BY Jim Hamilton
Last of the Good Ol’ Days
News that the world’s population has reached seven billion confirms what I’ve believed for years: I grew up in the last of the proverbial good ol’ days.
No doubt, every generation thinks the same, recalling the joys, simplicity, and innocence of childhood more than the state of the world. Whatever they believe, it’s true for them.
I believe, though, my childhood years were the last good ol’ days for generations beyond mine.
Born in late 1947, I was a child of the 1950s and 1960s. Marred by drought, wars, racial turmoil, assassinations, and all sorts of social upheaval, they were tumultuous decades; yet, for my brother Russell (born in 1950) and me, they remain the last of the good ol’ days for what we enjoyed that now is gone.
Much of what we treasure from those years was there because of what we did not have; that is, we did not have as many people in this area as we do today.
The population of the world in 1950 was 2.5 billion—less than 36 percent of what it is now. Missouri’s population of 3.9 million was just 65 percent of the 6 million counted in 2010. More important to a couple of Ozarks country boys was the sparse inhabitation of Dallas County. In 1950 the county had 10,300 people; by 1960 the count had dropped 1,000 to just 9,300 people—the lowest census total for the entire century. That’s in contrast to about 17,000 today.
Just 9,300 people were scattered across 537 square miles of the county, and a good many of them clustered in small towns. We had elbow room. Fewer people meant:
• Lots of idle land for hunting. Old farms overgrown with buckbrush and dewberry vines were havens for cottontails and quail. Large parcels of timber were open to ’coon and deer hunting.
• We knew all our neighbors, whose place we could hunt on, and which ponds we could fish. That was most everyone’s, as long as we respected their gates, fences, and livestock. And we did.
• We knew every car or truck that passed by the house, and we could generally predict when. Not many passed.
• Fewer pole lights on the horizon. From our back steps in the early 1960s we could see one light in the west, at a house near Olive. Hunting at night we could orient ourselves by distant house lights.
• Creeks now dry or stagnant ran deep and clear. Springs fed upper Greasy Creek near our place. We filled milk cans with drinking water there when the well pump went out. The Pomme de Terre and Niangua rivers teemed with fish. I learned to fly-fish for bass on the Pomme near Fair Grove. We filled tow sacks with suckers from the Niangua near Hog Eye. The rivers are but whispers of what they were.
You may note my definition of “good” ol’ days” is mostly a measure of freedom to hunt and fish. I might add to that the simple freedom to wander at will across Ozarks hills and wade Ozarks streams.
Population growth, for all its economic benefits, makes us poorer. I can no longer walk out the back door on the old farm with a couple of hounds without soon being in someone’s back yard. I tried deer hunting there a couple of years ago, but found too few directions I could safely shoot. Most of the places I used to fish the rivers are posted today. The old fishing holes at Potter’s Ford, where Dad and countless other folk beat paths to the water’s edge have long been fenced off. I suppose they’re hardly worth fishing, anyway.
The Ozarks I knew as a boy has passed into history. I’m thankful, though, that I was able to experience the last of the good ol’ days.
Turn Right at Mohawk
Giving directions once was an art form best demonstrated by old men in overalls, a dialogue serving for both their amusement and the utilitarian purposes of wayfarers.
As often as not, it better served for amusement than for traveling instructions.
Interrupted from his spittin’ and tale spinnin’ on the bench in front of the local Farmers Exchange, the “director” might find his own amusement more important than the utilitarian objective of sending a city-born wayfarer in the right direction.
It would not be uncommon to provide directions incomprehensible to the “directee.” The said wayfarer, too proud to admit his relative ignorance of the geography, would simply nod, point down the road, and respond, “Thataway, you say?”
It’s not hard to imagine such exchanges on the front steps of the Elkland MFA in 1965 sending a stranger to Beach or St. Luke, rather than Marshfield—or to imagine the ol’ boys out front watching tailfins disappear and commenting, “Figured he’d miss the turn; reckon he’ll soon figure it out for hisself . . . or mebbe not.”
Now, I don’t know that the reg’lars on the MFA bench ever purposely sent a traveler astray, but I do recall the confusion of a young reporter lady at Bolivar sent to do a story out north of Polk some years ago.
“You go past Polk town a mite, then turn right at the Mohawk store,” she was told. Several trips up and down that road, though, revealed no right turn at any such store, so she came back and asked a merchant at Polk.
“The Mohawk store? That’s been gone for years. Nuthin’ there now. You was at the right place, though. Just turn there where the store used to be.”
Of course. “Everyone” knew where Mohawk was in those days—just like they knew Jugtown, Hogeye, Dogtown, Redtop, Spring Grove, Wood Hill, Thomasville, Tilden, and any number of other communities either extinct or misnamed.
Even directions to my home place could be made confusing:
“Coming north of Fair Grove on 65 you cross the Pomme de Terre and go a ways to AA, then turn east. You keep goin’ over a few hills and a creek, but be sure you stay on the blacktop at Goss Schoolhouse corner (of course, a hobo burned it down years ago). Headin’ north you go mite more ’til you come to a big white barn at the top of the hill (it burned down years ago, too), and you turn right there, too. Don’t keep goin’ straight at the barn or you’ll soon come to a square corner where the Olive store used to stand (it burned when I was a boy) and the pavement turns back west and comes out at Carter’s store and station (used to be Floyd McCurry’s) on 65. All that’s on OO, which takes off at the big white barn. You oughta be goin’ east on AA (take it easy on the hills and a rolly stretch just past Gerald Tracy’s place—there’s been wrecks there).”
Reckon I’ll stop there; don’t need anyone visiting nohow. Main thing to remember is to take a right at the big, white barn.
Finding and following directions these days ought to be a lot easier, thanks to 911 and new county road names, but it ain’t necessarily so, as the ol’ song goes.
Prior to 911 we had a logical road numbering system. County roads were given a number with a prefix linking them to the state or federal highway they connected with—65-100, for example. That prefix at least gave us a place to start looking on the county map.
The cutesy road names assigned by 911 offer no such clue.
I live on Truman Road, so-named for no apparent reason, at the corner of Broken Bow, also so-named for no obvious reason.
Nearby Bassett Drive, I suppose, was named for the dog at the last house on the road, and I assume Kelly Road a couple of sections south led to Kelly School; but I’ve no idea who Griggsby was to get a namesake road within walking distance of Bassett. Sometimes the road names make sense, more often they don’t.
I reckon it would make no difference to a stranger if a road was named or numbered, and I’ll confess a 911 address comes in handy when a mail order store won’t take a post office box number. It also makes UPS and FedEx happy. Most official forms have no place for “The place with a willow tree in the field a half-mile west of the new bank.”
My main complaint with road numbers is when the TV news people use them to locate crashes on the interstate. The recent snow brought that to the forefront when they reported a truck crash at “the 84 mile marker” on I-44.
We may memorize county road names, but most of us don’t count mile markers.
Between Springfield and Strafford would give me a general location. “Mile marker 84” might as well have been “the Mohawk store.”
Jim Hamilton was brought up on a small dairy farm in southern Dallas County near Elkland, Missouri. He began his journalist’s journey as his FFA chapter reporter in 1964 and later was editor of the Southwest Missouri State College Standard in 1970-71. He served as a U.S. Air Force journalist and base newspaper editor, and worked as a news editor at the Bolivar Herald-Free Press. In 1978 he began a 24-year stint as editor and publisher of the Buffalo Reflex. He subsequently served as managing editor of Springfield! Magazine, then returned to newspapers in 2004 and served as a regional writer and columnist until retiring in May 2015. He continues to freelance columns and features. A collection of his columns, The River of Used To Be, was published in 1994, and a second collection, Ozarks RFD: Selected Essays, was published by Cornerpost Press in 2020. Hamilton was inducted into the Missouri Southern State University Regional Media Hall of Fame and the Missouri Press Association Hall of Fame in 2016.