2015 Ozarks Symposium Keynote Address
by Steve Wiegenstein
In his 1867 book Beyond the Mississippi, Albert D. Richardson writes about traveling the Ozarks in the late 1850s. While in Springfield he recorded the following anecdote:
I was told of eight North Carolinians bound for Arkansas, who stopped for a few hours on the public square, and were asked innumerable questions.
One communicative fellow replied that they were going to found a town; the pursuit of each person was already marked out, and there were no drones among them.
‘What was this man to do?’
He was to open a store.
Start a blacksmith’s shop.
And the other, standing behind him?
Engage in sheep raising.
So they were nearly all classified, when a decrepid [sic], white-haired octogenarian, venerable enough for old Time himself, was observed sitting in one of the wagons.
‘Why, who is that?’ asked the eager questioner.
‘That’s my grandfather.’
‘What is he going to do? He can’t be of any use to your settlement.’
‘Oh yes,’ replied the North Carolinian promptly, ‘we are taking the old man along to start a graveyard with!’ (208-209)
If this passage illustrates anything, which it might not, it is that people have been drawn to the Ozarks for many years, and with a wide variety of motivations both real and manufactured. Some come to stay permanently. Some come to extract something of value. Some come to hide. Some come just to look. The lure of the Ozarks is real and enduring. To speak of the lure of the Ozarks, appropriately enough, is to use the language of the fisherman, and prompts the metaphorical question of who is the fisher and who is the caught. Nowadays our talk about the lure of the Ozarks typically involves tourism, and rightly so, as it has become a mainstay of the Ozarks economy. Certainly tourism is a pretty benign sort of catchery. I suppose we could extend the metaphor and call tourism the “catch and release” version of the Ozarks’ lure.
But from the earliest times, people have come to the Ozarks to take away something more tangible. From Pierre Renaud down to the Doe Run Lead Company, the Ozarks have been a source of minerals and ore. The Missouri Lumber and Mining Company and its fellow timber harvesting enterprises did the same thing from the 1880s through the early twentieth century. In a general way, I think one could describe the Ozarks as a kind of internal colony of the United States, a place from which to extract value at the lowest possible cost while returning as little as possible. As David Benac observes in his book Conflict in the Ozarks, a significant component of the Ozarks timber boom consisted of companies seeking to “tame” their workers, to bring them into compliance with the needs of an industrial-age enterprise concerning punctuality, sobriety, and adherence to the concept of “working hours” instead of living their lives by the clock of the seasons (6-11). What drew these entrepreneurs and companies to the Ozarks was what they could extract from it, and that’s a facet of this landscape that will never go away. I recall during the years of my childhood that every town in the area had its factory—shoe factories, shirt factories, hat factories—each one staffed mainly by women paid on a piecework basis, overseen by men. It wasn’t until the advent of the global marketplace that these companies discovered they could find workers elsewhere who were even more impoverished and who had even fewer options than the Ozarkers, and relocated their factories elsewhere. For an industry that needed unskilled workers to perform repetitious tasks, the Ozarks must have seemed like a little slice of heaven for a time.
And then there’s escape, that time-honored lure of the Ozarks. Dad Howitt, the Shepherd of the Hills, came to the Ozarks to escape the noise of the city and the memories of his past, and ever since then one of the dominant themes of Ozarks culture has been that of the mountains as a place of refuge. Trappist monks came here, and the Harmonial Vegetarian Society, and so did Bonnie and Clyde. The hollows overflow with people who have come to the Ozarks for one sort of escape or another, whether it’s from the traffic jams of the city or the long arm of the law. My own experience with these transplants has been overwhelmingly positive. People drawn to the Ozarks from elsewhere bring energy, new ideas, and often a fresh infusion of money to communities that need all three. Unfortunately, the Ozarks’ mind-our-own-business reputation also draws the occasional Frazier Glenn Miller among the retired ad executives seeking a quiet place to meditate beside a stream.
Tourism is the most ephemeral of the forms of escape, confined to a short period of time and allowing the visitor to experience the imagined life of the Ozarker without having to engage with the challenges of the year-round inhabitant, such as distance and adequacy of medical care, minimal infrastructure, and a struggling and inadequately funded educational system. Tourism is also a sort of low-impact extractive industry, in which the tourist takes away memories and photographs, leaving the residents behind to pick up the trash and deposit the money. Natural beauty is the ultimate renewable resource. And it’s a kind of extractive industry that requires us to guard and preserve rather than remove and deplete. The tourist, however, doesn’t necessarily want to experience the Ozarks. The tourist wants to experience an imagined version of the Ozarks, the mythological Ozarks one might say, and the varieties of that mythology are many. The Ozarks of the touristic imagination, quiet, pristine, filled with adventures that are both thrilling and safe, and populated by friendly yet simple people whose rustic values hark back to an undetermined golden age in American history, is a familiar one, the myth of rural virtue with an added overlay of woodsiness. Foolish indeed would be the entrepreneur who did not do everything possible to promote it.
I remember the first time I saw a photograph of the Dogwood Canyon Nature Park near Branson. I thought to myself, “How on Earth could I have never visited this amazingly beautiful place? I thought I’d been everywhere in the Ozarks, the Missouri Ozarks at least, and here’s a place with caves, waterfalls, Indian burials—how could I have missed it?” So I got down my copy of Geologic Wonders and Curiosities of Missouri, my indispensable back-of-the-car guide when I’m out and about, and none of those features were listed in it. Nor were they on the 1999-version USGS map. That’s when I realized that Dogwood Canyon is one of those fascinating places that pops up from time to time, a place that tries to embody its own mythology in real life, constructing its own reality out of some choice real estate and plenty of development money.
Like its companion projects Big Cedar Lodge and Bass Pro World Headquarters, and like its predecessors Silver Dollar City and Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Theater, Dogwood Canyon is built to match the myth. On the topographical map, the hollow in which Dogwood Canyon was created looks like a great place, one of those deep, narrow Stone County hollows where the sun reaches the bottom only a couple of hours every day. But that’s not enough, of course, so we add a waterfall, a wilderness chapel, a bear den cave, some log cabins, some trout, and so forth. This phenomenon is nothing new, of course. The power of a myth causes us to reshape our own lives in order to meet its psychic demands. It’s interesting to observe the evolution of this Ozarks of the imagination through the years.
Any conversation about the imaginary Ozarks has to start with the hillbilly, that persistent and controversial figure whom anybody who comes from the Ozarks, writes about the Ozarks, or thinks about the Ozarks has to come to grips with. Anthony Harkins, in his study of the hillbilly, points out the dual nature of this figure. He writes, “‘the hillbilly’ served the dual and seemingly contradictory purposes of allowing the ‘mainstream,’ or generally nonrural, middle-class white, American audience to imagine a romanticized past, while simultaneously enabling that same audience to recommit itself to modernity by caricaturing the negative aspects of premodern, uncivilized society” (6). This, I think, sums up the problematic nature of the character. For most of its history, the hillbilly has been a comparatively benign figure, employed for easy comedy as a stereotypical bumpkin in ways familiar since Roman comedy and before. The undercurrent of lethal violence in the darker versions of the hillbilly is what distinguishes it from other stock rustic characters, but that capacity has not been deployed as often as one might imagine. Jed Clampett’s long rifle is, alas, just a prop.
And in case anyone wonders, my thoughts on the hillbilly have a long pedigree. My great-uncles Joe and Frank Wiegenstein first expounded on the cultural ramifications of the hillbilly stereotype in their highly regarded 1948 study, Ree-Laxin’ at Skranky Knob. The drawing below depicts my Uncle Joe ree-laxin’ with his pipe and jug:
It seems to me that the classic hillbilly portrayal has become much rarer in the past decade or so, as cultural shifts have made it less appealing and thus less marketable. None of the big Branson attractions, like Silver Dollar City, Big Cedar Lodge, or Dogwood Canyon, use the word anywhere in their promotions anymore. Although the craftsmen at Silver Dollar City dress up in broadcloth and calico, their presentation emphasizes “the simpler life of days gone by” with no real Ozarks focus. A character like Herkimer in the Presley’s Country Music Jubilee is as much cringe-inducing as amusing these days, with our heightened sensitivity to cultural stereotypes. The 2003 campaign by the Center for Rural Strategies to stop CBS’s proposed reality series, “The Real Beverly Hillbillies,” raised a lot of awareness about the demeaning qualities of the stereotypical hillbilly: backwardness, laziness, and ignorance. Unfortunately, it’s a stereotype that is quick to resurface. It was disheartening recently to see, in the controversy over Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, how quickly the cartoonists and comedians zeroed in on her eastern Kentucky accent, her Pentecostal hairdo, her multiple marriages and remarriages, and the uncertain legitimacy of her children to dismiss her as just another “hillbilly mama.”
But as the old-fashioned hillbilly has faded, a new mythological inhabitant has emerged to take his place as the representative of the Ozarks, and I’m sorry to say that this creature is even less appealing. Here, for example, is the plot summary from a 2009 movie called Albino Farm: “College students, exploring the Ozark Mountains for a school assignment, stumble upon a group of scary, redneck cave-dwellers” (“Albino Farm”). People from the Springfield area may recognize the “albino farm” as a persistent Springfield tall tale, passed down through generations of credulous high schoolers, about a farm on the north side of the city, a tall tale that caused a great deal of unhappiness to the luckless family that owned the property. Albino Farm, filmed in Marionville and Willard with additional shooting in Warrensburg and other Missouri locations, heralds the arrival of the new Ozarks image—the Ozarker as inbred, bloodthirsty, supernaturally violent, and implacably hostile to outsiders. This figure has become so commonplace in our literary imagination that librarians and booksellers have come up with a new subgenre to describe it: “hillbilly noir.”
The killer hillbilly appears in trashy movies like Albino Farm and well-regarded works like Winter’s Bone. In place of the straw hat and bare feet, the killer hillbilly is marked by a hidden meth lab, a double-wide trailer, and an arsenal of weaponry. Here’s a passage from The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh, released earlier this year and perhaps the exemplar of the genre. Lucy Dane, the narrator, is reacting to the disappearance of her friend Cheri, whose body has been discovered some days after she vanished. “It was common knowledge that in the hills, with infinite hiding places, bodies disappeared. They were fed to hogs or buried in the woods or dropped into abandoned wells. They were not dismembered and set out on display. It just wasn’t how things were done. It was that lack of adherence to custom that seemed to frighten people the most” (6).
It’s impossible to miss the storytelling premise here, which is that everybody in the Ozarks knows how to properly dispose of a murder victim’s corpse, and the failure to do so marks the murderer as either an outsider or an aberration. The old stereotypical hillbilly, at least, was a welcoming character, even if that welcome sometimes came out of craftiness. The killer hillbilly is predatory and vengeful. This motif has become prevalent enough in the public mind that actual incidents get recast into its framework; for example, retellings of the 2013 killing of a canoer on the Meramec River near Steelville frequently glide over the fact that both the canoer and the murderer were longtime residents of the St. Louis area, not Ozarkers at all. And the sad
and horrific story of Dee Dee and Gypsy Blanchard, currently playing out in a Springfield courtroom, seems tailor-made for recasting as a hillbilly gothic, and the comments about the case on social media tell us that it’s already gotten there.
I don’t need to point out that this present-day mythical Ozarker, no longer a noble savage but just a savage, is no more representative of the “real” Ozarks than the hinge-tailed bingbuffer. But on the other hand, what are the real Ozarks? The question of authenticity dogs any discussion of Ozarks cultural representation. I try not to chase down a standard of authenticity, because every time I’ve attempted one, it comes up short. The Ozarks are as much a place of the mind as they are a geographical location, and trying to claim that this represents the real Ozarks while that does not is an exercise in rabbit-chasing. The benign artifice of a university-trained craftsperson at a folk festival making woven oak baskets, when in fact few if any of those baskets have ever been used for anything resembling the original purpose of oak baskets, is inauthentic, and yet it is also real, and meaningful.
To say that the Ozarks is a place of the mind is not to say that all representations of it are to be valued equally, however. As we have seen, some versions of the Ozarks are as dishonestly negative and destructive about the Ozarks as others are dishonestly idyllic. We should call attention to those versions we find disrespectful or destructive, while at the same time admitting that the “beautiful Ozarks” version is not always true or helpful as well. To this end, I want to point out some failings of the classic Ozarks picture of grist mills, sturdy homesteaders, and flowing springs, and like any author worth his or her salt I want to do it by recommending some books.
First, the mythological Ozarks of most people’s imaginations is entirely white. Most Ozarkers, if pressed, will tell a questioner that there have always been a few black families in their town, the same names appearing from generation to generation, and usually a black district that consisted of a block or a few blocks. But inquire why so few, or why always there, and they’ll probably not have a satisfactory answer. To counteract this blank place in our collective knowledge, I recommend Kimberly Harper’s White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909. It is unsettling reading, but it provides important context to our understanding of the African American experience in the Ozarks, an aspect of our story that is all too often neglected. The Ozarks is so overwhelmingly white, in part, because African Americans were driven from it. I fear that the great comprehensive history of African Americans in the Ozarks we all would love to have will never be written, now that time has taken most of the people who can give first-person accounts of events before the Second World War, and what we have left are documents and some oral histories. But Harper’s book is surely a fine building block in that history.
Second, our mythological Ozarks doesn’t always acknowledge the significant struggles that have divided it. My first two novels have dealt in one way or another with the Civil War in the Ozarks, but that’s not the only cataclysm that has affected the region permanently. My current work-in-progress is set in the next era of great upheaval in the Ozarks, the timber boom of the 1880s and later. I’ve already mentioned David Benac’s Conflict in the Ozarks in regard to this era, and I’d just like to mention it again. Like Harper’s book, it is disturbing reading, but it introduces a history that needs to be explored.
And then on to another great struggle in the life of the Ozarks. One of my favorite possessions is a 1903 map of southern Missouri, which of course shows an Ozarks without lakes. It amazes me sometimes how many people think the lakes in the Ozarks are natural features, or that they’ve “always been there,” when in fact they are comparatively recent developments.
When I was a young newspaper reporter in the late 1970s, the elderly, semi-retired owner of the newspaper, Charles Ellinghouse, had once been the mayor of Greenville. And this was Old Greenville, founded in 1819 and depopulated in 1941 with the creation of Lake Wappapello. Like a typical young pipsqueak, I didn’t even know there had been an Old Greenville until I heard him talk about it with such immense sadness. And now of course we know that there are drowned towns all over the Ozarks—Linn Creek, Oasis, Monte Ne, Custer, Elizabeth, Hand, Jordan—not to mention the many drowned individual homesteads.
Making this story more fraught is the fact that most Ozarkers whose land was not going to be inundated welcomed and worked on behalf of those lakes, pitting one set of long-time residents against another. Some did so with an idea of becoming personally rich, while others had the broader idea that the dams and lakes would bring overall prosperity to the region. If we look at assessed valuations as a sign of wealth, in Missouri at least, there seems to be some truth to that idea. Discounting counties, such as Jasper and Greene, which have urban centers, counties with lakes do seem to have a disproportionate amount of wealth compared to their population (Harrison). If we look at per capita income, though, the picture isn’t as clear. Camden County clocks in at just over $25,000 a year, brag-worthy for the Ozarks if not for the rest of the United States, but other counties with significant lake country, such as Stone, Barry, and Miller, are no better than average (“Selected Economic Characteristics”). So if building the lakes brought prosperity, it was prosperity not widely shared.
So there’s another angle to our portrait of the Ozarks that needs to be visited more— the complicated history, present, and future of development. It takes a crisis moment like the 2013 E. coli reporting scandal at the Lake of the Ozarks, the 2005 break of the Taum Sauk upper reservoir wall, or the periodic incidents of coliform bacteria in the Jacks Fork that are reported every few years, to remind us that the beautiful Ozarks we love, and which is ultimately the lure that draws us all, is sometimes beautiful despite us. A good read about Ozarks development is Damming the Osage by Leland and Crystal Payton. It’s not an unbiased book—Leland Payton was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that attempted to stop construction of Truman Dam—but it is copiously researched and richly illustrated.
Finally, a characteristic that the Ozarks of the imagination tends to overlook is just how hard the “good old days” were. When I go to a folk fair and see craftspeople weaving, making soap or candles, blacksmithing, and the like, it all seems so picturesque and quaint. But imagine doing that work all the time, not out of an interest in preserving old folkways, but out of need. What we today memorialize in a hazy glow of reminiscence was once a necessity of existence, and I think we sometimes forget that. A great corrective to the nimbus of nostalgia that envelops days gone by is Rocky Comfort by Wayne Holmes. This book may become hard to find, as it was published by a small press that has since gone out of business, but it is worth the search. Wayne Holmes, longtime professor at Drury University, who died in 2014, grew up poor in the Ozarks, and his profane, profound, and searching memoir is like a splash of spring water to the face—shocking but cleansing as well.
So what is the bait, and who is the fish? We are both bait and fish. We create ourselves, we disguise ourselves, and we catch ourselves in the process. Let’s just hope that we are a game fish worthy of the catch, and not some shad that is all flash and no flesh.
“Albino Farm.” The Internet Movie Database. n.p., n.d.
Benac, David. Conflict in the Ozarks: Hill Folk, Industrialists, and Government in Missouri’s Courtois Hills. Kirksville, MO: Truman State UP, 2010.
Beveridge, Thomas. Geologic Wonders and Curiosities of Missouri. 2nd ed. rev. by Jerry Vineyard. Rolla, MO: Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Division of Geology and Land Survey, 1990.
Harkins, Anthony. Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.
Harper, Kimberly. White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909. Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 2012.
Harrison, Charlie. “2015 Missouri County Assessed Valuations.” Missouri Association of Counties Website.
Holmes, Wayne. Rocky Comfort. Bolivar, MO: Leonard Press, 2009.
McHugh, Laura. The Weight of Blood. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014.
Payton, Leland, and Crystal Payton. Damming the Osage: The Conflicted Story of Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Reservoir. Springfield, MO: Lens and Pen Press, 2012.
Richardson, Albert D. Beyond the Mississippi: From the Great River to the Great Ocean. Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Company, 1867.
“Selected Economic Characteristics: 2009-2013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.” U.S. Census Bureau.
Steve Wiegenstein holds a doctorate in English from the University of Missouri-Columbia, and he has taught at Centenary College of Louisiana, Drury University, Culver-Stockton College, and Western Kentucky University. Wiegenstein’s nonfiction and short fiction have appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines, and he maintains a blog on which he discusses Ozarks-related topics. Wiegenstein’s novels include Slant of Light (2012), This Old World (2014), and The Language of Trees (2017). Slant of Light was an honorable mention for the David J. Langum Historical Fiction Award in 2012, and This Old World was a finalist for the M. M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction in 2014.