Vol. II, No. 1, Summer 1988

A Swan Creek Survivor

The James Cook Jr. House

by Kristen Kalen Morrow

Perched on a terrace above the east bank of Swan Creek and located approximately seven miles north of Forsyth is the James Cook, Jr. house: it is Taney County, Missouri's oldest extant building. Constructed in the mid-1830s, the one-room log structure has served as a residence for several generations of the Cook family. Currently owned by John Hodges, a Cook descendent, the house and the land it occupies has the distinction of being a Centennial Farm.

In the early 1830s, James Sr. and Susan Angel Cook moved west from Kentucky and settled in the distant hinterland of southern Greene County, Missouri (Taney County would not be created out of the huge Greene County until 1837). The Kentuckians came in a group migration which also included several families from Overton County, Tennessee. The Cooks, Hodges, Wauls, Nashes, and others formed a concentration of settlers in the woods along Swan Creek. About 1833 the eldest Cook son, James Jr., settled on a farm "at the tenth ford about nine [actually seven] miles north" of the junction of Swan Creek and White River. In 1836, James Jr., constructed a one-story log abode to house wife Catherine and their eight children.

Cook's single-pen hewn-log house with loft and stone chimney was a substantial yeoman house in antebellum Missouri. At the time of its construction, round-log cabins with wattle and daub chimneys dotted the region. Many of these houses had dirt floors, and windows were created by the expedient of simply leaving out a span of horizontally placed logs. Cook's house, on the other hand, probably had puncheon floors (later replaced with sawn flooring), and windows carefully cut into the log walls.

The house's wooden-pegged purlins and shake roof were common in the mid-nineteenth century, but a walk into the interior of the Cook house told visitors that the builder had fashionable tastes. Modish beaded-edge ceiling beams supported the loft floor. The most striking feature of the room was the crafted "Federalesque" mantelpiece -- a decoration uncommon to the White River hills. Curiously, the entry to the loft is not the more traditional boxed-in stairs of Medieval origin; instead, one ascends a simple ladder into the loft's "scuttle hole."

The Cook families engaged in commercial cattle ranching within the developing north-south trade corridor linking Springfield, the White River Hills, and the Boston Mountains. During the 1850s, the Cooks and other cattlemen were paid in gold and silver specie for their mature steers. Teamsters freighted salt from St. Louis and merchants sold it to the Cooks and others; later salt came from Springfield. This mode of commerce continued until the extension of the Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad through the White River Hills in the early twentieth century.

Indian families had camped near the mouth of Swan Creek to hunt big game with settlers and to exchange the kill for guns, ammunition, blankets, and ornaments. In time, the Indian trading site grew into a service center and then became the county seat. In the 1840s, the Cooks visited Forsyth to observe their neighbors and the Indians who met there to socialize, drink, gamble, and carouse.

Like his father before him, James Cook, Jr. owned slaves- three, according to the 1860 census. Legend has it that two slave boys were buried outside the family cemetery, north of the Cook house, after they were poisoned "from sipping brandy through a barrel quill."

Several of the Swan Creek neighbors, including the Cooks, built a church about 1840, and sent for a minister from Little North Fork River. After a year of irregular services, a protracted meeting was held, following which seven whites and a slave woman belonging to Cook were baptized in Swan Creek.

During the Civil War, Cook, like other Taney County slaveholders, sympathized with the South, but did not join the Confederate army. In 1862, Major J. C. Wilber, commander of a Union scouting expedition camped on Cook's farm, described Cook as a "well known secesh." Because the expedition discovered a large quantity of prepared food at Cook's house, Wilber speculated that the Cook farm was "a rendezvous for bushwhackers." Despite Wilber's suspicions, Cook was not arrested.

Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, Cook descendents built another single-pen house, this time of dimension lumber, not logs, only a few feet from James Jr's. log house. Later, another historic Cook family house (which had survived the destruction of the Civil War) was dismantled, moved, and reassembled close to the other two. Today the trio of single-pen Cook houses at the James Cook, Jr. farmstead stands as a reminder of the family who has played such an important role in the early development of the Swan Creek valley.

The James Cook Jr. house, Taney County, Missouri, 1836. This single pen log house of a prosperous pioneer family was occupied for more than a century. White clapboarded structure at right is another in the complex of three single pen houses.
Kristen Kalen Morrow is a public historian who lives in Forsyth and teaches in the Forsyth Schools.


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