Volume 31, Number 3 - Spring 1992

A Study of the Causes of Dependency in Ozark County
by O. E. Wright

Editor’s Note: Ozarkers, like people elsewhere, saw radical social and governmental change during the depression. New government agencies sought to survey and measure change and establish socio-economic data for planning purposes. O.E. Wright’s report contains insights into Ozark County’s agricultural society and highlights issues that still remain in the greater Ozarks region.

Ozark County is probably no different than any other Missouri County in that it always has had some people dependent upon it for assistance. The most costly year to the county in caring for its dependents in the last ten, took from the county funds $3,600.00. Today it costs the County, State and Federal Governments approximately thirty four times that amount to meet the needs of the dependent citizens of the County. To the casual observer this large expenditure might not seem out of line, in view of expenditures made in other counties in the state. But, when we consider that Ozark County is primarily agricultural, with the timber industry ranking second and last in importance, that it has not lost a payroll; that it has had no great fluctuation in population; and that it depends upon that same basic industry, agriculture, as it has always done, we wonder why the necessity for this large governmental expenditure for the relief of the unemployed.

Ozark County has two thousand farms. Any change in the well-being of its citizens must reflect some change on those farms.

The County has passed through two stages in its agricultural life, and is now in the act of entering the third. The transition from the first to the second was gradual and painless but the present moving from the second to the third is causing much unrest.

The first period dates from the first settlement in the County up to the turn of the century and was characterized by the dominance of grazing. Native grass grew in abundance. The County filled rapidly with people from Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, and from other counties in Missouri, for it was known as a "Poor Man’s County". Land was cheap. A few homesteads were open in 1890. By 1900 the native grass was gone and the population was supported from the production of the soil. The past two generations have enjoyed the exploitation of the soil’s fertility by producing cotton, corn, wheat, oats and cane. Many farms were operated on a "Southern Plan" by sharecroppers. A merchant or the land owner, and in many cases they were one and the same, took a mortgage on the crop and furnished the necessities of life to the share-cropper and his family. All accounts were settled after harvest. Farm renters found many opportunities to pay cash or grain rent to some land owner for the use of his land. Tenant farmers were in demand not only for their services during the production of the crop but from them the land owner always found ready hands during the winter months to improve his farm and do other work. Farm laborers found employment in their neighborhoods. If their services were not in demand there, they moved to another where they could fare better. But today— It is these share-croppers, tenant farmers, farm renters, and farm laborers who find themselves in a dilemma during this sudden change from that second period of agricultural activity to the third, that is, that of turning the use of the soil to the production of tame grass and hay. We wonder why this transition is so sudden, and why it doesn’t take place more gradually and allow the population to adjust to the change. Those causative factors of this acute change are many and far reaching in their ramifications, but the most obvious are low productivity of the soil, low farm prices, the Soil Conservation Program, the National Forest Program, Direct Relief, WPA, and the devastating droughts of 1934 and 1936.

From a study of the working of the Soil Conservation Program in Ozark County some very interesting facts are found. The findings do not warrant criticism of the program with the possible exception that those principles should have been in practice these past thirty years. But the results of the working of these applied principles seem worthy of someone’s consideration. In studying one hundred Soil Conservation Programs on as many Ozark County farms for the year 1937, pulled at random from the files of the Soil Conservation Office, it was found that the average total acres per farm was 158.83. The average acres under cultivation was 50.02, and the average number


of acres per farm taken out of row crops or soil depleting crops and seeded to soil conserving and soil building crops was 25.97. Using these figures as indices there have been 21,000 acres retired from the production of grins on the 42% of the farms signing with the Soil Conservation Program in the County, and enough land seeded down to give one thousand men twenty acres of crop land. Twenty acres was about the extent of one man’s activity back in the "hey-day" of the sharecrop system. However, it must be remembered that some of the 42% of the complying farms are one man farms and did not displace any farm labor. But, on the other hand, what is happening to the 58% of the farms not signing with the program? According to the Ozark County Agent, they are following the principles of the program without signing for the benefits.

From checking with merchants and seed dealers of Gainesville, the County Seat, it is found that there has been sufficient grass and hay seed sold between January 1, and March 15, 1938 to seed four thousand additional acres. In checking with one merchant in Thornfield, Missouri, it is found that he has sold enough seed to sew seven hundred acres to Soil Conserving crops. Apparently additional acres will be taken out of soil depleting crops.

A further evidence of the change from row crop farming to grazing is shown by personal tax records of the County for the past seven years. In 1931 there were 3,529 head of horses and mules in the county. There has been a steady decline. The records show only 2,170 head for the year 1937. A decline of39% in seven years. This decline in horse power has not been replaced by motor power for the topography is not adaptable to mechanized farming.

Relief and WPA must have accelerated this dynamic change from row crop farming to the production of tame pasture and hay, for it is heard on all sides "They won’t work." In an attempt to weigh those two forces, Soil Conservation Program and Relief and WPA, in their action on the seeding down of these 21,000 acres ten Ozark County farmers who were known to have signed with the Soil Conservation Program and used additional man power on their farms were selected and asked why they were taking some of their land out of grain production. These ten men had an average holding of 182 acres - an average of 69 acres under cultivation with an average of 30.5 acres seeded to soil conserving crops. Five of the men answered, "Because of inability to get farm work done." "Went to work to my interest," "Want more money than I can pay", "They won’t put out a garden for themselves, why work for me?", "Relief has spoiled them", "I can’t hire men to harvest my crops", "I won’t have a man who has worked on WPA share-crop for me", "These men on WPA and relief have a philosophy of doing nothing in order to get more from the Government". One man answered, "I wore out my farm raising my family, I am giving it a rest". Two of the farmers answered that they figured they could make money by changing their methods of farming. One replied that he was ready to quit hard work and another that his ill health necessitated his inactivity. Cognizance is taken of the fact that political difference might have entered into the answer of these ten men but the fact that we are interested in is, they are not using the man power they once did.

The droughts of 1934 and 1936 have had their


effects on the attitude of many farmers toward the production of grain crops. And if the truth could be brought out, chances are, those dry years have played a big part in the progress of the Soil Conservation Program in Ozark County.

The Commercial Milk industry located in Ava, Douglas County, Mo., offering a market for raw milk is having its effect in encouraging the advancement of the dairy farms. But here again we drop back to that fact—less man power is needed on a grass producing farm than on one producing grain.

The National Forest Program has affected to some extent the amount of land available for cultivation in Ozark County as the Federal Government owns 23,000 acres in the Gardner and Pond Fork Units. To those families living in the unit only small plots of ground are allowed for cultivation. There is no demand for farm labor. The maintenance of the forest does not offer any employment as the Pond Fork CCC camp has a wealth of man power which supplies that service. Those farm laborers, share-croppers, etc., who once found employment from the soil which is embraced by the forest area must look to the outside for a livelihood.

The passing of the timber industry does not figure so greatly in the long time plan in Ozark County, for since she does not have a railroad, the making of ties has not been so important. There has been pine and other lumber taken out, but a small percent of the population has derived a livelihood from these sources. However, with the repeal of the 18th Amendment the stave industry sprang to the fore. It is estimated that there has been ten million stave bolts sold from Ozark County in the past five years. This represents the cutting or more than one million white oak trees. Regardless of Mother Nature’s bountiful supply of timber in the County she could not stand this rapid cutting. Today there are not five marketable trees standing where one hundred stood before. This depleting the timber supply affects, in the main, a large number of displaced agricultural workers who staved off the day of reckoning a year or two by turning to the timber industry. Now that the timber is gone and agriculture is not reabsorbing them, where do they turn?

This report does not propose to show the actual number of men who have been displaced in Ozark County by the afore stated changes, for to do so would require a detailed study of individual employee and employers. Only the trends, the attitudes, and the social unrest can be taken as indices of the displaced labor. 527 men at one time found independent livelihood in Ozark County, and can be readily accounted for today from the files of the county WPA office, the Social Security Office, and the Farm Security Office.

This load which the State and Federal Government is carrying is over one fifth of the total population of the county, and from all indications this load must continue to be carried until some solution is found that will again turn the energies of the men to self maintenance.

In an effort to compare the conditions brought out in this study of Ozark County with adjacent counties a questionnaire was sent to the Secretary-Director of the County Social Security of Stone, Taney, Howell, Douglas and Christian Counties. With only three of these counties reporting, some interesting variations were found. All counties reported their case load in the majority to be from the agricultural industry. With one reporting that those clients who are normally some type of farmer will be able to find employment for the summer of 1938 as such, while two counties reported they would not. To the question—Do you feel that these agricultural workers will tend sufficient acreage to render them independent for the next twelve months (yield being normal) the answer ~no~ was in the majority. The counties answered "No" to the question — Do you feel that the Soil Conservation Program has deprived these clients of acreage"? To the question—Do you feel that the Soil Conservation Program has caused a decrease in the demand for farm labor?—Two answered, "No", and the third answered, "Uncertain." Therefore, in view of these answers there are other factors which outweigh the affect of the soil Conservation Program in causing their problems. In the reporting counties the National Forest Program has not affected the status of the agriculture workers. Two counties report cases of relief clients refusing farm labor because the wage scale was not on a par with that of WPA. All counties reported cases of WPA laborers refusing farm labor. To the question—Do you feel that the normal farm labor group now on WPA and relief in their reluctance to accept farm labor has caused the farmer to more readily take their land out of row crop production?— The three counties answered, "No." Two of the counties reported that their agriculture clientele would not become self-supporting from that source again. One has "Hopes". Two of the counties reported insufficient timber to absorb the normal timber workers. One reported sufficient timber if prices would become attractive.

The dominant point gained from this questionnaire is that in certain counties in District No. 17 of the Missouri Social Security Commission set-up there is a stranded population regardless of these factors which have brought about this unsocial condition. It is our hope that in the not too distant future these causative factors will be studied in detail, and relief be forthcoming that will elevate this stagnated condition among our people. Social ills only breed social unrest, which is now evidenced by malnutrition; inadequate housing; ever increasing health problems; a decline in morale; family disorganization; financial inability to further education; a decline in religious and social activities; and, finally, of an unsocial attitude toward the normal function of a government evidenced by a disrespect for veracity and integrity that is spreading like a contagious disease from neighbor to neighbor.

We wish to express our appreciation and thanks for the Council and Service rendered us in making this brief study to the following: Herschel H. Kerr, District Supervisor, Branson, Mo., Robert P. Christeson, Ozark Co. Agent, Gainesville, Mo., Staff of the Soil Conservation Office, Ozark County, Clifford Wood, Sec.-Dir. Taney Co. Social Sec. Comm. Forsyth, Mo., W.A. Krumholz, Sec.-Dir. Howell Co. Social Sec. Comm. West Plains, Mo., Leona Cowan, Sec.-Dir. Christian Co. Social Sec. Comm. Ozark, Missouri, and to the many Ozark County citizens who expressed their views on agricultural and relief problems.

O.E. Wright



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