April 30, 2021
Whole Number 62
MEMORIES OF THE MISSOURI OZARKS COUNTRY
by Elsie J. Jamieson
(EdItor's Note: In a recent letter, Mrs. Jamieson recalled some of her childhood impressions of life in the Missouri Ozarks Country a half-century ago. She has kindly consented to share these memories with other members of the Association.)
The 1911 hay-baling scene (on the cover) depicted only one of the many interesting facets of life in southern Missouri. Sorghum-making was a cooperative venture with neighbors joining in, and was particularly exciting for children, as was also sheep-shearing season. As to the latter, not all of the wool was sold - - a portion was saved for carding and spinning. We had a small building called the smoke house where meats were cured and stored. Another, called the blacksmith shop housed the forge and bellows where bars of iron were made into horseshoes and other items. Uncle Edd (Edward Thomas Sparks) had a saw-mill, run by a steam engine, which was doubly exciting because of the spice of danger. We were remarkably self-sufficient, with most of our necessities produced on the farm, and our need for store-purchased items minimal. It was a very democratic way of life, as I remember it, with no man rating himself, or being rated, higher than any other man. It seems to me to have represented the 19th century ideal, soon to be made obsolete by the encroachment of 20th century mechanization and technology.
Others might view it with different eyes, but for me the Missouri Ozarks at that time was a child's paradise. The area was more wooded than now and spring houses were still in common use. There were small rippling streams to wade in, and crawdads, tadpoles, minnows and dragon flies to examine. Child-oriented duties included helping care for certain of our farm animals, each of which had a pet name and was dearly loved. Also, there were goose-berries, and wild black-berries and wild greens to pick. On summer nights, there was a cacophony of sounds, but louder than all others were the Screech Owl and the Whip-Poor-Will. One memorable night there were strange cries heard throughout the neighborhood, conjectured as emanating from a Bob-Cat, or Panther, which had strayed from the forest up north.
For living creatures, both wild and tame, Aunt Roxy and my mother taught me to have love and compassion. In the meadows, the trees, the sunset, the clouds and the star-studded evening sky, my father showed me how to look for beauty. This is how I happened to be looking at the sky one balmy evening about the year 1915 when, to my amazement, a large glowing object passed directly over my head, apparently just above tree-top level. My parents were considerably puzzled by my excited description of the object and my insistence that it must have landed (or fallen) in the pasture back of our orchard, therefore we should all go out to look for it. (My parents had never heard of UFO's.) Later in the year, all of us watched what to us was a spectacular display of Northern Lights on the distant horizon.
In retrospect, it seems to me that we must have lived nearly as close to nature as the Indians who once occupied the area. Robert Thomas Sparks, in his Memories, stated that in 1868 or 1869, Howell County, Missouri, was a hunter's paradise. That it had been a good hunting ground much earlier is evident by the number of Indian arrow-heads to be found as late as 1915. I believe that there are many old Indian mounds existing in Howell County today.
Sociability was not neglected. There were interesting trips to nearby areas by spring-wagon or buggy. The yearly 4th of July picnic at Bakersfield attracted people from miles around. Each of the little one-room school houses which dotted the area served also as Church, Sunday School, and general meeting house. During school sessions, my father was the teacher. On Sundays or prayer nights, my grandfather (John S. Sparks) was usually the preacher. I believe he was called a Free Will Baptist. He received no pay, and he interpreted the Bible as he saw it, with appropriate references to the Holy Ghost, the glories of Heaven and the fires of Hell. (The first adult book I ever read, before I was old enough to enter school, was Uncle Tom's Cabin, and I should like to believe that this book, with its attractive, padded cover, might have belonged to my grandfather.) Another preacher, very popular, was a kinsman named Duke Kirnbrough. Still another, who soon left the area to become pastor of a large city church, was Frank Coats, brother of Bill Coats (who married Sarah Alice Sparks). After preaching on Sundays, people were invited to each other's homes for Sunday dinner. (Truthfully, this was sometimes hard on the farm-wife, since Sunday dinners were expected to be substantial in both variety and amount.
With the approach of the 1920's, the Ozark farms were operating at a competitive disadvantage with other areas. Because of their hilly nature, they could not be adapted to the mechanized type of farming which was proving so successful elsewhere, I remember my grandfather, during this and later periods, repeating the phrase, The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. It seems to me to have been all too true, although others might disagree. My father had been supplementing his farm income by teaching school (one year he tried a combInation of teaching and running a small store), but it was not adequate. About 1920 my father auctioned off his farm and equipment, and we moved from the friendly lovely Ozarks to another state, to an oil-oriented town, where exploitation of one' s fellow man was held to be a virtue, our somewhat quaint dialect held to be the mark of a hill billy, and complete honesty the mark of a simpleton. Also, the drinking water was foul.
During the 1920's, on one of our trips back to the Ozarks, we found the road to Shady Grove School House almost impassable, interlaced with gullies and sharp protruding flint rocks which slashed the tires of our Model T. In 1965, I visited Howell County with my husband, and found conditions entirely changed. There were excellent roads everywhere; trim farm houses were equipped with electricity, running water, deep freeze and TV; and the healthy, attractive people were as friendly as in my childhood. Shady Grove School House, however, though outwardly intact, was vacant and unused. Bly, which in my grandfather' a youth had been a flourishing little mining town, and in my childhood had diminished to three houses and a store, was now completely non-existent as if it had never been, No longer could we ford the creek at Bakersfield - - instead, we crossed over a neat and functional, but unexciting, bridge. One thing has remained unchanged, through hard times and good: the Ozark water, which for drInking purposes, surely must be the best in the world. That which we sampled has remained as unpolluted as it was fifty years ago, and I believe that Ponce de Leon might have had better success in his search for the Fountain of Youth had he lingered in the Missouri Ozarks.