Volume 2, Number 11, Spring 1967


Life in the Ozarks—Then and Now

by Margaret Gerten Hoten


(Continued from Winter of 1966 Quarterly)

Every little bit helped to keep the wolf from the door.

Christmas came, the weather was mild, and it did not seem like Christmas had in the north, where the ground was white with snow. We never had a tree at home in Illinois, as that was something that cost more than could be spent for anything neither necessary or useful. Here were young cedars, some covered with blue berries, just for the taking. John and I went out and cut a small tree. We set it up in a box with rocks to hold it erect. We popped some corn, which we had raised, in an iron skillet on the stove, and strung it. We looped the strands around the branches of the tree, but alas; the popcorn was all we did have to put on it. The dogs found this, and ate it all up! Another year came, winter would soon be gone, and we would plan, plant and hope again.

There was no work of any kind here in winter to earn any money, except cut wood if some one needed this done. Our neighbor, who had only daughters did. As our menfolks were clearing land near their place, they cut up some 40 cords of wood for their cook stove, for this they received only fifty cents a cord. But it meant cash to get needed items, and that was scarce as hens teeth!

Food was cheap enough in those days, but the dollars scarce; had they been made of rubber they could not have been stretched to go farther. Eggs, the one source of revenue the year around, sold for five cents a dozen mostly paid in trade, Every week or so a buyer came up from Arkansas. He bought eggs all the way along from his home there, and packed them in layers of straw in his wagon. In spite or rough roads he delivered them to Springfield without breaking an egg. People brought eggs to the store in grain sacks, tied in the middle and laid across the saddle. Just about everything was carried on horse-back, it was easier than jolting along in a wagon.

Time passed and brother Henry, now 15 years of age, worked in the grist mill on Saturday, which was called "grind day". Everyone for miles around brought their sack of corn on horse-back to have it ground into meal for the weeks supply of bread. The miller took 1/7th of a bushel as toll. Henry often worked from seven O’clock in the morning until late at night, dipping meal into the sacks as each customers corn was ground. As a mans wage was only fifty cents a day, and dinner, Henry did not receive this much, and took his pay in meal!

Since our corn would not have kept us in meal until another crop was harvested, he was glad to help. We did use some wheat flour that was ground at a mill on Beaver Creek, called Kissee Mills. A hop vine we had planted was bearing, so Mother made her own yeast, as the store did not carry it. Salt rising bread was the only kind baked by the women here. Soda biscuits and corn pone was the bread most popular with the hill folks.

Spring came again, and as we feared; fires set in the woods by people that had many cattle, were creeping ever closer. At night the hill wore a firey crown, and the smell of wood fire filled the air. It was claimed by the natives that burning off the old grass made better grazing. It kept us watching at night to see that the fire did not reach our fences. Dry rails catch fire from sparks very easily, and may smolder for some time if not detected, if it gets a good start a long line of fence could burn. We kept a tub of water ready to wet sacks to beat out any fire that got too close. It was hard, dirty work but had to be done. The woods were turning green now, with ravines like ribbons of color flowing down their rocky sides. Spring in its bright garments was always lovely.

Wild turkeys could be heard "gobbling" in the early morning hours, the cattle began wandering further from home, the grass was always greener just beyond. Many an evening John and I had to go look for a cow after working all day, and this was rather tiresome. If it was raining the water squished into our worn shoes with every step, and wet branches pelted us from above. We did not fuss about it ‘tho, there was something tranquil about walking in the rain. Later on wild flowers made a velvet carpet: dog tooth violets, May-apples, Jonny-jump up, butter cup and daisies were the first to appear. In summer roses, phlox, verbena, Indian paint root and cypress growing over brush with its brilliant red, star shaped flowers was beautiful. In fall: purple and white daisies and goldenrod were everywhere. The beauty of the hills was ever changing.

One day that spring we went some 20 miles to get young fruit trees, peach, plum, and cherry. Uncle Tom Wisdom, who went from mill to mill; to run the saw when there were enough logs to cut into lumber, had told Father to come as he had plenty of young fruit trees and berry bushes. Uncle Tom was a tall, erect man and ‘tho his hair and long beard were white as snow, his clear skin and bright blue eyes belied his years. He

[18]

'The Thunder Storm' wood cut image by John Gerten
The Thunder Storm
John Gerten

 

'Outdoor Cooking' wood cut image by John Gerten
Outdoor Cooking
John Gerten

[19]

looked like a picture of Moses that I had seen in a Bible story. He welcomed us, then called his son; a tall youth of perhaps twenty, who shared his home. His name was Crocket, probably he was named for the hero killed at the Alamo. Clad in the usual hickory shirt and overalls, and bare fooled, he was like a picture of the "Bashfull boy with cheeks of tan".

Uncle Tom greeted him with—"Crocket, you damn ground hog, take the boys and dig up them thar fruit trees, while I visit with Uncle Nick." Every one over 50 was Uncle and Aunt here, those overy fifty were Grand-Pappy and Grand-ma. I sat on a log and listened to the men talk. Uncle Tom was a character who would use a cussword every other word, yet somehow it did not sound bad.

He finally got around to the past, recalling the days when the Bald-Knobbers had been the law in the hills. He had been one of the leaders; and told how after the Government had forced them to disband, "A bunch of us got together and reorganized again, I was against one man the boys wanted to take in. I was afeared of him, and sure enough as soon as we got started again he betrayed us". All this was sprinkled with the usual flow of cuss-words.

Suddenly I saw a big snake crawling along the path from the direction of the corn-crib. It looked somewhat like a black snake, or coach whip as some were called ‘tho considered harmless I was not waiting for it to get closer, and jumped up. Uncle Tom saw it and said; "Don't be scairt of that one, he is quite harmless, and catches all the rats and mice on the place. He is a King snake and stays around the corn-crib. "Maybe so, but I still preferred a cat or trap to catch mice. We left after the boys came back with the many trees and bushes, that we set out the next morning.

Father had trimmed grape vines for a man in early winter, and had started the cuttings for himself, so now would have a lot of fruit started of many kinds. Our place was commencing to look better; and we had learned a great deal about life in this country in the past year. We were all strong and healthy in spite of the hard work and plain food, and ever hoping that the next year would be a better one.

Our garden was growing nicely this spring. We had learned what vegetables did the best in this climate. Sweet potatoes did much better than the white or Irish potatoes. We did plant some of the white variety, and they were among the few vegetables that were bothered in summer by pests. In Illinois we had the small Colorado beetle to knock off the potato vines into a can of kerosene a few times every season, but here it was a large dirty grey or brown insect. Our neighbor had told us that when we found them in the patch, to take switches and drive them out ahead of us, and that they would not be back. This sounded funny, but one morning we found a horde of them eating away at the vines, and started after them. They ran, and never returned that year. They were called "blister beetles" for when one was crushed on the skin a large blister developed.

Corn grown here was all a white variety, and it did make better meal. We planted sweet-corn for eating, but the folks here just took young ears of field corn and they called them "roasting ears". This year we had planted cotton, corn and a patch of cane, and more peanuts. Father, who smoked a pipe, was raising his own tobacco. In February we had burnt a brush pile, spaded the ashes into the ground and planted the tiny seeds. When the plants were large enough we set them out in rows. By fall the stalks were over four feet tall, and ready to cut, and hang from rafters to cure. When cured they were taken down on a day when the air was moist, to prevent crumbling, and packed between paper in wooden boxes. While just about everyone, including women and young people, used tobacco in some form, very few took the trouble to raise it, altho tobacco grew well here. They preferred to buy plug "chawin" at the store; that did not involve so much work!

The general store in Cedar Creek, the mill and gin and a blacksmith shop, along with a few houses, comprised the village. The store, a large unpainted building of lumber that was a product of the mill, had a narrow, uncovered porch in front. A large door and a few small pane windows gave light. In an inclosed corner in the back of the one large room, was the Post Office, and a large pot-bellied stove furnished heat in winter. Along the sides were counters, one with a show case, behind them shelves reached from floor to ceiling. In the back the wall was covered with miscellaneous articles; hanging on pegs were horse collars, bridles and hames, along with lanterns, chains and saws. Plows and heavy tools were leaning against the wall. A collection of nails, bolts and other hardware filled a bin. Groceries, with sugar, green coffee and dry beans and rice was in bins beneath the counter. Shelves along the wall held the supply of canned goods, toilet soap and patent medicine, mostly pills and chill tonic. On the opposite side the shelves held bolts of yardage, mostly calico, chambry and shirting. Flannel for the storks arrival, and black sateen to cover the outside of home made caskets, and white muslin for the inside. There were no ready made clothes, or hats for the women. Calico was standard material for dresses, sunbonnets were made of chambry for "good", and trimmed with lace or embroidery. Dresses were mostly made the "Mother-Hubbard" style, worn with a belt, and trimmed with ruffles. On occasion one would see

[20]

a dress that had belonged to the wearer long ago, as it was not the style or material usually seen in the hills.

On Saturday everyone who had any "tradin" to do, came to town, either on horseback or families in wagons. While the men attended (o having horses shod, plows or wagons repaired at the busy black-smith shop, some of the men, especially the widowers and bachelors, grouped around the stove, sitting on boxes and eating crackers and sardines or cheese. They kept up a steady flow of conversation and comments, especially if one of the fair sex came in.

The women gathered around the dry-goods counter and chatted, while needed items were measured off. They paid for them either in cash or trade, generally with eggs. It was a chance to visit and enjoy news and small talk until their men folks were ready to return home. The mill and blacksmith shop was a busy place on Saturday the year around. The sound of the anvil was heard from early morn until late at night. Horses were hitched to every tree in sight, awaiting their turn. After sun-down the men quit playing their favorite game of horse-shoe, and gradually started to leave for home, and the chores awaiting them. This was the day looked forward to and enjoyed most, and there would be another Saturday soon.

The Boer War in South Africa between England and the Dutch settlers; had broken out in the fall of 1899. In those days there was no mechanized artillery, and buyers for the British Government appeared in the hills to buy mules. Large numbers were rounded up; and they all brought a good, cash price. After that we did not see any big herds looking for mischief so often. The tale was told later how the Missouri mules really won that war for the English. It was said that during one of the last big battles; the British were getting the worst of it, and the order to retreat was given. But the mules who were going strong did not heed, and went on through the Dutch lines with the artillery, and the tide of battle turned, giving the British the needed victory.

Some of the young men had been hired to go along to help in getting the mules to the port where they would be loaded and sent oversea, it was the chance of a lifetime for many of them who had never been far from home.

Once during a cracker barrel session at the store, a native son stalked in, one of the local wits knew he had taken his first trip outside the County limits the past week, he greeted him with a broad grin and said. "Haven't seen you around for a spell Jim, where you been? "Jim puffed up like a pigeon, his eyes traveled over the group and he said. "Gentlemen, I’ve been to Springfield; and if the world is as big all around as she is from here to Springfield, she must be a WHOPPER." It was a trip of 60 miles.

During the summer Father and the boys had dug a cellar; and walled it up with rock. It had a natural stone floor. Father had been told a cellar of this type was not practical in this country, but he could not believe this. So we had a nice cellar that could take care of all root vegetables, with shelves for jams and canned goods and anything else we might want to store in it.

That winter the Spanish-American war broke out, after the sinking of the United States battle ship Maine, in Havana Harbor, on February 15th, 1898. It all seemed a long way from the quiet hills of Missouri. The only news we had from the outside world was reading the twice a week St. Louis papers, and we read every word. There was no telephone or telegraph service and we would have been unaware of what was happening in the world from day to day, if it had not been for the news papers.

Over a period of years we had heard rumors about mineralogists prospecting in the hills for ore. Their report was, that while there was ore in the Ozarks, it was to hard to transport with no railroad close. So nothing had come of it. Later on it again was rumored that a railroad was coming for sure. Surveyors were seen in the woods setting stakes, and hopes soared again. There was excited talk for weeks around the country as to how much the Railroad Company would have to pay "If they want to cross my land". It had them all rich but nothing came of it.

While we now felt that we could raise most of the food we needed, there were many things that we would still have to buy. We needed more hogs and cattle. They insured cash when sold, but we never had enough for our own meat, and what young stock we raised had to be sold as money was needed. The cotton crop was not a very reliable source of income. A family of six required a certain amount of clothing no matter how simply they dressed. Calico for dresses and sunbonnets cost money too, and the grey jeans or overalls and hickory shirts for men and shoes were necessary items of everyday wear.

Every family had a last, and half-soled the family shoes. Heel plates were put on to make them wear longer, so there was always use for some cash income. We were fortunate that we never had an illness that could not be taken care of by home remedies; or medicine bought at the store. But something had to be done to get more cash, and that soon.

Father had found red clay on the place and tried it out, deciding it was suitable for making pipes. A log shop was built and brick made of the same clay made to make a kiln to bake the pipes in. The machines were set up on home made benches, and he was back in business making

[21]

pipes again. We knew that more money was needed, but we had not counted on taking a gamble like this.

After a few months there were enough pipes on hand for Father to start out selling. They were of a nice dark red color, and after smoking them a short time, they started coloring at the bowl, as a Meerchaum pipe does. The old way of selling through a whole-sale house was out, here we packed the pipes in large boxes.

Father hired a team and driver at $1.00 a day and all expenses for driver and team. It was not hard to find a stout young fellow eager to make the trip. It was a risky venture trying to sell clay pipes in the land of the Missouri Meerchaum, as corn-cob pipes were called. After traveling about 100 miles north, he found a sale for them, stopping at every town and cross road on the way. When a sale could not be made for cash, Father took dry goods and groceries. At the end of two weeks he was back home. He paid off his driver, who could hardly wait until he got home to tell about all he had seen. After all the expenses there was enough money to pay the bill at the store, and tide us over until another trip.

After the success of this first trip, it was decided to make some pipes with a short shank, and using reed stems, as some said clay stem hurt their teeth. This was no problem as there were large fields of cane growing along White River suitable for making reed stems. It was only some three miles from home, and a large load could be cut in a few days time.

The cane was allowed to dry, after stripping off the leaves. Next Father had the blacksmith make a short steel blade, somewhat like a corn knife; for a machine he had made, to cut the cane into even lengths at the joints. Another machine like a large pencil sharpener was to trim one end of the length, to fit into the shank of the pipe. The other end was ground just enough to make it smooth. Necessity again was the Mother of invention.

Another trip that fall insured us of enough cash to make it through another winter, and get needed goods for bedding and clothing. We had no sewing machine here, so made our clothes by hand in the long winter days.

The men cleared a patch of about five acres on top our hill that winter, and fenced it. We planted it in corn that spring. It was a steep trail to this field but the ground was rich, with not many rocks; so we hoped for a good crop. The heavy rains came early this winter and on going down to the cellar one morning to get some jelly, found at least three feet of water in it, almost up

'Mending Shoes' wood cut image by John Gerten
Mending Shoes
John Gerten

[22]

to the shelves and bins. After breakfast we all had to get busy and bail the water out. There was only one way to do this, fill all the buckets we could find, form a line to a ditch along the garden and work! By afternoon it was all clear, and the clay scrubbed off the lime-stone floor. That was the reason natives built a combination smokehouse-cellar on top of the ground, as water seeped through the soil. We had been told this, but though it was only an excuse for not wanting to dig a cellar. So we found out the hard way. There were so many reasons why this or that was "No use tryin", there was just one way to be sure, try it yourself.

We had a large cedar tree in a little hollow just below the house. One night during a severe thunder storm it was struck by lightning and torn apart, the pieces were like slab wood. The next day we started to drag them to the wood lot, as cedar makes fine kindling to start fires. Our neighbor came over and seeing what we were doing, shook his head and with a voice filled with sorrow said: "O la-la don't do that. If you burn wood from a tree struck by lightning, the next storm the lightning will strike your house." Superstition was much stronger than finding wood all split and ready to burn, without doing any work for it. The house was not struck by lightning. It was midsummer now and the weather was extremly hot. It was decided to set the big cook-stove outside in the shade of the grove of trees, as the heat from the stove, when cooking, made it unbearable inside. It worked out all summer, as we had the usual drought. But later on one day clouds gathered, and about four o’clock a heavy rain that continued for three hours, kept us waiting for our supper.

There was a rough canopy over the stove, but after the rain stopped, we found the stove flooded. The fire-box, top of the oven, and stove pipe were full of water. After bailing out as much as possible and getting a fire started, it steamed for a while like a geyser. We were hungry enough by this time to settle for a kettle of mush and milk. Now I guess this would be called a cook-out, but we just called it "one of these things", and were grateful for the relief from the heat that the rain had brought us. Perhaps we were thankful for little things, and not hard to please after many hardships, so could laugh at what any other time would not have been a bit funny.

(To be continued.)

[23]


Copyright White River Valley Historical Quarterly


Next Article | Table of Contents | Other Issues


Local History Home