Volume IV, No. 3, Spring 1977


by Carla Roberts Photography by Doug Sharp

On a beautiful early spring day we stood beside Bear Creek in Taney County, some of us wading in the icy water and climbing on the big rocks. Behind us was a country road squeezed between the creek and foliage-covered limestone bluffs. Just up the road, built against the hill marking the edge of the creek bottom, was the one story home where we had just enjoyed a farm dinner in the company of Ella Dunn and her companion Ruth Branstetter.

We had been drawn naturally to the creek which had played such a part in Ella's life. We stood there silently enjoying the unusual warmth, listening to the birds and the noise of the water rushing over the rocks worn smooth over countless years.

Did you ever think of it, that that's why we are here? Ella said. We're a diamond in the rough, and when the Lord rolls us around here enough that we're polished, He'll take us home.

For the last fifty years Ella has lived by this creek. Married at fourteen, she and her husband moved back and forth from Taney County to Colorado, Kansas City and Arkansas in their early years of marriage before settling here where the creek has played a dominant role in their lives.


In the spring when the rains come, she said, why the creek fills up until it covers my field. One time it just lacked an inch going into my door. Water was all in my cellar and out to the barn. It has never got in the house yet, but it's got up around it. I never put down wall-to-wall carpet. I never put any fine furniture in, for I never knew when I'd have to go up the hill. We used to have a bed in this old shed up on the hill. Sometimes I'm bottled up in here for a couple of days. But the water runs down fast.

Most of the time the creek was useful to Ella and her husband. They used the rich creek bottom land for raising vegetables and for truck farming. She remembers how useful the creek was in irrigating their fields and garden.

My husband had been raised in Colorado, so he knew how to irrigate. So we came over here to this farm to raise fresh vegetables for the Taneycomo Hotel at Rockaway Beach. We got a centrifugal pump and Fairbanks-Morris engine. He made a flume and pumped water from the creek and we irrigated all this land--halfway to where you see the timber. Since the creek ran all summer, we diverted the water with these flumes and we made ditches through the garden by our stuff to run this water clear through. And boy, it was a full time job. We had to follow those ditches all the time because the moles would cut a hole and we'd lose the water. We had to keep it going.

As soon as we took off one crop, we put in another. We fertilized well. And every other day we went to the Beach with another load of vegetables. We took the very top--first class stuff. Anything that was not well developed and number one we laid it out and took good care of it. When I got back home, that left was all trimmed up and washed and cut up to make vegetables for stew. We had a cannier and capper and canned in No. 2 cans. We bought them by the thousand. We sold by the case. Ail the stuff that wasn't No. 1 to go on the market we canned it at home--tomatoes, cabbage and carrots, celery and okra--everything you would use in stew. We had a standing demand for them all the time.

But we stayed with it and made good. The children all married off and left. My husband and I continued until he had a stroke--fell off the hay wagon and broke his hip and had a compound break in his ankle. He soon died of a heart condition and that stopped our gardening.

Even in later years the creek still helps Ella. I got rid of these charley horses in my legs wading in this cold water. My brother had a little dog and he had me to keep it while he was in the hospital. Children would play in this creek in the summer--the dog would hear them and go to them and I'd have to wade the creek and hunt him. Every night my legs would just draw in knots and my feet would draw in. And when I got to wading in this cold water, I didn't have any of that. Now I can't wade, but still bath my legs in cold water.

We walked across the culvert which has been built in recent years to span the hollow coming from behind her barn. We were standing just where the hollow way empties into the creek. This used to be a good fishing hole. See the creek is all filling up and some day we may not have any water here.

As she looked at the shallow water that once was deep she remembered an incident there. I think if you're going to tell somebody you're going to do something, you should do it. That's my motto. One day I was sitting here fishing with my neighbor, Rose Baimer. She hadn't caught a thing and I caught a water bucket full of perch and goggle eye. "Oh," I said, "I wish I could just catch a real big one. If I do, I'll give it to you." Well, I hadn't more than said that until I caught a big one--the largest fish I ever caught in Bear Creek. It was a big one--a bass. I never did catch one that big there before. And she said, "Now what are you going to do?" I said, "I'm going to give it to you. I told you I would." She said, "You're better than I am. I wouldn't give anything like that away." But I made the promise, and I live with myself. So I was glad to do it.

Ella was always busy. Besides taking care of her family, she filled up her time with her many interests. She has written, painted and made jewelry out of shells (and many other crafts she still does) as well as working by the side of her husband in the truck patch and any place else she could. Side by side in 1908 they built their first house, a two room box house.


In most all our young life I was my husband's helper, you might say. He'd get up on the building and tell me how much he wanted sawed off of a board. I'd measure it and cut it off and hand it up.

I always had my little nose in everything, trying to find out what made them perk. I wanted to know about everything. Ella never had much schooling but she was always learning from experience. I guess that's why I have the knowledge I do of the things that went on. Because I always wanted to see the why and the how.

I was always just a little scrawnly, sickly child. When I was seven I had St. Vitus Dance. They had to hand feed me for three months and I chilled fairly often for the next year.

We didn't have toys. I never had a doll except an old rag doll. I used to whittle out animals and things with a pocket knife and make little horses and dolls out of corn cobs and things of that sort. We also built houses and animals out of clay mud. But we always found something to do when we ran out of work around the house.

I didn't study as hard as I should in school. I loved my geography, reading, writing and spelling--that was it. I was good in addition, but I never got beyond mulitiplication. Until after my husband died I learned to subtract quite a bit. I had to when I was filling out my light cards. I made a few mistakes.

We didn't have grades, we had readers. You just went from one reader to the next. I got to the fourth. When you went to the fifth reader you had your geography, arithmetic, English, reading, history and physiology. And if you completed that you could go down to the county court house at Forsyth and if you passed the county examination, they would give you a certificate--a privilege to apply and get a school to teach. You could teach a country school then. You was a graduate when you completed the fifth reader.

But like I said, I just got to the fourth reader and I was out one day a week to do the washing because my mother had inflammatory rheumatism. Her knees were so swollen she could hardly walk--carried one on a chair part of the time. I was the only girl big enough to help my mother. My older sister worked away. She worked out all the time for a dollar a week to buy our dresses. We bought calico and muslin at five cents a yard. She'd get ten yards of calico and would bring it home for mother and her and I. And mother'd make it up. In the winter mother spun and wove and made our clothes from wool sheared from sheep. My younger sisters were small--five years between me and the next youngest sister. Then there was about eleven years between me and my oldest sister. So I grew up, you might say, alone--just with the five boys.

I was fourteen when I got married and I was in the fourth reader. I would have been in the fifth reader if I had finished that year of school, but I didn't. I married on January, the 18th, 1905. My husband was twenty-one the 17th of January, and I was fifteen the 24th of February. I ought of been home being spanked and washing the dishes.

He stayed one summer and tried farming on a little farm over north of Forsyth. But he'd never been on a farm--never seen a stalk of corn growing till he was seventeen. He said, "We're going west where I can make some money. Fifty cents a day is not enough." So we went to Colorado.

My husband's uncle and aunt ran a hotel in Lake City, Colorado. I started washing dishes and my husband helped in cooking, room care and odd jobs, such as going down Elk Creek for the milk and butter every other day. That paid our board until he was called to the Golden Fleece Mine up above Lake City beyond Lake San Cristoval. The snow was so deep up the mountain, navigation was all done after midnight on snow shoes, and everyone carried a long pole to use as a guide and safety to not get buried in the deep snow.

He went to this mine as cook. He had a boy flunkie to help him. He was paid $50 a month. We saved enough to buy the eighty acres over near Powersite Dam for $200 where we built the two room box house.

As he seldom came down the mountain to town, I was very lonesome for my own people. I got acquainted with seven or eight of the girls my age in this small mining town. Some one of them would visit me most every day. My education was so limited. They enjoyed my backwoods hillbilly talk.


Every night everybody went to the post office at nine o'clock when the mail train came in from Salida. I was anxious to hear from my people in Missouri. So all the girls I had met would be there with me and had fun razzing me. Of course, my hillbilly language was new to them. They got a lot of fun at my expense. I called a sack a poke, salad was sallet, isn't was hent. It was all very amusing to them.

One evening when two of the usual old miners stood listening and waiting, one of the girls came up to me and says, "Ellie, they sure have lots of fools in Missouri, don't they?"

I fired back, "Yes, they are scattered about, but they don't gather up by the half dozen in the post office like they do here."

Well, the two old miners slapped their hands and said to the girl, "You asked for it and you got it. Maybe you'll behave yourself now." I didn't suppose I'd said anything. I was just that green, but they were my friends--good friends after that--and they never razzed me anymore.

And to top it off, when I went home to the house--it was a small cheaply built house--the kitchen door had a latch on the inside where you could lock it, but not on the outside. When I got home I heard some stumping in the house and I was scared to death. I didn't know what to do. I had my revolver in the dresser drawer--I was good with that--and I had my flashlight on my dresser, so I slipped in the front door. I put the key in the lock and turned it real easy. I slipped to the kitchen door ready to shoot somebody--I didn't know who. I expected somebody was there, and I got real brave.

But when I got to the kitchen door, there was a big old burro standing there eating all my vegetables, my meal and everything in the house. He'd eat up everything I had. He'd eat the labels off the cans in the coal house, and backing out of it, he backed into the kitchen door and busted the knob off of it. Well, I took the broom and I sure did brush him out. I guess I'd just a-shot him, but I couldn't drag him off. So that was just one day's hardships. There were many more. I was ready to come home.

So when my husband came down off the mountain, he put me on the train and I came home alone. And then in August he came back to my father's place and our first little boy was born--seventy years ago the sixth day of September. He stayed and worked building mills to crush the ore from rock at Webb City and Duenweg, Missouri, and then he went to work for a doctor at Forsyth. Fifty cents a day from sun up until after sun down. He said, "We can't put up with this. We'll never get anywhere." So we went back to Colorado but after about six months we came back to Missouri. My husband told my father, "Well, I took your daughter out of the hills, but I can't take the hills out of her."

One of the jobs I had was in Rocka-way Beach. I took care of cottages and I cooked three years in the hotel. I had a lot of experiences when I was taking care of the cottages. I had to see that everything was in shape and see if they had linens and all that stuff. I had fourteen cottages to look after.

Come on in children. This is a bachelor home--a bachelor lady. I don't keep house so good. Come on in.


Many times you run across people of all kinds of character--of every description. Some of them are real nice and others are not. One couple came to me and waited until I was in company with other people--I don't know whether they had any money or not--but they come up to me and took my hand and put a dime in my hand and shut it and said, "We want you to have this because you've been so sweet to us. We want to show our appreciation."

I could tell it was just a small piece of money. I didn't want their money. I just opened my hand up and said, "You just keep it. I was poor too one time before I went to work here!"

Was I mean? But just such experiences as that helps give you an education. I had a lot of experiences while I was a midwife. I didn't start because I wanted to. I was really pushed into it. See, my mother had been a midwife for forty years, so I guess I was born to be, but she fell and broke her hip and was on crutches. Just after she fell she went out by Forsyth to deliver a child--she stood on her crutch and delivered the baby and took care of it--and when she come home, she said to me, "I don't intend to deliver any more kids. It's up to you."

God gives us a way to do everything if we hunt it. He'll make you know just what to do.

Well, I didn't take to it very agreeable. I didn't think I wanted any of it. Mother said, "You're more like I am than the other girls, so you'll have to do it." So she told me I had to take over. I said I couldn't. But finally I got caught in with a case and had to do it. And it was made to order, I suppose, because I got through it so nicely, I said, "Well, if it is this easy, I'll go ahead with it." I did. And in a short time the word got out that Ella was delivering babies. And it went like wildfire and sometimes I went twice a night, sometimes twins, or a breech birth and sometimes a premature baby. And I, of course, didn't know enough about it--I tried to save one or two, but if there'd been a hospital...there wasn't any here then.

When my husband had his leg and hip broken, a nurse came down through here to have a look at him and after she was through she questioned my knowledge in child delivery--like a teacher's examination. She said the government would school me if I would go. She remarked that I had made the best rating of any midwife on the list on her travel. And I said, "I can't leave my home."

So after he got well enough I could of went, I asked my county doctor at Forsyth what he thought about me taking training and he said, "If you've got a lot of money you want to get rid of, why you go on." But he said, "You won't learn as much as you know. You've had the actual experience and that's more than you'll learn when you get there." But I don't know. I never felt like I knew that much.


But this nurse in St. Louis sent me the certificate book--birth register--and silver nitrate for the eyes and a lot of literature to give to these mothers for prenatal care. She thought everybody came to me and asked about delivering them, you know, which they didn't all do. Very few of them did. When they was ready to deliver, they sent for me. Women back then was more timid of talking of things like that. You didn't know much about it till it happened.

This summer when you all want an outing, maybe you all can come over. Maybe you can wade in the creek and if you can stand cold water you can swim.

I hardly ever had a doctor with any of my cases. When I had a doctor I did not deliver or register the births in my book. The doctor did. I just registered when I delivered the baby alone. Just me and the mother and daddy, a grandmother or a neighbor.

I never had a telephone so people just had to come after me. In the latter years of the '30's there were telephones in the country, but I didn't have one here until three or four years before my husband died.

I only delivered one baby after Skaggs hospital was built over here in '49. I told them it was just as easy to take them to the hospital as it was to come for me.

Another thing I can tell you that you probably don't realize or know is that today it's not as easy to deliver babies as it was then. Then women walked a lot. They didn't set so much and ride in cars. That makes a big difference. They got enough exercise and now-a-days they don't. They eat fatty foods and they don't restrict their diet as they should.

I had to restrict them on beans sometimes. They ate too many dried beans. That makes a hard-headed baby. So I would cut them down and give them a diet that would make childbirth more easy and I'd give them a schedule on their daily habits.

And you know another thing I drilled them on was their daily thought. That has a big influence over the child. The mind is developing as well as the body and if you want a good child, if you want a child to be industrious and work and not sleep all the time, keep a busy mind. But keep your mind on the good of life. Not anything that's contrary.

I've tried that out. I've tested that on different women. And if you'd talk to them today, they would tell you it would make a big difference--what you are thinking and what you do when you carry your child.

If I was to talk to young women today, I would stress very deeply that they should keep a good thought in their heads all the way through if they ever intended to be a mother. And then it's not hard when you begin to train a little one after it comes to you. It's not so hard to go ahead training because it's already instilled in its little mind. So I think that is very, very essential and I've proved it out.

But life is so different now from what it was when Ella grew up and raised her family. Technology, good roads and tourists have greatly changed the living conditions of the people and their geographical surroundings.

I've seen what the tourist trade has done with this area. It's good for the country. And people live better. They live without working so hard, but I think we had a better world without it.

The progress has been wonderful. We have good roads and good schools, and young people can make money better ways than beating it out of the soil and hunting pelts and raising tobacco like in the early days. But there's also a lot of bad things that we can't do anything about that came in with progress. I think it really tore up home living a lot. Just to put it straight to you, I think it's broke up an awful lot of homes--progressive living--brought dissatisfaction in many homes.


I'm glad to see women have the opportunity of making the same amount of money a man makes, but I'm not quite an advocator and believer for women's liberation. We've got a lot of well educated women who don't let it go to their head, but some it tears up their homes and they don't ever care for home life again. "I can make my own. I don't need anybody," they'll say. It creates a sort of selfishness, I guess you'd call it. But as a whole back when women depended more on their husband and their home, their home life was better, their children's life was better. But they didn't have as much.

I've seen marriages drift away. I've seen the broken homes--the lack of interest in the home. Now when a mother goes out to work and just leaves the children, maybe they're big enough to go ahead with things in the home--maybe they're not. And the dad don't care so much either. Children are turned loose when they're too young to go on their own. They buy them a car. They don't have the judgment to be turned loose quite so young.

My mother said, "I gave my life for my children." I felt the same way. If it was to do over, I'd spend more time with them than I did. I taught them to work. You know, that's a good thing for them--self-reliance. I don't think children have to do enough this day and time to really know what it means to make a home. It takes a lot of strength. But I wouldn't want them to do like I had to do.

Progress had taken a lot of the hardships out of life that people like Ella had to cope with. But back in her day she could always count on family and friends to help out in case of trouble.

I think there's a lot less neighborliness. People don't like to get out and visit. They'd rather watch television. You know television used in the right way would be a blessing to the world, but as it is, I think it is a detriment. I set and watch it for pastime a lot. I don't read my Bible as much as I used to, either. Neighbors are another thing you neglect when you've got television and other things like picture shows and cars to go in. We had time back then for our neighbors. Now then we don't have time anymore. You can see the change, can't you?

My life has been a fulfilling one. I've met many people and seen many things. My eyes are failing me badly now, but if I reach the place to where I'm unable to read or piece quilt blocks, then I hope my children will raise me some cotton. I can at least keep busy picking out the seed. I've picked out enough seeds and made the bats for several quilts and quilted them. We used to raise cotton back home, you know, so it wouldn't be a new trick I was trying out. When we moved here to the creek and began raising vegetables, I raised cotton right along with them, but just enough for my family. I also used cotton balls for my stroke patients to get them to use their hands.

There's been a lot of hard work on this place since we settled down here fifty years ago. I've been here ever since. I'll stay as long as I can.

Next time you come, come eat with me. I always have something to eat. It may not be fancy. I always tell everybody the latch string is out and always welcome for them to come in.


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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