Vol. IX, No. 1, 1996


"What Do You Do For a Living?"

by Robert Gilmore



Used to be, when you came across somebody you hadn't met before, one of the first questions that worked its way into the conversation was, "What do you do for a living?" To know a person, you had to know about him--where he lived, who his family was, and how he made his livelihood.

Early on, people made a living in the Ozarks primarily from the land itself fishing, trapping, and hunting, later farming and timbering. As the population increased and communities grew so did the need for individuals providing more specialized services--milling, black smithing, store keeping, school teaching, doctoring, lawyering, and the like.

Censuses taken in a township in southern Stone County, Missouri, in 1880 and 1890 showed the occupations of heads of households. Not surprisingly, the majority of people living in this rugged country south of the White River reported farming or farm labor as the way they made a living. The next largest category of occupations involved timber-related jobs: wood chopper, sawmill man, lumber sawyer, and tie hacker. Others identified themselves as river raftsman, mail carrier, stock dealer, blacksmith, school teacher, and fruit farm operator. The occupation of "moonshiner" did not appear anywhere in the census report, although one man said he was a distiller. He had come to the Ozarks from Kentucky.

In the 1900 census, a number of young women were listed as "servant," but one person identifying herself by that title was a 67-year old mother of 11 children. I'm tempted to believe this lady was having a particularly tough day--trying to make the beds, clean the house, do the washing, snap the beans, fix dinner for the threshers, feed the chickens, look in on a sick neighbor, patch the overalls, dam the socks, and finish her other chores. Into the midst of this maelstrom came the census taker. "Your occupation?" Poised to record the expected answer, "housewife," the census taker was probably taken aback when the subject snapped back, "I'm a servant," expressing, in a rare moment of candor, how she really felt about her role.

By 1920, farm occupations still predominated, but also on the census list were non-agricultural titles: merchant, violin maker, farmer-dry goods, salesman dry goods, minister, and even physician. This part of the Ozarks was becoming a community, growing up, becoming more specialized, and providing people broader opportunities for making a living. And what was happening in southern Stone County was happening throughout the Ozarks, and continues to this day.

What people do for a living is still important to us. We are genuinely interested in a person's skills, interests, and abilities. And in today's Ozarks are to be found an amazing variety of ways of making a living. During the past several months I have been talking to a number of people, and in effect asking them, "What do you do for a living?" I have found a great variety of answers. Here are some of them.

Gene Turney, Woodworker

Gene Turney works in wood. That, of course, is a very traditional Ozarks occupation. People have hacked ties, built houses, cabinets, and furniture, carved figures for sale to tourists, and have found a variety of other ways to make use of the oak, hickory, maple, walnut and pine timber that still covers our hills.

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At his shop, the Quilting Bee, in Omaha, Arkansas, Gene now specializes in quilting hoops. He's been in woodworking for over 50 years, beginning with shop classes in high school, and progressing through a variety of work experiences. He was a pattern maker in the Navy, worked with the family business in Harrison manufacturing and installing church furniture, making architectural millwork, and building specialized components like columns and circular staircases.

After a heart attack and triple bypass surgery, Gene's doctor told him to find lighter work. He then teamed up with a friend, Mel Pollack, who has a shop in Harrison. Mel makes the bases for the stands, and Gene fabricates the hoops. Since Gene's shop is right on highway 65, their work is displayed there.

Gene laminates his own hardwood and bends the hoops himself in his shop which is crammed full of machinery. His equipment is nothing very esoteric-saws, routers, sanders, drills-about what you'd find in any home shop, only more of them.

I've got probably 22 small machines out here and a lot of portable equipment, and once I get set up on something I pretty well just go on one machine to the next. When you work by yourself, you don't clean up too often. You climb over everything until you can't stand it, then you'll take a day out or two and clean up.

Their marketing consists mainly of going to quilting shows, and by word of mouth. But that pays off. They have to be careful though, and not schedule too many shows too close together. If they sell everything they have made at one show, they need time to come home and make more before heading out for the next show.

The oak, walnut and cherry quilt stands that Gene makes are beautifully, I would say lovingly, crafted and finished. Hand made wooden screw knobs hold the pieces of the stand together and permit a variety of adjustments. It's such a good looking piece of woodcraft, it's a shame to cover it up by putting a quilt in it.

Lefty Evans, Well Driller

About everywhere you drive in the Ozarks you see water wells being drilled. New homes, new golf courses, new condos, new trailer parks. Lefty Evans of Crane, in Stone County, Missouri, has been drilling wells for over 30 years. I asked him how well drilling technology has changed in that time. He laughed.

The first drill rig that I purchased was a used machine, and I think, brand new it was around $70,000. And I could expect, on a good day with that, to average around 200 feet a day. I purchased two new machines in the past three years, and they were well over $400,000 apiece, and out of each one of these machines I can expect five to six hundred feet a day. That's really speeded things up for us, you know.

I was pretty sure Lefty didn't wander around with a forked willow branch to find water. But I did wonder how he knew just where to locate one of his expensive drilling rigs.

The safest place to assume to drill a well is on the high side of your property, and on the levelest part of you can find. You take old well drillers, they can pretty well just look at the ground, about what to expect, and a lot of times it usually plays out just by observing, you know.

The average well Lefty drills is about 600 feet. That gets him down to his main source of water, the Jefferson formation. But there's not an endless supply of water down there. Lefty has seen the water drop in the southern end of Stone county well over a hundred feet in the past ten years. "We just keep going deeper and deeper all the time," he said. "I've probably redrilled eight or ten wells in the past year that I had drilled in the late 60s and early 70s that have gone dry."

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Does this mean we're running out of water in our underground water table? I asked him. No one really knows, he replied, because no one knows just how much is there, or how long it's going to last. One thing is certain, though. "The demand is going to have to be eased up. We can't continue the way we're going and maintain a pure water supply for everyone."

The average household uses about 300 gallons of water a day, Lefty says, not counting watering lawns, gardens, and that type of thing. A motel, though, might use 10-15,000 gallons of water a day or more. And cities, of course, use several million gallons a day. If that's all drawn from our underground aquifers, Lefty worries, it's not being replenished nearly as fast as we're taking it out.

Lefty Evans is a friendly, hearty fellow who's making a good living drilling, and redrilling, wells throughout the Ozarks. He can joke and tell stories with the best of the good old boys. But he is plainly worried about our water supply. "It's a problem we need to address real quickly," he says, turning solemn, "because it's closer to being a serious problem than most people want to realize."

Suzann Ledbetter, Writer

I asked my stock question, "What do you do for a living?"

"I'm a writer," came the quick reply. "I'm not an author. John Grisham is an author. You've got to make a lot of money to call yourself an author."

Writer, author, whatever--the fact is that Suzann Ledbetter is working full time out of her Nixa, Missouri home, putting words on paper, and being paid for it. "I've been a writer all my life," she says, "but I just started getting money for it about 10 years ago."

Her writing takes many forms--humor, biography, western fiction. She is a contributing editor for Family Circle Magazine, writing a regular column of humor. It was a collection of her columns under the title The Toast Always Lands Jelly-Side Down, that landed her on the Today show in 1993 for an interview with Katie Couric. Another book of humor, I Have Everything I Had Twenty Years Ago, Except It ~ All Lower, was published in 1995.

Suzann says she is still amazed that she can string a few sentences together, and when she reads them back, they sound OK. They apparently sound OK to other people as well. Two years ago she received the Spur Award for Short Non-Fiction from the Western Writers of America for her biography Nellie Cashman, Prospector and Trailblazer. "That was a major honor," Suzann said. "I didn't even know Western Writers of America existed until a bunch of us from the Ozarks went to Jackson, Wyoming to see Jory Sherman [from Branson, Missouri], receive his award. And be darned if two years later Jory wasn't seated at the table watching me receive mine."

Her latest book is a novel, Trinity Strike, and was published in January, 1996. It is based on the life of Nellie Cashman, the subject of her Spur-winning biography. There are movie options on both the novel and the biography, but Suzann isn't planning her Oscar acceptance speech yet. "You might as well go to Quik Trip and buy a lottery ticket. Lots of things get optioned but very few get made. But it's pretty exciting, anyway !"

Isn't it difficult, trying to make a living as a writer from a small town in the Ozarks? It's becoming less important to live in the publishing centers, Suzann says. She has an agent on the west coast to look after the movie options, an agent for her literary dealings, and an agent to arrange her speaking engagements. She uses the fax and the long distance phone a lot. There are many writers in the Ozarks, she points out, "and you can be as isolated as you want to be and as social as you want to be."

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Joe O'Neal, Cattleman

Joe O'Neal lives in Douglas County, Missouri, at Topaz, a name not found on today's road maps. Going to Topaz today is, to say the least, to get off the beaten path. You take a county road for a while until the blacktop ends, then keep going on the gravel and dirt road for a mile or two, bearing right until you reach the North Fork River, and Joe's farm.
Meet Joe in a cafe, over a cup of coffee, ask him what he does for a living, and he'll probably tell you he farms and raises cattle. Unless you ask, he might not mention that he is also restoring a hundred-year-old grist mill and a general store.

There were lots of mills in the Ozarks, because of the many springs and free flowing streams which provided an ample source of water power. Also, because the rugged landscape made it difficult to get around in the Ozarks, mills tended to be built closer together, so a farmer wouldn't have to travel quite so far with his corn and wheat.

"Going to mill" was both a necessity and a pleasure. Farmers needed to take in their corn and wheat and oats to have it ground into cornmeal and flour for their own use, and into feed for their livestock. But they would often bring the wife and kids along, and while they were waiting their turn at the mill, the whole family would visit with seldom-seen friends, catch up on news, fish in the mill pond, pitch horseshoes, exchange recipes, and just in general enjoy a break from their usual hardworking and lonely existence.

When the Topaz mill was first built, it was not as isolated as it is now. Joe O'Neal explains that the hamlet of Topaz was a trading center for a 20-mile area. The mill builder and owner, a man named Robartus Hutcheson, also built a cannery and a blacksmith shop. There was a post office in the store, and a barbershop in a small shed room of the mill itself. Hutcheson died before he could complete plans to build a bank.

Although the mill is on the banks of the upper North Fork river, it is powered by water from a spring which produces about 8-10 million gallons per day. Hutcheson built a dam and created a spring-fed mill pond. A flume then directed the water from the mill pond to turn the turbine which powered the machinery.

The watermills of the Ozarks, and the hamlets that grew up around them, are part of our heritage. Without people like Joe O'Neal they're going to be gone. When I asked Joe, farmer and stockman, why he was working so hard to restore his mill at Topaz, he sounded surprised that I should have to ask. "It's just something I'd like for the future generations to be able to see down the line somewhere."

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Darrell Testerman, Conservation Agent

Darrell Testerman has worked for the Missouri Department of Conservation for 33 years--23 of these in Taney County as a conservation agent. But he's recently taken on a modest sideline. He's renting some pasture out east of Branson where he's feeding seven head of buffalo-six heifers and a bull.

When I went out with Darrell to see the animals, I was surprised that they weren't very big. They're all young, he told me, only about a year and a half old. They live longer than cattle and get started a little slower. An average full grown cow will weigh in at about a thousand to twelve hundred pounds, and a bull up to a ton.

I asked how raising buffalo compared with raising beef cattle. Extra heavy fencing is required, Darrell said. As they get older they turn into "fur covered bulldozers." Normal cattle panels won't hold them.

I was surprised to learn, therefore, that buffalo don't take as much feed as beef cattle. "They eat like a third what cattle do out on the range," Darrell told me.

They'll eat a poorer quality of grass, and some of the weeds that cattle won't eat. I've seen 'em stand and chew up dry leaves and they weren't that desperate for anything to eat. They were standing in green grass chewing on an old sycamore leaf.

Buffalo meat is delicious, I've been told. Tastes like a great piece of beef steak, though perhaps a little sweeter. Something that tastes that good must be bad for you, right? Not so, says Darrell. Buffalo meat is very nutritious. It has 35% more protein than beef, very little fat, and the cholesterol rating is lower than skinless chicken.

You can't normally find buffalo meat stocked at your local supermarket, so it needs to be ordered by mail. And it gets pretty pricey. One catalogue I looked at listed buffalo tenderloins at $40 per pound. Buffalo burgers, more in my category anyway, could be had for only about $11 per pound.

Why is buffalo meat so expensive? Right now, the demand for buffalo meat far outweighs the supply-a situation Darrell hopes to help correct as his herd grows and he starts marketing his animals.

So, what do you do for a living?

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