|Vol. VII, No. 1, Summer 1993|
93 Years and Still Writing Memories of Ozarks Life
by Hugh Crumpler
Reading one of Rose Alexander's "Dowler Mill" essays is like walking aimlessly across the fields and woods of the old home place on one of those rapturous Ozark days when the birds fill the air with song, the sun shines exuberantly from a blue sky, and every wildflower nods to the passing rambler. Rose's columns are as relaxing as a glass of cider fresh-poured from a crock in the springhouse.
Rose is a natural phenomenon. She is as much a landmark of the Alexander Homestead as are the hickories and hollers, the squirrels and the hoot owls whose lives she reveals on her kitchen-table typewriter. Rose reminisces. Rose remembers. She ransacks through a long and colorful life and brings the reader along because she wants everyone to share the beauty and the wonder of her life on an Ozarks farm.
Rose is a 93-year-old, self-taught writer. She submitted her first "Dowler Mill" column to the Bourbon Standard her hometown, weekly newspaper-back in 1940 when she was 39. And "Dowler Mill" has appeared every week for the 53 years since her first appearance in print. That adds to a remarkable record of more than 2,750 consecutive "Dowler Mill" essays. Rose Alexander may well be the longevity champion of American, weekly newspaper columnists. Today, her column appears weekly in the Cuba Free Press, Sullivan Independent News and the Piedmont Riverhills Traveler, all Missouri newspapers. Since 1991, Rose has had the assistance of her daughter, Peggy Chenoweth of Sullivan, in working up her columns.
When Rose opens the window of her memories, the panorama that unfolds before the reader is a rich, free-flowing tapestry of the pleasures and surprises of rural America. A column on the old rail fences built by George W. Alexander in the 19th century, soon turns into much more than a description of remembered rail fences.
"When we moved to the Old Homestead so many years ago, all the fields were fenced in with the long rails he had made from the forest," Rose wrote. "In our mind we can still see the old fence that was built around the Dowler Mill field, and the long line of fence that was around the field where the Hoot-owl Tree stands.
"When our daughters were old enough they had play houses around the rail fence at the old garden. The circles of rocks still show where their make-believe houses once stood."
From her farm home on the 360 acre Alexander Farm near Bourbon--homesteaded by George W. Alexander and Mary Isgrigg Alexander in 1882-Rose moved backward in time and place in her essay. The rail fences on the Alexander Farm, "brought back a lot of memories of the old rail fences from the different places we once called home, as our Dad was a sharecropper, and we moved from one district to the other, and in those yesteryears most of the old-timers had their fields separated by the long, rail fences.
Rose closed out her rail fence essay with a 14-stanza verse written by her son David Dean Alexander of Safford, Arizona. Two of the stanzas follow:
When first I saw the field encircled
By this rustic fence of wood,
Told that it was built by Grandad
That we should hold it if we could.
But our efforts proved futile
The work of time was almost done
For as we tried to stop the forest
Rails fell now, one by one.
Like the essay on rail fences, all Rose's columns are filled with a medley of images, word pictures of life on an Ozarks farm. Her nostalgic portraits of an earlier, simpler life are pleasing to the reader because they have the melodious ring of lived-in truth. They trigger memories for people who never knew Rose Alexander, even memories for men and women who never experienced farm life. "Medicine for the soul" is Rose's characterization of the memories she captures in the written word.
Rose named her column "Dowler Mill" after a landmark at the boundary of the Alexander Farm, which is near the juncture of the Meramec River and Blue Springs Creek in Crawford County, Missouri. The farm is four miles from the village of Bourbon. Dowler Mill was a three-story, red, grist mill where nearby farmers had their grain ground into meal and flour. The mill was run by water power from the clear, fast-running Blue Springs Creek. Rose remembers Colonel Dowler, owner of the mill, for his work ethic.
"Colonel Dowler was always at work in his garden or fields when a neighbor drove up in a wagon with a sack of corn or grain," Rose remembers. "The old Colonel would put down his plow or pitchfork and go fill the customer's order. But he put the customer to work, too. Man, woman, or child, the old Colonel insisted that the customer go to the fields and continue the work he had been doing when interrupted.
"In those days, it was the kind of tit-for-tat that everybody expected. The farmer's grain got ground and the old Colonel's work got done and everybody went home happy."
Dowler Mill was later the name of a political district in the rolling, limestone hills of Crawford County. It was also the name of a one-room school. Dowler Mill School was the center of a rural community that was loosely identified as "Dowler Mill." Rose's husband, the late Roy Alexander, attended Dowler Mill School, as did his seven brothers and sisters. They were followed into the little schoolhouse at Dowler Mill by Roy and Rose Alexander's six children, who are known to Rose' s readers as "the Little People." In her column, husband Roy is "the Mister."
Rose's readers have been lucky in her editors. None has tried to edit or correct her copy. Her own writing style is pure Ozarks biscuits and gravy. It contributes flavor to her writing, just as redeye gravy enhances the taste of a plate of fried home-cured ham. Rose's schooling was in five one-room schools and the old, two-story brick school in Bourbon. Her father was a miner and sharecropper, and the family "traveled from place to place in a covered wagon." The itinerant life before her marriage was the reason Rose attended six schools until the day she was graduated from the eighth grade at Dowler Mill School.
"I think the school system back in those little, one-room country schools was just right for the times," Rose believes. "Children who completed the eighth grade had a working person's education. It fitted them for successful life on the farm or in town. When it came to Math (Arithmetic in those days) we pupils solved the problems on our own. We did not have machines to do the work.
"My Dad was a miner and a sharecropper. Well, mines petered out and crops failed. So we moved again and again, always searching for greener pastures. When I tell people about traveling by wagon from place to place, they say I must have had a hard childhood. But they are so wrong. It was the most exciting of all when Dad loaded up the covered wagon and hitched up the mules. Then we traveled on to the next lead and zinc mine or the next farm. For me, it was always an exciting journey to the next great adventure."
Rose, who was born October 20, 1900, in Cuba, Missouri, was a teenager during the first World War. In one of her columns, she recalled Red Cross fund-raising during "the war to end wars." (It should be noted that Rose, like many country folk, has an aversion to use of the pronoun 'T' because of its connotations of egoism. So Rose refers to herself in the columns by the plural "we." It is not the imperial "we" of European courts. It is the modest "we" of the Ozarks hills.)
"Many box suppers were held at the little country schools to raise money for the Red Cross," Rose wrote. "These box suppers and ice cream socials made we younger folk feel very patriotic. We girls all worked for hours on our boxes for the pie suppers, or for the old time box suppers...We baked a cocoanut cream pie to put in the pretty pink and yellow basket. We walked on Cloud Nine on the way home as the cocoanut cream pie in our pink and yellow basket brought more than five dollars, the most cash paid for any of the pies."
Rose recalled a square dance held for benefit of the Red Cross and "the soldier boys."
"Lloyd had invited us to go along with him in his pretty spring wagon that was hitched to a team of tan-colored mules. Our friends Winnie and James rode in the back seat of the spring wagon.
"Through the mists of memory of far over half a century ago we still enjoy reliving the beauty of the trip home from the dance. There was a half-moon hanging very low in the westem sky, there was stars all over heaven, and they seemed to be winking at all of us, including the tan span of mules who were being driven in a sweeping trot along the old Blue Spring Road.
"It was one o'clock in the morning when Lloyd drove our carryall into the barn lot. It was then that our beautiful coach turned back to a pumpkin."
But disaster was to strike. It was after midnight, far beyond the hour designated by Mom and Dad for Rose's return. That night, "The atmosphere was so thick it could be cut with a knife," Rose remembered. "Next morning we were still in the doghouse with the door closed tight. At breakfast, we were given the silent treatment. We felt like a man without a country.''
The reader moves on, anxious to learn how Rose got out of "the doghouse with the door closed tight." And how she was returned to the good graces of Mom and Dad is a small sermon on family values in the second decade of the twentieth century. Shortly before her spring wagon turned from coach to pumpkin, the traveling crew of a steam threshing machine "had rumbled across the Ozark hills, Rose remembered. "The threshers had left our place and there was a huge straw stack in the pasture.
"It was the time of year when our straw beds were emptied of the old straw and the ticks were washed on the old brass scrub-board with homemade soap before being filled with the new straw. Our Mother told us to take the clean straw tick to the straw stack and fill it with the shiny new straw. We were really happy to get away from our sourings, so we hurried to the straw stack before she could change her mind."
It may come with some perplexity to today's children--and to their parents--to learn that Rose knew she was to be forgiven her nightime trespass when her Mother instructed her to perform a task--a job of work, if you prefer--that benefited the entire Miller family ! Her delight in this good fortune led her to hurry out to the task before Mom "could change her mind."
Ozarks farmers are environmentalists by experience, although one might tramp the hills for months without hearing the word "environmentalist" from the mouth of a hill farmer. They gladly take advice from the County Agent, a friendly man from the county seat town who has learned a lot about modem farming at the state agriculture college. They look on him as a practical conservationist.
But the idea of farm practices being dictated by an organization of suit-wearing men with offices in New York, San Francisco and St. Louis would generate nothing but laughter on some of the rocky, hillside farms of the Ozarks. Rose Alexander' s description of spring burning is vivid enough to lead the Sierra Club to crank up a new, multi-million dollar fund-raising campaign to put an end to the practice.
"Back in those days, old-timers always chose the first warm day in late February to do some burning of 'growed-up fence rows' and piles of brash left from the winter wood chopping. The good part was that in those old yesterdays, country folk could bum the leaves off their land without fear of having someone hurrying to their place, asking questions about the fire. The country folk always kept a good watch on the fires and many times neighbors came to help in keeping the flames from spreading.
"Today, we seldom see signs of spring burning--and, for that reason, we can scarcely walk over our wooded acres because of the big families of ticks that seem to feel the acres are theirs alone. During the summer months we cannot visit the habitat of our Whippoorwills in Water-Hole Holler without finding our clothes covered with tiny seed ticks. When Grandpa Alexander lived here at the Old Homestead, he burned the woods off every spring time--before the sap began to rise, and the beloved hillsides were like a pretty green carpet."
It is one of Rose Alexander's writing talents that few events were isolated. There were always minor activities on the fringes of the main event. Here's Rose' s description of a spring burning when she was a child:
"We can remember hearing old-timers talking about getting the spring burning done before the March winds started howling across the hills and fields. We can still see the two big brash piles our Dad had near the place where he had been chopping wood for the stove. We were so happy when our Mother and Dad took us kids along to the wood cutting to watch the brush piles bum.
"Mother took along a pie she had made from the peaches she had dried on the roof of the shed where our Dad kept his tools. We still remember enjoying that dried peach pie as we watched the flames of the big brash pile reaching high into the air...
"It was later after the brash pile was burned that our Dad sowed tiny tobacco seed in the spot...and we can still see the tiny tobacco plants when they started coming out of the ground. Our Mother sowed lettuce on the spot where the other brush pile was burned. The burning of the brash pile took care of the plants being choked out by weeds."
Every farming practice--including spring burning--had a practical purpose. Most Ozark farmers who planted a small patch for a personal tobacco stash believed that tobacco plants grew best on ground where brash had burned.
One of the habit-forming delights of Rose' s es says is what they do not offer. The reader knows he is not going to be ambushed in mid-sentence by an appeal for some special agenda or interest group. To get Rose's opinion on a controversial subject, you will have to ask her. You won't find it in her columns. The raising of children is always a controversial subject. Here' s part of what Rose had to say in answer to a question: What aspects of pre-1940 farm life would benefit today's children?
"It would be good if they had to tumble out of bed extra early and milk a cow or two. Then, they could work an hour in the garden and carry in enough wood to keep the kitchen range going for the day. Give them an appetite for breakfast.
"After breakfast, they could walk to school." Rose was 16 years old when she met her future husband, Roy Alexander. Rose once described her first meeting with Roy.
"I was riding my mare 'Sadie,' driving calves to pasture. I met Roy and Edward Alexander and their dad, George Alexander, near the field where I was taking the calves. We were married on September 7, 1921 by Justice of the Peace C.O. Wainwright in Bourbon."
Roy and Rose raised a family of four boys and two girls on the Alexander farm. Rose keeps in close touch with the children---Max Alexander of Sullivan, Peggy Chenoweth of Sullivan, David Dean Alexander of Safford, Arizona, Curtis N. Alexander of Sullivan, Amy L. Brewington of St. Louis, and Berkley D. Alexander of Bourbon. She has 19 grandchildren, 44 great grandchildren, and seven great-great grandchildren. When they all get together for the annual Dowler Mill Reunion, the Alexanders outnumber most of the other families who attend the picnic-style homecoming.
Rose Alexander continues to write her "Dowler Mill" column and she continues to receive fan mail from all the states and overseas. Her readership is geographically widespread because many subscribers of the newspapers clip Rose's columns and mail them to friends and relatives who have moved from Missouri. As one homesick Californian put it in a letter:
"I never knew you, Rose. I never saw the Alexander Farm. But everything you write is like home. The way it was when I was growing up on a farm in the Ozarks."
Peggy Alexander Chenoweth of Sullivan, Missouri, contributed research and other assistance for this article. I cannot thank her enough for that generous help. It is interesting to note that David Dean Alexander and Peggy Chenoweth both write verse, as did their father, the late Roy Alexander. Peggy has also published stories about nature and animals. That's certainly a lot of writing talent for one family. But the Alexander children all say that Mom is their favorite writer.
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