Vol. VIII, No. 2, 1995



Introducing Thelma and Hosea Bilyeu

by Robert Flanders




Hosea did more than quote scripture,"Thelma said, indicating her husband." He recited a whole chapter!"

The subject was the Bilyeu's participation in the most recent "homecoming" at the Lone Star Church in rural Taney County, Missouri. The annual homecoming is the only regular service held there now.

"What chapter?" "The fifty-fifth of Isaiah," said Hosea Bilyeu (Ho-zee Buh-loo.) He leaned back in a big chair and smiled his characteristic cherubic smile. "Would you like to hear it?"

Very much, I said.

"Hosea is the storyteller," Thelma said. I hadn't heard him speak much before. He has a bad heart now, and can't exert himself.

Why do you spend money for what is not bread
And your wages for what does not satisfy ?
Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good.
And let your soul delight itself in abundance ....

The sonorous tenor voice rolled on, wonderful and unforgettable, in an accent closer to that of King James's own faithful than to the accents of today. "Growing up, I knew nothing of the Bible," Hosea concluded. "Now I know a lot of it."
We sat down to a lunch of chicken and dumplings, home canned green beans, stewed field peas, biscuits and sorghum molasses ("Now, those are like the molasses I used to make," said Hosea), The Bilyeus comprise a considerable clan in Christian, Taney, and Stone Counties.l Hosea was one of eight children, seven of them boys; and his father was not the only Bilyeu of his generation. Bilyeu is one of several French surnames in the Ozarks (e.g. Amonette, Bartee, Villines), probably descended from Protestant Huguenot refugees to America in the eighteenth century.

Thelma and Hosea Bilyeu, 1993

Thelma and Hosea Bilyeu live in Ozark, the seat of Christian County, Missouri. Hosea was born in Christian County in 1909; Thelma six years later a few miles away in adjoining Taney County. Though they have lived many places, a circle 20 miles in diameter would bound them all. Seven of their nine children grew to adulthood. They and their spouses include a notable number or educators and musicians; one is a minister. At this writing Thelma and Hosea are in their sixty-second year of marriage.

Thelma Bilyeu is a highly literate, even a literary, woman. Unpretentious to a fault, she has the ability--unachieved by many would-be writers--to put down sentences that clearly set a scene, propel a narrative, convey an emotion. As Hosea is a storyteller, so Thelma is a story writer.

Her life story is a fine human document, replete with the small dramas, the common joys and sorrows, known to us all. It succeeds in gaining our attention and engaging our imaginations on this level alone. Beyond its personal character, however, it is an historical document, chronicling the course of modernization in the twentieth century Ozarks.

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Born December 10, 1915, in remote Clausen Hollow, off Bull Creek in northwest Taney County, she grew up as great changes were transpiring. In 1906, the railroad had arrived on the banks of' White River at Branson, some twelve air miles to the southwest. In 1907 Harold Bell Wright wrote The Shepherd of the Hills there, a volume that would reveal the Ozarks to millions. In 1913, Powersite Dam on White River at Forsyth impounded Lake Taneycomo, probably the first major artificial reservoir in the Midwest. Its warm waters and abundant fish spawned a new tourist industry, including the resort town of Rockaway Beach, only a few miles from Thelma's home. She began high school there.

But Rockaway had only a Job School, a two year, ninth and tenth grade arrangement (named for a State Representative Job, who introduced the enabling legislation). So she went to live with other relatives in order to complete high school at the village of Spokane, a few miles away in adjoining Christian County. The route from her birthplace in Clausen Hollow up Bull Creek, up Dry Hollow, up onto and along Chestnutridge to Spokane, marked much of the geography of her life for fifty years. The socio-economic and cultural route she followed into the modern world was the route of learning and teaching. Thelma became, for her place and time, a professional woman. She knew how to read before she entered school. She persevered in her schooling, graduating high school in the spring of 1933 at age 18. That same fall, she began to teach, and married Hosea Bilyeu as well.

In succeeding years, including the years of drought and depression, she struggled to balance the duties of wife and mother with the call to teach and with the family's need for a teacher's income, however meager.

In the decade of the 1940's the Bilyeus began to achieve a modicum of a middle class lifestyle, like so many other Ozarks people. A house of their own, a car, better health care, a few of the other amenities of modernity, marked for them the Great Ozarks Change in this century. The cycle of change was completed with the education of the children, and their passage into urban, professional life. A special completion for Thelma was graduation from college at age fifty-two.

Thelma Keithley Bilyeu's reminiscence was written in 1993 for her children and grandchildren, and "so that future generations might learn about their forebears." The manuscript came to OzarksWatch in the fall of 1994. The editors quickly decided that it merited an entire issue, if Mrs. Bilyeu were willing. She was, and graciously offered to cooperate in any way she could. Consequently we conducted a series of oral history interviews with her from November 1994, to January 1995. The interviews provide the second major element of this issue.

The family remains close. To mark Thelma and Hosea's sixty-first wedding anniversary, the children and grandchildren took them back down to the old places along Bull Creek, now almost inaccessible, where Thelma's life began.

Thanks to Tim Dix and Andy Bettman of St. Louis, and to Professor Robert Beckett of the SMSU Department of English, through whose interest and good offices the manuscript reached OzarksWatch.

Thelma and Hosea's sixty-first anniversary at home in Ozark, 1993. Front, left to right: Hosea Jr, and Buddy. Thelma and Hosea, center. Rear, left to right: Barbara, Gay Lea, Bob and Anita.

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