Ozarks RFD Editorials
By Jim Hamilton
Editor’s note: Although now semi-retired, Jim Hamilton served as a journalist and newspaper editor in the Ozarks for more than 40 years. During much of his long career, he produced weekly editorial columns, and a collection of these, The River of Used To Be, was published in 1994. Below are seven columns selected as favorites from the hundreds produced, including one (as alluded to its title) discussing Hamilton’s experiences as editor of the Buffalo Reflex.
Reflexions of a Country Newspaper Editor
Note: I wrote this column in 2002, my 24th year as editor of the Buffalo Reflex in Dallas County, some months before I took a job with Springfield! Magazine. My departure from the newspaper business was brief. At the start of 2004, I was editor and general manager of Bolivar newspaper, but before the end of the year, I elected to give up management and focus solely on writing columns and feature stories for the newspaper group. Though no longer an editor, I continue to freelance columns and farm features.
Nearly half my life I’ve been a country newspaper editor.
No exaggeration. Last week I turned 54. Twenty-six years ago this week, I started work as editor of the Bolivar Herald-Free Press.
That’s not quite half a lifetime. I hope it’s nowhere close; but, it is a while.
When I started in this business I had no idea where it would lead me; I sure didn’t expect to still be here doing about the same thing as when I started.
But, then, as now, my focus wasn’t too far down the road. It was on getting that week’s paper out. It still is.
If I ever had a long-term goal it was to make enough money as a book author that I could quit the weekly newspaper business. Some 1500 Wednesday editions later, I’ve still not figured a way to leap into the book business. Writing a feature or column for the newspaper has always seemed to take precedence over getting a chapter of fiction written. About the only fiction I ever perpetuated was the notion of making a living as a novelist.
To be truthful, watching some of my successful novelist friends struggle from royalty check to royalty check did little to inspire me. As the years have passed, a loyal newspaper readership and a regular paycheck have taken on increasing allure.
Then there’s that thing about being a country newspaper editor. I just kind of like the job, and I’ve sort of gotten used to it. If you’d have told me when I was 16 years old that I’d spend much of my life behind a desk, I’d have bet every cent I had against it. I was practically raised out-of-doors. Even school gave me a headache.
But, life seldom goes the way a kid figures it will. Thirty-seven years after high school, I’m still trying to figure out what I really want to do with my life, and it’s just now settling in that I’ve mostly already done it.
I’ve been a country newspaper editor.
Now, I know a lot of editors who work on country newspapers. But, that doesn’t necessarily make them country newspaper editors. Some of us were country long before we were editors, and still are.
It’s an inescapable part of my character—maybe even a flaw—that I learned how to milk a cow long before I learned to do the same with a news story.
Borrowing a weary format used by Jeff Foxworthy to sort out real “rednecks, “ I generalized a few real experiences and came up with a handful of tests for news types who aren’t sure if they are truly “country newspaper editors.”
You know you’re a country newspaper editor when:
- You take a personal telephone call and it turns out to be your
parents’ next door neighbor with a classified ad.
- The mayor needs to talk to you right away, and it turns out to be a party for the police chief.
- A new teacher calls and asks you to send one of your photographers down Wednesday to get a picture of the champion speech team. You tell her you’ll be there just as soon as you get all the papers delivered.
- The county line grocery mistakenly got a bundle of last week’s papers. Can the delivery boy bring some new ones out? You grab a bundle and head out the door.
- A little post office near the Lake of the Ozarks didn’t get any newspapers. Same solution.
- An elderly lady comes up to you at the drug store, addresses you by your first name, and gives you a story about her granddaughter’s graduation from college. You accept it graciously, though you’ve never met the lady, because you visit with her every week in the newspaper, and she does know you.
- Two teenage boys show up at your doorstep near midnight. “Want to see a big fish? We saw your light was on and thought you might want a picture for the newspaper.” You load your camera while they drag a monster catfish out of their truck.
- The only press pass you need at local ball games is a camera.
- You get more opportunities to free potluck suppers than a preacher does to fried chicken dinners.
- Your chicken house is patched with old aluminum printing plates.
- You sometimes wear barn boots to the office.
- Your “official press car” is a pickup truck, which sometimes sits outside the office with a load of hay or cordwood.
- You seldom wear a tie to work, because you hate to explain why to everyone you see at the post office.
- The subject of your top front page story is someone in your Sunday school class. On good weeks, it might be a story about selling a champion bull or getting a job promotion. On bad weeks it’s a story of scandal or personal tragedy, and your heart breaks with each word you write.
- You hate sirens. It’s almost always someone you know.
- Harvest season means more tomatoes, cucumbers, and green beans than the help can carry home.
- Your readers never confuse you with “the media,” or apologize if they do.
- You apologize if you ever give them reason to confuse you with “the media.” You’re not. You’re their “country newspaper editor.”
- No matter who signs your paycheck, you know who butters your bread. They do, too. Don’t care what they taught you in college, you don’t mess with their hometown newspaper.
My old dog, Shorty, is as deaf as a sledge hammer, and about as easy to move.
It’s better, I’ve found, to just drive around if he’s sprawled in the middle of the drive. If asleep he won’t even stir. If awake he’ll just lift his head, thump his tail, look my way and give me his best Old Yeller smile, as if to say, “Go the other way.”
So, I do. He doesn’t get around like he used to. At first it was just damp weather that got him down. These days it’s just old bones. I’m not quite as old, but I have mornings like that, myself.
Hot or cold, it doesn’t matter much, except for where he sleeps. On winter days he especially likes where the sun beats down on matted grass near my truck; he’s as likely, though, to curl up directly in the snow. On these blistering summer days, bushes by the house give him shade, but he favors sprawling in front of a fan I keep going in the garage. Yeah, we spoil him a lot.
As deaf as we’re sure he is, at times we have to wonder. Fireworks still send him scratching at the door. Thunder and lightning have cost us a full half-dozen screens. Come a storm and he’s a sixty-pound fraidy cat. Easier to spray for bugs and sweep than fix a door, we figure, so in he comes—wet dog smell, fleas and all—to sleep away the storm beside my bed or sprawled in front of the TV
At times I wonder if he’s not learned to read our minds, or at least our lips. Just whisper “hot dog” and his ears perk up. Tell him “Outside,” and he just sulks or starts looking for a place to hide.
Most times when he’s asleep on the drive, I can walk right past him and he won’t even twitch. I often watch for the rise and fall of his ribs, just to see if he’s breathing. Some morning I reckon he won’t be. I hope it happens that way, and not when someone comes barreling down our drive.
Martha and I used to take Shorty for long walks down the road past our place. We can’t do that today. We have to slip out quietly or shut him in the garage, else we’ll have to cut short our walk to go get the truck.
Once upon a time he was a whole different dog. It was I who couldn’t keep up.
He never ambled then. He ran, and he loved to swim. I worried he’d drown crossing the neighbor’s big pond, but, obviously, he never did.
And we both ran just for fun way back then.
Old dogs are a comfort, but if you’re young and you’ve never had one grow long in the tooth, you might not understand.
As kids we wrestle on the ground with playful pups, throw sticks and balls for young dogs to chase. Life’s a game most every day.
Age changes both dogs and men.
I don’t move so fast these days either, partly ‘cause I can’t, but more because I’m not so inclined. I’m getting more like Shorty asleep in the drive.
Somewhere along our 15 years as pals, Shorty and I ceased being playmates and just became old friends. He doesn’t much care if I’ve shaved or combed my hair, and I’m not bothered by the straw on his.
Yeah, he smells like a dog, especially when wet, but to a canine nose I’m likely worse when washed in sweet-scented soap.
He’s an old dog, now. One of these days, I’ll be one, too—sleeping my days away in the sun, just lifting my chin to grin at times when I once barked up a storm, and looking for a safe place to curl up when the thunder, lightning and fireworks start.
I hope when I come scratchin’, somebody opens the door for me, too.
Lamentable Loss of Old Tow Sacks
I never imagined, when I was a boy on the farm, that the day would come when I couldn’t count on finding a tow sack when I needed one. That day, of course, came for many of us years ago, when we moved off the farm; but on trips back home I could generally scavenge a few from the barn.
Those days are now long gone, too. It used to be that cattle feed came in 100-pound burlap bags, providing for a seemingly unlimited reserve of used “tow” or “gunny” sacks. Several years ago, however, feed companies replaced the versatile burlap bag with paper sacks and life on the farm has never been the same.
Had it not been for tow sacks to wick water up from the tub, we might never have kept cans of milk cool on summer nights. Long before wire fish baskets were common, we used tow sacks to bag redhorse suckers, fastening the tops with our stringers. Where modern campers use knapsacks or packs, we lugged our gear to the creek in gunny sacks, and hauled out our trash in the same, sturdy bags.
From potatoes to walnuts, those coarse, jute feed sacks stored our winter provisions, and filled with oak leaves bedded our hounds. They also came in handy to dry off a newborn calf, chink a hole in the barn, or haul home a weanling pig.
For FFA Greenhand initiates, they also made interesting attire when adorned with onion bulbs and worn to class.
They were also mighty handy just to have stuck behind the truck seat or in the car trunk as a just-in-case bag or rag. And, if they were in good shape, we also had the option of selling them back.
Just like soda pop bottles, tow sacks could be used again.
Many times in recent years I’ve wished I still had a stash of old burlap bags. I could’ve used one for sweet potatoes just last week, for onions earlier in the year, and again a couple of days ago when I was scrounging up a bed for a cat.
Baskets, boxes, and towels I used instead—all those for the lack of old tow sacks.
Though burlap bags no longer accumulate in the corner of the dairy barn, they are still around. Searching the Internet I found 10 companies that manufacture or market burlap bags.
They’re still used for potatoes, by nurseries to wrap tree roots, for some feeds and for many other uses; but, they’ve mostly gone the way of those colorful cotton print poultry feed sacks which used to find extended lives as aprons, kitchen curtains, or dresses.
Like the farm I knew as a boy, they’re now just a part of my many once upon a times.
When Once I was a Hay Hand
I made most of my spending money after high school hauling hay.
At a dollar an hour, I didn’t pile up nearly as much cash as hay, but, I didn’t need much— just enough to put gas in Dad’s ol’ pickup truck and buy ice cream and soda pop on Sunday afternoons.
Most boys growing up on a farm today don’t buck many square bales. They may learn how to operate a bale spike on the back of a pickup truck; but, many don’t learn the fine art of heaving 60-pound bales into a hayloft.
If just the thought of tossing bales off a wagon in the heat of summer causes you to break a sweat, consider the lot of the fellow in the loft, where the only air that moved was thick with dust, chaff, and mud daubers, and the heat radiating down from that tin roof would cure jerky.
Either suited me better than what I was used to, though. Dad didn’t have a baler. We put our hay up loose, one pitchfork at a time, until we filled the loft. Then we started stacks on the ground.
Square bales were a luxury. We were about the only folks in the neighborhood who didn’t bale our hay.
So, I didn’t mind hauling hay for the neighbors. Square or round, I liked the idea of hauling and stacking it in bales.
Of course, I take some measure of satisfaction in learning how to handle loose hay. Dressing down a stack is a lost art, just as is moving it with a pitchfork.
It’s not all muscle, you know, that allows a fellow to move load after load into the barn. If it were, he’d be worn to a frazzle after a half-dozen forks full. It’s all in the leverage, the rhythm and motion of the body.
It’s the same with small bales. I worked with a few fellows who just killed themselves trying to throw bales to the top of the wagon. It seems they never figured out that you don’t throw ‘em. You push ‘em, first with a knee and then with your arm.
It gets a little more complicated with small round bales. I always liked to haul round bales, ‘cause I liked using a hay hook. It made my arms longer. I worked with some guys who never got the knack of that, either.
I’ll have to confess that I never did graduate to the big leagues of hay hauling. I never left the county for a job. I never even left the neighborhood. Our neighbors kept me about as busy as I needed to be during haying season. I helped haul in bales from the same alfalfa fields three or four times in a summer, helped fill the same barns year after year. It was almost like working at home, except that I got paid for it.
I was lucky to have been born when I was.
If I’d have been born a few years later, there would have been no hay to haul. About the time I went off to college, big round balers started showing up. One-by-one the neighbors got bigger tractors so they could pull those big balers. Soon, there wasn’t a little square bale in the neighborhood.
Now, the folks who put up a lot of hay tell me that they went to the big balers because it just became impossible to hire help. Kids, they said, just didn’t want to work in the hay any more.
I don’t know how true that was then, but I’m pretty sure it’s a fact now.
These days I’m not too keen on it, myself; but, that’s mostly because I’m 35 years older. I’d likely still be worth a dollar an hour, though, maybe even twice that, if I could use a hay hook.
Maybe, but don’t call me when you put your hay down. I’m in no hurry to find out.
A Touch of Frost
The first touch of frost was visited on our parcel of Buffalo Head Prairie early Monday.
The morning weatherman reported a low of 41 degrees at the Lake of the Ozarks; but, it was obviously a bit colder in our soggy swale in the prairie.
As daylight broke, our north-facing roof glistened with frost, and the evening dew atop my truck was frozen like a lumpy Krispy Kreme glaze.
How appropriate, I thought, for the inauguration of fall. Sunday—the first day of fall—had dawned nearly as cool, literally riding in on a chilling wind that fluttered the window curtains and had us pulling for more covers the night before.
We are likely still several weeks away from a killing frost. The earth is yet too warm and the midday temperatures too high; but, Monday’s light touch of frost foreshadows woolen sweater days and quilted bedcover nights.
It awakens, too, the seasonal call of the deep oak woods, broom sedge fields and cedar glades.
Ozarks ridges and hollers will soon be afire with the flames of fall colors—fiery red maples, flickering yellow ash and hickory, smoky amber oaks, blazing crimson sumac and smoldering orange sassafras.
Fields will turn the color of straw and skies a pewter gray. The sun will slip more quickly below the western timberline and the night air will turn crisp as ice.
The distinct aroma of oak wood smoke will waft on the morning breeze and on Saturday mornings the music of chain saws will replace the summer serenade of neighborhood lawn mowers.
I’ll soon dig the rest of my sweet potatoes and pull my withered tomato vines. The calf out back will go in the freezer and I’ll stack a new rick of wood along the garden fence.
Garden hoses will hang in the garage and leaves will fill the gutters around my house.
I’ll be more often in the woods, scouting old trails and discovering new ones where whitetail travel.
It is, after all, the first week of fall, and not too soon to turn my thoughts to such things as deer stands and camping trips.
Monday’s was a light and scattered frost, so much so that maybe only early risers in the bottomlands noticed.
But, I still count it first frost, a timely reminder that another summer has past.
Whispers from the Woods
In scarcely more than a week, it seems, the verdant and overgrown woods of summer have given way to the colorful tapestry of fall.
Back in town, maple trees have suddenly been bathed in varying shades of scarlet, orange and rouge, seeming to set city streets and cemeteries afire. Here in October’s woods, the leaves of hickories and white ash fade from green to yellow, oaks glow amber in the bursts of evening sun, and everywhere the trees are trimmed in rust and gold.
There is a hint of dampness in the air, the mustiness of decaying wood and weeds, a frequent rustling like deer bounding by, but is just the prattle of falling leaves.
My walnut trees stand naked as hat racks, but for clusters of the same green orbs which litter the ground at their feet. I recall pickup loads of these green and black walnuts—abundant and large this year—lined up at the huller, where buyers reward the children, men and women who stoop for hours to gather their bounty of hard-earned “Ozarks black gold.”
From where I sit, now, though, those are but images of what I know to be true. What I see is sunlight filtered through translucent autumn leaves. What I hear is the wind in the trees.
I can see deep into the timber, where the early days of fall have already stripped the underbrush nearly bare. I watch a bushy-tailed squirrel scamper at the foot of a red oak tree.
The air is pleasant, but sometimes cool as the sun slips behind high, gray clouds. The leaves crunch under me as I shuffle my stance.
I might be hunting, scanning the timber for deer; but, I’m not. It’s Sunday. I seldom hunt much on Sunday.
It was just the woods that called me here. I thought I heard my name whispered in the wind through the trees, the woods calling me to rest at its feet.
There are, perhaps, some things of more importance, events of greater consequence than these in such anxious times.
But, no greater reassurance or peace can be found, than in these woods, where summer’s vibrancy gently succumbs to autumn’s solace.
These woods, I know, belong to God. He holds them in his hand, and when I am here, there am I, also.
The Late December Woods
I have come again into the woods on a late December evening.
It’s quiet here, the only sounds an intermittent drizzle on the fallen leaves and the scolding of a squirrel high in a red oak tree. It seems far from the office, the house or a telephone. The farther I walk from my truck, the more distant it seems.
It feels as if the scant rain could turn to snow flurries.
Wild turkey have been here ahead of me. Their scratchings have tousled the forest floor like a schoolboy’s hair after a playground scuffle. Dead leaves are swept in piles, the pungent earth left bare, green shoots awaiting spring disrobed.
Several trees have died since the last time I walked this way. A wild cherry. A small post oak. A black walnut. A honey locust. I note their location, study the timber for the nearest places to get my truck. It’s just a small stand of timber. I try to cut only cull trees and deadfall for firewood.
The shells of several once-great oaks have long avoided my saw, though, because they are too deep in the timber. Generations ago a farsighted squirrel may have planned it that way.
An old brush pile near the edge of a clearing has rotted, little more than a low mound now under the blanket of decaying leaves. The post oak in the center of the clearing has healed completely where years ago I lopped off a lower branch.
It doesn’t seem so long ago. I pause to think about how many years have passed since I last felled a tree in these woods.
My hair was still dark and the arc of a splitting maul didn’t steal my breath away. It doesn’t seem so long ago; but, the rotting stumps tell me that it was.
It’s almost dark as I return to my truck, planning my return with an axe and saw. I walk slowly, quietly in the damp leaves. I know deer often travel this slope, but I find no sign of them. I’m sure they saw me first.
In the morning these woods may be blanketed with snow, transformed in the magic of a single December night. Woodland mice will leave their tiny tracks and brown holes in the ermine snow. Fluffy songbirds will huddle in the cedars and scratch in the leaves below.
I like to come here after such a snow, just to see by their tracks what moves unseen in the night, if deer may have passed at first light. I like to sit in the early stillness that only new-fallen snow can bring to these woods and hear the muffled sounds of an awakening day, to watch for whatever scampers in the vertical tapestry of trees.
But, on this late December evening the winter woods is damp and musty, tall oaks clinging to the hem of a lead-gray sky. The patter of raindrops has all but ceased. Headlights from the road below pierce my thin solitude.
Then they are gone.
The woods are still again, but for my shuffling feet and my ruminations on their peace.
Jim Hamilton was brought up on a small dairy farm in northern Webster County near Elkland, Missouri. In 1970-71 he was editor of the Southwest Missouri State College Standard, and from 1971 to 1974 he served his country as a U.S. Air Force journalist and base newspaper editor. After earning a BA in writing at Southwest Missouri State University in 1974, he worked as a news editor at the Bolivar Herald-Free Press. In 1977 he returned to SMSU for a master’s degree and then began a 24-year stint as editor and publisher of the Buffalo Reflex. For more than forty years, Hamilton produced weekly editorial columns, and a collection of these was published as The River of Used To Be in 1994. Hamilton was inducted into the Regional Media Hall of Fame in 2016.