Vol. VI, No. 1, Summer 1992 / No. 2, Fall 1992


The Transformation of the Ozarks

by Glen Holt

Glen Holt is an urban historian whose own roots are on a Kansas farm. A longtime friend and contributor to OzarksWatch, he is now Executive Director of the St. Louis Public Libraries.

In the beginning was the land. The first forms of the Ozarks Plateau were rough-cut in the upheaval of creation. Over the centuries wind, rain, ice, snow and sun rounded forms, deepened valleys and cut stream beds. For millennia the Ozarks lay wild and remote, its valleys fallow with lush vegetation.

On to the rugged plateau came human kind. First appeared native Americans, their distant origins now shrouded in folklore. Nomads, hunters and tillers of the soil, they hardly marked the land which granted their sustenance.

The native Americans left a great legacy, however. They introduced the idea of place, naming geographical features throughout the Ozarks region. Bon Honune Creek, the French took from the Osage "Nika-dohne," or "good man"; the White River came from the Fox word "Ne Ska" or "Niska", naming the color; and Poly Moonshine, a stretch of the Meramec in Franklin County, traces its origins to the Algonquian "Pohquimoosi", or "place where the rocks are smoothly broken off." Other examples abound.

After the Indians came a succession of explorers --Spanish, French, English and later American -- from the French Desoto to Kentuckian Daniel Boone -- and traders like the famous Chouteau brothers out of St. Louis. To find their way between campsite and rendezvous point and back to "civilization", they remarked old Indian trails. Although a few of the pathfinders claimed hazy land grants, in most cases their impact on the Ozarks land endured only until their mocossined footprints disappeared from the bent grass.

Through the last half of the 18th century, a surge of energy began to spread through the region. Miners, farmers and town-builders -- the fu'st generations of entrepreneurial go-getters -- made their way into the region. They brought with them the spirit of transformation.

The go-getters regarded nature differently than the earlier arrivals. Everywhere the newcomers looked in the lush, raw terrain, they saw resources -- trees, soil, minerals, and water-- that could be turned into profits. Using human and animal power, the go-getters carved new forms into the Ozarks landscape.

Farmers plowed through the thick grass of the valleys, turning up rich top soil in which to seed crops. To grind grain into flour, millers dammed up scenic rivers, filling lowland valleys with water power. Miners scraped gashes on Ozarks hillsides and dug pits and shafts deep into the earth to extract the region's mineral wealth. Road and railroad builders rounded hill tops and filled in valleys to give access to resources and to connect places. Everybody cut down timber and quarried rock to build homes, stores, factories, barns and granaries.

Progress and profit took their toll. The human etchings grew deeper in the Ozarks landscape. Some like the giant piles of mine tailings -- could never be erased.

But after more than a century of energetic exploitation, the Ozarks landscape still dominated. Most streams remained free-flowing, undisciplined and clear. The lush vegetation reclaimed abandoned railroad rights-of-way and unused roads.

Some once-thriving hamlets decayed into ghost towns and then disappeared, or became backwater eddys of the agricultural and industrial revolutions. And off the roads, back in the Ozarks "hollers," grew up extended families, some nearly as isolated as New Guinea tribes, who hunted and fished and scratched the earth for food not much differently than Native Americans had done centuries before.

In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, nature still dominated in the Ozarks. Because of that, there occurred a new kind of development. The movement started with a trickle of rich gentlemen who laid rural estates and hunting lodges, and artists and craftspeople who established little work colonies in natural (and inexpensive) settings.

At the same time, as part of a national conservation movement, federal and Missouri officials set aside hugh estates of public land. While the rich gentlemen had their hunting preserves, the rest of the people gained federal and state parks and forest preserves which lay like wilderness jewels, nature's public treasure houses in the Ozarks.

In 1913 the first major hydro electric dam spanned an Ozarks river -- the White, in Taney County. Its object was to supply power for the expanding Tri-State mining industry a hundred miles to the northwest. The resulting Lake Taneycomo began a tradition if impoundments for both electricity and recreation that was to chart a new direction for the twentieth century Ozarks. (See "Tourism in the White River Valley," OzarksWatch, Spring, 1990.)


A generation later, a St. Louis corporation, the Union Electric Company, sought cheap electric power to fuel economic growth in the eastern half of Missouri. UE transformed the Osage River. Bagnell Dam, finished two years into the Great Depression, in October 1931, remains a critical turning point in the region's history.

Bagnell Dam marked a number of significant milestones. First the dam itself, with its 2,543-feet length and 48-feet height over the Osage Riverbed rock, was as important a physical symbol to the 1930s Ozarks as the Water Tower for 1860s Chicago or the Jefferson Memorial Arch for 1960s St. Louis.

The dam created the Lake of the Ozarks, continuing the tradition of backing up the region's rivers to create idealized settings for those who loved fishing, boating or vistas over sparkling lakes and dense forests.

Most importantly, the project pointed the way to the future. Bagnell Dam when built was the largest concrete structure in the world and was at once symbol and spur for the modernization of the Ozarks region.

To carry the "hydro" away from the dam, UE workers strung "high wire"through cut-away strips of Ozarks forest. The effort marked the dawn of the day when electric lines hooked up Ozarks towns and farms, even those in the"hollers," to the modem energy source.

Bagnell Dam also showed what tourism could mean -- strings of cabins filled with eager vacationers wanting to be close to "The Lake." The 1941 American Guide Series for Missouri told one part of the story, painting a word picture of "an increasing number of filling stations, roadside eating places, tourist camps, novelty stands, and brightly painted signs with arrows pointing along winding dirt and graveled roads [to] indicate a widely publicized recreational area."

Millions of little picture postcards mailed from the The Lake told the other side of the story. On the picture side appeared a photograph or a caricature of a make-believe "holler" family dressed in ragged-but-clean clothes and standing on a ramshackle set designed to resemble the stereotypical outland cabin. On the message and address side, the words almost always were the same. "Big Fish! Beautiful Scenery! Having a Wonderful Time! Wish You Were Here!"

Tourism had become business in the Ozarks. Business flows out of such an energizing event as Bagnell dam. Modem tourism always points the way to future development for its area because it creates an economic mass around which opportunistic entrepreneurs will risk their time and money. This is true nationally. The Ozarks is no exception.

Along with tourism came rapid urbanization. Some sections of the Ozarks are now as suburban and as "strip-mailed" as any area adjacent to Kansas City or St. Louis. Where rurality once reigned, urban uses, streets and the growing need for land-hungry highways now dominate. The need for light manufacturing industrial sites in what is now perceived as a "high amenity region" adds pressure to the demand for development land.

As a result, not surprisingly, the Ozarks has changed. The rounded forms of the landscape are still there, but much of what has made the Ozarks distinctive has all but disappeared in many sections of the region.

Before modernization moved to center state, Ozarks residents and visitors alike recognized the Ozarks as a distinctive place with a physical character that was part and parcel of everyday life. Tourism and urbanization blurred the physical distinctions, transforming the region into one more convenient setting for much of the same thing that goes on everywhere else in America.

The change could be seen in how visitors used the Ozarks. Most came to The Lake and hardly looked at it. Instead they ate in convenient restaurants ---often the same franchise outlets close to their homes in Walla Walla, Keokuk, or Passaic; they shopped at convenient stores -- sometimes in the same "discount" malls which they could find at the mouth of Hilton Head, inthe suburbs of Seattle or outside San Antonio; or they attended professional entertainment -- mostly country music --just as they would have in Nashville, New Orleans or Las Vegas.

The Ozarks -- a distinct place with a distinctive history -- is still there, of course, but not many notice. Scholars at a few folklife centers attempt to preserve Ozarks crafts and/or Ozarks music and lifestyles, but , it is hard to save an anachronism that cannot be measured for purity; a few heritage tour groups move from adventure to adventure, seeking to learn more about the Ozarks past before its chroniclers are all long dead; and every weekend, countless big city dwellers meander their automobiles along the narrow paved or gravel roads trying to comprehend the distinctive character of Ozarks life. All those who search find only small pieces of the intricate whole.

In the beginning was the land -- and the land remains. The sharp-edged shadows still come in quick day's end to the Ozarks valleys, but piercing lights and amplified sounds now break the night-time quiet. Tourism, modernism and progress have come to the Ozarks. The weather-deepened valleys, the rounded mountains, the still-flowing waters -- these now are at the edge or in the background of the region's course of development. The Ozarks are riding the crest of a wave of progress. And the once-distinctive region is now much more like everywhere else in America.


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