A Q&A with Dr. Brooks Blevins: Hillbillies, Mountaineers and True Ozarkers
June 19, 2017 — You know you’re an Ozarker if… you’re a moonshining hillbilly? A mountaineer? You descended from rugged pioneers? Those are some of the stereotypes about the Ozarks that led to Dr. Brooks Blevins’ career. Blevins is the Noel Boyd Associate Professor of Ozarks Studies at Missouri State University, and the author of many books about the region.
Hear Blevins at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 29, in the Library Center auditorium discuss the origin of these stereotypes, why they endure, and his book “Ghost of the Ozarks: Murder and Memory in the Upland South.” Books will be available for purchase and signing.
Blevins shares some thoughts about Ozarks myths and realities.
You note how Ozarker stereotypes are rooted in the cultures of the early settlers and agriculture of the region. Do you see any remnants of those characteristics in today’s residents of the Ozarks?
The 19th-century stereotypes, positive and negative, were rooted in the rural lifestyles that most Ozarkers lived – heavy on hunting and livestock raising and other outdoor activities and usually light on formal education and activities that we associate with a literate society. Because hunting and fishing and other facets of outdoor culture remain integral to the culture of the Ozarks – especially the rural Ozarks – some of those characteristics survive in the 21st century, in the Ozarks and in most other rural areas of the United States. Of course, the details have changed. Whereas Henry Rowe Schoolcraft denigrated some of the frontier Ozarkers he encountered for an inability to discuss things other than bear hunting and for wearing dirty buckskin, today city folks might poke fun at some of us for carrying coon-dog boxes in the back of our pickups or for wearing camo to church – again, not something unique to the Ozarks. And just as Friedrich Gerstaecker praised backwoods Ozarkers for their ingenuity and survival skills, other modern folks are probably impressed with the independent spirit and range of common knowledge among many rural and small-town people in this age of specialization.
How would you describe today’s “Ozarks culture,” if you believe there is one?
Although I used the phrase "culture of the Ozarks" in the previous answer, I'm not certain that there really is one, anymore than there is a Midwest culture or a southern culture. The fact that Vogue magazine recently featured a story on things to do in the Ozarks – and none of them has anything to do with hunting or hoedowns or backroads – may be proof enough that there's no longer anything like an identifiable "Ozarks culture". Travel writers and folklorists and novelists over the past century and more have sort of drilled into the public's minds that true Ozarks culture was found on the backroads and in the hollers where angular men followed mule-drawn plows and grannies in bonnets fixed poke sallet and sang ancient ballads. Those people existed, certainly, and who wouldn't rather read about them than about a Springfield bus driver or a high school math teacher in Monett, but they were a dying breed by the time the folklorists and travel writers found them. That was why they were so appealing. Today farm people, loggers, miners, and other such folks of an imagined rural America make up only a very small percentage of the people of the Ozarks. They may still be colorful, but they don't represent a regional culture. Perhaps what we have today are a few characteristics that continue to describe a wide swath of the Ozarks population -- evangelical Christianity, conservative politics, outdoor-oriented lifestyles, do-it-yourself attitude. But those characteristics can describe lots of places in the U.S. And the Ozark region is more diverse today than ever – not just in terms of museums and bistros and other Vogue-pleasing amenities, but also in in terms of racial and ethnic demographics.
What did you discover in your Ozarks research that would surprise those of us living here today?
I think most people would be surprised at the level of connection early residents of the Ozarks had with the rest of the country and the world. In the early and mid-19th century, lots of places in the Ozarks were certainly physically remote from the main centers of commerce and culture in the U.S., but extensive trading networks brought goods and ideas to areas that we would expect to be very isolated. We see evidence of this in old store ledgers, in letters, and in first-hand accounts of life in the region. Remoteness and isolation existed, to be sure, but they did so by degree, and the region was never completely shut off from the world, as has often been suggested.
What impact do you think the meth culture has had on perpetuating the Ozarks as a sanctuary for outlaws?
Meth, and the publicity it generated a few years ago, is in some ways the early 21st century's version of moonshine or marijuana – in terms of its contribution to Ozarks stereotypes. I expect there is much less sympathy for meth dealers than there was for moonshiners and runners and probably for marijuana growers and dealers, but the meth epidemic (if it reached such proportions) functioned in a similar way, tying the region to illegal activity of the backroad, backwoods variety. Again, this isn't something the Ozarks has cornered the market on, but the popularity of Daniel Woodrell's terrific novel, “Winter's Bone,” and the great movie adaptation a few years back went a long way toward painting the region as a dangerous, lawless den of backwoods drug runners – at least as far as people on the coasts were concerned.
Given the many facets of Ozarkers you’ve written about, what Ozarks topic are you reluctant to explore?
I wouldn't say that I'm reluctant to explore any topic. My upcoming Ozarks history trilogy casts a very wide net, after all. But I will admit that, as someone who grew up on a farm in the rural Ozarks, I find it harder to motivate myself to delve into the histories of cities and larger towns, stories that often have little in them that makes them particularly Ozarky. I suppose someone could even accuse me of buying into the old images highlighting the rural Ozarks as the real Ozarks. Fortunately, there have been some good historians who've looked into the history of Springfield, Fayetteville, Joplin, and such places, and I have been able to rely heavily on them.