Vol. V, No. 2, Fall 1991

Making Do:.
Ozark Ingenuity in Toolmaking

The rugged hill country of the southeastern Missouri Ozarks was first settled by Euro pean-Americans in the two decades after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

Most were of Scottish and Irish descent, progeny of inhabitants of the Plantation of Ulster in 17th century Northern Ireland who found their way to America in the 18th century. Settling first in Pennsylvania, they migrated after the Revolutionary War into the Appalachian South. By the end of the 18th century and the first decade of the 19th century, much of the arable land in that region was occupied. In 1803, the United States acquired the Ozarks region as part of the Louisiana Purchase and many settlers came to this new land where they could continue to practice their efficient traditions of subsistence and self-reliance. By the Civil War, the Ozarks hills were dominated by these people of Appalachia.

Labeled as "hillbillies" for generations, the people of the Ozarks Highland demanded little from industrialized society. It has been their nature to make do with the resources at hand and to adjust and adapt to meet changing conditions. Many of their tools seem primitive when compared to commercially-manufactured counterparts, yet they served well the needs of life in the hills and represent the continuation of older European-American traditions and habits of work.

Each handmade tool in this exhibit was fashioned from local woods and metal parts, often recycled from wornout files, saws, and wagon and buggy parts. Most specimens were made by the intended user, not by specialized toolmakers, and many continued in service for generations. These home-made tools served their purposes well, assisting their owners in carrying out a subsistence in the deep woods of the Ozarks hollows. As handmade objects, the tools in this exhibit reflect the aesthetic choices of a community and the ingenuity of a people.

This exhibit is a tribute to those hill people whose basic way of life reaches back six centuries to Scotland and Ireland, a way of life that thrived on bare technological essentials. Subsistence living prevailed in the southeastern Missouri Ozarks until after World War II, but encroaching modernity has all but swept it away. These ingeniously made tools are tangible evidence of that subsistence way of life. As such, they deserve our careful study and preservation as important cultural objects.

Dr. James E. Price is a Ripley County, Missouri, native who collects and uses antique woodworking tools. He wrote Bowin' An' Spikin' in th' Jil/ikins, for the "Hunting and Fishing" issue of OzarksWatch. Under the auspices of the Missouri Cultural Heritage Center he has assembled an exhibit of handmade tools from the Ozarks which is on display at the Current River Heritage Museum in Doniphan, Ripley County. OzarksWatch travelled to Doniphan to photograph a few of the many tools on display in this excellent exhibit. The text presented here is from a brochure prepared by Dr. Price to accompany the exhibit.


A small saw made from a larger recycled saw blade. Used for general sawing. The morticing chisel is made from a recycled file. Used to cut mortices for mortice and tenon joints.

The caption reads, "Basketmaker's willow withe cleaver made of dogwood. Used to split willow limbs into 4 even segments for basket splints. Ripley County"
The floe is made from a large farrier's rasp. Used to split or rive shingles and clapboards. The froe club is made of hickory. Used to strike the froe.


Homemade wooden moulding plane. Used to make mouldings for furniture and architecture.

Chairmaker's scraper. Used to smooth chair rungs and posts in chairmaking. Blade is made of recycled saw blade.



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