quality.
One pasture was grazing a large herd of mixed-breed beef cattle. The ranch has a purebred Hereford program; but most are "commercial grade," many of them steers purchased as yearlings. They mature on the Ozarks grass, then go to be finished elsewhere. The number of cattle varies between 1200 and 2000.
The purebred Herefords are out of Iowa's Battle Intense bloodline, which Dick Shaw imported to replace the rangy Texas steers that had stocked the ranch in the '30s. His cow-calf operation was to be top breed. The move to commerical-grade mixed breeds came later. "When Dusty brought in the first black bull," said Peg to son Bill, "I thought your father was going to have apoplexy!"
Conversation at the House was cordial and easy. Peg Shaw had greeted me warmly, and embraced Julie with affection. Peg is frail now, but dignified in appearance and gracious in manner. Her speech is direct and engaging. Present also were son Bill, and Carl Williams, a long-time family friend. Carl saw Dick Shaw through a lingering final illness. The deference and respect shown Mrs. Shaw by the two men during our visit was palpable.
Talk ranged over many subjects related to the ranch and the family. At one time, the Shaws raised Hampshire hogs. In traditional Ozarks fashion, the hogs roamed the open range, fattening on acorns. Sometimes, at hog roundup time, the Shaws traded with their neighbors. Each would share their "catch" with the other, half and half.
Alfalfa is the only "crop" now. It is both irrigated and fertilized. They cut a lot of hay. Corn and sorghum were once raised for silage; but the practice was discontinued. Too much earth compaction, too much chemical permeation. The Shaws are aware of the limits and fragility of the soil, and they care for it.
About three-fourths of Eleven Point's 14,000 acres is in timber, mixed hardwood and native yellow pine. It is an important source of income. The ranch has a full-time timber manager, and stand improvement and selective cutting are included in his responsibilities. Relations with the U.S. Forest Service have been long, cordial, and mutually beneficial.
The Missouri state champion yellow pine tree once stood in the yard, but it succumbed to age some years ago. We admired the stump. "I made a mantel for my house out of some of its lumber," said Bill, "so we would have a reminder of it." Bill, 49, recently returned with his family from many years in Chicago. They built a large new residence atop a nearby hill.
Dick Shaw himself designed the House about 1940. He was a Yale-trained architect. Before coming to the Ozarks, he worked for a short time as a draftsman in the successor office of the famous architectural firm of Burnham and Root in Chicago. "The Depression was not a good time for architects just starting out," said Peg Shaw, "so Dick thought he'd try ranching. I think he took to it well."
From 1932 to 1940 Shaw alternated between the city and the Ozarks. He built an Adirondack-style log lodge, "the Cabin," on a knoll not far from the river. There was no "outside" electricity for years. Water for the cabin came from a dug well, expertly lined with stone. Peg recalled approaching it cautiously, bucket in one hand and "snake stick" in the other, ready to beat off copperheads.
Peg and Dick married in 1940. After a Sea Island, Georgia, honeymoon, Peg got her first look at the ranch. She liked it. But the war intervened. Dick served in the Army Air Force, and they were unable to return to Missouri until 1945. By then they had three, small children. At that time they made the portentous decision to leave the city and move to the ranch for good.
After two years a telephone line was strung, and an old-fashioned crank phone was acquired. Electricity was supplied by a gasoline-driven Kohler generator. "It took twenty-five gallons a day to run the thing," said Peg. When the Howell-Oregon REA Coop finally got an electric line to them, "our bill was $100 a month for three years." They acquired a radio; but reception was not the best.
The Shaws returned to Chicago from time to time for visits and culture. "I threw the kids in the back of the Jeep, put up the curtain, and off we went," said Peg. "How could you all survive a trip like that?" asked Julie. "I read to 'em. That's the only reason they're literate today," replied Peg, with a twinkle.
The children attended the nearby Thomasville elementary school, where they had some good teachers. One, an English lady, "could teach five languages.'' Then they attended private academies in Boston and Chicago. Dusty went to Central Methodist College in Fayette, Missouri. Bill and Judy went to Grinnell in Iowa. "Why Grinnell?" I asked Bill. "My folks knew it was a good school; and after six years in Boston, I was happy to get back to the Midwest." Dusty went on to earn a master's degree at Southeast Missouri State in Cape Girardeau. He returned to assist, then succeed his father as principal ranch manager. Sister Judy now resides elsewhere.
Dick Shaw attended Harvard, as well as Yale. His knowledge of agriculture and forestry developed on the job and from cooperative programs with the University of Missouri. Peg is a Vassar graduate.
The House proved comfortable and tasteful in its furnishing; elegant and beautiful in its many large paintings, each individually lighted, and in the orchid greenhouse off the living room. (I was also shown a number of other rooms in order to admire the lavish display of African violets, two by two on every window sill.) The latest copy of OzarksWatch was hospitably displayed on a coffee table.
Luncheon was served beneath the gaze of Mrs. Shaw's father, whose life-sized portrait centers the dining room wall. Dr. Wilder was a pioneer ophthalmologist associated with the University of Chicago. (Peg grew up in a house that is now part of the U of C campus.) The dining room's paneling, painted dove gray, was carved by a local carpenter. The menu: cold home-smoked turkey, assorted fresh peppers vinaigrette, an artichoke heart remoulade, and fresh-baked rolls. Dick Shaw was a connoisseur of food and wine. When the family traveled in France, he planned the trips to connect Guide Michelin-rated restaurants. His home wine cellar remains, beneath the nearby Guest House-Dairy.
I asked Peg about friends, society, and church, in their Ozarks experience. "When we came, it seems to me I didn't get away much," she replied. "There were seven gates to open to get out. This road wasn't built. You thought twice about running to the store." The only nearby shopping was a general store in Thomasville, an old-fashioned country mercantile. Once, when it was about to go out of business, the Shaws bought it. Nancy Shaw, Dusty's wife, went as storekeeper. The neighborhood needed a store, they believed.
Church was the Protestant Espicopal parish in West Plains, now about 45 minutes away, "if you just touch the hilltops lightly as you go over them." Before the roads were paved, it took an additional half hour.
What about neighbors? Carl Williams replied, "There weren't any neighbors.""Oh, yes, there were!" Peg rejoined. There was also the mail, and the Springfield papers which arrived daily. Carl was Superintendent of Thomasville schools, alongside the ranch road. "Everyone knew who Peg Shaw was. I remember sitting in school there. We would see her go by in her Jeep and fur coat, and we'd say, "Peg's going after the mail!" Carl is retired now.
The two women who prepared and served the luncheon evidenced the manner of the persons they obviously are: caring neighbors and old family friends.
Dick Shaw's death was the family's first death here in the Ozarks. The decision was for burial at home. A yard was prepared a few hundred feet below the House. It is enclosed by a low stone wall topped by a wrought iron fence. Dick' s grave is adorned with live flowers. I asked if the intention was to place a permanent marker? "Yes," said Bill. "Father's stone has finally been secured. It is now ready to be carved."
When Bill Shaw said the word"Father," it was not so much a term of casual affection as it was one of respect, a title, as one might speak of the General, the Senator, or the Director. He said it several times, the same way. One seldom hears "Father" spoken anymore.
As I departed in the dusk, the fate of guests in"The Diamond As Big as the Ritz" seemed less unattractive to me than before.
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