Vol. III, No. 4, Spring 1990

The OZARKS As Re-Creation

A Mystique of the Natural World

by Robert Flanders

I learned canoeing on whitewater rivers during a youth spent in Michigan. It was an active sport with a bit of danger. Coming to the Ozarks in adulthood, I was puzzled for a time about the employment of canoes on Ozarks rivers. Save in spring floods (when there is more than a hint of danger), there seemed to be little white water. The placid current was sufficient to drift one downstream with only the occasional dip of a paddle. What kind of activity was this? Where was the excitement? The fun? The sport? It didn't seem like canoeing.

It wasn't. It was "floating," a word--and a concept--new to me. Floating an Ozarks stream, one does not so much act (as one must in white-water canoeing) as one is acted upon. The idea devolves from nineteenth century thinking about health and well-being. Man should place himself in the midst of Nature and, in a reversal of the norms of modern life, allow Nature to change him. Floating is an ideal means; Ozarks rivers are an ideal place. In floating, one may steer, splash a little, get a little wet, pole fish (another near non- activity). But the important thing is to be there, breathing clean air, listening to the silence, seeing the naturally beautiful, contemplating. The result is restoration of body, mind, and soul--recreation, literally re-creation.

The concept of Nature as a healing, restorative, recreational force spread through the modernizing middle classes in the nineteenth century. Thoreau's Walden and other Transcendentalist writings condemned the efforts of the industrial revolution and urged people to escape them, to flee to Nature. Smoke, noise, machines, urban congestion and overpopulation, manufactured goods, the tyranny of clocks, sophistication, complication--in short, the accoutrements of modern civilization--were bad for Man. Nature, on the other hand, was good. Nature, properly engaged, was a palliative and a cure. Indeed, it was the cure of cures.

Before modern medicine (and modern psychology) many ills were approached with regimens of "natural" treatment: baths of hot mineral waters and mineral mud; massage; hot and cold exposures; diets of herbs, raw foods, and mineral waters; and other organic means. Active therapy was often teamed with such passive approaches as walking in the woods, quiet boating on a peaceful lake, or observing the tranquil beauty of sunset from some "inspiration point." Such regimens were called "cures," and the afflicted went away to places, often remote, that specialized in providing them. Spas, the locales of natural mineral water springs, were sites of sanatoriums, hotels and resorts. These "watering places" were often fashionable settings for entertainment. But fun was not the primary purpose. The purpose was what was known as "the cure," restoration of health, solace for the soul, recreation for the body. Eureka Springs in the Boston Mountains and Hot Springs in the Ouachitas were such places, where whole towns grew up around spa tourism.


Other less celebrated spas flourished for a time in the Ozarks. One notable example was the sanatorium-hotel developed to dispense "magnetic water" at Lebanon, Laclede County, Missouri. The pipes through which the water flowed were magnetized, leading to the assumption that the water they carried was magnetic. "Magnetic water" was even bottled and shipped to distant markets. Water, of course, cannot be magnetized; the pipes derived their extraordinary effect from a subsurface stratum of magnetite through which they passed. The commercial success of this hotel and its "magnetic water" suggests not so much the naivete of patrons as their almost pathetic eagerness to believe in the curative properties of natural elements--in this case electricity and Ozarks water.

In our modern time of ubiquitous air conditioning, we tend to forget a very direct role played by the natural Ozarks in restoring a sense of well being to visitors. Torpid summers in the American Midwest were so oppressively hot that people went for weeks or months without a complete, refreshing night's sleep. The effect on the sense of well-being, and of health itself, was severe. The Ozarks' higher elevations, the cool waters of springs, the cool air of caves, and the slide of cooling air down vegetated slopes in the evening, made the region an escape, a retreat from the desperate oppression of lowland (and urban) summer. Tourists often felt better here, and doubtless with cause.

A century ago "nature" was perceived as rugged, primitive, beautiful, raw, unspoiled, uncivilized, unpolished, and clean. The Ozarks qualified on all counts, including its natural people. In The Shepherd of the Hills (1907) Harold Bell Wright wrote a novel around the idea of an Ozarks cure. The Shepherd, the product of urban civilization, has been ravaged by that civilization. He comes to Taney County, Missouri for recreation and restoration, a process which includes involvement with the "natural" folks of the neighborhood. In the fashion of romantic Edwardian sub-literature, The Shepherd of the Hills is a morality tale. The central moral: go the country, be in nature, and both body and soul may be saved.

Visitors, intent on recreation, have for years made the Ozarks a popular destination. In this issue, OzarksWatch focuses on one region of Ozarks tourist country--the upper White River valley of northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri. Now an area heavily influenced by a series of large impoundments, the White River valley provides an interesting case study of Ozarks tourism past, present, and becoming.

In her article about an Arcadian Ozarks, Linda Myers-Phinney details some of the turn-of-the-century developments which coincided with the popularization of the Ozarks mystique by The Shepherd of the Hills and which brought a rush of tourism to the Southwest Missouri counties of Stone and Taney. Crescent Dragonwagon's sophisticated commentary helps explain the persistence of the idea that "Arkansas is a Natural." The story about the Cook family on Bull Shoals Lake indicates that the flood control / electric power enterprises of the big dams of the Corps of Engineers have also created major tourist attractions generating local employment opportunities and other economic advantages. Peter Herschend's OzarksView calls for the preservation of Ozarks naturalness in the face of threats resulting from the enormous success of tourist businesses whose main appeal, ironically, often depends upon the very ideals being threatened--Ozarks' simplicity and rusticity.

Tourism, with the many significant economic, social, and cultural influences it brings to communities, is a way of life throughout much of the Ozarks today. Visitors come to the Ozarks for many reasons, including, I suspect, the continued pursuit of an Ozarks mystique. They are seeking, at least in part, naturalness, health and well being, and happiness--qualities that those of us who live here have come to cherish, even though we may take them for granted.


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