Volume 9, Number 8 - Summer 1987

By Ruth I. Newman

Women of the Ozarks traditionally have been described by a common and unflattering stereotype that they are ignorant, barefoot, and pregnant. This stereotype has always caused me, a native Ozarks woman, to become angry with those who endorse this stereotype. Ozarks women today have many opportunities for receiving quality education past elementary or secondary school; they have adequate money to buy shoes; and they usually have small to medium-sized families. Why, then, did this stereotype come into existence? Although it does not characterize Ozarks women of 1987, this stereotype did in fact characterize the women of the Ozarks in the past. In the early 1900s and throughout the mid-to late iBOOs, women in the Ozarks received minimal schooling, could not afford shoes for their children, and usually had at least eight children.

The educational system of the Ozarks has undergone many changes over the past century. The first schools were subscription schools, providing the only means of educating hill children until the late 1800’s. In order for an Ozark community to have a subscription school, parents of school age children pledged to pay the teacher a given amount of money, which made it difficult, usually impossible, for poor parents to provide an education for their children. The "scripted" school was usually taught by a parent, a local young person, or anyone the community leaders considered to be relatively intelligent and able to maintain control of a classroom of children who were all at different levels in their knowledge and maturity. Textbooks used in subscription schools depended upon the type of books the children had available to them at home. Many times the only textbook that hill children had was a copy of the Bible.’ In addition to the limitations of adequate textbooks and educated teachers, there was also the limitation of teaching time. School terms were usually no more than three or four months a year. Townsend Godsey states that "a term might begin at any time during the year and end whenever the children were needed at home to help with planting or harvesting chores, or when there was no money to pay the teacher."2

The second type of school to provide education in the Ozarks was the public school. The Geyer Act of 1839 provided for the public school system, but this law did not provide for financial support of the school. Because of this, education was limited to those who could afford it. Frances McGurdy in STUMP, BAR, AND PULPIT stated that, "Even though schools permitted children to attend as paupers, some parents

could not afford the expense of supplying their children’s books in addition to losing the benefit of their labor."~ The hill children who were able to attend school received training only in the essentials: reading, writing, and arithmetic. One old-time Ozarkian told Vance Randolph a little about the education he received: Soon as a young-un knowed his letters right good he started in on th’ first reader. Some had McGuffey’s, some had Appleton’s.

Thar was supposed t’ be five reg’lar readin’-books, but th’ third or fourth reader was as high as most of us ever got. I never seen but mighty few fifth readers.~

The next progression in the Ozarks educational system was state-supported public schools, with free textbooks for children. Yet, even with this advance, there were still some children who were unable to attend school. Some parents were too poor to provide "fitten for school" clothing for their children, and other children lived so far back in the hills that it was impossible for them to get to a school. Catherine Barker in her book of the early 1940s shows that Ozarks children in state-supported public school were still receiving just the bare basics of education and little else. She states: "If [a student] can read and write and do ‘enough cipherin to do his tradin,’ he can manage. If he gets some geography and history in addition, he is just that much better off."~ At the time of Barker’s writing, 65 percent of all Ozarks schools were one-room schools with one teacher for all grades; 10 percent of the teachers had no training beyond high school; and the other 20 percent of the teachers had some college training. In addition to these drawbacks, Ozarks schools met for less than 110 days in one year, for school had to be scheduled around the Ozarks agricultural society. Children were needed to work at home during planting and harvesting of crops.6

Although the educational system in the Ozarks underwent dramatic changes in the past, one aspect of hill children’s education remained the same. Ozark children received little quality instruction, and they received little if any knowledge concerning other parts of the nation or the world. Ozarks children learned about their homes and surrounding community through their experiences, but they were ignorant concerning anything else. Hence, Ozarks women of the past, because of their poor and limited educational background, fit into the stereotype of being ignorant.


In addition to being regarded as ignorant, Ozarks women were also usually very poor. This could be the reason for the second part of the stereotype concerning being barefoot. Most Ozarkians in the past did not go barefoot by choice, but rather because they simply could not afford proper foot covering. According to Homer Massey of Lebanon.

All year till frost everbody went barefooted to school. We just had two pair of shoes a year. Get a pair in the winter and then in the spring of the year when they got kinda ragged we got a pair of what they called Sunday shoes to wear through the summer.

One misconception about the Ozarks is that adults, as well as children, went barefoot. Rarely did adult Ozarkians go without shoes, but it was quite common for children not to wear shoes.

Ozarks women had very few, if any, niceties. They usually felt fortunate if they had one Sunday dress. Fred Starr proclaimed:

[An Ozarks woman] knows how to stretch a pair of shoes over a long period of time because as a girl she carried her coarse footware in her hand until she came in sight of the church. There she sat down and slipped on the precious shoes that must be in good shape when they become to small so they could be passed on to a smaller sister.8

As Starr implies, women of the Ozarks had to make or harvest most of everything they had. Almost all homes had spinning wheels, quilting frames, and canning supplies to preserve fruits and vegetables. The hill women of the past produced everything from clothing to sugar to soap to bread (even making their own yeast). Very few items were bought because they had little money or need for store-bought goods. One woman who moved to the Ozarks during the depression commented on the lack of luxuries in the Ozarks:

We want more than a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs. Luxuries are as necessary as bread to those of us who have known them. When every drop of water you use is drawn from a seventy-foot well, and every bite of food you eat must be forced from a rocky soil with a hand hoe, you don’t feel that machines are your enemies. We want light again by pressing a button, and water, hot or cold, by the turn of a tap, and steam heat and iced lemonade.~

The "luxuries" this newcomer missed were "luxuries" hill women knew nothing about. To a hill woman luxuries were things such as a good year for blackberries, or a good season for her family’s crops, or possibly a bolt of material to make herself and her daughters a Sunday dress. As children, hill women usually went barefoot eight months out of a year, and as adults they usually had one precious pair of shoes. They very seldom had more than the bare necessities for themselves or their families. Even in the 1960s the Ozarks hill region’s median income level remained below the state and national averages.10

Ozark families of the past were usually very large. My own family is an example of this. My mother had ten children; her mother had eight children; my father’s mother had ten children; and my grandmother’s mother had 13 children. My family’s genealogy is not the exception to the rule but rather is the rule. There are countless examples of hill women in the past having very large families. For example, in Solomon Tuttle’s list of decendants, the average family ranged in size from six to ten children with an occassional thirteen or fourteen child family interspersed in the family tree.—When examining Arkansas County’s Census Reports of 1850 and 1860, it was also discovered that most couples who had been married for several years had between six and ten children.12 Paul Fans in OZARK LOG CABIN FOLKS also gave examples of Ozark family sizes.

The Tom Selfs proudly told me of their eight children. The George Villines family had eight children. Parson Wilson, who married in North Carolina when his bride was only 14 years old, had 16. Samuel Dick Cox says in Walter Lackey’s history of Newton County that his father had 21 children, 16 by his first wife and five more by his second.’~

When a wedding was announced in the Ozarks, the midwife or "granny woman" knew that her services would be needed soon, for children almost always came nine months after the wedding date.

One cannot help but ask why Ozarks women had such large families. There are several possible reasons: Ozarks women married at a young age:

children were needed for farm labor; and women were relatively ignorant concerning birth control methods. Usually boys could marry as soon as they were old enough to get a farm, and girls usually married at a very young age. One woman interviewed in Bittersweet Country said:

I was fourteen when I got married on January 18, 1905. My husband was twenty-



one the seventeenth of January, and I was fifteen the twenty-fourth of February. I ought to have been home being spanked and washing dishes.’4

Marrying young and having large families took a great toll on Ozarks women. Catherine Barker paints a vivid portrait of Ozarks women with these words:

They usually marry young and begin the long strain of almost constant child bearing and unceasing child care. They soon begin to fade and wither. Their skin does not get flabby. It dries and tightens over their faces and necks and hands. They grow round-shouldered and hollow-chested and flatbreasted. . . By the time they are fifty the women are very old. Many do not live that long. And they look old when they are thirty. 15

Large families were also prevalent in the Ozarks because of the great need for farm labor. It was virtually impossible for a husband and wife alone to plant and harvest enough land with the primitive farm tools at their disposal to scrape a living from the Ozarks hills. Therefore, children were an economic asset to the Ozarks family farm. Nancy Clemens, in "Yes I’m a Hillbillie," shows that the hill man is taught from childhood that he needs to find a "sturdy, hardworking wife from a good family, and raise children to help him with the farm work."’~ Many sources proclaim that children were an economic asset to the family farm. One man who had just one child complained that, "We can’t git nor keep no good place to farm, fer jest the three of us can’t tend as much land as a big family Kin, so we allers gits run out by a bigger bunch."’~ The more children a family had the more land they could cultivate; therefore, children more than paid for themselves except in times of crop failure or economic depression when it would be extremely difficult to feed eight, ten, or fourteen children.

Another explanation for large families in the Ozarks is that women rarely practiced any means of birth control. Very few studies have been made concerning hill women’s motives for not practicing birth control. Therefore, one can only speculate about their reasons. It is likely that hill girls knew little if anything about birth control. Hill children led rather sheltered lives in the Ozarks, and very few parents spoke openly and honestly to their children concerning sexual relations. Sex and reproduction were taboo subjects with Ozarks bill girls, even those approaching the mar riage age of fourteen or fifteen. In Bittersweet Country it is stated that,

The mothers had a hard time preparing for and having babies. Few practiced birth control then and it must have been frightening to a new wife to know she would probably have eight or ten children. Many girls reached their wedding nights with very little knowledge of reproduction. Just before marriage the mother would tell her daughter she could expect to have a child every two years until she was forty!’~

Another possible explanation of why Ozarks women did not practice birth control is the economic need for children, as was mentioned earlier, and also a possible reluctance and fear of changing. Large families were the customary and expected byproduct of Ozarks marriages. To stray from this established norm was a revolutionary concept and one that probably would be met with disappproval from the community. Paul Fans presents another possible explanation, a very logical one. He says this concerning birth control:

A reasonable supply of children could be an asset, of course, in an agricultural society. One can’t help wondering, however, if log cabin folks didn’t find ‘family planning’ hindered significantly by a lack of bathroom facilities, contraceptive devices and privacy.19

This is a very common sense explanation for the lack of "family planning" by Ozarkians, and it is perhaps the best explanation that scholars of the Ozarks have at the present time.

Due to the inferior educational system in the Ozarks, the economic plight of Ozarkians, and the prevalence of large families in the Ozarks, the stereotype depicting today’s Ozarks women as being ignorant, barefoot, and pregnant, finds its roots and validity in the past history of Ozarks hill women.

1 Townsend Godsey, Ozark Mountain Folk: These Were the Last, (Branson, MO: The Ozark Mountaineer, 1977, 2nd. edj, p. 13.

2 Godsey, p. 14.

3 Frances Lea McCurdy, Stump Bar, and Pulpit: Speechmaking on the Ozarks, (Columbia, MO: University of MO Press, 1969), p. 26.

4 Vance Randolph, Ozark Mountain Folk, (New York: The Vanguard Press, 1932), pp. 48-49.

5 Catherine S. Barker, Yesterday Today: Life in


the Ozarks, (Caidwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1941), p. 161.

6 Barker p. 163-164.

7 Ellen Gray Massey, Bittersweet Barth, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), p. 158.

8 Fred Starr, Of These Hills and Us, (Boston: The Christopher Publishing House, 1958), p. 129.

9 Vance Randolph, An Ozark Anthology (Caidwell, Idaho: The Caxton Press, Ltd., 1940), p. 24.

10 Douglas Steele Jones. The Socio-Economic Composition of the Ozark Hill Region of Arkansas (Fayettville: The University of Arkansas, 1969), a thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a degree of Master of Arts, p. 24.

11 Julia Sevarine Reed, "Solomon Tuttle of Old Mt. Comfort and His Decendants," Washington County Historical Review, (Fayetteville, AR, —38, 1961).

12 R.W. Dhonau, Prairie County, AR and Lonoke before 1873, (186 Federal Census) and Courtney York, Polk County AR Census 1850 (San Jose, CA: York Genealogical Research, 1969).

13 Paul Fans, Ozark Log Cabin Folks: The Way they Were, (Little Rock: Rose Publishing Co., 1983), p. 52.

14 Ellen Gray Massey, Bittersweet Country (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978), p. 189.

l5 Barker p. 133.

16 Randolph, An Ozark Anthology, p. 138.

17 Barker p. 157.

18 Massey, Bittersweet Country, p. 238. Fans, p. 54.



Barker, Catherine S. Yesterday Today: Life in the Ozarks. Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1941.

Dhonau, R.W. Prairie County, AR and Lonoke before 1873. 186 Federal Census.

Fans, Paul. Ozark Log Cabin Folks: The Way they Were. Little Rock, Ark.: Rose Publishing Co., 1983.

Giffen, Jerena East. "Add a Pinch and a Lump: Missouri Women in the 1820s." Missouri Historical Review. vol. 65, no. 4, July 1971, pp. 4 78-504.

Godsey Townsend, Ozark Mountain Folk: These Were the Last. Branson, MO: The Ozark Mountaineer, 1977, 2nd ed.

Jones, Douglas Steele. The Socio-Economic Composition of the Ozark Hill Region of Arkansas. The University of Arkansas, 1969. A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a degree of Master of Arts.

Lyon, Marguerite. And Green Grass Grows All Around. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1942.

McCurdy, Frances Lea. Stump, Bar, and Pulpit: Speechmaking on the Ozarks. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1969. Massey, Ellen Gray. Bittersweet County. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978.

Massey, Ellen Gray. Bittersweet Earth. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985. Mininck, Roger, Bob and Leonard Sussman. Hills of Home: The Rural Ouarks of Arkansas: San Francisco: The Scrimshaw Press, 1975.

Morgan, James Logan. Marriage Records of Pulaski County, Arkansas 1820-1850. Newport, Ark: Morgan Books, 1982.

Randolph, Vance. An Ozark Anthology. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Press, Ltd., 1940.

Randolph, Vance. Funny Stories About Hillbillies. Girard, Kansas: Haldeman-Julius Publications, 1944.

Randolph, Vance. Ozark Mountain Folks. New York: The Vanguard Press, 1932.

Randolph, Vance. Sticks in the Knapsack and Other Ozark Folk Tales, New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.

Randolph, Vance. The Talking Turtle and Other Ozark Folk Tales. New York: Columbia University Press, 1957.

Randolph, Vance. We Always Lie to Strangers. New York: Columbia University Press, 1951.

Randolph, Vance, Who Blowed Up the Church House and Other Folk Tales. New York: Columbia University Press, 1952.

Rayburn, Otto Ernest. Ozark Country. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941.

Reed, Julia Sevarine, "Solomon Tuttle of Old Mt. Comfort and His Decendents." Washington County Historical Society. Fayetteville, Ark., No. 38, 1961.

Reed, Roy. Looking for Hogeye. Fayetteville, Ark.: The University of Arkansas Press, 1986.

Reid, Loren. Hurry Home Wednesday: Growing Up in a Small Missouri Town, 1905-1921. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1978. Shannon, Karr. A History of hard County. Little Rock, Ark.: Democrat Printing and Lithographing Co., 1947.

Starr, Fred. Of these Hills and Us. Boston: The Christopher Publishing House, 1958.

Strainchamps, Ethel. Don’t Never Say Never. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1965.

York, Courtney and Gerlene. Polk County Arkansas Census, 1850. San Jose, California: York Genealogical Research, 1969.


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