Vol. IX, No. 3, 1996



Through The Shoals

by Donald R. Holliday


When Bull Shoals Dam was built, creating Bull Shoals Lake, a lot of something else was created--change. This issue of OzarksWatch is devoted to providing insight into both the passing of the old ways in the spokes from a hub, from the headwaters of the Osage River and their central village to their hunting and fishing grounds, which extended as far as the Red River in Texas and included the White River and its feeder streams. In 1818, Ozarks explorer Henry Schoolcraft referred in his journal to the Osage trail down Swan Creek as "a horsepath beaten by the Osages in their hunting expeditions along the White River"

Schoolcraft was a somewhat late representative of the next phase of change, white White River valley now affected by Bull Shoals Lake and the newly created. The demise of the old ways wrought by the new lake were merely one phase in an ageless series of change.

In the beginning, the White River valley was created through processes vast, cataclysmic, ageless--in much the same ways the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers were. Steve Kohler and Oliver Schuchard's narrative and photographic Two Ozark Rivers, as reviewed by Richard Turner, informs as well about the processes of creation and the spectacle created at the White River. The geological process, as Kohler describes it, by which water cut down through layer after layer of limestone, more through soft rock than through hard, accounts for the existence of shoals. A shoal is merely a formation of rock in a stream bed which is harder than the rock above or below. That's how Bull Shoals was formed, and the hardness of the rock one of the reasons the Corps of Engineers chose to build a dam at precisely that spot on the White River

Then came the earliest humans, perhaps countless generations of them, in times so shadowy little is known of them. Then came mound builders, again perhaps countless generations of them. Then came the Osage nation, down one of many trails which spread out like wagon European exploration and settlement. He himself was an explorer, but when he arrived at the confluence of the White River and Swan Creek in Missouri, he found a number of European settlers already living there. Schoolcraft recorded his journal entry at the nascent village of Forsyth, Missouri, at the edge of both creek and river. From Forsyth, Schoolcraft continued his journey down the White, through what would become Taney County, Missouri and Marion County, Arkansas. After traversing a particularly troublesome series of shoals, Schoolcraft recorded his near disaster at the "Bull Shoals" on White River.

After Schoolcraft came many other Europeans. For a century and a quarter they came to settle the river valley, then the valleys of the major tributaries. At the mouth of every large tributary, they built a town, like Calico Rock, Peel, Lead Hill, Pontiac, Cedar Creek, Lutie, Theodosia, Kissee Mills, Protem, Forsyth. Up major creeks, they also built settlements, often at a site suitable for a water mill, as in the case of Lowry, some miles up Bear Creek from the White River, in Boone County, Arkansas. At all these places, they built schools and churches. They cleared the best country and farmed it. They sowed and harvested. They married and reared families and built new and bigger houses. Robert Flanders' Preservation Corner article about the Brightwell farm provides a sharp vignette of a prosperous farming culture, even though the Brightwell place was not a river-bottom farm. The houses and outbuildings on this farm make clear that one s use of tools in this Ozarks region, from chopping axes and stone axes to wood planes, was a measure of ones manhood, a matter of pride even beyond pride of possession.

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In addition to farming as a means of livelihood,   hunting and fishing was important in the lives of those who settled the White River valley and lived there be-fore the coming of the big dam. Fish was a large part of the diet of those who lived near the river and major creeks. Beyond the dietary values of the river, many of the tests of manhood--and of womanhood too in some cases--in the farming-hunting-fishing culture of the White River hills were passed or failed in the woods and on----or in--the River. Roland Sodowsky's Noodlers dramatizes a boy's meeting and passing just such a test.The life reputations of men and women and families rested on their achievements. Those who could be called noodlers had passed a test of exceptional nerve.

They also laid out cemeteries, dug graves by hand for neighbors and kin, and after their own allotted time were laid to rest for eternity, usually in sites overlooking White River, or Bear Creek, or Beaver Creek, or the Sugarloaf.

Then came fiscal appropriations for building Bull Shoals Dam and Lake.

Where Schoolcraft almost lost his canoe and possessions in the maelstrom which would come to be called "Bull Shoals," a great dam was to be built to control the flooding which sometimes came and swept away houses and barns and livestock and lumber yards and anything else left in its way. It was, at the time it was planned, to be the only flood control dam on the White River. Because of that, plans included a vast take of land which would be part of the flood pool, which would require   that almost the entirety of the existing culture in the valley be moved, or be inundated.  

The old way of life ceased. The shape of the new lake would make noodling almost a thing of the past. Families moved away from land and towns their families had lived on for a century or more. Of those bodies who had been laid to rest for eternity, the remains were disinterred and reinterred. Michael Ellis s article outlines the extraordinary scope of the cemetery relocation, and sensitively suggests the most poignant dimensions of the vast changes to the old way of life which once occupied the Bull Shoals reservoir area.

Congressional approval and appropriation of funds for building Bull Shoals Dam and the itself presented their own special problems. Glenn Johnson's article, The Bull Shoals Dam, focuses on these problems, and the many values the construction of the dam, and the lake it created, would have for Marion County, Arkansas and beyond.

Closely related is Linda Masters' story of the development of Bull Shoals, Arkansas, the town: Bull Shoals--From Dream to Reality. Hers is the story of new towns, new people, new businesses, new development. The creation of a large lake brought a new kind of attitude toward the White River valley. Its principle reason for being was no longer farming, hunting, and fishing for livelihood, but recreation. That change in attitude brought a whole new set of occupations. The development of Bull Shoals, Arkansas was obviously a new kind of undertaking of a land speculator, one whose occupation was attracting people to come and live on land he wished to sell them. Around health spas like Eureka Springs and Hot Springs, Arkansas and resort towns like Hollister, Missouri, land speculators had been common before, but Bull Shoals Lake was a big place, covering or directly affecting large parts of several counties.

Once built, Bull Shoals Dam created a lake drastically different from either of the two great dams and lakes which would later be built further up the White River--Table Rock and Beaver. Power generation and recreation were added as purposes of Bull Shoals Lake. Robert Flanders' article on resorting on Bull Shoals lake details many of the problems and joys of Bull Shoals. His article also focuses on some of the many demographic changes the new dam and lake brought to the Bull Shoals Ozarks.

Perhaps the most immediately visible change created by Bull Shoals was the relocation of whole towns. Were Henry Schoolcraft to paddle his canoe back up stream to the mouth of the Swan, he would have to contend with high-speed fishing boats, rather than with shoal waters. If he got to the Swan, he would no longer find Forsyth, the county seat town of Taney County, Missouri near the water's edge. Now, "new" Forsyth sits at the upper end of a highway chiseled into the side of a bluff hill, overlooking from several hundred feet the confluence of a large creek and river, which once demanded a town be built there. Now, in 1996, Forsyth is the home of many retirees and of many others whose livelihoods depend upon Bull Shoals Lake and the great culture shift it brought to Southwest Missouri and Northwest Arkansas Bull Shoals.

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