Volume 6, Number 10, Winter 1979
The Following Article Reprinted with Following Permission.
August 21, 1978
Mrs. Lee Brown
Route 2, Box 48
Kirbyville, MO 65679
Dear Mrs. Brown:
Youre welcome to reprint Marie Booths article on "Old Forsyth Revisited". Ordinarily, I would ask you to contact Marie since we buy only first rights, but we just received a note from her about your request so I know its agreeable with her.
Returning to the site of Old Forsyth, I stand in the hole created by massive fills where once a vibrant little village stood. It is not as if I am standing at the grave -- Forsyth was never buried.
The planners had declared that every hewn stone and upright and plank would be relocated and restored--only they would sit atop a mountain with a grand view of the lake, stretching for miles. So the powers-that-be made the arrangements with the city fathers, and the spunky village was moved to the bluff.
Any reason for a town locating here in the first place, more than a hundred years ago, was because this place was the only crossing on the White River for miles. River cargo emptied here, furnishing a brisk freight business for wagon trains hauling the goods out of the valley over the steep mountain to the east.
But a town did grow on this valley floor, on the peninsula. White River, a large body of water, rolled by on one side. Charging down the other side was Swan Creek, which swung around the peninsula and came churning against a sheer rock on the bluff side of the town. Turned aside, the creek spread a delta and emptied into White River, thus creating a small valley floor.
As if by plan, all the buildings seemed scaled to fit the small space allowed. Tucked up snugly around the courthouse, the four skies of the square were lined with little business cubicles-a drug store, the post office, the Parrish General store and an elegant little brick bank.
Some dwellings, clinging to the ledges, scrambled up the hill to the east, each one supported by flights of wooden stairs. Other homes fanned out toward the river, but never very far from each other. Still others marched down toward the Shadow Rock bluff, reaching for space with their second stories and planting their feet in the richest gardens in the county.
But no homes took root on the side beyond Swan Creek. The clear stream, bubbling over rocky shallows and dozing in blue deeps, requiring only a strong team to ford the gravel, did flood occasionally. Wild and muddy with rain, it would roar against the bluff, chew at the white limestone, swirl, wash back up on the swimming hole beach, and ooze up into back yards, then around foundations and into first floors. Then it would fan out at the junction with White River, creating a wide delta, feeding an ever wilder river.
Today as I stand on the fill that covers the site of the south side of the town, I turn to face the steep mountain to the east. The road that once took us up to The School of the Ozarks still tilts at a dizzy angle to get over the top. At the foot of the great hill a huge clay scar holds a gaudy motel string.
Suddenly the motel vanishes. In its place stands my Grandmother Vanzandts hotel. In my fantasy I am standing at the foot of the wide wooden stairs leading up to the front porch. The wrap-around upstairs porch, its ornamental white banister grinning all the way around, leans out and broods over the downstairs porch. The only out-sized building in town, the hotel pushes its back right into the hill, while its front rises sheer over the street. To me it is the Grand Hotel!
Gramma sits in the rocking chair on the porch. This must be a special occasion; she is wearing her Sunday apron. Every day she wore a spotless white apron over her sweet-smelling percale housedress, but today she wears the fine cloth with lace, the apron she used only on Sundays to
prepare the communion. Ah yes, the photographer is coming. The secret smile and the tiny black bow held by a brooch at her throat give her away.
Leaving her rocking gently, I wander on into the dining room. There is the long table covered with the always crisp, white tablecloth. Grammas boarders eat here. But what am I doing here, a tiny girl studying her reading? And there is young Uncle Glendle doing his arithmetic.
As always in a fantasy, images shift. My memory blurs and now Gramma sits behind the big, black, permanently polished stove. She sits erect in a straight chair, sewing. This is Grammas sanctuary.
She folded towels for Grampas barber shop, she sewed, she meditated here. The retreat was respected by the family as surely as if a curtain were drawn there. When she was ready to join the family, she simply craned her neck around the stove and pitched into the conversation.
Mary Vanzandt owned one adjective, "Sweet." Everyone used it to describe her. How a self-effacing, modest woman could run a boarding house and keep a large family in line was a mystery. Her flexibility covered a disarming rigidity. Out of it sprang the religious precepts, the moral conduct, the tone and temper her children were to live by.
Gramma emerging from her retreat was a signal that lessons were over and it was time for fun. Music was the center of activity in this family; the signs were all about-the piano, the violin, guitar, the banjo, Musical Aunt Jessie went to the front parlor, with its two wide windows looking out over the courthouse and the square, and played the piano--classical, ragtime, and hymns.
She was joined by Uncle Ernest, handsome and sophisticated and player of the violin. Violin, not fiddle! He had no patience with the hill music, even though his father, Tom Vanzandt was a fiddlin legend.
Gramma joined the family in the parlor, sitting demurely in the rocking chair, smiling, sometimes boisterously tapping her foot to the music. The non-musical Aunt Edna begged off by reading a book, but never missing the act. Someone was missing. Oh yes, Aunt Gladys was married and gone from home, and Daisy, my mother, was back on the farm.
Now, I remember why I am here. Too short to walk the two miles in snow and heat, I was sent to Grammas for my first year of school.
Wandering on to the upstairs rooms which opened off the wide hall like so many honeycombs, I stand in the large end room-the twin aunts room and also my room. I remember the windows on every wall, reaching from floor to ceiling, and the scary upstairs porch. I giggle a little remembering Jess walking in her sleep. The porch was dangerously far off the ground on the front side, and Jess could have landed in the rain barrel on the hill side.
At night my twin aunts often entertained me with fun and fantasy tales. But lying there in the dark, after they were safely asleep, I would recall the tale of Powersite Dam -- and the worry of the villagers that someday that dam would break, the awful speculation of what would happen to the town (no doubt dressed up with detail for my benefit) ran through my dreams, fed by the incessant roar of the water over the dam. And on stormy nights, with rain pelting the windows and the open porch, and lightning knifing through the shades drawn clear to the floor, I thought I didnt sleep at all, waiting for the roar to grow and grow and break over the town in a muddy rampage.
I turn away from the fantasy. Still standing at the site of the courthouse, there at my feet are remains of the concrete foundation tracing the outline and rooms. Like bleached bones, they stick out of the ground as bleak reminders of what? Of the courthouse?
My memory serves up sweeter reminders than that. I remember the square tower on the front that reached up and up, and ended in a turret. The handhewn stones throughout laid a brave but modest claim to a Tudor air; the style was confirmed by the tall arched windows and doorways. The mossy, moist stones delicately hosted the rich, green ivy vining its way to the very roof.
Every summer I was allowed to visit in Forsyth. Each day my aunts made me rest. I was supposed to take a nap, always with the promise of an ice cream cone. Then we washed and put on starched dresses, walked past the courthouse, casting its long shadow across the street, cut across the corner of the square and headed on to the ice cream parlor.
For a moment, the great fill under which that side of the square now rests almost blurs my vision. But no, there it is with the dark-sweet smell wafted around by the lazy blades of the ceiling fans, the same dainty wire chairs and tables.
It made no difference that every afternoon it
was only an ice cream cone; we sat at the tables as stylishly as if we were eating a sundae. Aunt Edna worked at the ice cream parlor, and she showed me the first banana split I ever saw. It didnt look especially good--just bigl I was happy making the three-dip nickel cone last and last. One was all I ever got or ever expected.
The shade and the benches in the yard of the courthouse were an invitation to loaf away the hours. No place in my memory was ever so cool. If Aunt Jessie were working in the collectors office that afternoon, I climbed with her up and up, through the dust particles strained by the suns rays pouring through the west windows.
Even though the windows reached to the ceiling, I had to tip-toe to look over the sill. Then I found myself right in the very tops of the trees. I could almost reach out and touch the limbs. Squirrels skidded along those limbs, sometimes careening over onto the sills, only to flip into the ivy fingering its way to the top of the building. When the ivy no longer rattled its complaint at the indignity, I knew the little smart-alec squirrel was on the ground.
We often went swimming in the deep blue hole made by Swan Creek where it turned a right angle against the bluff. We sprinted the two blocks of sidewalk that carried us away from the square, where the sidewalk ended with about one-quarter mile of dusty road. Ah but when we reached the deep shade the white bluff stretched out over the gravel beach and pool, we played the long, hot summer afternoons away.
Now I find myself standing on the same gravel beach. The Blue Hole is still here, the Shadow Rock rears its sheer white rock bluff just as it always had. Turning back toward the site of the town, I try to find just where my other grandmothers house had stood.
The smooth, grassed ground I now walk on gives no hint. This nearly circular piece of land with an oval drive, punctuated with concrete picnic tables and benches--and campers now and then-- is completely silent on where Grandmas house may have sat.
Then all at once, the fantasy returns and there it is! Past the Weathermans house, on past a familiar place. Whose? I cant remember. Then there is Grandmothers yard.
The house hugs itself up tight and rises two stories and an attic. Everything is perfect, as usual; the ornamental fence, flat green lawn and white, white house. Everything sparkling, astringent- and vaguely forbidding.
I slip through the gate, careful to latch it behind me. My grandmother, dressed in a white shirtwaist and black poplin skirt, her abundant chestnut hair piled high, brings out something to drink. For some reason, I feel I must leave at least half of it in my glass.
My uneasiness does not stop with that; should I walk on the sparkling floor? Sit down on which chair? I know I must not lean on the sleek white tablecloth, but do I dare set my glass down? I glance at her face for a signal of consent, but her firm lips never relax.
Not understanding the urge for a hasty retreat, I turn out of the prim gate and wander up the street on the Swan Creek side of the Square. Now I am moving up the familiar street that brought me to the rear of Grandfather Vanzandts barber shop, its back stoop jutting out over a path that made its way to the inevitable privy. The front side was neatly flush with the sidewalk. The building justified only one word-- tiny! Two little windows balanced the front, and were filled with jewelry, watches, clocks and curious trinkets.
One wall of this tiny shop strained to accommodate huge carved shelves decorated with turned posts of dark polished wood. Sparkling white bottles of sweet-smelling liquids lined themselves up importantly along the white marble shelves. The opposite wall held clocks (all ticking at once), guitars, banjos, fiddles, even harmonicas.
The town didnt need a legend to remind them that Uncle Tom Vanzandt could make a fiddle cry. He kept alive the pure music of the hills. Many times in the evening dusk, after supper, Grandpa would sit outside the shop playing the ballads and teaching the young bucks any instrument they chose.
A stranger would have been totally unprepared for the bulk of man who quit shaving his customer to greet me, but to me, it was my Grandpa. When he leaned forward to shake hands, a great silver watch chain would swing free of his round tummy. When he laughed, the chain did nothing to stop the gentle shaking of that part. And he laughed a lot. Legend has it that no one could tell a tale like Tom Vanzandt.
Right now Grandpa is smiling under his moustache; I can tell by the twinkle in his eyes. And he is making that familiar search in his pocket for a nickel.
He never failed--always a nickel. When my brother Paul was with me, Grandpa would fish around at great length and come up with a nickel a piece. My brother, his hands behind him, would protest, "Oh no, Grandpa, I couldnt!" But if Grandpa looked preoccupied, my brother would grab the water bucket, dash out and make a big noisy to-do on the re-entry, whereupon Grandpa would force a nickel into Pauls hand. (I shouldnt accuse my brother of doing it on purpose; he did everything with a bang.)
The barbershop fades. I turn reluctantly toward the side of town where we once forded
Swan Creek. The span of loose gravel and water is much wider now, and apparently not used any more for crossing. I sit down on a flat rock and again, the former scenes return.
Looking up the creek, I walk the delightful bluff path in my memory. The path is still there, wider and more worn, perhaps, but still cool with deep shade. Weaving its way over a rock jut, or dipping to the gravel at the edge of the tinkling water, it was a treasure in all seasons. May apples, fern, dogwood, redbud all spring, deep cool all summer and a glory in autumn. The fascination never ended.
We could walk it every day if we wanted to, but Sunday was a different thing. Grandpa allowed no boisterous play, but the young could stay dressed up in their church clothes and walk the bluff path up to the swinging bridge. That wobbly, slithery footbridge was a mile high to me. Crossing was so deliciously scary I wanted to get down flat and worm my way along, clinging to whichever side happened to flop up!
Even at flood time, from a safe place high up on the bluff watching this wild, brown bronc of a creek bucking toward White River, carrying logs and boulders was exciting. Now where are the gentle shallows and the blue eddies?
The memory fades. The sun is going down on the October day, leaving me still at the creek side. I linger. The memories will not leave me alone. I am back on the bluff path I had walked so many times with my aunts on our way to Aunt Mat Gibsons farm, picking our way around the bluff and crossing the creek just below the big old grist mill. And there, tucked up in a most unlikely little valley, is the farm.
Aunt mats was a joyously disorderly house, full of butter and homemade bread and ham smells. I grin to myself, remembering this ample woman. She lapped us up in her feather-bed hug, patted and cheered and fed us. Every foe and fear fled. She could tell a tale as tall as her brother Tom Vanzandts, and she could set our whole world right in a single day.
I sigh and turn from the memory. I rise from the rock at the side of Swan Creek to retrace my steps to the car. Coming up from the bank of the creek used to bring me up past the tiny jail house. Well, there it is! It really is there. Now if memory serves me right, on past and over the rise should be the courthouse. Fantasy plays me a trick again. There is the courthouse, just as I remembered it! The setting sun streams through the arched second story windows, while the downstairs is deep in evening shadows.
I have come full circle. The blazing windows fade, the courthouse fades. I am not standing on the grassy mound of the courthouse lawn, but on the same ground made level by some monstrous machine. Standing on the bleak land is a gray marble headstone telling the dreary story of the death of a town.
Shadows are getting deep and cold. The fill that carries a major high way and approaches to two bridges, high above my head, is still there. The gaudy little motel scarring the side of the hill is still there.
It is time to go.
Copyright Ó White River Valley Historical Quarterly
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