Volume 4 , Number 12, Summer 1973
When it comes to writing about a place of interest here in the Ozarks, it is often difficult to tell whether your story is about the place or its people. We have a custom, a tradition, of naming our places for the people who settled by a big spring, along a creek, at the foot of a mountain. People and places in the Ozarks are hard to separate.
In early April of this year (1957) when news got 'round via newspaper, radio and television that flood waters covered Kimberling bridge, old-timers began remminiscing. Others not so old tried to remember when the last bridge was built. Then, when Uncle Sam pitched his tents on the river banks and set his boys to work on a ferry that would take care of the needs of persons who must cross White River daily, history repeated itself. Long before the first bridge spanned White River at Kimberling Ford, a ferry was in operation there, a ferry named for the family who owned the franchise and operated it as a service to the public. Members of the Kimberling family now live in our county as honored citizens.
Back in the days when Stone County was young (we became a county on February 16, 1851) the Old Wilderness road, a span of some 120 miles, stretched its length along high ridges where dense wilderness on either side was the natural habitat of wild game. With Springfield on the North end of the road sort of a Promised Land for folk from lower Stone County right into Arkansas, the trip to and from the sparsely settled White River country to the metropolis was a Journey, spelled with a capital "J".
The road, it is said, ran on top of the ridges, taking the crooks and curves as they came. In some places it was little more than a trace, in others a road of distinction in any man's language. The one big dip in the road was where it crossed White River.
Since the Wilderness road had some 30 miles to go South of White River, crossing the river posed problem number one, just like it did when water covered the bridge last spring. As early as 1847 a ferry was in operation, one "powered" by the river's current, with cables anchored to trees on the river banks. What this first ferry was like, whether there was room for more than one vehicle we are not able to say. But all travellers freight haulers from North Arkansas, farmers crossing for reasons of their own, chance newcomers in the region had to cross White River by ferry. Old timers tell how in times of high water, you could count around a hundred wagons lined up on each side of the river waiting for the flood waters to go down so the old
boat, or raft, could make the trip across. When the ferryman pronounced the water safe, he would work day and night, getting folks back and forth.
A ferryman's job was not as exacting as one might think, important as it was. On days when business seemed dull, he could try his luck at fishing. When he'd hear the squeak of an ox wagon and the driver cracking his whip, then he hurried to the ferry and helped the wayfarer safely over the water.
Since a ferry was a part of a county's road system, the local or county court, according to an article in Missouri Historical Review for October, 1952, had the right to license individual owners of ferries, While regulating laws were passed by the State Legislature. The rates for St. Louis in 1808 were a bit steep compared with those imposed by Mr. Kimberling when he operated Kimberling ferry for John Scott, junior, remembers that a wagon and team could cross for fifty cents. The horses were unhitched from the wagon and someone held onto them while the crossing was made. Review also states that a territorial act provided for punishment of ferrymen who refused to make trips without "good excuse," whatever they might be.
In Goodspeed's Reminiscent History of the Ozark Region (1894 edition), the biographical sketch of W. W. Kimberling, for whom the ferry on White River was named, states that he bought a farm on White River in 1870 and began operation of a ferry on the Old Wilderness road known as the Mayberry Ferry. However, Tom Langley who lives South of Hurley, believes the old Mayberry Ferry operated at the mouth of Long Creek just above the Indian Creek road that went down to the mouth of Little Indian Creek. His Uncle Will Eaton lived South of Long Creek and often helped with the ferry's operation. Mr. Langley believes the Mayberry Ferry and the one named for W. W. Kimberling are two different ferries. We would welcome comment from any person who knows. It is possible of course that Mr. Rimberling operated the ferry at the mouth of Long Creek before coming to the
crossing on White River.
This much we do know: from the time W. W. Kimberling bought his farm and started operating the ferry, the White River crossing or ford, the ferry itself and later two highway bridges were named for him. It is hoped, even taken for granted, that the new bridge soon to be constructed across the river will bear the name Kimberling bridge, thus continuing an old custom, an old tradition, of naming places for people.
If a ferry's log had been kept in the manner of a ship's log, many and varied would have been the interesting entries, all a part of the day's work. No one knows how many times White River flooded at Kimberling. Mrs. John Scott, junior, who gave us the old picture of the ferry, thinks it was taken in 1920 or possibly '21. It must have been the last ferry to transport passengers back and forth across White River. A rain had left the river out of bank and the old ferry stranded when the waters receded. Neighbors came to help get it back in the water. Among the folk pushing and prying and shoveling were Gran'Pap Hammers and three of his boys, Mose, Frank and Edd Hammers. Kenneth Kimberling, a grandson of W. W., is also in the picture.
There was much talk of a bridge over White River and an item in Crane Chronicle dated March 9, 1922, tells about A. N. Peters making a new survey to relocate a state road. Seems the way the highway engineers had mapped out the road did not seem practical to Mr. Peters who was (and still is) an authority on anything dealing with roads. State engineer Moberly made a trip down to the region and decided Mr. Peters was right, therefore he was put in charge of the relocation. The piece of road would connect with the new bridge.
It is interesting to chart the new road's progress by means of weekly news items from that area. The Nauvoo items gave such information as: June, 1922, "The big road is coming along." Later the road work stopped on account of lack of funds. And still later, August 17, 1922, we were happy to read that our County Court had appropriated more road money and the work on the road was progressing.
Yes, the road was built. Then the new bridge was built. And
on December 10, 1922, the old ferry made its last trip. Here is the account given in Chronicle: "Last Sunday Kimberling ferry on White River just below the mouth of James River quit business. The old boat was hauled onto the banks of the river and its belly turned up to the sun, there to have its bones bleached by the elements and time.
"Progress has done away with the picturesque and at times dangerous way of crossing the White, for in a stone's throw of the old ferry stands a modern, substantail and almost completed bridge which the county is building."
New Kimberling bridge was the pride of the whole countryside! People came for miles around to watch the workmen, then when it was finished more and more people came to see it, to take pictures, to park their cars on the bridge and picnic in the grove or fish the river. Every Sunday was like the Fourth of July sans fireworks. So many cars crowded the bridge it was hard for people on foot to pass. Many feared the bridge floor might collapse.
Time marched on. In the spring of 1927, on April 16 or 17, news made the rounds that a part of the bridge across White River at the old Kimberling Ferry went out with flood waters that raged and foamed and licked high on the river banks. The whole South end of the county was cut off from travel communication with the rest of the county. And the section of the bridge that washed out had not been located.
"Witnesses who saw the bridge go out," reports the Chronicle, "said the heavy steel girders floated and bobbed up in the stream like they were of wood, then disappeared from view. It was considered remarkable that the heavy girders did not quickly sink from sight but the flood water was of such force that they were carried away."
The following week's Chronicle reported the highway department already busy with plans to rebuild Kimberling bridge. "About half of the bridge was washed some 300 yards down the river and a great deal of the long approach was also washed out."
The Nauvoo correspondent on April 26 reported: "Rainfall here last week was about seven inches. Indian Creek was the largest it has been in a long time."
Tragedy stalked the river banks, too, and an item for July 21, 1927 reads: "Charles Plimmer in his early 20's, of Reeds Spring was drowned in White River Sunday afternoon near Kimberling bridge. He was swimming in the river. His body was recovered about two hours later."
It was a long wait for folks in the South end of the county, but finally, on December 23, 1927, the Kimberling bridge was reopened for travel. A force of men connected with the highway department had worked continuously from early summer until its completion. Travel from the South end had been cut off from the North part of the county ever since the bridge went out in the April flood.
Looking through files of old newspapers, we wonder what folks had to talk about B.T.R.D. (Before Table Rock Dam). Interspersed with columns by country correspondents, even in the oldest files, was the ever present topic, Table Rock Dam. Sometimes a big, black headline reached clear across the front page, then again it was just a single column heading. Front page news, though, right through a period of close to 40 years! And its importance causes it still to be front page news just as it probably will be for another 40 years.
June 23, 1932. a news story stated the highway department "is weary of waiting for the Empire District to build its dam, which would necessitate a higher bridge over Long Creek than required now, and probably will decide upon construction of a bridge soon."
Bold, black headlines clear across the front page of the Crane Chronicle for July 14, 1932 fairly shouted: "Must Build Table Rock Dam in Four Years!" Think of it, 16 million dollars would be required for construction, with another 14 million for land purchase! Yes, do think of it and compare those figures with the present, actual cost.
There isn't any quitting place for this story for it's still in the making. However, this item dated December 8, 1927, is prophetic: "Practically every bridge across James and White rivers in this county will be affected by the building of Table Rock Dam. It is said that the bridge across White River at Kimberling Ferry on highway 43 (now Highway 13) will he submerged in over 40 feet of water!"
Yea, verily, history hath repeated itself.
Copyright Ó White River Valley Historical Quarterly
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