Volume 7, Number 9, Fall 1981


An Ozarks Landmark

The Curtis Fletcher Marbut House

by Lynn Morrow


The Marbut house is significant as the creation of one of America’s foremost scientists who led the national soils survey program in the early twentieth century, was a major contributor to international soil research, and was the founder of much of Missouri’s soils, geological, and geographical academic disciplines as they have been taught and practiced in higher education throughout the twentieth century. His Cape Cod house is unique in Barry County, Missouri.

Marbut’s family ancestors in America were slave holding South Carolinians who gave up commercial farming, went to Tennessee and to the upper White River hills in southwest Missouri about 1840. As many subsistence farmers in the Ozarks, the Marbuts raised cotton, sawmilled, farmed, raised stock and fruit and later sent family members into county and state politics and professional education. The tenth child of the immigrants, Philip and Oda Marbut, was Nathan Thomas Marbut, father of Curtis Fletcher Marbut. The prolific expansion of the Marbut clan in Flat Creek and neighboring Spring Creek Valley established them as a vital community center and local political force.

Curtis Marbut was born July 9, 1863. He attended the Marbut Church and Marbut School. Due to his natural ability and strongly influenced by his mother’s desire to see her son capitalize on his extraordinary abilities, Marbut taught the Marbut School during his middle and late teens. While most of the Marbut clan continued as subsistence and general farmers, Curtis took his teacher’s earnings and enrolled

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in the county seat high school at Cassville. The Collegiate Institute and Professor Noah Maiden gave him a classical education and encouraged his enrollment at the University of Missouri in the mid-1880’s. His B.S. degree enabled him to accept an appointment with the Missouri State Geological Survey in 1890. He entered Harvard in 1893 receiving a Masters degree in geology the following year and taught at the University of Missouri from 1895 to 1910. Later his doctoral dissertation, "Physical Features of Missouri" was published by the Missouri Geological Survey. Marbut never completed his final exams for the Ph.D., but received academic awards from Berlin and Czechoslovakia, and honorary doctorates from the University of Missouri in 1916, and Rutgers in 1930.

While a professor in geology and mineralogy at the University of Missouri from 1895 to 1910, Marbut was the director of the Missouri Soil Survey from 1905 to 1910. In 1910, he became special agent for the U.S. Bureau of Soils and chief of the Division of Soils Survey, Department of Agriculture. Under Marbut’s leadership as chief of the Soil Survey, approximately one-half of the United States land area was mapped. Marbut was also president of the Association of American Geographical Society. Two of his major publications include the text on soils of the United States in the Atlas of American Agriculture Part III, Washington, D.C.: Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Chemistry and Soils, and Soils Reconnaissance of the Ozark Region of Missouri and Arkansas, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Soils, 1914. Marbut published many technical articles in professional journals. He collaborated on the first comprehensive "Soil Survey Map of the United States" and was awarded a Gold Medal in 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair for his huge topographic map of Missouri.

Marbut had occupied a small house in Columbia on Lowry Street where the University of Missouri library now stands. But his professional success away from home allowed him to

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realize a life’s ambition-to own land in the seat of his family’s Missouri Ozarks heritage. At the turn of the century, following a European trip, he bought land which bordered his father’s and grandfather’s farms. At this time, a family reunion was held and reported upon by the February 10, 1901, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Some 425 of the Marbut clan throughout the small creek valleys attended. Joining them was one of their own, Curtis Fletcher Marbut, a local Ozarks boy, now firmly established in his "outside" professional career, but also reestablished in Little Flat Creek valley.

Combining the spirit of an enlightened progressive with his modest rural background and to escape local shame by allowing land to lie idle, Curtis established a new apple orchard which became commercially important in following years. Near the Frisco railroad corridor, he capitalized on the orchard industry which, in the Missouri Ozarks, centered in southwest Missouri. Though a tenant house was occupied on "Orchard Farm," as it was called, Marbut would wait some thirty years before he planned and built his retirement home.

For several years Marbut gave summer lectures at Clark University, Worchester,

Massachusetts. While there he was a guest of the university president, Dr. Wallace Atwood. Atwood lived in a New England Cape Cod shingle style house. As Marbut decided to follow in the tradition of rural Ozarks men by building his own house, he used Dr. Atwood’s as a model. What resulted was a New England Cape Cod shingle style house on Little Flat Creek-an utterly unique house for Barry County and anomalous for the Missouri Ozarks region in general. Dominant house expressions in the area reflect southern upland, traditional house forms with little innovative architectural style. Indeed, to find any New England house of this kind in Missouri is most uncommon.

Marbut drew up his plans and mailed them to his brother and manager of the apple orchard, Edward Marbut, who supervised construction. Local builder, L.A. Lamport, who was from New England executed the plans. During the summer, 1935, Marbut spent a week nearby with his daughter, Helen, checking on the final construction. But a call from Washington presented him with the opportunity to go to Manchuria, China, which he did. Already known as an international scientist for his work with German and Russian soil scientists, he aspired to work in the seats of older civilizations in China and the Mediterranean.

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Years before, a major Russian work, Glinka’s Soil Groups of the World, had appeared in 1914 in German. Marbut translated Glinka, and opened a new horizon in soil science to western scholars. With his background, Marbut was certified by Cordell Hull, Secretary of State, as U.S. delegate on the part of the United States to the Third Conference of the International Society of Soil Science at Oxford, England, July 30-August 6, 1935. However, in travel through Oxford, Moscow, and the TransSiberian railroad, he contracted a cold resulting in pneumonia and his death in Harbin, China, August 25, 1935. His ashes were sent back to Barry County where a memorial service was held in the living room of his new house. Burial was in a nearby cemetery.

Edward E. Marbut continued farm operations and lived in the Marbut house for several years. By 1948, Curtis’ daughter, Helen, who had drawn all the landscape plans for her father’s house, had finished her career as a teacher and writer at Columbia University, Pennington College, Wisconsin University, George Washington University, and twenty years at Madison College, a woman’s school in Harrisburg, Virginia. She moved in, dismissed the tenant-caretaker, and has managed the farm and house ever since.

Helen has kept the interior 1930’s decor virtually unchanged. She keeps many of her father’s papers here, but has donated much of his materials for the permanent Marbut display case at Southwest Missouri State University, Springfield, Missouri. Helen Marbut has entertained numerous scholars and interested publics at the house who have come to see Curtis Fletcher Marbut’s unique contribution to the cultural landscape of Barry County, Missouri.

Bibliography

Darton, N.H. "Memorial of Curtis Fletcher
Marbut." Proceedings of the Geological Society of America, 1936.

Krusekopf, H.H., editor. Life and Work of C.F.

Marbut Soil Scientist a Memorial
Volume. Columbia: Soil Sciences
Society of America, n.d.

Lamp, Ann L. "The Busy Lady of Marbut Road." Ozarks Mountaineer, February, 1972.

Marbut,Helen. Interview by Lynn Morrow, November 15. 1980.

"Not a Bachelor Nor Old Maid in 425 Membersof a Southwest Missouri Family." St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 10, 1901.

Rafferty, Milt. "The Marbut Place a Touch of New England in the Ozarks, Barry County House Scientist’s Shrine." Springfield Leader and Press, July 22, 1973.

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