Volume 2, Number 9 - Fall 1966

Life in the Ozarks Then and Now
by Margaret Gerten Hoten

Not more than 80 years ago the Ozark Mountains in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas were among the forgotten land in this great country. Today this region is forging rapidly ahead, and is among the vacation spots, well worth visiting.

But it was not always so; for many years this part of the state with its tree-covered mountains was ignored. Its people were content with a frugal living, having lost much of the ambition their ancestors had when they settled in this part of the state. The country lay dormant. There had not been many changes since the end of the Civil War; and conditions were not too good in many parts of the United States. Many people began to plan on moving West.

In the year 1885 Grover Cleveland took office as the 22nd President of the United States. One of his acts was to repeal the high tariff which had kept foreign goods from competing with goods made in this country. Among them were clay pipes; now they could be sold for far less here than the local shops could make and sell them for, at even a small profit.

In the small town of Fulton, Illinois on the Mississippi River there were four pipe shops, when Cleveland, after being defeated by Benjamin Harrison in 1888, was elected for a second term in 1892. The tariff however remained low on foreign imports and in a few years pipe makers hit rock bottom. In 1900 the last shop closed; none is known to be in this country at present. Shipment of pipes in early days was mostly by boat to St. Louis and often exceeded 75,000 a month, many also were shipped by rail to Chicago and distributed as far West as Washington state.

The outcome was that Father, after learning the trade in Germany (coming to America in 1869) was forced to close his shop and try some other way to keep a roof over our heads and the pot boiling. It was hard after working for yourself for many years to start working for someone else. He decided to "go on the land" as he put it.

But the price of land in many locations was more than many could pay. The only thing to do was to go where the land was open for homesteading. Father decided to give this a try; it would be a change for all of us. It was now impossible for him to clear more than $1.50 a day, even with all the family helping. We went to school and worked three to four hours a day in the shop, all of Saturday and all of vacations. Thinking that we could go to school, and work outside the remainder of the time, we were all for changing shop life for life on a homestead.

About this time an acquaintance had gone to the Ozarks, and filed on a claim in Missouri. He wrote glowing letters about the wonderful climate, pure air and water, and the good life for all who lived there. He was a dreamer, but he believed in his dreams. So burning all bridges behind him, Father and the older son, Henry, left in late summer of 1896, taking the pipes on hand to sell in St. Louis. This part of the trip was made by river boat. From St. Louis they would travel by rail and wagon to the promised land. The rest of the family—Mother, Sister Anna, John, and I were to follow as soon as the home was sold.

After Father and Henry left, the weeks passed slowly and when a boom in real-estate died down, we had no more offers for our property. In election years things are always at a stand still, and 1896 was no exception. William Jennings Bryan had made his "No crown of thorns, no cross of gold" speech in Chicago and received the nomination for President of the United States on the Democratic ticket. William McKinley was nominated on the Republican ticket and won the election in November. Then the country settled down again.

After the Christmas holidays John and I did not return to school; as by now a deal had been made and the home sold. In February we would leave Illinois. I wished we could have continued with our classes. We felt lonely watching former schoolmates go by each day and hearing the bell ring. Thinking about what was taking place in the old red school-house on the hill, we felt isolated as if we were quarantined for mumps or measles.

Finally we received a letter from Father saying he had filed on 160 acres of land near a small settlement and Post-Office called Cedar Creek. Spring came early in the Ozarks. There was much work to be done; land to clear, rails to split for fences, brush to burn and rocks to pick everywhere. Father was anxious for us to come. On a cold, dark morning a few weeks later, we stood on the platform at the depot shivering with cold and excitement, as the glaring headlight of the engine came sweeping across the track. The train that was to take us as far as St. Louis, with a screech and cloud of steam, jolted to a stop.

By late afternoon we were near East St. Louis. We could see the muddy current away out in midstream where the big muddy Missouri joined the Mississippi river. Soon we were crossing over the


Eads bridge, the first steel arch bridge built in the United States, and opened in 1874. After a few hours wait in what was, at this time, considered to be the finest depot in the west, we again boarded a train for our next stop, Springfield, Missouri. We arrived after a night’s journey as dawn was breaking, and after procuring some coffee to drink with the last of the food we had brought along, we sat and dozed on the hard benches. We were all very tired.

Our last train was called at 9 o’clock. It was a one trip a day combination: freight, passenger and milk train that picked up everything along the way, stopping to let the people off at every cow-path, like a local bus does today. The conductor, a friendly gray-haired man, evidently had been on this run for years, he knew and chatted with everyone in the coach. Finally with a long, loud blast of the whistle we arrived at the end of our rail journey, and saw Father waiting on the open platform. It had taken us four hours to make this thirty-mile trip to Chadwick, the end of the line from Springfield south.

Father had hired a neighbor, Ben Clark, to take him to the railroad, a distance of 35 miles from his homestead and to bring us to our new home via "The big road". After loading us and our numerous pieces of baggage into a big wagon drawn by a plump mare and a lop eared mule, who was not too ambitious, we drove a few miles and stopped at a clearing off the road to make a lunch. While Ben watered and fed his team, Father made a fire; and getting eggs, bacon, coffee, and bread out of the "Grub-Box" he soon had our first meal ready. Somehow it all tasted very good, in spite of a smokey flavor and a few ashes, it was like a picnic in the woods and we all enjoyed it.

After putting out the fire we resumed our journey. That day we made less than 15 miles. The big road like some hiways today, wound around and through mountains wherever it could, and distance was not estimated as "the crow flies". Darkness had fallen as we stopped at a bunk-house which might be called the forerunner of the present day motel. There was a large lot for the teams and wagons, a good supply of wood, and water from the creek.

It was about 18 or 20 miles from Swan, as this place was called, after the creek on which it was located, to our homestead. A young couple, Mr. Milt and Mrs. Bess Merrick, were the owners.

The big road by John Gerten wood cut image

The big road by John Gerten


Several years ago on a call at the office of a Dr. John Merrick in Seattle, I was surprised to find that he was the son of the Merricks who had been so kind to the weary travelers from Illinois the night they spent at Swan. Dr. Merrick had not yet been born at this time. I had not thought of connecting the name with any one in the Ozark Hills! I read of Mrs. Bess Merrick’s death in the "Taney County Republican" last year.

On that long-ago day, we had our evening meal in the dining room. There was a community kitchen furnished with a large cook-stove, a table and benches. Here freighters could cook their own meals, a small store carried staple goods, and feed. Freighters often slept in their wagons when not loaded with merchandise. If the weather was bad it cost only ten cents for a bunk and an armful of clean straw. "Drummers", as the old time salesmen were called, found rooms available in the main building, as did most men with families.

I will never forget the big oak bedstead and the walls papered with newsprint. It was all clean and comfortable, but we had never seen newsprint wall-paper before; the day came, tho, when we also used it! After a good night of rest and a hearty breakfast, we started out on the last lap of our wagon trip. It was not quite 20 miles to our clearing, but it was dusk when we got to our new home. Henry was waiting for us, he had grown tall in the six months that we had not seen him. After unloading our belongings, Ben drove off to his home half a mile down the "hollow".

Our homestead was located thirty-five miles almost due south of Chadwick, it was a mile south by west from Cedar Creek P. O. and store, mill and the few houses that made up the village. Cornettown, as it was called then, but now is Groom, was three miles west from home, and on the Springfield—Harrison, Ark, big-road. This road passed our place some 3/4 of a mile north. It was not more than four miles from White River, and what is now Bull-Shoals. Our nearest neighbor, to the west, whose land joined ours, was the Russell family. I am sure ‘ ‘Uncle Buck’’ and his three daughters, Geneva, Elsie, and Myrtle, will be remembered by many of the old timers, as they all taught school at some time in Taney Co.

It is unbelievable in this day and age of speed, that it could take so much time to make this short distance. It was always a three-days round trip to the railroad at Chadwick, and six days for the round trip to Springfield, a distance of sixty miles, where supplies were loaded at wholesale houses. To understand, one had to travel these roads, they were not worked to keep them in good shape as they were in most parts of the state by regular crews or by convict labor, as in some states. The roads not only were steep, there were many ledges, which gave a team poor footing. With a load of 2,000 pounds of freight on the heavy wagons it was necessary for them to take frequent rests. All the wagons had brakes, but quite often a large stone was also placed under the wheels to hold them. It was never an easy pull.

Large horses, such as those common in plains countries, could not have taken these roads as well as the small horses native in the hills. Mules were preferred by many, they were very strong and surefooted. It took less feed to keep them in good condition when working. The only drawback was their unpredictable temperament—they could kick a man without any reason before he could bat an eye.

We were all glad that our journey was over and as soon as the fire was burning in the stove, we had our supper, as the evening meal was referred to in those days. The oil lamp that had been in the family for as many years as I could remember, was throwing a glow of light, which made the room more home-like. After the dishes were cleared away, we settled down and listened to the plans Father had made. Then after he had heard all the news of friends in the old home town, we were ready to call it a day.

Full of energy we were up bright and early the next morning, eager to explore and get our bearings.

Our first task was to gather enough crisp oak leaves, to fill the new ticks Father had suggested we bring with us to fill with straw for beds. He had bought a load of straw, but he had not thought of the cattle running loose in the woods. They found the straw stack, and had a free lunch, so we had to fill the ticks with leaves.

In a few weeks household goods that had been sent by freight had arrived. Now we had a few more articles to get along with. From now on we were all kept busy, as more of the land was cleared, rails split, and brush dragged into huge piles and burnt. That was when I developed muscles in my arms. Father had been handicapped since he was about 14 years old by an injury to his left knee—he could not bend it. A long two-handle cross cut saw was used to cut down trees, first chopping a deep gash into one side. Father could pull one end of the saw when he was standing. It was very hard for him to kneel on the rocky, sloping, ground to help saw the trunks into rail lengths. So I was elected to pull the saw with Henry most of the time. It was rather a big job for a twelve-year old girl, but I liked to hear the saw sing as it cut through the green log.

After the cut was about half through we had to pound an iron wedge into the cut to keep it open, using a big hammer. The head was a piece of hickory, some 12 inches in diameter. The handle was also of hickory, as it is tough wood. The natives


used a piece of log the same size, but three feet long, trimming it to a thickness of four inches a foot from one end. This formed the handle and was called a maul. Shingles, or shakes as they were often called, were made of red or white oak, cut into 18 inch-long blocks, which were split into shingles ¾ of an inch thick. A frow made by the local blacksmith was used to split them. It was like a large cleaving knife, with the blade at right angles to the handle.

After the first month had passed, some of the excitement and ideas we had at first were worn thin, like the soles of our shoes. The visions we had at first of country life in Illinois, with its level fields; the rolling pastures, orchards, and neat buildings were gone. Our past experience in woodcraft had been limited to a trip in spring to a spot near the river, where wild flowers grew in the shade of wild crab apple trees, their mass of blossoms like pink clouds. In the rich soil had grown May-apples with waxy blooms of white. Buttercups, daisies, and sky purple and yellow violets had hidden in sheltered spots. In fall we climbed a hill where butternut and black walnut trees grew very straight and tall. That had been the extent of our pioneering.

Now there were woods surrounding us on every side, as there was no clearing closer than a half mile. We carried water from springs; it was pure as it came over limestone from within the hills. The trees were all hardwood, except the red cedar, the only evergreen tree.

There was no way of earning much money here. What we had left from the sale of our home, after our travel expenses were paid, was going all too fast. There were so many things to buy; tools from plows to hoes, picks, crow-bars, saws, and nails. We needed seeds and other items to say nothing of staples, half soles for shoes and so on. This took cash, without any hope of income before fall.

One cannot expect too much the first year of any land that has never been cultivated. When it starts from scratch, with a family of six to feed, and no resources left to draw on, it is bound to be rough going.

In order for anyone who has not experienced starting a new life, under adverse circumstances in a locality that is yet sparsely settled, to understand the hardship, sweat and weary months of toil and disappointment, one must go through. Our family found out the hard way.

The Ozark Mountain country is in southwest Missouri and extends into Arkansas. It was made famous by Harold Bell Wright in his book, The Shepherd of the Hills. The scene was set in Taney County, named for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, from 1836 until his death. Taney County is on the Arkansas border and has been associated of late years with "Hill-Billy" plays, fiddle music, and square dances. This is not always quite true of the men and women who first settled in this area, of the now great "Show-Me" state. Let us go back to the history of this region, and its earlier settlers.

The Ozarks are a plateau sloping gently to the surrounding country, with upland surfaces ranging in elevation from about 1,200 feet in the southwest to 1,000 feet above sealevel in the eastern-central part. As far as the eye can see they look like huge, dark blue waves, large rocks and ledges of black volcanic formation are near the crest of many. Numerous flint and lime rocks of all sizes are scattered all over the slopes, with larger ones beneath the surface.

The flat land nestled between the mountains, or hills as they are more often referred to, can hardly be called valleys. The whole area is covered with timber, mostly oak, of several varieties, some ash, red cedar, and hickory on the ridges. In the bottom lands, walnut and sycamore trees grew tall and straight.

Game was plentiful in the early days. Deer, bear, and some bison roamed the hills, while cotton-tail rabbits, squirrels and flocks of wild turkeys and quail were in abundance. Not so popular with the settlers were predatory animals such as the panther, who screamed as he prowled the woods, and the civet cats, foxes, skunks, and opposum, who by night raided their barns and coops.

Hawks swooped from the sky and carried off young chickens, crows harass the settlers in planting time, while large turkey buzzards soaring high watched for fallen prey. Beavers were busy building dams across streams and rivers, which were filled with bass, trout, and other fish.

Prior to the Civil War there were not many settlers in this part of the state. The Osage Indians lived here, holding extensive territory between the Missouri and the Arkansas Rivers in Oklahoma. During the first half of the 18th century they sold most of their land to the United States. In 1870 they entered their present reservation in northeastern Oklahoma.

The Homestead Law, enacted by the United States Congress in 1862, enabled any citizen without capital over 21 years of age, or as the head of a family, to file for a grant of land. This grant was not to exceed 160 acres, in any state except the 13 original states and Maine, Vermont, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas.

The law required the homesteader to settle on, cultivate, and improve his claim for a period of at least 14 months.

No creditors could levy against land so acquired for payment of a debt contracted prior to the issuance of the grant. These laws were of great


importance in providing the incentive for the settlement of the West when this Federal land was open to homesteaders.

About 1840, descendants of settlers in the Jamestown colony in Virginia, where in 1690 the first Negro slaves were introduced into the original colonies, began to settle in Kentucky and Tennessee. Generations later history was repeating itself as the pioneer spirit grew with civilization. Now the move was westward again.

New trails now led through Missouri, where St. Louis, on the mighty Mississippi, was growing as steamboats b e g a n transporting cargo and people. And to St. Joseph on the big muddy Missouri. These towns were known as the gateway to the west. "St. Joe" was the starting point of the Pony Express, and wagon trains crossing the great plains to California, where in 1849 gold had been discovered.

There were many people seeking new homes who did not have enough money to join a wagon train for the far West. After the Homestead Law was passed they decided to settle in southern Missouri, or in the adjoining state of Arkansas on the south. Missouri had been admitted to the Union in 1821 as a slave state, after Congress had agreed on the Missouri Compromise Bill, which prohibited slavery north of 36 -30 . It was on this question that the state was divided. Because they had not been slave holders, the bill caused the settlers in the backwoods little concern. They considered themselves lucky to have a team and wagon, a few cattle and what household goods and tools they had brought with them. Since very few people had preceded them, there was still plenty of rich bottom land along the beautiful White River, which winds its way between Missouri and Arkansas.

The settlers merely picked out a piece of land, either in the bottom, or on a ridge if there was a good spring on it. Then they cleared a spot and built a log house, cutting cedar or white oak to make shakes for the roof, and using a sapling for the ridge pole to fasten the shakes to. A stone f ire-place, daubed with red clay, was a must, both for cooking and heat, and added light in winter. Windows were a luxury not often found in the early homes, in summer the door was left open and only necessary cooking was done on the hearth.

Land was cleared to make fields and a garden also a pasture for calves. This was all enclosed with rail fences; most of the older stock ran free on the open range, but seldom wandered far. Somehow people lived, and those with ambition forged ahead of the ones who preferred to trap for their living rather than to work the rocky soil.

Situated in the milder half of the temperate zone the winters were warm compared with other parts of the Midwest. Only a few light snowfalls covered the thick carpet of fallen leaves. As spring came early, the grass turned green when the rains came, which were often quite heavy, and lasted for weeks.

Wild flowers made a carpet of brilliant color over the rough ground. Many flowering shrubs grew along the ravines that ran down the hillsides, among them were dogwood, red bud, wavery ash, wild plum, and cherry. In the fall wild grape vines draped the tallest trees and were loaded with bunches of purple fruit when autumn came.

For a treat on long winter evenings there were black walnut and hickory nuts to be had for the picking. Persimmons, which the opposum was fond of, grew on crooked little trees in the rocky soil on the ridges. Pawpaw on tall trees along the river bottom, were loaded with yellow fruit, somewhat like a banana, but shorter and thicker. Wild bees filled the trunks of hollow trees with great masses of honey from flowers that bloomed everywhere. One had only to follow the bees to find the "bee tree" and gather the golden comb. It did indeed seem to be the land of milk and honey, only at times the milk was scarce.

After the Homestead Law was passed some of the men did not bother to go to the nearest land office to file on land they claimed, and where they now established their homes. Many new-comers also failed to do so in later years. These people were called "squatters" and some had lived for years on this land without being disturbed. Years later many homes were endangered, when someone filed a claim on the land occupied by a squatter. It was then a matter of the squatter losing his home, land, and improvements, but if the man who held the legal right wished to do so, he could pay what he felt was a fair price for the improvement. However this was not compulsory.

When the Civil War started in 1861 it seemed a long way from the backwoods of the Ozarks. But as war clouds gathered ever closer, many of the people in the slave states, eager to escape the war, sought refuge with their kinfolks in the hills of Missouri. There was still plenty of land for homesteaders. The ancestry of the majority of these settlers was English, and to this day many of the names and expressions heard among old timers were common in old England. These people were, as a rule, religious and peaceful, helping one another in time of need. They could always find a place at their table, and shelter for the night for any traveler passing through. Around the evening fire they listened eagerly to news of the world outside the hills. They were a happy people, content with the simple pleasures this life had to offer.

In 1862 men from 18 to 45 years of age were enrolled by conscription into the Confederate Army. When the war ended in 1865 many returned


to their homes in the Ozark hills, many others also made their way into this quiet spot in a turbulent world to start life over again.

The war had brought many changes in their way of life. The men and boys, fighting for a cause which they eventually lost, had gone through years of hardship. They were often bitter and lacked respect for the laws made by the government in the north. Not too much attention was paid to this part of the state that had been divided, and more important affairs left the folks in this neck of the woods to shift for themselves. The younger generation held the reins as the 19th century drew to a close.

Then more settlers from the north and midwest began to migrate to the Ozark country looking for new homes. These people were called "outlanders" or "furriners" by many who resented their coming. Everything was done to discourage them, so they would not encourage others to follow. The reason was that they wanted the land left open for their cattle and hogs to feed on.

These settlers also considered the woods to be all their own. They were cutting fine cedar and walnut trees wherever they grew, regardless of whether it was in their claim or not. What they did not need for their own use, was floated down the White River and sold to the mills. It was a joke among them that their line curved and twisted, to take in every choice tree near their claim.

A group of hot-headed younger men, secretly revolting against newcomers, organized a band which became known as the "Bald-Knobbers". They met at night on a bare, round hill to plan moves to discourage more "furriners" from coming into the hills. A number of the band would ride to the home of a settler, and warn him to leave. If the warning was not heeded, they came again, and a third warning was severe enough that the newcomer thought it wise to leave. Then one of the band would take over the place.

In time, word of these activities reached the ears of the Government, and a former Confederate General, Joseph Shelby, was sent to put a stop to any more lawlessness. But there were some diehards among the men who were not satisfied to live and let live, as older men were.

One last effort to reorganize after Shelby left met with failure, and as hate and suspicion gradually died away, the Ozarks became spotted with new clearings. Although they found they no longer could drive new settlers from their land, they derived deep satisfaction in getting the best of them in a horse trade or any other deal. This was to be expected of them.

Father and Henry left for Missouri in August of 1896. The other members of our family, after selling our home in Ill., left there in early February, 1897.

At the time we arrived in Missouri Sister Anna was 16, John was 9, and Henry, who had come with rather six month before was 14, and I, Margaret, was 12 years of age that month (Feb).

We had reached the Ozarks to make a new home in early February, just before the rainy season set in, and all during the month of March it poured most of the time. But the work to be done could not wait, when too wet to work in the woods, we could always pick rocks. We used a crowbar and pick to dig out the big ones, these we needed for the outer edges of the stone walls, filling the center up with small ones. We made the walls

Spring plowing by John Gerten wood cut image

Spring plowing by John Gerten


across gullies to keep the soil from washing away. It was all back-breaking work, and looked upon as folly by the natives. As one remarked "No use picking them off, as they all come back", What he meant was that each time the ground was plowed, more rocks came to the surface. In their simple philosophy—what was the use?

It was nearly planting time, and rail fences must be built before the ground was broken, a few acres here and a few acres there. Ravines and ledges, some barely covered with ground, made large fields impossible. Jim Jones, who lived some miles from us, had a stout team and was glad to earn a few dollars for breaking and harrowing our land. When the newly-broken ground dried enough, the larger pieces were laid off in furrows across the slope, about three feet apart. In the midwest, fields were laid off in squares for corn, but here that was not possible. When the furrows were ready, four grains of white corn were dropped every three feet, while beady eyed crows watched us. We had to cover it all with hoes as fast as planted or these watchers would have stolen it.

All planting was done by hand, as was most of the cultivation. A single or double shovel plow was used whenever possible. Cotton was planted in early May, after first rubbing the fuzzy seeds with ashes to free them from lint, then dropped thickly into furrows and covered. Later, when the plants were six inches tall one was left every foot, and others chopped out. We planted melon seeds alongside the cotton, as we ware told melons grew better in the shade of cotton plants.

(to be continued)


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