Volume 2, Number 10 - Winter 1966

Life in the Ozarks—Then and Now

by Margaret Gerten Hoten

(continued from Fail 1966 Quarterly)

Hunting Season by John Gerten wood cut image

Hunting Season
John Gerten

its toll of our shoes, and we children, except for my sister, were runing barefooted. In Illinois we could hardly wait until the weather was warm enough to shed our shoes, but here the going was rough. Our feet became so calloused that when we kicked a flint rock sparks would fly! Often a thorn would be embeded so deep that we did not feel it for a few days.

When the weather became warmer we were constantly on guard when picking up large rocks, or chunks of wood as under them might be a large centipede or scorpion. Tarantulas and snakes also made their appearance. Most of the snakes were harmless, but the copperhead was deadly, wasps, bees, hornets and yellow-jackets began to wake up, and kept us watching. If we did get stung, well the bottle of turpentine was always handy, and a remedy for most injuries. Axle grease also was used on cuts and stone bruises on either man or beast, and it was surprisingly effective. Old knew which leaves or roots of plants and shrubs timers knew which leaves or roots of plants and shrubs that grew wild were a cure or relief for various ills. I remember when we had a cold we were told to gather the round fleshy leaves and fruit of the prickly pear cactus; the fruit was called Indian fig. There were large plants everywhere, their blossoms a brilliant yellow. We boiled the fruit or leaves, then strained the juice through ten or more thickness of cloth. This was to make sure none of the fine, hair like thorns went through, the large thorns were no problem. Then adding sugar to the juice. We boiled it until it was syrup. It had a very pleasant taste; and was excellent for cough and colds.

Sassafras bark from the roots of trees growing in woods and field would have made enough tea to supply an army. It was said it thinned the blood, and many of the people drank it in the spring.

Perhaps it was a good thing that folks knew what to do in case of illness or accidents, as the nearest Doctor was often located in the county seat, twenty miles away, and if out on a call might not be reached for hours. The only way to get word anywhere was by horseback, the Doctor traveling the same way. Many were born, lived to a ripe old age, and never saw a Doctor or Dentist. We never saw one while we lived in the Ozarks, we used the simple home remedies, and some patent medicine that was sold at the general store. Children came into this world with only a mid-wife to assist; if she could get there in time, riding her horse and carying her satchel. When it was necessary to set a bone or perform an operation, in case

By this time the rugged outdoor life had taken


the patient could not stand the long rough trip in a wagon to the Doctor, he would come. On a table, with only a kerosene lamp held by someone, if more light was needed, the Doctor did the best he could, with help from the family and neighbors, with a prayer that it would be enough. It generaly was.

As for Dental work—there might have been a Dentist at the county seat also, but for an aching molar it was a hot salt pack, which gave some relief, but in case the tooth had to be pulled, the blacksmith had pliers and would do the job. In spite of scant care, most people had firm teeth at a very old age. Perhaps the simple diet had something to do with this, and their general good health.

"Moonshine was the drink for men from an early age, and tobacco, either "boughten" or home grown twist, was chewed by men and women alike. It never seemed to do them any harm; some smoked a corn-cob pipe, often called "the Missouri meerchaum" by new-comers.

The rainfall was getting heavier, and all we could do was attend to the few chores. To pass the time we again read the books and magazines we had brought with us, but the school books only made me miss school all the more. We played cards-Father’s favorite game of euchre, and also Seven-Up, which is still my choice. A neighbor might drop in for a chat, but not often. We would look at seed catalogues and long for the fruit and vegetables pictured on the pages. At night we could hear the steady drumming of rain on the shake roof. This was not an unwelcome sound, as it meant we could sleep a while longer. If the rains continued long enough all the branches became rushing streams, joining creeks and finally the White River. Freighters coming in from Springfield with goods had to ford the creeks, as did all travel including the United States Mail. The general store, where everyone for miles around bought their staples, was running low on salt, coffee, and kerosene and many items hard to get along without. The reason for this delay was when Beaver Creek, some eight miles north, rose high into tall Sycamore trees along its banks. Except in the rainy season this creek only came up to the hub of wheels on wagons crossing it. When the creek was of normal depth one could drop a dime (if you had one) into the water, and see it to the bottom. Until the rain ceased, and the creek went down, freighters were forced to camp on the banks and wait it out.

The mail, which came as far as Chadwick by rail, then on to Forsyth by hack, also waited. Beaver Creek had not heard, that "The mail must go through!" From Forsyth the riders took over; one would take the pouch of incoming mail for his route and meet the rider with out-going mail at a spot about mid-way, just off the big road. After feeding their horses and eating lunch, they exchanged pouches and went their way.

For this service whoever had the contract paid the carriers $10.00 a month, their board, and feed for their horses. Not much for the long ride in all kinds of weather, but the honor and glory of the job made up for that.

This spring they had a long vacation, as it was the end of the third week when our Post-Master and a neighbor rode to the creek and taking a skiff brought the first class mail over. When the creek went down, the remainder of the mail, mostly news papers, was brought in.

The news was somewhat old by now, but was read eagerly. Except for the papers, letters or by word or mouth, we had no way of knowing what was going on beyond the hills. Freighters, who had been marooned with their loaded wagon; once again rumbled over the big road, and life returned to normal again.

The days were getting warmer and early vegetables were coming up. We were anticipating the day when they would supplement our diet of salt pork, eggs, and corn bread. We had seldom eaten corn breed before coming to Missouri, but now it was everyday fare, often with corn mush to go with it. It was not too bad when made with milk, but at times it was what the natives called "Straight corn bread or dodgers". This was simply meal, salt, and water. The bread, when baked, was like a pale flat slab that looked like a stepping stone. The dodgers were small, round patty-cakes. Why they were called dodgers I can only venture to guess, probably because if one was thrown at you, it was wise to dodge!

The hills were geting greener now, and in some places we found wild mustard which made good greens when cooked with a piece of salt pork; also yellow wood-sorrel. This plant belongs to the oxalis family; has small yellow flowers. The leaves used as a pie filling tasted like rhubarb. Wild onions growing in the black gumbo soil near branches, were sweet and tender. Crow poison closely resembled the onions except for purple veins along the stem, also grew there; so we had to be careful what we gathered. This all helped out in the daily diet. The cows sometimes found onions, and the milk would have a strong onion taste. Much of the time we would not use it.

Our corn had come up, and what the crows had not dug out, was about 18 inches tall. We awakened one night to hear a bell clanging, and our dog barking frantically. Rushing out in the moonlight without putting on our shoes, we found about 20 mules in the corn field. The leader wore a bell around his neck. They had trampled on and eaten the tops of many of the tender stalks.


When we tried to run them towards the break in the fence, where, by kicking off the top rails they had jumped over, they ran in circles. Mules were the pride of Missouri hill country and some were really magnificent animals, but not welcome in your corn field. Many of the two and three year olds had never worn even a halter.

A mule can be the meanest, most mischievous and onery animal on four legs. When we finally got them to jump back over the fence, our field looked like a tornado had passed over it. So we built the fences higher.

It was June now, and the weather was warming up, so were the wood ticks and chiggers, and there were hordes of them. After a trip into the woods or brush, one had to keep after them for hours. We were told to make a fire with green wood, which would burn slow with lots of smoke, and stand close to it. This helped but never got them all. The nights were warm and the trees near the house were the stage for the katydids. They kept us awake with their constant "katy-did, she didn’t." They are green long-horned insects that belong to the grasshopper and cricket family, and so-called from the note made by organs at the base of the wing-cover in the male. When we could not get to sleep we would shake the branches. This shut them up long enough for us to get to sleep.

In June, the crops were laid by, and school would start. It was the custom to have classes the months in between the end of cultivation and harvest time.

One of our neighbor’s daughters was to teach her first term at the school called Bald-Knob, some three miles from home, and wanted brother John and me to attend. Our parents decided that since we had only 3rd. and 6th. grade schooling in Illinois, it was best for us to go. So Monday morning found us with lunch buckets in hand, going along the trail that lead to the school house.

The school was a weather-beaten, one-room building of rough plank. The room was quite large, and furnished with homemade desks and benches; a small platform held the teacher’s desk and chair. A not too large blackboard adorned the wall at this end of the room. At both sides of the entrance were hooks for wraps and a shelf for lunch buckets. There was a stove of the type called a box-stove, as in winter this building was used as a meeting place for services, when, and if, a preacher was available. It was not neccessary for a man to be ordained, or to have studied for the ministry. Any one who could read and interpret the Bible would serve. Also box suppers, socials, or political gathering used the school house when private homes were not available, after the short school term ended.

It was now time for the first day of school to start. The teacher went to the door and rang a large hand bell, that brought the pupils who had stayed outside to exchange news and gossip from their locality. When the pupils were all seated, there were about 35 in all. Most were girls, ranging in age from six to twenty, and all took a good look at us two "furriners". The boys were dressed in the conventional grey jeans and blue or brown hickory shirts; only the older ones wore hats. The girls wore calico dresses and sun-bonnets. Most of the younger ones of both sexes were barefooted. John and I had worn what remained of our shoes, which fit too snugly for comfort now. The next day we went barefooted. I felt embarrassed at first, as I had never gone to school with out shoes before, but my feet felt much better! Nearly all the pupils walked to school; some even further than the three miles we had to go.

The first day passed in the usual way, classes were made up, four in all. It was not according to size or age, but to the amount of "Book-Larnin" the pupil had. Thus I found myself in the "A" class with the older, grown-up pupils. The previous February had been my 12th birthday. John was nine in March, and he made the "B" class. Many people, unless they had schooling before settling in the hills, could neither read nor write.

I can’t say that I was happy as I had expected to be at finding myself back in school again, in spite of the fact that I was in the high class with boys and girls much older than I was. The lessons were just like review work to me, and it was disappointing. It was not to be expected that one teacher could have a separate class for each pupil, with only four months of school a year it was easy to forget what one had been taught the previous term. This generation grew up fast in the hills, and many dropped out of school almost as soon as they could read, write, and figure a simple sum.

Many more were interested in getting married and establishing a home of their own. They had never been out of the county, the outside world was a far away place that they only heard of. Many had never seen a train. John and I attended school for two months, then our teacher said that as we were so much further ahead of the others, there was not much use in coming. As the weeds were growing faster than the crops, it was now decided that we quit school and help in the fields again. This ended our chance of an education, which today many throw away.

It was now mid-summer. The drought, which we had been told was to be expected every year, was here. Much of the heavy spring rain did not soak into the ground as it did in the prairie country, but ran off the rocky hills into branches


and creeks. There was no reserve moisture in the clay subsoil. After the drought set in, many of the springs gradually went dry. We had several springs near the house, but now we had to carry all the water for house-hold use from a spring on our upper forty acres.

This spring, the old settlers said, was never known to go dry. Father and Henry chiseled a large basin into the limestone to catch the water. To keep out the stock they built up rocks around it, with a large flat rock in the front of the basin. This would insure enough water for our need, and the stock was welcome to the overflow.

But as more springs dried up, our problem with the stock running on the open range increased. Every morning we all went up and filled our buckets. In the evening we paraded up hill a quarter of a mile, then down the other side after a hard day’s work in the hot field. Too often we found that the rocks had been kicked away and the basin either empty or the water all muddy; and a bunch of mules standing close by, looking as though it was all a good joke.

Springs do not run strong in dry weather until after sun-down. When we had cleaned out the basin, we would sit and wait for hours until it filled up again with enough fresh water to fill our buckets. This spring was in a place called "low-gap" surrounded by steep hills. It grew dark early here, and as we stumbled up one side and down the other, stubbing our toes, we sure did bless those Missouri mules!

Over two months passed and still no rain. Every evening dark clouds would pile up in a mass; often lightning flashed through them, and our hope that the drought was about to be broken, would soar. "Not yet", said the ones who had experienced droughts before, "not ‘til you hear the bob-whites (quail) callin after sundown will it rain". They were right, and at long last one hot evening we heard the welcome sound, "bob-white, bob-bob white." Next day when clouds massed, they really meant rain. Before two hours had passed they had given the dry earth its first moisture in months. After that we had rain more often, which did help some of the crops, but came too late to help others.

Corn had suffered most. And on top of it all some big razor-back hogs managed to get into the field, squirrels had picked several rows along the woods side of the field, and we got what was left, which was not much.

So our first crop was a poor one. If it had been any more so, we would have been licked that first year. Our garden had done as well as could be expected in the poor clay soil, with the drought added. We had thought that woods soil would be rich with leaf mold, but here the heavy rains all winter and spring washed all the top soil away.

Our fruit trees, and berry bushes that we had set out were too young to bear. The old hens were not laying enough eggs to supply our needs, so had none to sell. Many of the young chickens that we had counted on for fryers, had fallen victims to civet cats that had invaded the log hen-house. The fact that we had caught a pair of the raiders was a hollow victory, it did not fill our stomaches. During the early summer the hawks preyed on the small chicks; there were several kinds of these sky raiders. When the mother hen would spy them she would frantically call her brood and seek shelter. Often the crows would tree a hawk on the hillside, and the air would be black around the tree with them, all cawing at the top of their voices. Even if they did steal corn, they were a help in driving hawks away.

Our first summer was gone and with it most of the ticks and other pests that had bothered us since spring. Now the sumac shrub on hillsides was a deep, red splotch of color, and late flowers were in bloom. Leaves were now brown on the oak, and yellow on the hickory trees. We dug our sweet potatoes and the root vegetables still in the ground, picked all the cow peas and beans as if they were made of gold. Our cotton crop, which was never too good on ridge land, was a disappointment that was hard to take. It was a "cash crop", and we had counted on it for many of the things we were in need of, and would not bring nearly as much as we had hoped for. Our peanut crop planted as a winter treat for us, was good, and we found a ready sale at the store for all we could spare. They are called "gubbers" in the south, and ‘tho they grew well in the rocky soil here not many bothered to plant them.

We made blade fodder from the corn, pulling the blades below the ear off every stalk, then cuting the tops off above the ear. After they were well dried we tied them in bundles; and stacked them. We used them to feed the stock in winter, and by the time the corn was picked there was not enough left in the fields to feed a field mouse.

Winters were mild here compared with the climate we had in the north, and we appreciated not having to plod through deep snow. However, we did, at times, have heavy frost. Many houses here were made of logs, with a fireplace in the main room. Just as in early days the main source of heat and light in winter. There was a cook stove in the kitchen, but much of the cooking was done on the fireplace in winter, by swinging the pots with a crane over the coals. Biscuits, corn bread, and the favorite fruit cobbler were baked in a heavy iron skillet, somewhat like a Dutch oven, by placing it on a bed of live coals and covering the lid with more. Wood was no problem, there was plenty for generations to come, but it had to be

(continued on page 23)


(continued from page 13)

cut in the proper length for the stove or fire-place. Bringing in the logs was work for the men, the youngsters filled the wood box in the kitchen.

After the first heavy frost, the persimmons were good to eat. They grew in groves on the rocky ridges, and when green, resembled a plum. They were very sour, but after the frost were very sweet, somewhat like a date. Some of the folks put them in layers with brown sugar in stone jars. We found that they made good vinegar. Sometimes the men made beer of them, and the ‘possums grew fat on them in the fall.

While we did not live "high on the hog" that winter we did get by. There were plenty of fat cotton-tail rabbits and fox squirrels. John and I often went hunting, bringing home six or more rabbits. We did not carry a gun, the dogs would scare them out of the brush, follow the scent to where they had run into a hollow log, tree, or under a ledge. Then we took a long switch, split a few inches at the end, and ran it into the opening. On feeling the rabbit we would twist the switch into the fur and pull out our game. A light tap behind the ear and we had our meat. When Henry went along he took his muzzle-loading shot gun. It was generaly on a rainy day when squirrels were jumping from tree to tree. John and I were not allowed to touch a gun. When we were alone we simply threw egg-sized rocks at the squirrel until we hit it. When it fell or jumped to the ground the dogs were on the job, they seemed to know how to hold them and not damage the meat. It was a change from pork and more pork. Many a big kettle full of "hasen-pfeffer’ with home-made noodles satisfied our hearty appetites that winter.

We all worked hard six days a week, clearing more ground for spring, but on Sunday, except for chores, we had a day of rest. I often climbed up White Oak mountain, east of our place, and sat on a ledge, looking out over the rolling blue hills. That was about all there was to do when not working! After Shelling out our corn by hand as everything was done, we put it into grain sacks. Now we had the soft inner husks to replace the oak leaves that had filled our bed ticks. We shelled all the cow peas, and they were very tasty cooked with a piece of pork. Of course the sauce of hunger helped a lot.


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