Vol. VIII, No. 4, 1995


A Summer of Listening in the Boxley Valley

By Robert Flanders



In the summer of 1984 "Five School Teachers" from Springfield, Missouri, descended on the upper Buffalo country of Newton County, Arkansas, to do an oral history project. We were armed with tape recorders, note books, and much enthusiasm. We were Kristin Kalen, Kay Muman, Nancy Sneed, Bob Flanders, and Lynn Morrow. Our project was financed by a grant from the Eastern Parks and Monuments Association, a private organization whose funds assist the National Parks to accomplish things government funds do not provide for. We all were or had been teachers, so we did not fib. But we always introduced ourselves as teachers rather than National Park people. We didn't want to be confused with "the government," against which some folks retained hard feelings.

The result of our summer was a rich harvest of oral histories done with some fifty subjects. The recordings are now transcribed, edited, and in the oral history collections of the Center for Ozarks Studies at Southwest Missouri State University. The result was also one of the most enjoyable and exciting research projects any of us had experienced. Our hosts were wonderfully friendly, hospitable, and forthcoming. History -- expecially their own history -- is important to Ozarks people.

Newton County is contained entirely by the Boston Mountains. As might be expected, its people experienced relative isolation from the modem world longer and more extensively than other Ozarkers. Especially was this true of residents of the valleys of the upper Buffalo and their surrounding mountains.

Here are some samples from what we learned during our summer of listening.

Dexter Curtis

We were told by more than one person that we should be sure to talk to Dexter Curtis. How can we contact him? "Just go to the courthouse in Jasper and he'll be asettin' there waitin' for you." That seemed like somewhat casual directions; but as we approached the courthouse square, we saw a neatly dressed man in a dapper straw snap-brim hat placidly seated in a folding chair in the shade. "Dexter Curtis?" we asked. 'I' m the man!" he said. How come he was sitting there just when we arrived? "I always sit here," he said. "That way I'm easy to find."

We learned from Dexter Curtis the geographic refinements of place in the upper Buffalo country. "Three kinds of farms," he said. 'You've got your ridge farms, your bench farms, and your valley farms. All entirely different farming." The benches, he explained, are sloping shelves of land roughly half way between the ridge tops and the valley floor. Indeed, they are easy to see if you know to look. But they are no longer easy to reach because the roads are now either ridge or valley roads for the most part. Dexter Curtis grew up on his grandparents bench farm above Boxley Valley. "Roads ran along those benches then," he said. "Had a whole community there. Not easy to get up on top or down below. People lived out their lives on those benches." He explained that the soils were different from ridge to bench to valley, as were the microclimates. He took Lynn Morrow and me to the rain of his grandparents' log house, and the nearby cemetery where they are buried. "I remember roasting potatoes in that fireplace," he said, indicating the big firebox. It was faced with three huge stones - two uprights on either side, upon which rested a lintel stone, the largest of the three. It was decorated with hand-scratched lines in a harlequin pattern, the only one of its kind I had ever seen. "When I was a kid, my grandpa would let my uncles and me -- they were about my age -- stay up late of a frosty night and poke big sweet potatoes or Irish potatoes into coals under the fire. While they were roasting he'd tell us stories about his granddad in the Civil War and like that. And then we would go out to the smokehouse and cut us each a big chunk of ham, cut a little stick and sharpen it, then roast that ham over the coals. Then we'd dig out those potatoes, brush 'em off --boy, that's eatin !"

Curtis said his grandfather's family butchered one hog for every family member, sometimes as many as twelve. "And they was big hogs, too," he said. "They wanted that lard!" That would be as much as a net two hundred pounds of meat a month, or more than six pounds a day, 365 days a year. I heard once that the per capita consumption of pork in Arkansas is more than fifty times that of Massachusetts. I didn't take it seriously until I talked to Dexter Curtis.

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"I didn't taste beef or light bread until I was fifteen years old," he declared. (Light bread is the Ozarks term for yeast rising bread.) "Wanted a change of scenery, so I took off walking. Seventy five miles or so, on down to the Arkansas River. Summertime, boy was it hot! And the roads were not great either. I took a sack full of bacon and biscuits; but they ran out long before I got there. It was a Sunday afternoon, and a German farmer said he'd give me a job. Had a boy about my age. Took me home with 'em. They had a real good valley farm. His woman could see I was near starved, and she gave me a big roast beef sandwich, big slices of that white bread, and all the milk I could drink. I didn't know what it was [the white bread], but I was so hungry I didn't care. Boy! I was in for a surprise. It was real good!"

"Didn't people bake light bread?" I asked. "I guess some did; but my folks never did. Maybe they didn't know how. It was a lot of trouble. Anyway, we liked our own -- biscuits for breakfast and cornbread the rest of the time. Took biscuits to school for lunch, with ham or bacon, and molasses and biscuits, and pie --fruit pie. Now the women baked lots of pies. Apple, pear, plum, chess pies, molasses pies. Sweetened 'em with honey, too. Made them lard crusts. Only way to make a pie !"

The last time we saw Dexter Curtis, he was sitting on the lawn of the courthouse, in the shade, expecting company.

Modern Farm in Boxley
People recommended we talk to Gertrude Studyvin because she was so old -- 92, it turned out. People seem to think the best qualification for being an oral history subject is advanced years. In the Ozarks, memory has often been the chief resource people depend upon for history. If no one remembers it, how could you know what happened? (Once, in another Ozarks county--Missouri this time--I asked a group I was with when the county was organized-- 1857, I later learned. One person looked at another; then all turned to the oldest person present. Did she remember? No. On such an obscure question if the oldest person didn't know, an answer just might be unobtainable.)

I interviewed Mrs. Studyvin in her home, a log house south of Compton where she had resided most of her adult life. A granddaughter lived in as a companion. I saw Mrs. Studyvin three times over a period of months. The first time she addressed me as "Sir." The second time it was "Son," and the last time, "Honey."

Gertrude Studyvin had a superb memory for detail. I have always been dubious about "photographic memory;" but Mrs. Studyvin came close. She was able to describe in minute detail not only the interiors of the house she lived in as a child, but of houses she visited.

I asked about her grandmothers. How did they dress? How did they cook and keep house? What did they wear? Did they smoke? And so on.

Her grandmothers were born in Virginia and Tennessee before the Civil War. Like many of their generation, they went west after that war. Both were always barefoot, she said, save in the coldest weather. They wore dresses to the ankle, and several petticoats. They always wore aprons at home. "They were very neat and clean," she said. "They were particular about themselves."

Her grandparents grew their own tobacco. "I've helped my granddaddy with that many a time. But we didn't grow it like they do in Kentucky. My! Have you ever seen them fields they have of it?" The men chewed. Only her grandmothers smoked. "Little pipes, you know those little clay pipes? They'd have a pocket in their dress, keep that little pipe and a bit of tobacco there. To light it they'd take a coal from the fireplace, lay it right on that." She said one of her grandfathers was a trader, and traveled a lot. When he came back, he always brought a new stock of pipes. They were fragile, and didn't last long.

I asked how her grandmothers kept their yards.

"Every morning when the porch was swept, they swept the yard with a broom. I've swept it many a time. Where grass grew, they didn't. But next to the house was wide places bare of grass. It was a tradition to sweep that yard." Chickens were usually allowed in the yard, but not in the garden, which was fenced to keep them and other stock out. "But not everybody," she said. "Some farms, the chickens just ran all over the place."

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Talking about grass brought up the subject of range fires. Were they ever threatened by range fires? "Oh yes!" she said. "Lots of times. All the neighbors would get rakes, water buckets, whatever. One time it nearly got our orchard fence. People set back fires against them, set a little fire to go meet the big fire. It was the only way. You couldn't get enough help to fight them big range fires."

How did her grandmothers cook? "Well, she said, "they cooked in the fireplace." A principal utensil was a big cast iron skillet with a rimmed edge and a big lid. Cornbread batter was put in, the lid put on, and the skillet put down in the coals. More coals were heaped on the lid, and it "baked up good." On the subject of food, she said, "Now in them days and times they thought if they didn't have hog meat they was gonna starve to death. Now, they did!" Cornbread and potatoes were everyday staples too, along with beans and fruit. "Lots of fruit, of all kinds. Everybody had a world of fruit and they dried it and canned it. My aunt even dried blackberries. She lived where there was a world of blackberries and she spread out a big white cloth on top of the house and put her berries up there to dry. Now that's the truth children, if I was adyin' !" Appreciative laughter followed that remark.

She went on to say that a grandfather fashioned a "dry kiln" out of rocks, sticks, and mud that could be fired to dry fruit, particularly peaches and apples. They were dried in sufficient quantity to sell to stores in Harrison. "Lands of mercy, you could dry a lot in a day !"

When I bid goodbye to Gertrude Studyvin, we embraced with genuine affection. When I inquired about her a few months later, I learned she had died.

If I had to choose the one among many who taught me the most about life on the Old Ozarks Frontier, I might well choose Rudolph Crouse. Born in the high mountains of Wise County, Virginia, about 1900, he came to the Ozarks after World War I. The great virgin yellow poplar in Virginia stands were being cut, and the wilderness, along with the frontier way of life, would soon be gone forever. "So I came out here to the Buffalo River Country, where the land was still new."

Among many subjects we discussed, two of the most interesting were dogs and stock drives.

I asked him what kinds of dogs people had. 'Well," he said, "black and tans, and red bones. And crosses.

When a family was out in the woods, lived out there, them hounds was dangerous as a bunch of lions. Strangers didn't come prowling around. Hounds were hard to handle." Were their dogs faithful to their families? "You bet your life!" he explained. "Children, they'd protect 'em, wouldn't back away from man nor beast." And, he assured us, the woods were full of beasts, "wolves, bobcats -- everything else."

Dogs were not "very domestic," as he put it. "You had to hit 'em with a club. They wasn't toys to play with. Them dogs was husky." But they were essential to the lives of people -- as valuable as horses, mules, or cattle. "They were absolutely essential to your living. People took good care of them, and trained them to "mind to a word."

Not withstanding their value, people often gave each other good pups. His best dog, he said, was given to him, a big black and tan shepherd. Then he abruptly changed the subject to fleas -- certainly an important subject for all dog owners in the Ozarks.

"Now, you had to have a sheepskin for your dog, sheep fleece. A dog that sleeps on a fleece will never have fleas. A flea that crawls off a dog down into that feece, he stays there. No way of getting out. Fleas has jaggers [sic] on their legs where he jumps, you know. Gets stuck down in there, never comes out.

"A pup, you have to learn him not to tear up that fleece. Dogs are smart. You beat him one time when you find him chewing on it, you'll learn him not to do it again."

What about house dogs, or yard dogs? "Cur dogs. We called 'em cur dogs. They guarded the place. When you rode up to a man's house, you stop at that fence out there, or those dogs will stop you!" Children were taught to respect the yard space of people's houses. No one challenged the cur dogs. You called out the house, and when someone spoke a word to the dogs, you could pass. "And those cur dogs took care of small children too. You could leave small kids with 'em, they'd be okay. Cur dogs was valuable to a family. Everybody had 'em."

Boxley Community Building.

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Plowing the garden the old way.

When we asked Mr. Crouse about herd dogs, he began to tell us about stock drives.

The Buffalo River Country is and always has been stock country, like much of the Ozarks. Before trucks were common, he said, most stock was driven north out of the valley over the mountains to the North Arkansas Railroad, places like Green Forest and Harrison.

Though "long drives" on the High Plains, like those from Texas to Kansas, are best known in the lore of the Old West, stock drives have occurred throughout American history, in all parts of the country. Such drives continued longer in the stock regions of the upper South, including the Ozarks, because railroads never penetrated many of the particularly isolated places. The Upper Buffalo was a good example.

Rudolph Crouse had worked many such drives. "Down in that Boxley Valley, that was about all they done, raised cattle. So many cattle -- I've seen the valley flooded from end to end many a time. I'll bet a thousand cattle washed out of there since I've been in this country !"

But, he said, "They wanted to farm that land too, crop it; so in the spring of the year they drove their cattle up on the mountain, where they stayed the summer. And they didn't come back -- least ways not on their own. They had to be rounded up." I had never before imagined a mountainside roundup, but that's what transpired every year. A man named Austin Harrison from Jasper contracted the roundup, and he was paid fifteen cents a head to corral the cattle. Three or four good horsemen could do the roundup.

"Them cattle was hard to round up," he said. "You work your tail off --had to break 'em to the rope, get em off their home range, over onto the road.

Couldn't drive 'em through the woods. They'd just spread out on you and get away. Had to have at least a trail. There was old county roads, maybe just a one-track trail."

Buyers came to the corrals, and bought there. "Three or four thousand dollars. They brought cash, but they didn't flash it around much." The buyers were usually from Springfield, St. Louis, and Joplin. Then the drive to the railroad took place. "A hundred to a hundred-fifty head, that was a good drive. Once I remember over two hundred.''

Crouse turned to hog drives, upon which subject he had stories to tell.

"You couldn't mix hogs with anything -- mules, horses, cattle. Hogs is the most complicated driving you ever done." Hogs would run off the road, sideways, backwards, stop, dart ahead. They spooked, they squealed. Crouse didn't think much of hogs on the drive. "One fella decided he'd tape their eyes, maybe that'd help. Got some rolls of tape, wrestled 'em down, and ran that tape around their heads. By the time he got ten or twelve taped, course the first ones had the tape off. He wasn't happy. He musta been desperate. But a fella would try almost anything, drivin' hogs."

One technique was to "hurry 'em up to fag 'em out." They were easier to handle when fatigued. "Get the sap out of 'em a little." But when too hot and tired, they would simply lie down in the road and not get up. Anticipating this, a couple of ambulance wagons would bring up the rear. "Then just throw them pooped out hogs on there. Two men throw an arm under his belly and grab his ears. Heave him up there, let 'em ride and rest. After while they could go again. Just keep doing that way the whole drive, take some out, put some more in." Picking up all those hogs and lifting them onto the wagons was hot, heavy work. "Drivin' hogs is not for the weak and faint," he said.

We asked if stock ever died on drives. Seldom, he said; but then he told a story of an instance where several died. Seems a big, cold spring flowed across the line of march. One driver said, "Go 'round that spring, it's too cold!" The other said no, the dip would cool the hogs off. So in they plunged. "Now when them fat hogs got in that water, they just laid down in that. Boy they was hot, and they just laid down dead. Never got up. Had to drag 'em out with ropes. Killed 'em dead as if you knocked 'em in the head!"

And, concluded Crouse, "We drove ducks and geese and turkeys, too!"

As the "Five School Teachers" left the Buffalo River country after the summer of listening, we all realized we had heard probably the last of the last of those who had actually lived on the long-persisting Old Ozarks Frontier, before the touch of the modern world swept it irrevocably away.

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