Vol. IX, No. 2, 1996


The Places We Call Home

Ozarks Dwelling

by Robert Flanders



Dwelling, verb participle; abiding as a permanent resident; having a habitation in a place for some time or permanently; continuing.

Dwelling, noun: the act of dwelling; the place where one dwells, as a house.

When I came to the Ozarks twenty years ago, perhaps the first things in the rural landscape the view from the road that caught my attention were houses. They were different from the farmhouses of the upper midwest where I came from. How they were different took me a long time to discern. Indeed, that differentness has become the subject of years of observation and study, and that differentness of Ozarks houses has since become familiar to me. I now understand that many of them are "Southern." Still, our mix of elements and characteristics are somewhat distinctive. Ozarks dwelling has its own "look."

That look includes the following: Ozarks houses seem to be home-made, made by owner-dwellers, more often than in the North. And the "home-made" process continues. The houses may possess so many additions that the original building is almost lost to view. Houses at a distance from the road are often oriented to some natural feature: a creek, a slope, southward toward the winter sun, or, perhaps, to nothing that is apparent. They are not oriented four square to the rectangle of the farm, the section comer, or the geometry of the land survey. By contrast, squared-up, cardinal-points orientation is virtually universal in the Upper Midwest countryside, across a thousand miles of farms from Ohio to Nebraska.

Ozarks houses, especially older ones, seem to belong to no discernible architectural style, not even "farm-house style," as it might be called in the North. The ubiquitous tall, white-painted farmhouses of the Midwest are seldom to be seen here. They are so prevalent across Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa that they have been named "I-Houses:" two stories, centered front door in the middle of the long side flanked by windows all neatly symmetrical as you face them. I-Houses are seldom seen in the Ozarks
More often, older Ozarks houses have only one room, or two side by side, without a central door hallway. The two-front-room Ozarks houses have two front doors side by side, one into each room. These two front door houses, widespread across the Ozarks, I call "double pen mirror image," i.e., two room units presenting a symmetrical window-door, door-window arrangement when viewed from the front.

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Ozarks houses, or"houseplaces" (houseplace connotes the site as well as the building) often seem, well, chaotic. They are messy, evoking old stereotypes of careless, indifferent hillbillies. Such houseplaces are probably fewer nowadays; but anyone who has traveled through the pin-neat Wisconsin countryside or other upper Midwest states would recognize by contrast that distinctive "Ozarks look." The old Gaelic word for the condition was clarty. Clartiness is the opposite of neatness. "The maere clarty, the maere cozy," went the old saying. Scotch-Irish roots are apparent in the Ozarks landscape.

Front porches are practically universal. Porches are a part of the Southern building vernacular, a utilitarian outside "room," of which the yard is a natural extension. They may be furnished with old sofas, straight-backed hickory chairs, washing machines, refrigerators, fiats of garden sets in spring, flower boxes in summer, gourds, pumpkins and strings of drying hot peppers in fall, and dogs, cats, and folks in all good weather. Old, worn-out generations of Maytag or Speed Queen washers, retired from the porches, may repose in the yard, as decorative planters. Refrigerators the same, handy maybe for storage, and easier left there than hauled off. The castoffs of modernity are not biodegradable, like the trash and garbage of ancient Ozarks ancestors for whom the yard was, among many other uses, the disposal place.

"Many other uses" is a key to the look of the Ozarks landscape. As tools, containers, plumbing fixtures, vehicles, spare parts, and other appurtenances of modernity collect in rural yards, they remain handy, out in the open. A prodigious assortment may accumulate over time. (In the want ads recently I read the following: "1953 Chevy front end. Priced right or will trade.") In one neighborhood I visited, the best house, dwelling of a hard working and affluent family, had a wide-spreading front yard of perhaps two acres, closely spread with machinery, equipment, and vehicles of every description. I set myself to count the major items, but lost track somewhere over a hundred.

The appearance of many Ozarks houseplaces, whether neat or clarty, speaks of utility more than gentility, of work and thrift more than prettiness. Gardens, on the other hand, are manicured, almost ostentatiously well-groomed. People take pride in the appearance of their gardens. Gardens are pretty.

Ozarks dwelling, at least the heritage of dwelling, needs to be thought of as a verb more than as a noun. Dwelling is the enterprise of living in a place.

Single pen two story house at Sunlight, Washington County, Missouri, with modern additions. Note centered door (former window at left now enclosed) opening into original single downstairs room.

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The house is, of course, a most important part of dwelling. Not only the structure itself, but the process of conceiving, building, and habiting the structure we call "the house." In the Ozarks, houses have been thriftily committed to a multitude of purposes. They have contained stores, post offices, mill offices, church services, polling places, court sessions, and, in time of war, headquarters and hospitals. The Pelzter Housebarn (National Register of Historic Places), a remarkable survival in the north Ozarks border county of Franklin, continues the ancient German practice of building one integrated structure for humans, farm animals, hay, grain, and other produce. Multiple house use was a common frontier practice; in the Ozarks, frontier practices have remained.

The Parker-Hickman farmhouse on the Buffalo River (National Register of Historic Places) is a one room, or single pen, log house, built probably in the 1850's, that was store and post office as well as family dwelling. Added to the 16' x 16' main room were two shed side rooms, with a loft overhead. Still, the presence of postal cabinet sacks, barrels, and boxes, and the human traffic they produced, affords a picture of Ozarks dwelling as a busy, compact enterprise.

Granville Vaughn, of West Plains, Missouri, once showed me his childhood home, a simple frame structure that looked like a country store--and was. But it was Ozarks ingenious: directly under its ridgepole ran the Missouri-Arkansas state line, providing opportunity to do business to advantage in both states. Beds and cookstove were behind a curtain on the south wall, providing legal Arkansas residence. On that side the mother was postmaster of Ott, Arkansas. On the north wall, in Missouri, where state taxes were lower, tobacco, kerosene, and other store goods were sold.

Missouri German house, Franklin County, Missouri. Note details of style in this small, conservative vernacular dwelling: brick dentil under the eave, faux brick siding in the dormers, fine details in the porch, and carefully scaled chimneys.

Parker-Hickman house, Buffalo National River, Erbe, Arkansas. National Register of Historic Places. This single pen log house features extremely precise corner notching of its logs, a huge fireplace (firebox some eight feet in height), and characteristic shed roofed additions, or els, (side and rear). The house faces the Buffalo River a short distance away. A store and post office were sometimes maintained in the house.

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Franklin Rosa kept a little store dwelling at the edge of the great lumber mill town of West Eminence, Missouri, early in this century. Three generations of the family lived and worked there. Daughter Leona Helvey, then a small child, recalls something of its ambience. The store was never really "closed." Customers might come as early as 6 a.m. for a pair of gloves, a tool, or a breakfast snack of crackers and cheese. At the end of the day, the little store provided an evening gathering place, no public house or equivalent being available. Men stayed around the store talking, playing checkers, or just sitting, perhaps buying something to eat or drink, perhaps not, until ten or eleven. Keeping such a place was a community service. Storekeeping families might acquire modest wealth by the accumulation of pennies, nickels, and dimes turned in the ceaseless hours of "being open."

In the German Ozarks, in the counties interior to the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, house stores are common in the villages. These are dual buildings where each function is separately housed, but with the two structures joined and integrated in a unique form of functional folk architecture. Such stores were (and occasionally still are) family tavern-places for eating, beer and wine drinking, singing, dancing, and conviviality for young and old.

But beyond such matters of socio-economics, of utility, of interesting patterns that tourists may view from their cars--what of Ozarks dwellings as home? Home cannot be seen from a car. But everyone knows that home is the real purpose of dwelling. In order to make a home, we must make a living. "Make a crop" and "raise a living" are terms still heard here. We must "settle down," continue, nourish and be nourished, love and be loved, beget, rear, and take leave of children, build meaning between birth and death, all at home. To sense Ozarks home, to witness its clues, we usually have to go inside; we need to know the people, to learn the stories.

I was once hospitably received by Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Price of Shannon County who entertained my interest in their house, expertly constructed of square-hewn pine logs by Mr. Price for their marriage in 1924. Its two rooms, each the traditional, predictable, sixteen feet square, had been enlarged by a rear porch, now enclosed, with a second porch subsequently added behind it. Over the years the floor and loft ceiling had been insulated, the house electrified, and an air conditioner mounted in the wall. The old front porch floor Mr. Price was in the process of replacing with one of poured concrete. Plumbing, however, remained "out\-doors."

French log house, Ste. Genevieve County, Missouri. Vertical logs can be seen where horizontal siding plank has been removed.

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"Mrs. Price," I blurted, "how did you manage in this house with seven children?" She laughed indulgently. "Well, it was kinely crowded!" Of course. What would one expect? She explained the arrangements at the time of peak population: parents' bed in the kitchen where the babies and smallest children also slept for care and cook-stove warmth. The others, together with any kin or neighbor guests, arranged themselves in the bedroom. All possible domestic activities, weather permitting (at least nine months in most years), were relegated to the porches and yard: chicken cleaning, milk skimming, pea shelling, bean snapping, and sausage-making, for example, with sap, lard, fruit butters, laundry, and other boilings accomplished in the great black iron kettle out in the yard.

Norman trussing in a French house, Ste. Genevieve County, Missouri.
Bequette-Ribault house, Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. Interior, showing French vertical log construction and American vernacular mantel.

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Conservative Family life accomplished in small spaces with small means. Orphea Duty (pronounced "Orphy") dwells in a fine two story house overlooking Buffalo River in Newton County, Arkansas. The neat white clapboarded walls are clasped between great stone chimneys, which enclose the house like a pair of towering bookends. Beneath the white clapboards, the walls are solid squared oak logs. The central hall was probably at first an open passageway, a breezeway or "trot." Mrs. Duty is a country gentlewoman now in her late eighties.* Her father was a progressive state senator, a founder of Arkansas's public schools. Her husband was a prosperous farmer, merchant, miller, broker, and leader of the valley. Her children and grandchildren are pillars of society. She still "receives" in her home. Although she lives alone, her large dining table remains set with china, crystal, and silver for up to twelve guests. She is thus always prepared to serve her ready pie, cake, or cookies and coffee. Always. The sense of abiding for a long time, of a continuing home, is palpable. Being there, if but for an hour, close to that abiding, is an emotional experience. One senses, even as a guest, the fabric of this home, knit over time of many skeins: the woman; the women before her, and their men; the children, who in their time became old themselves--all in this house, in this very place, dwelling.

This issue of OzarksWatch is devoted to examples of Ozarks dwelling. The varieties of dwelling are so numerous that producing a representative sample, no matter the number, would be difficult. Those that are included are too few to be considered representative. But they are exemplary, chosen because they offer clues of the variety, and the richness, of abiding and continuing in the Ozarks.

* In 1996, Mrs. Duty still lives, now in her mid-nineties. Ed.  

Attic, Ratcliff house, 1864, Morgan County, Missouri. Note thickness of stone partition wall and size of lintel stone over door.
All photos: Collection of the Center for Ozarks Studies, Southwest Missouri State University,

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