Vol. IX, No. 3, 1996


Before the Lake

The Brightwell Farm of Taney County, Missouri

by Robert Flanders



"There was a stranger come into this country." The old man stopped to spit tobacco juice. "He was smarter'n most. Educated." Spit some more. "He could do most anythin'." Spit. "Right smart man there." This set of declarations the old man repeated over and over, like a mantra. He was thought to be senile; but what he said was mostly true.

The "stranger" was John Wesley Brightwell. Born in the Kentucky Bluegrass country in 1861, he came to Taney County in 1886 after working some years in the Pacific Northwest and in western Kansas. He homesteaded 160 acres above White River, on the high ground between Little Cedar Hollow and Little Buck Creek, Ozark County on the east and the Arkansas State Line on the south. He proved up on his claim in 1894, the same year he married Fannie Clark, a neighborhood girl. John was 33, Fannie 21.

In 1895 their first child was born: Judge Calvin, "J. D." As the first son, J. D. was to get special responsibilities and privileges. In the succeeding nineteen years, nine more children were born to the Brightwells, totalling seven boys and three girls. Fannie achieved the nineteenth century norm: she bore a child on average every two years between marriage and menopause.

John was lucky to have seven sons. He needed the help. He was an ambitious and, finally, a very accomplished man. Everything the old tobacco-spitting native had said about Brightwell was correct, save one. He was not schooled. But he was self-educated. He was literate, and the ability to read opened the world of print to him, as well as to his children. The underlayment for wallpaper in the Brightwell house was newsprint; and much on those walls can still be read (the wallpaper has come off, but the newspapers, nailed on under gussets, remain.) St. Louis and Springfield papers are there, as well as The Missouri Ruralist. When Brightwell wanted to learn how to do or make something new, he read.

He did not need to read in order to acquire land. He added to his original quarter section regularly, often by picking up scattered forties. Then he connected them. The farm finally totalled 680 acres, an unusually large upland Ozarks holding for the time. Some of it was steep slope: once Hillary, the seventh son and ninth child, tipped a team of young mules over a bluff and watched in horror as they tumbled over each other to the bottom, their single trees still attached. Fortunately the mules were not injured. The only White River bottom land Brightwell bought, however, was three acres. The primary intention was to assure access to river water for his animals should the higher water sources fail.

East-facing house facade. Note transomed triple front doors and south bay.
Rear of house, showing back porch ruin. Center left enclosed area, late bath addition.

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Brightwell's business was general farming on a scale unusual for ridge farmers in that part of Taney County. He raised cotton, ginned and baled at Protem some five miles to the northwest. He raised a lot of hay and some corn. He cut cedar logs, got them into the river, tied them together in big rafts, and floated them downstream forty-odd miles to the pencil factory at Cotter, Arkansas. (A crew of more than just his own boys was required for that operation.) He had sheep which he sheared on the place. He had some cattle, perhaps ten head or so. He had horses and mules, the latter bred for market.

Mule buyers came through Protem annually, and John Brightwell offered mules, broken and ready for sale. Once, his son remembers, he took a pair of young mules, declaring that he wouldn't sell them for less than $75 apiece. He returned from town with both mules in tow. "What were you offered?" the family inquired. "Seventy-five dollars apiece," he said. "Then why didn't you sell? .... Well," he said, "I got to thinking: if those mules were worth $75 to a stranger, they were surely worth that much to me!"

The Brightwells had two gardens, totalling nearly three acres. Six to eight big hogs were butchered each year, "big ones, for plenty of lard." Corn was taken to mill for meal. Fruit and berries were put up. The farm was made to yield an abundance of foodstuffs, always "lots to eat."

Brightwell was a skilled blacksmith, with a shop and forge. He shod his own draft animals and tired his own wagons. He designed and fashioned much of his own machinery and sharpened his own plough shares.

And Brightwell was a builder. He first built a log dwelling, to which he added rozoms as the family grew. He built a log barn, which quadrupled in size over the years with frame additions. The log blacksmith shop has a frame addition made at a later time.

An 18 foot by 20 foot, two story log structure of multiple uses completed the assemblage of log Brightwell buildings. It was used as a smokehouse, among other things.

A sawmill which he operated supplied "native" lumber for frame buildings. The largest outbuilding on the place is a two story structure of braced post-and-beam design sided with oak planks. Large doors opened to both floors. This the family called, simply, "The Building.'' (Saw marks indicate that some of the siding was pit sawn.)

The largest and most demanding construction project was undertaken in 1917, when Brightwell was 56 years old. He built a large new house. Probably high wartime commodity prices put an unusual amount of cash at his disposal. He hired carpenters to do much of the work; but he finished the interior woodwork, built the clothes presses and kitchen cabinets, and cast the cement flues himself, using new tools bought for the purpose. The house was roofed with oak shakes rived on the place. During construction, the family camped out in "The Building,'' the old house having been taken down--perhaps for some of the materials in it. Winter was cold that year; "The Building" had cracks between the siding planks through which could be thrown the proverbial cat.

The house design is L-shaped, two stories, with three sixteen-foot-square rooms on each floor. Large porches cross the front and fill the interior of the rear el. A center hall opens onto both front and rear porches, with a staircase to the upper floor. Front and rear doors have transoms and sidelights. Rear exterior and first floor interior doors are also fitted with transoms that may be opened and closed. All rooms have large double-hung sash windows on both walls. In addition, the kitchen has two exterior doors, one onto the rear porch and the other to the outside, going to well, springhouse and cellar. A protruding window bay centers the side wall of the south front room.

Homemade cement flue and cap.

Upstairs rear bedroom. Note wall covering of newsprint. The wallpaper came off, but the nailed-on news-papers remained. Fannie Brightwell hung her sidesaddle in the open closet. She never rode straddle-legged. This room was J.D.'s when he was still at home.

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The interior partitions are horizontal sawn planks, covered with newspaper, then with wallpaper.

Stoves in each downstairs room were flued through square cement flues designed and cast in sections by Brightwell. Pyramidal caps of the same material top the flues. After 79 years they appear in near perfect condition. Despite a fierce flue fire on one occasion, the bonding of the sections held and the house did not ignite.

The most unusual design feature of the house is the entry door arrangement. Doors into each of the two front rooms flank the central door. All three doors match in the elevation of their transoms, and so create a balanced ensemble. All three door frames are manufactured, as are all windows and window frames and hardware. All manufactured materials had to be wagoned ultimately from the railroad at Hollister, on the opposite side of the county.

After the Brightwell boys returned from service in World War I, all twelve of the family lived in the new house for a time. The Brightwells hosted big dinners, some outdoors, some indoors, to which neighbors near and far were invited. John Brightwell rode horseback to deliver the invitations.

In the 1920's a used Delco electric generator was purchased, the house wired, and lights installed. When REA arrived twenty or more years later, the original wiring remained in service.

Brightwell was a very sociable man. He went to town (Protem) every Saturday, whether he had business in town or not, sitting with the spit-and-whittlers until chore time approached. Fannie usually stayed home. When the Protein cemetery needed enlarging, the asking price for the additional land was $50. John Brightwell rode out across the immediate neighborhoods soliciting contributions. All he could get was $25. Brightwell offered it to the prospective seller and said, "take it or leave it." He took it.

John Wesley Brightwell died in 1950, just shy of his eighty-ninth birthday. "He died in the harness," said son Hillary. He had kept title to all the property in his own name; and as he died intestate, his widow was worried that she could not continue to live on the place. She could, of course. Fanny lived out her life there and died in 1968 at age 95.

Bull Shoals Lake was under construction when Brightwell died. It took some three hundred of his 680 acres. The heirs sold the remainder in 1976 for $150,000.

Foundation details, barn interior; ledge rock stood on edge. Sill beams rest on the stone and are mortised into the posts. "The Building" foundation is constructed the same way.
Two-story log smokehouse and multi-purpose building, 10 feet wide by 20 feet long.
Information in this article is derived from interviews with Hillary Brightwell of Springfield, Missouri, and from a visit to the Brightwell homeplace, August 23, 1996.

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