Vol. II, No. 4, Spring 1989

Copperheads, Wildflowers, and Skinnydipping

The Seckatary in the Ozarks

by Dale Freeman

In 1961 Missouri Senators Stuart Symington and Ed Long introduced legislation to establish a 113,000 acre Ozark Rivers National Monument along the Current, Eleven Point, and Jacks Fork rivers. Stewart L. Udall, Secretary of the Interior in the Kennedy administration, came to the Ozarks to make an on-the-spot inspection of the proposed preserve.

Udall viewed the wilderness area from a helicopter and from a john boat, and was impressed. "I knew you had some attractive scenery," he said, "but this has exceeded all my expectations."

"Americans treasure the great outdoors and the 1960s represent our last chance to save our large wilderness areas," Udall explained. "America's land is going, going, gone. In 10 years land will have disappeared and prices will be too high for the government to buy it back for the people."

He was aware of some opposition to the proposal -- signs tacked on sycamore trees along the float route read MONUMENT NO -- but, as he said later, "At least nobody shot at us."

So impressed was the Secretary that before he flew off, he proposed upgrading the status of the area from national monument to national park.

Dale Freeman, then Sunday Editor of the Springfield, Missouri, News and Leader, was one of the party of 20 which accompanied the Secretary in a seven boat caravan for a four hour, 23 mile float on the Current River. He wrote the following report for his "Ozarks Notes" column on Sunday, October I, 196 I. The illustrations were especially created for OzarksWatch by Bob Palmer, political cartoonist for the Springfield News-Leader.


We moseyed off into the interior with the Secretary of the Interior. Good chance to get away for a spell. Rest the tired ol' bones. Irritate the new, gnawing ulcers. Go on a nature kick.

A feller can be wrong, you know. Mr. Stewart L. Udall's party had invaded the hill county to look over the proposed Ozark Rivers National Monument and to learn why some folks wanted it and a good many others did not. The Seckatary, as his hosts call him, holed up at a hideaway on the

Current River about 15 miles west of Ellington, and you just cain't hardly get there from here. It is wild, rugged country, even for somebody who grew up in Wright County.

Within minutes of our arrival over a road probably used as a "Before" model in the late 1920s campaign to get Missouri out of the mud, one of the restless natives killed a diamond back rattlesnake (12 buttons) about a dozen yards from where we'd intended to sleep. It was a dandy, if you go for 12-button rattlers.

A friendly photographer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Mr. Floyd Bowser, was asked to take a picture of the slayer holding the rattler, but he informed his hosts that he wasn't taking no pictures of no snakes at no time and to get-that-damthing-away-from-me. Well, within the hour, another sportsman slew a copperhead. "It is only a lettle one," he said, waving it over his head like David getting ready to fling a donick at the giant. This particular gentleman was a barrel of fun when he was not swinging snakes.


Everything proceeded smoothly for an hour or so until a sonic boom, caused by a high-flying jet, rumbled over the wilderness and the concussion almost knocked the Big Arnj out of our hand. We had been sipping it as a possible antidote in case more snakes were captured. But we relaxed, blessing our boys in service for being ever alert and flying like a batoutahell over our campsite to protect us from the Reds or the revenooers or the John Birch society or whatever.

Our tranquility lasted only a few minutes, however. An all-'round good fellow in the party, who evidently had been sipping more Big Arnjes than anybody, suggested that let's all shuck our overhalls an go a-swimming in the

Current River. It was 10 o'clock at night and the Seckatary, who is sort of a crew-cut Teddy Roosevelt without the pith helmet, said "Bully!" We said almost the same thing merely dropping the y. But we got into a john boat with the Seckatary, peeled off and jumped in, stumping one toe and skinning one shin. The Seckatary is a strong Mormon and did not approve of what we said.

 Well, all the fellows back at the bunkhouse admitted later that it was more fun, out there cavorting in the cold Current in the altogether, and we oughta do it more often. And we said we would the next time a Democrat was elected to Congress from the 7th District.

This stumped the outsiders momentarily, giving some of us indoor sports time enough to slip off to the playing field and indulge in a hot game of darts. Since we were a four-year letterman on the dart team at Mansfield High School back in the early '40s, it was hardly any contest and we easily won the Current River championship, barely cheating at all. They don't play darts like they used to.

Well, everybody toasted the winner with branch water out of a gourd dipper and since the Seckatary no longer was there to pose for pictures, the party soon ended in an argument over whether Elizabeth Taylor was really fat or just pleasingly plump. Said one interested by-stander, who'd been refereeing the dispute: "Marls ain't near the batter the Babe was."

This was enough for one night so we crawled into a bunk, wearing shirt and socks as a protection against snakes. It seemed only seconds later, but somebody said it was 5 o'clock in the ayem when all billy broke loose. A helicopter pilot who had toted the Seckatary to the camp decided at that particular moment to rev up his contraption just outside our window. Then he hovered over us.

If you've ever been awakened in a Current River bunkhouse at sunup by a helicopter, you'll know exactly what we're talking about. Fellow in the next bunk said he didn't mind, that he was getting up anyway. He was from St. Louis and was still on DST.

But it shook us enough to rise for breakfast, prepared by Bud, a Filipino cook who used to be a messboy for Adm. Bull Halsey of the United States Navy. It was so early in the morning that we probably missed the best story of the day. Whatinell is a Filipino messboy doing in a Current River fishing camp? We forgot to ask him.


Anyway, everybody was heading for the creek and boarded seven john boats to form a caravan for a 23-mile float down the Current to Big Spring State Park south of Van Buren.

The Seckatary spent more time posing for pictures than he did anything else, but this was to be expected since that is what he was doing down there in the first place, wasn't it?

Most of the trip was uneventful, except for a young gentleman in the Seckatary's boat, who did not appear to be well and who kept dipping water from the river with a king-sized Coke bottle. We asked him why he was doing this. "Are you testing the purity of the water for the Seckatary so the Seckatary can report back to Washington?"

"Hell no," he said. "I'm thirsty." Well, about this time we began telling the boys in our boat that, as an old Washington hand and know-it-all who had seen Udall in action, we could say for sure that the Seckatary was a rugged he-man, an outdoorsman and a rough-and-tough hombre. We even thought we might do a little piece on him for, say, True Magazine or maybe the Ladies Home Journal.

But before we got the words out. the Seckatary stopped the boat, shinnied up a mossy bluff and was gone for several minutes. "He's spotted some wild animal tracks," we announced. "Might even have been a big ol' grizzly." We asked the Seckatary when he came back to the boat what he had been doing and he said, "I have been picking wild flowers." He had a bouquet in his fist and he smelled the posies and picked at them all the way down the river. As far as we know, none of the natives saw him.

Three hours later the trip finally ended and everybody announced what we knew all along: That it was the prettiest country they'd ever seen, that it would make a jim-dandy spot for a national park and that they were mighty proud the Seckatary had been able to view it firsthand. Added the Seckatary: "It is the last untouched group of rivers in the nation." After looking back over the previous 24 hours, we started to tell the Seckatary that it HAD been untouched, but that now we weren't so sure. However, he had left by then and gone off to make a Democratic speech somewhere in the eastern part of the state.

He said he'd be back in two years, and some of the fellows, who'd found a new supply of Big Amj back at the campsite, said they'd wait for him.


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