Volume 34, Number 4, Spring 1995
The White River Chronicles of S. C. Turnbo: Man and Wildlife on the Ozarks Frontier.
Selected and edited by James F. Keefe and Lynn Morrow; introduction by W. K. McNeil. (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994). 356 pp. Photographs, maps, notes, appendix, bibliography, index. $44.00.
In 1913 an impoverished and ailing Silas Turnbo wrote to his correspondent friend, Kansas historian W. W. Connelley, offering to sell his massive manuscript about life in the early Ozarks to Connelly for any "reasonable price." A few weeks later Connelley sent Turnbo a money order for $27.50. "I could not deny an old friend in need," he wrote Turnbo, "so I made extra effort and got the money. "
Thus Turnbo (self-described as "nothing but a poor scribbler") relinquished all claims to the substantial work which had consumed him during a lifetime of collecting, interviewing, and writing. How pleased and proud this pioneer collector of Ozarks folklore and oral history would be with this excellent publication of part of his work as The White River Chronicles of S. C. Turnbo.
Most of Turnbos stories come from the Arkansas and Missouri counties whose drainage flows into the White River. The Turnbo collection is among the earliest assembled writings about the Antebellum Ozarks frontier, and certainly it must be the largest. In this book, Keefe and Morrow have included only a fraction of the "poor scribblers" total output. (The collection in the Springfield-Green County, Missouri library, from which they worked, contains 2,487 pages of typed material.) "We chose" they wrote, "tales that seemed best to illustrate the times and events (primarily 18 15-65) that Turnbo recorded and to present his major themes." They selected their stories wisely and have organized them well. One of the five chapters of Turnbo text deals with wildlife, while three emphasize people and places, and one is devoted to Turnbos experience in the Civil War.
The material that Turnbo collected is not just autobiographical, but represents the collective memory of dozens of informants whom Turnbo takes great pains to identify carefully. There is much family, local, and county history in Turnbos writing. Genealogists, in particular, will find much to applaud in his careful and precise recording of family names and the places these families lived. The editors have provided selected genealogies of the Turnbo and Coker (another White River "first family") as an appendix to their book.
Turnbos tales are well interpreted by the editors who comment upon and discuss the Turnbo text. Since Morrow is an historian and Keefe a wildlife biologist (and 19th century weapons expert), their 60 pages of notes are interesting, authoritative, and informative. When Turnbo comments about "fire hunting," the editors explain that fire hunting is the use of a torch at night to illuminate the eyes of deer, the equivalent of modern spotlighting. When Turnbo is wrong, they do not hesitate to point it out. He tells about a "diamond rattlesnake," for instance, and the editors note that there are no valid records of western diamondback rattlesnakes in Missouri, and that often early Ozarkers wrongly identified timber rattlesnakes as diamondbacks. Their notes not only explicate Turnbos references, but open an excellent window into the culture of the Ozarks, ranging from frontier times to the present.
W. K. McNeils introduction outlines Turnbos life and traces his heroic, and mostly futile, efforts to get his precious writings into print. Turnbo worked on his own, without foundation or government funding, without professional guidelines, and without encouragement. Indeed, Turnbos obsession with collecting old stores was something of an embarrassment to his family in his later years. McNeil provides a folklorists scholarly evaluation of Turnbos methods and materi-
Book Review continued on p. 24.
Book Review continued from p. 23.
als. Turnbos habit of recording everything his informants told him, for example, "meant that he obtained data on many aspects of folklore and folklife that other reporters might have overlooked because they seemed so commonplace."
The center portion of the book contains a number of well captioned photographs from a variety of sources, all of which serve to illustrate the Ozarks culture described by Turnbo. Several sketch maps help locate the many place names mentioned in the text.
This book, to use modern parlance, is not a page turner. As a writer, Silas Turnbo is no Vance Randolph, which may help account for his difficulties in getting his work published during his lifetime. But, as W. K. McNeil says, "without the poor scribblers collection, our knowledge of Ozark history and culture would be considerably smaller." This book is an excellent reference work for libraries, and for all who are interested in expanding their knowledge of the Ozarks.
-Robert K. Gilmore
Copyright Ó White River Valley Historical Quarterly
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