Vol. IX, No. 1, 1996


What is Work For?

Donald R. Holliday


"We don't have to dig our 'taters. We just cut the ends off the rows and they roll out."

"I cain't grow punkins on my land. I tried once, but the vines did so well they filled up the valley plumb level with the ridge tops so it looked like prairie, and the cows couldn't get down to the creek. There weren't no punkins though, cause the vines grew so fast they wore the punkins plumb out draggin' 'em over the ground."

"My taters got so big, travelers reported the hills was Indian mounds and conservationists and perfessers brought in crews to excavate 'em."

"A tie hacker was batching in a little four-by-six foot shack surrounded by jimpson weeds beside the road to Fifty-six. A stranger road up one day and stopped and looked around. 'What do you do for a living?' the stranger asked. 'I keep tavern,' the tie-hacker said, contemptuous."


Readers whose hands and minds were shaped by farming among Ozarks rocks on Ozarks hillsides will recognize that these abbreviated anecdotes deal with one subject--how difficult it can be to get a living in the Ozarks and the long odds--I won't say impossibility--that strangers will ever readily understand Ozarks life. With the first two, and countless stories like them, Ozarkers entertain each other with the vast contrast between hard reality and the edenic ease so fertile in the imagination. The third one begins with the same contrast--and ends up observing what would likely happen if a good crop ever comes. The fourth simply observes that the stranger is blind--if being unable to see is blindness.

In approaching the subject of Making a Living in the Ozarks, the editors are aware of how easy that subject is--and how difficult. It is easy because Ozarkers do the things people do everywhere--they farm, harvest, process, mine, manufacture (from tourist trinketry to rocket guidance), trade, speculate, teach, doctor, entertain, and experiment with new ways for old things--in villages, towns, and cities along three interstate highways and scores of federal and state highways.

The editors are also aware of how difficult the subject is. For one thing, the Ozarks is physically large and diverse. The region stretches from Saint Louis County in Missouri almost to Tulsa in Oklahoma, from the Missouri to the Arkansas Rivers, and it consists of prairies, plateaus, alluvial valleys, deep loessial soils, and ridgetops and hillsides.

For another thing, perceptions get in the way. The image of a stereotypical hillbilly as a lout who prefers to have nothing to working has loomed large in perceptions of the Ozarks--an image still projected by various media, especially some touting Ozarks tourism. The truth is--there is a grain of truth in the stereotype, not that Ozarkers prefer to have nothing to working, but that they prefer to measure very carefully what they do for what they get. That involves the very meaning of work itself, and of living.

To traditionally rural Ozarkers, the quality of the making always had to be measured against the quality of the living, and Ozarks sons and daughters have inherited that trait in large measure. In this issue, Robert Gilmore offers glimpses of a variety of Ozarkers for whom living has become a career: woodworker, writer, cattleman, conservationist-buffalo experimenter, well driller-philosopher. Nancy Averett and Robert McCall show us representatives of a common pattern among Ozarks populations: people living where and how they want to, and working to provide necessities or amenities as they wish--or not. In these examples, the Ozarkers' dream is not of material success, but of peace, serenity, simplicity, and independence--both to be what they wish to be and from what they don't wish to be.

Less traditional Ozarkers have pursued mainstream American dreams. Robert Flanders' examination of a large-scale market orchardist exemplifies one Ozarker, among many, working for success as Americans almost everywhere have always done. "Hollister-on-The-White-River" demonstrates not the work of an individual, but of a town during one of the earlier waves of Ozarks development, a town pursuing a large dream.

Finally, R.B. Mullinix examines, in a continuation of the story of his brother Hog's return from Korea, the complex interplay of identity, work, and life. The story dramatizes how time and events almost demand that the Ozarks move out of her past, with or without clear direction, into her furore--not necessarily a better one--nor worse.

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