Volume 9, Number 7 - Spring 1987

(An interview of Lyle Owen by Viola Hartman)

Prefatory note by Lyle Owen: For about two years, 1979 to 1981, Mrs. Viola Hartman, a Taney County, Missouri, writer and historian conducted a weekly hour-long program on The School of the Ozarks Public Radio. KSOZ. That Saturday morning program consisted of her interviews with quite a variety of people about their Ozark memories and thoughts. The name of these broadcast interviews was "The Backward Trail," and each of the programs opened and closed with brief nostalgic music.

Broadcast on May 10, 1980, was Mrs. Hartman’s interview with me in part gbout my mother, Stella (Tibbets) Owen, then aged 102. Stella Owen was born November 11, 1877. This interview with me was planned partly as a Mother’s Day program, since the next day, Sunday, May 11, 1980, was Mother’s Day. As it turned out, that was my mother’s last Mother’s Day, since she died on April 28, 1981, at the age of 103, two weeks before Mother’s Day, 1981.

The book by Lyle Owen referred to in the interview was published in 1978 by the Ozarks Mountaineer Press and titled Memories of an Ozarks

Mother: The 100 Years of Steila Owen.

That radio interview included a good many other memories and thoughts about the Ozarks and particularly the Taney County, Missouri, ar~i — its past, present, and future. I have here, in this transcript from the tape of the broadcast, revised and smoothed the wording of the oral interview somewhat. Both Viola Hartman and I are charter members of the White River Valley Historical Society, which began in 1961.

Now the interview.

Viola Hartman: (after the introductory music): Since tomorrow is Mother’s Day, we thought it would be fitting to stroll the Trail with a man who is somewhat of an authority on motherhood having recently authored a book on the subject, not just motherhood, but an Ozarks mother. In a sense it was a collaboration, since much of it is her words, her style, her personality, as she recounts reactions and happenings through the years. It is a nostalgic and beautifully moving look at life.

Our guest, Lyle Owen, graduated from Branson High School with the class of 1923. He got his Bachelor of Arts degree at the state college in Springfield in 1927 and received an Outstanding Alumnus Award there in 1974. He earned his Master’s and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

He has been a teacher, writer, speaker, historian, husband, and father, and for the past 74 years a warm and loving son. Now a resident of the Bran-son, Missouri, area, he lives on the property he has owned for 46 years in a house built in 1911. He is certainly a well-known figure in the BransonHollister area, involved in many facets of the community. He is possibly best known as the son of a 102-year-old lady, Stella Owen. Good morning, Dr. Owen, welcome to The Backward Trail.

Lyle Owen: Thank you.

Hartman: - We are going to discuss some of your early memories today, and I am sure this will include your mother. How about giving us a description of her?

Owen: - She’s a small woman, intellectually inclined, has always liked to read; she loves flowers very much; she loves the rural life. She doesn’t have much strength in these years, but she’s aware of what’s going on around her, and somehow she endures.

Hartman: - That’s very nice. She must have had a very strong influence on your life.

Owen: - Yes, she did. We were close. We have some temperament in common, I think.

Hartinan: - Let’s get back to your memories, as you grew up with your mother. What is perhaps your oldest memory?

Owen: - One thing I’ve told her a time or so in recent years, and I think of very often, is that she was very good to me when I was a small child, and I want to be good to her now. So that’s one of my memories, that she was good to me.

Hariman: - Well, I’m sure she must have been. You didn’t always live in Branson?

Owen: - No, I was born in Oklahoma, way out in the southwest part, which was Indian country at that time. It was not yet a state. I was born in 1906, and Oklahoma became a state in 1907.

Hartman: - Did you always live in Oklahoma? Did you travel around, or what happened between the time you were born and the time you moved here?

Owen: - We lived in Oklahoma a good many years. I went to grade school there, and I began my high school in Kansas, where we lived three years. But I completed high school here at Branson. So, ever since I was grown, and before, I’ve thought of Branson, and Taney County, as my home. And the same is true of Mother. Even though she was born in Nebraska, since she has spent over half a century around here, she thinks of this area as her home.


Hartman: - You lived up on Coon Creek, I believe.

Owen: - Yes. I rather like that Coon Creek name. I once wrote an article, published under the title of "Coon Creek Days," about some of our years there, and somehow I like the sound and evocations of "Coon Creek." It’s rural, and simple, really the way I like life.

Hartman: - Where was that located exactly, Dr. Owen?

Owen: - Coon Creek empties into Lake Taneycomo, or White River, on the shore opposite Branson. We lived not very far up Coon Creek, just a couple hundred yards. So I went to school at Branson, walking over, across an old bridge that then spanned the river, or lake, at the foot of Main Street.

Hartman: - That was the bridge that washed out in, I think, 1945?

Owen: In 1945 that weakened bridge went out, in one of those disastrous floods we used to have.

Hartrnan: - Was the road, what’s now East Highway 76, was it there, around toward Forsyth?

Owen: - Yes. When we walked to town, to school there or to church, we went along a bit of that Forsyth road, and then along what is now Lakeshore Drive, a road carved out of the face of the bluff across from Branson, then we went across the bridge into town.

I still have an amusing memory of my early moving, from my folks’ Coon Creek home to my new-bought house on the opposite side of Branson, about a four mile move. I bought my place 46 years ago, in 1934, when still in my twenties, and our family didn’t have a car then, to take over the things I wanted to borrow from them for use at the new place. I needed first a bunch of tools, and also our old iron-wheeled wheelbarrow. So I pushed that contraption, loaded full of tools, the whole rocky, rattling distance. Those four miles were all unpaved then, and my load made quite a racket. I pushed down the Coon Creek trail, around the Seven Falls way and along the present Lakeshore Drive, across the old Main Street bridge leading into town, up that long Main Street hill, and on out what is now West 76 Highway to Fall Creek Road, where I turned into my place. I am amused when I think about how impossible that wheelbarrowing would be now, what with West 76 traffic competition and all. But I did it way back in those simple, unpaved, days. My house is about 300 feet higher than the river, so there was a good deal of uphill pushing. And the barrow had the iron wheel of those days, not a modern pneumatic rubber tire.

Hartman: - You told me also that the first night you stayed at your new-bought house, it was a little, ah—disguieting.

Owen: - Shall I tell my Bonnie and Clyde story?

Hartman: (Laughs)

Owen: - When I bought this place in 1934, I was told by two responsible men in Branson (both of them now gone) that they had been spoken to, by the FBI, about a possible occupancy of my house by Bonnie and Clyde. The FBI was then searching for that couple, and told my informants that the two had possibly hidden out in my house, which had for some time been unoccupied, with boarded-up windows, and is tree-hidden quite a distance back from the road. So that first night in my house, thinking about the possibility that Bonnie and Clyde might drop in, not having heard of the new owner, I was a little apprehensive. With no bed there yet, I slept on the floor, rather uneasily, and kept a pick handle lying beside me, thinking that if they did come back, I’d at least have one weapon. I knew my weapon was pretty primitive, compared to their shotguns and submachine guns. The two Branson men who told me that they had been talked to by the FBI (and from these two came all I ever heard about this) were the elder Parnell (Albert Parnell we called him, the father of Ben Parnell), who was a leading merchant and banker of our community, and another leading citizen by the name of Walter Phariss, who moved away after that time. Parnell and Phariss were the leaders locally in the Democratic Party, and since that party was the one in national power then, in those Roosevelt years, I thought maybe their being the local party leader’s was why they were the people contacted by the FBI.

Hartman: - You slept uneasily. You didn’t have a nightmare, did you?

Owen: - Oh no. I’m a pretty sound sleeper in general.

Hariman: - That is a beautiful house. I’ve been there. Why don’t you describe it for our listeners.

Owen: - It’s a stone house, built very solidly of field stone, apparently picked up around there. Rather roughiy built, but I think attractively and solidly so. It’s on a bluff, 300 feet about the river, in other words it’s at about 1000 feet elevation, while the river is 700 feet above sea level. The view out in front is half a dozen miles, part of it being over the large School of the Ozarks bottom farm. I have 137 acres, and there are hundreds of dogwoods, redbuds, service berries, wild plums, which make it very attractive at this springtime of the year.

Hartman: - You have named your various hollows after some of its trees, haven’t you?

Owen: - That’s true. I have a Dogwood Hollow, and a Redbud Hollow, and a White Oak Hollow. Also a Post Oak Point Lookout on the bluff.


Hartman: - It’s just loaded with all sorts of wildflowers. Did you plant them?

Owen: - Mostly not, but my mother was quite a collector of wildflowers. In my book about her life I say something about that, and I quote her on that. Even in her Coon Creek days she liked, and sought, wildflowers. At the north end of my house she planned and planted a wildflower bed, though it’s not in prime condition anymore.

Hartman: - We are talking of the days of the Great Depression, aren’t we?

Owen: - When I bought the place, yes. Mother moved in there in 1936, a couple years after I bought it in 1934. She lived there over 30 years, but in recent times she has lived with my sister, Audrey Sare, on a farm near Springfield, Missouri.

Hartman: - Does she miss the place in Taney County?

Owen: Yes. Occasionally we get her back down to see things. She still thinks of this as home.

Hartman: - We were talking about the Depression. What did you do there? Did you do any farming, or was it any place to make a living?

Owen: - I always made my living elsewhere. We sometimes had a few cattle. We had quite a number of chickens, and we had a small family orchard and a garden. We had some things that aided our living, but we never had commercial farming. The place is largely a forested ridge. There is some bottom land. But it is not really suitable for farming in the best sense. It’s more scenery than it is farm land.

Hartman: - Well, then, you escaped from one thing that the farmers around here were then accustomed to doing, burning off their land in the spring. You didn’t have that happen?

Owen: - Yes, we did have a couple fires come through there, set by neighbors to "improve" their land and not expecting the wind to come up. One of the ways in which I think this countryside is greatly improved is the passing of the spring burning. It used to be, in my early years on my place, that when I would go out in my yard, with its high elevation, and would look off in the distance, from about January to about March, I’d see, anytime almost, three or four fires burning somewhere. Far away maybe, but you always wondered when one would get to you. The couple fires that did get to my place did quite a bit of damage, not to the stone house but to trees, fences, and so on. Those wildfires killed orchard trees, and left other scars that you can see today, So I am very glad that the intentional spring burning is so much less today.

Hartman: - We still have it a degree out in our neck of the woods, and several times it’s gotten out of control and burned a lot of our acreage. I agree with you.

Owen: - That’s one thing I’m really glad to pay taxes for. Sometimes one isn’t too glad to pay taxes, and sometimes one is suspicious of government. But one of the things I am glad to pay taxes for is protection against that spring burning, state forestry fire protection.

Hartman: - At least we do have a way to put out the fires now, and back in those days it was very hard. Let’s talk a little bit now about your mother’s life, the book about it that you wrote. How did you get the idea? What started it?

Owen: - Well, it began to look as if she was going to reach the age of 100. And that’s rather remarkable, you know, when your mother is going to be 100. So as that approached I began to think that I really ought to do something out of the ordinary for it, not just a birthday cake and the usual things. Something more lasting and significant. I had encouraged her, a few years before, and not thinking that I myself would make such a use of her product, to write down some of her memories. That was when she was about 92 or 93. As she approached the age of 100, the idea came to me to maybe write an article, of two or three thousand words and maybe for the local historical magazine, about her and her life. But as I got to writing, and in part using her materials, the thing grew. Sometimes that happens when you are writing. The t.hing grows as you get interested. Among other sources I had a good many old family pictures — the book is illustrated. For years a hobby of mine had been collecting, identifying, and preserving family pictures, way back to the tintype age. I also had some old snatches of diary, family letters, various mementos. Mostly I turned that book out because my mother was nearing the age of 100, and I wanted to do something special.

Hartman: - She certainly didn’t have the idea of doing a book herself? Were the things she wrote a sort of diary, and did she have any name for it?

Owen: - No sign that any publishing idea ever entered her mind. And she never named her written pages. In my own mind I called them her "Remembrances."

Hartman: - Ah, that’s nice! Did she write it by hand?

Owen: - Yes, and she wrote a surprising amount. Slow-. ly, over two or three years. She was old, of course, and her hand was not as nimble as a younger hand would be. But she was interested, and conscientious about it, after she got started. She’d get up in the morning, and after breakfast, either at my home or my sister’s place, she would get out that


pen and paper and start writing. Occasionally she would rewrite a little of it, but most of it is just as she wrote it down the first time. The hand and pen moved very slowly. She finally got written hundreds of longhand pages, and of course I have carefully preserved them.

Hartman: That is remarkable, for someone of that age. First of all to do it, and to care enough to want to preserve the past. Too often that doesn’t happen.

Owen: - She never would have started it except that I encouraged her. When she started, neither she nor I thought that this writing would be very much. But as I said in my own case, where thinking first of an article mine turned into a book, in a way the same thing happened to her. It grew. As she got to thinking about her girlhood, and her own children coming, the days among the Indians in southwest Oklahoma, she’d remember more she wanted to get down. She had a remarkable memory, still has. She still remembers so much of those old things.

Hartman: (radio announcement): We might remind our listeners that we are talking with Dr. Lyle Owen, Branson, Missouri, about his mother and other things, from The School of the Ozarks at Point Lookout, Missouri—Radio KSOZ.

Now then, Doctor, what did your children think of what your mother was doing?

Owen: - You mean about her life in general or about her writing?

Hartman: - Both.

Owen: - I have three children: A daughter, the youngest, who will graduate from law school this spring; a son who is working for a Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Oklahoma; a son who is working for the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in New Jersey. They were all interested. I don’t know that they paid close attention to Mother’s or my activities. They had, over the years, enjoyed a lot coming back to our Ozark country home. Particularly the boys, who are older, had sort of grown up here, where we would work together, at things like getting firewood, and we’d swim and hunt and ramble over the countryside together, with grandmother doing the good cooking for all. So they all still think of this as a kind of home, though it is not their legal residence. They have their own lives and work elsewhere. They all admire their grandmother Stella, and get along well with her. I don’t think they paid much attention to her writing, or to my writing, but they are very interested in the results.

Hartman: - Well, I think that usually comes a litfie later on. We come in time to think of the past, and recall what we did. I certainly do, and I’m sure everyone else does.

Owen: - I myself have got more interested in family history, and in writing things down, in older years than I was at first. I think the getting into family life—maturity and family life—often helps to further that.

Hartman: What do you think of the changes that have happened since you were a young child or a young man? Things certainly have changed considerably. What do you think is better, or maybe worse, from what it was then?

Owen: - I mentioned one thing a while ago. I thought a big advance here was the ending of the common Ozark spring countryside burning, though you say there is still some out your way. And our organized way to fight such fires is a big advance. I used to worry so much about those spring wildfires. Often I’d be away, but with my mother and my father at my house, and in the spring when the winds came up, and sometimes it was dry, I worried. Everybody has worries all his life about something, but forest and field fires aren’t on my mind much anymore.

So in many ways I think things are a good deal better than they used to be, though in other ways they are not so good. Change is a mixed thing; it isn’t all a blessing nor is it the opposite. Another thing I think the local community, Branson, Hollister, the environs, have much better now than they used to have, is the coming of a hospital. Back when our Skaggs Hospital was quite new, my younger son got a snakebite. He was about to enter kindergarten, so not quite five years old, and he got a bite on his big toe from a pygmy rattlesnake, on my place. The fact that there was a hospital to rush him to, meant a lot to me. He was there a week, and came through all right, but I worried a good deal about that, as a parent would. And the fact that there were, by then, and even more now, more and better trained physicians in crnr community, helps a lot.

Another very important advent for our community was the coming of a college, The School of the Ozarks. That pleases me a lot. It’s not just an advantage for the students, but also for the rest of us: the art services, the music services for the community, lectures and museum and library. The coming of a college to any community, and sometimes later, when they get to be bigger, a university, is really a big blessing. We are lucky that this School of the Ozarks starting out as a mixed grade and high school, at Forsyth near the beginning of the century, finally became a 4-year college, and is located in our midst.



Hartman: - I think it’s an outstanding college for anywhere, for that matter. What do you think about how the town has grown? You can remember when Branson was just a little tiny burg, really.

Owen: - Someways better, someways worse.

Hartman: - Oh! Really?

Owen: - One thing I like about living in a small community, and this is still a small community, certainly compared with some of those places I get to occasionally, like New York City, is that I feel I know people better, not everybody of course, but, say, the public officials, and that they know me, more or less. You know and are known, and thus are listened to somewhat. You have some influence, beyond anonymity. Things don’t always go your way, of course, but there’s a better chance.

Nonetheless, our community has grown enough to accumulate disadvantages. The more people, the more traffic—and the more lltter, for another thing. Everybody around here, and a lot of people from away, know about our traffic congestion on West Highway 76, which is no longer a lovely piece of land. It has facilities on it that we like, but it’s far from an ideal driving or walking place.

Hartman: - Do you remember it as it was not too long ago, with miles of wide open space?

Owen: - A newspaper editor in Springfield, by the name of Dale Freeman, wrote a few years ago about that road strip having become unattractive, when he said that it used to be, out for some miles from Branson, one of the most beautiful drives in the Ozarks. There are places along Highway 76 where that is still true, but no longer in the parts nearer town. I regret the passing of our pastoral scenic views.

Hartman: - I can recall, coming down to this area from 1950 on, that on the road west outside of Bran-son, there was almost nothing but the old airport, until you got clear out to the Shepherd of the Hills Farm.

Owen: - I told you how in the 1930s I pushed a loaded wheelbarrow, from out of the country east of Branson, through town and then out westward along part of that road.

Hartman: - (Laughing) And you were almost by yourself, and nobody bothered you. Now, thinking of stores in town, we are losing a lot of that. familiarity that you find in a small town.

Owen: - Yes, although I must say that I like the idea of supermarkets. The fullness of their stock, the convenience of a single shopping place, those supermarket things are attractive. And we also have a lot more specialty stores of one kind and another, as well as entertainment facilities, that weren’t here in earlier days. So it’s a mixed thing. One wouldn’t go back, if he had to go back to just what was here then, but if we could go back and have part of what we have now, and part of what we had then.

Hartman: - The better part of both?

Owen: - That’s right. I’ve wondered about this for the whole United States. The new 1980 census will show us having perhaps 225 million people in the United States. What would be an ideal population? Maybe half of that. I figured one time, interpolating between the decennial censuses, that when I was born in 1906, the United States had 85 million people. So now what do we have? About 2½ times as many people as when I was born. If the United States still had today maybe a hundred million people instead of its 225 million, in some ways we would be better off.

Hartman: - Well, we really don’t notice that crowding so much down in here as they do in the larger cities. We can still, in five minutes, drive out in the open.

Owen: - Taking the United States as a whole, we hear that tourist and retirement areas of the Ozarks, like ours, are growing in population faster than the national average. While that may be good for business, it isn’t always good for esthetics and some other things.

Hartman: - Very true. What do you think we need down here, doctor?

Owen: - What do we need? To take one of the simpler things first, though the list that any community, or even the country as a whole, needs is mighty full, I’d like to see people become, shall I say civilized enough that they no longer threw down litter.

Hariman: - (Laughs) Well!

Owen: - Every week, I pick up in the ditch along the roadside at the edge of my land, and around my gate and even on my drive, thrown-away bottles, cans, plastic, paper—all manner of trash. Why do people want to throw this down? But of course there was some trash that way even in the older days. I can remember when I was a kid going to school, walking up the hill in Branson, that there used to be a public junk pile in town, not very far downhill from the school. In fact, I’d look at interesting things there now and then, as kids do sometimes at junk piles. So, though there was junk around then, the more people you have, the more litter, unless they are what I call civilized. So that’s one simple thing that I would like to see changed. I’d like more cleanliness, neatness, and therefore attractiveness in the community.


Hartman: - In other words, just caring—for yourself and others.

Owen: - I don’t understand what there is in the psychology of Americans that makes them proW ably the world champions as trash throwers.

Hartman: - Pollution, too. What do you think of the programs that are starting on that?

Owen: - That’s quite a problem for the whole country, including our Taney County. On the sewage part, it seems essejitially illogical, as at Branson (which is becoming a sort of regional sewage handling center, for itself, Hollister, and The School of the Ozarks too), to treat it bacteriolgically so as to make it safer, and then dump it into the river. Letting it flow down to the next towns—dump it on Rockaway Beach, in a way. It should be handled better, put back on the land for fertilizer, maybe. And waste metals, paper, and other refuse should be recycled, or used for energy creation, for example. We are inso many ways a wasteful people.

Hartman: - Do you suppose your mother would agree to all this—very much as you do?

Owen: - Yes, I think so, though I never talked to her about these details. Shall I say—this sounds a little strange—shall I say that one nice thing about the old lady is that she generally agrees with her son.

Hartman: - Well, of course when you speak of someone who has lived 100 years you automatically go back to the litfie house at the end of the clothesline, and how long it must have been before she was able to enjoy modern facilities.

Owen: - Many things have improved since she was a child, or even since I was. One of the things that all of us in this country, and in the developed world generally, have accomplished, is the ending, or great reduction, of most of the worst childhood diseases. Back when she was a child, or even when I was, or even when I was a young parent, with children starting to grow up, one of my great worries was children’s diseases. I can remember when hot weather came on in the summer, I would worry about my children and polio. If you take care now, who has to worry about polio for his children? In her time it was things like diptheria and smallpox, which are now pretty much gone. Smallpox is supposed to be eradicated from the whole world now, and diptheria can be prevented by childhood immunization. So if you ask me what, in my lifetime, is perhaps our greatest single accomplishment and there are many good things I would like to nominate, as well as some that were worsened—I think maybe the ending of most of the severe childhood diseases, that parents used to have to worry about so much, and that carried away little children, is my first choice for our best change.

Hartman: - While you were relating that, I couldn’t help but think of mastoid and what a terrible thing that was. But now it doesn’t amount to anything. An injection, and that’s the end of it. When we were young it was quite different.

Owen: - Most people my age, as well as I myself, had the usual list of childhood diseases, and of course my mother did too. And one often doesn’t know, even though one "recovers" from a thing like severe measles, just what the residual effects may be. Now, if the parents are properly careful, a child just doesn’t need to suffer from many of these things.

Hartman: - Let’s talk a little now about transportation. Wheeling your wheelbarrow for all those miles— that has changed a lot too! Very few people even wallc now.

Owen: - One of my regrets is the passing of the passenger train, pretty much, in the United States. It seems rather astonishing that our country, which is supposed to lead the world generally, in technology, has, as among leading industrial nations, one of the poorest passenger train systems in the world. Many countries in Europe or even the Orient have better passenger service than we have. We may be driven back to that. The automobile has been a mixed blessing for the American people. The private automobile promotes a tremendous flexibility and convenience, but it’s a very costly transportation form, when things are included like all the traffic deaths and injuries, enormous highway costs and parking facilities, tearing up of the countryside, as well as the cost of the car itself. The last passenger train to Branson was 1960, and I was on that, coming home (not just one of the many people who took a little short ride then, maybe to show their children what trains were like). I regret the end of railroad passenger service here.

Hartman: - Well, I do too. Down in this area, for transportation, you have to have a car, or you just don’t go very far.

Owen: - Public transportation is essentially nonexistent in this county or area. One without a car of his own who wants to go to the county seat, Forsyth, or wants to go to entertainment facilities, or wants to go over to The School of the Ozarks for a concert or lecture—there just isn’t any way. No streetcar, no bus, no train.

Hartman: - (radio announcement): I might add that we are speaking with Dr. Lyle Owen of Branson, Missouri, and the topic is "Mother."

Owen: - You might add "Mother and old times."


Hartman: Very good. You’ve spoken of pollution control, and of health advances. Now then, do you think of anything else that is needed?

Owen: - Yes, here’s another thing that strikes me as a good piece of esthetics. I have often been oppressed by the signs on our stores and streets, that great jungle of signs that we have. I spoke of litter; signs are a kind of litter, too. Not litter down in the ditches, it’s up above us, but esthetically most signs are a kind of litter. Sometimes around state or national parks one sees attractive signs that are usually carved in wood, simple, the wood often stained brown, and the letters of yellow, gold, or white against that. Those signs are neat and attractive, and they provide the information needed. I have thought that it would be a good idea to have a concerted effort in a town like Hollister or Branson, to—shall I call it "deuglify"—I’m coining a word—to deuglify Main Street. The signs wouldn’t have to be all uniform as to size and color but harmonious as to general appearance, a good deal of soft brown with white or gold letters against them, maybe. And there shouldn’t be a overabundance of them. Along with this, if a merchant would avoid plastering his windows wjth all manner of flashy pieces of paper about this weekend’s sale, and ecstatic promises of buyer bliss, that would help to deuglify our town, too. I would like to spend my years at a place that is beautiful. Nature does pretty well along that line; man sometimes undoes a good deal of it.

Hartman: Much of it. Now then, what do you think of some of the picturesque names of things that we have down here?

Owen: - As 1976 approached, with its national Bicentennial to remember. I wanted to do something special just as I wanted to do when my mother approached the age of 100. I didn’t want to let the country’s 200th ‘anniversary go by without doing anything at all, and so I did a few things and proposed a few things some of which got adopted. The Branson mayor had appointed a Bicentennial commission as many communities did, and I made a few suggestions to the chairman of that commission. One of them was for the naming of certain new streets in the west part of Bran-son, out in the Murphy Addition which the newspaper said needed naming. The paper said tour streets needed naming, and so I picked out four people that I thought ought to be remembered a bit here, and turned in those names. To my pleasure, the city council, after some discussion and a little bit of controversy, did adopt those four names for streets. One of them was for Missouri’s only President, Harry Truman, and so there is now a Truman Drive out there. Another was for a longtime very valuable citizen in this community, Robert M. Good. For many, many years, Good was president of The School of the Ozarks. I knew him, and admired him. He used to bring visitors to my front yard on the other side of the river from the School, driving all the way around, to show them The School of the Ozarks and its great spread of acres from another vantage point. I wasn’t there when some of these visitors came, but my mother there then, said Good brought in the merchant J.C. Penney among others, to show him the School across the river. I wanted at least a street named for Robert Good, and to my pleasure the street sign was placed and he knew about that. He died not long after.

Another of these street names that I suggested and which was accepted, was for Rose O’Neill, a local celebrity, and an illustrator and writer of national fame early this century. My fourth street name suggestion, also accepted by the Branson mayor and city council, was for John G. Neihardt, a person no longer well known around here, but who I thought ought to be remembered and honored. I’ve wondered if perhaps this poet, writer, though quite a small man in physical stature, is the biggest person in life accomplishments of all who ever lived in Branson. Anyway there is a Neihardt Avenue out west in Branson now.

So I suggested those four names, and they were adopted, and I was pleased, and that was a small Bicentennial activity of mine.

Hartman: Those are excellent suggestions. I think a lot of people are not aware of Neihardt’s importance, and I’m glad you brought that up.

You know there’s a lot of controversy going on now as to whether the towns of Branson and Hollister, now touching each other except for the river flowing between them, should merge. I’m not going to touch that controversy with a ten-foot pole, but if it were to happen, what would be your idea of a name for the combined town?

Owen: Well, I’m willing to touch it even with a shorter pole. (Hartman laughs) I favor that merger. I favored it even when I was a kid around here. I lived on the Hollister side of the river at that time, and now I live on the Branson side. It always seemed to me logical, and it would be attractive, to have a combined community with a nice river flowing through the middle instead of, the river splitting the two towns as it does now. It would help both towns in various ways. One of the problems would be what to rename this combined town. Different names have been suggested—a


good many of them are coined names, but they don’t attract me. I myself would prefer to name the combined town for Missouri’s only President, Harry Truman.

Truman was a sort of man of the people. He was a decisive and able exec~utive. He really surprised people how good a President he turned out to be. In fact, American historians, in their ratings of the Presidents, now put him in the "near-great" category. They have half a dozen, like Washington and Lincoln, up in their "great" class, and they include Truman in the next group. (They have five categories, in all, for these ratings, all the way down to a couple of "failures".) Truman’s rating tends to grow, though history will likely judge some of his actions to be mistakes. There is no town in the whole United States named for him, and it would please me, and probably the nation, if our town was renamed for him.

Hartman: - That’s an excellent suggestion.

Owen: - I’ve thought of various new names if our towns combined. I’ve thought of names incorporating the word "river," because the White River (also called Lake Taneyconio there), that now divides the two towns, would then be flowing through the combination. But all in all, I’d rather the new name was just Truman, Missouri.

Hartman: - What would your mother think about all this? Would she be in favor?

Owen: - I don’t recall mentioning this to her, but I think she would agree, certainly about the towns merging.

Hartman: - Now then, what about writing about these things? You have published a number of things. What do you think about a novel of the area? Something almost to compete with Harold Bell Wright’s The Shepherd of the Hills.

Owen: - Several great books have been written, in American literary history, about communities or areas. There’s the poetry (an epic poem in a way) of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, about the Lincoln country. Or Sherwood Anderson’s collection which has roughly the form of a novel, Winesburg, Ohio. Or, very moving Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town. I admire all those greatly. They are three different things: a sort of epic poem, a kind of a novel, a drama. They are three masterworks of literature. They probe deeply, they are understanding of people, they have a great deal of compassion for man and his struggles and his attempts to do things. I’d like to see someone—I don’t know who has the talent for it—write something of that sort about our community, or our part of the Ozarks.

That would be really great, if it could be done with a sort of talent like Mark Twain’s, who wrote so effectively and enduringly about Mississippi River days, and about boys in a small town. I wish we had someone—maybe we have—who could write that well about our community. It would interest me greatly if someone did that.

Hartman: - You wouldn’,t like to tackle it yourself?

Owen: - I don’t have the talent to write a bad novel, let alone a good novel.

Hartman: - (Laughs) Well, we have a lot of writers in the area. Some of them write historically, some not so much that way, but perhaps one of those could take it up.

Owen: - It wouldn’t have to be a novel. I just thought of that as one of the most effective literary forms. I don’t know what would be the best theme of it; perhaps it would be partly the clash between the old and the new. We talked some about that today. The older generation, the older ways of doing things and the simpler life, versus the new. It would need an author · who had a great understanding of people, what eats at them, what they struggle for—and one who had a great compassion for them. We all succeed some in our life. We all fail some. The author would need great skill with words and plot, as well as the understanding and compassion, to portray that.

Hartman: - It would take someone who had not necessarily lived here from the beginning. They could be more objective if they were from somewhere else.

Owen: - That might be. There are advantages both in having your roots in the place you write about and also in having a newness of outlook, an objectivity.

Hartman: - I’m not a native here, and I have perhaps a different approach to things than the people who have lived here all their lives. If you live in a place all your life, you tend to overlook some of the things that other people notice the most.

Owen: It might be best to have someone who had had roots here, but had been out a good deal, and had got a broader perspective. One of the things that interests me about any community, including my own small one here, is the speculation—it has to be speculation because one can never really know the answer—as to who is the greatest person who ever lived here. Looking to the future, not just the accomplished life, it might be some kid in the second grade. Every parent, I suppose, hopes that his children will at least accomplish a good deal, lead good lives. If you look in terms


of accomplishment, I have wondered if your own greatest person might have been John Neihardt, who lived on Branson’s Main Street for many years in the 1920s and 30s. He lived there in a house, torn down since in commercial expansion, a two-story frame house that I remember, beside a big maple tree. He wrote there some of his leading works. One was a prose book that had much influence on young people over our whole country, and even abroad, in the 1960s and 70s years of unrest. That was his book interviewing an old Oglala Sioux Indian chief, Black Elk, and the book is called Black Elk Speaks. It is a very moving and powerful thing.

John Neihardt was mainly a poet, and I suppose he thought of his reputation resting mainly on his large poetry output. But this prose Black Elk Speaks may turn out to be his most influential writing. That’s the way literature sometimes goes; posterity, even authors, are surprised at what endures best. So perhaps John Neihardt may have been the biggest person, in accomplishment, that ever lived in our town. I knew him slightly, and some of my relatives knew him better.

But what is his memorial here? One street, out in west Branson, named for him (and most of the people who live on it probably don’t know who he was). And then, where his now-gone frame house stood on Main Street, a parking lot for a restaurant. So here is perhaps the greatest person who ever lived in Branson, and his memorial is a parking lot without name.

Hartman: - Well, perhaps we can put your mother in this category, doctor. She m~y have been one of the greatest persons to have lived here.

Owen: - Much as I have admired her, I had never thought that way. But there’s always the question as to what is greatness. One of the greatest men who ever lived in our Ozarks was probably the artist (also a writer) Thomas Hart Benton, whom I knew very slightly. He came from the town of Neosho, and that town can claim him as its greatest product, if they wish. The astronomer, cosmologist, Edwin Hubble, world famous but born at Marshfield, Missouri, could be claimed by that Ozark town as their boy who became their greatest man. So we may have someone here in our neighborhood like that, as yet unknown.

Hartman: - (radio announcement): Well, our time is up for this walk on The Backward Trail. So I want to thank you very, very much for coming here today, to talk about your mother, and about your experiences and memories.

Owen: - I have enjoyed it.

(Concluding music)


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